Will artificial intelligence replace art? The case of the two new works at MoMA New York.

New York's MoMA recently acquired two interesting works made with the use of artificial intelligence. And immediately a debate ensued: will AI replace artistic creation? No: here's why (and how the relationship between AI and human beings should be imagined).

Once again we have witnessed the integration of artificial intelligence into the artistic landscape, with surprising results. On this occasion, two renowned contemporary digital artists, American Ian Cheng (Los Angeles, 1984) and Turkish Refik Anadol (Istanbul, 1985), have created two monumental works that represent the entire collection of MoMA in New York City in an unusual and innovative way.

Ian Cheng’s work, titled 3FACE, is, in MoMA’s words, “the boldest exploration to date in the field of Blockchain technologies and data decentralization,” and, like other works by Cheng, places thefocus on artificial intelligence’s ability to “adapt,” highlighted in this context by the analysis of transactions linked to the holder’s Blockchain wallet, which are processed to create a unique visual portrait. In this way, the minting process becomes a metaphor for the evolution of individual personality.

Each individual portrait is created based on three levels of consciousness (posture, nurture and nature), and the categories are then divided into four sub-levels that describe even more specific characteristics of an individual’s personality. This installation-in-progress is an experiment in the field of “worlding,” as emphasized by Cheng, that is, the discipline that explores the ability of artificial intelligence to interact with an environment characterized by changing factors.

Unsupervised - Machine Hallucinations - MoMA is, on the other hand, an installation from the mind of Refik Anadol and was the star of the exhibition held at MoMa itself in the spring of last year. Donated to the museum by entrepreneur Ryan Zurrer, the work consists of a 10-by-10-meter screen that repetitively broadcasts three digital works, generated through the use of the museum’s archive of works and a machine learning model “trained” by Anadol himself, in order to offer the public an alternative reinterpretation of the last two hundred years of artistic expression housed within the museum. An impressive work that envelops the viewer’s gaze through the reproduction of a constant stream of intricate colors, generated by the images of all the works in the collection.

A work that speaks of the past, present and future and its ongoing changes, and this process is made possible precisely by the interaction of the movement of visitors, monitored by a camera fixed on the ceiling, and the weather conditions coming from a Manhattan weather station.

Refik Anadol, Unsupervised - Machine Hallucinations - MoMA (2022; New York, MoMA)
Refik Anadol, Unsupervised - Machine Hallucinations - MoMA (2022; New York, MoMA)
Refik Anadol, Unsupervised - Machine Hallucinations - MoMA (2022; New York, MoMA)
Refik Anadol, Un
supervised -
Machine Hallucinations -
(2022; New York, MoMA)
Ian Cheng, 3FACE (2022; New York, MoMA)
Ian Cheng, 3FACE (2022; New York, MoMA)

It could be said that the work consists of two sensitive souls: one related to the museum’s collection and the other in close connection to the surrounding environment, in all its aspects. The special feature lies in the fact that, thanks to the use of customized software capable of “listening, seeing and hearing what is happening in the museum and transforming this data into a dream,” as Anadol explained, a true living sculpture of data has been created, a work of art that is free to self-determine itself at any given moment, projecting an infinite number of alternative machine-generated artworks in real time. From numerous inputs, such as sounds, images and texts, alternative outputs are generated that are the figment of artificial intelligence’s imagination.

Whether it is a bubble destined to burst or a genuine breakthrough, artificial intelligence represents one of the most controversial artistic expressions of our time, and debates are frequent, especially when we observe attempts to institutionalize it within major museum settings.

If one expands the view beyond MoMa, one can see that already the Denver Art Museum had presented the first artwork generated entirely by artificial intelligence, a video created by poet Jennifer Foerster whose text is animated by two pieces of software coordinated by artist Steve Yazzie. Similarly, Amsterdam’s Dead End Gallery emerges as a pioneer, having been the first gallery entirely dedicated to artificial intelligence, opening in March 2023.

The adoption of modern technology within the art world is an issue that is all too much debated, and the idea about a possible “death” of traditional art seems unlikely. If one thinks of NFTs, these were conceived with the intention of generating artificial scarcity, but they ended up operating in the complete opposite way: instead of creating a situation of scarcity, they generated high availability and consequently a decline in interest. After a moment of maximum expansion, the trend faded and regularized, without having taken too much space away from the traditional arts.

Artists have always used technology to do things they could not have done on their own or simply to see what would happen, and it is highly unlikely that human art will be replaced by artificial intelligence in the future, precisely because the latter is based on publicly accessible information and its creative process is a combination of different elements from public sources. Consequently, it is unrealistic to expect totally unique works, and we should not think of relying on artificial intelligence to replace humans. Rather, we should think of the relationship between artificial intelligence and human beings as an effective collaboration that will allow for new and more curious results, without one party being able to totally override the other.

The artificial intelligence used by Anadol and Chang is simply a gimmick, and their works are a meditation on technology, creativity and contemporary art. Indeed, the visionary work of the two artists, especially Anadol, uses artificial intelligence not only for the creation of the work but, more importantly, to propose to the viewer’s eyes a new and profound reflection regarding art making itself and an alternative understanding of the art of our times.

In this scenario, it would be appropriate to call to the attention of critics such as Jerry Saltz, who quickly discredited Anadol’s work by calling it simply a “crowd-pleasing, like-generating mediocrity,” that photography, too, in the early 1930s, was subject to similar criticism as it was considered a threat to human creativity. However, even then, MoMa was among the pioneers in recognizing the artistic value of photography, including early photographic works within its collection.

Rather than wondering whether the art world can live with artificial intelligence (spoiler: it already is), it would be appropriate to ask what we could do with so much potential at our disposal.

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