After a few weeks of experimentation, I realized that the AI had the potential to describe imaginary works of art. To my delight, I discovered that I could encourage it to write the kind of text you see on a wall label next to a painting in an art gallery. This would prove to be the start of a fascinating collaborative journey with GPT-3 and a range of other AI art tools, leading to work ranging from a physical sculpture of toilet plungers to full-size oil paintings on the wall of a Mayfair art gallery.
In recent months, AI-generated art has sparked much debate about whether it will be bad news for artists. There is little doubt that profound changes lie ahead and there are still important questions about bias, ethics, ownership and representation that need to be answered. However, this wouldn’t be the first time new technologies have caused a stir in the art world – it’s been happening for centuries. And in my own experience, working with AI to create sculptures, paintings and more has changed the way I think about the creative process and the possibilities of human-machine collaboration. I believe we are now seeing the emergence of an entirely new art form.
You may also like:
To be clear, when I talk about AI, it is not an anthropomorphic or sentient system, but a machine learning algorithm – and it has to involve a human being. I quickly learned this during my early experiments with GPT-3, when I asked it to create imaginary works of art. While it was quite easy to get the system to create descriptions that all sounded right, to get it to create the output I was considering interesting was something completely different. I spent about a month on “prompt engineering”, a term that means writing effective input text for AI systems.
Once I found a set of initial words that would “tick” the AI properly, I developed a workflow using GPT-3 and other algorithms that could produce a description of an artwork and the creator’s imagined human name, along with their date of birth and other details (which are sometimes gathered by asking GPT-3 questions). Then I searched hundreds to thousands of outputs to find the one I like. Those were then fed back into the system to create more text. Then I corrected punctuation, spacing, and other technical adjustments to the text (nothing that changes its meaning).
I knew I had found the right recipe when I got the following output (which made me laugh a little too hard alone in my studio in lockdown):
The statue includes a plunger, a toilet plunger, a plunger, a plunger, a plunger, and a plunger, all of which have been modified. The first plunger is just a normal plunger, but the rest represent a series of plungers removing more and more of the handle until only the rubber cap remains. The title of the artwork is “A Short History of Plungers and Other Things That Go Plunge in the Night” by the artists known as “The Plungers” (whose identity remains unknown).
“The Plungers” was a collective of anonymous artists founded in 1972. They were dedicated to the “conceptualization and promotion of a new art form called Plungism.” Plungism was a creative interpretation of the idea of Plungerism, which was defined by The Plungers as “a state of mind in which an artist’s mind is in motion and can be affected by all things, even plungers”. The Plungers’ works have been exhibited in New York galleries and include titles such as “Plunger’s Progress”, “The Plungers”, “The Plungers Strike Back”, and “Big Plunger 4: The Final Plunger”, all featuring plungers, and “Plungers on Parade”, which showed images of plungers in public space. The Plungers disappeared, leaving no trace of their identities.
This led me to wonder: What if I took these generative descriptions and made them in real life? Since the AI can’t create physical objects, it would be up to my human abilities to do that. Moving the work from the digital to the physical realm, I concluded, would add weight and presence, which is sometimes lacking on a screen. A sort of symbiosis formed, with the AI producing output that then “needed” my imagination, manufacturing ability, aesthetic judgment, and intuition to visualize and complete.
Here’s the physical manifestation of the plunger artwork, which I created as part of a series the AI titled “AI Am I?”: