Art, Digital & NFTs. 

Curated yet unscripted.


Digital Art Gallery, generated by MidJourney

How far can AI take us in the world of art making? What does it mean for artists, collectors and companies to adopt AI? These are some of the reoccurring questions with the rise of AI image generators. We had the privilege to discuss AI's future and its potential with Prof. Dr Mark Coeckelbergh.

Interviewer: Etienne Verbist (EV), Chief Curator Officer, Block Meister.

Interviewee: Mark Coeckelbergh (MC), Vice Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Education of the University of Vienna, High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence for the European Commission and the Austrian Council on Robotics and Artificial Intelligence.

EV: What do you see as the most interesting and promising application of artificial intelligence in the art market?

MC: The first opportunity is AI as a part of the artistic process. AI as a creator of art. We are just at the very beginning of that. I do not see AI taking over from the artist, but more of a collaboration between the artist and the AI. We are just at the beginning and can expect surprising results there.

Another opportunity is AI used in natural language processing. For the art market, it could be interesting if people could talk with an AI, and use it as a guide. AI could help collectors find the right platform or artwork because the time to just go to a city to view a few galleries is over. The digital environment is so complex, and we lack the right kind of gateways to find what we want. There is just too much. It's overload. AI could help us navigate to where we want to go.

EV: When an AI creates, what does it do that hasn't been done or cannot be done by a human?

MC: So far, many applications have been more like imitating humans, and that's not so interesting. Beyond imitation, there will be creations through pattern recognition, for example. Machines also do things that we don't expect. I believe that there needs to be some human input. It will have to be collaborative between man and machine.

When we're talking about the art market, I can imagine that there could be some input from the public or the community of art buyers in the process. The role of AI will be to make sense of big data and then have a model from which it can produce something aesthetically pleasing. AI is about working within parameters or surprising us, which is coming up with something that goes out of this parameter, on purpose.

EV: Do you think we will reach a point where human artists become unnecessary?

MC: Well, they're not necessary for a technical sense but I think it's good to involve them because I still think that great art needs some human creativity. At the same time, the traditional model where the artist is seen as in control of the artwork has been questioned since ancient times. Philosophically it doesn't make sense to see the artist in full control, the “master” so to speak. He is more of a participant in a creative process. And so will be Artificial Intelligence, a co-participant in the creative process, in which the art becomes what it becomes.

EV: Could AI help us understand why do people like certain artworks more than others?

MC: It is already happening in the music industry for example, and it is not so different in the visual arts. But it comes with a warning: We should try and let ourselves be surprised by what kind of things AI comes up with. We could let an AI discover the parameters about us that we are unaware of, and be open to see what is recommended.

Of course, AI is often seen as a threat to humanism. But we can have both. We can have humanistic interpretations and explanations and at the same time, look deep inside ourselves through all kinds of methods that we have, including psychoanalysis and philosophical reflection. In addition, it could be interesting to look at art appreciation from the AI side and see what comes out from there.

EV: What about ethical issues? What is it that we haven't considered yet about applications of AI in art?

MC: The concern is that we could see AI as an artist that just wants to please people. When the art market is reduced to that kind of pressure, it becomes a bubble, when everyone is to sell, not to surprise and not make something new and creative. One could say like social media platforms have become echo chambers. Aesthetically and creatively, it will reduce art to a commodified commercial product. It will just be about the money.

This will be an important ethical problem that will affect the future of art and therefore humanity.

This is an exclusive interview with Prof. Dr Mark Coeckelbergh. If you have questions you would like to ask, do not hesitate to contact us.

We’ve seen the news about DALL-E and MidJourney. Type in a few keywords about anything and everything, and you’ll get a generated image that does not disappoint, and even surprises.

Haven’t heard of them yet? These “AI” image generators are essentially machine learning models and artificial intelligence programs that generate digital images from textual language prompts (or natural language descriptions).

The Economist’s June 2022 Issue Cover

To start, you type a command ‘/imagine’ and a few keywords such as ‘a chicken painting in Chinese calligraphy style’, and the MidJourney bot on Discord will generate a set of images.

/imagine ‘a chicken painting in Chinese calligraphy style’

Next, you can choose ‘Upscale’ or ‘Variation’ with each image.

Generated image, upscaled

Fancy something else? Try something different such as ‘multiple faces in one head, pop art Andy Warhol and cybernetic’.

/imagine ‘multiple faces in one head, pop art andy warhol and cybernetic’

Generated image with selected variations

Its ‘imaginative’ abilities are expansive. From a world of traditional art techniques to the style of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, Andreas Gursky’s photographs, and anything you can imagine, this AI bot does it well, efficiently and with surprising artistic flair.

Artists were once thought to be completely immune to job automation. And indeed, such AI programs will change the way we approach and even necessitate the need for artists, photographers, designers and probably many more. Just imagine the disruption when MidJourney or Dall-E adds the option to generate a video or animation in addition to static pictures…

But before the creative world completely shuns such developments due to fear-mongering, pioneer Computational Artist Frieder Nake has something to say about the intelligence of AI.

He concludes the role of the artist succinctly:

This is the end of Part 1. In Part 2: Artist and AI, we explore its implications on copyright and more.

When did digital art become mainstream?

In the 1960s, art museums finally paid attention to digital art as they started creating digital art acquisition teams. In 1968, one of the first international exhibitions, “Cybernetic Serendipity” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London was devoted to the relationship between the arts and new technology.

Cybernetic Serendipity Exhibition poster, Institute of Contemporary Art,1968

This groundbreaking exhibition presented the interactions between artists and science and scientists and art. Focusing more on possibilities than achievements, it showcased how ‘cybernetic devices’ had been employed by artists, composers, and poets and the makers of those devices.

The Digital Age (or Information Age) truly began when personal computers became more accessible and came the subsequent development of various technologies.

Xerox Alto, 1974

In 1973, Harold Cohen created AARON: a series of computer programs that generated art autonomously. It was perhaps the world’s first “AI” powered drawing machine, where AARON constituted “a severely limited model of human cognition”, yet the few primitives it embodied proved to be remarkably powerful in generating highly evocative images: images, that are, that suggested, without describing, an external world.”

Harold Cohen with an Installation at San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007

AARON, a machine taught to draw, was a predecessor of many drawing machines to come next with more advanced, autonomous abilities that did not need human intervention.

Beloved Pop Art Icon Andy Warhol dealt with drawings on a different type of machine too: Amiga Floppy Disks.

Commodore Amiga computer equipment used by Andy Warhol, 1985-86 Hardware, Andy Warhol Museum

Created in collaboration with Commodore - creator of Amiga, Warhol used the computer software ProPaint to make a series of digital drawings including a Campbell’s soup can, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and flowers. These artworks only surfaced 30 years after their creation- and had to be reverse engineered to be recovered. There was no modern equipment that could easily read these floppy disks. Talk about how far we’ve come… These early computer-based artworks are indeed a testament to Warhol’s engagement with and embrace of new technology.

Campbells, 1985

Venus, 1985

Flower, 1985

Andy2, 1985

As computing power increased, 2-dimensional graphics became 3-dimensional. From computer-generated imagery (CGI) to 3D modelling and 3D rendering: artists could now make any images they imagined feel and look even more real.

Kenneth Snelson’s 3D graphics allowed him to reimagine impossible architectural ideas into surreal sculptures grounded in the delicate processes of engineering. Snelson’s “computer images” are recreations of real work, titled ‘Forest Devil ’ in Pittsburgh (which has since been relocated).

Forest Devil, 1977, relocated to Carnegie Museum of Art Theater

Forest Devils’ Moon Night, 1989, Photograph

The digitally rendered Forest Devils’ Moon Night has an added dimension of other-worldliness especially with the addition of a seemingly vast landscape, punctured by thick protrusions in almost outer space.

Lines are truly blurred when James Faure Walker presented a series of drawings where one could not tell where the hand-drawn line began or where the machine-drawn line ended. A process that involves the hybridization of technology and tradition resulted in wildly abstract paintings where viewers occasionally mistook physical elements to be digital, and digitally-made elements to be physical.

Blue Bowls, 2002, 58 x 58 cm, archival Epson inkjet

The 1990s was truly when digital entered the mainstream as art transcended into contemporary practices and the popular realms of video games, animations, and digital imagery.

Internet-based work harnessed the novel power of the World Wide Web and was able to amass audiences anywhere, as there was no need for a physical space for it to be displayed. In 1994, Heath Bunting created “Kings Cross Phone-In”, a simple web page listing the phone numbers for all the pay phones in London’s King’s Cross Station along with a date and time for people to call. He suggested that people “call and have a chat with an expectant or unexpectant person,” “answer the phones and chat,” or just “do something different.” The results were often unexpected, based on chance encounters between participants and unknowing commuters.

Kings Cross Phone-In, 1994, Online Archive

Yael Kaneraek’s “World of Awe”,1995 -ongoing, combined texts (love letters written by cyborgs), 3D models and landscapes, and full soundscapes to deeply immerse visitors in “a journal of a traveller in search of lost treasure”. As you enter the browser, you are free to explore the desktop interface and discover pieces, or “entries”, that present an immersive narrative. Over the years, the site has developed into a densely packed, breathtaking narrative.

World of Awe, Chapter 1, 2000

No one is estranged from the myriad of video games, memes, and animations that have shaped popular culture. And each one of us can list a favourite game or movie, and perhaps even the style of animation and software used. Yet many have been confused by digital art’s latest development: NFTs. It was easier to understand the rise of the Internet than cryptocurrency, blockchain, and tokens. While there is enough of a consensus that digital art is in fact art, NFTs on the other hand led us to question their place in the art world.

Does the value of NFTs lie in their form as an asset, or as a medium that deals with topics of ownership, authenticity, and scarcity?

Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days NFT, 21,069 pixels x 21,069 pixels (316,939,910 bytes). Image courtesy of the artist and Christie’s.

The buyer of Beeple’s $69 million NFT wasn’t too interested in the actuality of the work itself, as he paid for it without previewing the auction lot. Nevertheless, this was the seminal moment that catapulted NFTs into the mainstream and opened new ways of presenting artworks while re-igniting age-old questions.

What is art, in the NFT age?

Ape #1 of the Bored Ape Yacht Club collection, Bored Ape Yacht Club, 2021

Despite skepticism about digital art’s newest development, pioneer digital artists recognize the blockchain’s potential. Artist Herbert W Franke believes that “volatility and divisiveness” of blockchain technology are “appropriate descriptions”, but was never an issue for himself as an artist, as such skepticism was also given to the development of computers (and with any new development, essentially). Franke released his mathematical art series “MONDRIAN”, in NFT format with Tezos, and presented them at Art Basel 2022.

Herbert W Franke (1927- 2022)

Franke passed away on the 16th of July, “knowing there is a community of artists and art enthusiasts deeply caring about his art and legacy,” as his wife Susanne announced to his community of 15 thousand followers on Twitter.

Most contemporary artists are still expressing themselves through traditional media while breaking new grounds respectively. In parallel, a growing number of them are turning to experiment with digital art, to unlock new artistic possibilities, while tapping into a new un-gated audience, with an appetite for NFTs.

It is fair to say that we have only scratched the surface of what is technically and artistically possible to create with NFTs. This is why we look forward to the development of new technologies as digital art pioneers did and as the pioneers of photography and video art did before them. But technology aside, if there is one reason why NFTs are making a dent in the history of art, it is because of their impressive ability to reach out to a new, massive audience that would not have connected with what the art world has been offering otherwise. NFTs are a formidable engine of artistic expression and democratization.

It is apt to conclude our brief history of computational and digital art with the words of Sylvain Levy, from the eponymous DSL Collection: "Art should be seen, and for that to happen it needs to speak the language of its time."

What do you think of our history of digital art so far? Where do current technologies stand in the face of art, and how can artists and audiences be further included in its development?

If you enjoyed our brief dive into the history of Digital Art, look out for our weekly editions of Artist Spotlight on our social media channels, where we share the best of digital art and its creators.

For NFTs debunked:

For NFTs from an artistic perspective: