Machines that Make Art

By Carla Rapoport February 27, 2019

That headline is a bit misleading. Machines don’t make art, people programme machines to make art. It’s the human element behind all the algorithms that make a prize-winning piece of A.I. art. Hence last year’s extraordinary winner of the 2018 Lumen BCS A.I. Award – Degenerative Cultures (pictured above), an installation by a global collective of scientist which gives the lowly fungus the task of eating a page of a book and then tweeting about it using A.I. tools. No shortage of human intelligence here.

Lumen is fortunate to have a sponsor for its A.I. award for the third year running, the British Computer Society, Chartered Institute of IT. I caught up with Brian Runciman, head of content of BCS, recently to find more about the BCS’s interest in A.I. and art.

Why is a society of I.T. experts interested in supporting art made with technology?

In recent years we have been very focused on the idea of IT being a force for societal good, so when we started to support Lumen it was really because of the role art plays in society. Art is a very human pursuit – some say it is what makes us human – and technology rightly plays a role in its production and inspiration. Creativity can be a hugely positive force, opening minds and making us question so, naturally, as our tool-making instincts have produced ever-more complex machines, these have been involved in production of art.

Brian Runciman, Head of Content, BCS, Chartered Institute of IT.

Which do you think comes first, the art or the technology?

Art comes from the mind and heart – the soul, if you will. So my personal view is that the art comes first. But the technology gives us the tools for expression, a method of moulding reality based on our personal concepts, ideas and whims.

Is the dialogue between art and technology gaining momentum? 

Definitely. The prize we champion, A.I., is evidence of that. The tools have become more readily available – tech tools have moved from high-priced corporate ivory towers into the hands of the makers – and A.I. is at the vanguard of that, so is being used more and more to produce, for example in the area of visualisation, things that were almost inconceivable previously. New technology forces us to think in new ways. Artists are particularly sensitive to that process.

Do you think A.I. tools have been a game changer for artists, or are they just another digital tool?

It’s a game changer. Looking at the things that are coming out, not only are they weird and engaging – and sometimes frightening – they are also thought-provoking. When something hits the heart and brain it is very powerful. And the efficacy of human interaction with technology is the question of our era.

Other than the cash prize and the chance to be part of Lumen exhibitions, are there any other benefits to winning Lumen’s BCS A.I. Award?

There may be chances to join us at BCS member events throughout the year. Also, through sponsoring this award, a lot of our members will get to see the effects and uses of technology outside of their day-to-day job and experience and I’m confident that interchange will be positive. It’s good to be reminded that technology is not just a hardware device, an algorithm or an automated process – it can enrich our inner lives too.



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