Mining for Gold

By Carla Rapoport October 29, 2018

Last week’s sale of a portrait created by artificial intelligence for US$432,000 by Christie’s in NY knocked most people creating art with Artificial Intelligence sidewise. Chief among the skeptics was 2018 Lumen Prize Gold Winner Mario Klingemann and for understandable reasons. While he’s been working with machines and art since the ’90s, the collective whose work was sold by Christie’s cheerfully admit they borrowed chunks of the algorithms they used to make the portrait and have no background in art.


Not a great start for getting A.I. art into the big leagues, as the inventor of the algorithm in question points out in this excellent article in The Verge. As for Mario, he’s quoted before the sale in the New York Times, comparing the Christie’s portrait as “a connect-the-dots children’s painting.” But the fact that he is quoted in the Times story – and in many more about the sale – is good news overall. His own extraordinary path to secure his place as one of the leading artists in this field bears that out.


I caught up with Mario shortly after the Lumen Awards Ceremony last month and he explained how he became obsessed with the idea of generating art with algorithms. “I was given a Commodore 64 in the ’80’s,” he explains, and taught himself programming. He realised right there that programming could show you every possible image that ever was. “That, in itself, holds the potential of all the wonders of the world.” So he wrote a programme that tried to show every possible image and, of course, it didn’t work, “because I realised it would take me longer than the universe existed.” But in some sense, he admits, he’s still trying.


“I realised brute force doesn’t work, so now I’m trying to filter these images to try to figure out what makes an image interesting and evoke an emotion,” he continues. In other words, he is focussed on why  something is art and something else a sports image or a news photo. “Why do we see something as art?” he asks.


It was a precocious question for a teenager but his interest in art created with technology wasn’t matched by the courses on offer at German art schools. So he ended up in graphic design for the advertising industry which morphed into creating cutting-edge visuals for techno parties in the ’90’s. He had his eye on artificial intelligence all along, having read Marvin Minksy’s book, The Society of Mind, around that time. But it took another 25 years for the ability to harness A.I. tools to search images intelligently to arrive, he points out. “I was always hoping the moment would come when neural networks and A.I. would enable me to do more of this, so when it came, I was ready!” he says.


Bacon or Not?


His Lumen Gold Award winner, The Butcher’s Son, (image below) has been compared to work by Francis Bacon. Was that planned? “Definitely not. Rather its the effect of the machine making mistakes, they aren’t perfect. And we humans like to categorise things so when we see an artwork with a face on it that’s wrong, we think of Francis Bacon.” He continues: “If you put my work next to a Francis Bacon, there’s a huge difference. Still, Francis Bacon has a huge gravity field and is associated with distorted faces and uncanny things. If I was creating landscapes, no one would make these kind of comparisons.” Over time, he says, as people become more familiar with A.I. portraits, they will see the difference.


Nonetheless, he feels a connection to Bacon. After reading Bacon’s interviews, Mario says that Bacon’s description of using brush and paint feels similar to how he feels he makes images with neural networks and pixels. “There is this constant battle between control and accident as well as the fact that often the material has it’s own emergent behaviour and you have to critically chose the right moment when to stop,” he notes.


Will the portraits become less distorted as algorithms grow in sophistication? “I would like to correct my algorithms and am beginning to make perfect faces, but only in the context that you need to know the rules to be able to break them,” he replies. Yes, it would be nice to make something perfect,  but perfect is “kind of boring” he concludes. And you only need to look at The Butcher’s Son to know Mario is not interested in either perfect or boring.


To understand how Mario creates his work, check out this article in Fast Company.





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