- Alia Shaddad
Exhibit A(I): Exploring and Experiencing Intersections of AI and Art
In 1240-41, Abd al-Karim al-Misri produced an engraved astrolabe, a device that functions in multiple ways to timekeep, measure distance and height, measure latitude, and read horoscopes. Fast forward a few centuries later, in 1609, Galileo Galilei produced six watercolor sketches of the moon’s phases as observed through a telescope. Implicitly, these two examples mark two of many instances with which one can open up a conversation on the fusion of art and science, or more specifically art and technology.
Left: Astrolabe - The British Museum: Islamic Gallery
Right: Galileo Galilei, Drawings of the Moon
Perhaps it is more common to think of these categories as separate and merely in conversation with one another today; however, this distinction was not always the default one.
The ancient Greek origins of the words “technology” and “art” are tekhnē and artem/ars respectively. Both words meant “much the same thing, namely skill of the kind associated with craftsmanship”. There was no strict distinction between the two words, where one would be more grounded while the other more symbolic or intangible. This distinction could sound familiar to us now, but would be meaningless to a craftsman living in Ancient Greece.
Back then, both terms would have meant “skill,” but nowadays these terms don’t always intersect as organically. In fact, there are calls for their intersection, but also their separation. This is in part due to the fact that art is more commonly seen as expressive, perhaps fictional, and non-empirical, while technology relies on tangible, factual, empirical and scientific means. These debates are ongoing; but if our understanding of these words, and the ways they relate to one another, is subject to our historical context, then what could these words possibly mean to us in 2022?
AI Art: Local and Global Intersections
“Faced with myriad options, the artist may be overwhelmed, confused and puzzled and these emotions are immediately reflected in his works. His art work may become increasingly repetitive and devoid of imagination or spirit. Hence, the flame of creativity dies out and the tide of inspirational revelation recedes and the building blocks of imagination freeze at the bottom of the artist’s psyche, as they gradually transform into a shallow abstract translation of a constellation of enormous technological capabilities, devoid of any creative substance.”
Almost a year ago, in October 2021, robot artist Ai-Da made it to the Giza pyramids for the Forever is Now contemporary art exhibition. I still have to read that sentence twice.
Prior to that instance, I had not encountered a mainstream conversation on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and art in Egypt. Conversations surrounding technology, robots, and AI in Egypt, more broadly, had still been ripe in their own right (some examples include the first robots to serve in Covid-19 isolation hospitals, release of the show Fi Betna Robot in January 2021, techQualia’s launch in June 2021, a Sherif Amer interview with Duet in January 2022, or this surreal reveal of Tout in February 2022).
However, a little bit of digging unraveled what was already becoming a question of concern. In June 2015, Ahram Online published this article discussing art and technology using interviews with multiple artists from Egypt. In it, Nagy Shaker, El-Leila El-Kebeira’s puppet designer, insists that the use of technology allows for an enrichment of visuals that he sees in current artworks “whether intentionally or not”. While others also agree that technology has been influential in the art scene in Egypt, the debate crystallizes in what artist Mahmoud Atef (“a young poet and calligraffiti artist”) describes as “the point of conflict between the dogmatic and the new age art forms”. Namely, that the use of technology is seen as unskilful due to “a lack of handiwork” and sometimes even “a lack of tangible works”. Atef even recounts an instance showing that this was not a passing comment on his end, but rather a distress that several artists currently share. Atef insists that during the Shamal Wa Ganoub symposium which included 100 artists, “they joked and said it’s almost rude to learn new technologies and programmes for graphics at the Faculty of Fine Arts”.
In a more recent article, Zaher mimics the fear of unskilled artistry in the face of technology, encouraging the artist to “once again become master of these enormous tools and techniques so that they become the execution tools by which he translates his vision and creativity and so that the final outcome truly reflects his personality.” The conversation is far from reaching a dead end. Earlier this year, Egyptian AI artist Ahmed Edrees recreated stunning reimaginings of the ancient city of Thebes. These were done in collaboration with Midjourney, a research lab that uses AI to create images from text.
AI Artist Ahmed Edrees Recreates Ancient City of Thebes
These ideas have not emerged in a vacuum. In fact, these debates have been everlasting in the art world even prior to the interventions of technology. What is art? Who is an artist? These questions were posed in relation to the works of Gaugin, van Gogh, Shakir Al Said, Louise Breslau, Hilma af Klint, Picasso, and so many other artists whose works proved to be revolutionary.
These questions have carried through to technology in the art scene, where questions of creativity, consciousness, emotion, experience, process, validity, appreciation, and skill are emphasized. In “The Artist in the Machine,” Arthur I. Miller provides an introduction into AI and creativity through numerous examples over the years. In his introduction to AI, Miller writes that “the first inkling anyone had that computers might be more than giant calculators or glorified typewriters came in the 1960s”. This was the moment in time where a questioning of the separation of technology from art began.
AI Art at Christie’s Sells for $432,500 - The New York Times
Two critical instances identified by Miller in this regard are the 1965 production of geometric patterns using a pen attached to a computer in Germany and the output of IBM7094 in Bell Labs in the US where, as a result of a malfunction, “one user ran down the halls shouting that the computer had ‘produced art’.”
This artwork would be one of the first pieces made by a computer, exhibited at a New York gallery. In his review of it, Stuart Preston wrote: “freed from the tedium of technique and the mechanics of picture-making, the artist will simply ‘create’.” From dystopic and distraught views on the loss of skill, the essence of art, or the sanctity of the artist, to the panacea of limitations and rigidity of more traditional forms of creativity, computer or AI-generated art has since come into scrutiny.
The more dominant strand so far has been a romanticization of the creative process and of artworks that heavily emphasizes the need for an inner world of experiences and emotions to be expressed, thus rendering a robot or an algorithm unbefitting of the art scene.
On the other hand, we have works of art by AI selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars ($432,500 to be exact). Can we recognize artwork as such without the appreciation of “persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the art-world)”? What does art mean if it is not entrenched in human experiences of sorrow, agony, elation, or love, or even intention? How do we appreciate art if we cannot engage with, critique, and hold accountable the artist?
Left: Photograph of author’s painting.
Right: Miller, A. I. (2019). The artist in the machine: Inside the New World of machine-created art, literature, and Music. The MIT Press.
In their study, Elzė Sigutė Mikalonytė and Markus Kneer attempt to explore whether there is a willingness by people to judge AI creators as human creators, or their creations as human creations, and to ascribe to them intention. They found that people, despite the tendency to anthropomorphize (i.e. ascribe human characteristics to nonhuman objects), are “relatively unwilling to attribute desire, belief, and intentions to artificial agents in aesthetic contexts”. They also found that the idea of intentionality is still in the gray: sometimes accidental creations are deemed as art and other times intention becomes essential. Nevertheless, people do not tend to see robots as artists in their own right. The authors insist that their findings confirm what other researchers have, that “people tend to value robot-created art less than human art… and that this tendency decreases when the robot appears to be more anthropomorphic”.
This is further confirmed by Ahmed Elgammal, Professor of Computer Science at Rutgers University and the mastermind behind the AI Creative Adversarial Network (AICAN). AICAN is a machine-generated artist that aims to create original artwork that is not completely unfamiliar so that it can still be appreciated by people. AICAN’s artworks were judged by a non-expert panel as created by human artists. They were also described as inspirational works of art (with even higher ratings than the artworks by human artists). The importance of AICAN’s work here is that it is often revered for being “the first machine generated artist to pass the Turing test”. The test, designed to judge the extent to which a machine acts like a human, embodies a criteria that keeps proving to be essential, even for works of art.
Personally, despite all of the ideological and philosophical critiques, I was surprised by the images produced by a CAN in 2017 adopting an ambiguous style function. It seemed so familiar to some of the paintings I had done. When I first started doing abstract and contemporary artworks, I used to go to a studio here in Cairo. The artist and instructor frequently encouraged us to break from the rules we had learned previously for making art. Rules to do with lighting, dimensions, the rule of thirds, and so on were ignored for the sake of free expression.
The actual extent to which expression can be ‘free’ is a subject for another time; yet, seeing the images by a CAN made me feel like I had turned on my style ambiguity function as well. I saw how so much can be explored, and so much can be learned from AI-generated art. Additionally, and aside from exploration or knowledge, so much can be felt and related to.
Gerfried Stocker, artistic director of Ars Electronica, says: “Rather than asking whether machines can be creative and produce art, the question should be, ‘Can we appreciate art we know has been made by a machine?’” This blurred the lines for me, and I hope it will for you too.
Moving beyond the art/ist
Is it a question of skill, passing a Turing test, a result of experience, an expression of emotion, a process, or institutions that price and sell? We can go on forever discussing whether or not AI art is considered art, whether a robot or any other form of technology can be considered an artist; but what is left to be done is to explore what it means to experience art made by AI.
There have been multiple exhibitions, auctions, and experiences that allow us to do so. These spaces aren’t necessarily new, like the one previously mentioned or the 1968 exhibition in New York titled "Algorithm Art”. More recently, in 2019, an exhibition in New York came about as a result of the collaboration of AI and Ahmed Elgammal. Too unfamiliar? More grounded and familiar experiments have also unraveled, revealing the more local expressions and manifestations of technology and art as they intersect in Egypt, and, more broadly, in the region.
For example, since 2005, Medrar has played an important role in the digital art scene, providing a space for artists to collaborate and have conversations to promote a more active contemporary art movement. Medrar have hosted a multitude of workshops, exhibitions, and calls, including: an upcoming video mapping workshop that theoretically and practically intersects at art, architecture, and technology; they have also previously hosted an XR workshops series, a VR screening of Yasmine Elayat’s films, a workshop exploring the fusion of art and coding, an exhibition that followed from a workshop on games and interactive art, performance arts events, a hologram workshop that allows participants to create their own hologram videos, artists’ talks, and more. Most recently, Medrar organized a joint workshop in collaboration with @anthropology_bel3araby titled Archives of a temporary Migration; Egyptians in the Gulf, which was then turned into an exhibition last October 2022. Medrar has also posted two open calls, Fantomas and Extended Ecologies, which explore the intersection of contemporary art and technology to traverse the different possibilities of this undertaking in a grounded manner.
Beyond Medrar’s work, and since 2016, CairoTronica have also been exploring the overlap of art, science, and technology during their Cairo Electronic and New Media Arts Festivals. Digital art is already being sold via NFTY Arabia, who have recently announced “Presence,” an exhibition in collaboration with the Creative Industry Summit. The virtual exhibition was made accessible via mobile phone or desktop and, following the creation of an account, allowed you to move through the gallery online (September 27 - October 30, 2022).
Left: Haythem Zakaria’s immersive installation, NÛN / نون
Right: The 3D-printed “The Other Nefertiti” on display at the Something Else Off Biennale in Cairo
Aside from collective expressions, individual artists have also persistently explored the realm of art and technology in the region. One of these artists is Haythem Zakaria, a Tunisian transdisciplinary artist that has also continuously worked with different new tools and technologies. Zakaria’s NÛN / نون is an immersive installation, done in collaboration with Skander Bbesbe, that explores the seen/unseen dichotomy of sufi philosophy and its divine implications using a combination of audiovisuals to allow for an experience of the Arabic letter Nun. Another artist has also used 3D-printing to subversively critique the colonial histories of museum collections.
Iraqi artist Nora Al-Badri, in collaboration with German artist Jan Nikolai Nelles, have 3D-printed the bust of Nefertiti that has been on display in the Neues Museum after it was illegally taken from Amarna, Egypt in 1912 by German archaeologists. The artists have also made the 3D dataset of Nefertiti’s head freely available for anyone to view, study, or use under a creative commons license. This has also made their artwork and endeavor a critique and challenge to the Neue Museum’s intentional restriction of public accessibility to their collections.
Taking it a step further, Synapse Analytics announced it will be hosting the techQualia Gallery in Cairo, set to take place over three days in December 2022, from the 15th to the 17th. Building on the work of its Egyptian predecessors, the techQualia Gallery aims to exhibit artworks that are fully AI-enabled: rather than be created in collaboration with machines, they are created by them.
Image by Synapse Analytics's Azkavision team, 2022
These will include audio-visual installations, generative prints, paintings, code-generated music, as well as AI-enabled performance pieces. The Gallery will also feature an interdisciplinary panel discussion which will bring experts in the field in communion with local and regional art practitioners and theoreticians.
The exhibition text for the Gallery, written by its curator Dina Jereidini, describes the intention of the exhibition to “pose questions to the notion of ‘emerging tech,’ asking: emerging from what? What can technology bring to seemingly disenfranchised contexts of creative production, and what do trends in AI-mythmaking and generative reflections on local cityscapes have in common in a world of wider global inequities?”. It goes on to center the exhibition’s focus on the present space and moment: “We wonder what biases AI might reveal and make explicit, what new ideas it may bring into existing public and artistic discourse. And ultimately, what new forms of intelligence may be equipped to “perceive” that which might otherwise remain overlooked and unaddressed”.
While you will get the chance to explore what that means on the ground very soon, here is a list of online experiences that you can try at home until then:
Generate your own unique art using a collage of different images on Artbreeder
Explore the intersections of words and movement using Body, Movement, Language: AI Sketches With Bill T. Jones.
Play a fun guessing game with AI on Quick, Draw!
Explore possible strokes based on your own handwriting on Handwriting with a Neural Net
Design, test, and get a guide to creating your own unique garden accounting for endangered pollinators (bees, butterflies, and others) using Pollinator Pathmaker
Generate a blog introduction and other kinds of content with the help of Frase
Draw with AI! Start a drawing and see the prediction made on Magic Sketchpad
Create fun real-time animations with Scroobly
Make shadow puppets with the help of an AI with Shadow Art
Go on an adventurous hunt for emojis with Emoji Scavenger Hunt
I, myself, couldn’t wait. Besides the playfulness of several experiences, I also used artbreeder to generate an art piece out of a collage and a few words:
I also tried a different collage, then tried to explore the multiple rerolls, changing up keywords along the way or simply rerolling using the same ones:
These experiments and these sites of exploration offer us glimpses into the kinds of collaborations or conversations that might emerge within exhibitions as such. Installations, experiments, exhibitions, and galleries prompt us to rethink our relationships to things, to others, to ourselves, and to the world. If “there is no need for conflict between science and art, between fact and story”, then what kinds of facts and stories might be weaved through these explorations, experiences and interactions?
 Ingold, T. (2022). The perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and Skill. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
 Miller, A. I. (2019). The artist in the machine: Inside the New World of machine-created art, literature, and Music. The MIT Press.
 Mikalonytė, E. S., & Kneer, M. (2022). Can artificial intelligence make art?: Folk intuitions as to whether AI-driven robots can be viewed as artists and produce art. ACM Transactions on Human-Robot Interaction, 11(4), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1145/3530875
 Dickie George. (1974). Art and the Aesthetic. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
 Madden, R. (2017). Being ethnographic. SAGE Publications Ltd, https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781529716689
Cichocka, A. (2021, September 15). Ai in art: What does it mean? DailyArt Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/ai-in-the-art/
Dickie George. (1974). Art and the Aesthetic. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
Elsirgany, S. (2015, June 25). Clash of generations in Egypt’s art: Technology versus roots - Visual Art - Arts & Culture. Ahram Online. https://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/5/25/133545/Arts--Culture/Visual-Art/Clash-of-generations-in-Egypts-art-Technology-vers.aspx
Ingold, T. (2022). The perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and Skill. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Madden, R. (2017). Being ethnographic. SAGE Publications Ltd, https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781529716689
Mikalonytė, E. S., & Kneer, M. (2022). Can artificial intelligence make art?: Folk intuitions as to whether AI-driven robots can be viewed as artists and produce art. ACM Transactions on Human-Robot Interaction, 11(4), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1145/3530875
Miller, A. I. (2019). The artist in the machine: Inside the New World of machine-created art, literature, and Music. The MIT Press.
Roeder, O. (2018, August 23). There is no difference between computer art and human art. Big Think. Retrieved from https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/there-is-no-difference-between-computer-art-and-human-art/
Zaher, M. (2014). The impact of digital technology on art and artists. Midan Masr. Retrieved from http://www.midanmasr.com/en/article.aspx?ArticleID=200