PATRICK LICHTY – Conceptual Artist, Writer
Discussion of project, “Studio Visits: In the Posthuman Atelier” before the Computer Art Society (of Britain).
All material is copyright Patrick Lichty, all rights reserved. The Computer Arts Society CAS talk AI & Image Art, 1 June 2023. For the full video please visit the CAS Talks page
I am Patrick Lichty, an artist, curator, cultural theorist, and Assistant Professor of Creative Digital Media at Winona State University in the States. I will talk about my project, a curatorial meta-narrative called “Studio Visits: In the Post-Human Atelier.” Much of my AI work has yet to be widely shown in the West, as until two years ago, I had spent six years in the United Arab Emirates, primarily at Zayed University, the Federal University in Abu Dhabi. I have been working in the New media field for about 30 years, dealing with notions of how media shape our reality. So you can see some of my earlier work in this slide; I was part of the activist group RTMark, which became the Yes Men, the Second Life performance art group Second Front, and some of my Tapestry and algorism work.
This slide shows my 2015 solo show in New York, “Random Internet Cats,” which comprises generative plotter cat drawings. The following slide shows some of the asemic calligraphy I fed through GAN machine learning. I worked with Playform.IO’s machine learning system to create a personal Rorschach by looking for points of commonality in my calligraphy. I called the project Personal Taxonomies, and other works, like my Still Lives, generated through StyleGAN and Playform.IO. So I’ve been doing AI for about 7-8 years and new media art for almost three decades. Let’s fast-forward to now. I decided to go away from the PyTorch GAN machine learning models I used with my Calligraphy work and my paintings at Platform.io in the middle of last year. Switching to VQGAN and CLIP-based diffusion engines, I worked with NightCafe for a while. Then I found MidJourneyAI. And at first, I was only partially satisfied with the platform as I was on the MidJourneyAI Discord server and saw people working with basic ideas. I decided to focus on two concepts as I decided to think of what I was doing as concrete prose with code. And then secondly, I decided to take contestational aesthetics, as my prompts would contain ideas not being used on the MidJourney Discord.
I wanted to find the concepts for my prompts that needed to be less representational than the usual visuals of a CLIP-based AI. I did two things. First, I ignored everything typed on the MidJourney Discord, which was almost an aesthetics of negation. And then, I considered the latent space of the Laion-5 database that MidJourneyAI was using as an abstract space. I decided conceptually how to deal with a conceptual space using abstract architecture. I decided to start querying it with images like Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, just as a beginning, as well as Joseph Cornell. I did about twelve series called “The Architectures of the Latent Space,” illustrated here. They are unusual because they still refer to Schwitters but are much more sculptural and flatter. And so these went on for about twelve series. But this was the beginning of my work in that area, then I started finding what I felt were narratives of absence.
I have considerable differences in abstraction – multiple notions of abstraction, as I want to see what is transcendent in AI realism. For example, I started playing with real objects in a photography studio. This image is of a simulated photo of a four-dimensional cube, a tesseract, which isn’t supposed to be representational. Still, it was exciting that it emerged and illuminated the space. And so this told me that I was on a path in which I was starting to confuse the AI’s translator and that it was beginning to give results that were in between its sets of parameters, which is interesting. One body of work where my attempts at translator confusion are evident is The Voids (Lacunae), basically brutalism and empty billboards. It is inspired by a post that Joseph DeLappe from Scotland made on Facebook of a blank billboard. And one of the things that I noticed that these systems tried to do is that they try to represent something. They try to fill space. If there’s a blank space, it tries to put something in it.
MidJourney AI tries to fill visual space with signifiers. One of my challenges was forcing the AI engine to keep that space open. So this resulted in experiments with empty art studios and blank billboards. Artists were absent or had no physical form, which was the conceptual trigger. These spaces have multiple conditions and aesthetics, with a lot of variation. The question lingered, “How do I put these images together?” There are numerous ways to deal with them, so I made about 150 or 200 in a series and then created a contact book. And this gets away from this idea of choice in AI art, anxiety, and so on. I have a book that’s ready for publication so that someone can see my entire process and they can see the whole set of images. But in this case, what I thought was very interesting is that I wound up going into a bit of reverie around the fantasy of these artists who I’d been looking into their studios, and they weren’t in, or they didn’t exist in a physical form.
Having worked in criticism, curation, and theory, as well as being an artist, I decided to take these concepts and create a meta-structural scaffold to create a curatorial narrative based on this concept of the body of 50 artists. When I visited their fictional studios, thinking about theoretical constructs such as Baudrillard and Benjamin’s ideas of absence and aura, I created a conceptual framework that was a catalog for a general audience but preceded the exhibition. There’s precedent for this. There’s Duchamp and the Boite en Valise. I’ve done work like this before, constructing shows in informal spaces like an iPod. Here is a work from 2009, the iPod en Valise, as the iPod is a ‘box’ (Boite) for media work. And then I thought, why can’t I do the same with a catalog? Why can’t I use the formal constraint of the catalog to discuss the sociology of AI and some of the social anxieties putting this into a robust conceptual framework beyond its traditional rules? So another restriction that I have frequently encountered as a New Media curator and artist is time.
A moment in time, when technological art or a form emerges is often ephemeral. Curating shows on handheld art, screen savers, etc., show these might have a three to six-month period of time in which art is fresh. Studio Visits is tied formally to the MidJourneyAI 4 engine because MidJourneyAI 5 has a different aesthetic. A key concept is where the work situates itself in society and how it’s developing in a formal sense. And then, is there time to deploy an exhibition before the idea goes cold? And most times, most institutions are, unless you’re dealing with a festival, planning about a year out, possibly two. And, of course, for every essay I’m writing now, there is a disclaimer saying that this is written at such a date, such a year, such a month, and this may be obsolete or dated by the time you read this, in the case of something developing as quickly as AI, this idea of being aware of the temporal nature of the form itself.
So I decided to deploy the catalog first, as the museum show would emerge from this, and create the catalog and then exhibit. As I said before, I’ve been making these contact books, which are reverse-engineered catalogs; I’m almost up to 15 editions. I’ve only mentioned about six or seven on my Instagram so far. But in general, I’m looking at curation as an artistic scaffold. Given this project, a curatorial frame structure creates a narrative around meta-structural conceptual ones rather than representing the images themselves. It’s a narrative dealing with society’s anxieties about AI and culture. What happens if we finally eliminate those annoying artists and replace them with AI as a provocation? So here’s the structure of the piece. The overall work is the catalog. There is a curatorial essay, the artist’s name, statement, and the studio “photograph.” The names derive from the names of colleagues. So I’m reimagining in a synthetic lens my community, the studio image, as we can see through the narrative that I’ve presented. I started generating these empty spaces and let myself run through about a few hundred.
I chose the 50 most potent synthetic studio images. A description emerges using MidJourrneyAI’s /describe function. The resulting/Describe prompt, a brief discussion of the artist and what they do, is fed to GPT-3, which generates a statement. So here’s the form of an artist’s layout. You have the name. The following layout is the first one I did for Artificium, 334-J452, inspired by George Lucas’ THX 1138. And the layout came from this initial image. I took these with a description from MidJourneyAI and put it into GPT-3. The artist’s statement is as banal as any graduate school one and reads, “As an artist, my work expresses my innermost thoughts and emotions. I seek to capture the energy and chaos of the world around me, using bold brushstrokes and vibrant colors to convey my message.” So these were 50 2-page spreads. The book is 112 pages and fits very much with a catalog format. So the name, as said before, was based on the conceptual frame of the artist I was thinking of, based on the image generated, some of the concerns I saw in the mass media, and loosely upon those of names of colleagues, family, et cetera.
In many ways, I was taking a fantasy and re-envisioning my community through a synthetic lens. These images came first when developing across the imagined artists of diversity, identity, species, and planet. This reimagining is interesting because I wasn’t necessarily thinking of my ethnographic sphere. I worked in Arabia, West Asia, and Central Asia and dealt with people from Africa and the subcontinent. So many of these people of my experience figure into this global latent space of imagined artists, not just those of the European area or even those, more specifically, North America. And then I expanded this to species and planet, as we’ll see in a moment. So here we have an alien sound artist. The computer in this studio is almost cyberpunk and has a very otherworldly art studio image. I must remember which artist this is, but it has a New England-style look. And then third one is a Persian painter obsessed with color, Zafran Pavlavi, based on my partner, Negin Ehtesabian, who is currently coming to America from Tehran.
This slide is a rough outline of the structure of the catalog. I take the name and the framework of the artist’s practice, and you can see here that this information went into GPT-3 reading statements almost indicative of the usual graduate school art statements. Once again, these elements reflect some of the anxieties in the popular media. = I’m using this as a dull mirror from a visual sociology standpoint, based on scholars like Becker. In addition, this is a draft, but more is just a pro forma approach to the conceptual aspect. The project catalog is available on Blurb. It’s about $100 and still needs a few little revisions. But, this is something that is from a materialist perspective in basically inverting many practices regarding the usual modalities of exhibition curation and execution of a show or an exhibition. I’m also thinking about the standard mechanisms of artistic presentation within an institutional path. So not only is this dealing with AI, but it’s using AI to talk about the sociological space, the institutional space in which these works inhabit, and how these works propagate.
Studio Visits deals with institutions, capitalism, and digital production. So issues this project engages concerning AI exacerbate social anxieties about technology. The deluge of images problematizes any cohesive narrative. Using this meta-narrative through this conceptual frame, I can focus on some of the social and cultural questions about AI and the future of society and how it affects it within a fairly neat package. Design and curatorial fictions provide solutions for cultural spaces. Cultural institutions typically need to catch up with the speed of technology. Then bespoke artifacts, which are problematic, can remain in place long enough for the institution to adopt them. In other words, if you get something together and get it out there, you can have that in place, take it to the institution, and hopefully, they can explicate the work.
I’ve been asked about a sequel. I’ve had many people ask me who these artists are. What’s their work look like? You can see excerpts of their work in the studios. But people were asking me to take the conceit one step further, and I’m starting to work on that idea and show the portraits of the artists and their work. This portrait is of the artist Zafran, who I talked about earlier. These both continue the fiction and then humanize the story, which also problematizes it. And so this is this project and its ongoing development in a nutshell. I invite you to go to my Instagram at @Patlichty_art, and thank you for your time.
In closing, this is another portrait of the artist Vedran VUC1C. And once again, this is an entirely constructed fantasy. But once again, as Picasso said, these are lies that reveal the truth about ourselves.