The Creative Dialogue Of Human And Machine In The Work Of AI Artist Harshit Agrawal

Explorations of AI Art — Episode 06

Beth Jochim, Director and Co-Founder at Cueva Gallery. Twitter: @_bblurred

"In creating art with an AI, I explore what I call the ‘human-machine creativity continuum’." — Harshit Agrawal

[Fig.1] Some outputs of Tandem: human drawing on the left, machine output on the right. Imagining art collaborating with an intelligent machine. Tandem “is a software system where a person’s drawing input is ‘imagined’ upon by a computer outcome, thereby interweaving the two in a creative dialogue”. Courtesy of Harshit Hagrawal.

he Fall brings new stories and perspectives to our investigation about Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and Creativity. Harshit Agrawal is a Human Computer Interaction (HCI) researcher, a public speaker and a well-known AI artist. He has graciously accepted our invitation to speak about his practice and ideas about art and technology. He has carried out art residencies at various places, including the Art Center Nabi (Seoul, Korea), the Museum of Tomorrow (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), the Kakehi-Lab (Tokyo/ Yokohama, Japan), and he has been the only Indian artist in one of the world’s first AI art shows Gradient Descent (held at Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi, India). He has exhibited his work at premier art festivals and museums around the world, including the Ars Electronica Festival (Austria) and the Tate Modern (UK).

Our conversation has been quite engaging, bringing to light fine aspects about how AI can enhance human creativity, and not only.

Beth Jochim: Harshit, a lot of your work is “on the interplay between human and machine imaginations and intentions, spanning across virtual and physical embodiments”. What can you tell us about the interaction of AI and Art?

Harshit Agrawal: In creating Art with an AI, I explore what I call the ‘human-machine creativity continuum’- the melding of human and machine creative agency. I use machines and algorithms and often create them as an essential part of my art process, embracing becoming the cyborg artist. I think the power of ML based creativity is in the feedback loop - allowing for people to evolve their work using or through ML- rather than have everything pre-planned or defined and then using a tool to only implement that well structured or defined idea. Since AI learns a representation of data, it can offer inputs to the human artist based on that learning, thereby adding content (and aesthetics) into the art creation equation that the human artist might not have considered otherwise.

Beth J.: “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Algorithm” is an installation exhibited at the Nature Morte Gallery in New Delhi (as part of the AI Art show called “Gradient Descent”, curated by 64/1). For this work you have curated over 60,000 images of human surgical dissections, and then let the machine create its own vision of them. You said, “ For me, the machine’s imagination of the all-too-fleshly materiality of the human, is as beautiful as it is disquieting”. What fascinates you in the use of AI in art?

Harshit A.: I think this ability of AI to offer different lenses to look into collections of data is very powerful. It becomes quite interesting because now you have the ability to restrict this data to something specific, say faces, and then get the machine to interpret anything from that lens. What’s interesting is the larger conversation around AI too - how companies are using it in various ways to achieve their means, while reassuring a sense of authorship among people. The narrative of how AI will shape our society needs to spill beyond large companies with access to large compute resources and data; thus in my practice I try and create works where people can reflect upon this relation too, through works like (author)rise.

Beth J.: In works like “Machinic Situatedness” and “Masked Reality” you investigate the role of AI in our lives, posing questions about how we are evolving with it and if technology can become an instrument to explore our cultural heritage and a transcendent dimension. AI art becomes very conceptual and sophisticated. How do the spectators perceive these concepts?

Harshit A.: In these series, I am interested in how traditional art can be reinterpreted and recreated through the technology of AI. The spectators can often relate to these concepts of art, because they’ve experienced it in one way or the other over the years, primarily because it draws inspiration from culture and tradition. Once the work is relatable, they are able to have the second layer of conversation, about the role of machines in creative endeavours.

Beth J.: How do you envision the future of AI art and what would you like to explore further?

Harshit A.: I am interested in how AI art can further keep expanding our explorations in creative expression, pushing the boundaries of what can be created. I’m particularly interested in how AI can help us discover patterns and be a reflection of us as a society, offering a mirror and drawing insights about ourselves.

“Technology, like art, is a soaring exercise of the human imagination.” — Daniel Bell

Harshit’s main focus is on creating experiences where people can reflect about their relationship with technology and understand more about the impact that this one has in our lives. However, he goes ahead and investigates also how technology can blend with human imagination and intentions.

In creating the “cyborg artist”, Harshit starts from the assumption that Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are ways to push creativity beyond predefined points. Technology allows the work of an artist to evolve in ways that exceed expectations and possibilities, creating a loose artistic practice where AI plays the role of the feedback tool (and not something used to improve a rigid structure). It is in this co-creation and interaction between human and machine that the magic happens.

Another interesting aspect of Harshit’s work is the application of technology to traditional art. Inspired by traditional masks of different regions of India, this artist generates faces through Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, questioning the role of technology as an instrument for exploration and engagement with our heritage.

He explains: “Masks and face transformative decorations have been fundamental across the Indian culture in our journeys into unknown realms, in our celebrations of the malleability of human representation, or as a tool for practical disguise and entertainment. It helps us engage with our world from a completely new vantage point, augmenting our sense of self, very similar to what technology, especially AI enables today. What happens when these media of transcendence collide?” .

In our interviews we have encountered artists that have spoken very similarly. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are mostly powerful tools (and mediums) that can expand and amplify the creative response of an artist. In fact, they allow to reach what it is even impossible to imagine, adding content and aesthetics never thought of before.

What seems also to be consistent is the fact that humans relationship with technology, even in the artistic practice, becomes a reason of reflection on what we are and, potentially, on what we can be. Technology has changed and is shaping the world we live in, becoming a reflection of our interests, personalities and identities. It is not good or bad per se, but it is all about how people decide to use it.

The combination of art and new technologies would therefore seem to bring the quality of reading the status quo in which we find ourselves, and to offer perspectives for future improvement.

I want to thank artist Harshit Agrawal for this insightful interview and for his contribution to democratize AI art, making it more understandable and accessible to a wider audience.∎

About the author: Beth Jochim is the Creative AI Lead at Libre AI, and Director and Co-Founder at Cueva Gallery. She works at the intersection of technology and arts. She is actively involved in different activities that aim to democratize the field of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, bringing the benefits of AI/ML to a larger audience. Connect whit Beth in LinkedIn or Twitter.

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