On Machine Learning

by Susan Tallman

January 2019

It’s everywhere: labeled “machine learning,” or “artificial intelligence” (AI),  or just “smart-[insert object here],” the idea that computers are interacting with the real world in ways we had thought distinctively “human” has produced a sloppy sea of hyperbole and confusion. Christie’s fall sale of an “AI painting” is representative: the price was ridiculous and the picture was ugly, so the click-bait was irresistible. But the event did little to clarify what is interesting or valuable or provocative about the current state of human-machine relations.

The implications of machines learning, rather than just executing instructions, are profound, though the basic idea is pretty simple: rather than telling the computer to, say, move a pen 2 cm, turn 90° and repeat three times, you show it lots of examples of squares, ask it to draw one, and feed it digital doggy treats until it gets it right. (Needless to say, God and the devil both lurk in the details.) Most of us use computers to improve execution—we want them to do what we tell them to do, but we also want them to change “teh” into “the” without asking. The big, potentially existential question is this: how much “without asking” are we okay with?

It’s a question artists have been asking since computers were the size of city busses, and it is the focus of this issue of Art in Print. We look at artists who have invited machines into their work, not to make sharper lines or slicker gradients, but to share decision-making with an intelligence not their own. Douglas Dodds provides an indispensable survey of how and why artists have chosen to share power with machines from the early 1960s onward. Grant D. Taylor writes about Vera Molnar, who began using computers in Paris in 1968 as a means of extending her investigations into aesthetic perception and “the transition from visual order to disorder.” Leslie Jones takes us to the Bay Area, where, some 35 years before Facebook, Sonya Rapoport recognized the computer as a social phenomenon, both in terms of its symbolic stature with the STEM cells of our culture and as an instrument for analyzing people.

Some of these works take form as screenprints or lithographs, while others were produced by computer-controlled pen plotters or gussied up typewriters. All are at least potentially “exactly repeatable pictorial statements” (to use William Ivins’s functional description of the print). Today’s profound interpenetration of digital and physical realms is brought home in the work of Alex Dodge (interviewed here by Kate McQuillen), who makes paintings using the Paleolithic print technique of stencil; the stencils, however, are cut by computer-controlled systems working from digital files to replicate images developed as virtual 3D renderings of invented objects under wraps.

Artists’ fascination with impersonal interventions has roots beyond the digital, of course: the Anni Albers retrospectives in London, reviewed here by Catherine Daunt, called attention to the connections between weaving and algorithmic design principles; and Jason Urban writes about Pati Hill’s photocopies of the 1970s and ’80s, which bear witness to a threshold moment in technological poetics, before the entire world moved onto our desktops. (In other reviews, Kate McCrickard looks at Tacita Dean and Julie Mehretu’s celebration of Marian Goodman in Paris; Re’al Christian considers the ambitions and effects of Sue Coe’s visual arguments against meat; and Paul Coldwell reports on the Krakow Triennial.)

Finally, to consider the question of machine intelligence and aesthetic response from the position of viewer rather than creator, this issue’s Prix de Print competition has been judged by a custom-built AI program whose aesthetic sense was honed through immersion in back issues of Art in Print and the decision-making of the 32 previous, human, jurors.

How much “without asking” are we okay with? In Dodds’s article, Jean-Pierre Hébert speaks for most of us when he explains, “I liked Chance to give me surprises, but only pleasant ones. So I tamed Chance, constrained it.”