Google’s psychedelic ‘paint brush’ raises the oldest question in art


(Courtesy of Memo Akten)

A recent San Francisco art show hosted by Google included the typical trappings a big crowd, striking pieces of art and expensive price tags. But there was one noteworthy distinction of this particular art show  all of the pieces were created with the help of a Google computer program.

The artwork relies on software that remakes an image to include whatever it is being told to see in the image. The end result is a hallucination of the image that has a psychedelic look.

The new software provide artists an opportunity to be creative like never before. With this fresh approach to art, there are questions about who should get credit for the artwork. Should it be the artist, the computer software, or the software’s creator, and is the final product really art?

For the London man behind one of the pieces that sold for $8,000, the price was an endorsement of artists’ continued value in a world that is increasingly reliant on technology and machines. (One other piece of art at the show also sold for $8,000.) While the creator Memo Akten said that Google has made a better “paintbrush,” the human artist is essential. Not just any image fed into the computer program can sell for so much, he said.

Akten began creating his artwork called “GCHQ” with a Google Maps screenshot of GCHQ, the British intelligence and security agency. He input it into a Google program called DeepDream, a website that anyone can use. But Akten went a step further, tweaking the code to produce multiple morphed versions of the Google Maps screenshot that were to his liking. One was covered in eyes, another had web-like detail and a third had a textured look. Then Akten merged those three images using Adobe AfterEffects into a single image, his final product.

While the initial version of his art took only a couple hours to make, Akten later spent a couple weeks creating a larger scale version of the art. (The print that was sold was about six feet by three feet.)

The inspiration behind the piece was Akten’s belief that tech companies such as Google and government agencies are like modern deities that play the role of religions in previous years.

“We have a problem, we ask Google instead of praying,” Akten said. “We’re provided with a false sense of safety. You’re being watched, don’t do that, we’ll find you.”

He thinks it’s “quite scary” given the data and artificial intelligence expertise Google has acquired. For him, it was fitting to take a Google product and use it to help make his statement about how omnipresent technology companies are in our lives.

And this perspective has resonated with some in the art world.

“It’s beautiful and yet does something more than demonstrate computing prowess,” said Peter Patchen, chair of digital arts at the Pratt Institute. “It questions everything from corporate control of culture to changing socio-religious beliefs and taps into our deep distrust of seemingly omnipotent power structures.”

Patchen was happy to see digital art being given a value in the thousands, but said there’s still room for growth. (The most coveted classic pieces sell for millions.) As a young, affluent generation of art collectors start to buy works, he expects they’ll appreciate digital techniques, and be willing to pay higher price points.

A video using Google’s deepdream technique to create a moving artistic rendering based on the movie ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. (Roelof Pieters)

Patchen thinks credit for Atken’s work should be shared between the artist and the algorithm’s creators. Until the algorithm itself becomes a thinking being, he thinks it’s merely a tool, deserving of no credit.

For Christiane Paul, the adjunct curator of new media arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, credit solely lies with the artist. She noted that an artist using Adobe Photoshop to make a piece of art wouldn’t credit the team that had made Photoshop.

Paul said artists have long sought new tools to elevate their work, such as creating a new color or finding a new material to work with.

“Whether it’s a new paintbrush or pigment or neural network, they are all potentially great tools for creating sophisticated art,” said Paul, who felt Akten’s work was rich in creativity.

Others were not as impressed.

Emily L. Spratt, an art history PhD candidate at Princeton with a research focus on artificial intelligence, described the artist’s explanation behind his work as an anarchist’s rant, and reflective of our paranoia around machines. Spratt wasn’t sure who ultimately deserved credit for the work, the artist, the software or the team that made the software.

She cautioned that the painting’s price tag shouldn’t be seen as an acceptance into the art world, because it was sold at a charity auction with money going to Gray Area, a reputable nonprofit organization that attendees had an interest in.

Still, new techniques such as using artificial intelligence to create art are promising in her view. She mentioned how the emergence of oil paints was a breakthrough for artists centuries ago. Now artificial intelligence creates new possibilities for the creative class.

“It’s definitely a venue for more possible creativity. Will it be as simple as uploading a photo into Google DeepDream and then seeing what type of distorted image it will produce?” Spratt said. “I imagine artists will be using this type of technology in a more complicated, nuanced and sophisticated type of way.”

By Matt McFarland