Art Palm Springs: Collector Talks
Keynote: “Augmentation: The End of Art?”
Jens Filip, artist
Hi everyone. Thanks so much to the talk organizers for the invitation to be part of this exciting event.
I’m going to start really broad today and just say a few words about technology, so we’re all on the same page. Bear with me.
Technology. OK. What is technology? One way to define technology is as a tool that augments human abilities, or acts as an extension of the human. When it comes to art, we could call a paintbrush a technology. Or for that matter, the paint, or the canvas. A musical instrument, a pedestal, a camera, a computer. These are all technologies that enable artists to express ourselves to the best of our ability.
I’ve been asked to speak today on the topic of a particular technology, namely augments. The art world is worried about augments. You can tell that by the title for this event—“Augmentation: The End of Art?” It’s phrased as a question, but behind the title is a fearful statement. The fear is that augmentation poses a major threat to the art market. Not to mention the very status of the artist that has held since the dawn of time.
I believe that augments do pose a major turning point, but that this is not a threat. It’s an incredible opportunity.
Now, I understand why people are concerned. One big issue is authorship. If I know how to paint because I have an augment helping dictate my muscle movements, who is the painter, really? Me, or the augment?
Another big question is whether you can make good art without doing a lot of work to get good at something. If I never painted in my life before I got augmented, and now I paint super well, is the painting less artistically valuable because I didn’t work my whole life to get good at it?
And the big question for everyone at Palm Springs, I’m guessing, is: if anyone can make a good painting, what is the monetary value of a single good painting? There might just be too many good paintings in the world now. Although I guess it depends on what you think is good. (laughs)
Let me address some of these challenges by talking about my own practice as an artist. For the last four years, most of my artwork has been made with the support of various augments I have, some of them commercially available, others developed specially for me with the aid of engineers and scientists.
The images I’m showing you now are from an early series I made when I got my first aesthetic augments. For this project I made a series of woodblock prints with no formal training, just the basics I learned from watching YouTube videos. Then, I got a woodblock carving skillset augment, and I made the same series of prints again. (laughs) Yes, I know the first ones are pretty funny.
And for this work from last year, deKooning-Pallasvuo, I commissioned a group of coders to make me an augment that was trained on a combination of images by the modern painter Willem de Kooning, known for his abstract brush strokes, and the contemporary artist Jaakko Pallasvuo, who makes digital images. The mashup allowed me to create paintings in a perfect combination of their styles. The images resemble both analog paintings and digital images. They are hard to place in a historical context because of this unusual mashup. Which in my opinion is really cool.
Like any AI technology, the engineers who make augments are constantly making decisions about what information input the algorithm will be based on and will learn from. Facial recognition is a classic example: we all know that facial recognition systems can only identify faces according to the input examples given to the neural network that they learn from and base decisions on. For this reason they are biased and often make mistakes.
I wanted to comment on that bias, which comes from humans, not machines. And I wanted to acknowledge that the engineers are creative decision makers in their own right. For those reasons I always list the engineers as collaborators in my work.
Still, I get into a lot of arguments about whether my artworks are really works by “me.” People tell me that the technology is responsible for the artwork and that I could never do what I do without it. Of course, I couldn’t make these works without the augments—but I couldn’t make the painting without the paintbrush either, and no one seems to have a problem with paintbrushes!
People also argue that these artworks don’t constitute forms of self-expression. They say there is just “too much” technological mediation in the way between me and the final form. But I think it’s the opposite. The augments allow me to express myself that much more authentically and directly than any other technology ever invented.
Thanks to augmentation, I have practically no barriers to getting my ideas in the world in any form. I no longer have to spend a lifetime learning how to play piano, sew, juggle, or anything else. Instead I can put my authentic ideas into direct action. Thank you.
Because of what you said about augment painting styles being based on sample sets of input imagery, I was thinking about how many augments allow people to mimic the techniques of white male artists. Don’t you think more art augments should be based on the work of women and underrepresented artists?
Definitely. That’s a great idea. Yeah.
Speaking of accessibility, I wanted to ask how many artists can really afford augments like the ones you have. Isn’t there a new barrier to entry now that augmentation is getting so popular in the art world? Like, I’m an artist. I couldn’t pay for art school. And now I can’t pay for augmentation either.
Luckily the costs are getting lower every year. In my case, most of my augments I don’t pay for. I have made partnerships with researchers and companies who are really interested in my work and what they can learn from artists. This is a whole new area for art-science collaborations actually. I think artists are really important for seeing how this is going to develop. We can be pioneers.
I don’t see augmentation as the problem here. As you said, it’s just another form of technology like a paintbrush or whatever. But most of the art using augments, like your projects, aren’t really about augmentation, they’re just using the AI as a funny joke or novelty. There hasn’t really been any art that uses augmentation not just as a tool but as the content of the work.
I hear this a lot. The same arguments were made about internet art back in the 2000s and, like, photography before that. VR in particular got a bad rap for just being some fancy thing stuck onto art that could have been made by other tools. I say, just wait and see. People will get used to it and then it won’t be a big deal anymore.
Do you think that augments are the death of craft? Like does craft even matter nowadays?
You could also say that craft matters more than ever before. Now that we have this new frontier of skills we can use as artists, there’s a whole new focus on the beauty of skillful creation again. Like, I think of my art as conceptual art, but it’s also meant to be beautiful and really well made. Which is more than you could say about a lot of art by people with no technical skill. Including a lot of conceptual artists.
Won’t we get tired of seeing art made “in the style of” somebody, even if you combine it with a ton of other styles? Like isn’t it always going to be limited to reproducing old aesthetics instead of like a new aesthetic that only someone who’s mastered a craft is going to be able to push forward?
Making art in the style of Picasso is not so interesting, I agree. That sort of thing is the most popular use of augments by nonartists. But that’s not really art. That’s more like a hobby.
Where do you get your ideas?
I get ideas from what’s out in the world, from the beauty of it. I like seeing what new cutting-edge technology is coming out and that gives me ideas too.
I’m confused about your statements on authenticity. What do you mean that you can create more directly and authentically with these high-tech robot implants? That just makes no sense to me.
Like I said, the augment lets me find the ideal form for an idea instead of being compromised or limited by my own ability or time constraints. Before, I would have had to hire a carpenter or whatever to realize my ideas. I had a whole studio where I employed tons of people to make things for me. Now I can make a lot of them myself. Or I guess it’s similar, but now I’m employing something that’s inside my head.
The Sunday Times Young Journalist Writing Competition
Sylvie McInnerny, first place prize winner
Title: “Augmenting My Free Time: How I Learned to Ride”
I pull up to the stable full of nerves. The day of my first horse jumping competition has finally arrived. I’m relieved that the weather is perfect. I had worried about the possibility of rain and mud. After all, it’s the first time I’ve ever mounted a horse.
I’ve always loved horses, and learning to ride is something I hoped to do my whole life. But, like so many of our hopes, everyday life always seemed to get in the way of dreams becoming actuality. Between school and social life, I could never find the time for the months of training I’d need. Now, at 19 years old, I finally have the chance. I still haven’t figured out how to make time in my busy schedule, but a major technological leap means that I don’t have to.
A week before the horse race, I visited a Manhattan augmentation clinic specializing in hobby skillsets. According to current market research, hobbies are the third-fastest growing segment in augmentation today, after the more established fields of medical and technical training. The number of hobby augments is still low overall, at about 3 percent of augment users, because they’re purely recreational, meaning users have to pay out of pocket and prices are steep.
Hobby skillsets are defined by the Federal Department of Augmentation as athletic or craft-based pastimes for nonprofit applications. Of course, amateur athletes everywhere are getting sports augments with the hopes of making it big (see recent New Yorker coverage of new FIFA augment regulations) and the Washington Post reports that the number of Etsy shops for knitted garments has doubled this year. I can only speculate on what it means that nearly half of hobby augments are sex related, but that’s a whole other story.
At the recently opened AugmentYourFreetime clinic I paid the hefty sum of $11,000 to have the basic ability to ride a horse uploaded to my augment database (the majority of the money was a graduation gift from my parents). The procedure would take an hour, Dr. Mohammed Vantu explained to me in a pre-appointment phone consultation, provided there were no contact issues with my scalp and that I had all the newest software updates.
“It’s not exactly brain surgery,” Dr. Vantu joked while lowering a helmetlike device over my head. I knew what to expect, but, except for the initial surgery when my database was installed, I had never been to a medical professional for augmentation before. Like most of us, I had only downloaded low-byte augments like sharper vision and time management apps by simply visiting the Apple store.
According to Dr. Vantu, the sheer amount of data that needs to be transferred for an augment of this caliber poses medical risks that other more basic augments do not. It’s important to have a medical professional on hand should the augment cause any part of the database to malfunction or crash.
When I asked the doctor why he went into this line of work, he told me with a laugh: “This is the most rewarding application of artificial intelligence I can think of. Who wouldn’t want to give people a new capacity for joy every day?”
Dr. Vantu advised me to wait a week before attempting to use my new augment, in order to give my brain time to adjust and to let the database run several million subconscious simulations on its own. He warned me multiple times that having the augment was not the same as being an expert horse rider and could never replace the depth of knowledge that years of practice would. But the “artificial muscle memory and physically instantiated decision-making capacity” it would give me would be enough for me to get on a horse and stay in the saddle.
That said, most people wouldn’t go from zero to a hundred and sign up for a riding competition before a test run, and the doctor didn’t encourage it. But in preparation for writing this story I chose to push myself—and my augment—to the max. I called the Scarsdale Horse Club to explain my situation, and they agreed to allow me to join a jumping competition, provided I took certain safety precautions.
The day of the contest, I was introduced to my horse by the kind staff of the facility. Mystic River, a bay mare, let me approach, and despite my jitters, I found an inner well of confidence, just as Dr. Vantu had told me I would. I swung up an arm, and then a leg, like I’d been doing it my whole life.
The sensation of riding a horse for the first time and knowing how to do it is uncanny, to say the least. For instance, I felt my leg muscles contracting automatically, and at one point I was worried they were completely out of my control. This is a common concern for many who get such augments: the fear that one is on autopilot and has no say over one’s actions. Happily, after about twenty minutes I was able to experience the actions as muscle memory and find a healthy balance between conscious and unconscious decision–making.
The question of how much control a user has over an augment is just one of the legal and ethical questions plaguing the industry today. Dr. Rita Evans, a bioethicist at Purdue University, told me that the hobbyist world is providing a whole new set of challenges to lawmakers and scholars.
While the implications for medicine make up the bulk of major policy debate today—with the upcoming Supreme Court hearing on nurse licensing as the most high–profile example—Dr. Evans warns that “we are only now beginning to understand the challenges hobby augments pose to deeply held cultural beliefs about the value of work, effort, talent, and uniqueness,” as she noted in a paper recently published in Scientific American.
Being able to ride a horse or knit a sweater due to augmentation is not enough to make one a star athlete or a fashion designer. When it comes to sheer athleticism or dexterity, physical limits must be kept in mind. Augmentation cannot make your legs longer or your fingers nimbler; it does offer an incredible shortcut for anyone wishing to acquire the basic skills to build on, a literal and metaphorical “leg up.”
Whereas in sports questions revolve around rules and cheating, in the creative fields questions quickly get philosophical. What makes a genius? What is a hobby and what is true art? If theoretically anyone could learn to paint or play piano, who’s to say who’s an artist? As Dr. Evans put it: “The proverbial ‘my kid could do that’ might need to be updated to ‘a non-augmented human could do that.’”
Perhaps this is why many notable studies to date focus on artistic prowess. A recent small-scale study demonstrates a correlation between the underlying ability to recognize pitch and the speed of progress following musical instrument–skill augmentation. In other words, augments could be considered accelerators of latent ability. Some speculate that this tendency could stratify the playing field even more, by allowing budding talents to realize their potential faster.
As for me, I didn’t become a riding champion overnight. I have no illusions that I’m a natural! But I did manage to come in fourth place in the horse jumping competition in Scarsdale, which isn’t bad. More importantly, I’ve been back to the stable every week since then to practice. So was the augment worth it? Absolutely. It finally helped me make room in my life for the pure fun of a hobby.
random43077 AITA for not telling my girlfriend I have 2x augments? I met my gf at the gym like 9 mos ago. Part of the reason she got with me in the first place was because she loved how athletic/active I am. She even told me that me being so athletic was her first turnon for her and why she noticed me. But I know the reason she STAYS with me is my *virtuoso* performance in bed. Not to brag, but… anyway, the catch is: some of my skills are partially bc of augments. I got weightlifting and tennis a year ago and a sex thing before that. I mean, I like to think I was a good lay before, but there’s a reason I got the upgrade… I don’t want her to think any less of me and I’m afraid she’ll leave me if she finds out. She probably will not find out unless I tell her but idk because I heard there is going to be a database on a US gov site where you can see a registry of everyone who has it. Thoughts??
Gapped9 You should probably just tell her, if she really loves you she will stay. She loves you, not your tennis serve lol
Silent–Lurkings You gotta tell her bc if something shortcircuits or you ever decide to delete the augments… she gonna be pissed!!!
Gapped9She deserves to know. If she’s just in it for the sex, I bet she would rather have a sexbot than a boyfriend with a robotic implant who lies to her…
random43077 I should have explained how amazing our relationship is otherwise. We have so many shared interests beyond sports and it’s not like we have sex 24 hours a day. I don’t want to sound shallow. I think she loves me no matter what but I’m scared and I just don’t know if she NEEDS to know
Gapped9 I didn’t say she “need to know” but she “deserves to know” – I bet she suspects something is wrong anyway…depending on what “features” this so-called sex augment has lol
random43077 Anatomy recognition, muscle memory, and I can wait forever to cum. It’s nbd.
Gapped9 *Smacks forehead* Welcome to reason 1469748 that augments should be properly regulated. We’re living in a Black Mirror episode. Or a Ted Chiang story.
HandsomestJill which tennis and boner augs did u get. I have been considering XRATE for my husband but seems more risky than others with more mods
random43077 I have Tennis Pro 2 and Satisfy in beta version, I can give u more details on performance if u want
HandsomestJill but how did u get beta tho
randomuser43077 Get approved for medical trials then just sign up. A lot of places offer beta testing for ppl willing to go through w/ it. Lots of fine print you should definitely read through but as far as I can tell risks are low and it’s like a quarter the price.
BudgetBrick You think this is free??? Our tech overlords do not give us free presents, you’re paying these companies more than you could ever know. You think they aren’t tracking everything you do? You fucking idiots, putting 5g in your scalps
Hor_Service nice!!! you may have beta version but u an alpha now 🐕
ExtraSpecialAgent11 I have a hobby one for piano and I never mention it unless someone asks.
PersonbehindAScreen Same here, SpecialAgent. I have one for drawing. I got it for the love of art, not for fame or money, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But if I were selling art or winning prizes I would probably feel the need to say something. It’s just cheating otherwise.
Gapped9 More than any other attribute, creativity is what makes us human. Just look at Descartes and Hume. It is what separates us from the apes. We have evolved to be a superior species solely due to our creative abilities. An AI might teach you how to mix paint, but it does not make you an artist my friend.
pokejellyfish You are under NO obligation to out yourself. It’s all part of YOU now. Your body your choice. You do not have to ask anybody for permission, whether piercing your ears, having a baby, or getting an augment. Would you ask your lady’s permission to take viagra? Would you ask her permission to get tennis lessons? Who CARES. It sounds like she’s a lucky lady, she should be thankful for what you did for her.
PersonbehindAScreen Agreed. How do u know the woman doesn’t have augments she isn’t telling YOU about
inquisitivemind95 For real, how many people on here have augments? I bet a lot more than would care to publicly admit. Do you seriously have to advertise that you have them? The whole point is that you can choose what to do with them, it’s about freedom to self actualize.
OneTwoWee000 I’m not so sure. With great freedom comes great responsibility. That’s the whole point of the campaign he’s talking about, to have a public ledger where every augment is registered, but as usual w/r/t new tech, the law takes years to catch up with the reality and by then it’s too late. Doubtful she will discover your secret unless something goes wrong or you let it slip. Imo her reaction depends on what type of girlfriend she is and how techphobic she is. What are her general feelings about AI? Does she know people with augments? You could bring up the topic and see what she says. Read her a news article or casually mention it and take it from there. Good luck.
PersonbehindAScreen Why do u assume random43077 is a dude?
UtopianLibrarian If discovering her boyfriend is Not Human doesn’t push her away, the fact that he’s been lying to her for the better part of a year will!!!
PrettyRadDud33 Guess advanced AI is just another way for shitty boyfriends to act like dickheads.
Gaps9 He means well, give the guy a break. This reminds me of that horrible Seth Rogen movie, has anyone seen it?
Art in the Expanded Field, Special AI Issue
Feature: “Augmentation and the New Outsider Art”
Dr. Diana Fenster
In a matter of years, augmentation has radically upended nearly every field of life and work in America. From education to medicine and sports, the ability to circumvent natural learning processes by downloading artificial skills to the brain—at least for those who can afford to do so—demands a reckoning with the very nature of what makes us human.
One field where augmentation poses a truly existential threat is contemporary art. Since the advent of mechanical reproduction, the question of the relevance of craft-based skill has haunted artistic creation. Modern art responded with myriad movements: surrealism, cubism, conceptualism—all making various claims for art’s value untethered to traditional craft or learned skill. And yet the specter of skill remains. There remains a deeply held if unspoken belief in the relevance of craft for the making of great art. Whether the craft is ballet or Photoshop, creativity requires both talent and practice.
As art historian Darby English notes, “According to modernist imperatives, normal artistic self-consciousness demands a precise balance between commitment and compulsion.”1 Yet the development of artistic skill has historically depended on access to education. So what of those who have intense compulsion, but no access? American modernism’s original name for this group was the “outsider artist.” In this short essay I would like to speculate on augmentation’s possible effects on the art world by considering the historical role of the figure of the “outsider.”
I must provide the caveat that the term outsider is no longer in common usage, having been rightly identified as patronizing or even derogatory. Many other terms have been offered to replace it—what curator Lynne Cooke calls “the relentless ‘term warfare’ between imbricated concepts such as folk, naïve, and outsider”—including self-taught, visionary, folk art, and so on.2 Yet each attempt at relabeling the concept has simply reinforced the notion that it is a distinct and stable category; otherwise the untrained artist would simply be called an artist. The concept of an “outside” remains, regardless of designation. In this text I will use the term outsiderthroughout, not despite its loaded historical baggage, but precisely because of it.
The classic modern definition of the outsider artist is a creator who is compelled to make artwork without access to the codified forms of knowledge that make up the mainstream art world. The outsider artist may be marked socially, physically, or geographically in a way that distinguishes and separates them from the default center of the art market, which remains to this day white, wealthy, privileged, educated, and able. The mark of the outsider du jour has changed over the decades, and could even be said to offer a mirror of the political landscape at a given moment—who we identify as “other” at a given moment says more about the mainstream than the periphery. Over the twentieth century, the art world focused on such outside zones as: the poor, the disabled, the person of color, the mentally ill, the veteran, the incarcerated, the rural.
Continually identifying zones of difference is fundamentally necessary for modernism’s self-critique and self-perpetuation. What is an inside without an outside? English writes: “outsider art is modernism’s theory of difference […] the foundational moment of othering that set up the modernist self in the first instance.” Through narratives of “discovering” new outsides, the mainstream can continually critique itself while also expanding and recentering itself. The margin is folded into the system while being preserved as forever marginal through this simultaneous recognition and recuperation.
Take the well-known example of Horace Pippin, a disabled African American World War I veteran who learned to paint by guiding a paintbrush with his maimed right arm. In 1937 the collector and critic Chester Brinton glimpsed a work by Pippin in a Pennsylvania storefront, and immediately recognized its merit. It wasn’t long until Brinton had brought Pippin to the attention of the gatekeepers of the art world, and in 1938 four of Pippin’s paintings had already made it into a Museum of Modern Art show called Masters of Popular Painting.
Pippin’s talent may have been recognized, but he was forever considered nonnormative. His work was allowed into MoMA, but only under the label popular, implying he could not be held to the same standards as real artists. Once it was shown in a major museum, the work could then be brought to auction, for the benefit of those who had first acquired the art from Pippin for pennies. Yet what does this mean for Pippin’s art and legacy? Is an outsider still outside once he is “inside” MoMA? Once the outsider is contextualized and canonized, perhaps even profiting from his paintings, he can no longer be considered primitive—which was his selling factor in the first place.
Around the turn of the twenty-first century this cycle of expropriation hit an interesting bump in the road, which went nearly unnoticed at the time. After over a century of discovery narratives, there remained virtually no outside category that had not already been through the recuperative process. This is not to say that the cycle can’t repeat itself in perpetuity; as mentioned, a group does not become less marginalized through canonization; it can be “rediscovered” again and again. However, the myth upon which the whole cycle of recuperation rests has also become exhausted: the myth, namely, of authenticity.
The laundering of outsider art requires a belief that this art has both intrinsic worth and moral weight tied to the disadvantages the outsider has presumably experienced, and therefore the difficulties through which they persisted to make art from a “genuine” impulse rather than any desire for notoriety or success. Authenticity relies on several myths: one is that making art based on inner drive is at odds with the desire for material success. Another is that having no formal art education means one has no idea how the art world works, or that one has no social context or audience of one’s own. Another is that suffering is required for great art. Another is that genius will express itself regardless of circumstance.
On the surface, these myths have been deconstructed by fifty years of theoretical work, and yet they remain the art system’s pervasive underlying logic. Whether or not we agree with it, we must acknowledge its hidden prevalence. According to this logic, the art system must now ask: who is today’s “outsider” artist? Is it possible to identify a new outside today? Is there a new axis along which to understand mainstream and margin?
Today 60 percent of the American population, according to recent reports, possesses a database implant that allows a range of augments to be downloaded directly into the brain. The artificial intelligence can allow a person, for example, with no chiseling experience the ability to create a lifelike wooden sculpture. While there are no reliable statistics within the art world, a recent anonymous survey of working artists in New York City under 40 reported an above-average augmentation rate compared with the general population.
This information is so far limited to a high-profile, urban population of successful artists. Given the steep cost of augments and other barriers to entry such as proximity to clinics, it is reasonable to assume that artists who do not already possess substantial career advantages (meaning those likely resembling traditional “outsider” groups) will have fewer augments. Still others will refuse augmentation out of personal or political conviction.
This new barrier to entry creates a new outside class. Today’s outsider artist will be none other than the nonaugmented human, the person lacking artificial skill. Looking at art history, we can therefore surmise that a new market will soon emerge for “popular” artists without augments, and, unusually, others who will occupy and claim the territory of outsider for themselves. Such luddite groups are well-known across the political spectrum.
When it comes to artistic production, our current moment of profound social and technological change is not truly a rift or a new development. We must not buy into the kind of sensationalist, novelty discourse that surrounds this new technology. The new outsider status of nonaugmented artists is simply a continuation of the long trajectory of modern art. Augments provide not a crisis for art, not an end of art, but an opportunity for its machinations to continue as before.
From: Seth Shmitt
Subject: Machine learning and our company culture
Thanks for the enthusiasm during yesterday’s meeting and for the followup messages. I’m taking your feedback to heart and, even though we still have a lot of details to iron out, I feel positive about how we’re moving forward together!
Rad Grafics is a people-driven place and leadership takes your concerns about the new companywide augmentation policy seriously. I want to reiterate that nobody is going to be required to tack on new skills through augmentation. We do not hire or fire on the basis of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or technological enhancement. (Please see the attached nondiscrimination policy for the legalese.)
Our goal is simply to make a set of augments freely available for any of you who want to seize the opportunity. Fun new abilities like learning Photoshop might come in handy on the job, but these are FDA classified as hobbies, not work. We want to support your personal grown on AND off the job.
All the available research shows that hobby augments are safe and effective (and fun!). And yes Tyler, I hear your point that “rapid skillset expansions might theoretically allow companies to combine several positions into one,” but that’s a far-future scenario. At Rad we don’t believe that AI will ever replace human beings. Your unique personality and creativity are what make you valuable.
The Rad fam knows that incredible graphic design and branding is a form of art. I want to make sure you have the tools you need to continue to be the creative geniuses you are! Who knows, maybe trying out a new hobby will give you some brilliant new creative juice.
Overall, Rad’s goal is to face the future head-on and to stay on the cutting edge of exciting technological developments. Stay tuned.
Love and solidarity,
Senior Project Manager