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AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #175

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Date Minted: July 17, 2018

Artist Description: Artwork generated by a GAN trained on thousands of nude portrait oil paintings.

CohentheWriter’s Commentary:

In the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Florence, before you enter the hall which houses The David   —of course the most famous of the museum’s offerings— there’s a selection of other works by Michelangelo, many of them unfinished, just blocks of marble with halfway-completed people or animals chiseled into them. It looks almost as if Michelangelo’s subjects are stretching, clawing, extending to escape their marble encasing; one can almost visualize the pain of their struggle, their struggle etched into the rock. Though made of much different stuff, Videodrome’s AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #175 modernizes this same principle, presenting us with a generative and totally abstract portrait of, well, it’s hard to tell, but we can tell it’s something. There are things —bodies, extremities, organs— bursting forth from the screen, though we feel our mind straining a bit to make out exactly what they are. We’re confronted with the very edge of abstraction, things that don’t quite have form, but can’t keep from suggesting form. And Videodrome, whether intentionally or not, makes us a willing participant in the creation of this piece. We, the artist, and the AI, all complicit in the creation of this art. And what does that mean? A vastly different piece presents itself to everyone. 

What do I see when I look at AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #175? More than anything else, I see skin. According to the Artist Description, this piece was “generated by a GAN trained on thousands of nude portrait oil paintings,” so one can see how the thing might have focused on the texture of the human body. Here we see a bizarre blend of textures, globules of skin-colored texture glommed together like pieces of old gum. There’s a rather demented organization of the resultant skin tones here, as the interlocking skin blobs range an entire spectrum of skin tones, although, notably, they seem mostly to be from tones of white skin; not surprising considering the predominance of Anglo-Saxon and European Renaissance art in the collective canon of “oil paintings,” or of canon portraiture in general. The surfaces here all have a sickly sensibility to them, however. In places, the skin seems transparent, as if we’re able to peer inside and see the veins and organs pulsating in place. And the “body” this skin surrounds is hardly a body at all. It’s a kind of horrifying series of interlaced lumps, a series of mushy stalactites falling down from the top of the image, in all sorts of messy earth tones —brown and mulch red and tan and pale— but it’s hard to ascertain any cohesive understanding of which parts of this “body” correspond to the parts of an actual body. There are bits here and there which we can perhaps guess at: a patch of pink that might be lips, or an outstretched cylinder that could well be an arm, but the algorithm has corrupted the human form too much for anything to be overtly recognizable. 

What we seem to be seeing here is an algorithm’s attempt to recognize the human body, but an attempt that has gone horribly awry. This is the human form devoid of its significance or its cohesion. It’s a human body reduced to non-elements, and with connotations stripped away. Yes, there’s skin present here, but it’s the bastardized essence of skin, not as something to cover something else, nor as something with independent texture, that can be stroked and touch and shaped and stretched around a body, but as a series of chilling hues and blocky textures. The human arm, with all of its underlying meaning taken from it, reduced to whatever shape it most closely, I suppose, resembles. The algorithm, without the context of what it’s seeing, is, I presume, only partly successful. It sees shapes and it sees colors and it sees edges and outlines. It places these things together without understanding how they originally were placed together. More like mathematical structures smashed into each other at high speeds. What we’re seeing before us is no Nude Portrait of a human being, it’s something else entirely. Because the algorithm responsible didn’t see a human being, it saw a human being ripped from itself, turned into artistic elements, and with neither directive nor idea on how to construct reality elegantly, it constructed it disfiguringly.

But ugly art is not bad art. And although AI Generated Nude Portrait #7 Frame #175 is certainly ugly, it’s also quite powerful in its way. I’m not sure a human being could create a piece like this, so devoid of associations and relationships of colors/textures/shapes to reality. It requires a completely absentminded being, like this algorithm, one without agenda and without experience and without instruction, to find the very most basic idea of artistry in the human body, to take the human form and reduce it to its sketchbook schematic. When I said earlier that this piece is different for everyone, it’s because there is nothing we can hold tightly onto. Even classical abstraction presents us with something molded by a human mind, where we can theoretically grab hold of a sensibility or emotion or idea. Not so here. This is randomness and incoherence. True entropy. Artistry set free of the boundary of form or definition. It’s something only a computer, a non-living, non-comprehending being, could create. And perhaps only a computer can truly comprehend it. We can’t help, silly creatures we are, but see resemblances herein. We can’t help but place it in the context of our world, which it was created not to be a part of, but almost in spite of. 

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