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GAN Bastet

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Date Minted: December 15, 2019

Artist Description: A digital GAN-collage, that reminded me of the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bastet. "Bastet was originally a fierce lioness warrior goddess of the sun worshiped throughout most of ancient Egyptian history, but later she was changed into the cat goddess that is familiar today [...]." (wiki) The collage is inspired and based on an AI-image, that I've bred using Artbreeder.

CohentheWriter’s Commentary:

Look at those lips! I am absolutely fascinated by those lips, their hugeness and their realistic texture, the way they and their color dominate this piece, this lovely piece, this lovely, bizarre piece that can’t keep from being so completely consumed by its own full lips. GAN Bastet is weird, man. This is the kind of funky, unimaginable art you could once only see in Bosch and Buñuel and Carrington, but now which seems to emerge from all manner of neural network interaction, including whichever GAN was responsible for this. GAN Bastet is a dream. It’s a monstrosity. It’s deeply deeply interesting. It is the kind of thing that can only exist in the 21st century, a machine’s unthinking computational creativity combined with the specificity and high-def rendering that only modern technology can provide. The collision of these factors leads to an image that defies itself. It is so clearly unreal. But yet, it has undeniably realistic aspects: the lips, the eyes, the texture on both. This piece, startlingly coherent despite what it portrays, is more collage than anything else, though now we have to consider at what point a collage transcends itself, becoming something more whole, more complete, more alive.

GAN Bastet’s artist, Shortcut, seems to imply that this piece came together by accident. “A digital GAN-collage, that reminded me of the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bastet,” Shortcut says in their Artist Description. Most generative art that I’ve come across has this same aspect of probability. Often, this results in haunting almosts. A face that is almost human. A skyline that is almost a skyline. Things that almost or very nearly represent what they originally were. But what Shortcut has created with GAN Bastet is an entirely new construction, an entirely new creature, a computer responsible for creation itself. The trait of most note here is contained in an oblong red circle. Within, a black cat’s golden eyes, surrounded by a black cat’s matted, fur. But no nose. No other feline features. Just the huge, round, rosy-red lips of an old Hollywood starlet, rendered in striking detail. Every wrinkle of lip-skin is visible, produced here in the highest resolution, quite like the cat fur above it. A small reflection (or extension) of the red ring around the face is positioned slightly below it, either implying a reflective, perhaps liquid, surface, or an extension of the face downward into a neck; perhaps this lower red circle is a neckline.

Either way, we are left staring at an image that defies our comprehension. It appears almost like a child’s drawing, something wholly unconcerned with reality, or like a Lewis Carrol character. There’s a certain life to it, a certain amount of personality and vivacity we as human observers impart upon it because of its resemblance to a living face. There, after all, are its eyes. And below that, its lips. These, individually, are things we recognize, things that we mentally build together into a coherent image. But these are not coherent images we’re seeing. This “face” is not a face at all, but a random assortment of textures and images placed around each other. We know this because Shortcut provides us with the original ArtBreeder image to look at —that being the image which GAN Bastet was inspired and based on”— and it is devoid of all that luscious, extraneous detail. The original image is merely black background with red hoops. But the secondary detail, that which is most obvious and attention-grabbing, eyes and face and mouth, is all artist intervention. But just because these various attributes are placed near to each other, in a facial pattern we intrinsically recognize, does that make this piece a real representation of the meaning we make of it?

I suppose that’s the question I find most pressing when staring into GAN Bastet’s beady, cat-like eyes for as long as I have. Am I looking at what I think I’m looking at? And if so, is that what it actually is? Is that what the artist intended it to be? Does it matter? 

Ultimately, the art affects us all in unique ways. Nothing groundbreaking in that statement. But just as I’d argue that no emotional reading of a piece is invalid —as long as it is an honest expression of how one is affected— I suppose we could argue that there’s nothing one could see in a piece like this which isn’t valid. We are looking at an intentionally surrealist image, one with no analogue within our lives. What I see in it comes from my own specific experiences, the kinds of references and allusions that I use to order the rest of my world. To the artist, this piece was reminiscent of “the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bastet…a fierce lioness warrior goddess of the sun worshiped throughout most of ancient Egyptian history.” I would never make that association personally, based on how little I know about the subject, but does that make the artist’s reading of their work less accurate? With any AI art, the final product is also at the mercy of some amount of probability-based randomness, is not entirely the product of artistic intention, so in a way, the artist occupies the same position we do, as arbiter and interpreter of the computer’s bizarre creation. When dealing with an image so absurd, so outside of any social or rational logic —even if it were a reflection of the artist’s most exact whims and desires— the thing may break the fetters of what it originally sought to be; it has no limit on what exactly it can be because it so convincingly fails to be any one thing. Instead of that being reductive to the piece, it’s just the opposite; it’s wildly expansive.

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