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Date Minted: November 16, 2018

Artist Description: Human networks feeding AI networks. These pieces are generated taking the top posts of all time from the r/EarthPorn subreddit. The training images are considered the most beautiful by millions of reddit users—the human network—and have been curated over years. Materials: GeForce GTX 1080 Ti Reddit: r/EarthPorn art-DCGAN by Robbie Barrat Python

CohentheWriter’s Commentary:

Artist Zaza only has nine pieces in their Superrare oeuvre, but nearly half of them are dedicated to exploring the intersection of man-mind and machine-mind, demonstrated through this r/Eathporn series. In each, a selection of images from the Reddit subforum r/Earthporn are collected and fed into a computer algorithm, with that algorithm then being responsible for comprehending the images, synthesizing them, and ultimately producing a single conglomeration, a distilled essence, if you will. Zaza is relatively straightforward about their intentions for this experiment, saying in their Artist Description that what we’re seeing is “Human networks feeding AI networks.” These feeder images are, in theory, what the collective human psychology has deemed the most beautiful of images, “Earthporn” generally referring to the most beautiful places, photos, or events captured via photograph. So this resultant image, Zaza’s r/EarthPorn/Oasis is more than just a combination of the Earth’s most “beautiful” landscapes and such, but is a representation of what the computer itself believes therein to be beautiful, based on the aesthetic building blocks of what it’s been fed. Zaza has taken the human coagulation of beautiful things and told their algorithm that this is what these images are: beautiful. In processing and producing an output like this, blocky and choppy but oh so colorful, we are seeing inside the mind of the machine itself, at what it, now a scholar on beauty, believes to be beautiful too. 

But there’s a film over it all, metaphorically and physically. That strikes me as highly significant within r/EarthPorn/Oasis’ composition. We can see glimpses of traditionally beautiful things behind the computerized glaze. There’s blue sky and clouds. There are bits of rainbow color, light seen through a veil, in the upper-left corner. The emerald green of dense trees and the pink of Lake Tahoe sunsets. We spot all manner of colors, the sun-inflected, the moon-made, columns of cloudburst and a flat sea stretching out along the bottom-left edge of the piece. Except when we feel compelled to identify these things, we’re really guessing at what they are, owing to the associations we mentally make when confronted with things ambiguous. And that aforementioned film? It forces the entire piece into the realm of ambiguity. The colors we see, sure, but they’re tucked away behind a choppy and blocky and ultimately disorienting kind fog which sits over the entire piece, a product, I assume, of the algorithm’s operating capacity. There is no clarity in the “beautiful” image the computer has made. Or perhaps, this is its comprehension of beauty, limited in its capacity to create clear imagery. Still, we fill in the blanks the algorithm leaves open for us. White bits of puff become clouds when we set our minds to the task. Elongated polygons of blue we turn into oceans, and a random spot of bright pink are made into a sunset, especially once we know what images we’re supposed to be seeing, or that we know the computer is attempting to mimic. 

This is the dance of much generative art, the lockstep between the artist who designed the AI, the AI which produces the output, and the audience which experiences that output, orders and makes sense of it. But I want to leave that aside for today, focusing more on the computer itself and how it processes the concept of “beauty.” Because the image we see before us, regardless of what the computer intended, is not classically “beautiful.” There are the requisite colors, surely. We can almost imagine mountains, waters, skies. And it’s not just the fact that the computer, in trying to comprehend reality, has chopped “beauty” into its basest elements and trapped the concept behind an unattractive cage. There’s simply a lack of cohesion here, which can’t but expose the underpinnings of true beauty the piece is intended to explore in the first place.

r/EarthPorn/Oasis seems to suggest that there’s more than an underlying aestheticism that indicates something’s beauty. There’s a cohesion required too, a coagulant sensibility, an almost serendipity of composition. It’s not just that a sunset is bright and colorful, it’s that the sunset is bright and colorful in just the right place on Earth, at just the right time, captured in just such a way, either by camera or by eyeball. But the algorithm is slave to aesthetics. It cannot see past the physical indicators of beauty, the actual hues, the textures of things, the very recordable and very demonstrable and very calculable metrics which a beautiful thing is made of. That this here shade of orange has this here R/G/B value. That the clouds hang at such-and-such an angle. Beauty can certainly be plucked in places from within such organizational principles, but this kind of thing challenges our perception of beauty in the first place. What classical, traditional, say Renaissance-era, beauty evokes is a certain sense of ephemerality and place.

Snow-capped mountains melt. Brilliant sunsets fade and duck behind the horizon. Turquoise seas turn brown or ruddy in the incorrect lighting. r/EarthPorn/Oasis purports to show us an oasis, and does, in its way, but reveals that the oasis is often beyond the capacity of the calculable to create. There’s beauty in science, but because an equation is equal on both sides. There’s beauty in science, but it follows a logic. There’s beauty in chemistry because everything is symmetrical, everything connects, molecule to molecule, proton to proton. r/EarthPorn/Oasis is an excellent reminder of the limits of beauty, on both ends, where it begins and where it ends, just how it’s created, and just how it’s captured, and the very fine lines it hides behind or which accentuate it. 

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