These A.I.-Generated Images Hang in a Gallery—but Are They Art?

At “Artificial Imagination,” a new Bay Area exhibition, artworks created by DALL-E 2 go on display

Untitled by Suhail Doshi
Untitled by Suhail Doshi Courtesy of the artist

When it comes to creativity, is artificial intelligence a powerful new tool or an existential threat? A San Francisco gallery is taking on this question in a new exhibition: “Artificial Imagination” features eight artists who used A.I. image generators to create the pieces on display.

The artists’ methods vary: Some fed their A.I. tool of choice phrases to generate their entire piece, while others created illustrations or sculptures based on the tool's recommendations. The show is on view at bitforms’ West Coast gallery through the end of the year.

From robots that make their own art to image-generation tools that mimick history’s greatest painters, A.I. is quickly permeating creative spaces—and generating lots of questions. Is it a medium or a method, a tool or a technique? And does an artist fully own their art if they didn’t design the technology themselves? As the quality of A.I. art rapidly improves, these conversations have never been more timely.

“Machine-learning programs that can produce sometimes jaw-dropping images from brief text prompts have advanced in a matter of months from a ‘that’s quite a trick’ stage to a genuine cultural disruption,” writes Axios’ Scott Rosenberg.

Fang Yuan's Kundalini #1
Fang Yuan's Kundalini #1 Courtesy of the artist

Bitforms focuses on “artists critically engaged with new technologies,” according to its website. In this exhibition, the gallery hopes to provoke discussion about A.I. as a tool that can “alter, enhance and extend creative processes.”

“I think it is really important to showcase right now that this is a new medium,” Ellie Pritts, one of the artists on display, tells Axios’ Ina Fried. “There are serious artists; this is legitimate work.”

Dan Gentile, culture editor at SF Gate, is far more skeptical. “Given the questionable ethical behavior of many tech companies, being a technological optimist is hard these days. This type of art show doesn’t make it any easier,” he writes. “A.I. has boundless possibilities; in this use case, it has the power to democratize the creation of art, breaking the limits of craft and essentially serving as an imagination translator. Or it can just be a bulls—t generator.”

The DALL-E 2 image generator, which was a popular tool for this exhibition’s artists, is already quite simple to operate. The user inputs a phrase—for example, “a group of teddy bears in ancient Egypt, as a crayon drawing”—and the tool spits out images.

Ellie Pritts' Bitter Recursion
Ellie Pritts' Bitter Recursion Courtesy of the artist

Some of the artists on display were forthcoming about the phrases they used to create their pieces, while others were more reticent. Alexander Reben, who has two sculptures and a digital painting in the show, refused to divulge his prompt language, calling it his “secret sauce,” per SF Gate. But he did share what the A.I. tool gave him: instructions for how to make his sculptures. The full instructions are on display next to his work.

August Kamp, who has two works in the show, is willing to share her prompts. One of them was something like, “cosmonaut who is experiencing heartbreak on another planet.”

“I love the idea that my art is not owned. I love the idea that if somebody sees my piece and thinks, I would love that style, but for this idea of mine—take it,” she tells SF Gate. “That’s my entire draw to this type of technology.”

Artificial Imagination” is on display at bitforms gallery through December 29.

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