A truly ground-breaking Artificial Intelligence art exhibition has recently been on display at Somerset House. Entitled Artist+AI: Figures & Form in the Age of Intelligent Machines, it featured a new series of works by Scott Eaton, an artist who has worked for Disney and Pixar as well as collaborating with Jeff Koons, Mark Wallinger and Elton John.
Eaton’s work explores the representation of the human figure through various mediums — drawing, sculpture, photography, and generative AI. For this transformative exhibition he utilised the latest Artificial Intelligence technology and for the first time allowed viewers to see how this converges with the century’s old practices of drawing and sculpture.
All of the featured works were a result of a dynamic interaction between Scott’s traditionally-trained hand and the AI tools he has ‘taught’ to work as his assistants. In doing so, Eaton, an interdisciplinary artist with a background in anatomy, sculpture and engineering, underscores the impact AI is set to have on art-making and in particular how it will change our perception and understanding of the human form.
As the show comes to a close, we had the chance to speak to Eaton about the exhibition and his artistic practice in more detail:
AI is a growing force in the world, what effects do you think it will have on the future of art?
In the near-term, AI will give artists amazing new creative capabilities. In the long term, questions of human vs computer creativity will become the big issue. Can machines be truly creative, or will their creativity be only a facsimile of human art and expression? Will work that computers create autonomously resonate with humans, or will it be empty because it is devoid of true human experience? These are only a couple of the questions that we will face in art, and society at large, in the coming year.
The exhibition is extremely innovative but interestingly the focal point of its subject matter is something that has fascinated artists since the very beginning, the figure – why does this specifically appeal to you?
The human form is incredibly powerful at conveying emotion and intent, as such it is a potent subject matter in art and has been throughout history. We’ve evolved as social creatures and therefore respond intrinsically to representations of ourselves.
You studied academic drawing and sculpture in Florence, Italy as well as studying design and computer graphics at the MIT Media Lab – which interested you first fine art or tech?
Since very early in my life I have always pursued both in equal measure: art and science. At my core though is the love of art, everything else is there to support its creation.
The exhibition combines the latest in generative artificial intelligence (AI) with the century’s old practices of drawing and sculpture – how would you describe the relationship between these mediums within your practice?
Essentially, I create the AI agents to be my art assistants. I’ve trained them directly on my figure photography so that they can reproduce the tonal aspects of human form for me as I guide them with my drawing. Effectively they are my assistant who paint photoreal, or perhaps surreal, representations under my direction.
Can you tell us more about how you train the AI?
Following up on the previous answer, the AI is trained by showing it hundreds of thousands of photographs (which I have meticulously lit and shot in the studio) along with drawings that mimic my drawing style. Over time (weeks of training), the AI learns the relationship between the drawings and their photographic representation. It is very much like a realist painter who, after long periods of study, learn to realistically fill in his own charcoal under-drawing with a beautifully painted representation.
One work in the exhibition re-imagines Peter Paul Rubens’s 1620 masterpiece The Fall of the Damned – what was the intention / process behind your rendition?
Art in the 16-19th centuries was preoccupied with religious themes – aspirations of heaven and fear of hell and damnation in equal measure. Reuben’s Fall of the Damn encapsulates this perfectly, as did Dante’s Inferno (masterfully illustrated by Gustave Dore) and sculpturally in Rodin’s Gates of Hell (you can find reference to each of these in my piece if you look closely). My “Humanity – Fall of the Damned” updates this with our contemporary preoccupations – the impending climate tipping point and the rise of AI – neither inevitable but both instigated by humans (and yes, it is slightly ironic that the piece was created in collaboration with AI).
Regarding process – it is entirely hand draw, over 1000 figures, then ‘painted’ by one of my neural networks (AIs) trained on over a hundred thousand nudes that I’ve photographed in the studio, over a two-year period, from a diverse set of volunteers.
What do you think are the key messages viewers of the show will take away?
First, an appreciation of the art on display, regardless of tools or techniques use to make it. And second that AI has many wonderful creative uses, and we should look forward to new creative possibilities afforded by these tools.
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