By James Lawrence - Knowledge - 2 months ago

Blockchain, AI and Artistic Endeavour

Over the weekend, automation came to the art world via means no one would have expected. An artwork by infamous street-artist and known anti-establishmentarian, Banksy, was sold at Sotheby’s, an art dealership in London. As the hammer came down on 'Girl With Balloon', selling for £1.04m, the artwork began to automatically shred, exiting from below the frame in tatters. Banksy, of course, was responsible for the stunt, posting a video of how he built the mechanism inside the frame, as well as an Instagram video of the act with the caption “Going, going, gone…”

The art world has seemed like a safe haven from the technological revolutions that have affected so many industries around it. For some people it has been ‘never’ and for some, it’s been ‘eventually’ when asked when technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), automation or blockchain will appear in or make an effect in the arts. While far less disruptive to art, we have already reached the ‘eventually’ of the application of AI and blockchain to the art world.

Artists Kevin Abosch and Ai Weiwei have recently used blockchain in a novel way to draw attention to global humanitarian issues such as the Rohingya refugee crisis. The two created virtual artwork to explore and experiment with identity, value and human life.

The artists “tokenized” their “priceless shared moments together”, each priceless moment is represented by “a unique blockchain address which is “inoculated” by a small amount of a virtual artwork (crypto-token), we created called “PRICELESS” (symbol: PRCLS).” Only two tokens were created, one to be distributed to collectors and institutions, the other “will be unavailable at any price.” Moments such as ”Sharing Tea” and “Walking In A Carefree Manner Down Schönhauser Allee” or “Talking About The Art Market” are immutably recorded as wallet addresses with a nominal amount of PRCLS token, validating the wallet. The artists also produced a limited amount of physical prints of the addresses, that can be viewed here.

In Abosch’s words “The question is, if one token is priceless and truly unattainable, then how do we value the other token which is made available?” The project explores humanity, life, and art as sorts of commodities. Contextually the project asks us individually to consider the value of life and it’s moments.

The nascent technologies of blockchain and AI are also being utilized by artists and innovators to empower content creation. Mark van Rijmenam suggests in Why We Should Use Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence to Enable the Imagination Age that these technologies will enable artists “to earn a fair reward instantly, [and]... creators to develop better content and earn higher revenues.” Van Rijmenam cites big tech’s control of online content and the current state of digital advertising and privacy practices as obstacles for artists to receiving fair commission for their work as well as limiting control over their work once published.

As stated in a previous article, blockchain and decentralization allow content creators to circumvent traditional online media to establish digital infrastructure giving control and fair payment back to creators for their work. In the article van Rijmenam also contends that AI will increase the quality of content that is created online.

While mentioning AI is itself becoming increasingly creative, van Rijmenam suggests AI and machine learning gives human artists greater insight into finding an audience, “Content creators can use AI to understand topic opportunities, to understand what the audience is looking for, discover patterns to learn which topics are becoming trending and matching their content to changing demand.”

Furthermore, he contends AI can assist artists in being more creative, mentioning sites such as Grammarly as making writing more attractive to readers, and Articoolo, a startup AI that summarizes articles, writing complete pieces with titles from just a few keywords input by a human. “When artificial intelligence and Blockchain are combined, it will truly help content creators to be more creative, create better content, take back control and make more revenue instantly.”

Artificial intelligence, as suggested above, is increasingly being applied to creative tasks. The hugely popular photo-editing application Prisma utilizes deep learning algorithms to turn smartphone pictures into artworks based on various artwork and graphical styles. While the tech may seem like a simple filter function available on apps like Instagram, it, in fact, uses a neural network to process images. According to Prisma CEO, and co-founder Alexey Moiseenkov, “We’re not simply overlaying like an Instagram filter. We design each image from scratch. So there is no photo, we took your image, then some operations and give a brand-new image to you. So deep learning is like an artist, something like that. [sic]”

In his article Will the Next Picasso Be a Robot? Orge Castellano explores art producing artificial intelligence. Castellano cites a project from Rutgers University scientists and the AI research department at Facebook that developed an AI that was able to generate art that people could not distinguish from human-created pieces. The public even ranked the automated pieces higher than the images made by humans.

The AI is called a Creative Adversarial Networks (CANs), while the program creates unique works of art, the algorithms “relied on more than 81,000 paintings from the WikiArt database ranging from the 15th to the 20th century.” Through a feedback loop like process, one network within the AI generates ideas and the other judges the results. “The algorithm loops back and forth until a decent result is reached.” As the AI has already been trained to identify artistic styles in history, it can be set to create outside these stylistic parameters, resulting in more creative images.

Obvious, a Paris-based art collective, used a similar application called a Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) to produce a series of portraits of the fictional Belamy family. These are first AI created pieces of art to be sold by Christie’s in its 252-year history. The portraits are all signed at the frame’s bottom right, with 𝒎𝒊𝒏 𝑮 𝒎𝒂𝒙 𝑫 𝔼𝒙 [𝒍𝒐𝒈 𝑫 (𝒙))] + 𝔼𝒛 [𝒍𝒐𝒈(𝟏 − 𝑫(𝑮(𝒛)))] and are estimated to sell for anywhere between $7,000-$10,000. Obvious says the proceeds will go toward furthering its algorithm.

There are currently projects that aim to utilize blockchain technology to provide both provenance to artworks and more equal payment for artists. Blockchain Art Collective is looking to blockchain’s innate immutability and trackability to ensure an artwork's authenticity. Once a piece of art is registered on the blockchain it will mitigate the threat of fraudulent copies as well as theft (the project also has its own proposed physical microchip for tracking and verification of artwork).

Blockchain Art Collective also applies smart contracts to enable artists to earn money from sales of their artworks downstream from the one they originally profited from. The idea is not a new one, resale rights exist in any number of creative media, if I use a song in a commercial, use a photographer's picture in my article or buy a book, I pay the creator for their content or the use of it.

According to Jacqueline O’Neill, Executive Director at Blockchain Art Collective, this is not the case for many visual artists, “once they’ve created and sold a work of art, that’s the last they ever hear about it. Their resale rights are essentially non-existent. If the piece is sold for a few thousand dollars, and then goes for several hundred thousand a decade later, the artist is out of luck.”

In What You Need To Know About Art Tokenization And Investment O’Neill also acknowledges an ability to democratize art through tokenized investment. As mentioned in O’Neill’s quote above, contemporary art can often quickly appreciate in value, she suggests that tokenized investment would bypass the prohibitive price of traditional art investment and allow collectors or institutes to own a share of an artwork and potentially profit from its appreciation. It would also allow artists to crowdfund their current or future works, and potentially give museums greater control of their collections.

At this point, it isn’t clear whether blockchain or AI will put artists out of business or give them an entirely better deal in their artistic endeavors. What is obvious in that nascent technologies such as AI and blockchain are infiltrating the previously thought to be a safe bastion of the art world at every level.