November 7, 2013
If they chose, they could sit down and have their portrait painted. The catch, though, was that it’d be planned and executed entirely by an artificial intelligence program called The Painting Fool.
“I’m interested in the idea that software itself can be creative,” says Simon Colton, the British computer scientist behind the program. “I want to drag software into new territory—by getting it to write music, or compose poems or paint pictures in a creative way.”
The Painting Fool was created in 2001, when Colton, who was then working on a dissertation involving artificial intelligence, became obsessed with using photoshop to alter his photography. “I realized photoshop wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do, and I started programming, trying to get the graphics to work how I wanted,” he says. “Eventually, I realized I could bring this computer graphics work into the fold of computational creativity.”
In the years since, his software has created thousands of paintings and graphics, and he’s continually improved the algorithm to come ever-closer to meeting what he sees as seven key criteria for creativity: skill, appreciation, imagination, learning, intentionality, reflection and invention. “Appreciation is what sets the program apart from Photoshop, which has no appreciation of what it’s doing, or what it’s produced, or what materials it’s working with,” Colton says. “In terms of imagination—if the software doesn’t do fun, surprising things, that you wouldn’t have thought of, then it’s not truly creative.”
He and colleagues have developed a number of different applications for the Painting Fool, but for the July exhibition, the program’s approach began with a seemingly unrelated task: reading the newspaper. They want to make the algorithm’s products unpredictable and surprising—hallmarks of creativity—but not merely the result of randomness, so reading the news and analyzing keywords in hundreds of articles is a means of putting the Painting Fool into different moods that inform its work.
At times, reading the news puts the program into such a bad mood that it doesn’t want to paint at all. “I was in a particularly negative mood, because I was reading an article entitled: ‘Aftershocks rock Italy earthquake zone‘ in the world section of the Guardian newspaper, which was really sad, because it spoke of ‘terrified residents.’ So, I decided not to paint a portrait,” the Painting Fool wrote in response to one exhibition-goer.
Most of the time, though, the articles put the program into other moods (experimental, reflective or happy) that dictate one of roughly 30 qualities—bright, colorful, vivid, cold, bleary or crazy, among others—that it seeks to convey with a painting. With this in mind, when a subject sits down for a portrait, the Painting Fool starts issuing instructions. “You never feel like you’re using it, you feel like it’s using you, and you’re the model,” Colton says. “It says, ‘Thanks for being my model.’ Then, maybe ‘I want you to smile right now.’”
After taking a photo, the program isolates the subject’s face and places it within one of roughly 1000 abstract templates, then uses one of an additional 1000 image filters to manipulate the template and face further, searching for a combination likely to produce a portrait with the quality it originally chose. Finally, it splits the image into segments and fills each of these with a different color and texture, using virtual tools such as pencil, pastel or watercolors.
Afterward, the Painting Fool assesses its product and decides whether it achieved the desired look, comparing it to thousands of other works of art in a database with characteristics commonly associated with the artistic quality that it sought to convey. Like a human, it’s sometimes pleased with its work and sometimes disappointed. “I was in a positive mood. So I wanted to paint a patterned portrait,” it wrote in response to the portrait above. “This is a miserable failure—I’m very unhappy about that. And I’m also annoyed that the portrait is bleached, because that does not suit my mood.”
This sort of intentionality and reflection, Colton says, are crucial elements of creativity. “It’s very easy to say, ‘You wrote the program, you tell it what to do, so it’s really just an extension of you. So we tried to get the software to aim to do something on its own, and then realize whether it has or hasn’t achieved it in the end,” he explains.
Colton’s aware that there are lots of people out there who don’t see real creativity in the program—and he sees their criticisms as essential to the Painting Fool’s success. “I’m always looking for people who say to me, ‘I don’t think it’s creative for this reason,’” he says. “That drives me on, and I’ll come back a year later with a few thousand lines of code to begin addressing that issue.”
Like Colton, the Painting Fool’s greatest strength is the fact that it can learn and improve—each time it fails to meet its own expectations, it assesses what went wrong and uses that knowledge in future creative decisions. “It did about 100 portraits, and by the end of the week, it knew, for instance, that pencils are not good for vibrant paintings, but they are good for making bleak and dreary ones,” Colton says. “It reflected, it learned, and by the end, it was doing things that I hadn’t programmed it to do.”
October 11, 2013
A few years ago, Linda Alterwitz noticed her husband watching something interesting on TV. An artist and photographer, she’d previously worked with X-rays, MRIs and other medical techniques to reveal visualizations invisible to the unaided eye, and she saw an intriguing image on the screen during an episode of Cops.
“The helicopter was chasing a person running, in the pitch-black night, and this thermal camera showed amazing silhouetted images,” she says. “I saw it, and my first thought was ‘how can I get one of those cameras?’”
When she looked into the idea, she found that professional-quality thermographic cameras—used most often for military, police and medical purposes—cost tens of thousands of dollars. But when she got in touch with a company in her hometown of Las Vegas called Sierra Pacific Innovations that made these types of cameras, they were willing to lend her one for artistic purposes.
In the years since, as part of her “Thermal” project, Alterwitz has used thermal cameras to photograph family, friends, strangers and even dogs in both black-and-white and color. “Essentially, it’s a camera with a sensor that detects heat radiation, instead of light,” she says. “The neatest thing about it is the experimentation process, because you never know what effects you’re going to produce.”
At times, she’s gone out into crowded public places to shoot portraits of strangers, not always clueing them in on the technology she’s using. ”The thermal cameras look like old movie cameras—big and bulky, and you hold them on your shoulder,” she says. “Which is really great for me, because a lot of people don’t really know what I’m doing with it, they think I’m taking movies.”
For her “Core” series, shot at home, Alterwitz’ subjects lifted up their shirts or otherwise exposed their bodies so that the camera could pick up unexpected thermal signatures of their blood vessels. “My son was in the hot tub, and he came out, and it basically looked like his circulatory system was on fire,” she says, describing the image at top. “It looks like tree branches climbing up his body.”
Alterwitz initially decided to shoot the “Canine” series because her dog Ruby “is a really good model, and always available.” When she shot the image above, “Ruby had just finished drinking and she had water spots all over her face which were only made visible through the lens of the thermal camera,” she explains. “So what we’re seeing are cold spots of water on her face in relation to her warm body temperature.”
When she shot a friend’s dog with its head resting out of a car window, above, Alterwitz discovered that heat radiation is entirely blocked by glass—so the image shows a red-hot dog cut off by a cool glass window.
Once, Alterwitz was inspired to use the camera to take a self-portrait. “I’d gotten a facial, and my face was all swollen and enflamed, and I had the camera with me,” she says. “So I asked my husband to take a photo of all the heat and inflammation coming off it.”
She’s constantly looking for hidden thermal images she can capture with the cameras—next, she wants to take photos of people getting tattoos, which she hopes will reveal tiny dots of inflammation where the needle punctures their skin.
“After a while, I realized it’s really a different way of seeing the world. We’re used to seeing in terms of light, but that’s just one way of portrating visual information,” Alterwitz says. “My brain gets totally focused on heat, and cold—at times, I’ve even dreamed in thermal.”
August 13, 2013
In less than 60 days, artist Sergio Albiac has created more than 11,000 portraits. This kind of productivity, no doubt, seems unfathomable—until you consider his artistic method.
Albiac is a practitioner of generative art, a discipline in which artists employ non-human assistants—often computers—to make aesthetic decisions. “An artist has the potential to create infinite artworks but only some of them will see the light due to the constraint of time,” says the artist on his website. “What if we use technology to outsource the creation of art so more of these potential artworks are finally created?”
For his latest project, “Stardust Portraits,” Albiac, a computer science engineer with a background in art and art history, wrote software that can take a photographic portrait submitted by the public and recreate it as a cosmic mosaic of Hubble space telescope images.
“Starting with the photo as reference, the software randomnly chooses two Hubble images from a predetermined set,” says Albiac, who is based in Barcelona. He hand-selected about 50 images from the Hubble site for his color palette. ”Then, it uses a technique that I call ‘generative collage,’” he adds. “It finds random sections of the Hubble photo that ‘resemble’ areas of the original photo.” Ultimately, the software replaces every single pixel of the original portrait with a tidbit of stars and galaxies from the Hubble images.
The orbs in each portrait, whether an aesthetic choice or fundamental to the software’s code, nonetheless reflect an important theme of this project—how we are all made up of smaller pieces through the “creation of new atomic nuclei from pre-existing matter that takes place at cosmic scale,” Albiac explains on his site. “We humans are believed to be novel combinations of cosmic stardust,” he says. In fact, “It could be argued that the whole universe is the biggest running generative art installation today.”
As an artist, Albiac is interested in the “controlled chance” of what he calls his “truly contemporary medium.” He has control over the technique in that he personally designs the software, and yet there is this element of random, in the way that the program, using algorithms, generates the collages. Albiac thinks the interplay between control and randomness and computer and human interaction is poetic. He is also intrigued by how generative art can allow artists to be much more prolific, and, as long as the software survives, create work long after they die.
In the past, Albiac has created generative portraits of famous poets and composers from excerpts of their manuscripts and sheet music. He calls them “self portraits.” He also produced a series where visages appear in clever arrangements of newsprint.
“Creativity is infinite,” says Albiac. For “Stardust Portraits,” the artist chose to piece portraits together using images collected from the Hubble telescope because the images seemed to align with this theme. “New ideas are the result of combinations and processing of existing ideas, as new matter is a cosmic combination of existing matter. Everything is connected, recycled, reformulated, forever,” he says.
The project relies on the generosity of strangers submitting photographs of themselves. To participate, Albiac asks that you upload a head shot (in jpg format) to a Google Drive cloud storage and share it with firstname.lastname@example.org, specifying a “can edit” access level. In about three days time, Albiac promises to send you three “stardust” portraits generated from the original photo.
Curious as to what Albiac’s software would generate, I submitted my own photo to the project. Within days, I received this “stardust” portrait, above. The resemblance is striking. Though it contains not one pixel of my original portrait, Albiac’s version is recognizable; I am looking into my eyes.
I am not sure the portrait raised new questions for me or changed my view of myself—a grandiose goal, Albiac admits. But, I have to say, seeing it did fill the artist’s most basic desire.
“Just an instant of happiness is enough,” says Albiac.
July 23, 2013
The idea came to Volker Steger while he was riding his bike from Munich to Milan. For an upcoming assignment with an Italian magazine, the German photographer was instructed to take portraits of a dozen Nobel Prize winners in science. His subjects would sit on his kitchen chair, and, to bubble up their personalities, he would ask them Proust-style questions. But, what if after the commercial shoot, while he still had the Nobel laureates in his presence, he ran his own artistic experiment?
Steger gave it a whirl. He handed the scientists large pieces of white paper and some crayons and asked them, on the spot, to draw their award-winning discoveries. Once they finished, he photographed them with their sketches in poses of their choosing.
“The idea was, basically, to portray them in a way that was fun, personal and creative,” says Steger. “I wanted to visually link them directly to their discoveries.”
Pleasantly surprised with the results, Steger increased his sample size. For several years, starting in 2006, he attended the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, an annual event in Lindau, Germany, where Nobel winners in physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine meet with students and young researchers. He pulled Nobel winners aside and, in a temporary studio with a white backdrop, presented the task.
“Nobody gets a prior warning. That is essential. I don’t want to get another Powerpoint presentation,” says Steger. “They come in, surprised by the lights and the setup. Then, I simply ask them to ‘make a drawing of what you got the Nobel Prize for.’”
Steger’s 50 portraits of Nobel winners and their illustrations are featured in a book, Sketches of Science, and a traveling exhibition of the same title organized by the Nobel Museum. The exhibition is on display at Mainau Castle in Germany through August 25, 2013, and will head to Singapore from there.
Some of the Nobel laureates scrawled scientific formulas on the poster-sized paper. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Nobel Prize winner for physiology or medicine in 2008, drew the human immunodeficiency virus, looking somewhat like a Ferris wheel, to depict her and her colleagues’ discovery of the pathogen responsible for AIDS. And, Elizabeth Blackburn, the 2009 winner in the same category, depicted her discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase in a series of doodles, connected by arrows and brought to life with exclamation points, happy and sad faces and sound effects.
Sir Martin Evans, the 2007 winner in physiology and medicine, needed two pieces of paper to communicate his work with embryonic stem cells. On the second sheet, he drew a mouse—a critter to which he is forever indebted (Evans introduced specific gene modifications in lab mice using embryonic stem cells). Leon Lederman skipped over his neutrino beam method and discovery of the muon neutrino, which earned him the 1988 prize in physics, entirely, and instead drew three figures celebrating. Above one figure is a speech bubble that says, “We got it!” And standing nearby is a female figure with a similar bubble containing three red hearts. Apparently, Lederman’s groundbreaking work won him the favor of a lady, as well as a Nobel.
The atmosphere at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings is relaxed and creative, making it perfectly conducive for the project. ”I had only a few Nobels that turned down my request—maybe three out of 70,” says the photographer. “One said he was too old to draw.”
In his many shoots, Steger learned that most Nobel winners don’t actually like to be photographed as great thinkers musing in armchairs. Many held their sketches in front of their chests or their faces, and others showed more spunk. Robert Laughlin, the 1998 winner in physics, bit down on the corner of his drawing and used his free hand to point to an equation. Sir Harold Kroto, the 1996 Nobel winner in chemistry, made as if he was kicking his buckyball, a carbon molecule with the chemical formula C60 that looks like a soccer ball.
“Nobel laureates differ in their character just as much as they do in their discoveries,” says Steger.
Sir Timothy Hunt, the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine, in his introduction to Sketches of Science, writes, ”There’s a playfulness about these portraits that’s quite beguiling, and unlike most official portraits of these distinguished people, there are hints that they don’t all take themselves that seriously, knowing very well that great discoveries result from a considerable degree of luck, as well as prepared minds.”
For the exhibition, the Nobel Museum pairs audio recordings of the laureates explaining their discoveries with the portraits. Listen to these recordings, found under the portraits in this post.
But it’s the picture—in this case, the picture of a picture with its artist—that makes Steger’s work so compelling. As Hunt explains, “What the photographs mainly seem to radiate is the fun of doing science.”
July 12, 2013
Perhaps you have heard of topiary, the decorative pruning of shrubs into animals and other shapes. But, what about mosaïculture?
The term was new to me when I read the definition that organizers prescribe to at Mosaïcultures Internationales, a competition staged every three years at a park or municipal garden somewhere in the world. “Mosaïculture,” says the competition’s website, “is a refined horticultural art that involves creating and mounting living artworks made primarily from plants with colourful foliage (generally annuals, and occasionally perennials).”
The process works a bit like this. To start, horticultural artists build metal frames for their sculptures. They cover the frames with soil netting and then plant seeds of different flora in that soil, much like a ceramicist lays tiles in a mosaic. The task draws on an artist’s skills in a variety of different areas, notes Mosaïcultures Internationales—”on sculpture for its structure and volume, on painting for its palette, and on horticulture in its use of plants in a living, constantly changing environment.” Grown in greenhouses during the spring months, the artworks, when fully grown, are installed outdoors, in parks and gardens.
This summer, about 50 sculptures and reliefs, consisting of some 22,000 species, dot a 1.3-mile path through the Montréal Botanical Garden, site of Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal 2013. More than 200 horticultural artists from 20 countries submitted work that represents their cultures and fits with the “Land of Hope” theme, meant to showcase Earth’s biodiversity; they are vying for a jury-selected Grand Honorary Award and a People’s Choice Award. Here are a few for you to enjoy:
Mosaïcultures Internationales Montréal 2013 – Land of Hope is on display at the Montréal Botanical Garden through September 29, 2013.