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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Art Beyond AI

AI art is here. How the hell are artists actually supposed to respond? If proposed answers all feel like dead ends, maybe it's time to look beyond art: to politics.

Honestly though what more could I say? AI art emerges from the chrysalis slowly but determinedly whether or not there's a stable critical platform to receive it, and after three articles I'm starting to feel a bit like I'm muttering to myself in my covid quarantine room. I've gone over the possibilities for what AI art might be, and denounced as mystical hype what it is not. What else is there?

Maybe: what are we to do?

I didn't seek out criticism of AI art purely to dunk on it. I, a skeptic, wanted to see what other skeptics were saying. Was it possible to write about the aesthetic and procedural problems with AI art while still taking seriously things like:

- The readymades of the dadaists which radically challenged what we think of as authentic artistic creation?
- The stochastic methods the surrealists used to subvert the conscious mind?
- The way new technology makes artistic expression more available to more people?
- The agency of the nonhuman in 70s performance and earth art?
- The contemporary studio system in which superstar artists employ teams of workers to actually fabricate their vision?

No dice.

For all the whining about lowered intellectual standards your average conservative does, an honest engagement with the last century or more of artistic production and development of visual technologies is hard to find. To keep hammering on last week's punching bag for example: Erik Hoel's engagement with art after 1900 is dire. He addresses it in a way that reeks of guilty conscience, that exudes a sheepish recognition that such art constitutes a massive intellectual embarrassment to his whole screed against the absence of artistic soul in AI art: he shoves coverage of this off to a footnote at the very end of the article. There, he argues that it's fine that Damien Hirst doesn't make any of the shit with his name attached to it, because uhhh Damien Hirst did it first, so, it's fine, but it's bad now that OTHER people are doing it, for... some reasons. Is it wrong specifically that Hirst weds a capitalist mode of production with the marketing ploy of the author-function? No, apparently the problem is that other people doing it is gauche, or something. Don't worry about it.

Duchamp? Same thing. Duchamp's found and repurposed objects "were art because of their audacity, because of the context of the other art around them, and because of their arrangements—when everything is a readymade, it’s not an art gallery, it’s a scrapyard." This was not, in fact, how Duchamp's contemporaries and allies defended "Fountain" in the pages of Dadaist magazine The Blind Man. Oh, sure, the defenses, like Louise Norton's suggestion that part of the sexual appeal of classical nudes comes precisely from how they make us think of nice clean plumbing, deliberately play with context. But the foundation on which later artists like Bob Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns build is Norton's insight, echoed by (possibly) Beatrice Wood in another defense, is that "R Mutt" *chose* the fountain, and that act of imagination was itself an artistic action. The fact that the dadaists didn't just do this once but *kept making readymades* suggests that they, at least, felt a sufficiently imaginative person could in fact produce more than just "a scrapyard" through the process.

But what about you, contemporary artist? YOU can appreciate Duchamp's radical intervention into the art world, so long as you don't try to follow the arguments of those dadaists and implement their logic yourself, you fucking peasant, you punk piece of shit. Who the hell do you think you are? Not a consecrated Great Man, that's for sure!

Here is the message of the people treating AI art as a uniquely apocalyptic event, as far as I can parse it: You need to be original. But in a way that's classically trained! But also in a way that's not derivative of other art! But you better not do anything like the Dadaists would do because you're degrading the Aura of the Work of Art and the Artist as Individual Genius. So don't do anything too avant garde, and CERTAINLY don't do anything avant garde with [shudders in a way that is at once both horrified and libidinally charged] *computers*. Is it any wonder that artists interested in procedural generation, in the face of such hidebound reactionary hysteria, would flee to the waiting arms of another camp of reactionary grifters: the gold bugs and pyramid scheme pushers of Crypto?

I wanted to find something that captured the sense of frustration shared by a lot of my artistically inclined friends (which, let's be real, is basically all of my friends). Rather than apocalyptic fears, we receive AI art with a kind of dejected frustration or bewilderment. People really think THAT is "as good as a real person could do"? But to me, outright condemnation and a mass response of refusal--the response cryptoart deserved!--didn't feel quite suited to what is, at the end of the day, another technology that might make artistic expression more accessible.

But there's nothing actionable for artists here because the instructions collapse on themselves in contradiction. As an artist, a classically trained one no less, I don't want to be "defended" in a way that leaves me feeling so bullied and disempowered, constantly looking over my shoulder in case I'm Doing Art Wrong. If we're going to respond as artists to AI art, surely we can find a better way than this.

Benjamin's Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction looms large over digital art, computer art, crypto art, and now AI art. Till now, I've avoided him, feeling all the while like he was hovering over my shoulder. Frederick Jameson, a guy who has read and outright written far more foundational theory and philosophy than I'm ever going to, opens his recent book on Benjamin by noting that "Benjamin is often too readable (or readerly) for us to realize that he is incomprehensible, or, in other words, writerly." What a hell of a thing to say! And indeed, concepts like the "aura" or "ritual" or "politics" as Benjamin use them aren't as straightforward as they might appear. Once second he seems to be enthusiastic about the possibilities of mechanical reproduction, the next lamenting the loss of what it overturns. And, as Jameson points out, history hasn't always been kind to Benjamin's predictions: the claim for example that there's something revolutionary in the fact that anyone can now be photographed reads weird in an age when we can all dm each other as many nudes as we want, yet are no closer to controlling the means of (re)production.

So Benjamin has me spooked, because I'm not sure I agree with him, not sure I *understand* him, and afraid in either case of showing my entire ass by misinterpreting him.

No one else seems concerned, mind. People love pulling a couple random quotes of Benjamin out of context to back up what they already believe. Have you noticed a recurring theme in these articles is people getting away with shit because they know no one's going to call them on it, no one's gonna point out where they've been slapdash or disingenuous or just plain bad at their jobs? This is certainly the case with Benjamin quotes, which crop up to bolster all manner of horseshit.

Benjamin's concept of the "Aura" is a little elusive but seems (at least in Jameson's understanding which I think I agree with) deeply tied to his sense of historical continuity and tradition. It is all of the material traces of a work of art's passage through time to the present, and the sense of something having a distant, maybe even numinous power that holds it at a remove from us. Notice anything here about "exclusivity" or "irreproduceability" that preserves artwork's "value", i.e. it's worth as a *commodity*? No, lol, god no. That's an absurd misreading, and a grotesque imposition of the commodity form back onto all of human history, as though an ancient Byzantine kneeling before a golden icon thinks to herself: gosh I'm glad there's exactly one of these, I would hate for my investment in $SAINTCOIN to go down due to its fungibility!

And speaking of commodity fetishism, Benjamin is a messianic writer in many ways but people treat the Aura like it's a horcrux, and that's just silly. Benjamin explicitly states that the aura of the work of art "may usefully be illustrated with reference to the aura of natural ones." Why? Because a natural space too bears all the astonishing traces of its passage through history. Some productive connection to AI art might be to compare this to the sense of process I talked about in earlier articles, but that's less auratic than it is how Benjamin describes film's power to, like a scientific instrument, transform mass vision into something that can directly engage what was previously distant or invisible. There are intriguing possibilities in Benjamin, they're just buried under a depressingly reactionary misuse of his words.

If there's a problem, even a tragedy, with Benjamin it's precisely this, that he aspires to create a framework that can never be used by fascists, to champion a form of mass political art that might explode the shackles of tradition, and both the media he champions (film, print, and photography) and the framework he develops (of the aura and its collapse) have both been freely plundered by reactionary forces.

I'm not sure what Walter Benjamin would've thought of AI art. It feels like almost a perfect final expression of the populist transformation of the arts that he champions, a world where everyone is a kind of writer, a film critic, an actor. But there seems to be a presumption, lurking in Benjamin, that the mass culture of mechanical production and reproduction will expose for working people their own agency. As we've seen, the discourse around AI art is mired in false conceptions of agency that are actually radically disempowering, and follow a long tradition of downplaying the power of the masses to interpret and participate in art unless they're, I don't know, grinding their own pigments I suppose. His sense of the audience that absorbs the film in a distracted state seems less inspiring in an age characterized by deliberate and constant sensory overload.

But Benjamin also speaks to a moment of crisis that surely flashes up again for an artistic materialist in our own moment of crisis. Is there a way to harness not just AI art but all the myriad technologies that have deskilled art, which is to say, made them less rarified, made them accessible as never before to a mass audience that longs for expression?

GAN art is treated like a genie granting wishes because that's the logic of consumerism we've been taught to embrace. It's just as much an illusion, of course, as the Mechanical Turk of Doordash, Fiver, Mechanical uh... Turk (wow they really did just put it right in the company name huh), and so on. There's an object the end user sees, which obscures the actual guy somewhere else operating all the levers and buttons.

But this is no different than the way our civilization has functioned since the advent of capitalist production. I am pulling the mask off the Mechanical Turk that's been chasing people round the old factory, and surprise surprise it's Old Man "Alienation" under there, grousing that he would've gotten away with it too if it wasn't for those meddling Marxists!

No wonder we found reactionary cultural critics standing outside the old factory, warning everyone of the scary machine-man inside! The actual villain is the relations of production that they're such good buddies with. The villain is the way we labor to produce not stuff that connects deeply to ourselves and our audience, or serves a need, but generates value for someone else when wrapped into the logic of capital. If your whole deal is preserving property relations while being really upset about the catastrophic effect of property relations on individuals and society, the scary robots coming to destroy the soul of the artist are a convenient distraction.

Benjamin, late in the reproduction essay, notes that instead of dropping seeds from planes, the imperialist nations drop bombs. I think we've been conditioned to respond to a statement like this with a certain jaded, mature derision, which lets us tell ourselves that we're very savvy about "the way things are" (the continuity of which Benjamin seeks always to explode). It's an idea work engaging with, though, because it's part of a larger exploration of the idea of production, of *over*-production, capitalism's drive to just keep filling the world with more stuff, ultimately falling into crisis when the new markets dry up and they run out of people to exploit and ways to squeeze blood from their workers. Its resolution to that crisis is war, which Benjamin describes as a symptom of an immature relationship to technology.

And isn't the relationship we have to digital technology immature? Ideally the opening up tool accessibility would flood the world with art. And this has happened, sort of! But the nature of its production and consumption is fundamentally dictated by property relations: the exponentially swelling mass of "content creators" struggle to produce ever more rapidly, for an ever dwindling audience share, while tech companies reap the profits. Just as AirBNB is a hotel service that owns no hotels and pays no hotel staff, Uber is a taxi service that owns no cars, and Amazon and its competitors seek to be a delivery company that owns no trucks, YouTube is a television network that owns no production studios, Patreon a gallery and publisher with no printing presses or walls, &c.... The aim is to as much as possible push the onus of maintenance of both the tools of production, and maintenance of the lives of the working class, onto the individual, while still owning the entire infrastructure on which that labor depends.

We must consider ourselves entrepreneurs, according to these new bosses! But creators cater their work to "the algorithm", which is to say: to the boss who owns the essential means of transmission and that boss's often incoherent and occluded standards of production. It's plausible that we're being disciplined by these systems, transformed from unproductive workers to productive ones, which for Marx and for the capitalist are always the workers whose work produces profit for the capitalist. This is a form of alienated production, production that transforms us into ultimately fungible parts competing against each other, and I think creators outside the successful 00.1% this alienation and sense of exchangeable inhumanity feel this increasingly keenly.

And on the consumer side? Consumption can never replace an unalienated relationship with work and to our fellow humans, sorry if this is news. Is this why the role of the reader is so seemingly unorthodox a thing to acknowledge in criticism? Because to acknowledge the agency of the reader would be to acknowledge art involves some active, unalienated participation? Maybe the reason so many of my friends increasingly feel a level of revulsion towards DALL-E Mini pieces is not just because of the surrealistic texture focus of the systems but because of a sensation of a kind of con being performed: no, that's totally Sonic kissing Sans Undertale on the lips. It's right there, the Mechanical Turk produced it for us to look at! The assertion requires us to alienate ourselves from the labor of interpretation: to convince ourselves that actually we aren't doing anything, the machine and its corporate owner did it for us.

The fantasy of terrifying robot culture is already our reality: we already treat producers and consumers as practically superfluous. If the fear is that machine production will strip the soul out of art, I have bad news about what the content feed has already done, as the latest iteration of commodity production. This is why you have professors of "communication design" blithely touting AI's ability to automate the creation of things like banner ads. I can't disagree with the argument that “Frankly, the great majority of graphic design produced by human designers is mundane work that doesn’t need to be masterpieces anyway”. Certainly every available temporal or geographical space that we can possibly fill with blaring visual and auditory garbage designed to make humans more insane, wasteful, greedy, and complacent, we have endeavored to fill! With the power of AI, maybe we can finally just blanket the world in advertising.

I don't intend to resolve in this essay the question of whether those of us producing "content" for social media are best considered workers or a sort of neo-serf paying rents. I find the neofeudalism hypothesis to be pretty thinly argued, generally presenting a series of smash and grabs that date back to, say, the dispossession of tenant farmers during the Great Depression, as somehow a new, much worse form of society scarier than capitalism because, look, this time it's being done with computers! A lot of things about AI art, and the general production of art in the age of social media, do snap into focus for me when we understand, as Daniel Joseph does, many media companies old and new as producing primarily not artistic products to be sold but *audiences to be sold to advertisers*. The shackles already placed on AI art, and embarrassments like the laughable attempts to manipulate its products by tacking "diverse" words onto people's prompts, suggest that the role of AI art in the future might be precisely to produce massive quantities of comfortably neutral content that, in its consumption, can be the utilized to create audience-commodities to be sold on to advertisers.

Whether or not we individually use algorithms in our art seems beside the point in this context. The struggle is not to produce art with more genuine or pure tools, the struggle is to produce art that resists corporate attempts to place its recipients into an algorithmically determined box, where they can be expected to continue passively consuming.

Art in its deskilling and proletarianization is finally not separate from our lives. Whatever is to be done, it needs to be done not to art or to technology or to platforms or to means of selling digital goods. It needs to be done to capital and property relations, nothing less than the way we live our lives, the struggle of the artist as the struggle of all workers and workers-soon-to-be.

I look at a DALL-E assisted artwork. "Icon for an app that helps you disappear completely and never be seen again." What do I bring to this piece? What does it offer to me?

Aesthetically, I like the graphic design, the clean lines similar to a kind of clean vector design that I use myself in games. I can imagine it shrunk down to emoji size. The sideways crossed zero, which looks also almost like the eye hole of an expressionless mask, is remarkably iconic.

What do I see, though? Why do I experience the piece as more than a neat little proof of concept, as something to scroll past as I try to get my daily fill of #content? Maybe precisely that it suggests an exit from the endless stream of #content. To disappear completely and never be seen again (to be "helped" in this process by an app) suggests going off the grid. It is turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. The sideways zero suggests to me a deliberate laying down of metrics and quantification. We are putting the engagement counter to zero, we are no longer adding posts, and we are laying it to rest finally.

The image has no "aura", no sense of a distance and a placement in history. It suggests that in the face of an alienated society where uniqueness has been technologically banished, the way out is through, a collaboration between the producer, consumer, and nonhuman agonist of the algorithm to cease to be a "productive member of society" entirely.

This Has Been

Art Beyond AI

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