Technology is what constructs our humanity; the trajectory of technology is what has propelled human developments.
s innovators, artists and technologists are fraternal twins. Artists memorialise the trajectory of technology, they help us make sense and think through paradigm shifts, momentous historical events and breakthroughs in technological advances. In the recent past, discussions of A.I. have been firmly anchored in the realm of science fiction. Today, however, the rapid acceleration of this technology means that we can now set aside the crutch of fantasy and discuss the real opportunities (and problems) that A.I. presents.
Now that there is little doubt that we are standing on the cusp of once inconceivable technological innovation, we need to assess what the role of art will be.
In order to do that, we need to take a few steps back and look at the past. It shows us how technological developments have propelled artists towards innovation and helped them engage with the most pertinent preoccupations of their time. We can then start painting the possible futures that art might propose in the coming years. The aim here is to dispel anti-technological discourses of art. These predictable but misguided narratives always resurface when a technology emerges that promises to shift established paradigms and threaten existing models of visuality.
Although examples abound, let’s start with the visual language of Renaissance artists. Its syntax and vocabulary was built partly thanks to the discovery of linear perspective and aided by optical instruments like the camera obscura, camera lucida and curved mirrors. The advent of oil painting similarly revolutionised the way artists depicted the world.
Previously unimaginable levels of realism were reached that fundamentally changed the image economy of the time.
More recently, the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the birth of the historical avant-garde forged in the cauldron of intense technological change. It is worth noting that the historical avant-garde here means a very specific set of artists and practices that encompass dadaism, futurism, suprematism; cubism; surrealism and constructivism using devices such as assemblage; collage; abstraction. With these movements, the definition of art and what it meant to be an artist changed beyond recognition.
Photography was also similarly ground-breaking. It is hard to overstate the impact it had on the definition of art, image-making and our very understanding of perception. Amongst many others, one of its most welcome side effects was that artists started engaging with the wonderful world of abstraction. This was partially because photography forced them to look beyond the straightjackets of realism and figurative representation. In their ceaseless quest for innovation, artists looking at photography quickly realised the potential of the medium that was much larger than its most obvious representational faculties. And so art photography was born.
Industrial and mass production also reimagined the role of the artist. Art practitioners recognised that industrial production meant that manual skill and craftsmanship were not the qualities that would keep art relevant in a modern age. So Marcel Duchamp placed an urinal in a gallery space; he disassembled an industrially produced object by putting one bicycle wheel on a stool. With gestures like these, the role of the artist in society and the definition of art was fundamentally transformed.
Whereas mass production and photography became definitive factors of modern art, moving images, television, and consumerist culture drove artists to find new ways of expression. Riding on the coattails of previous technological and artistic developments, contemporary art has given birth to myriads of art forms both material and immaterial: performance art; installation art; video art; conceptual art; land art; body art; relational art; and more recently digital art and on-chain art.
True, some of these developments are more indebted to technological advancements than others but none would have been possible without the historical avant-garde and the productive relationship it built with cutting-edge technologies. In fact, some of these contemporary practices have been termed the ‘neo-avant-garde’ precisely because the artists took some of the lessons of their forebearers and pushed the boundaries of art making further.
During the second half of the 20th century, artists continued to manipulate media and technology to interrogate its limitations and capabilities. Andy Warhol’s silkscreens not only conjured up novel mesmerising aesthetics. They also encouraged thinkers and scholars to create an analytical lens with which to critically assess the rapid rise of consumerism and pop culture of the 1960s.
Artistic imaginations kept imagining possible future uses of technology. Nam June Paik, for instance, foreshadowed the invention of the Internet as early as 1974 when he proposed building networks of Electronic Superhighways.
Today, with the advent of A.I. we fear that the increasing autonomy of machines might displace human intelligence. We are now not only asking the tired and worn out question of ‘is it art?’ but also ‘who is the artist?’ and even ‘is there an artist?’ Is the labour of art making safe from automation? What can illustrators and image-makers bring to the table with the rise of sophisticated text-to-image generators? The possibilities opened by A.I. force us to ask unsettling questions such as these and it therefore seems urgent to redefine the role of art and artists in the age of A.I.
Visions of the future now precariously oscillate between euphoria driven by the eye-watering possibilities A.I. brings and profound existential anxiety. The very things that make us human—creativity and free will—seem to be at risk from a pernicious self-determining algorithmic logic and governance. Many are keen to create narratives couched on apocalyptic visions hastily ringing the death knell of creativity and human agency.
Not so fast. We need to remember the lessons the history of the relationship between art and technology has taught us. Artists are innovators. They do not use technology as a shortcut or a way of cutting corners. On the contrary, they have always expanded humanity’s creative potential keeping artistic practice relevant in the face of change.
Avant-garde art surfaces in moments of technological change allowing us make sense of the times through the production of cultural and aesthetic material. Since A.I. is undoubtedly changing the way knowledge is produced, the toolbox brought about by art practices is critical in unpacking both utopian and apocalyptic visions of the future.
A.I. undoubtedly poses real dangers when placed in the hands of governments, military bodies and large data greedy corporations. Its ability to process infinite amounts of data and manipulate information grants it immeasurable power that needs an equally powerful but more discerning adversary. The artistic community will rise to this challenge as it has done in the past.
Artists will expose A.I.’s potential but also its biases and power structures. They will showcase their work in existing institutions and spaces but also create novel ones both in physical spaces and the metaverse. They will deconstruct and exploit existing A.I. systems made by Big Tech and develop pioneering subversive ones. They will showcase the possibilities unleashed by ground-breaking technology and productively unmask novel mechanisms of manipulation and control. They will create forms of understanding and visualising data. They will displace old models of visuality and perception to make way for novel ones better equipped for engaging with the new realities of our time. A.I. will be used as a muse, a tool and a medium.
Art is used to existential crises like the one we face in this era. It thrives on them emerging transformed but triumphant. Its proteanism enables it not only to adapt to its ecosystem but to change it existing in a productive symbiotic relationship. The time is ripe for a new avant-garde to lead us through the rest of the 21st century. We can now start pulling the future into the present.
Paula Brailovsky is a London-based art historian who finished her master’s degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art and then went on to complete her PhD at University College London in 2014. Entitled Geographies of Violence: Site-Oriented Art and Politics at the Mexico-U.S. Border From the 1980s to the Present, her dissertation centred on the intersection between art and politics in relation to nationhood, identity and the conditions of globalisation. As an academic, she has published her work in the journal Object and MIRAJ, has taught modern and contemporary art courses both at graduate and postgraduate level and has lectured nationally and internationally. In recent years, she has worked as a researcher and writer in an art consultancy where she built an academic programme and helped individuals and institutions navigate the complex waters of contemporary art and its markets. Using her academic background as a springboard, she is interested in the practical possibilities and theoretical potentials that exist at the crossroads of contemporary art, business and technology.