Sougwen Chung collaborating with machines to paint on a flat canvas
Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.
Sougwen Chung is an internationally renowned multi-disciplinary artist and researcher, who uses hand-drawn and technologically-reproduced marks to address the closeness between person-to-person and person-to-machine communication. She is a former research fellow at the M.I.T. Media Lab and current Artist in Residence at Bell Labs and New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.
Aswin Pranam: You’re an artist, researcher, and leading figure in the world of human-machine art & collaboration. For the uninitiated, what is human-machine collaboration?
Sougwen Chung: Human-machine collaboration is a perspective of technology not as a tool, but as a collaborator. What does that mean? It stems from an understanding that the relationship between humans and their tools have changed. Digital tools are different from tools like a hammer, for instance. They are editable, fluid, distinctly fallible, or all the above. Screen-based tools change and receive updates in a way that physical ones do not. Think photoshop vs. a paintbrush.
And today, with the predictive nature of A.I. systems, which are driven by user data, the tools are informed by us. By the user through the data being collected, by the designer’s intent, and by technological trends, processing power, and a suite of other factors. I find this interesting because it seems like there is a responsive quality to tools of the modern-day, prevalent in commonplace concepts like autosuggest / autocorrect. This feedback loop of the human/tool/system fundamentally changes the process of making; the canvas is no longer blank. It suggests things to you and nudges you along. It complicates authorship, and it extends beyond creative pursuits to our day to day use of technology. Depending on your perspective, that’s either exciting or uncomfortable.
So, human-machine collaboration situates these ideas at the forefront — it recognizes that the dynamic between an artist and her technological tools is more complicated. There is an excitement in culture at the moment about “A.I. art” and “A.I. artists,” and I think it stems from an interest in understanding what the promises, potentials, and paranoias of A.I. is and could be. That being said, I find the false premises about A.I. creating art strange. It suggests this relinquishing of human agency and erasure of human labor. Which, for me, is not what is exciting or valuable about the artistic practice.
Also, the data through which the A.I. system’s model is trained is not always solely created by the artist or designer. By coming to terms with that, I think we can arrive at a provocative perspective. For me, that’s at the heart of human-machine collaboration. A sense of collective authorship — a collaboration between the artist, the data set, the machine, and the dynamics & design of the algorithmic process. Human-machine collaboration has created a place for me to explore the complicated and compelling question of authorship as a working artist today.
Pranam: In your T.E.D. Talk, you described building a robotic prototype (titled D.O.U.G.) that mimicked your hand movements on the canvas. Where did the interest in blending robotics with artwork originate?
Chung: My interest in working with robotics came from my practice of drawing. Working with robotics and drawings brings me back to the body — the mark-made-by-hand, and what things like muscle memory and physical instinct can inform about the creative process.
Drawing and robotics seemed like a natural progression — movement articulated through a mechanical body; in my case, a robotic arm, a collaborator I named D.O.U.G._x after Drawing operations Unit, Generation 1. The robotic arm was an ideal form through which I could explore what drawing could be — drawing as a process of thinking through movement, drawing as a collected data set, and drawing as articulated by an A.I. system.
By drawing with a robotic unit linked to my movements, to my drawing data, and other artists’ data sets, it created a creative catalyst and a framework for speculation and technology and its effects.
Pranam: What part of the artistic process takes the longest: brainstorming, building the technology (e.g., neural nets), or creating the final output?
Chung: Drawing Operations has been an ongoing series — since 2014 to today. Like the practice of drawing, I view it as a life-long project, an evolving process experiment. In my talk, I speculate at the nature of creative practice today, and what that means, and that perhaps what defines art-making today is not in the making itself, but how practitioners can synthesize tradition and technology, and the techniques of culture, to explore new ways of making. These ideas manifest as narrative, kinetic sculpture, performance, writing, models of interaction, and visual artifacts.
Pranam: As the fidelity of digital media continues to improve, technologies like V.R. (virtual reality) could eventually enable experiences that command a significant portion of our time and attention. Will this draw focus away from non-digital art?
Chung: I’ve long been fascinated by V.R. as a medium that facilitates the implanting of memory. That’s the ‘fidelity’ of contemporary V.R. that I’m drawn to, and that which also leaves me unnerved. The simulation of the screen is so closely tied to the participant’s spatial orientation, which dissolves the mediation of the screen in traditional digital art.
Non-digital, and our experience of, say, a painting in-person, has become rarefied. I would say that most paintings today are seen as photographs on screen. When was the last time you saw a painting in person? The majority of our consumption is screen-based now, and our attention to non-digital art is still experienced through a photograph of the drawing.
These shifts inform my interest in process — the process of drawing and mark-making through time, is easily distinguishable from the instantaneous capture of photography. Its these processes I feel are being challenged by digital media. The tangibility of raw material, and the “process of making” with stuff like graphite that have their own characteristics. I draw attention to these processes because they carry their own historicity, their personal narratives, and, for me, that is a vital part of the creation of the work.
Pranam: The arts and sciences are generally seen as being separate, distinct entities, but you’ve managed to bridge the gap with your work. Do you see the two as being closely related?
Chung: I’ve understood the arts and sciences as the pursuits of similar goals utilizing complementary but distinct approaches. A foundational premise of both is developing a framework for understanding, of internal models of experience and external models of the ‘world.’ I see both as philosophical pursuits — part of the ecosystem that includes design and technology.
Pranam: You recently launched Scilicet, a studio exploring human and non-human collaboration. Walk us through the goals for this project.
Chung: Through the creative work, I’ve come to see machines not merely as tools but collaborators. And by continuing the work, machines as non-human collaborators. I see great potential there — and I think its a contemporary question. As per every generation, what it means to be ‘social’ shifts and changes.
It’s a big topic, for sure, and one that I think is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds but one that’s complicated to work through on one’s own. The studio recognizes that the subject of our relationship to the non-human is evolving, and therefore demands a response from the wider community.
Scilicet is a space where anybody can feel welcome to explore these ideas with us — with artists, scientists, designers, and writers who recognize that widening the conversation is essential to exploring these ideas at the depth and breadth that it deserves.
In the immediate term, we’re excited about meeting like-minded collaborators to build a space that nurtures new ideas around collaboration and making-with. We provide an evolving network of practitioners to produce projects and research that push the boundaries of what is possible in human and non-human collaborations.
Through this, I’m exploring how the traditional art studio environment can be a locus for community, discussion, and critical thought; how can human and non-human collaboration expand our thinking about cooperation itself, and what it means to create collectively?
Pranam: What ethical boundaries exist in the world of human-machine art? Are there any lines that should not be crossed?
Chung: I see human-machine art as a testing ground for examining human-machine interaction at large, which has broader implications for the relation of technology and society. Through the projects, I work through questions of authorship, of agency and control, of what it means to collaborate with the things you build, and what relationships are built upon the process of co-creation.
I think about hidden narratives behind prevalent work in this space — around the hype of A.I. art. People want something greater than themselves to believe in, and in some ways, art through history has had a relationship with creating sensory experiences of that kind of power. Is that dangerous? Is it the tradition of art? Does it have to be? I find these questions interesting.
That being said, the ‘artificial’ of artificial intelligence tend to overlook the human element. In my drawings, the models I train require large datasets to be effective. In my case, those data sets are decades of my drawings. Is it uncomfortable to look at one’s artwork only as data? Does the digitization of the work capture the essence of the work, or is it just a representation. What is lost in adapting to be machine-readable, of thinking about individual output as data? The philosophical nature of these questions continue to influence and refine my approach.