November 29, 2023

After a couple of weeks of experimentation, I realised the AI had the potential to describe imaginary artworks. To my delight, I discovered I could prompt it to write the kind of text you see on a wall label next to a painting in an art gallery. This would prove to be the start of a fascinating collaborative journey with GPT-3 and a suite of other AI art tools, leading to work that has ranged from a physical sculpture of toilet plungers to full-size oil paintings on the wall of a Mayfair art gallery. 

In recent months, AI-generated art has provoked much debate about whether it will be bad news for artists. There’s little doubt that there will be disruptive changes ahead, and there are still important questions about bias, ethics, ownership and representation that need to be answered. However, this would not be the first time that new technologies have caused upheaval in the art world – it’s been happening for centuries. And in my own experience, working with AI to make sculptures, paintings and more has transformed how I think about the creative process and the possibilities of human-machine collaboration. I believe we’re now seeing the emergence of a whole new artform.

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To be clear, when I refer to AI, it’s not an anthropomorphic or sentient system, but a machine learning algorithm – and there needs to be a human in the process. I quickly learnt this in my early experiments with GPT-3, when I asked it to create imaginary artworks. While it was fairly easy to get the system to create descriptions that all sounded good, getting it to create output that I considered interesting was another thing altogether. I spent about a month on “prompt engineering”, a term which means writing effective input text for AI systems. 

Once I found a sequence of initial words that would “tickle” the AI in the right way, I developed a workflow with GPT-3 and other algorithms that could produce a description of an artwork and the imagined human name of its creator, along with their birthdate and other details (which are sometimes gleaned by asking GPT-3 questions). I then sifted through hundreds to thousands of outputs to find ones that I like. Those were then fed back into the system to create more text. I then corrected for punctuation, spacing and other technical tweaks to the text (nothing that changes its meaning). 

I knew I had hit upon the right recipe when I got the following output (which made me laugh a little too hard alone in my studio in lockdown):

The sculpture contains a plunger, a toilet plunger, a plunger, a plunger, a plunger, and a plunger, each of which has been modified. The first plunger is simply a normal plunger, but the rest represent a series of plungers with more and more of the handle removed until just the rubber cup is left. The title of the artwork is “A Short History of Plungers and Other Things That Go Plunge in the Night” by the artists known as “The Plungers” (whose identity remains unknown).

“The Plungers”, were a collective of anonymous artists, founded in 1972. They were dedicated to the “conceptualization and promotion of a new art form called Plungism.” Plungism was a creative interpretation of the idea of Plungerism, which was defined by The Plungers as “a state of mind wherein the mind of an artist is in a state of flux and able to be influenced by all things, even plungers.” The Plungers’ works were displayed in New York galleries and included such titles as “Plunger’s Progress,” “The Plungers,”  “The Plungers Strike Back,” and “Big Plunger 4: The Final Plunger,” all of which featured plungers, and “Plungers on Parade,” which showed images of plungers in public spaces. The Plungers disappeared and left no trace of their identity.

This led me to wonder: what if I took these generative descriptions and made them in real life? As the AI can’t make physical objects, it would be up to my human faculties to do so. Moving the work from the digital to the physical realm, I concluded, would add weight and presence to them, which is sometimes lacking on a screen. A kind of symbiosis formed, with the AI producing output that it then “needed” my imagination, fabrication ability, aesthetic judgment, and intuition to visualise and complete.

Here’s the physical manifestation of the plunger artwork, which I created as part of a series the AI has titled “AI Am I?“:


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