conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 26.11.2023
ANNE SPALTER: "CAN ART EXIST WITHOUT AN ARTIST?"
AI AND VALUES
Anne Spalter knows how to help herself. When she was looking for a book about the pioneers of early computer art, she couldn't find an in-depth publication, so she wrote it herself. It took her six years to finish the book. Spalter took the time to speak with artists like Herbert W. Franke, Frieder Nake, and Manfred Mohr. When she first heard about artists working with technology, she wasn't convinced; she thought computers were for science. Her initial reaction helps her understand the sometimes negative responses to artists working with the latest technologies. Spalters herself became an artist interested in creating art with new technologies; she is a pioneer in the field of AI and, together with Michael Spalter, stewards one of the world's largest private collections of early computer art.
In conversation with Anika Meier, Spalter discusses early computer art and AI, creating art by hand and telling stories, the role of the artist in the age of AI, and the future of NFTs.
Anika Meier: Anne, when did you first use a computer?
Anne Spalter: Literally, the first time I used a computer was when my father, who taught math and science at a Boston high school, brought home an Apple IIe. I thought it was pretty nerdy, but I do still remember him explaining to me why something called a spreadsheet (VisiCalc!) was revolutionary in its ability to consider "what if" scenarios. As a teenage girl, I wasn’t a convert then and there, but he was right.
I began using my own personal computer more intensively only in college and in a significant way mostly after my grandmother, who, as a product of the Depression, was the type of person who saved every plastic grocery bag and would walk an extra mile to find a better price on tomatoes. She somehow, however, felt strongly "that computers were going to be important" and bought me an early Mac—a Mac 512K, to be exact. This significant outlay was indeed life-changing for me, allowing me to experiment with creating art in private vs. a university computer lab and inspiring me to learn more about a range of software. She was in her late 70s, and I was 21.
To properly calibrate younger readers, the 512K had no hard drive. 512K refers to the amount of RAM (the laptop I am typing on right now has 64GB). One used the machine by repeatedly swapping floppy discs in and out—the OS, the application one was using, and a disc to store files. The screen had 512 x 342 pixels (current laptop: 3456 × 2234), and those pixels were only grayscale.
AM: And when did you first hear about artists using computers to create art?
AS: I was an art school student initially (at The Rhode Island School of Design, aka RISD in Providence, RI USA) and then transferred to Brown University next door to study mathematics, but I remained connected with the art community, so I was hearing things on and off. My initial reaction was 100% negative, though, which gives me empathy today when discussing art and technology with newcomers to the field. I thought computers were for science (I didn’t even think computational math proofs were really all that pure), and art should be made by hand.
Two things worked to begin to change my mind during my senior year of college. First, a neighbor of my parents came by one day with an art show catalog he was discarding. It was an original hardcover catalog for Cybernetic Serendipity. (For readers who don’t know, this was a seminal computer art show put on in 1968 by curator Jasia Reichart in London.) At the same time, I was writing a long thesis, and I’m not the world’s most accurate typist. I loved my turquoise Olivetti typewriter, but I was going through an extreme amount of whiteout. A classmate of mine told me one day how he went to the "print center" and pressed a "print button," and his 100+-page thesis was all ready to hand in. I thought, "Hmmm...".
I ended up creating some images with the computer for my thesis, but even then, I wasn’t a true believer. When I returned to graduate school after a brief stint in the NYC banking world, I pledged to put the computer aside and return to "real art making." I stretched up a canvas and began working. Soon I did something I regretted, and in my mind I thought, "Undo." Of course, nothing happened. I realized then that I wanted to try to bring together the best of both worlds—powerful digital visual thinking tools merged synergistically with the traditional materials I had come to know and love from my art school training.
AM: You are widely known as the author of the book THE COMPUTER IN THE VISUAL ARTS, which was published in the late 1990s. You wrote it because there was no comprehensive book that combined technical and theoretical aspects of the emerging field of computer art and design. Today, in the post-digital age, researching and networking can be a fast process. How did you approach writing the book?
AS: As a writer yourself, you know that working on any long writing project is infinitely more painful than the final readers can possibly imagine. The book was not fast—it took almost 6 years to complete and dominated my life and the lives of people around me. It began as a much shorter project with a different publisher and morphed into a comprehensive 500+-page undertaking that represented everything I knew at the time. I was fortunate to be employed as an artist-in-residence and visual computing researcher at one of the top computer graphics research labs in the country (Brown University’s Computer Graphics Research Group) and to be working directly with a founder of the field of technical computer graphics and co-author of one of its most renowned texts, Andries van Dam.
I had access to leaders in every area who read and reread chapters, ensuring that my explanations were accurate. Included among those was Alvy Ray Smith, whose recently published PIXEL is a must-read. For the art side, I reached out directly to the pioneers who had miraculously been making art, even when that meant using huge corporate machines in the middle of the night or building their own computers. I interviewed everyone from Frieder Nake to Manfred Mohr to Herbert W. Franke and beyond. Artists and other researchers, such as William Mitchell from MIT, shared ideas and came to give lectures in my class. And of course, I read everything that was published at the time. I was also actively teaching at both RISD and Brown, so I was able to test out assignments and topics in real time with amazing students.
My editor, Peter Gordon at Addison-Wesley, was instrumental in pushing the project through to completion. He sent me home after one meeting with a post-it to put on my screen that read, "Thou shalt not revise." I also, near the end, had a sign on my office door to keep people from interrupting me with the message, "Do not knock unless the fire has reached this floor." And truly, for the final push, it was only that many of the artists I had interviewed put the book in their online resumes that made me feel like I absolutely had to finish it.
AM: "Only a few years ago, it would have seemed ridiculous to discuss the influence of computer graphics on art and society. Although computer-generated graphics had already been applied in important areas of science and technology, its influence was not yet felt in the arts or in society at large." These sentences are from Herbert W. Franke and are taken from his essay, THE NEW VISUAL AGE. THE INFLUENCE OF COMPUTER GRAPHICS ON ART AND SOCIETY was published in 1985. This sounds to me like the year 2023. What has changed based on your experiences?
AS: So true! I always say every time I think, "OK, now we’ve made it, and now everyone will understand," someone says something to me that makes me think I’m waking up decades earlier. It’s always like this: two steps forward, one step back.
But concrete changes include:
– The emergence of blockchain databases and crypto, which led to NFTs, and the recalibration of the discussion from “is computer art really art?” to are NFTs art? The funds that poured in and were pressed, even though a lot of them were negative, helped increase the profile of digital art and make it feel more familiar to serious creators and collectors.
– The success of artists like Vera Molnar, whose work is just so damn good that it cannot be ignored. Having Molnar’s work in major museums, the Venice Biennale, and an upcoming Pompidou show is a pretty significant challenge to anyone who doubts the importance of the field.
– The ubiquity of computers in our lives and thus their incorporation into the creative process. In 1985, we were only just starting to have personal computers, but definitely not smart phones with cameras so good that I no longer even take my multi-thousand dollar SLR camera and lenses with me traveling anymore. Now we live in a virtual space of digital imagery, social media, and constant connectivity. Artists who ignore all of that are missing a big chunk of contemporary culture.
– The final thing I want to mention, and who knows what impact it will end up having, is AI (artificial intelligence). When I changed my outlook about digital art making because I felt the computer’s visual thinking tools were so powerful, they were just a fraction of the strength available today. I believe that AI tools will change how we create art, teach art, and may reshape the visual economy in ways impossible to grasp from our current vantage point.
AM: What do you think needs to happen so that digital art, NFTs, and AI won’t lead to such strong emotional responses? What needs to happen, in your own words, is that "everyone will understand". I sometimes think it’s important that there is a counterweight to the fast and enthusiastic adoption of new technologies. Imagine everyone jumping on any new invention like an excited kid.
AS: Great point. Sometimes a medium that’s inherently beautiful, like glass, or inherently easy to produce images with, as it is in the photographic or digital realm, can make creating meaningful works especially challenging.
As for people's responses to digital art and specific tools or platforms, I think the simple passage of time can help shift opinions. When I started to teach art classes with Photoshop in the 1990s, students were often distracted by the many filters available, and we also spent time discussing how Photoshop was used in professional editing of everything from fashion photography to even news images. Now students come to school at the college level knowing most of this and are usually proficient in many pieces of graphics software. The idea that a photo can be changed is no longer alarming or news of any kind to them.
The fear that somehow photography would be negatively impacted is also something I rarely hear anymore. There are still film-based photographers, and there are still amazing photographers who just happen to work with digital cameras and tools. Just as photography did not bring about the end of painting (as some claimed it would), so digital didn’t end photography.
It’s not surprising to have some negative reactions to new high-tech tools for art-making, especially by people with little understanding of how those tools actually work. It’s rare that an art critic has any background in programming or, usually, even in any of the sciences. I think CP Snow’s two-culture problem is alive and well. With NFTs, there is the additional issue that the technology can be seen as directly threatening existing power structures in the art world.
Some of the strong responses are merited. With early digital art and current new technologies, experimentation is often mixed in with more mature art practices, and it can be difficult to discern where quality lies. When critics saw early computer art shows that mixed together the works of practicing artists with those of designers and scientists, it often led to confusion about the validity of the medium. Similarly, the low barrier to entry that NFTs offer means that collectors must sift through an enormous number of images, many of which wouldn’t pass muster in the art world.
NFTs also have many unresolved technical issues, for example, such as how one can protect one’s collection from scammers. Will quantum computers render current cryptography obsolete? Is the blockchain I’m minting on stable and will it exist in 20 years? There are many questions.
AM: How did you learn about NFTs? Hearing that you weren’t convinced by computers in the beginning, what were your first thoughts?
AS: It was late 2020, and I was asked to participate in a Zoom panel on COLLECTING NFTS. This was mid-pandemic, and since there wasn’t much to do, I was saying yes to every talk invite. Only later did I realize I had no idea what N. F. T. stood for. As with digital art in general, when I first read about them, I was skeptical. Why would anyone want to pay to download someone’s Instagram post? What is a blockchain? But the more I read, spoke with people, and investigated, the more enamored I became of the whole idea. When I created my first NFT and it sold within a week, I became a convert. There was no production cost, no shipping, no customs, and I got paid right away. It was heavenly. I also got to know my collectors through direct communication. The first time I received royalties on a piece, I woke up and saw funds in my wallet. I was moved to tears. I really thought this was the future. I find it tragic that royalties have all but disappeared.
AM: When did you know you wanted to be an artist working with technology?
AS: As discussed earlier, I had started using the computer in earnest in my art in graduate school and was fascinated with all the amazing things it would do. I could experiment with color endlessly and not end up with a muddy green; I could redraw and erase without scratching a hole in my paper—the flexibility and power were astounding. I wanted to learn more and tried to take a class in the subject, but there were none. The head of graduate studies suggested that I teach a seminar. It was a little bit of one-eyed leading the blind, but teaching made me focus, learn in an intensive manner, and appreciate the digital even more.
AM: How did you get started? And did it help you to be in touch with all these pioneers and hear from them about the challenges of being an artist?
AS: I began working on the book because I couldn’t find all the resources I needed to teach my class. This led to the interviews, so I was already using the computer in my art at that time.
AM: Who is the artist that influenced you the most and that you might even consider a mentor?
AS: I found the pioneering computer artists' work inspiring because they faced such extreme challenges. While I might want a more powerful personal computer or larger screen, they often had to work on mainframes in industry labs and, in the beginning, had no screens (!) The artwork that has most inspired me is traditional, however, and I’d say especially artists who work with color, like Hans Hoffman, Howard Hodgkins, Stanley Whitney, and Bonnard. I love drawing and am a big fan of Odilon Redon (I just saw a great show of his in Paris) and Robert Longo. I also respond to works with specific geometries, probably related to my being a math major, which explains my fondness for Tibetan art mandalas and a lot of digital and generative art such as that by Vera Molnar and Jean-Pierre Hebert. I also love painters who just have a crazy affinity for paint, like Malcolm Morely, and tried-and-true greats such as Sargent.
AM: I have just been to Paris and visited a solo show by Vera Molnár with old and new work in a gallery. How do you explain her work to someone who doesn’t know about generative art? I’ve taken photos at the exhibition and have shown them to friends with a background in digital art, and they were like, Ok, so she has been interested in the cross since the 1950s and now still draws crosses by hand.
AS: I would say she’s a constructivist who began as a traditional artist, creating specific geometric forms and arrangements of forms, and then discovered the joy of using systems to design those compositions. She created and implemented these systems by hand. When she discovered computers, she realized she could accelerate her artistic project by orders of magnitude, trying more things faster and exploring the nature of the systems and their output throughout a range impossible to ever achieve by hand. I don’t think she views the computer as antagonistic to hand-painted or hand-drawn art work, just as a tool to further her intellectual and visual inquiries. Just as one might enjoy travel and realize that taking a jet plane sometimes will allow you to see more places than only walking.
AM: Speaking about creating by hand, in your most recent works for your solo exhibition titled ART FOX at EXPANDED.ART in Berlin, you chose painting as the main medium. When I invited you to the exhibition, your first response was that you would like to show paintings. Why this traditional medium?
AS: I think the world of NFTs is in flux, and it's important to try to bridge the blockchain space and traditional art worlds. My daughter is studying education and introduced me to a great term, the Zone of Proximal Development. Its essence, as I understand it, is the common sense theory that you can't easily understand something completely foreign; you have to build on what you know. I think of it like placing stones to make an arch. You can’t just have them hanging in space; they have to connect. So if someone unfamiliar with the digital art space encounters a time-based NFT using AI, they may completely dismiss it. But if they encounter an AI-influenced composition in the form factor of a hand-created oil painting, there’s a cognitive entry point, something familiar to connect and build on.
I also chose a theme for the show that directly addresses the use of technology in art and the ways that we create value in our culture. The variety of media in the show explores this idea and how the art world may value, say, painting over video or art on an NFT platform.
AM: How did you feel about creating paintings in comparison to working on digital artworks?
AS: My art training was all traditional, so I enjoy working with paint or charcoal just as much as with Photoshop, After Effects, or AI. The painting compositions were all created with a process that involved text-to-image AI, so I feel as if they have a digital component to them. Paint lets me further the composition and color gamut in ways I wouldn’t be able to digitally: many paint colors simply cannot be reproduced on a screen or printed, and things occur to me when touching a surface with a sensitive hand-held tool like a brush and complex medium like paint that just would not happen with a mouse or table on a screen. On the other hand, I was able to do things in the time-based NFT works that built on the same initial AI compositions, which would not have been possible with paint.
AM: AI is the most recent technology that caught your attention a while ago. You tweeted a few weeks ago: “AI might be the most important technical advancement in artmaking since paint got put into tubes.” What are the reasons?
AS: Each new technology has met with resistance, and the most recent technology to draw ire has been artificial intelligence (AI). AI raises issues of copyright, authenticity, and the nature of human creativity that were not even imaginable a few years ago. In ART FOX, I explore some of these by using text-to-image AI to create the initial compositions. By using this technology, I feel I am drawing on the collective vision of millions of people—a collective visual unconscious that Carl Jung would have been fascinated by. Of course, automation depends not only on advanced mathematics and powerful computers but also on an untold number of hours of human labour—time spent tagging images (whether explicitly for machine learning or in the course of captioning images that appear on the web and are then scraped).
Have I given up some creative ownership of the work by doing this? Should I be sharing credit with the companies creating these tools? Or perhaps with the people who created the images that fed the models? (This question seems especially relevant if other artists' names are used in the prompts.)
Is there a difference between an image used directly from a prompt and one adjusted afterward? In ART FOX, most of the images went through a series of prompts on more than one AI platform, followed by revisions and hand-adjustments in Photoshop, as well as additional AI tools.
Since I painted some of the images by hand afterwards, how does that change their value and perception? Some of the paintings were created in China, and my hand never touched them at all. Can viewers discern which ones? How does this affect how one values and understands them? Are they worth less? Or perhaps more because they even better comment on the theme of the show and the subject matter depicted?
For the 3D pieces, selected sections of the oil paintings were put through an AI extractor that automatically created 3D models. It was delightful to see my paintings move into another dimension in this way, but would the sculptures be viewed differently if I had designed them from scratch without AI? And what if I had modelled them in clay and cast them instead of using 3D printing? Each technology and process affects people's understanding and valuation of the work.
We may be headed towards a future in which AI will be more than a creative partner, making exceptional art on its own. How will that be assessed?
AM: Do you have answers for yourself to the questions you raised above?
AS: I don’t personally value digital art or 3D-printed sculptures differently from more traditional media. And perhaps not surprisingly, I think of all the work in the show as interesting and worth collecting.
The answers about the eventual role of AI really get at the heart of what art is and what an artist does. Can art exist without an artist? It's like a Zen koan. While I am continually amazed at the quality of images I see coming out of AI programs, I am on the side of the necessity of an artist—and in fact, perhaps a definition of art as something a person does primarily for themselves, as a method of self-discovery, to increase one’s level of consciousness and discover something about one’s self. Hopefully, a critic or collector sees that process unfolding over years of an artist’s practice. The audience—collectors, critics, the art market, etc.—are a bit like the target an archer shoots at, but, as in the Zen and the Art of Archery book, a great archer can shoot blindfolded because, in some sense, the target is really internal. So even if machines can eventually create aesthetically compelling images somehow entirely on their own, it may not matter.
AM: That said, what is the role of an artist in the age of AI? Your exhibition, ART FOX, feels like you are telling a story while at the same time raising questions about the topic of value. How did you approach working on this exhibition?
AS: I almost never initiate art projects from a narrative framework, but for this show, I was thinking about ways in which we create or extract value in artmaking and beyond. The works are narrative in an abstract sense—somewhat like Medieval paintings that use a strange (non-linear perspective) sense of space to create different areas of action in the picture plane.
Almost all the pieces explore processes of diamond mining and rare earth mineral extraction, which have been fraught both in terms of human labor issues and also in their relationship to climate change. Mining is the world’s fifth-largest industry. While there is an argument that rare earth minerals are needed for the very technologies that could eventually be used to address climate change, diamonds are another story. Although there are industrial uses for diamonds, do we really need them for jewelry? What motivates digging for something simply because it looks beautiful and we assign it some abstract value? For me, subterranean exploration for valuable substances also works as a metaphor for creativity itself, where we look inward and explore our subconscious for ideas.
The fox is a crafty character throughout literature and seemed perfect as an avatar to explore this theme. In addition, in a post-armageddon world, probably only animals and insects will remain, not humans.
Using text-to-image AI, I let the results inspire and guide me, so in many ways, ART FOX is a journey on which I am a passenger, like any visitor to the exhibition.
AM: You’ve chosen a playful approach with a cute fox as the main character to speak about values and AI. Is the role of an artist also to be an educator? For example, to discuss new technologies and the concerns and fears that can come with these inventions.
AS: The best educators are perennial students, and such is my approach to ART FOX, allowing the FOXes to teach and guide me as I go along for the journey. I hope the works inspire thought and discussion without being overly didactic.
AM: What is your hope for the future when it comes to art and technology?
AS: Art and technology may be the keys to our survival in the face of the most profound threats to life the earth has ever known. Or it may peak with Candy Crush before the apocalypse sets in. Our actions reflect our values and will determine the future we all must live in.
AM: Thank you!