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Only a year ago did the artist behind Niceaunties discover AI. Since then, she hasn't stopped creating the world with AI that is familiar to her from her childhood in Singapore: auntie culture. "Her" aunties are nice; they laugh, cook, travel, and enjoy life. In real life, aunties are strict; they are loving and caring, but they are not nice. Niceaunties is building the Auntieverse, a world full of images and videos that bring awareness to the struggles in life and are a reminder to be generous with the people in your life and yourself.

On the occasion of Gallery Weekend Berlin, EXPANDED.ART and Fellowship present Niceaunties first solo exhibition in Germany. In conversation with Anika Meier, Niceaunties discuss AI and storytelling, auntie culture and beauty treatments, and criticism of AI and how to deal with it. (Spoiler: don't deal with it!)

Anika Meier: Where does the name Niceaunties come from?

Niceaunties: Auntie culture is very common in Southeast Asia. I can only speak about it from my perspective, the way I experience it through my aunties, and the people I meet on the streets. So, there's the good side and the bad side. The good and normal side is, it's your own aunties, and they love you. But every time you see them, they will say something weird, such as, how much do you earn? How come you're still single? You look fat. Your face looks bigger. What did you eat?

It feels like an insult. But then they will feed you a lot of food and give you a lot of love. It’s contradictory. I think this has something to do with the way they were brought up. It's tough love, versus what they are. That's how they know to express love. Their parents treated them like that.

Other than your own auntie, anyone, any older woman, can also be called an auntie on the street. Anyone can be an auntie. Anyone who behaves like an auntie can be called one. Anyone who is old fashioned, rigid, and naggy. If a man does that, we can also call him an auntie.

It became an adjective to describe someone who doesn’t behave well. I also work in the design industry, where sometimes a customer demands that only beige and warm colors be used. We would say that the customer likes 'auntie things’. It's a negative characteristic, so to speak. Therefore, we want to avoid being called aunties, right?

Niceaunties, Auntiedote: Aioli Times, AI Video, 2024.

AM: Niceaunties is your pseudonym as an artist, but it’s also a whole universe you are creating.

NA: When I came across AI, I felt that I could best express myself by reflecting my culture, my environment, and where I come from. I shared auntie culture, but in a lighthearted way, to highlight the joyful side of auntie life rather than the negative side. I wanted to challenge the way people think about aunties.

AM: This is why it's Niceaunties?

NA: Yes, that's an oxymoron. 'You're a nice auntie, aren't you?'

AM: I imagine it's similar in many cultures. For example, when visiting our grandparents or aunties, they like to comment, 'Oh, you're still single?' That seems to be a common occurrence. I see. It resembles the way some white old men in our culture behave, for example, as well as people trying to lecture others about their way of living; it seems a bit old-fashioned to me.

NA: Yes, we are also familiar with this in our culture, the so-called uncle culture. Older men, usually cab drivers, who sit around in hot Singapore with their shirts rolled up and collectively trash-talk about society and the government. They sit there with their bellies exposed; they just don't care.

AM: Could uncle culture possibly be your next project? I notice that there are hardly any male protagonists in your artwork.

NA: True, they rarely appear. I interacted mostly with the women in my family while growing up and wanted to reflect their influence in my art. Uncles are very interesting too, I am sure, but I just do not understand them enough to create meaningful, layered artwork.

Niceaunties, Auntiedote: Auntique Institute Is Hairing (Hiring), 2024.

AM: You’re an architect. Is that how you came across AI initially? What was your first introduction to AI before beginning to work on Niceaunties?

NA: I discovered some interesting architecture pictures on Instagram and was immediately impressed. I couldn't help but wonder how these pictures were created, especially in such a short space of time. Many of these illustrations would take a long time to sketch out, so several other people in the comments wondered what we were missing.

I then stumbled across the hashtag Midjourney, but having never heard of it before, I did some research and discovered it was an AI. So, of course, I immediately wanted to try it out and found a program I could use. At first, I simply entered a few keywords and waited for what would happen, but I haven't stopped since that day.

In architecture, creating and drawing takes a lot of time; you work in a large team, and you are bound by what the client has in mind. But here, working with AI, it's just me, which gives me a liberated feeling. Whatever I imagine can become instant reality. Being able to create anything is a powerful feeling. It’s freedom. Mind-blowing, right?

AM: I feel the same as a writer. I can suddenly create images based on texts I write.

You work with an AI tool to portray yourself, your culture, and your upbringing. How did you start creating the Auntieverse?

NA: Yes, originally, I just wanted to give it a try, as I had no experience at all. Then in June, I was creating videos every day, playing with this technology, testing the limits. Everything was new, so I thought to myself, 'Whatever, I'll give it a go.'

In August, I received a message from Alejandro from Fellowship inviting me to take part in the DAILY project by publishing my videos as part of it. I accepted and became part of the project from day one. At that time, I had already created many of my auntie videos and pictures; some of the videos are included in this collection. However, a lot of new material was added, as Alejandro suggested expanding the project to 1000 images, which became the AUNTIEVERSE exhibition in February 2024. When I looked back on the year, in addition to the new materials, I rediscovered chapters from the very early days, my days with Midjourney.

Niceaunties, Auntieverse: Chapter No. 2, Spa Menu #0104, 2024.

AM: It all started on Instagram for you. How have the aunties been received since you started sharing your stories?

NA: With joy! Many people ask how I did it. There used to be a time when everyone shared their AI prompts, and I was also very open about the various possibilities.

Also, in July 2023, for International Aunties Day, I invited everyone to participate in an online event. We basically held an Instagram Auntie Party, and more than 50 artists took part, sending in 600 artworks in total. It was an Instagram auntie party!

AM: That’s also my experience when we do AI exhibitions at EXPANDED.ART in Berlin. The first question is always: How was it created? Why do you think that’s the first question?

NA: I am sure it is due to the strange and surreal nature of the images that look like a mix of photography, painting, and dreams. AI images generally look digital, yet they are familiar and uncanny at the same time. You kind of know at the back of your mind that they were not made using traditional mediums.

AM: How has your project been received by your family? Have you shared it with them? How do your aunties feel about it?

NA: Yes, I did show it to them. My aunties didn't really understand it. Some people on Facebook asked where I found the models for my photographs and wondered if I took photos of my own aunties.

Niceaunties, Auntieverse: Chapter No. 5, Auntiesocial #0477, 2024.

AM: In addition to your solo show here with us in collaboration with Fellowship on the occasion of Gallery Weekend Berlin, you're also a part of the AI exhibition at HOFA Gallery in London with, among others, Kevin Abosch, Sougwen Chung, Crosslucid, and Jennifer & Kevin McCoy. When HOFA shared the news of the exhibition online, some angry comments popped up about it. Do you have the same experience on Instagram? How do you react to criticism?

NA: I've had the same experience over the past year. In the beginning, between January and July, we were a small AI community, and everyone was friendly and supportive. Then one of the videos went viral, and lots of new people came to my profile who actually had nothing to do with AI. The little bubble of my private community burst, and suddenly I received a lot of negative comments, some of which contained real threats. For example, they wanted to know where I lived so they could ‘nuke’ my home. Most people assumed I took drugs or magic mushrooms. And all because I create art with AI.

How did I react to them? I didn’t. I don't engage. There's no way of winning someone over like that. There is no end to it. There are a lot of them. When I saw the responses to the announcement by HOFA, I thought, 'Wow, they're still going on. It's still happening.'

AM: What do you think is the root of these negative comments?

NA: Probably fear—fear of change? I mean, like I said, if they had tried it themselves or were open enough to try it, they might like it. They could at least give it a try.

Niceaunties, Auntiedote: Aioli Times, 2024.

AM: A collector, also an architect, visited our first AI exhibition at the gallery about a year ago. We started talking, among other things, about Midjourney, which he also uses. He was accompanied the next day to the exhibition by his mother, who, despite her advanced age, also uses Midjourney and created a really cute picture story about squirrels in Venice. It looked like a children’s book.

NA: You cannot really dispute the fact that the ability to be able to express yourself creatively is a very joyful process. That's everyone's right. A lot of these people are very young teenagers who comment online. They're just repeating what they heard, creating a fear of the future. Like everyone's saying, 'AI is going to take away our jobs. There is no job security for you; you're not needed.'

These are really frightening thoughts. They need someone to just take them aside and discuss the whole situation with them.

AM: You've also just co-curated an exhibition with Fellowship called POST-PHOTOGRAPHIC PERSPECTIVES III: TAMING THE MACHINE. Looking at the works of other artists using AI, what do you think is good AI art?

NA: Art is art. Naturally, it should contain something that draws people in. Since I now have a good understanding of AI tools, I also pay attention to the way they are used to create art. Primarily, it's always about the artist, their unique perspective, and how they use AI to bring us closer to their point of view. Anyone can use prompts and AI; the important thing is the ideas behind the art.

AM: Do you think it should also be a critical engagement with technology?

NA: It depends on the artist as well as the art and what they're trying to say. Some artists are only interested in the technology itself, for example, when they use the tools to create graphic patterns. But many other artists use technology as a tool to tell a story, like Hrant Khachatryan, whom I curated for PPP3. He used AI in PPP 3 to portray his fear of going to sleep and of dreaming as he encounters horrifying figures in dream states. Looking at his artwork, I can empathise, feel his fear, and see the elements that symbolically show the different layers of meaning.

I asked him if he would like to use a magnifier to make the faces of his characters sharper, but he refused. With Midjourney version 6, or with upscalers like Magnific, it is possible to depict people very realistically, but he prefers to use one of the earlier versions in order to be able to correctly portray his dreams, in which his characters have unsharp faces. So it is the intention that matters, not the AI that was used, because AI could do almost anything at this point.

AM: You mentioned that storytelling and narratives play very important roles in your work. As a curator, this is something I see on a daily basis with many artists. It's also something I recognize for myself, as I am actually an author and use words to tell stories. Suddenly, I have the opportunity to visualize the images in my head and make them a reality. Some people say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and more and more artists are using AI to depict their ideas visually. Do you think that's what we're going to see more of in the future?

NA: AI definitely pushes the boundaries for an artist to tell more elaborate, longer stories, maybe even a movie. However, ultimately, it depends on what the artist wants, of course. Some of them prefer to create more graphic artwork, like beautiful diagrams, shapes, forms, and stencils. And that's fine; there is no right or wrong! You have to decide for yourself how you want to express yourself, and sometimes a story develops and you suddenly have ten chapters.

AM: How did you approach working on AUNTIEVERSE?

NA: Alejandro from Fellowship suggested the 1000-image release of AUNTIEVERSE. He recommended that I approach this drop like a book. Many of the chapters already existed—videos of stories about NASA or TESLA, for example. I had already spent the previous year working on these, so the next step was to create images for these chapters to fill in the gaps.

Niceaunties, Auntieverse: Chapter No. 7, Tesla #0670, 2024.

AM: Do you feel under pressure now that many people follow your work and have certain expectations?

NA: I don't spend time thinking about that. I have to focus on the aspects that I can influence, as I can't control how people think, whether they think it's good or bad. So I concentrate on my art, connecting to what's happening around me, and getting inspired. Otherwise, I can't feel the fullness of the joy I feel when I create. If I was constantly thinking about how my work would be received at the end, it would distract me too much. It's counterproductive.

AM: I understand that. It must sometimes be difficult for artists to cope, given that they are sometimes very close to criticism, right?

NA: I try my best not to let that get to me, especially when the criticisms are not constructive. Personally, I have had the experience of very supportive collectors, for which I am very grateful. I was pleasantly surprised to find so many people who share my work every day or post the pieces they collect. Out of enthusiasm for my work, they are doing their part to further my career, which makes me feel like I'm part of a big team, a community.

Niceaunties, Auntiedote: Auntique Hair Spray, AI Video, 2024.

AM: It's interesting that you discovered AI, started working with it, and only when Alejandro approached you and offered you the opportunity did you realize that you could also sell your works as NFTs.

It is important for artists in the NFT space to learn that you can create your own work without it being directly judged for its cultural or monetary value. When you initially created your works, it also had no such ulterior motive?

NA:Of course, there is this conflict between wanting to be creative and also wanting to earn a living. But if you already focus on making money off your work during creative processes, it sort of corrupts the whole process. Alejandro often told me to experiment freely in my art without the aim of selling the work at the end.

Ultimately, the market decides the value of a piece of art. I don't set the prices; I don't want to worry about it either; I just concentrate on my story, and that's already enough to do.

AM: You mentioned that you keep track of new technologies coming onto the market. How is that for you as an artist? Do you feel like you have to constantly pay attention and always use the latest tools to not fall behind?

NA: No, not really. I intend to further develop my storytelling, how I can tell a story in the best possible way, and how new tools can help implement what was not technically possible with previous tools. When it comes to AI technology, which is already being used in this way, I only use the simplest tools that are accessible to everyone. The entry barrier is very low.

When it comes to Sora, I'm already excited. As soon as it's released, I'll be able to create longer video sequences. With Runway, only four seconds are currently possible; extending it beyond four seconds often creates distorted results. I try not to be a captive of ever-changing technology and therefore only pay attention to the tools I can use to achieve new outcomes.

AM: It's like using a smartphone and the camera. This resembles the time when people started taking photos with their smartphone cameras. Everyone could do this, so photography became a form of communication. Pictures can be sent as postcards via messenger apps, replacing the written word.

With AI, we are now able to return to the written word and create images from it with the help of AI. Only by using our imagination can we achieve the next level of image creation.

NA: Yes, this is so interesting. I think in English, Mandarin, and sometimes the Chinese dialect. Using language as a form of creative communication has kind of rewired my brain. I found myself extending language puns and word play into my creative work, which probably come through a lot less using other mediums.

Niceaunties, Auntiedote: Auntique Hair Support, 2024.

AM: Do you start with stills and then create the videos?

NA: I always start with creating still images. Once I know exactly what I want to express, I animate it to convey these strong feelings. Emotions are the basis of my decision to animate still images.

AM: And do you feel that there is a difference when people look at the animated works, the videos, and the stills? Does it feel different even when you look at it?

NA: With a still image, you can take as much time as you need to look at it and absorb all the details. In a video, everything is in motion—a compilation of several moving elements. It's about the big picture, not about the details.

Still, you need to capture the mood correctly, so I always start with a still image versus pure text prompts to video. If you use these AI tools with written prompts, they usually make very generic images. To work around this, my preferred option is to use another program to first create the image as I envision it and then use Runwayml Brush to animate parts of it. I get much more vibrant results that way.

I enjoy the whole creative process. I follow my intuition, and as long as it tells me to keep going, I seize the moment and work until I am satisfied with the result. I try to make each image as interesting as possible, for example, with small hidden objects and layers of cultural meaning. This allows people to discover something new every time they look at it, as it repeats like an animated GIF.

Niceaunties, Auntiedote: Auntie's Spring Skin, 2024.

AM: Do you feel others who grew up in your culture might see things differently from your story?

NA: Some aspects are very iconic, like the big hair. Where they don't have a lot of hair on their heads, they puff it up to hide that fact. Also, the use of hairspray is quite an auntie behavior.

Among my episodes is a video called AUNTIE SPECIALTIES about cooking ingredients typically used by aunties. This includes garlic, for example, but also herbal chicken, onion, and ginger. Typical Asian cuisine, as I'm sure you know it too. My mother, for instance, seasons every meal with minced garlic, which is typically found in every Asian meal. So there's always a garlic smell in the air. It's kind of disgusting.

Are you familiar with Korean glass skin? For those who don't know: Glass skin is flawless skin that is poreless and translucent. It's almost baby-like; the skin is at its healthiest. It's very shiny and glossy. Imagine if aunties swallowed pills and suddenly plants started growing inside them, then emerging from their pores, renewing their derma layers and pores from within.

This became the video SPRING SKIN, which is a spinoff story of Auntie’s Spa, a chapter of the AUNTIEVERSE. It consists of scenes of beauty treatments and procedures offered by Auntie’s spa to customers, which are usually quite tortuous and painful.

I intended to depict the more serious aspects of spa and beauty treatments, including the pain that women endure. Have you ever come across Chinese facial acupuncture?

I tried it out of curiosity; the acupuncture needles literally got ejected into my face from a device that looked and sounded like a mini stapler gun. A friend of mine went through it and said it wasn't painful, but it actually was. The stapler also made a terrible noise; I felt my face being stapled. It was horrifying.

Nevertheless, quite a few people do it; it obviously does something for them, and maybe it makes them feel better. I don't know, because in order to see actual improvements, they need to have these procedures done for many years and have them integrated into their lifestyles. Otherwise, it would just end up being a waste of money, so you have to keep doing it.

AM: Would you undergo these procedures for the next ten years?

NA: No, no. It's too scary. I just wanted to try it for fun.

Niceaunties, Auntieverse: Chapter No. 2, Spa Menu #0101, 2024.

AM: Do you have a message to share to address this issue?

NA: Everyone needs to think about why they do beauty treatments. I don't want to imply that it's good or bad; everyone has to decide for themselves. My art is simply an expression of my experiences.