conversations – Interview by Margaret Murphy – 19.04.2023
MIKEY WOODBRIDGE: THE EPHEMERAL STATE OF BEING
AI AND DIGITAL COUTURE
Mikey Woodbridge belongs to a truly multidisciplinary artist breed—he paints, performs, and sings. Woodbridge, however, feels most at home working with AI and thrives when creating digital couture or questioning gender and identity. The artist speaks about Berlin and the city's influence on his practice, combining performance, fashion, and AI art, and collaborating with his partner Ezra Shibboleth on recent projects.
Margaret Murphy: You are from Australia and now base yourself in Berlin. What has brought you to Berlin?
Mikey Woodbridge: I came to Berlin originally to perform in a dance piece by Alexander Baczynski-Jenkins at Sophiensaele called "Feeling Real." It was based on queer club culture, and he had seen me in London and invited me to be part of the piece. In the meantime, my residence permit in the UK had expired. Alex had kindly found a place for me in Berlin, and so I just stayed. This was in 2015. I met Ezra Shibboleth a couple of months after I arrived.
MM: Berlin is known for its art and music scene, especially the nightclub Berghain and institutions such as the Neue Nationalgalerie, Schinkel Pavillon, the Julia Stoschek Foundation, and C/O Berlin. Does the cultural scene in Berlin have an influence on your artistic practice?
MW: Club culture in Berlin is, for me, more about connecting to primal sensibilities and cherishing each intimate moment with others, moments that can only happen in portal space. Clubs like Berghain and the nightlife in the city have become a fundamental part of my art practice. When I go out in my MIKEY regalia, it speaks a specific language and demands a specific space. I see it as using the power of drag and fashion as a medium to bring art closer to the people who really need to see this reflection of presence, strength, and resilience—people who aren’t necessarily part of the art world.
Culture is all about showing up, so when I show up in a look, I see it as influencing the culture rather than influencing me and my artistic practice. I also use my nights out to explore, act, and express new ways of being, to rehearse, observe, and research the complexities of human nature. I learn so much from these experiences at Berghain.
In the art world, I’m more connected to the indie scene than I am to the institutional one. I’ve become very involved with The Ballery in Schöneberg, where I’ve had several shows of my paintings, put on events, and filmed music videos. The Bright Moments Berlin gallery, which opened last year, has become a central point for me as well. I often perform in temporary art spaces where friends organize events. However, art institutions have also been a way to connect with amazing people, like CA Conrad, an American poet whom I met at the Schinkel Pavillon, and Meg Stuart, a choreographer and dancer whom I met through a performance we did together at Hebbel am Ufer. Peres Project has a space in Berlin, and it gave me the opportunity to connect with artist Ad Minoliti, who invited me to perform when they were showing works there.
MM: You have a truly multidisciplinary practice—performance, songwriting, painting, and digital art. How do you see these mediums informing one another?
MW: I paint, make music, write, am a DJ, play with fashion, but the core of my practice is performance. Both my first collection, OtherFaces, and my recent AI fashion collection, Latent Couture, are deeply rooted in my history as a performer. Crypto art has actually given more meaning and substance to all of those previous experiences where I didn’t even know what I was doing as an artist. I just made things out of a place of suffering and feeling lost in the world; that was where my creative drive came from. Crypto art has in many ways been a healthier place for me, because it’s in this space that I’ve felt for the first time that my work is valued. LATENT COUTURE made me realize recently that it doesn’t matter where the artistic drive might have come from; I was always bringing beauty to the world through art and offering a way for others to connect to something more, even when I didn’t know what I was doing.
In September, I’ll do my first exhibition that presents my digital art, my paintings, and my performance all together at KINDL - Zentrum für zeitgenössische Kunst, curated by Solvej Helweg Ovesen.
MM: How did you get from songwriting to working with AI and being involved in the NFT space?
MW: Ezra Shibboleth introduced me to crypto art. The artist Pindar Van Arman was my first introduction to AI art. I got the opportunity to collect one of his bitGANs on the same day I launched OtherFaces. Through that, he discovered my music videos, which he loved, so he started collecting OtherFaces that are connected to them. He and his community share a lot of knowledge about AI techniques. That’s where I started doing my first AI experiments.
Last September, I had an experience that changed my outlook on what AI can do. I had performed at a quite well-respected festival in Düsseldorf in a beautiful planetarium for around 800 people. The event was even promoted as the opening performance of MTV Music Week. I hand-painted my dress and performed songs that I’d been working on for the last two years. I felt that I brought so much more than anyone would ever even expect. I know how strong I am when I’m on stage. My voice fills an entire room, and my performances are ethereal and captivating. But I was getting paid less than 50 cents for each person in that room. As much as I do feel the value of being generous with my performances, I was sad that I wouldn’t be able to sustain myself as an artist in these conditions. I left feeling defeated and foolish for putting so much into a performance for an industry that doesn’t value the art or care for an artist’s wellbeing. I was traveling home on the train back to Berlin, sad but satisfied in knowing I had left an impact on every single person in that room.
When the train had almost arrived back to Berlin, I got a notification on my phone that I was a finalist in Claire Silver’s 2nd AI art contest with my piece, SELF PORTRAIT IN LUNARIA. This was a piece I made by training a diffusion model on images from a performance art video I made called "Lunaria." I felt that my performance was more valued in that context than it had been in Düsseldorf. What I realized is that AI art can be a way of making a symbolic vessel for the value of intangible work. It gives people something definite—an emblem that allows them to locate value. This is something I had experimented with in OtherFaces, which I developed together with Ezra. In that piece, the faces become emblems of the creative acts I performed while wearing them. I phrased that piece in terms of generative art, but actually, the experiences were posed as metaphorical training data. In SELF PORTRAIT IN LUNARIA and LATENT COUTURE I took this further, using photographs of looks I had created for performances as literal training data.
I’ve been experimenting more and getting excited about these new tools. In November 2022, I was invited to Mexico City to perform with Bright Moments. It was there that I found out that they will also be doing an AI collection for their upcoming event in Tokyo, and that lit an AI fire under me. I felt a spark and rush in my vision for LATENT COUTURE, and an excitement that I hadn’t felt in years.
MM: What are the biggest challenges for you as an artist when working with AI?
MW: Finding ways to make narratives and metaphors with these new tools that are legible to people who might not yet understand their mechanisms. With so much AI art on the way, I think narrative and concept are going to be the most important differentiators.
MM: How do you feel about the sometimes strong criticism when it comes to art being created in collaboration with an AI? Critics say, as has been the case with every new technology, "this is not art".
MW: I think no one knows what art is. Art is constantly not only questioning what it is, but actually shapeshifting and becoming new things. The Yves Klein piece ZONES OF IMMATERIAL PICTORIAL SENSIBILITY, which inspired our piece in the exhibition ALGORITHMIC EMPATHY. THE PROMISES OF AI put forward an idea of art that’s still considered by many to be "not art." Yet it’s stayed relevant for more than six decades. He was saying, among other things, that the value of art is the immaterial connection with an aesthetic sensibility rather than a physical object. This has a very interesting parallel to AI art, where the final output can be a symbolic vessel for the immaterial experiences represented in the training data or prompts.
MM: Why do you think a new technology is first heavily criticized by skeptics and then fully embraced by curious minds?
MW: I like to think that we all come to be through our own journey. We can’t all be at the forefront at once. If we were, would curiosity even exist?
MM: Do you approach creating artwork differently from writing songs? The one you perform in front of an audience, with your presence as an artist being the one who moves the audience, while your artwork has to stand on its own on the internet or in an exhibition space?
MW: I think the most important thing is the presence I create in the spaces between and beyond the artwork. Everything I have done in the past goes into an artwork, and everything I do in the future influences and alters the artwork. This is why avatars and personas are so interesting to me, because they are out there performing without me, doing shows in people’s minds. Just because the performance is over or an artwork might be on a wall or on the internet doesn’t mean the artist’s presence stops planting the seeds for connection.
MM: The concepts seem to be the driving force in your artworks, be it OTHERFACES, your first NFT collection consisting of 111 NFTs, or LATENT COUTURE, your second NFT collection consisting of 555 NFTs. How do you get started working on a new concept? Do you start with a question you would like to answer?
MW: I’m always creating in one form or another, and I’ve found that concepts emerge naturally if I just keep the channel open. Crypto art and AI art both raise particular questions for me about how to translate my practice into a form that makes sense in these contexts and about how these contexts can advance my practice. Since we met, Ezra and I have always worked together on the conceptual design and presentation of my art, though he usually prefers to stay behind the scenes. So I generally start with the things that emerge from a natural creative flow, and Ezra and I shape them together into a final form.
MM: How do you feel as an artist creating artwork of such vastness? For example, in comparison to painters, who might create 10 or 20 paintings when presenting a new body of work.
MW: The dynamics of art on the blockchain are quite unique. Ultimately, what I think we’re building is a new kind of cultural currency, a paradigm where cultural value can be a functional means of exchange. That reality might be a ways off, and I don’t know what it will look like, but the collections I’ve made include this outlook in their design. One of the more conflicted aspects of this is the issue of liquidity. It’s of course desirable that collectors keep pieces for a long time, and I try to make works that people will never want to sell, but fluid exchange is also necessary for a real cultural currency to function.
113d, the co-creator of Mathcastles, said something that I find very interesting: "The lesson of Web3 is that transactions are speech acts. They’re statements with stakes." In order for speech acts to be possible, there has to be a large pool of semantic units, which are tokens in this case. My work in cryptoart has orbited around interrogating the possible meanings of tokens and tokenization—the meanings that occur when one thing serves as an emblem or vessel for the value of something else—and the piece we made for this exhibition is a part of that exploration.
MM: Your project, LATENT COUTURE, explores AI fashion as a statement. You say "A look is a meme". What do you mean by this?
MW: A look is a communicative unit; it expresses an idea about what a human being can be. When I wear a look, I’m saying, "This is a possible person." It’s a very direct way of communicating; it presents a way of being in a form that’s instantly legible. I think this is also why people often find looks to be so confronting, because they hit you with a lot of information at once in a condensed form. When I think about fashion in the context of cryptoart, the potential I see is to use looks and the transaction of looks as speech acts. LATENT COUTURE addresses fashion as a language rather than a commodity. It’s a vehicle for communicating about ways of being.
MM: Fashion magazines like Vogue are featuring AI-created fashions. Do you expect we will see designers using AI in the conception of their collections, bringing AI to the physical world?
MW: What I would like to see is more emerging fashion designers using AI and crypto as a way for their work to be valued. Most freelance designers I know aren’t able to focus on their own work but end up having to take gigs where they are always the least valued for their contributions. I think next to musicians and performers, fashion designers and dressmakers are some of the most undervalued artists, yet people consume their work constantly without even realizing it.
I was talking with Seth Goldstein from Bright Moments last week, and one of the things that came up was the question, "What would an IRL AI Fashion event look like?" A few days later, Elon Musk tweeted, "Let’s make an AI-designed fashion show IRL." I don’t much care for Musk, but it does show me that it’s definitely being thought about by some pioneering minds.
MM: Your project ALGORITHMIC ZONES OF IMMATERIAL PICTORIAL SENSIBILITY, part of our exhibition, ALGORITHMIC EMPATHY. THE PROMISES OF AI, uses pronouns (you, me, it, us, them, him, her) as text prompts in version 1.4 of Stable Diffusion as a way to explore the latency of identity through the AI outputs. Why use the oldest model of this AI software?
MW: The older, less refined models are less capable of producing outputs designed to fulfill our expectations, and as a result, they reveal more of how the model works. You can see more of the frames and structures behind the walls, so to speak. For this reason, I very often prefer artworks made with older diffusion models and GANs. In AZIPS in particular, we’re addressing the way that models are constructed, and an older model is more effective for that purpose.
MM: This project is made with your partner Ezra Shibboleth, your first artist collaboration. Does the concept of the project lend itself to collaboration?
MW: Ezra and I have collaborated in one way or another on almost everything I’ve made since we met in 2015. This started out with me using lines from his poems in my songs and writing songs together. Over time, we’ve created together in many different ways. I’m also often an influence or a presence in his solo work and his poetry. He usually likes to stay behind the scenes, but for this piece we decided to explicitly present it as a collaboration because, rather than being something I made that he contributed to or something he made that I contributed to, this is something that was created in the resonance between us.
MM: I am sure the title of this project will remind viewers immediately of the famous artwork by Yves Klein, ZONE OF IMMATERIAL PICTORIAL SENSIBILITY, a book and a performance from 1959. What was your inspiration to work with this reference by Klein?
MW: Yves Klein’s "Zone" put forward an important perspective on tokens as artworks, and it’s been an influence on the way I translate my practice into the context of blockchain since I started making tokenized art. One of the essential things he was saying with that piece, and with all of his work, was that an artwork is an experience that’s independent of its physical container. This resonates with me for two main reasons. The first is that my primary practice is performance—the creation of experiences. The second is that I’m a nonbinary person, and I’ve had to learn what it means that who I am is independent of my physical container.
When VerticalCrypto Art and EXPANDED.ART extended the invitation to present a work on the theme ALGORITHMIC EMPATHY. THE PROMISES OF AI Ezra and I wanted to take the opportunity to risk making a work that showed its conceptual bones. The NFT space generally has a very short attention span; it’s defined by meme-based communication and gamification. There is often very little space for context and depth. VCA and EXPANDED.ART, however, work very hard to make space for context, and in-depth concepts. So we wanted to honor that by making something that can hopefully contribute to the discourse they’re building. Part of that is showing our conceptual lineage, which leads back to Yves Klein and his Zones, as well as Mitchell Chan’s reinvention of that piece, ZONE OF IMMATERIAL PICTORIAL SENSIBILITY.
MM: Do AI and blockchain enable artwork that is strongly focused on concepts and ideas?
MW: AI and blockchain have a lot of intersections, but one of the most direct is their use of tokens, which are essentially conceptual units. In this sense, both AI and blockchain are nothing but concepts and ideas. In language models and text-to-image synthesis models, text is broken down into tokens, which represent the smallest units of meaning. In AI, tokens are the building blocks for a language model’s understanding of our desires, our prompts. In blockchain, tokens are the building blocks for a society’s understanding of our values and our transactions. In crypto art, we communicate with each other via tokens. In text prompting, we communicate with AI models via tokens. Using either blockchain or AI as a medium (rather than as a means for representing pre-existing media) means making an art that is composed of concepts and ideas.
MM: What are your thoughts as an artist and songwriter about the future of AI? What are some of the promises of AI that society should not underestimate?
MW: The most important thing not to be underestimated is how absolutely transformative AI will be. I think it’s not even possible to conceive of what it will mean using the thought systems that we currently have. It brings our most fundamental concepts into question, things that we’re very used to taking for granted, like what it means to have consciousness and what it means to be a human being. The art I make is always about exploring what it means to be a human, a person, or a consciousness, so I’m trying now to integrate the emerging implications of AI into my practice.
"The dynamics of art on the blockchain are quite unique. Ultimately, what I think we’re building is a new kind of cultural currency, a paradigm where cultural value can be a functional means of exchange."
– Mikey Woodbridge