NEW YORK – Sougwen Chung seems down at her silent, cussed collaborator with a mixture of affection and gentle vexation.
“I must debug the unit,” says the 35-year-old artist. “It will not cooperate with me right now.” She strokes the silver-and-white contraption as if she’s soothing a toddler. Clearly, it’s extra to her than a “unit.” It is a robotic arm that paints, powered by synthetic intelligence.
Meet Doug. Full title: Drawing Operations Unit, Technology 4. Chung makes use of it and different robots in her performance-based artworks. She and the robots paint collectively on massive canvasses, half workforce effort, half improvised dance.
In pre-coronavirus days, Chung led these AI-assisted portray performances in entrance of a stay viewers, on a stage or in a gallery setting. At London’s Gillian Jason Gallery, a sequence of 4 of Chung’s robotic collaborations is priced at £100,000, or greater than $131,000 per picture.
But with the pandemic, Chung is not performing stay. She streams her robotic collaborations from her studio into exhibit areas – in August, the Sørlandets Kunstmuseum in Norway hosted a number of of those transmissions, the place they turned non permanent video installations.
Chung has carved out her area of interest within the increasing world of AI artwork. A lot of this world is targeted on the digital facet: graphics, pixels, software program. However Chung’s work is completely different. She’s focused on a human-machine partnership, and what that looks like within the physique.
“I am within the bodily world in addition to digital,” she says, “not a lot an emphasis on pixel manipulation. How these techniques can feed again into our on a regular basis lives, and in muscle reminiscence and bodily area.”
This is the reason she likes individuals to see how she and the robots paint collectively. She calls her work “embodied AI,” and it is her physique she’s speaking about – bending or kneeling, wielding her brush on the canvas along with her robots, responding to their actions as they reply to hers.
Artwork object and artwork maker
Chung has designed and programmed about two dozen Dougs, at a price of as much as $8,000 per unit. She uploaded the early ones with 20 years’ value of her drawings, making them consultants in her gestures. Doug 4 is much more intimately tied to Chung: It connects to her brain-wave information, and this influences how the robotic behaves. When she and her robots paint, they’re carefully linked by way of a shared financial institution of data, and thru stay, in-the-moment visible and motion cues, simply as dancers or musicians are.
In Chung’s Brooklyn studio, Doug’s arm bends over a sheet of paper on a desk, with its entrance tip poised simply above the floor, able to be fitted with a brush. Easy and organic-looking, this Doug may very well be taken for a biomorphic sculpture. You could possibly say it is each artwork object and artwork maker.
Work that Chung has created with AI techniques cling on the sun-washed partitions of her studio: spiraling clouds of blue and white; tendrils that spring forth and recede; fluid traces worming collectively in an undulating net. Some recall thick-inked calligraphy, the jottings of a secret language.
They seem like the work of a single artist. However are they? That depends upon how you concentrate on AI It is a time period that even Chung hesitates to embrace.
“We do not have human intelligence found out,” she says. “That lack of specificity shouldn’t be the easiest way to consider a fancy set of techniques.”
She prefers to name her robots collaborators. They do not absolutely replicate the human inventive course of, after all, however neither are they merely spitting out copies of the info Chung feeds them.
As a substitute, they will generate interpretations – for instance, increasing upon a knowledge set of Chung’s drawings to make their very own designs. They will additionally reply spontaneously to Chung’s traces and brushstrokes, making a suggestions loop along with her of improvised, communal creation.
Chung made the work on her partitions with cellular Dougs, Generations Two and Three, that scoot round on wheels with their brushes, trailing paint. (First, she had to determine learn how to preserve their wheels from slipping on it.) Many of those floor-based items relaxation on cabinets and tables across the studio. They’re spherical and Roomba-size, topped with coiled wires, small motors and a compact pc gadget often known as a Raspberry Pi. Constructed into the entrance of every one is a brief, stiff chalk brush, like a shaving brush.
Dressed all in black – comfortable T-shirt, Harem pants – Chung seems extra like a dancer than a techie, along with her slender physique and expressive, delicate fingers. She worries about sounding “an excessive amount of like a nerd” as she factors out the robots’ options.
Though she speaks softly and has a relaxed demeanor, Chung is a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. She’s OK with chaos, glad to throw management to the winds. Why else would she select this path, turning away from secure, contemplative work in her studio to construct a profession out of dangerous group initiatives in public view, with unpredictable algorithms and glitch-prone, high-maintenance machines ( you, robotic-arm Doug) that require fixed calibrations?
Persevering by way of technical glitches
For Chung, perseverance whereas coping with technical glitches is nothing new. She grew up on the intersection of artwork and know-how; her father was an opera singer and her mom a pc programmer. Born in Hong Kong, they emigrated to Toronto, the place Chung was born. She studied violin, taught herself to code and commenced designing web sites in grade college.
She was additionally keen on drawing, although again then she did not envision a profession as an artist. Nonetheless, she appreciated her work sufficient to hold on to her early sketches, and to all the things since. (It is a extremely organized individual.)
“The drawing apply,” she says, “is one thing I’ve all the time stored with me, my complete life.”
It was throughout a analysis fellowship at MIT Media Lab that Chung found robotics. Right here was a method to bridge science and artwork, and construct on her sketching.
“I used to be within the bodily embodiment, and what it could really feel wish to evolve my very own drawing apply,” she says, “and I hadn’t seen robots used collaboratively at the moment. I needed to strive one thing much less about robots executing an present code and extra about working collectively.”
In 2014, she launched the machine collaborations that finally included AI. “It was simply this unusual experiment,” Chung says, considering again on the primary AI system she constructed and coded. “What wouldn’t it be wish to have a drawing collaborator that was a nonhuman machine entity? What would that do for my course of?”
It appears like a logical development – from little one artist and coder to skilled artist constructing her personal robots. But Chung says none of this appeared very clear as she was feeling her means into this new realm.
Stumbling onto her path
“I stumbled into my path,” she says. What pushed her ahead wasn’t a lot the know-how, fascinating because it was, however the rush of efficiency. That is what she had liked about taking part in violin as a toddler.
“I needed to convey the physique again into the inventive course of, the muscle reminiscence and gesture that had been lacking from my apply, and that vitality you create with the viewers.”
Maya Indira Ganesh, a know-how researcher at Leuphana College in Luneburg, Germany, says Chung’s work stands out as a result of she rejects prevailing notions of robots and AI, and she or he’s comfy along with her personal fallibility.
“What Sougwen does is say, ‘How will we reimagine these boundaries and variations which are speculated to exist between people and machines?'” Ganesh says, talking by telephone from Berlin. In galleries, “a lot of the AI artwork you see is normally easy and easy, like watching computation occur. It is the fetishization of the machine. We expect these techniques must be good and seamless. However Sougwen may be very expert with this know-how, and she or he talks about her works in progress and in course of. … She’s exhibiting us that the human may be very a lot part of the method.”
The method. Assume experimental theater. Usually, Chung and Doug carry out in a darkened gallery area, with spectators (pre-pandemic) gathered round a canvas illuminated on the ground. There’s usually music and atmospheric lighting, and the robotic is type of crawling round.
“Portray, portray,” says Chung, delivering a agency correction with a smile.
In fact. It is portray. (One of many Dougs, perched beside Chung’s laptop computer as we watch movies of her performances, nonetheless has dried blue and white paint caught to its little brush.) Doug dashes off gleaming streaks of shade, and Chung counters along with her personal, and so forth, artist and machine taking turns studying one another’s painted expressions and constructing on them. The robotic is guided by an AI system often known as recurrent neural networks.
Making all the things come collectively
“It is extra of a call-and-response,” Chung says. “I can enter completely different line strokes and the machine can reply to it. So it is actually about that interplay. However it’s additionally not about making machines do a factor. what I imply? It is all the time about that suggestions loop in that collaboration.”
Interplay. Collaboration. Chung’s language reveals how she thinks about AI. It is not her slave. She’s not all the time the boss.
“I feel quite a bit about narratives that we inform ourselves about know-how and why we’ve got these narratives,” she says. “And I feel they’re actually influenced by science fiction and popular culture. And that tends to be hypermasculine, hyper-dystopian. That is why we’ve got all these actually sensational tales about AI, like, is it going to take over humanity? The place will we get that from? We get that from ‘The Matrix.’
“That is not a story that I subscribe to,” she continues. “I feel it creates a really adversarial, power-driven dynamic with know-how.”
Within the performances, all the things comes collectively: Her tech experience, her artwork, the full-body expertise. After all of the programming and calibrating, it’s by way of these improvised portray experiences along with her AI collaborators that Chung has regained the circulation state she liked as a musician.
“The place you do not have to consider commas in your code,” she says, “however you’ll be able to simply be in it. … There was this sense of exploration and marvel that I used to be navigating. It felt very very important and alive, like dance.”
Her work continues to evolve. In a current venture, she uploaded her robots with publicly accessible surveillance footage of pedestrians crossing New York Metropolis streets. She extracted particular information streams, to seize the bodily movement of pre-coronavirus New York crowds. With the robots, she turned this digitized bustle into brushwork. In future initiatives, Chung hopes to convey the general public into her course of and even onto her canvas, to attract alongside the robots.
“I am inquisitive about exploring what the machine would draw like,” she says, “if all of us contributed to a drawing set.”
Finally, Chung needs to make use of AI applied sciences to convey individuals collectively. But now that the coronavirus has us all working towards social distancing, she sees different alternatives: methods for viewers to expertise AI art-making remotely, such because the streamed performances.
“Picasso used the instruments of his day,” she says. “I am focused on utilizing the applied sciences that outline our present second, as a means of understanding how they work in our lives. The trendy human is surrounded by sensible know-how and telephones and machines, and I need to use them as a supply of inspiration, seeking to what future artwork practices may very well be.”
“There’s all the time a possible for failure,” Chung says. “With this dynamic that I have been exploring, it is in regards to the sudden. And that retains me actually .”