In late 2018, Christie’s became the first auction house to sell an artwork created by a computer algorithm. The artwork’s origins, however, are somewhat complex. Portrait of Edmond Belamy, which was eventually sold for $432,500, was credited to a trio of French students, but the artwork was created using code by AI artist and tech wunderkind Robbie Barrat.
Barrat – who was 19 at the time and had uploaded his code to the internet for open-source use – received nothing. Nevertheless, the artist remains an enthusiastic proponent of open-source sharing. “Growing up in rural West Virginia, the internet and open-source was the only way I was able to learn about artificial intelligence and start creating generative artwork,” says Barrat, whose works often seek to demystify his own practice. “It has incredible potential, but if the only people who are able to work meaningfully with AI are those who have industry experience or a formal education, then we’ll only get artworks reflecting a very narrow perspective.”
Having previously generated an AI Balenciaga runway, Barrat worked with Acne Studios on the label’s AW20 men’s collection, creating a neural network to learn the shapes and textures of past collections before adding elements of distortion to trick the computer. The result was new season ‘designs’ with off-kilter, asymmetric flourishes. Another recent collaboration, with the French painter Ronan Barrot, produced a series of juxtaposed skulls. Barrot’s are recognisably skull-like, the kind he has painted thousands of times before, while Barrat’s AI interpretations are more like atrophic abstractions. The visual dialogue created is, in a sense, reflective of Barrat’s artistic outlook: one that doesn’t seek to dismiss traditional techniques, but rather to realise the full potential of AI within art.
How do you want to influence the future?
Robbie Barrat: I want to continue collaborating with other artists, to really figure out how AI fits in or diverges from the established art canon. Currently, the art world is very obsessed with the idea of a singular image being a work of art, but with generative systems and AI, the artist makes a system – which is what I consider to be the artwork. That system can then produce thousands of images in a short amount of time. I want to explore the impact that could have on the established fine art world, which I’ve often found to be oppressive and exclusionary.
Where do you eventually want to get to in your career?
Robbie Barrat: I just want to keep making images and artwork that use and examine technology – not just AI – in a meaningful way. I don’t really have a long-term goal in mind, but short-term, I really hope that I get accepted to the Beaux Arts in Paris this fall. It’s an art school where I’d be able to collaborate with other young artists and also familiarise myself with a range of traditional mediums. I feel like I’m a bit unbalanced, as I’m only familiar with AI and have no idea how to paint or sketch. It would hopefully fix that.
“If the only people able to work with AI are those with a formal education, we’ll only get artworks from a very narrow perspective” – Robbie Barrat
What creative or philanthropic project would you undertake with a grant from Dazed 100 Ideas fund, should you be selected?
Robbie Barrat: Firstly, I would create a comprehensive set of open-source lectures and code targeted at traditional artists, with the goal of incorporating AI into their artistic practice. There are already a handful of open-source courses about AI, but very few target non-technical people, such as traditional artists, and none of them teach about this technology with the goal of making generative art. Additionally, I’d like to continue the dialogue that I had with Ronan Barrot. We made work together that I consider to be very important, about how a painter works compared to how a new media artist works. To continue this dialogue or confrontation between us, I think it would have to move in a more sculptural direction – like a Nam June Paik style of video sculpture. For this, I’d have to buy some screens and other materials that I can’t currently afford on my budget as an art student.