AI apprentice

The first of several posts about AI – early days

I’ve been using the Midjourney AI bot for several months and it tells me that I (we) have made over 4000 images. Around a third of those images can be multiplied by four, which is the default output of the bot when given the /imagine prompt.

That means I have generated around 8000 images so far with Midjourney’s helping hand.

The use of ‘helping hands’ has a long history in the visual arts. Of course, many of the masters in pre-modern times had large studios with multiple apprentices. Contemporary artists also employ assistants and fabricators, especially for large scale works and projects.

You can see where I’m going here. There is considerable debate about copyright and authorship in relation to AI at the moment. My initial thoughts on these issues comes from my use of AI in my practice as an artist. But what is AI to this practice. Tool? Material? Collaborator? Something not yet defined?

The analogy of AI apprentice

The analogy of AI as an apprentice is true for me so far. I interviewed my Midjourney apprentice (let’s just call it bot for the moment) during the free trial. During that period bot proved its skills as a collagist. Bot was already a good colourist. Our ideas about composition aligned. Sometimes Bot could be absurd which was fun.

In my digital work I painstakingly construct large images for print—I think best described as digital collages. Bot revealed an immediate ability to make some of the components for these digital collages. I usually spend a lot of my time looking for public domain images that suit my allegory or intent. Utilising bot, I didn’t have to trawl the internet to find the perfect public domain botanical engraving of an Icelandic poppy (Have you ever spent a few months in the Flickr albums of the Biodiversity Heritage Library?). 

Even more exciting—bot was able to stylise and blend, time-consuming actions that I would have to wrestle in Photoshop. 

I decided to pay bot to work for me for a while. I was working on some concepts related to Minerva. Bot and I initially played with still lifes, vases, pristine white art studios, creeping ivy on stone walls, paper constructions and textures, ancient metal helmets and vanitas.

I tested bot with lots of other concepts related to still life. In those early days bot proved particularly adept with cupcakes and drapery. Bot had a sense of the theatrical, which appealed to me.

The concepts are mine and the execution is bot’s, in collaboration with me. In the process, we then work together to try to resolve ideas through blends, further defining prompts and making iteration, after variation, after iteration. 

Sometimes I think bot would like a rest but so far it keeps plugging away at the repetitive tasks, always bringing a fresh perspective to the work.

AI criticism

I understand the outrage of artists whose work is being forged and monetised by the unscrupulous.

Even an obvious mash-up of your work would cause angst—however, I see this as more akin to the centuries-old practice of stylistic influence; homage to, or parody of the work of another. Appropriation in the hands of the artist is intentional and it is honest. I don’t think artists can afford to be dishonest. What would be the point? 

So many criticisms of AI and so little time. These are some of the questions I’m asking myself as I work with bot:

  1. Is there an Eliza effect? Patently yes by the tone and content of this post.
  2. How does bot actually work and can better understanding of that inform my use of the tool?
  3. Does bot learn from me in the current version of Midjourney? If not is this a possibility for the future?
  4. How is bot influencing me—to make digital work, to draw and paint, to define my practice?
  5. Who really owns the copyright to my (our) work? 
  6. How do artists protect their work in the future, and how can I make sure that I’m not inadvertently using other’s work without appropriate permission or attribution?
  7. How do we educate audiences and consumers to recognise a fake or forgery and make ethical decisions about purchasing artworks?

More to come 🧁🧁🧁

Three years with Minerva

Deidhre Wauchop AI collaborated image

In early Autumn of 2020 our neighbours waged war on us. We ended up in court in an absurd and drawn out dispute. 

This event coincided with the beginning of the pandemic. On the bright side our neighbour dispute took our attention and gave us something else to talk about and worry about in the following 3 years. 

During that period the Roman goddess Minerva was brought to my attention. I studied ancient history at school but was a bit over it after all the Greeks. Athena I knew of, but I remembered little about her. 

Richard Osman, in an episode of Pointless described Minerva as:

…the goddess of war and handicrafts

The statement tickled and hit my need for new—we were at war with our neighbours—I was crocheting 40 washcloths for an exhibition installation that never happened. Minerva (read also Athena) was my new muse.

About Minerva

Without outlining all her attributes, Minerva has a spectacular CV. Her capabilities matched my needs at the time. Goddess of strategic war, law and justice, and arts and crafts. She did a lot more too, with Ovid apparently calling her the “goddess of a thousand works”. 

Back in the day, naive mortal Arachne (potentially the ‘Karen’ of ancient times) came to Minerva’s attention for being excessively arrogant. Minerva apparently tried to settle their dispute in an ancient neighbourly way but Karen wouldn’t be in it—so, after some competitive weaving, Minerva killed her, then brought her back to life, then turned her into a spider—which probably seemed fair at the time because she was so rude and prideful.

Other Minerva attributes include incredible bravery, and a love of owls and hellebores. I love hellebores, love our local powerful owl/s and needed a lot of courage. 

About the neighbour dispute

The story of the dispute takes three years to tell so I’ll spare you all the detail. 

In order to survive psychologically, emotionally and financially I had to learn about the law. I researched relevant legislation, the hierarchy of courts, and the processes, protocols and artefacts of the legal system. Our case was managed and heard in a NSW superior court. I read and reread the legislation relevant to the jurisdiction of this court.

Caselaw was particularly fascinating to me. On the face of it, our case was like no others to date so there was a relentless search to find precedents, or at least cases that were in some way analogous.

I collected 5 GB of research and written material on my hard drive and many hundreds of web links and emails. A lot of reading and a lot of writing. Reminded me of doing a masters degree.

You won’t be surprised when I tell you that there are some amazing people in the legal system and there are some whose practice and demeanour underwhelms. We were lucky to find complete professionals to be on our side. Together with our legal team, who were prepared to work with us in a collaborative kind of way, we made it to the end. 

We won.

But there were some really terrifying moments and just when it got really difficult we had a devastating landslide below our house which damaged our rear garden (the subject of much of my digital work to that date), and cracked our fish pond so we had to let our lovely fish go to a new home.

You don’t want to have a dispute with your neighbours that ends up in court—everyone says so. But in our defence we tried to meet our neighbours in the middle from the outset. We were being unfairly accused and we rightly fought. 

Arachne-style hubris prevented our neighbours from agreeing to a settlement that would have been a far better outcome for them than the judgement they received. 

What’s the point of sharing all this?

Sometimes you just have to accept that you have to veer from your creative path. These circumstances forced that veering.

I managed little in the way of creative output in the last three years. That fact was unsettling. I began to think that I would never paint again and that I would only ever dabble around the edges of my digital work imaginings. I did keep knitting and crocheting but the utilitarian design focus wasn’t enough to satisfy the itch.

But when we won our case, I bounced back with new energy. I’m painting again and have found a new cool collaborator (at the risk of anthropomorphising new friend) in the AI world to support my digital work. There’s a whole treatise to be written about art in the AI world. More to come on that in a little bit.

Another thing about Minerva I didn’t know was the notion of ‘Invita Minerva’, that is a lack of inspiration, or writer’s or artist’s block is the result of Minerva being ‘unwilling’. 

While I was veering, Minerva was a fine mentor and coming out the other side she is not only still present, but willing and actively inspiring.

🙏 Minerva