NEW YORK – Sougwen Chung appears down at her silent, cussed collaborator with a mixture of affection and delicate vexation.
“I have to debug the unit,” says the 35-year-old artist. “It will not cooperate with me immediately.” 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, Era 4. Chung makes use of it and different robots in her performance-based artworks. She and the robots paint collectively on massive canvasses, half group effort, half improvised dance.
In pre-coronavirus days, Chung led these AI-assisted portray performances in entrance of a reside viewers, on a stage or in a gallery setting. At London’s Gillian Jason Gallery, a collection 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 reside. 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 momentary 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 enthusiastic about 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 programs can feed again into our on a regular basis lives, and in muscle reminiscence and bodily area.”
That is why 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 together 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 specialists 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 via a shared financial institution of data, and thru reside, 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. Clean and organic-looking, this Doug may very well be taken for a biomorphic sculpture. You can say it is each artwork object and artwork maker.
Work that Chung has created with AI programs cling on the sun-washed partitions of her studio: spiraling clouds of blue and white; tendrils that spring forth and recede; fluid strains 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 relies on 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 isn’t one of the best ways to consider a fancy set of programs.”
She prefers to name her robots collaborators. They do not totally replicate the human inventive course of, after all, however neither are they merely spitting out copies of the information 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 strains and brushstrokes, making a suggestions loop together with her of improvised, communal creation.
Chung made the work on her partitions with cell Dougs, Generations Two and Three, that scoot round on wheels with their brushes, trailing paint. (First, she had to determine the right way to maintain 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 laptop system referred to 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 – cosy T-shirt, Harem pants – Chung appears extra like a dancer than a techie, together with her slender physique and expressive, delicate palms. 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 peaceful demeanor, Chung is a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. She’s OK with chaos, pleased to throw management to the winds. Why else would she select this path, turning away from protected, 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 via technical glitches
For Chung, perseverance whereas coping with technical glitches is nothing new. She grew up on the intersection of artwork and expertise; 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 started designing web sites in grade faculty.
She was additionally keen on drawing, although again then she did not envision a profession as an artist. Nonetheless, she preferred her work sufficient to hold on to her early sketches, and to all the things since. (It is a extremely organized particular person.)
“The drawing apply,” she says, “is one thing I’ve at all times saved with me, my complete life.”
It was throughout a analysis fellowship at MIT Media Lab that Chung found robotics. Right here was a solution to bridge science and artwork, and construct on her sketching.
“I used to be within the bodily embodiment, and what it might really feel prefer to evolve my very own drawing apply,” she says, “and I hadn’t seen robots used collaboratively at the moment. I wished to attempt one thing much less about robots executing an current code and extra about working collectively.”
In 2014, she launched the machine collaborations that ultimately included AI. “It was simply this unusual experiment,” Chung says, considering again on the primary AI system she constructed and coded. “What would it not be prefer to have a drawing collaborator that was a nonhuman machine entity? What would that do for my course of?”
It feels like a logical development – from youngster artist and coder to skilled artist constructing her personal robots. But Chung says none of this appeared very clear as she was feeling her manner into this new realm.
Stumbling onto her path
“I stumbled into my path,” she says. What pushed her ahead wasn’t a lot the expertise, fascinating because it was, however the rush of efficiency. That is what she had liked about enjoying violin as a toddler.
“I wished to carry the physique again into the inventive course of, the muscle reminiscence and gesture that have been lacking from my apply, and that power you create with the viewers.”
Maya Indira Ganesh, a expertise 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 he or she’s comfy together with her personal fallibility.
“What Sougwen does is say, ‘How will we reimagine these boundaries and variations which can be purported to exist between people and machines?'” Ganesh says, talking by telephone from Berlin. In galleries, “a lot of the AI artwork you see is often easy and easy, like watching computation occur. It is the fetishization of the machine. We predict these programs ought to be excellent and seamless. However Sougwen may be very expert with this expertise, and he or she talks about her works in progress and in course of. … She’s displaying 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.
After all. 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 colour, and Chung counters together 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 referred to 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. But it surely’s additionally not about making machines do a factor. You realize what I imply? It is at all times about that suggestions loop in that collaboration.”
Interplay. Collaboration. Chung’s language reveals how she thinks about AI. It isn’t her slave. She’s not at all times the boss.
“I believe so much about narratives that we inform ourselves about expertise and why now we have these narratives,” she says. “And I believe they’re actually influenced by science fiction and popular culture. And that tends to be hypermasculine, hyper-dystopian. That is why now we have 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 believe it creates a really adversarial, power-driven dynamic with expertise.”
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 via these improvised portray experiences together with her AI collaborators that Chung has regained the circulate 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 surprise that I used to be navigating. It felt very very important and alive, like dance.”
Her work continues to evolve. In a current undertaking, she uploaded her robots with publicly obtainable 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 carry 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 desires to make use of AI applied sciences to carry individuals collectively. But now that the coronavirus has us all practising 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 enthusiastic about utilizing the applied sciences that outline our present second, as a manner of understanding how they work in our lives. The trendy human is surrounded by sensible expertise 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 at all times a possible for failure,” Chung says. “With this dynamic that I have been exploring, it is concerning the sudden. And that retains me actually .”