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22 Jun

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn interesting summary in MIT Technology Review of some recent research done on creativity in historical art, creativity here being taken to mean novelty in imagery or content that had an influence on other– by definition less creative and more derivative– works by the same artist or by others. A machine vision algorithm analysed “classemes”: visual concepts which “can be low-level features such as color, texture, and so on, simple objects such as a house, a church or a haystack and much higher-level features such as walking, a dead body, and so on.”

Intriguingly, the algorithm is not restricted to figurative art and it can cope with abstraction and pop art, although at this stage they seem to be looking at painting. The software critic also tends to broadly agree with human assessments of the most influential works and artists even though it was not primed or biased in any way; all it did was look at which artists were being creative and which were being derivative in their imagery. Possibly another point for the “yes, good and bad art is quantifiable” side.

By the way… I must point out that despite MIT supposedly having some of the best logical minds on the planet, nobody seems to have noticed that MIT stands for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, therefore this publication’s name is Massachusetts Institute of Technology Technology Review.

Read the original scientific paper here, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Technology Review’s review here here.

(Previously: Google AI’s halluncinations)


18 Jun

What happens when you train an artificial neural network to recognise images, then turn the system around to start with random noise and evolve an image representing what it “sees” when you ask it about things that appear in pictures, which could be anything from a banana to a landscape? Apparently, you discover that the software is tripping its nonexistent tits off and hallucinating like mad.


Yes, this is a multi-eyed knight with a Rottweiler saddle and llama hand puppet, under a swirling sky full of snails, eyes and leering Breugelesque cow-dogs.


Google obviously have a lot of time and money invested in technologies for image searches and classification. The digital learning systems responsible for these images– some of which have been going viral recently, 99% of the time without any context whatsoever apart from LOL weirdness– analyse examples of what the programmers want them to learn. The whole process and concept is much more interesting and much more profound in its implications than its viral LOLness at first suggests. In the cases shown here, the ANNs were trained with a lot of animal images with the strange side effect that they see animals everywhere: in the clouds, in the trees, in a horse rider’s saddle. Like the classic bad tripper or paranoid schizophrenic they see watchful eyes everywhere. In humans it’s called pareidolia; false pattern recognition, seeing connections and structure where none actually exists. The classic example is seeing pictures in clouds. The networks sometimes harbour unexpected– but with hindsight strangely logical– misconceptions such as taking it as normal that dumbbells can’t exist without a beefy arm attached to them, because most photos of dumbbells also feature weightlifters. Horizons get pagodas and towers because that’s how people tend to picturesquely frame them in photographs. Trees are apparently hard to distinguish from buildings and therefore tend to get mixed up with them, and so on.

Edvard Munch’s Scream is even more disturbing with the addition of AI-paranoia sky-eyes, and the screamer himself gets a daft golden retriever-beagle makeover:


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26 Dec

Thought-provoking (possibly paranoid anxiety-provoking) article about the economic theory and behaviourism deployed against us by online companies to push our subconscious buttons and make us buy more.

A few nuggets particularly pertinent to artists and their work:

[1] “Eliminating small frictions can radically alter one’s decisions.” Asking people to opt out of a choice retains more people than asking people to opt in. The example given is that participation in organ donation doubled to over 80% when people were asked to opt out instead of in.

[2] Many people’s wish lists of things they’d like to see and do or their stated preferences are aspirational rather than realistic, i.e. they reflect the kind of person they’d like to be (or like to be seen as) rather than what they actually do when the moment of choice comes. This can be seen quite clearly in the discrepancy between how vociferously many people say they want to visit art galleries or events, and how few people actually bother to show up or participate when arts activities are made available to them.

[3] People place an irrationally high value on their own creations, based largely upon the time they’ve invested with little regard to any rational analysis of its monetary worth, attractiveness, utility or any other consideration. Perhaps the lesson here is that you are not the best judge of your own work’s value: listen to informed advice.

[4] “The amount that shoppers are willing to pay is constrained, or anchored, by the first price presented to them. Once a price point is set, it’s hard to dislodge the anchor.” Using the example of the Apple store, the article’s author suggests that Apple made an error in allowing a jumble of free, low priced and full price apps. Even a nominal fee of 10 cents would have discouraged downward pressure on prices, which led in turn to almost total devaluation of the labour involved in programming and designing a small piece of software, let alone anything of any genuine merit.

I should imagine the lesson here is pretty apparent to artists, many of who have either knowingly or through omission allowed exactly the same thing to happen to the value of their work and their labour to the point where it is generally regarded as having no worth whatsoever. It also applies to pricing your work absurdly low or ridiculously high: starting high and reducing looks arrogant or desperate (or both) and disgruntles early buyers, while too low anchors your work there and implies that you don’t value your own efforts.


16 Nov


Human brains have two small but important regions named for their respective discoverers. Broadly speaking, Broca’s area processes the syntax of language (i.e. its structure and form), while Wernicke’s area is for semantics (i.e. language comprehension and meaning). Wernicke and Broca work with each other, with structures like the angular gyrus for abstractions of language and interactions of syntax and semantics, and of course with the brain as a whole. There’s a lot that’s still unknown about how it all functions and why, but what is well known is that damage to Broca’s area can lead to a person’s speech being halting and fragmented, a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron.


“Geddoodachoppah!”, “Geunzidderdadabidorze”, “I’ll beebeck azzhurl”, etc.

Damage to Wernicke’s area, on the other hand, creates a form of aphasia in which Broca’s area and the rest of brain keeps playing by the rules of syntax but the resulting language is meaningless. The best comparison is to a spambot or chatbot, software which can algorithmically generate texts that mostly make sense without any intelligence or understanding of meaning whatsoever.

Valid syntax but gibberish content, as in Noam Chomsky’s famous example “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”? Sounds like a pretty succinct and accurate description of about half of the conference papers, artist statements and gallery press releases I ever read in my whole career. I could provide numerous examples that I’ve written about on this blog, without even needing to go elsewhere– although I could just as easily do that and find some egregious instances of artspeak within minutes, if not seconds. Anyway, some examples of the worst artspeak that I’ve castigated are here on this blog and excerpted below. They’re all real, and they’re all apparently serious. Try to fight the urge to commit homicide and/or suicide after you’ve read these:

“… a speculative aesthetics of discovery, which is contemplated, interpreted and distorted through the space-time vortex of a mimetic mirror. When the space is not delineated, it is its attempted discoveries which give rise to projects.”

“This is a sort of Schwittersian accumulation of material and void that subsequently creates different spatial architectures – connections. Pure, at first sight simple, spontaneous and rough interventions – gestures (situate, bend down, put, attach, move, cut off) create plasticity of surfaces.”

“… an experimental, rarefied field for the art exhibition which collapses form (the collectivity requisite of the Chain and any performative work) and content (collective consciousness).”

“… exquisitely detailed aesthetic forms hovering between energy and mass.”

“… an instance of collapse to an oblique point of fact, a known feeling… The hook looks like a lemniscate but it feels like a ball bearing… It is in the gap between these understandings and their relentless riffing, where (the artist who wrote this shit)’s drawings take shape and its narratives unfold.”

Even more here, if you think your poor, battered Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas can stand it:


14 Nov

I’ve been reading neurologist V.S. Ramachandran’s interesting (and occasionally, slyly funny) book The Tell-Tale Brain. There are some unexpected and cogent explorations of art in it, including a great anecdote about the Nobel Prize-winning Dutch ornithologist/ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen and his experiments in the 1950s with seagulls. Some of Tinbergen’s most groundbreaking work was on what he called supernormal stimuli. In short, living creatures have inherent, instinctive preferences for certain things that play an important part in their lives, especially their reproductive lives. Birds like eggs in their nests and birds like sitting on eggs because if they didn’t then there wouldn’t any more birds. But these instincts can also be thwarted because a bird also usually prefers a giant, artificial, gaudy egg with exaggerated markings to anything nature can create. Male butterflies want to mate with female butterflies, but they will often choose an unreal, perfect model of a female butterfly instead of its– by comparison, anyway– boring and imperfect real-life counterpart.

Tinbergen also found that female herring gulls have a red spot underneath their beaks, which is a target for gull chicks to peck at when they want to be fed. The chick pecks the red circle, opens its mouth, the mother regurgitates some food, and they repeat as necessary or until the supply of seagull vomit is exhausted. It turns out, though, that chicks are not terribly bothered if it’s their actual mother who feeds them. A head on a pole, or a disembodied beak, or a red dot on a stick will all provoke a chick to peck for food. Evolution and daily life both tend to favour quick reactions and ad hoc solutions; as Ramachandran mischievously puts it, in nature a chick is unlikely to ever encounter “a malicious ethologist waving around a fake beak” so it makes sense for the hardwired seagull rule to take a relative short cut like “if I’m a baby, then red dot=mother=food”.

My diagram of the herring gull experiment is better than Ramachandran’s. OBJECTIVE SCIENTIFIC FACT.

What’s really fascinating is Tinbergen’s discovery that if you put three red stripes on the end of a stick, the chick goes into a frenzy of pecking; this abstract supermother promises far more than any real biological mother can. It seems there’s an addendum to “red dot=mother=food”, some as yet inexpressible rule that’s being exploited by this amplification of what nature offers. Ramachandran:

“Imagine that seagulls had an art gallery. They would hang this long thin stick with three stripes on the wall. They would call it a Picasso, worship it, fetishize it, and pay millions of dollars for it, while all the time wondering why they are turned on by it so much, even though (and this is the key point) it doesn’t resemble anything in their world. I suggest this is exactly what human art connoisseurs are doing when they look at or purchase abstract works of art; they are behaving exactly like gull chicks. By trial and error, intuition or genius, human artists like Picasso or Henry Moore have discovered the equivalent of the seagull brain’s stick with three stripes.”

It should be noted that Ramachandran is just throwing this idea out as a plausible hypothesis, and he isn’t dissing or dismissing abstract art here. Neither am I. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen a theory of abstract art’s appeal that makes some kind of objective sense and isn’t smothered in academic artspeak claptrap to mask all the things we don’t know, and in many cases can’t know.

PS: Abstract Supermother is the name of my new band.

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