There has been a lot of hype of late about Artificial Intelligence (AI) emerging as a force in human society, perhaps even making many human activities obsolete. In the artworld the hype wave around AI started with the rise (and recent fall) of NFTs, symbolised by the price of almost $70m paid in 2021 for a digital artwork, with an NFT certification, by an artist called Beeple. Titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days, the hugely inflated price put the unknown Beeple into the top three most valuable living artists.
While this kind of collage of internet screengrabs is pretty bad art, only getting attention because of its price tag, many contemporary artists are beginning to use AI and related tech to aid their practice. Technology is helping artists locally realise their creations and express their ideas in ways that weren’t previously possible.
A recent exhibition of AI artwork in Cape Town by artist/researcher Ralph Borland fascinatingly focused on the transformation of a 3D printed replica of the artist’s femur into a bone flute, which was then played in various contexts over the course of the short exhibition run. The work, simply titled Bone Flute, was a collaboration with orthopaedic surgeon Rudolph Venter, in the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University, and flute player, composer and improviser Alessandro Gigli, indicating the overlap between art and scientific disciplines which AI enables.
The work also reflects one of the most widely used early applications of AI, or machine learning, in 3D printing technology, an application that has crept into other artmaking too.
3D printing technology is particularly useful when it comes to making sculptures, which are usually created in the form of a manually-created mould which is then cast in the desired material of the sculpture, for example, in clay or bronze. Scanning an object and programming a 3D print of it not only radically reduces the time it takes to produce work, but allows artists to work with different scale for their creations.
Renowned South African artist Nandipha Mntambo did exactly this with her amazing show of giant sculptures of Benin’s 19th Century army of warrior women, the Agoodjie. “What would have taken me eight months to do I can now do in two,” says Mntambo. Creating the sculptures, which are in her likeness, took a day of scanning her body in sections with a tool dubbed a wand, before being ‘pieced together’ digitally by a technician and printed at the desired scale – in this case producing imposing 3m high works in bronze.
Zanele Muholi, recently voted ‘one of the world’s most influential art players’ in Art Review’s Power 100 list, has departed from their usual photography repertoire to also incorporate 3D printing technology in the production of sculptures in their likeness.
Emerging digital artist Natalie Paneng also employs 3D printing in the creation of many of the domestic kitchen elements that are included in her installation work. Some of these objects are created using digital collage and other digital fabrication processes.
Apart from the use of technology itself, some artists hone their craft to resemble that made by machines – a 21st century aesthetic that can only grow in popularity. “I want to make something that is 100% man-made but looks 100% machine-made,” says the Polish-born, Cape Town based Andrzej Urbanski. The complex and intricate geometry of the compositions of his paintings, which appear to deny the intervention of a human hand, are created using spray-paint. The medium, better known in commercial painting processes, creates the flawless surfaces of his paintings.