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Do machines dream of the Pergamon Altar?

, People

Merging classical antiquity with artificial intelligence, multimedia artist Egor Kraft reflects on the broader anthropological perspectives of technology.

"Content Aware Studies." Image courtesy Egor Kraft

Egor Kraft is a Russian artist and alumnus of Strelka’s The New Normal program. His multidisciplinary practice has incorporated AI, video art, and interventions, as well as traditional media. He explores the blurred boundaries between the real and the virtual, creating narratives to question how human irrational subconscious reasoning will co-exist with a ubiquitous impartial and quantitative machinic agency rendered by the technologies of today and tomorrow.

For his latest project “Content Aware Studies,” Kraft produced a series of marble copies of ancient Greek and Roman masterpieces combined with 3D printed outputs of neural nets. He used machine learning to reconstruct lost fragments of sculptures and friezes.

By mixing classical aesthetic with uncanny computer-generated elements, Kraft invites a speculation on machine perception of human culture, examining the possibility of collaboration with AI in the creation of meta-archaeological objects. The project offers an opportunity to step back from the machine learning hype and contemplate the broader anthropological perspectives of AI as a speculative tool for history and knowledge production, and examine the ethical and aesthetic implications of such actions.

As his major exhibition opened at the Anna Nova gallery in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Strelka Mag spoke to Kraft about the “post-human” creative process and his aesthetic choices.

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"Content Aware Studies." Photos courtesy Egor Kraft

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“Ákkta” is the largest-ever presented solo show of the artist. Kraft’s ongoing research “Content Aware Studies” is the central focus of the exhibition. It is produced in collaboration with Artem Konevskikh (a fellow Strelka alumnus). The researchers trained a machine learning algorithm on renders of antique sculptures and used the results to create mixed media sculptures.

The marble replicas of existing sculptures were made using a five axis milling machine before being manually finished by hand. The speculative missing fragments, generated by the algorithm, were 3D printed out of polyamide and integrated into the marble copy. “It was not an attempt to create a meta archaeological instrument for restoration, but more so to explore AI subjectiveness in classical antiquity. I thought it would be interesting to see how the machine sees it and hallucinate about it,” explains Kraft. “I’m totally hypnotized by these bizarre errors from machine learning outputs – juxtaposing anthropomorphic shapes and the canonic aesthetic of classical art.”

The correlation between the physical and the digital is a re-emerging theme of Kraft’s work. “Digital also means physical,” he says. “Take the infrastructure that’s used to create these digital images – it’s quite heavy and clumsy. It’s not as ephemeral as we used to think. It is located in some hidden space with all the data centers and buried cables connecting them.”

Egor Kraft

Kraft stresses the importance of thinking within the geological context of media (or ‘deep media’), tracing back supply chains. “Everything virtual is governed by properties and conditions of the physical involved in its production.”

Generative artistic practice implies that an artist surrenders partial control of the production to the autonomous system. “I like to see the role of an artist as a medium in this regard. One simply becomes another element in the entire chain of processes, allowing for things to happen, as if an artist was a node, cable, or adapter,” says Egor. “This generative or media-centered idea is in fact applicable to any type of artistic production, suggesting that the medium with which anything is produced always governs the process and thus its outcomes.”

There are many examples of the application of generative mechanisms in art history: from the use of chance by dadaists, to automation by surrealists. This kind of collaborative experimentation is diminishing the role of the artist as an “absolute creator.”

“This obviously does question the idea of authorship in its archaic sense, as a governing or decision-making subjectivity. “And perhaps it also suggests that means for artistic expression develop faster today than artistic strategies do, unlike a few centuries back,” says Kraft. He challenges the conventional concept of author’s rights. “It doesn’t make sense to protect certain information. It will sooner or later become public and dissolve itself in multiple datasets. I’m absolutely pro-open source and we are also planning to share documentation and code of our technical research publicly on a great platform like Github, for example.”

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“Content Aware Studies.” Photos courtesy Egor Kraft

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Kraft’s interest in classical antiquity is rooted deeply in his background; as a child he received classical training in drawing and painting. He then studied fine arts in leading European schools and received degrees from Rodchenko Art School in Moscow and the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

The universal language of classical art appeals to the very core of Western civilization and allows the project to become more than just a quirky AI experiment. It is a vivid illustration of the moment we had long feared and anticipated; the moment of the encounter with non-human intelligence. It reflects on our growing symbiosis with technology, marking the point where humans merge with technology to the degree of becoming a hybrid subject. “I am as much attracted to the radical newness and overall impact of machinic interventions as I’m also terrified by its inevitability,” says Kraft. “I’m definitely not a techno-positivist, neither a luddite. My interest in technology lies in accepting its inevitable force to change everything we know, render what we don’t know, make us know about things we thought we knew, and perhaps even go beyond ‘knowing.’ I’m fascinated by the idea that engaging with a form of synthetic subjectivity may lead to a better understanding of what we are and how we think, as if looking through other optics than the ones we biologically inherited.”

Kraft has previously held solo exhibitions in Sweden, Russia, and Estonia, and was nominated for various prizes. His works have been exhibited in ZKM, Ars Electronica, Impakt festival, Moscow International Biennial for Young Art, the Hermitage, MMOMA, and other museums and festivals. His solo show “Akkta” includes works accumulated over the past five years.

The word “Ákkta” comes from a made-up glossary for the project “AirKiss,” which was produced in collaboration with Alina Kvirkveliya, Karina Golubenko, and Pekka Airaxin during Strelka’s The New Normal program in 2017. “We came up with this speculative model of democracy in the near future, where an individual’s democratic impact onto a local legislation has a radius of, say 100 meters. So that legislation is being adjusted in real time according to the locality of individuals. In this context, if an organized group of people would occupy a certain area in order to affect its legislation, such an event would be called ‘Ákkta,’” explains Kraft.

Air Kiss” is being presented at Anna Nova as a five-channel video installation. It is a poetic nonlinear narrative illustrating possible outcomes of a scenario where the government apparatus is being replaced by AI. The story unfolds in a world where boundaries between the resident's subjectivity and the Plasma – a system that is constantly transformed according to the values and behavior of each user – are erased. “We imagined a completely decentralized system, a parametric democracy, a kind of fluid way to direct society,” explains Egor. “If you were part of the system, you’d automatically submit your data. The less data you submit, the lesser your political voice is and vice versa. In this scenario, AI not only becomes a governing regulatory entity but also your personal psychiatrist, as it knows about you more than yourself.”

Such a scenario might sound eerie, but authors of the piece don't share common fears associated with the rise of machines. They try to reconcile with the reality of living alongside intelligence that is radically different from our own. “I like to compare AI to flora, rather than fauna. It’s another form of subjectivity. It’s a life form that suddenly sprung everywhere. We can speculate on how it develops, analyzes, learns, produces, but it doesn’t necessarily have instincts that protein forms of life have. Animals and humans, we have a survival instinct, we have fears that drive us. That’s why I like the vegetation comparison. Because AI kind of grows on its own, develops, but doesn’t necessarily have survival motives which can be aggressive to other life forms,” says Kraft.

The exhibition also features some of Kraft’s earlier works, including “The New Color” and “Kickback.” These are witty and critical social comments on the manipulative nature of the media and commercial industries.

“Ákkta” at Anna Nova Gallery will run until February 2, 2019.

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