Creating in the Era of Artificial Intelligence

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Artificial Intelligence could remedy our shortfalls and help us to surmount our hesitations and fears? If it could relieve us of the burden of existence. If AI could become human and even more than human. But let’s not get carried away. Could AI one day think in our place, overcome our doubts, and make decisions when we find it difficult to choose? Could it tackle our imperfections in a perfect manner? And what about the role it plays in the field of artistic creation? If AI can one day create a work of art of its own will, actually demonstrating an imaginative capacity, would this mean that it can think better than us? Among the discourses prompted by the place of AI in our everyday life, the practices of several artists who have drawn inspiration from the potential that these new technologies offer, raise their share of reflections and issues. Moreover, when it is about taking stock of the world we live in, of the human being’s situation in the digital industry, his or her place as an independent, free and responsible subject is necessarily called into question.

Before considering what we call AI as a panacea to overcome the imperfections of our humanity, most AI researchers believe that this “tool” holds an extraordinary promise to revolutionize the world of work, healthcare, transportation and, more broadly, better manage our daily affairs. Montreal has set out to become a leader in a variety of these areas. In fact, this Quebec metropolis is now recognized as an important city in the AI research field. Like all techniques associated with human intelligence simulation, AI nevertheless raises a number of questions with ethical undertones. Of course, since the beginning of the industrial era, each new technological innovation has resulted in ambivalent situations that have stirred fears for the worst and led people to take up pro or contra positions. But this time the debate also touches on a paradigm issue, that of consciousness, particularly in regard to our capacity to think and create, which has always been considered as something intrinsic to human nature.

To, however minimally, offset the potential “stupidity” of a thought system associated with crass consumerism, some thinkers such as Bernard Stiegler worry about the impact of AI, for example on the labour market or data privacy. Fruit of an in-depth reflection by researchers and citizens on the challenges of AI, the Montreal Declaration for a Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence (2018) specifically seeks to reassure the public by upholding that this new technology must remain at the service of the common good. 1

Consequently, research in the eld of AI, which is progressing faster than we think, must remind us that even if the boundary between the natural and the artificial is becoming increasingly porous, the ethical obligation remains essential. In his book La terreur et le sublime. Humaniser l’intelligence artificielle pour construire un nouveau monde (Les éditions XYZ, 2019), McGill University professor Ollivier Dyens is, for his part, quite enthusiastic in regard to the potential of this extraordinary technological development. 2 “Algocracy”—a term he uses to characterize a world dominated by algorithms—should not frighten us if we can learn to master it, if we can learn to adapt our creativity to this new environment. But, in this context, what does it mean to create?

If one relies on Judaeo-Christian culture, the term “creation” has a theological origin. To create is primarily to bring something forth from nothing. However, in the artistic field the creative act draws on what is already there, it results from an age-old know-how and a cultural history that is accompanied, as Gilles Deleuze puts it, by a “power of life.” 3 And what does this power mean when one is speaking of works of art that are linked to a non-human intelligence? This collection of essays, which Nathalie Bachand co-directed, presents different ways of thinking about the subject. There are six texts written by artists (Sofian Audry, Grégory Chatonsky) and art historians (Andreas Broeckmann, Anne-Marie Dubois, David A.J. Murrieta Flores). Complementing this section are the philosopher and ethics researcher Martin Gibert’s essay and two interviews: the first with artist Adam Basanta by Daphné Boxer, and the second with the collective fabric | ch by Nathalie Bachand. In her introductory text to the thematic issue, Bachand questions, as do other analysts, the aptness of using the word “intelligence” to designate this new technology based on algorithms. Could it be that what we identify as intelligence is perhaps closer to a kind of data calculating machine, better known under the term of “machine learning”?

Some texts, notably the one by Audry, recall that several artists explore AI as a tool that allows them to enhance the creative process. But these artists primarily approach new technologies as a means to “reveal their fundamental role in the transformations of contemporary societies.” From this critical perspective, Dubois, for her part, highlights the imperfections of certain algorithms when they generate “sexist, racist and classist biases.” She points out how some research endeavours in the human-machine interaction eld struggle to demonstrate the objectivity of these algorithms as long as they conform to the “prejudices and beliefs of the digital designers who programmed them.” These potential biases also apply to Generative Adversarial Networks or GANs, which can produce new contents, by way of images, among other things. For Murrieta Flores, the application of these GANs to the field of painting makes it possible to renew the question of mimesis. Although, this artist-machine association can be considered as a form of co-creation, the author of the work to be created, according to Basanta, ultimately remains the artist, because he or she expresses intentions and is thus at the centre of the creative act.

That AI is capable of the best or the worst is something that our science-fiction fuelled cultural imagination has long reminded us of. Beyond the fantasized vision in which AI or automated machines rival humans, art history shows us instead that the relationship between art and technology has little in common with this mythological conception. As Broeckmann indicates, this viewpoint underestimates the association that has always existed between art and technology. Moreover, according to him, it is important not to lose sight of the aesthetic experience that AI works propose. Of course, according to Gibert, this may disrupt our ontological understanding of an artistic object, but it is also likely to stimulate reflection on our capacity to imagine the future of humanity. This is because we live in an environment in which it has become impossible to think, reflect and create without AI, especially now if it is, as Chatonsky has observed, the result of the “big data that is generated by our activity on social media.” In his text, he focuses on memory, but also on our survival as a civilization that is constantly anticipating its disappearance. As is the case for several of the works discussed in this issue, the creative act goes beyond the answers from a search in a data network. It is more about transgressing coded language to poetically tell the story of our present.

In addition to the collection of essays about AI, this 2020 winter issue includes three articles on important events that took place in Montreal and Toronto, i.e. MOMENTA | Biennale de l’image, Period Rooms and the very first edition of the Toronto Biennial. In addition, the review section proposes ten texts about recent exhibitions, while the books section provides an overview of several selected titles published in 2019.

Translated by Bernard Schütze


1. See https://www.declarationmontreal-iaresponsable.com/
2. See https://www.ollivier-dyens.com/terreuretsublime/
3. « R comme résistance » in L’abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze, a film by Pierre-André Boutang, Éditions Montparnasse, 1995.