“In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” - Sol LeWitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art
The Idea Becomes A Machine is a conceptual art project which explores art works as instructions using the medium of text prompt based AI image generation. The piece assembles a narrative from text prompts and generated images. The work references the wall drawings, structures and seminal essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” by American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt and juxtaposes them with tropes from science fiction including autonomous robots and a super intelligent AI which sends information into the past from the deep future.
The piece consists of 512 text prompts encoded in the metadata of non-fungible tokens which serve as certificates of their own authenticity. These prompts simultaneously provide fragments of a narrative and serve as direct instructions for the generation of images which illustrate that narrative. The images, while they are included as demonstrations of the potential outputs of the prompts, are incidental and may be replaced in the future by new images made possible by the development of increasingly sophisticated image generation technology.
The latest developments in image generation provoke anxiety among artists, craftspeople and lovers of visual art. The potential to effortlessly generate thousands of images, like the images in this piece, seems to threaten the economic livelihood of artists and the very centrality of human expression in the arts. Will the demoralizing conquest of the machines, like that of Deep Blue in chess and AlphaGo in the game of go, once previously human-dominated fields of endeavor, continue into the exquisitely human domain of the artist?
The Idea Becomes A Machine looks to art history to juxtapose this potential threat to the role of the artist with the role LeWitt proposed in 1967. LeWitt proposes that the artist creates ideas and instructions for their execution, not material artworks, in a relationship comparable to that of the orchestra musician to the composer. In LeWitt’s era this meant creating instructions for human craftspeople to execute his work, and some of these instructions included how much the craftspeople should be paid hourly for their contribution. In the automated contemporary economy, the craftsperson is replaced by a cloud-based AI, which produces the work instantly and for near zero cost.
Utilizing image generation networks in combination with non-fungible tokens or NFTs is an inevitable next step in conceptual art history. By compressing an artwork down into the form of a text prompt and minting it as an NFT we can both fully dematerialize the work of art, following in the footsteps of conceptual art pioneers like Yves Klein, while simultaneously “digitally materializing” it and quantifying its value and cryptographically secured provenance. For more on this line of thought the writing of Canadian artist Mitchell F Chen is essential reading.
Science fiction has been used for decades to explore our collective anxieties about rapid technological change and what it may mean for our lives. The Idea Becomes A Machine uses themes and imagery from contemporary science fiction to dramatize the impact of AI automation on the lives of humans while also situating this change within a wider psychological context of threats including economic and civil turmoil, climate change and nuclear war.
The Idea Becomes A Machine is also an attempt to experiment with the interplay between “conceptual” and “concept art”, the latter being a form of 2D art, often painting, used in the pre-production of popular media like movies or video games to imagine characters, environments or scenes prior to creating detailed 3d renderings of them. The hallucinatory and imperfect nature of generated images allows them to communicate an idea or feeling which slips through the viewer's fingers upon closer examination. Reading the prompt and looking quickly at the image gives the correct impression, while looking deeply causes the images to fall apart into cursed, dreamlike components. In the piece, the goal is to use fragmentary, imperfect and minimal inputs to the viewer's mind to evoke a richer imaginary experience. In this way we can think of both the individual images' text prompt and visual output and the gestalt impression of the entire collected work as a prompt for the imagination of the viewer to generate their own richly imagined experienced of The Idea Becomes A Machine.
Importantly, while the piece can be understood as a statement about the contemporary moment of human culture, technology and art history, that is not the correct interpretation. Instead, the piece should be experienced as a fever dream, a hallucinatory conversation between the artist, the machine, and the viewer's imagination, initiated over a series of days without pre-planning or theorizing.
“Conceptual art is not necessarily logical. The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times only to be ruined. Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the artist, to lull the viewer into the belief that he understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation.” - Sol LeWitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art