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A new exhibition uses artificial intelligence to create images in the style of history’s greatest artists
The world’s most renowned artists never made it to the Faroe Islands, an isolated archipelago in the North Atlantic hundreds of miles from the mainland. But if they had, how would they have painted them?
A new exhibition at the National Gallery of the Faroe Islands aims to answer that question, while also raising new ones about the role of artificial intelligence (A.I.) in art. “/Imagine the Faroe Islands” features 40 works created by Midjourney, an A.I. program that generates images based on text prompts. By analyzing billions of artists’ creations to identify patterns, the sophisticated tool can spit out its own version of a Monet or Picasso.
For the new exhibition, it just did that, producing artwork that captures the islands’ rugged landscape in the style of Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Hilma af Klint, Andy Warhol, Anna Ancher, Pablo Picasso, Dorothea Tanning, Henri Matisse, Louise Bourgeois and others.
The gallery, which is also known as Listasavn Føroya, hopes the exhibition will spark important conversations about the intersection of technology and art, though it doesn’t aim to provide any clear answers.
“From time to time, an art museum needs to generate discussion about the concept of art,” Lykke Grand, the gallery’s director, tells Smithsonian magazine. “There is nothing static about art. On the contrary, contemporary art has always experimented, investigated and pushed boundaries.”
She hopes visitors will ponder questions such as: Can an algorithm make art? Is an image less relevant, thought-provoking or challenging just because the creator is not a human being? How much help can an artist get from A.I. while still claiming their work is their own? Would we consider an A.I.-generated image art if we didn’t know it had been created by a sophisticated algorithm?
A.I. tools like Midjourney are certainly not the first new technology, nor will they be the last, to challenge the status quo in the art world. Take, for example, the invention of the camera in the early 19th century. Initially, painters were nervous about losing jobs and commissions, says Lykke Grand. In reality, the technology “changed the portrait genre, but not the whole existence of painting.”
Today, A.I. is not the only new tool changing art. For example, some artists draw on iPads instead of canvases; others are creating non-fungible tokens (or NFTs), which can function as a proof of ownership for a piece of digital art.
Lykke Grand notes that all these technologies—from cameras to A.I. image generators—still require human input to work.
“Ever since the invention of the computer and, hence, digital art, the human element in the creation of an artwork has changed into something different,” she says. “In my opinion, there is nothing to be afraid of … There will always be a human being involved in algorithms and output.”
A.I. technology also has the potential to make art more democratic, bringing those who don’t typically visit art galleries into the fold, she adds. Midjourney, which is still in beta mode, is accessible to anyone who signs up for the social networking app Discord. DALL-E, a similar A.I. art generator, is also now open to the public. The availability of these tools means that “a great many people who did not previously define themselves as artists can have a go at creating images or artworks.”
At the Faroe Island exhibition, gallery-goers will get an opportunity to make their own A.I.-generated images using computer stations located throughout the space. The museum has also developed a curriculum to help students contemplate the many ways that A.I. is already a part of their lives via tools like Siri, Google Maps and customer service bots.
The museum also hopes visitors will stick around and check out its collection of art created by Faroese artists, such as Rannvá Kunoy, Jón Sonni Jensen, Hansina Iversen and Edward Fuglø, who are raising existential and philosophical questions with their work. Lykke Grand says she hopes Faroese artists will also experiment with A.I. technology at the museum and share their perspectives.
“We can only discover whether A.I. has a future in the world of contemporary art by putting it to the test,” she says. “Whether we like it or not, A.I. is going to change our notion of art and the artist.”
“/Imagine the Faroe Islands” is on view at the National Gallery of the Faroe Islands through October 30.
Sarah Kuta is a writer and editor based in Longmont, Colorado. She covers history, science, travel, food and beverage, sustainability, economics and other topics.