Artificial Intelligence: A Creative Tool Considered [VIDEO]

Michael Kurcfeld interviews Joel Gethin Lewis, the interactive creative director of UK-based design collective Universal Everything.

January 7, 2024

    DESPITE NEWS STORIES about OpenAI’s executive drama (and the current infringement lawsuit filed by The New York Times against it and Microsoft), artificial intelligence is everywhere now. Debates about its impact on our lives range from celebratory (detection of breast cancer) to ambivalent (a newly concocted Beatles song) to censorious (fake porn images of vulnerable teens) to apocalyptic (triggering a world war … with robots). While President Biden’s recent executive order initiates a tentative set of industry guidelines, op-eds and “manifestos” are grappling with whether AI will enhance our lives or ultimately extinguish them (or at least usurp a great number of jobs). Predictably, the creative arts are beginning to wrestle with questions about the authenticity, and profundity, of that which AI now makes possible—a nearly infinite array of possible sounds and visualizations. And the art world in particular, whose commerce rests on reputation and claims to originality, is agitated about how such works may transgress the strictures of intellectual property.

    But this genie cannot be put back in the bottle, and artists more receptive to new media are already exploring its potential for legitimate forms of expression … as they always have. The arc of photography as a transcendent art began with a similarly suspect bit of technology. Proponents see AI as an overdue corrective to art-world gatekeeping that democratizes art practice—almost anyone can master Midjourney or other rapidly evolving generative apps and start posting, say, mesmerizing neo-surrealist reveries on Instagram. While critics so far have mocked it for the most part, institutional exhibitions on the horizon will advocate for AI’s expansion and freshening of well-trodden questions about authorship, taste, process, even political reckoning, as well as issues wholly new.

    So is it Art? Give it time.

    My interview with Joel Gethin Lewis, the interactive creative director of UK-based design collective Universal Everything, is the first in an occasional video series of encounters with creators who employ AI in their work. We met at Sónar Music, Creativity & Technology Festival 2023, in Barcelona. The festival, then in its 30th year, posed as its latest theme “the impact of AI on the Arts” and mounted a multitude of presentations, including Lewis’s, revealing the latest wave of AI-driven projects from various disciplines (including music, art, robotics, and film). UE, founded by Matt Pyke in 2004, assembles bespoke teams from a stable of over 60 “media artists, experience designers and future makers” who span the world (from architects and cinematographers to graphic designers and animators), most working remotely.

    UE is a hothouse of cutting-edge design that ranges from medical applications to promos for sustainability to music videos, for clients including Hyundai and Radiohead. The overall tone of Universal Everything’s productions tends toward the easily accessible (everything universal!), the playful and whimsical, and even, when appropriate, the joyful. “We have this resolute focus on fun,” says Lewis, “and we know that, after the amount of work we put into things, if it’s still making us laugh and still intriguing us, then it will probably work for other people as well.” Perhaps similarly ineffable litmus tests will eventually gauge AI experiments globally—machine craft kept human.


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