In 2022, generative artificial intelligence, a broad category of AI capable of producing content like text and imagery, became the subject of intense public discourse, but these developments were many years in the making. Over time, a handful of artists identified the incredible potential of AI in the arts, and developed fluency creating with it. In the process, they became critical translators for otherwise inscrutable technologies, embodying Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that art operates as a “Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”
Across his work with robots, software, and algorithms, artist Alexander Reben has established himself as a leading translator, developing a practice based on investigations in what he calls “human-machine symbiosis” since 2012. The term, an update to the more common “human-machine collaboration,” isn’t simply a semantic flourish. It reflects the artist’s sense that these are not isolated efforts with fixed materials, but expressions of evolving relationships with machines. The stretched canvas, paint pigments, and the chisel were all new technologies at one point, and humanity has confronted the effects of automation before, but artificial intelligence provokes a novel question: how do humans relate to tools that can learn and improve themselves? There isn’t a clear answer, with relative risks and benefits to any one might suggest. Through a body of work emphasizing human-machine symbiosis, Reben extends the inquiry by asking: are machines entities with whom we should cooperate? And if so, to what degree?
Reben grounds his work in an ethos of play, prizing questions over answers, engaging machine intelligence in unexpected and humorous ways, such as prompting it to conceive of artistic concepts that he then fabricates. These and many other symbiotic interactions are manifest in AI Am I? By presenting a range of works created both before and after the advent of current-generation large models, the exhibition explores both the recent history and emergent futures of AI in art. All throughout, Reben sidesteps the extremes that dominate conversations about AI, instead imagining futures in which symbiosis between humans and machines prompts novel forms of creativity in both.