Photography organisation Fellowship prides themselves on connecting 'the past and present to help shape the future of art', which makes them the perfect candidate for offering up artists whose endless experimentation contributes towards our ever-shifting notions of society. Coalescing tradition with innovation, their current Paris Photo booth in collaboration with Louise Alexander Gallery houses a breadth of artistic talent that redefines the boundaries of photography, video, and AI, as seen through the lens' and work of Alkan Avcıoğlu, Elman Mansimov, Joel Meyerowitz, Laurie Simmons, Roope Rainisto, Simon Raion and Yatreda. Although we were enamoured by all seven artist offerings, we were most interested in those standing at the frontier of a new photography wave thanks to the one tool on everyone's minds right now: AI.
'I believe both AI and any type of synthetic image creation has the potential to introduce us to a new vision and vocabulary. As someone who has a relentless need to experiment, this excites me a lot' artist Alkan Avcıoğlu tells me over Zoom, from his base in Istanbul, Turkey. A self-described 'polymath who wears many different hats', Avcıoğlu's current practice sees the artist play with the power of 'prolific creation' which has resulted in his anxiety-inducing series Overpopulated Symphonies: a collection of 300 NFTs (currently sold out) that plays on man's deepest fears - if you have claustrophobia you may want to stop reading now.
Featuring 'massively overcrowded visuals', Avcıoğlu refers to his work as 'a panorama of humanity', acting as a visual commentary on the contemporary human condition. This series is 'less about the population side of things' Avcıoğlu surprisingly tells me. 'The idea instead came from me asking myself: "how can I present the information overload we experience everyday in this post-truth age?"'.
When I first came across Overpopulated Symphonies, it reminded me of that feeling when you’re on a plane, coming into landing, and you see all these tiny dots and specs on the ground. It's only as you get closer, you realise these smudges are real people - beings with hearts and minds and and opinions and families and cars. You're just a spec, one smudge out of eight billion; a thought present in Avcıoğlu's images. Although they're not grossly horrific, not least in the way an Otto Dix painting is, the series is alarmingly disturbing, triggering a sort of mental retraction; even when you realise you want to look away, you simply can't.
Speaking of how his own work reflects his beliefs as an artist, Avcıoğlu told me, 'I believe we are all tiny dots swimming in a massive sea and each of us is starving for recognition, trying to get our voices heard. I wanted my pieces to become like a visual allegory for information overload, yes it's about population anxiety, but it's also speaks of the human condition, its ugly and beauty'.
The idea of referring to Avcıoğlu's work as dots is an interesting premise simply because that's exactly what his photos entail. From afar, the work seems to be swarming with humans but upon closer inspection, there's nothing human about Avcıoğlu's work, these are formations of colours and shapes, carefully crafted to stimulate a silhouette reminiscent of the human body; a. visual language also present in computer scientist Elman Mansimov's work.
In 2015, Mansimov got to work on a research project at University of Toronto titled alignDRAW, asking 'How can computers understand something they've never seen before and create images of objects that they don't know already exist?' You'd be right to think of the open AI programme models DALL-E and Midjourney, which mirror this question, however, both programmes came some five years after Mansimov's project, which essentially paved the way by producing the world's very first text-to-image artworks. 'At the time, no one attempted it before and if they had, they didn’t document it', Mansimov said.
With text prompts revolutionising the guidance of AI’s creative process, alignDRAW represents the beginning of a new paradigm in image making. 'People liken my work to those very first photos taken with a camera in the 19th century', implies Mansimov. 'When you squint at those images, you can make out an object in a photograph and you can take something from it. The early camera promised us a device that gave us a picture of the real world without needing to paint it'.
Artist, author and theorist of digital culture Dr. Lev Manovich backed up this theory by explaining 'those initial low-resolution and hazy images from nearly two centuries gave us the whole future potential of photography, which eventually became the dominating imaging and communication technology of our time. When I look at comparable low-resolution alignDRAW pictures, I see a similar promise for a new major visual method that could very soon become as essential as lens photography was in the last two hundred years.'
Mansimov knows his productions can't compete with the renderings by the likes of DALL-E but the point is that they showed promise, particularly at a time when owning an iPhone itself was considered a luxury. 'It marks the birth of a new medium, a new way of working with computers and software and that’s essentially what art is about'.
Although artist Laurie Simmons also has started using AI in her work, more specifically to revive her 1970s series In and Around the House (1976 -1978), her figures aren't distorted shapes or codes to create a human like form. Instead, she uses AI-configured dolls. 'The original In and Around the House series was actually the first group of black and white pictures I ever did', Simmons tells me. Having just picked up a camera at that time, Simmons would set up small rooms with doll-house furniture in her studio and photograph them; interested in the idea that photographs weren't extensions of the truth but instead, 'could tell lies'. Then, '¾ into the way through that project, I inserted a doll into the photo', Simmons revealed. 'Which was really terrifying and horrifying to me because I thought "I’m a conceptual artist, i’m in New York in the 70s, i’m rigorous but now i'm going to be laughed out of town."' Fast forward 40 years later and the doll has stuck. 'It’s been my subject ever since - that idea of a woman in interior space, and by that I mean the space of one’s own mind. I’m like a dog with a bone, I’ve had one subject and made thousands of pictures around this one subject'.
As for AI itself, the technology only crept into Simmons' work 15 months ago. 'One of my studio managers is really interested in it and basically put it in front of me, I thought "no", but she didn’t give me a choice and literally put it in front of me. I put in my first prompts and It was simply a matter of what i saw appearing'. As for Simmons' immediate thought process, 'dazzled, dumbfounded, excited and terrified spring to mind. I just was amazed at how the AI fed me images that were a continuation of things i’ve always done, I didn't even put my name in as a prompt... It raises a lot of questions, and not the kind of questions that you would predict’.
In 2023, artists are constantly expected to be filled with a hunger to experiment and create, utilising the newest technologies to push their work to new heights. But when this expectation turns into an obligation, the waters can muddy. The reason experimentation can lead to mind-blowing results partly lies in the artist's own intrigue, rather than external pressure. Considering this, I asked Simmons if she thinks it's an artist responsibility to experiment with new technologies. 'I absolutely don’t think it’s an artist responsibility', she vehemently notes. 'I think it’s an artist’s choice. Artists have historically, been involved with new technologies', she says, going on to note that 'the collaborations Rauschenberg took part in were amazing, so technology has always appealed, but it’s there to be rejected as well'. As for Simmons', personal sentiment at the moment, a quote by the late painter Louise Fishman springs to mind.
'My experience in Venice and the work that followed could be considered comparable to religious conversion, although it has nothing to do with religion. 'If I couldn’t introduce new experiences, materials, ideas into my work, I would be bored and there would be no reason for me to continue.'
Whether it's an artist's duty to utilise new technologies or not, Avcıoğlu, Mansimov and Simmons are doing it anyway, striving to create work that not only pushes them as artists, but also us, as the spectator.
Paris Photo 2023 will be open to the public 9 - 12 November.