World’s first art robot launched in South Africa

2015-02-03 16:05

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South African auction house Strauss & Co has just announced the launch of The Da Vinci Project - the world’s first foray into commercially available machine-operated art production.

The machine, named Any, is the first of its kind and begins production in South Africa earlier this year. The project has taken more than 10 years to develop. For me, it is an exciting but conflicting feeling of excitement. My friends call it scarecited.

On the one hand, I’m excited for the advent of the artist as inventor again, but on the other, I’m scared of the encroaching presence and effects of technology on the craft of the artist.

The inventor of Any, a crazy looking Frenchman named Jeanne-Pierre Beaulieu, approached the audience: “Thank you for joining us for what we feel is one of the most significant moments in art history. One night at home in Paris, I remember thinking ‘should art only be produced by artists?’. I started thinking about technology at this point as a way to make the process of art production available to everyone. That’s really how Any came about.”

The grey-haired inventor goes on, “The Da Vinci project is the future of art. Any taps into human imagination, passion, emotion and intuition and then communicates what the subject is thinking, feeling and conceptualizing into a magnificent piece of art in an appropriate medium.”

Stephan Welz, the director of the auction house, comes forward now, equally moved with his arm around Beaulieu: “I believe that not since the heart transplant by Chris Barnard has there been such an important invention from South Africa. We are so pleased to finally show you what we’ve been working on for the past 10 years.”

The time has come for the big reveal, but first a video starts playing. It takes us into the headquarters of Beaulieu’s studio. He is typically French and seems incredibly eccentric.

Amid futuristic machinery, he starts elaborating on what Any is and what she means for art. Stifled giggles and alarmed whispers are heard around the room. The press were informed about this more than a month ago in what is touted as “the biggest reveal in art history”.

It’s a big day and we’re all eagerly awaiting our first look at the machine.

Finally, Welz and Beaulieu step forward to announce the big reveal. A black curtain is dropped and a gleaming white egg box is revealed.

My first thought is that Any looks a little like a boom box. White and slick, like a small MRI machine.

Before any further explanation, an audience member is asked to volunteer to participate in the explanation. A young, stylish woman in the front puts her hand up. She is brought to the front.

She explains that she is an art blogger named Lebo. Beaulieu’s assistant helps attach her to some sensors after she sits down. Four on her head and one on each finger.

The assistant explains: “These nodes measure the heat emitted from her hands, brain activity and slight ocular movements. Lebo, can you think of something happy for us?”

She goes on to do so and the projection of her brain on the screen above her changes from green to red. While Lebo is thinking what she’s thinking, the brain sensor starts calibrating her emotions, changing from blue to green to red.

“The darker it is, the sadder her memory is,” the assistant explains. “Over the past couple of years, we have mapped data from more than 3 000 participants and stored the range of them inside of Any.” The right-hand side of her brain, traditionally the more creative side, is flaring up on the screen as she thinks.

“Any is busy sorting through all of the emotional feelings Lebo is thinking to anticipate how the painting will emerge.” The screen changes, Any has linked the emotion and decided that Lebo’s feelings are more like a painting than a sculpture.

Beaulieu’s assistant, a kind of magician’s sidekick, heads towards the machine where the painting has emerged. Before joining him, Lebo cries as she explains how she was remembering the loss of her friend who died on Friday. My heart goes out to her. It is this special memory that will create the painting. She disconnects from the sensors and moves towards the machine.

Out of the machine, a woman, similar in appearance to Lebo, appears pulling her face in anguish. The audience literally gasps. A window is behind her portrait, sunlight showing through the curtain. It is rendered in the style of an old renaissance masterpiece. It is completely unbelievable. It’s making me feel a lot like I’m being punked.

Holding up the wet painting for the audience to admire, Welz explains: “The first work ever produced by Any while in development stage sold to a European collector for €70 000.”

An angry audience member jumps up and says: “I don’t believe this. This is Africa. Don’t you think that this machine is making artists redundant?”

From the other side, a visibly enraged Mary Corrigall (The Times art critic) says: “I see it more as a domestic tool than something that will have an impact on the contemporary art market. I can’t understand why this is so important.”

“Art doesn't need a machine,” a journalist from BBC Africa says from the back. “I came here for art and this isn’t it.” He sits down while his friends applaud him. They seem a little overly enraged, but I’m enjoying the lively debate going on about art and technology.

Welz finally quells the crowd, gently proclaiming: “Thank you for your questions, and I will get to each of them, but first, dear audience, art needs you.”

A banner that says the same thing drops from above his head. Everyone is silenced. No one seems to know quite what is going on now. I am similarly confused.

Welz finally announces: “In a world being consumed by technology, we have brought you here to remind you that art really needs you. Painters, musicians, sculptors and critics need to remember that art needs them. That’s why, in the 30th iteration of the Absa L’Atelier Art Competition, we are proud to announce that this year the competition expands for the first time across Africa with entries now open to Botswana, Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya.”

Marketed as the biggest art reveal of the century, Welz seems to have received the desired reaction - exposure for one of Africa’s oldest and most prestigious prizes. If you managed to get all the way to the end of this article without clicking 100 other links first, you will feel similarly duped, but I suppose at least you now know about the award.

Just as the confusion is winding down, some audience members seem not to have got it. Sue from Business Day still seems perplexed. She tells the afternoon’s host, Jenny Crwys-Williams: “I still don't understand.” Williams replies to the bewildered journalist, seemingly surprised that the audience hadn’t actually grasped what was going on: “It’s a spoof, dear.” I leave feeling a bit tricked, but blown away by the scale of production.

Outside the conference hall, we gather for coffee. An important arts editor and another fierce critic mutually agree that there is no way either of them would’ve come were it not for the PR hype prior to the launch. It’s a sentiment I think many would share, myself included. There is a fine art to the competitive world of the press release and, this year, the Absa L’Atelier Competition launch wins first prize across the board.

To enter the Absa L'Atelier Art Competition go here

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