By MARIEPET MANGOSING, December 2021
Automation and the proliferation of robotic technology was originally created to make human lives easier. From mass production machines to toaster ovens and medical equipment, machines were designed to streamline efficiency, creating a roadmap that allowed us to explore newer advancing technologies and ultimately increase the quality of life. At the intersection of tech and art is Alexander Reben, who decidedly takes a step back to posture curious questions: What more can automation and AI offer us? Why do we hesitate to find out?
Reben studied robotics and applied math at the State University of New York, later attending MIT for his graduate studies in Media Arts and Sciences. While at school, Reben studied “sensor networks, human machine collaboration and robotics,” and garnered an interest in utilizing the machine as his chosen medium.
One of Reben’s earliest shows was a boxed room that had a button positioned in the middle. When pushed, a loud honk would sound off. Reben says, “I think working with AI and art is an interesting way to play with some ideas like how we think about a robot making music or art. Is it better than a human? For me, in my practice, there's a lot of humorm and that’s how I approach people to try to get them thinking about this.”
In so many ways, Reben’s work plays a role in dispelling the fear, uncertainty, and confusion that arose from more aggressive portrayals of technology’s advances in earlier art and other media—such as the film The Terminator—that can sometimes impede public interest in advancing and trusting AI. Reben continues, “Looking into the future—approaching it from what is out there, and cutting-edge technology, and pushing it beyond that limit—that’s where I find a lot of inspiration.”
When starting something new, Reben leans into the latest technological news to spark ideation. For example, Reben has become heavily involved with NFTs and is attempting to renovate the technology as we speak. “Subverting the NFT concept is interesting to me because then it’s something you can’t expect. You print out the artwork but it can’t be that NFT piece without folding it into a paper plane then throwing it across the room.” The inherent desire to go one step further than the latest generation is the basis of both scientific exploration and the vehicle in which Reben operates with his work.
In his series AI-Am I?, Reben inputs a series of “start texts” that are fed into a text generation AI called GPT. He takes the text generation, studies and interprets it, creating a whole other piece altogether. “Training custom models, making data sets for different outputs from album cover images to X-rays and having work made from that. Some of them were shared on Art Breeder. People can interact and play with them. Working with AI in ways where the aesthetic and style output is my decision, it relies on my interpretation of what was originally plotted by the algorithm.”
While the result can be mostly unpredictable, Reben directly collaborates with the machine to orchestrate a piece of artwork, a perspective to consider. Historically speaking, AI and automation were designed with people in mind. On the other hand, Reben uses AI with only the machine in mind and then translates what it was able to output. “I’ve been using AI in a collaborative way. I think it’s an interesting tool. Machine learning is going to be the technology that is much like the Industrial Revolution in how it will affect society. I view automation as extremely important and we’re only just viewing the steam hammer of AI.”
Reben not only wants to allay the fears around AI but also draw a path to accepting and understanding just what AI is capable of and what that means to the creative community and the scientific tech world at large. He shares, “There’s so much out there. There are tools that are standardized and some of these tools have aesthetic outputs that look like other outputs, as well. They create a similarity between artist and machine, even if they start out as different conceptual ideas. It's the same as how oil paintings can look like other oil paintings.”
Asserting visibility of artistic and creative control with AI is maybe an easier pill to swallow for those afraid. It aims to coax us into leaning into it despite AI’s hard illusive shell. “I use the technology in ways that are not originally intended and with that, tech can really accelerate the adoption of things.” To that end, Reben fully embraces the idea that by using it in an art context, automation is not only limited to resolving specific problems but also develops a lane that harbors free thinking and curiosity that fuels forward momentum.
No matter our own thoughts and feelings about the present and future of AI, Reben’s work cajoles us toward an open mind to art and technologies not readily understood. He poignantly states, "Sometimes when you’re working with outputs, you don’t necessarily know what the output will be but you sort of tease it out and train it in a particular direction which allows ample room for discovery.”
In the same vein that uncertainty and fear can reside at the corners of our vision, it’s important to snap back into focus and peer at what the unknown can potentially tell us about ourselves and most interestingly, the human condition as a whole. It just might surprise us.
To learn more about Alexander Reben, please visit his website here.
To view his NFTs and follow him on social media, please visit here. WM
Mariepet Mangosing is a bi-coastal writer and graphic designer from Jersey City. She has worked in brand packaging, web and print design for the past decade. Her feature length screenplay The Batholiths has been shortlisted in the Macro x Blacklist Feature Screenwriting Incubator program. In her work, she advocates mental wellness and accurate cultural representation in film, television and other media. She examines relationship dynamics through a first-generation immigrant lens. She has her BA in Visual Communications from Ramapo College of New Jersey and is an MFA candidate in Screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University.
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