By VITTORIA BENZINE, June 2021
Full-bodied artistic exploration still thrives in Brazil, even amidst a chaotic year without the country’s infamous Carnival. This month on NFT platform Opensea, Rio de Janeiro-based artist and creative leader Yaak drops Samba Crypto AI, an extensive collection of 10,130 AI-based images celebrating Rio’s iconic Samba parades, the centerpiece of all Carnival festivities. While revelers regard Carnival as the world’s biggest party, the Samba parade competition that anchors it all is underpinned by decorum, ceremony, and evaluation. Yaak’s series thwarts the Samba’s tradition by exploring the phenomenon through a robot’s eyes.
“In a year without Carnival, Samba is an experiment around the impossible and non-existent movements of Porta-Bandeira (Flag-bearer) and Mestre-sala (Master of Ceremonies) recreated by Artificial Intelligence,” reads the collection’s press materials. In the real life competition, these two athletic dancers lead their Samba schools’ parades across the finish line in eighty electrifying minutes, delivering the performance of a lifetime on code to impress the judges. As he began creating this series, Yaak culled thousands of images from the public domain to create a visual library of Carnival in all its bombast, poise, and form.
The artist then processed these raw materials through a proprietary construction of three AI networks. Each network dealt with the inputs sequentially to identify objects, create new images, classify the new images, and evaluate them through a logic parallel to those complex judgements determining the real life Samba victors. The artist summarizes this process on YouTube. Its output envisions Carnivals of a separate universe where the Porta-Bandeira and Mestre-sala throw civility to the wind for their own routine. Images featuring multiple flags or strange interactions read particularly incongruous to anyone with a knowledge of Samba’s strict rhythms. For everyone else, the artworks are still otherworldly and fascinating.
Yaak’s method to creating these images questions the pre-conceived relationship between an artist and their practice, which typically focuses far more on final product than process. “The AI work is not just about the output or the aesthetic value of the image in the output,” Yaak told me over video chat. While analog activity precludes a certain scale—it would take a very long time to paint 10,130 paintings—time spent manipulating images through GAN networks and other cutting-edge techniques flows in the opposite direction. The artist begins with a mass of material and works by paring it down. They decide what technology will be employed, what actions that technology will enact, and how will it make sense of its outcomes.
The values that Yaak’s system selects for are summarized on a card accompanying each artwork throughout Samba. This card functions both as a certificate of ownership and a cheat sheet for the image’s stats—its ‘series’ and its ‘school,’ noted as its ‘AI Block.’ The fictionalized school names communicate which object from the Samba ritual the AI identified in that image. Meanwhile, the series stat recreates Samba’s intense focus on grading and classification, describing how closely the new image matches the original object it depicts. Yaak analyzed the final data on these evaluations to pinpoint five average scores that directly correlate to “the same Rio Carnival Series Names: Special, Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Access groups.”
With its obsessive categorizing and self-examination, Samba comments on technology’s relationship to information. “Crypto is about value, it's about attributes, it’s about comparing things and creating from the parameters I have,” Yaak said. To this end, he’s even built a function that allows the AI to literally price the pieces based on a formula. “There are cases I can't entirely agree with the AI,” Yaak writes in the press materials. “For example, those pieces I think are the most beautiful are sometimes evaluated by the AI with a low score and maybe the cheapest one. This is great because it makes it possible to buy beautiful pieces at lower prices, but this lack of control is still hard to deal with as an artist.”
Releasing a collection that tops 10,130 unique images isn’t just a show of computational power—it’s ultimately necessary to achieve the project’s aims. Each image, still mesmerizing in its own right, really lives through relativity, a state of classification which only matters in a crowd that’s vast like a Carnival audience. This relativity empowers the viewer to approach Samba with their own decision-making matrix, determining what they value to parse accordingly. From the machine learning technology he employed to create Samba down to the self-referential alternate universe that’s resulted, Yaak has released information into its own life than imprisoning it on his own terms.
This technology isn’t alien. It already lives in the real world. In addition to studying art and building an experimental sculptural practice, Yaak has also worked as a tech consultant, transforming complicated technologies into workable solutions for other organizations. He noted that financial tech companies use similar image recognition technology to identify if an uploaded document is blurry. While he’s worked in more traditional materials like sculptures built from wood and wire and gold leaf, Yaak added that he likes to use the same tools from his tech career as an avenue for exploration and creation. To an artist, even the complicated or mundane looks like an opportunity.
“Carnival is everything in Rio,” Yaak concluded during our conversation. Across the city, every single person’s mind transforms for four days, savoring the irresistible spectacle. “This is the first year we didn’t have the parade.” In tribute, these 10,130 unique images culminate years of work that Yaak has devoted to crafting Carnivals from some artificial imagination where those sacred rules are turned on their head and mayhem totes the crown. Somehow under all the pomp of our realm, this side to Samba’s spirit still exists in the analog world. Yaak hopes that if nothing else, Samba Crypto AI shows “the spirit of creation is still here—no matter if we don't have Carnival for a year. The creation is here.” WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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