Craft and consciousness: exploring the work of American digital artist David Young

David Young discusses his artificial intelligence-driven arts practice, and shines light on the new creative hermeneutics.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Sep 22, 2021

Generative, code-based art is a part of the wider body of digital practices that is growing at a particularly fast pace. This is a strange phenomenon considering its niche and, for many artists, intimidatingly esoteric nature. However, practitioners such as Los Angeles-born David Young, who have worked with technology extensively, form a small core of artists that push it to its absolute breaking point, somehow always expanding it in the process. Young has a Masters in Visual Studies from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he focused on artificial intelligence. The artist tells STIR, “After graduating, I started teaching at Art Center College of Design, where I developed courses to introduce traditional designers to new media/digital design. Later, I founded a design studio, focusing on how emerging technologies could be creatively used to empower people with new services or ways of engaging with information. Over time I worked for larger organisations, trying to have a greater impact in the creative world. But I grew frustrated because bigger companies are harder to change.” His response to this was to shift his approach, in a sense, from top-to-bottom to bottom-up or grassroots based. The artist now attempts to channel personal intuition into a framework for emergent practitioners to work through. His focus does not centre around developing an understanding of how things work, but rather, what the possible creative applications of the pertinent technology in question are.

Untitled | David Young | USA | STIRworld
Untitled Image: David Young

As the artist’s biography on his website indicates, he has spent his entire career at the leading edge of emerging technologies. Through all of his work, from projects at the dawn of the web, the work with early supercomputers, to contemporary global innovation and artistic initiatives that inquire into the creative aspects of rapidly growing technology, Young has been a champion of new forms of creativity and expression. Currently, he works with artificial intelligence and extremely advanced forms of computing in order to “inquire into how beauty and aesthetic experiences can give us new intuition for emerging technologies.” Drawing from his wealth of experience, Young’s works are also a personal mediation on how we view the very idea of that which is “new”, and how it will invariably fall to obsolescence. Young’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) work is a complex and involved process that centres on machine learning. Discussing this, he explains, “I start with taking photos which I will then use to train the machine. I usually use just a handful, possibly somewhere between a dozen and a hundred, which is in stark contrast to the millions that might be used by more mainstream users of the technology. The AI machine-learning code runs, and honestly, I’m amazed at how slow the process can take. Sometimes it takes a whole week, and then begins creating its own images based on its understanding of what I trained it on.” The most interesting aspects of his practice reveal themselves to Young after this, as the machine’s understanding of and ability to reproduce the source material is limited, owing to his small palette of instruction. As a result, the end products may reveal glitches, or artefacts of how the technology works.

 Another untitled work by the artist | David Young | USA | STIRworld
Another untitled work by the artist Image: David Young

Young doesn't regard himself as a mathematician but does admit that a certain expertise with regards to programming language is key to his practice. Discussing his involvement with AI and Quantum Computing, he tells STIR, “New emerging technologies are so different from what’s come before, that it’s hard to get that expertise, and it’s virtually impossible for non-experts to contend with the possibilities. And so, my current works start with open-source, or off-the-shelf code that I simply run. Over time, I develop an intuition for how it works, and at that point I may start to make changes to it to create work that advances my interests.” This professional model signals a shift in the hermeneutics of art that is increasingly becoming the norm; the body of knowledge that must necessarily be imbibed in order to successfully create at the fringe of digital technology is overwhelming. Therefore, it necessitates that artists now build upon what is already known, instead of constantly disentangling the building blocks of their craft. However, this emergent paradigm is also the basis for a great deal of criticism from fine artists or proponents of the academy; they often see such a creative approach as a rejection of practice in and of itself. This is generally an unfair stance to take up as aspects of craft such as “fundamentals” and “basics” work completely differently for classical and digital practices. Regardless, such questions persist, and it seems as though there is no easy answer, nor parallels that may be drawn which will not, invariably, turn reductive.

An AI generated manipulation of a flower | David Young | USA | STIRworld
An AI generated manipulation of a flower Image: David Young

A very interesting distinction Young makes is that he sees AI and the software that he uses as an instrument; something he must understand and apply with a deftness, not unlike a painter’s brush. He tells STIR, “I consider the AI code to be a tool which I use and I am in command of. The AI is not simply making art.” This suggests that practitioners such as him are also working with a certain kit that has its own materiality and requires its own rubric to function as intended. Perhaps there is a commonality with classical practices that may be observed here, and in a sense, some common ground to be found.

“I consider the AI code to be a tool which I use and I am in command of.” – David Young | David Young | USA | STIRworld
“I consider the AI code to be a tool which I use and I am in command of.” – David Young Image: David Young

Discussing the future, Young says, “I’m currently working on a series using data generated by a quantum computer. The technology is a long way off from being mainstream, but it threatens to break the cryptographic security on which the blockchain and NFTs depend.” It will be interesting to see where the artist goes with this, and how his work may alter the landscape of digital practices in a wider sense. For the time being, we have Young’s fascinating and intricate pieces to marvel at, and deep questions regarding the nature of human creative agency, and mastery over the mechanical craft to ponder.

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