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Kyle McDonald on the ethics of creative expression in digital art

The artist working with code talks on representation and the perils of data and information usage in his creative process.

by Girinandini SinghPublished on : Feb 27, 2021

Working with new media for Brooklyn-based artist Kyle McDonald has remained an adventure to explore the possibilities of new technology, how they impact society, and how they build alternative futures. As an artist working with code, the inherent nature of new media art comes across as being a fluid expression existing beyond the boundaries of the usual infrastructure of the arts. Yet it is not fundamentally different from other art mediums; whether one works with a projector instead of paper, or code instead of a canvas, the artist is still confronted by the age-old questions of aesthetics, beauty, human creativity, and ethical representation.

Discrete Figures by Rhizomatiks, Elevenplay, and Kyle McDonald | STIRworld
discrete figures (2018) by ELEVENPLAY, Rhizomatiks Research and Kyle McDonald Image: Kyle McDonald

“I do believe there is a temptation to make artwork with digital technology that mainly exists to praise the technology itself. This might mean leaning on scale or multiplicity as a crutch, creating an appearance of complexity for its own sake,” McDonald explains. Aesthetics and beauty perhaps lead towards a more complicated line of questioning for the artist working within the highly synthetic medium of technology or digitisation than for those working with traditional mediums. When artists first began dabbling with machine learning, data-sets, code, and AI technology to create art, it was laughed at as a synthetic form of art, an entertaining gimmick, but little more. It was not until very recently in 2018, when the sale of the Portrait of Edmond Belamy, by Christies heralded the coming of age of ‘digitised’ or ‘new media art’. It signalled the arrival of AI art and digital technology on the world stage. Nonetheless, this did little to placate the skeptics, who have questioned the boundaries of the creative process, where does the artist’s creativity end where does the machines begin, who is the true creator?

Social Soul by Kyle McDonald and Lauren McCarthy | STIRworld
Social Soul (2014) by Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald Image: Kyle McDonald

As a response to this question, McDonald gives the example of artist Helena Sarin, who works with machine learning to produce augmented versions of her drawings and paintings. Her work the artist says, “proves that there is place for traditional concepts of texture, colour and abstract forms even in new media”. Sarin uses a limited colour palette, a flat, shallow picture plane, lettering, to create strangely beautiful abstract still life collages, which are reminiscent of the Cubist tradition. McDonald’s own work, Social Soul with Lauren McCarthy (2014) is an excellent example of aesthetics as interpreted by new media. The artists used 50 screens reflecting into infinity to create the feeling of being inside someone’s data. It was an exploration of what data said about us, each one of us. How a collection of zeroes and ones could be interpreted creating a magnificently detailed landscape of a human life, it wasn’t a piece to merely evoke a form of reverence, rather it was a most profound expression of a portrait - an all too real image of a human being today.

As we begin questioning the interpretations of physicality in new media art it is impossible to ignore the responsibility laying with the artist to push the social, personal, and cultural boundaries of comfort. How do we challenge the existing power dynamics and assumptions surrounding appearance, identity, and race? McDonald believes that a good place to start is in challenging one’s own complicity in these systems. He says, “I am especially interested in the way that new technology is designed to automate classification and segregation based on our appearance - whether that means our visual appearance, the way our online activity appears, or something else. In my work with machine learning, I try to find ways to highlight our similarities”.

01 min watch Vibe Check (2020) | Kyle McDonald and Lauren McCarthy| STIRworld
Vibe Check (2020) by Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald Video: Courtesy of Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald

In McDonald’s work Sharing Faces (2013), he developed an algorithm which matched the expression and pose of the audience in real time with photos of someone else who once stood in front of the installation. It does make one wonder if such an attempt to connect, to draw closer the circle, through the physicality of the body is enough to truly challenge the existing power dynamics of binaries of gender, size, colour, shape, and more? Perhaps it is a start but undoubtedly there is still a way to go. With Facework, a recent game developed by the artist, these boundaries are pushed further still where the game challenges the player to trick the algorithm into thinking that they look a certain way. It is a commentary on the absurdity of classification and other problems behind face-recognition systems. McDonald says, “With my personal ethical boundaries, I would like to do this work in a way that is completely consensual, without taking advantage of anyone for the sake of art. I haven’t been able to personally live up to my own standards yet, because many of the face analysis tool that I work with in order to critique these systems are themselves built on data collected non-consensually. And sometimes this system takes advantage of people who share their photos publicly online”.

Social Soul installation | Kyle McDonald and Lauren McCarthy| STIRworld
Social Soul installation Image: Kyle McDonald

There is no denying that there is a need for establishing a system of ethical use of data and information, these are issues we grapple with daily on a global economic scale. Its presence in our culture of creation forces us to confront the reality of just how much do we understand of our own digital lives, of our digital footprints, our virtual personas and the platforms that have access to this information. It gives a contextualised reading to McDonald’s work Social Soul, its relevance as we comprehend the extent to which our data becomes a terrifyingly accurate self-portrait.

Kyle McDonald | STIRworld
Kyle McDonald Image: Kyle McDonald

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