Pursuing intelligent creative systems with Iranian artist Arash Akbari

Tehran-based transdisciplinary artist Arash Akbari discusses his artificial intelligence centric arts practice, and explores the generation of self-propelling digital setups.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Oct 02, 2021

Generative art, a term referring to artistic practices that are code-based and are often manifested through the artist’s computational experience, are a growing subset within the wider realm of digital arts practices, and also often straddle the bounds of new media or emergent mixed-media trends. The practitioners who work within this field contend with the outer limits of the digital craft, and indeed, repeatedly push it beyond those limits, mutating and evolving digital technologies in the process. Arash Akbari, hailing from Tehran, is among those creatives, and possesses a particularly strong preoccupation regarding human agency within digital craft.

A data-sculpture by Akbari at Times Square, New York | Arash Akbari | STIRworld
A data-sculpture by Akbari at Times Square, New York Image: Arash Akbari

The artist tells STIR, “I have been fascinated by the concept of art as a behaviour or process, or even a system for some time. I pursue a kind of art-making that is called generative art or interactive art, or cybernetic art interchangeably. Instead of creating fixed and finished pieces, I am interested in developing art systems and processes that have some level of their own agency, indeterminacy, and a direct impact on the outcome. Akbari continues, touching upon a very interesting philosophical question, which is sure to become increasingly pertinent in the decades to follow: He says, “I think these systems are freed of egotism by shifting the centrality of human artistic expression to other forces like natural or social processes, stream of data, or even pure chance. As a result, I enable myself to explore the unknown to some degree.” The question here, is to what extent, if at all, is human agency imperative in the creation of that which we call ‘art’? Akbari himself is reminded of a quote by the American conceptual artist and composer, George Brecht, and states, “Chance methods allow the artist to access a universe of forms unimpeded by personality or culture, and thereby allow the artist to the transcend self.” This way of thinking effectively shifts the commonly accepted purpose of art, if one may posit such a nebulous concept at all, from self-expression to self-meditation. Whereas the artist’s craft was once meant to form a channel of transmission between himself and society in a wider sense, it is now an instrument by which he may go deeper within, and eventually beyond himself.

Morphosis: A collaboration with Rojin Sharafi | Arash Akbari and Rojin Sharafi | STIRworld
Morphosis: a collaboration with Rojin Sharafi Image: Arash Akbari and Rojin Sharafi

The artist describes his approach to his practice as an attempt to move past his own experiences and cultural background or subjective point of view, and as a process that is more observational than ego-centric. Akbari explains that it is precisely what capitalist humanism has failed to propose. He continues, “By observational, I mean non-symbolic and non-representational. and even if I as an artist want my work to be contextual, representational, or expressive, I can create a process or a situation that is capable of revealing its meanings, contexts, or concepts with the bare minimum artistic intervention, instead of creating a fixed and passive version based on my ideas or judgments about that context.” Discussing process, Akbari reiterates that he is primarily preoccupied with the creation of processes through which he may examine possible outcomes. He elaborates on this, saying “For example, it can be the visualisation of a live data stream or transformation of a document’s features into another medium, such as transforming motion into sound or creating a symbiotic process of two different streams and capturing their interaction and interplay with each other. When I develop such a system, I observe its behaviors. Sometimes I tweak it to shift it toward my desired result to some degree. The next step is to find the best medium for presenting the outcome. It varies, depending on many factors. But in the end, the finished piece may turn into an interactive installation or an XR or web-based application, or perhaps even some kind of fixed media piece or a music album.”

Untitled | Arash Akbari | STIRworld
Untitled Image: Arash Akbari

One of Akbari’s favoured techniques is the usage of Generative Adversarial Networks or, as it is more commonly known, GAN image-breeding. The artist trains his computer on myriad portraits and images of the human body; letting it generate abstract constructs in order to examine its perspective, in a sense, regarding the human form. Much of Akbari’s GAN works can be found within his ‘RAW’ series. Discussing these, he mentions that chief among his findings is the results are often “vague and recognisable at the same time”, displaying a fascinating degree of comprehension on the part of computer systems. However, at the same time, it also speaks to a lack of total comprehension, which does, in some senses, pose a challenge to the artist’s idea of a system that creates art on its own. It seems, one must provide more images to study or similar such inputs to systems and processes such as these, if their results are meant to be made more accurate. Hence, to use an expression, the artist remains in the “driver’s seat” in some capacity. Yet, this is by no means a disqualifier for Akbari’s creative pursuits, as that margin for necessary human involvement is admittedly dwindling, at what some might even consider to be an alarming rate.

Untitled | Arash Akbari | STIRworld
Untitled Image: Arash Akbari

Interestingly, the artist does not believe that artistic culture, in a specific sense, exists anymore. He says, “I believe there’s no longer any such thing as an art movement through which a group of artists gather to create their own styles, manifestos, and practices in order to respond or react to their societies, in a specific time period. I believe it hasn’t happened in the digital age, although there are some efforts going on.” He proposes that contemporary art has become a mix of various movements, ideas and creative manifestos from eras past. If this is indeed the case, then artists such as Akbari who practice in today’s day and age have the unique ability to mix and match from a wide selection of thoughts, techniques, art forms and ideas. Discussing the future of his particular artificial intelligence-driven practice, Akbari ends this interview on a rather prophetic note, saying “I think we can approach it from two ends of a spectrum, or a utopian and dystopian point of view if you will. On one side of the spectrum is automation. It will result in the mass production of imitated artworks with short expiration dates and it will bring an end to authorship and creativity. It will replace active exploration and appreciation of the art with mindless consumerism. The other side is harnessing the power of AI through artists and designers to explore ambiguous ideas and concepts, which was impossible before due to the lack of technology and computing power, and to create responsive and cybernetic art systems that are capable of being active catalyzers of change in society.”

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