Writing Art History Since 2002

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Artificial Intelligence and the art of El Anatsui

The idea of using machines or Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the creation of art is surprisingly old, dating back to the 1970’s with Harold Cohen’s AARON – the computer program able to create original artistic images.

At its genesis, AARON began using an algorithm allowing it to draw lines in the manner of free writing – based on Cohen’s original question; what are the minimum conditions under which a set of marks functions as an image? As the program developed, it was then able to make more complex choices and recognise when an artwork could be regarded as complete.

El Anatsui, Horizon, 2016. Bottle caps, 260x460cm. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.El Anatsui, Horizon, 2016. Bottle caps, 260x460cm. Courtesy of the artist & Goodman Gallery Cape Town/Johannesburg.

How society values art determines whether computer programs like AARON can ever be regarded as successful artists – whether the value is derived purely from output or rather from far less tangible traits such as relevance, pre-thought, vision and insightfulness.

Since AARON, many iterations of AI generated art have followed. Despite this ubiquity, as a society, we’re still grappling with whether creations by AI are in fact art or simply ‘skillful digital ventriloquism’ – a phrase coined by Simon Colton, a professor of computational creativity at Goldsmiths College, London – lacking in true imagination and limited to the style, concepts and ideas of the original creators from which the machines are learning. In this instance, machines cannot be creators in the truest sense as they are not yet able to surface deeper insights and independent concepts through art.

A case for automation that is often cited is that robots could free up our time to focus on higher order thinking and artistic expression by efficiently performing banal, repetitive and unpleasant tasks. But what happens when these machines transcend these tasks towards more humanistic art making? Can these systems of creation have something meaningful to add towards nuanced global discourse within the visual art space?

Installation shot of ‘Meyina’. Images courtesy of the artist & Goodman Gallery Cape Town/Johannesburg.Installation shot of ‘Meyina’. Courtesy of the artist & Goodman Gallery Cape Town/Johannesburg.

These debates allow us to question our fragile construction of what it means to be a ‘self’ and what it means to be ‘human’. Who (what) is humanised and who (what) is dignified or denied dignity? Questions that feel increasingly urgent in a world with multiple refugee crises, civil unrest and heart-wrenching inequality, poverty and oppression.

One such artist who continues to establish the importance of iterative conversations between artist, artwork and viewer – and who does so with a remarkably ‘mechanic’ approach to making art – is Ghanain artist, El Anatsui.

Born in Ghana in 1944, Anatsui later moved to the South-East region of Nigeria to work as an artist and a professor at the University of Nsukka.

Anatsui’s sculptures are tapestries of geometrical construction – made with bottle-top caps threaded with copper wire – and in one sense they are ‘buildings of very large structures’, in another, ‘creations of abstract entities’ – blurring the lines between sculpture, painting and collage. The abstract concepts and work are not just for the eyes but also for the mind, interwoven with narrative strands of complexity, requiring you to question and consider. They are pliant, beautiful and feminine. Spectacular accents of reds, yellows, golds and blues burst forth, rewarding the senses.

…but what happens when these machines transcend these tasks towards more humanistic art making?

Anatsui has found interesting ways to negotiate the complexities of what it means to create as both a human and an artist from the African continent. The work is about the process as much as it is about medium, and his use of recycled materials readily available in the immediate environment allows him to explore deeper layers of waste and consumption through the lens of histories of colonialism. It speaks to creating beauty and life through rot – perhaps this is what gives one the idea that Anatsui’s works have a soul – and establishes the importance of human-made art as opposed to AI-created art.

When memory speaks, it often does so in a particular tongue and for Anatsui, memory and remembering speak in the form of these sculptures made from recycled materials. We can think of his work as a way of going back and untangling the past. Anatsui’s works allow him to carry histories forward and necessitate a continuous process of learning. He has often mentioned that his decision to stay with the same medium for so long is as a result of the material continues to reveal itself, with its fluidity and elasticity allowing for manipulation and form giving.

And the process of carrying his concept to these creations is rigorous, labour-intensive, complex and inspiring. It is a long way between conception and execution. Anatsui employs roughly 20-30 studio assistants at a time. ‘Units’ containing roughly 200 bottle caps are threaded together with copper wire. These units are then laid on the floor, which allows Anatsui and his assistants to play around and test out different compositions and arrangements. Each piece has its place and is connected to others in the most wonderful way. Different arrangements often suggest very different ideas, therefore, a great deal of time is spent rearranging the units before the final work is created – a long process of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction.

Anatsui’s employment of 20-30 studio assistants at a time also adds to the very concept of his work. A studio is a place of thinking and reflection. It is an important set-up in the context of transformative pedagogy as it lends itself as a vector allowing for mentoring, teaching, learning, nurturing and knowledge-transfer, while granting assistants independence and creative control over their craft. It is ultimately a master and apprentice relationship and a platform for self-actualisation. This is important in the context of a continent whose past value and knowledge systems have been perverted or altogether erased and forgotten.

El Anatsui, Tsu, 2016. Bottle caps, 225x242cm. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery.

El Anatsui, Tsu, 2016. Bottle caps, 225 x 242 cm. Courtesy of the artist & Goodman Gallery Cape Town/Johannesburg.

Ultimately, Anatsui’s sculptures and process of creation can be spoken of in reference to human ingenuity – the way in which humans are able to bring complex thought process and ideas into existence. The time-consuming nature of the process of creation brings forth interesting questions about whether parts of the process could be automated or relegated to machines. These questions remain; could robots or AI contribute to the process, what would that contribution look like and what automation implies for notions of artistic creation. Perhaps instead of thinking of AI as a substitute for humans, there are instances where AI could be viewed as collaborator, with machines taking on the more ‘formulaic’ aspect of art making while humans contribute more expansive and in-depth imagination with human touch and human error allowing for fluidity of concepts. A collaborative force.

Anatsui’s artworks reflect human life with layers of different people influencing the work; from the producers of the bottle caps to consumers drinking from these now recycled caps, to studio assistants touching and handling the caps and once more through the installation process with museum assistants making decisions on how to present the work. Each piece brings together multiple stories. This process makes his work fluid, open and responsive, and allows for progression in ideas and concepts.

Anatsui is an inspiration to a generation of artists who draw upon his practice to challenge histories of acceptances around what African art is, what it looks like and who it is for. Anatsui’s creations have a strong sense of originating from Africa but they are not bound to geographical constraints. When asked why he has remained in Nsukka “when he could live anywhere in the world”? Anatsui simply replies; “because that’s where my studio is”… in this way, resisting notions that Africa is lesser of.

El Anatsui, Oases, 2014-2016. Printing plates, 306 x 292cm. Courtesy of the artist & Goodman GalleryEl Anatsui, Oases, 2014-2016. Printing plates, 306 x 292cm. Courtesy of the artist & Goodman Gallery Cape Town/Johannesburg.

Nkgopoleng Moloi is an intern on ART AFRICA’s editorial team.

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