“Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” A thought experiment, illustrated (2023)

Chat #1 (2023). Inkjet on PVC, 8.5 x 5.5-inches

This collaborative project by Michael Corris and Tino Ward conjoins two enthusiasms of the artists: exploring the intersection of art and philosophy, and the art of papermaking.

Chat #2 (2023). Inkjet on PVC, 8.5 x 5.5-inches

In this new project, nine red monochromes made of handmade paper are accompanied by nine panels of text printed in ink jet on PVC. Each paper monochrome is paired with a text panel that is a transcription of a Q&A between the artists and the Artificial Intelligence (AI) program, ChatGPT-4. The initial question posed to the AI program asks it to explain, in simple terms, Arthur Danto’s famous thought experiment involving an exhibition of nine identical red monochromes. (Danto began with seven red monochromes, then introduced a couple more, just to complicate matters.) In Danto’s original account of the thought experiment, which may be found in his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1981), each of the red monochromes is paired with a title or a description. Keep in mind that Danto’s original titles for the monochromes differ completely from those that ChatGPT-4 generated. A computer scientist partial to applying anthropomorphic metaphors to AI might say that ChatGPT-4 had “hallucinated” the titles.

Chat #3 (2023). Inkjet on PVC, 8.5 x 5.5-inches

Putting aside ChatGPT-4’s errors, the titles it did generate do have metaphorical purchase. For example, A flag for a parade of communist labor parties might suggest to the imaginary viewer that they are in the presence of a fragment of a social realist painting or an example of late-nineteenth century Symbolist art. Other titles, like A piece of fabric intended to cover a hole in a larger piece of fabric, are hilariously descriptive and identify a particular red monochrome simply as a functional bit of matter, like a paint chip that shows a sample of red paint or a fabric sample. The philosophically interesting bit — the conundrum at the heart of the entire thought experiment that makes it worth considering — is that all nine of the red monochromes are absolutely identical. This, it turns out, is a philosophical problem known as the problem of indiscernibles.

Chat #4 (2023). Inkjet on PVC, 8.5 x 5.5-inches

The questions raised by Danto’s thought experiment include, “If all the red monochromes are indistinguishable, why are some taken to be works of art while others are simply ordinary things in the world?” The conversation that takes place between the artists and ChatGPT-4 aims to get to the bottom of Danto’s thought experiment, to reveal some startling ideas about how we think about art. At the same time, we continue to probe the ChatGPT-4, in an effort to hold it to account for its “interpretation” of Danto’s philosophy of art.

Chat #5 (2023). Inkjet on PVC, 8.5 x 5.5-inches

The idea of simulating a conversation with a computer program is not new. Alan Turing conceived of it in 1950 as a means to determine if a computer program could be written such that it would fool a human being into thinking that they were indeed communicating with another person. The Turing Test — or imitation game as it is known — seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. Some claims being made for Artificial Intelligence conjure up a terrifying image of a future where computer programs will not only simulate but go beyond “human-level” intelligence. All this chatter about Artificial Intelligence and expressive media, like visual art, pop music, and poetry is reminiscent of the anxieties raised by the invention of photography. Photography, it was thought, would spell the death of painting. At this point, AI is a tool, although some computer engineers would like us to consider a world where AI is self-generating and spontaneously “expresses” what it feels like to be a sentient machine.

Chat #6 (2023). Inkjet on PVC, 8.5 x 5.5-inches

Despite the doomsday scenarios promoted by some AI technocrats, we may never get to that point. If recent efforts by AI engineers and others calling for a moratorium on the development of generative or “human-level” AI are successful, then the prospect of using this technology creatively should result in some interesting works of art. Our attention should shift away from the doomsday scenario of the “singularity” in films like I, Robot and The Matrix series, where humanity is under threat of enslavement or extinction. We should be concerned about the effect of deep fakes on our ability to discern truth from fiction.

Chat #7 (2023). Inkjet on PVC, 8.5 x 5.5-inches

Why take a computer to task for a rather unremarkable interpretation of an art philosopher’s thought experiment? Can a machine learning AI system like ChatGPT-4 illuminate a human viewers’ own interpretations of the meaning of a work of art? Can chatbots go beyond simple explanations of what is what, and understand why Danto’s philosophy might be surprising or valuable to us? Just as we rely on computer programs and AI to do all sorts of mundane tasks for us, will we someday rely on it to tell us how to think and feel about art? Not likely. As a professor of mine used to say, “I can’t teach you anything you don’t already know.” 

Chat #8 (2023). Inkjet on PVC, 8.5 x 5.5-inches

“Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” A thought experiment, illustrated (2023), will be on view May 27 – August 5, 2023, at Liliana Bloch Gallery, 4741 Memphis St., Dallas, TX 75207, USA. Opening reception: Saturday, May 27 from 5 – 7pm.

Chat #9 (2023). Inkjet on PVC, 8.5 x 5.5-inches

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