DigitWork I: Daniel Ambrosi

The Needle Dream Lens
Edition 1 of 1
Daniel Ambrosi is recognised as one of the founding creators of the emerging AI art movement and is noted for the nuanced balance he achieves in human-AI hybrid art. Ambrosi combines computational photography and artificial intelligence to create exquisitely detailed artworks that move people visually, viscerally, and cognitively. His artworks have been exhibited internationally, installed in major tech offices, featured in multiple publications, and collected by enthusiastic patrons worldwide.

Daniel, thank you for your time. It has been said that every great artist is a great inventor. You were able to convince two brilliant software engineers, Joseph Smarr (Google) and Chris Lamb (NVIDIA), to modify the DeepDream source code to suit an intended direction. And, with perhaps surprising results.

From a distance your large format artworks appear to be a photographic reality, beautiful landscape images, but up close they seem like a digital hallucination. They evoke a hybrid quality of pointillism, fractal technology, surrealism and realism into one integrated whole.

Upon viewing your work I was reminded by the following quote of Psychologist/Philosopher, William James,

It is our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded. How to regard them is the question …

With viewing your work there can also be a sense of the “Itness” that Alan Watts refers to in his book. ‘This is It and other essays on Zen and the Spiritual Experience’. Do you think there is a sense of Itness, i.e., otherness that is integrated into the present objective view when one encounters your work? I’m talking about a sense that one can encounter when viewing the vast panoramas available in nature or watching a flowing river in stillness, a moment of clarity in awareness that is triggered under the right circumstances and experience.

I hope so and think so, based on the many powerful reactions I’ve witnessed. But I suspect the truth behind that is a bit more complicated. I think the cognitive dissonance between the distant and close appearances of my Dreamscapes jolts viewers into questioning everything about what they are seeing. Therefore, the “Itness” and/or moment of clarity they have is not so much about what they are seeing, but about what they are not seeing… and what may lie beyond seeing.

You were influenced greatly by the history of landscape painting and in particularly by the Hudson River School of painters. You also pursued architecture at one point, did your early artwork involve painting? In what ways, if any, does your earlier work, i.e., non digital art differ from the work you now producing?

My art has always been digitally native since my earliest days some 40 years ago when I was a student/researcher at the Program of Computer Graphics at Cornell University. What has changed to some degree since the start of the pandemic is the nature of the final art objects I’ve been producing. Prior to the pandemic, the majority of my finished work was printed on fabric and installed on light boxes. I’m still doing that, but the balance has tilted toward purely digital artworks (e.g., images, videos, interactive 3D objects) that are presented digitally (e.g., online, digital displays, projections, VR, NFTs).

Yes, I would like us to come back to the presentation side of your work. First though, please tell us about your approach as well as what motivates you.

My formal art career started in earnest almost 10 years ago, and I see this entire time period as constituting one cohesive continually evolving art project that emerged from a very specific artistic intent: To capture and convey the power of special places. To elaborate on that: As an avid hiker, skier, and traveler throughout my adult years, I gradually developed a burning desire to capture in a two-dimensional image the profound and moving experiences that I was having in the presence of special places like great landscapes and cityscapes. This is the core intention that continues to drive my Dreamscapes project.

When you are working with digital processes such as algorithms, filters, visual modulators and/or AI, is there a discovery process that is somewhat consistent for you in that process?

Absolutely. You mentioned in your introduction that every artist is an inventor; I believe every artist must also be a curator. For me, the discovery process is intimately tied to curation and, to be effective, that curation must be directed by a very clear vision.

I see, if you don’t mind, please explain that a bit further.

Sure. Let’s take DeepDream for example. As released, DeepDream provides hooks into 84 different layers in its neural network, each one of which results in a different look or motif when applied to an image. As one moves through these layers, those motifs tend to range from abstract/impressionistic at the highest levels to very literal/animalistic at the lowest levels. There are also four sliding parameters that modulate the scale and intensity of the “hallucinations” for each target layer. The net-net of these controls is that I’m granted an infinite degree of variety within a finite repertoire of motifs. An important part of my job is to find a dreaming style that is visually and/or texturally compatible (in my subjective opinion) with the source photography to which it is applied. And in the case of “multi-pass” dreaming, where I apply two or more passes of dreaming at multiple scales to create layered dreaming effects, I need to find dreaming styles which are also compatible with each other.

Do you think or feel there is a collaborative input from the information side of the technology that leads or speaks to you, sort of like an artificial mind that is speaking to you about what it sees?

It certainly surprises me. I am under no illusion that my AI is sentient; it is just a tool. But its capacity to surprise me makes it feel like a collaborator. An important way in which DeepDream distinguishes itself from mere image filters is that it is contextual: it transforms my imagery in unique ways specific to the underlying forms, colors, and textures of the original photography. This specificity is more apparent with some neural network layers than others in DeepDream, but in general its ability to respond to what it’s seeing while retaining fine details in the original imagery makes this a sophisticated tool that verges on creativity. The reason I use DeepDream is because in a sense it sees the scenes I capture in a manner that is related to but markedly different from humans. Since seeing is a creative process that humans often take for granted and mistakenly assume is a mere recording of objective reality, DeepDream provides an opportunity to remind people that different species (and machines even) see the world in vastly different ways.

Speaking of seeing, what has been the audience response Vs the critics response to your art?

By and large, the response to my Dreamscapes has been remarkably positive; the crossover appeal continues to astonish and gratify me. I have had a few rare instances of art elites being somewhat dismissive, but that usually seems to be because they mistakenly think of DeepDream as mere style transfer or image filtering. And for some critics I get the sense my art is too “pretty” and not edgy enough for them. But art is subjective, of course, and can’t please everyone. My Dreamscapes please me and appear to delight and inspire many others.

Are you often surprised and/or enlightened by what the viewer brings to the table when encountering your art?

Yes! This was a big surprise to me which revealed itself on the opening day of my Dreamscapes debut back in April 2016. I learned that we see what we expect to see until we can no longer deny that we’re seeing something else! What I observed is that the distance at which a person can no longer see the hallucinations hidden in my Dreamscapes is at least twice as far away from the print once the person knows they are there. That means that the first time they approach my work there is an entire span in that approach where they are unconsciously biasing themselves toward their expectations. Then suddenly at, say, three feet away, it hits them that things are not at all what they seem. That’s always a fun moment to observe (usually because it involves some shrieking), but it’s especially fascinating to me how much further back they have to walk to “unsee” the hallucinations once they’ve learned the truth. This really opened my mind to the understanding that seeing is a creative act entirely, which ironically takes place in the unlit space inside your skull.

What, for you validates your art? Is it the price somebody is willing to pay? Is it a positive critical response or is it something other?

All of the above, I suppose. I think it’s safe to say that most artists are fairly insecure. At the same time it’s critical for artists to strongly believe in their work if they want any chance at success. For me, the biggest measure of success is the number of people in the world I get the chance to immerse in my work. I want my work to be seen, ideally immersively on grand scales. I’ve built a huge body of work over the years, and much of it has remained locked in a digital prison viewed by most people only via their phone or laptop. In a sense my art marketing efforts have been all about trying to engineer a mass jail break to get these gigantic images exhibited or installed in the real world and seen the way they are meant to be seen.

Well it is breath-taking work. The AI tool has enabled you to achieve some astonishing work. I can see someday that we will have large scale immersive technology that will enable people to experience the display of your work on a massive scale and realize that ‘jail break’. What is your response to an established art world which appears biased towards art done by the artist hand?

This bias has annoyed me sufficiently to compel me to write a mini-manifesto about it back in 2017 (see Fine Art and the Unseen Hand: Reconsidering the role of technology in the handcrafted tradition of fine art). But I believe this is changing rapidly and has been greatly accelerated by the recent rise of digital art and NFTs, and with historic auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s beginning to sell purely digital works. There will always be great museums and physical galleries to visit and enjoy handcrafted art. But even these traditional venues will begin staging immersive digitally-projected art experiences like those seen at popular immersive-only venues such as Artechouse and Atelier des Lumières.

Daniel, this has been a fascinating and enlightening discussion. Thank you for spending time with us. I wish all the best with your ‘jail break’ and getting the right type of exposure that such a great body of work deserves.

You can enter Daniel Ambrosi’s exhibition below. Best viewed in full screen

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Digital artist pursuing the NFT markespace.

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