by Hazel Anna Rogers
I had a group of friends when I was about 18, none of which I remain in contact with now. At the time, I was rather more outlandish about my style choices back then compared to how I am now. My general approach to fashion today tends to be one of comfort as opposed to effort.
I used to color in my blonde eyebrows with a dark brown eye pencil until they were sluggish and thick but leave the rest of my face bare and pale. My front two teeth had a small gap between them, a look enforced by sleeping with a tiny piece of cardboard between them while I slept (a fact I fervently rejected when accused of it by my mother). I had a short, lightly curled bob, a fringe that sat about an inch above my eyebrows, and a gaunt, pallid complexion. I would wear a tiny green pleated tartan skirt, Dr Martens or TUK creepers, fishnet tights, many a roll-neck, tight see-through t-shirts, flamboyantly frilly child’s dresses, and hoodies with tight black jeans. I think I was quite striking, if not always in a positive sense. I remember when I first became friends with that group, an entourage of girls (predominantly) who would cake their faces in garish colors and wear either black and ripped attire, or maybe brightly colored ‘kawaii’-style outfits. One of them told me I looked a lot like Grimes, and I feigned knowledge of who she was. The others fervently agreed with this opinion, so when I went home I looked her up.
Floods of images came up when I searched Grimes’ name. She was beautiful, and I must say I felt rather esteemed to have been associated with her.
I went onto YouTube and listened to her.
It’s difficult to describe retrospectively how I felt when I first heard her music. I would like to say that I immediately adored her dreamy, incomparable tones, her electronic landscapes, the utter dissimilarity of her art to anything I had ever heard. But I don’t think that I liked it that much, at least not straight away. I do believe I rather forced myself to develop an attachment to this artist whom I was apparently so visually akin to. But I listened, on and on and on, day in, day out, stopping myself from skipping any song perchance it was less audibly satisfying than another. I must say, even before I began to feel anything authentic for Grimes’ music I was taken by her ability to generate such an evocative bath of sound seemingly without any of the regular musical conventions that I was used to. Walking along listening to her I felt as though I was consumed by the electronic soundscape she had created.
I became obsessed with her, aesthetically and musically. Her album, ‘Visions’, was all that I listened to, whether in my room, out and about, or studying in my college library. I didn’t care that my family despised her songs most vehemently, or that my boyfriend wouldn’t give her a second glance. She was mine, mine alone to immerse myself in.
I feel as though I often become rather biographically infatuated by things I find and receive intense enjoyment from. The same happened when I discovered my love for Murakami’s writing; I bought every book, read and reread them and wrote down lines that resonated inside of me like wildfire.
But my passion for Grimes was cut short after a rather difficult event the year I discovered her. I suddenly developed a deep fear of her music, for in it was held many a pained memory from that time in my life. I didn’t listen to her for 4 years, and subsequently forgot she had ever existed.
Early in 2020 Grimes released ‘Miss Anthropocene’. She was all over the news due to her newly announced pregnancy with Elon Musk. I begrudgingly coaxed myself to listen to the album, despite my misgivings over what would happen in my mind once I let her back in.
Her violent, dark vocals brushed over me like waves. I ate each song up greedily, one after the other, then replayed them all once they were finished. After months of a diet consisting of Steely Dan, Gipsy Kings, and Neil Young I felt rejuvenated to re-embrace the electric soul I had been neglecting. It felt good.
I delved into Grimes’ life and works much more scientifically during this second round of fanaticism. I listened to podcasts and watched YouTube interviews of her from her younger days to today and subsequently discovered a newfound interest in AI that developed from her profound insights into the topic. Whereas prior I had been quite the gullible consumer of scaremongering media tactics around AI, I began to read more into the intricacies of AI and what it means for the future of the arts and our lives. Grimes seemed to have a childlike excitement about the idea of AI’s involvement in the music industry in particular, a perspective I encountered in her conversation with Sean Carroll on his podcast Mindscape. It turns out that Grimes had studied neuroscience at McGill University prior to making music her full-time profession, something I hadn’t known prior, thus explaining her fascination with AI (and her relationship with Musk, I suppose). The conversation expands into the realm of AI as a creator, and even more specifically into AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). AGI is the aim of much of current AI research, and in basic terms it will be defined as a machine able to perform tasks as a human would, but far quicker and more efficiently. AGI, if successful, could potentially eradicate the necessity for human labor, an end goal that would have positive and negative ramifications for the future of mankind. Part of what is lacking thus far to finally create AGI is not the scientific, mathematical, or even creative capability of machines, but spontaneity, common sense, and greater perspective in everyday situations.
Take Melanie Mitchell’s example as she recounted it in her conversation with Sean Carroll; AI controlled vehicles are trained to understand human obstacles along the side of the road in order to ensure they don’t crush a child as they’re trying to cross. But if there’s a snowman on the side of the road, the AI cannot make the distinction between a child and said ‘human-like’ shape, so it stops to let it cross. Humans are highly spontaneous beings, but a machine cannot be ‘spontaneous’ in the same way a human can. Think about this: someone walking down the street might just randomly decide that a particular spot is a good place to cross the road; this is not a pre-planned act, it is spontaneous. If a machine could cultivate this ‘human’ sense of spontaneity, it would mean that AI had finally developed some kind of autonomy away from its creators. This form of non-programmed intuitive learning is called ‘deep-learning’, and it is what many automated vehicle researchers are looking into achieving.
Grimes and Sean discuss the idea of humans in the current generation being the ‘last artists’ prior to AI becoming completely competent with all art forms. We already know that AI has the capacity to not only play ‘good’ chess, but to play it beautifully and creatively, which has resulted in competitive chess playing becoming far less prevalent. Sean brings up Douglas Hofstadter’s study into AI and Chopin, whereupon Hofstadter exposed an AI to a variety of pieces by Chopin, then programmed it to emulate Chopin by creating its own piece of music based off of what it had heard. He played the music that the AI had created alongside a genuine early Chopin piece to a group of classical music enthusiasts, then asked them which one they thought sounded most like Chopin. All chose the piece created by the AI. The AI used formulae and patterns it ‘learned’ from listening to Chopin to create the music itself. This brings to the fore certain questions about what sort of a future there is for music as an inherently human art. Don’t humans themselves use a database of memory based off of all the music they have ever been exposed to to fuel their own musical creativity?
Grimes brings up the idea that we, as a collective, are ‘running out’ of ideas to fuel innovative creativity. I would tend to agree. Many art forms have evolved exponentially in the postmodern age, and their trajectories no longer seem upwards in direction. The art world is stagnant, a strange meld of uninteresting visual art and uninspiring poetry produced, perhaps, by the democratization of art (not that I’m suggesting that it’s inherently bad that we can all experience and create art like never before, I just think that we are less inclined to seek out and enjoy great art because we really don’t need to anymore). Everyone creates and shares their art now through various social media means, and so we are constantly inundated by all good and bad art. We cannot escape it, whether we’re walking down the street past endless murals or researching on internet pages surrounded by constant adverts depicting lackluster graphics and cartoons.
Perhaps AI will soon have the capability to produce new kinds of art, something we seem to have become fairly fruitless in. Grimes, however, has brought me to appreciate a new kind of art I hadn’t considered before: producing music almost purely through technological means.
As a producer, music writer, and solo performer, Grimes has overstepped the boundaries of ‘musical talent’ being purely instrument-based. She confesses herself that, for her song ‘Delete Forever’ on ‘Miss Anthropocene’, she used the bare-minimum of actual guitar-playing and simply edited the minimal chords she used in order to create the resonance and musicality that pervade the song. I find this utterly ingenious. I am a classical pianist myself, and my appreciation for the mastery of the instrument alone as the highest form of musical intelligence has often bordered on the elitist. I love that Grimes is advocating for a democratization of electronic music creation, the idea that everyone, regardless of income or background, will be able to produce music without having to invest in an instrument or devote hours upon hours of practice to create something that actually sounds good.
Upon listening to Sean’s podcast with Grimes, I immediately downloaded some editing software to try and create my own ‘electronic’ piece. I think I vastly underestimated how easy that would be. It isn’t easy to create music through a computer when your entire understanding of music is through an instrument that merely requires finger-touch to create sound. The process of creating a piece of music on a program involves a deep visual understanding of sound effects, where to source aural material, and how to fit everything together to create something recognizable as music. Of course, a good microphone and some better editing software might help with that, but I must say I felt humbled upon listening to Grimes once more in my new understanding of the skill involved in her creative process.
Back on the AI topic, I recently came across a fascinating website called ‘ARTAI’. Funnily enough, it was advertised to me on Instagram…it seems the internet knows where my interests lie.
The website produces and sells original artworks made by Artificial Intelligence. It states further down on the homepage that ‘Art AI makes owning one of a kind AI art accessible to everyone, for the first time ever’. I scrolled down and the categories of art that are being sold range everywhere from Surrealism to Fauvism. I decided to delve into the ‘Surreal Art’ section to see what I could find.
I was awestruck. The paintings were so varied, so richly diverse, and so very impressive! Some seemed almost Dali-esque, while others brought to mind such artists as Hieronymus Bosch and Leonora Carrington. Some were bright and garishly disturbing while others were dark and unsettlingly grotesque. I wonder how I would have felt about finding such a website a few months ago, before I knew anything of AI. I wonder if I would have treated the art with disdain purely because it hadn’t been created by human hands. But sitting and looking through hundreds upon hundreds of works with the understanding I have now I was elated. How brilliant that we have had the ingenuity to bring about the age of the intelligent machine. For, really, all this art was created by humans. Using the AI’s neural-network ‘brain’, the machine works through thousands of images that its creators expose it to in order to inspire its own original art. By economically producing art this way, AI is enabling original artwork to be affordable enough for everyone. Though you might be reluctant to embrace such a concept, surely it is gratifying to know that the AI has founded all these works on thousands of years of human creativity. Its imagination is boundless, but wherever its imagination takes it, it remains rooted in our own artistic history. I think that’s why the art is so very remarkable; it is the work of generations of incredible humans.
I suppose that’s how I should end this article, with the reassurance that however alien AI might seem to us all, we are the authors of its life and its destiny. Hopefully, in the future, we can harbor the powers of our strange AI child for the greater good of mankind. But in the meantime, whether you like her or not, Grimes is experimenting with a new art form that surpasses anything before it, and that is utterly brilliant. I feel comforted by her enthusiasm about AI’s creative course of life, that we need not fear the advancements of technology as an infringement upon our art, but as a mere extension of it. We should rejoice at the possibility of new life bringing us an even more in-depth understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to be an ‘artist’ in the 21st Century.