Despite the harsh criticism sparked by the sale of the Portrait of Edmond de Belamy, a work carried out by an AI belonging to the French collective Obvious, last October Christie's recorded a sale 43 times higher than its estimate (£335,000 for an estimate of £7,800). Certainly not bad first, but is it enough to assert the entry of a new category of works on the market?

According to Sotheby's, which announced the second sale of this type on 6 March, "AI art is not going away". Working at the crossroads of computer technology and art for many years, the artist Mario Klingemann considers himself one of the pioneers of the movement he has dubbed ‘neurography’. A follower of artificial neural networks (systems based on the functioning of biological neurons in the human brain), codes, and algorithms, Klingemann taught himself the art of the computer program in the 1980s. He is fascinated by human perception and the theory of aesthetics, subjects he questions through his works and his algorithms endowed with autonomous creative reasoning.

Mario Klingemann, ‘Memories of Passersby I’, 2018. Photo: © Sotheby's Mario Klingemann, ‘Memories of Passersby I’, 2018. Photo: © Sotheby's

Memories of Passersby I (2018) by Klingemann, the star work of Sotheby's sale, is an installation consisting of a wooden cabinet, which includes the ‘brain’ of the AI, and two screens. The computer works in real time, creating faces of imaginary men and women on the fly, which appear on the screens. According to Sotheby's, the installation differs from any other work of this type sold at auction because Memories of Passersby I generates portraits continuously, while we contemplate them.

"The nature of contemporary art is pushing boundaries, and Klingemann's work is about to bring us into a new era". – Marina Ruiz Colomer

The fuzzy portraits are linked and are drawn more and more clearly on the screen, although they were never in actual existence before. Marina Ruiz Colomer, an expert in the contemporary art department, speaks of a unique chance to "watch an AI brain think in real time". The work is estimated at between £30,000 and £40,000.

How does it work?

Faces are generated by an artificial neural network that draws on a database of portraits from the 17th to the 19th century. The disturbing atmosphere that emerges from some images is what Klingemann describes as the "Francis Bacon effect".  

The artist says he is honoured to be finally recognised by the world of art, to see his work go to auction at Sotheby's, and he admits to "not having seen it coming". The auction house claims that no one else has managed to create a machine capable of generating portraits at such a speed, and of such quality.

Mario Klingemann, ‘Portrait of a Woman’. Photo: © Sotheby's Mario Klingemann, ‘Portrait of a Woman’. Photo: © Sotheby's

All in all, Klingemann claims to have spent three months programming his model, writing the code and designing the installation. Some say that the work is not entirely computerised, because the artist had to conceive the ‘brain’ beforehand; however, unlike other works produced by an AI, it is able to create art to infinity.

It is not absolutely certain that the art generated by an artificial intelligence will survive the effect of surprise, to the point of integrating itself naturally in auction houses and enjoying an artistic recognition in the eyes of the public. If Kligermann's technology surpasses that of the Obvious collective, the machine behind the next work will surely have to perform even better, and so on. How far will the designers go to find their place in the auction room? The ‘IA art’ industry may never be standardised, but it may bring surprises along the way.  

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