Tate Britain’s new AI finds art in current affairs

You don’t look at art alone. Stare across the gallery of the Tate Britain at a Turner and you bring with you a quiet murmur of experiences – a family holiday, an orgasm, that morning’s news. What you see works in co-ordination with echoes. Memories, association, dreams. So far, so human. But what does a computer see? What does it think when it looks at a Turner?

Tate Britain’s new AI finds art in current affairs

Recognition, the winner of the Tate’s IK Prize 2016 for digital innovation, asks – and answers – some of these questions. Made up of multiple artificial-intelligence technologies, Recognition makes use of object recognition, facial recognition and composition analysis to pull up-to-the-minute photojournalism from Reuters, then trawls through Tate Britain’s vast collection to plonk a comparable picture beside it.

The result is a constant series of juxtapositions. During my time with the AI at the Tate Britain, I watched it present an LS Lowry industrial landscape beside a construction site in Singapore, a minimalist sculpture beside a footballer’s head, a riot with an abstract painting, an early 20th-century portrait beside Donald Trump. Sometimes they come across as satirical, at times they remind me of the artist John Baldessari’s rearrangements of text, film stills and photographs to create playful dialogues between seemingly disparate images.

“What if we could create a link between our everyday lives and Tate Britain’s art collection – bringing a new perspective on the collection by seeing it through the lens today?” says Angelo Semeraro, from the team behind Recognition at communications research centre Fabrica. “In these times, where we are continuously exposed to a 24-hour cycle of news images, we have a perception that what is happening now has never happened before. What we want to show instead is how present and past can be intertwined.”tate_recognition_2 

Watching the AI do its work is fascinating, not least because Recognition allows you to glimpse the actual processes going on behind the scenes. Split into four categories – objects, faces, composition and context – each comparison comes alongside information on the types of things being identified as common in each picture. The computer may decide that both pictures have a man wearing a black suit, for example, or a similar colour palette.

At times this works obviously – a photo of a park pond and a painting of a park pond isn’t the most adventurous juxtaposition – but at other times the echoes between images lead to delightful, evocative comparisons, such as the twirling gowns of revelers in Notting Hill carnival and an algorithmically produced association with Stanley Spencer’s painting of a fairground roundabout. At other times, the comparison isn’t clear at all. What does a drawing of a boat have in common with a picture of a stadium? But delve into the data and you can see how Recognition has come to the conclusion, even if it may seem irrational to the human eye. In some ways this is the most interesting aspect of the project: art appreciation for robots, as it were.


“This project represents the heart of a debate we need to have as a society, which is what is the role of technology in our society today,” says Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer at Microsoft UK, which is working in partnership with Tate Britain on the IK Prize.

“It is the point at which technology moves away from a cold binary world of ones and zeros, and it starts to embrace the ambiguous world of human emotions. All these very interesting things that start to pose questions about what it means to be human. It also means we have to end this stupid rhetoric that we enter into most days about machines being here to get us. This is not about the Terminator, this is not about algorithms stealing our jobs and ruining our economy. It is about a very different thing.”tate_recognition_1

The threat of automation to the job sector may be a bit more than stupid rhetoric, but Coplin’s point about using AI to raise questions about our own humanity is a good one. In some ways, an artist could come along and place randomly selected images beside artworks and we, as pattern-loving humans, would build some type of bridge between the two. But being able to peer into Recognition’s processes goes somewhere beyond this, provoking us instead to consider how a machine thinks, and how this compares to our own way of seeing.

An exhibition on Recognition runs at the Tate Britain from 2 September to 27 November, or you can see the AI in action online here.

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