Jerome Neutres — director of strategy and development for the conference of national museums in France, and also a critic and writer — was one of the curators of the “Artists and Robots” exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, which is on view through July 9. In this conversation with Elias Crespin, a Venezuelan-born artist who builds kinetic sculptures using complex algorithms, they discuss the evolution of Crespin’s work and the future of Artificial Intelligence as it pertains to art.
You started your career as a computer engineer. When and how did you start creating art?
As a teenager I wanted to be an architect. I loved to draw blueprints. Invent houses. I also had art influence from my family tradition. And then, both my parents are mathematicians. So listening about how to approach a theorem solution happened once in a while. Then came computers. My father brought home an Apple II. I learned to program with the programmer’s tutorial, which taught you how to generate numbers and use them to place lines, pixels or dots on the screen. You changed the generation rules and the result changed in speed, pattern. … This was in the late ’70s. This way I fell in love with programming and decided to go for computer science at the UCV in Caracas and not architecture.
During my time there, I developed more visualization programs and experiments, even functions in 3D. It was fun. I graduated in 1990. And although working in the computer field to make a living turned out to be possible, it also came clear it was much less fun than visualizing number sets. That is probably why, 10 years later, in 2000, when I found myself face to face in front of a Jesus Soto “Cubo Vibratorio,” I got fascinated with a new idea. It was, I think, the most important moment of inspiration for starting my artistic work. The inspiration process was this: This is a wonderful and beautiful sculpture — I was really in shock — based on thousands of precisely colored vertical nylon strings, organized in a X,Y plane, creating a colored volume. If I use a program similar to my early 3D visualization experiments, to move an object like this one, I may have an evolution opportunity for the art scene at the tip of my fingers. But how to do it? Two years later I had spare time and was able to play with computers and disquette and printer motors to develop a multi axis computer system which would be the basis for a dancing articulated object. Two years of development to have the first work ready. I was invited to show it and from there followed another exhibition invitation, then a new scaled up art work. From there one work brings up new ideas or variations and other exhibitions and so on….
What is your vision of Artificial Intelligence in the field of arts? Do you see the new tech as a medium of expression, a tool, or a topic in itself? And do you still feel acting as an engineer, or only as an artist? Or can we say you act as a “scientific artist”?
The new tech is clearly a new medium. So is A.I. If you are an artist and have access to some technology and you find a way to use it to give birth to your work, it’s going to happen. Technology has always been used by artists. And we are talking about technology we see now and have seen, maybe not yet used on the art scene. We don’t even imagine what is going to be the available tools in 10 years from now…. The thing is that with sufficiently evolved A.I., the A.I. as a being can start exploring new technologies by itself and who knows maybe expressing itself in ways we wouldn’t imagine. Or maybe such an intelligence would find it useless to be an artist and stop making art…[he laughs]. Myself, I think I act as an artist with the technology I have at hand, not as a scientific artist. Although sometimes I have to pass through research and results collection as a research project.
Born Venezuelan, do you feel a special relationship with the legacy of an artist like Soto? We cannot not think of kinetic art looking at your mobiles…
As I mentioned before, I was very strongly inspired by Soto and his kinetic cubes. But I agree, my work is something else. It has kinetic basis but it has a whole development and thought process, together with hardware and software which evolve in versions, etc. which make my work be something else. I am still looking for the correct terminology to categorize my mobiles.
Don’t you think that the auto generative system driving your sculptures bring an unlimited time of the work of art, and therefore questions the infinity?
I believe numbers themselves call for thinking of infinity. Also the randomly generated sequence of metamorphosed configurations in my work makes one think of infinity. But the engineer in me immediately thinks of the life time of the components. What’s going to be left in a million years?
Who are the Contemporary artists you admire the most? Are you collecting digital art yourself?
I very modestly collect digital art. So far I have a Miguel Chevalier. My favorite contemporaries? Marco Maggi , Leandro Erlich, Gladys Nistor, Bruce Shapiro, Olaffur Eliasson. I’m also inspired by Gianni Colombo, Shohei Fujimoto, Joanie Lemercier and Fred Sandback.
After the monumental and sublime “Grand HexaNet” you made especially for the Grand Palais “Artists & Robots” (everybody says it is a high spot of the show), do you think you can go further in this research? What are your upcoming artistic challenges?
I would like to try sideways moving of suspended elements in addition to the vertical movement. Increase the scale and the number of elements. Higher resolution. New media. Integrate daily common objects — can’t give details….
Some years ago I thought of flocks of drones but now Intel has done it…. Flock behavior like interacting beings in Bruno Latour “Gaia” models. Elastic dynamic volumes. New generative algorithms. Evolve “Grand HexaNet” behavior — it’s all in the to-do list.
After our Astana initial show in 2017, and now the Grand Palais in Paris, are you ready for an “Artists & Robots” part III? Any idea for the show?
I would love to see “Artists & Robots” travel to more geographies and share the experience. I think you have done a great job putting all these works together as part of the bigger idea Artificial Imagination and Creation. It is both interesting and worrying. In any case it makes you think and maybe act, which is so important.