DigitalFruit- Laura Elsener/ Local Machine

DigitalFruit is an interview series from Adafruit showcasing some of our favorite digital fine artists from around the world. As we begin this new decade with its rapidly changing landscape, we must envision our path through a different lens.  Over the next few weeks we’ll feature many innovative perspectives and techniques that will inspire our maker community to construct a bold creative frontier.  The only way is forward.

1. Where are you based?

I’m based in New York City.

2. Tell us about your background?

My background is in data science and machine learning. As a data scientist, I explore data and leverage technology to understand the past and predict the future. I code in Python and am constantly learning and reading about new research and statistical models.  Digital art is a natural extension of my skill set as a data scientist. I use many of the same tools, models, and knowledge in my artistic practice that I use professionally. There’s a real synergy in being both a data scientist and a generative digital artist.

3.  What inspires your work?

I am a womxn in technology who strives to advocate for algorithmic fairness and representation. A major inspiration and theme of my work is to combat and reveal AI biases. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are reshaping our society and culture, and these models perpetuate the biases of the data that is used to train them and of the people who program them. Racial and gender homogeneity in the technology industry has created a one-dimensional landscape, one dominated by a narrow perspective of the world. This results in an industry that can be ignorant to imperatives such as fairness and representation.

Much of my work combats and reveals AI biases, highlighting the issue of the ethics in artificial intelligence to give a voice for underrepresented people who are most likely to be harmed by irresponsible AI. I explore the space between technology, humans, and art, through the lens of a feminist dedicated to empowering marginalized people.

4.  What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on an AI-generated sculpture series called Frontier. I trained a model to become a sculptor by feeding it a collection of abstract sculptures and teaching it to develop an ability to discern this type of art. Tweaking the parameters of the training sessions endowed the AI sculptor with an aesthetic of its own.

I chose to train my model on abstract sculpture to explicitly bypass the problem of gender representation in figurative sculpture. The field collectively suffers from a male gaze that reinforces misogyny and hetero-patriarchal mores and normalizes gendered body imagery. Training my computer on historical figurative sculptures would have sustained and perpetuated this problematic history. Instead, I taught my computer how to sculpt abstract forms free from the moral baggage of human art history.

I have completed the computational training for my generative model and am now working on bringing the sculptures to the physical world using 3D printing. I have printed and finished a handful of sculptures to date and am currently working to bring more to life.

5.  Describe your process and what tools you like to use.

All my art is influenced and created by both humans and technology. My process typically starts with training a generative model to output work that serves as the building blocks for my projects. For example, in my Catabolic series, I used a model to generate chord progressions and melodies that served as the starting point for my composition. From there, I arranged the songs by reconstructing the scores and replacing instruments, adding new layers, samples, and effects. This partnership between technology and humans is a hallmark of my creative process, reflecting my belief that we can leverage machine learning algorithms to create unique art that humans or AI alone are incapable of.

6.  What does your workplace or studio look like? Do you work in silence or listen to music while you work?

I like to think of my workstation as a computer ensconced in an urban jungle. My desk is next to a large window that brings in natural light and allows me to surround myself with plants. And I mean surround — I have around 20 plants on and around my desk.

My cat Snowball, who enjoys sitting on my keyboard, typically joins me while I work. To that end, I have a second chair at my desk for him to accompany me in a less disruptive manner. I prefer to work in silence, filling my studio with the sound of my keyboard and Snowball’s light purr.

7.  How has technology shaped your creative vision?

My creations are born out of a partnership between technology and humans. I use machine learning models and emergent technology to generate the building blocks for my artwork and transform the computer-generated pieces into powerful works of art. At an inflection point of technological innovation fraught with fear and skepticism, I am not afraid that machines will replace us. Instead, I see the potential for machine learning to usher us into a realm of imagination in a way that enhances the human ability to create, and in essence makes humans more human.

8.  Any tips for someone interested in getting started in the digital art form?

My advice to anyone interested in digital art is to start with research. There is a rich ecosystem of tutorials, demos, and open source code that can help you get started. The hardest part is wading through the content to find the methodology and tool(s) that are a fit for you. Once you have done your research to determine what you want to learn and create, the fun part can begin.

9.  Where do you see generative and digital art heading in the future?

There are artists, including myself, pioneering the field of genuine machine creativity. This region of the digital art world means training machine learning models to have a creative aesthetic of their own. There are computational limitations we are consistently challenging, but the technology is developing rapidly. I am looking forward to seeing this area of generative art mature.

Second, I am excited about the intersection of digital and physical art. Several of my projects have involved translating digital art to the physical world. With coronavirus forcing many art exhibitions online, we’ve seen the traditional art world quickly embrace the digital medium. I’m excited to see traditional art share and legitimize the digital stage online, and also to see digital art make more inroads to the physical world to be enjoyed offline (once safe).

Laura Elsener




DigitalFruit is curated by Adafruit lead photographer- Andrew Tingle

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