ALONE/TOGETHER: Exploring the pandemic via AI-generated art pieces
As part of i-Portunus Houses, participants were asked to share their stories and experiences. Below is a story from Australian writer Rick Benger, who hosted the project “Alone/Together”.
Hosted by the Australian writer Rick Benger, the project “Alone/Together” explores the pandemic’s isolation, belonging, and connection via AI-generated art pieces. Its avant-garde exhibition features collective soliloquies between the members of Bloom, an eclectic collective that found each other across borders and boundaries caused by the Covid-19 lockdown.
“Mobility is all about expressing yourself, sharing ideas and getting inspired. Mobility allows for the embodiness of sharing spaces. It brings a sense of belonging, living and creativity.” Rick Bender, an Australian who lived in New York and Asia, arrived in Berlin at the same time as the Covid-19 virus. This was the year 2020 when the world just shut down. But Rick, a fiction writer, who previously made a career in advertising and marketing, isn’t afraid of changes. Years before, he launched “Once Upon A Pancake”, a series of interactive books of stories that aren’t finished for kids and their parents. Stories to be read together to fuel the kids’ imagination and maintain a sense of play with their parents. Today, he is working on Medley, a “curiosity club” project of creative residencies spaces in a co-working environment in Berlin. In 2020, while he set up in Germany, he also became a dad. So amidst the many months of Covid-19 lockdown, stuck at home, he starts daydreaming about a new creative adventure. “I daydream about never retiring. Of a lifetime of creative partnership, friendship, and misadventure with soul-on-the-sleeve explorers who argue for decades about Helvetica and Beyoncé and Wittgenstein, who celebrate the little triumphs and sit shiva over halcyon neverworks. Brothers and sisters in the possibility of art and life.”
That is how the collective Bloom is born. Bloom alias Anton, Bryan, Catherine, Harry, Isabela, Olena, Patricia and Rick. Eight people, eight singular minds, are working in art, neurosciences, data analysis, UX design, curation or music, coming from different countries and generations. “We don’t have a manifesto. We don’t know precisely how to map our consonances and differences. We’d never met in person before August 2021. But we know we want to belong. We know we’ve happened upon collective alchemy that’s rare, delightful, and worth serving. So we’ll tell stories and share experiments.”
Stuck behind their computer screens and unable to travel for months, the Bloom members decide to make the pandemics and the feeling of isolation the topic of their research. What do the feeling of loneliness and belonging mean during a pandemic? What is collective art? Can we talk about togetherness when all is so virtually based on Whatsapp chats, Zoom calls or emails? Rick says, “the isolation and alienation have hurt, of course, a skulking compounding ache, migraine-like. But, more impressive has been the collective experience of being alone together. Trading of hardship stories that fomented communion in loss, a collective imagination of post-COVID times. It becomes obvious that we are social creatures when we’re prevented from being social. How obvious that we’re all in this together.”
One of their main tool of exploration is Artificial Intelligence art, whose use is currently spreading across the world. AI can create images from a text submitted to it, including imitating the style of famous artists. It can also create videos, including generating faces of actors that look real but don’t exist. She can compose music from indications of the genre and tempo required and the instruments to be used. Will everyone be a creator tomorrow? AI is a wild field of endless exploration for Bloom.
Applying for the I-Portunus program, they want to give themself the “space to just focus on the creative pursuit.” So getting together in real life, spend seven days together in a physical space, and after this week, present their AI-generated piece of art for an exhibition in Berlin. In April 2022, all members arrive in Germany amidst a pandemic and a war raging in Europe. The initial artistic leader of the project and UX designer, Irina, can’t make it from Ukraine. So the group will self-organize itself. They rent an Airbnb accommodation in the German countryside, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a beautiful region of lakes and forests. “It was a big and ambitious challenge,” recalls Rick. “There was a set of time constraints that we had to have one exhibition ready after one week. Until this moment, no member of the group had ever met in real life, only online. It was a real test of solidarity, what does this project mean for us, how deep is our relationship and is determined to make something we are proud of.”
The artistic process starts like a plaisanterie on April 1st 2022. “We spent 12-18 hours together daily, sharing meals, laughing, reflecting, crying, and furiously writing and recording countless emergent ideas. We brought laptops and pianos, projectors and guitars, neurofeedback games, poetry anthologies, and many, many books, journals, and hours of audio and video-recorded material. We combined our expertise in visual art, writing, data science, neuroscience, programming, and behavioural science to turn three years of self-reflection into a collective set of art-science artefacts that reflect our singular and collective experience.”
“All along the week, we kept joking about changing the exhibition theme on Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, while we had to deliver for Day 8,” recalls Rick. They work hard, wandering and wondering about essential questions: how have the pandemic years changed us? What has emerged in our lives, hearts, and environments? Who are we becoming? Whilst the future of mobility and the art world will indeed be shaped by digital technologies, it is still important to maintain in-person interactions to create meaningful art. Though it seems to rely on the creative spontaneity of its member, the project is structured thoroughly.
Its first part tackles the “visualization of personal narrative and our individual, emotional experiences of the pandemic”. The series called “Encountering Ourselves: Pandemic Triptychs” is a series of paintings based on user research, data analysis & visualization that explores their personal experiences of 2020, 2021, and 2022. Each Bloom member collected five words they would use to describe their experiences of each year. Then, they synthesized these words into common scales of experience around five emerging themes:
- A sense of creativity
- A sense of freedom
- A Sense of embodiment
- A Sense of Connection
- Emotional valence
Using these scales to set a common language baseline, they created a script for CLIP+Diffusion-cc12m. Then, returning to each Bloom member, we had them place themselves on each scale for each year to generate a unique script. Finally, they asked each Bloom member to select an artist whose works most evoke their emotional experience of the last three years. The result is an aesthetic blend of art & data — a set of eight deeply personalized, unique triptychs, each evoking a Bloom member’s first-person experience of the pandemic.
The second volet concerns the “digital connection during those days of intense isolation, uncovering data about relational and conversational patterns with loved ones across distance”. The audio series “Finding Our Voices / Vocal Chords” is an original music composition inspired by the WhatsApp voice message archive between 2020 and 2022. During the pandemic, one of the members of Bloom Collective began sending voice notes to others, who responded in kind. Over 200 hours of voice messages were sent to one another. These soliloquies often escalated and lengthened in unexpected ways to their speakers. This collective audible work represents pandemic isolation, discovery, and subsequent connection and belonging, featuring original music and samples from personal inter-Bloom voice messages and original composition and mixing.
Over seven days, the Bloom collective develop six installations exploring the concept of isolation, belonging, and connection. The AI algorithms can generate images based on a set of parameters or create new images by combining and altering existing images. “After we entered the text instructions in the prompt, the AI took about 30 minutes to create an image. I remember how we were all patiently waiting for the blurring images to become clear. And then discuss if this final image matched what we had in mind.”
“We felt proud of the work achieved, given the constraints of place and time.” On April 9th, the last part of the project, called “Gathering and Belonging”, takes place in Berlin, where about 60 people gather in a gallery of Prenzlauer Berg. Dinner is organized along with the vernissage as a reflection on coming together. “Around a big dinner table, we played recordings from dinner parties past, showcasing the act of collaborative creation of cooking and serving food together. We invited guests to break bread with us, join a conversation, or simply pull up a chair and listen in. To engage with the local community. This organic meeting, this physical exhibition was the highlight of a long time process of reflection about the future of mobility”, explains Rich. “Even if the future of mobility is likely to be dominated by digital technologies, there is still no substitute for face-to-face interaction, essential for creating meaningful collaborative art.”
The new EU programme on cultural exchanges Culture Moves Europe which launches on 10 October is based on lessons drawn from our i-Portunus Houses pilot project since 2020. ECF will continue to explore a greener future of cultural mobility in the years to come.