College Art Association 108th Annual Conference | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

College Art Association 108th Annual Conference

College Art Association 108th Annual Conference

Chicago, February 12-15, 2020
Conference website:

Reviewed by: 
Giovanna L. Costantini
March 2020

In the complex field of scholarship and creative activity that comprises the annual College Art Association conference, the Leonardo Education and Art Forum (LEAF) serves as an optic for examining the interdisciplinary integration of art, science and technology within a global environment increasingly permeated by technological innovation.  As advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) proliferate in historical research, the arts and design, evolving views of creativity and authorship together with their societal and cultural impact require scrutiny and discourse. Does generative and machine creativity, or AI in the arts and design, represent an evolution of “artistic intelligence” or is it a rupture in the development of creative practice yielding new forms and types of authorship? LEAF’s presenters outlined critical networks of aesthetic, scientific, philosophical and technical inquiry that would course throughout presentations in areas of art, art history, digital humanities and applied technology.

Philip Galanter alerted those in attendance to ethical issues involved in machine technology such as privacy within massive data gathering and storage systems; neural networks and their inscrutability; control over systems that may surpass human intelligence; disinformation; impactful error; robotic weaponry and hacking.  A related session, “Flesh and Circuit: Rethinking Performance and Technology,” offered vectors for revealing and resisting technological intrusions such as tracking, surveillance and behavioral modification in an era of algorithmic governance, commodification and machine learning.  Galantner went further in delineating some of the moral questions pertaining to AI based in the conflict between the scientific model of cause/effect determinism and the moral underpinnings of independent human behavior.  He underscored subjects such as patiency (moral consideration extended to sentient beings) and empathy (emotional capacity to feel and relate to other sentient beings) that inform AI debates.  While panel participant Marian Mazzone insisted on distinctions between machine technology and human sentience, Eitan Mendelowitz introduced examples of artificially intelligent public art that engage with people and their surroundings through situated experiences and embodied interactions.  Despite the boom in interactive installations, most agreed that AI’s capacity to penetrate and alter neural networks would remain a source of controversy.

Connected to these deliberations was an idea exchange roundtable on AI technologies used in hypothetical reconstructions of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Participants considered the moral and cultural value of Virtual Reality in the preservation and dissemination of cultural heritage.  Questions were posed regarding issues of historical accuracy in the absence of documentation; idealization; cultural identity and its relativity; historical bias and evolutionary change; cultural heritage and the identification of values intrinsic to historic monuments; evolving historical interpretation and contemporary perspectives; replication and reinvention.  Discussants considered, for example, issues pertaining to VR models made for the video game “Assassin’s Creed Unity” as a potential resource to conservators in reconstruction efforts.   Given the quality of the simulation and the fact that the French game publisher Ubisoft donated half a million euros to the cathedral’s rebuilding, participants contemplated the intersection and ontological distinctions between the two realities, the hosting potential of VR digitization, and the disparate values embedded in the historical edifice and the illusory game.  While scrupulous GPS scanning and abundant historical documentation exists for reconstruction efforts, laser scans employed for the creation of the video game, despite its “artistic liberties,” may provide supplemental data for reconstruction, but how are restorative objectives, or programming objectives in general, determined in relation to a qualified set of values? By extension, Vasile-Ovidiu Prejmerean, convener of the roundtable, asked:  If a monument is digitized and programmed as a setting for a violent game, is intervention possible and/or desirable? Who makes the call? Notwithstanding AI’s current incapacity to programmatically reflect the complexity of moral relativism nor value-based aesthetics, discussants concluded that awareness and sustained effort were urgently needed beyond the sphere of technology to address such questions. 

In the LEAF panel, Meredith Tromble emphasized that a disembodied intelligence has no agency, endlessly propagating competing options bereft of unprogrammed motivation, subjectivity or criteria of judgement needed to choose.  She posited that this indecisive condition, comparable on some levels to pathological neuroses, could benefit through encounters with art in ways that replicate language learning.  Drawing on work by artists such as Ian Cheng, Lynn Hershman and Jenna Sutela that question consciousness, knowledge construction, identity and evolving change, Tromble asked how AI can convey the vast historical transformations in art over centuries, the emotional complexity of love, ecstasy or loss, art’s radical role in creation and resistance?  

Christiane Paul concurred in challenging the sentient potential of artificial intelligence through an exhibition she curated at The New School on “The Question of Intelligence – AI and the Future of Humanity.” The exhibit features a group of AI projects that survey digital art’s critical engagement with artificial intelligence in ways that question what “intelligence” means for the state of being human.  This includes how AI has precipitated societal impact through effects of automation, classification, contextual bias, utopian and dystopian speculation and the social repercussions of AI’s usurpation of human and creative industry.  While on many levels automated perception can be employed to assist vision, speech, language and knowledge acquisition, AI she stresses, trained on specific data sets, has no intrinsic aesthetic sensibility nor capacity for emotion.  Its reduction of stimuli to characters, sound bites, facial expressions, chat boxes and imitative GANS reproductions constitutes a flattening of historical context. The effect is to reduce knowledge to a narrowly confined platform, one that necessitates the need to recognize the limitations of machines and to think about a variety of intelligences, authenticity and intention in the pursuit of creativity. Towards these ends she points to such artists as Qiu Zhijie, Stephanie Dinkins and Mary Flannagan whose work illustrates a more nuanced, critical field of creative expression involved with AI.  

Questions of authorship loomed large in interrogating AI’s autonomous capacity to generate artwork, a query existentially informed by competing definitions of art. Marian Mazzone and Ahmed Elgammal introduced AICAN (AI Creative Adversarial Network), a flexible algorithm designed to make works of art using different data sets drawn from art history, and Playform, a generative artwork platform employed for the purpose of populating new kinds of imagery. Such systems, favored by many artists for their capacity to suggest alternative imagery, surreal irrationality, randomness and surprise also pose the risk, they acknowledge, of relegating artists to the function of curator or disc jockey. Yet artist Elizabeth A. Demaray whose work explores non-anthropocentric design and juxtapositions of the human and non-human, regards surprise as integral to the artist’s creative process spawning novel, underived ideas. Her Pandora Bird installations use computer vision to track the musical preferences of wild songbirds at audio-enabled feeding stations.  Alternately, in a comparable session “ARTificiality:  Aesthetics of Embodiment in Digital Art,” presenters explored how computational technologies intervene in one’s experience of art and reality, proposing artificially configured perceptual paradigms in areas of Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), robotic art, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and social media.  Lee Weinberg’s paper “Artificially Intelligent Painting—or is it?” challenged the machine expression of AICAN and other algorithms used in artistic production as a destabilizing, post-human manifestation of expression beyond the human body; Karen Goldberg examined the online existence of parafictional personas, selfies and virtual presences in which identities are carefully curated and endlessly edited; and Amy LaViers pondered relationships between natural and artificial bodies based on robot-augmented dances.

For many artists AI provides vital instrumentation for aesthetic expression aimed at enhanced sensorial experience and social engagement.  “Advances in Eco-Sensing and the Soundscape” featured transdisciplinary collaborations utilizing acoustic technology through community-based activities for purposes of public enrichment.  Inspired by the work of the World Soundscape Project adapted to Chicago’s urban fabric, Eric Leonardson devised initiatives in neighborhood parks and playgrounds to encourage improvisation utilizing everyday objects with vibratory potential to create socially meaningful electronic performances.  Christophe Preissing’s “Hear Below” presented an underground urban soundwalk with sounds of the city experienced through the Pedway’s endless tunnels, passages and corridors.  Technology’s capacity to measure atmospheric contaminants, broadcast its deleterious effects and/or enhance positive olfactory sensation was displayed by artist Lindsey French in installations that responded to toxic pollutants and dangerous levels of smog in the city of Pittsburgh.  Alex Braidwood and Leah Barclay also manipulated sound technology to transcribe environmental data from lakes and wetlands into audible, experiential recordings that amplified the ecological complexity of local coasts and waters.  In other contexts, the session “Becoming Animal and the Olfactory Unconscious” probed issues of decay, gender discrimination, interspecies kinship, organicism, toxicity and the microbiome.  One intermedia panel surveyed a panoply of women artists working in new genres initiated within Fluxus, Minimalist music and dance, experimental film and video, performance, concrete poetry and new media whose work disrupts the disciplinary boundaries of art and technology.  These figures included video artist Shigeko Kubota (1937-2015), Fluxus artist Alison Knowles and media artist Vera Molnár.  A related session focused on socially conscious performance projects by such groups as Syntonic Refuge and Japanese Dumb Type, and activist Tarana Burke’s library of #metoo content.

Digital Humanities represents an exciting sphere of growth for technological applications in areas of mapping, architectural design, data storage, classification and analysis.  The session “Advanced Topics in Digital Art History” presented the findings of a 2018-2019 Geo-Spatial investigation into “Visualizing Cities” conducted by teams supported by the Getty Foundation that focused on mapping and modelling strategies. Through meetings and video conferences, members shared research into independent, interdisciplinary projects based on critical approaches to digital representation of material objects, systems and phenomena capable of providing new knowledge in the field of art history.  Professionals outside of art history (engineers, computer scientists and media practitioners) contributed relevant expertise. Chiara Capulli and Cristina Mosconi’s project “Firenze Scomparsa” utilized 3D modelling to render digital reconstructions of the lost church of San Pier Maggiore in Florence, Italy together with analytics designed to query the use of an app created for the purpose of tourism. Estefania López-Salas studied the architectural transformation of the monastic site of San Julián de Samos over centuries, a study that integrated historical documentation, on-site investigation and digital technologies (2D CAD and 3D models).  Of particular interest was utilization of LEAFLET software to permit interactive mapping through the incorporation of verbal data that allows web visitors to explore the historical context of the complex more deeply and to pose questions.  Burcak Ozludil and Augustus Wendell utilized agent-based modelling (ABM) to incorporate living beings into a study of a nineteenth century Ottoman insane asylum in Istanbul, a project aimed at “restoring” people back into an architectural history through simulated agents to better understand the lives lived within the confines of their environment.  

Victoria E. Szabo who coordinated the Getty project outlined some of the overarching aims of the study.  She highlighted the ability to tell the stories of different eras, artworks, monuments and societies, the capacity to formulate models of cultural heritage, and the ability to impart a city’s essential character to those who seek a deeper, more complex urban experience.  Augmented reality, she observed, burst forth beside pervasive computing and artificial-intelligence driven systems of data management. She echoes the voices of others in asking who gets to “speak” in the virtual realm and what are the aesthetic, ethical and cultural implications of using geospatial grids for artistic and analytic expression?  Szabo’s presentation offered a clinical examination of 21st century AR interventions, authoring tools, commercially based systems and its linked networks of social media, digital archives, virtual reality scenarios and games, one that anticipates ever-increasing speed and unlimited information. Among the many challenges confronting AI users in the humanities will be how to achieve critically mediated production and intellectual engagement; how to qualify value; how to alleviate spatial constraints, feelings of enclosure and negative psychological effects; how to visualize a psychological space comparable to literature; and how to disclose unconscious bias and incorporate such highly problematic factors as uncertainty, change, empathy and subjectivity?  A session devoted to “Architectural Representation and Medieval Art,” for example, approached such issues in an historically integrative manner, stressing the open-ended, emblematic quality of fragmentary artifacts whose varied systems of signification, overlapping associations and interpretations diffuse meaning over time in ways that heighten evocation.   

In other areas of collaborative art historical research such as catalogue raisonné creation, archival cataloguing, digital collections and historical preservation emerging AI technologies are used to particular benefit. Representatives from Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association, The Art Libraries Society of North American  and Creative Commons joined museum professionals and members of private foundations in addressing the possibilities and limitations of institutionally curated digital resources amid immense informational and technological growth and transformation. Panels investigated the scope of collections, methods of impact measurement, the infrastructural and technological challenges to systemic divisions, and the need to incorporate linked open data as well as deep knowledge into digital humanities initiatives. Online networks vulnerable to cultural bias, complicated historical legacies of domination, competing historical narratives and conceptions of otherness also informed presentations in this area. One project focused on digitally mapping the traditional arts of Senufo in light of theories about the construction of historically constituted, fluid and positional identities in the arts of Africa. 

Concurrently, CAA’s Committee on Intellectual Property explored questions of “open access” made possible through “open source” software in use among academics and members of the creative community.  What is its relation to material within the public domain and to what degree can it be governed through licensing?  Presenters in this panel examined the complex terrain of open access, copyright legislation, API (Application Programming Interface) publishing, compatibility across platforms and other practices of fair use in digital imagery from the differing perspectives of artists, archivists, designers, technologists, lawyers, librarians, scholars, publishers and museum professionals. Partners invested in the creation of guidelines for the operation of open access systems include the Wikimedia Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Metropolitan Museum, Creative Commons the J. Paul Getty Trust, Yale University Press.

A session titled “From the Ground Up: Geology, Mineralogy and Materiality in Art and Design” summarily accented the propitious union of science and art that has long inspired artistic expression.  “From Coal Mine Waste to Landscape Painting” presented by artist Onya Wilder McCausland chronicled a series of journeys to ex-coal mining sites across the British landscape.  Her research focused on Six Bells, an area once the center of coal mining in South Wales where polluted mine water produces waste products known as “ochre sludge.”  The mine ochres form when pyrite minerals (known as fool’s gold) are unlocked from their natural rock setting through the action of mining. Through an industrial treatment process conducted by the UK Coal Authority, flood waters pick up released minerals and transport them to the surface where they oxidize into an insoluble ferric form on contact with the air.  These hydrated iron oxides produce particles of deep yellow ochre that inadvertently transform an exploited landscape into a lake of brilliant color. By repurposing these distinctly colored minerals as pigment for paint, the color becomes a vehicle for examining the cultural, social and ecological conditions of a despoiled landscape, one that gives rise to art historical understanding and sentient transcendence.