In Beyond Range, Simon Ingram presents a group of works based on images generated by a type of artificial intelligence known as a generative adversarial network, or GAN. In this kind of AI software, two sub-components are pitted against one another in a sort of game. One, known as the “generative network,” makes something new based on a given data set, often an image. The second, known as the “discriminative network,” compares it to known examples of that type of object, attempting to determine if it is real or the product of an AI. The generative network “wins” if it can successfully dupe the determinative network into thinking that what it has produced is real.
The kinds of images GANs produce range from photorealistic depictions of non-existent people to disturbing Boschian hellscapes—fevered, hallucinatory visions that feel photographic but never quite resolve into concrete imagery. Although Ingram chooses to use such images as a starting point, as is characteristic of his way of working, he tilts his method towards abstraction. Each image is filtered by an additional layer of interpretative AI processing that translates pixel values in the GAN image into an array of lines. These lines are marks based on a library of 22 characters in Jacques Cossard's seventeenth-century French shorthand alphabet, marks that will in turn become the brush strokes of a machine that paints.
In each composition, the Cossard interpretation of a GAN image combines with the long duration of the painting process, brush size, the curling of the paper and the viscosity of the paint, to create a particularly gravelly distribution of marks. This pushes the work away from its source material, lending it a diffuse, expansive quality. Despite their grounding in software, the aggregate effects of the physical making process, taking place in actual space over long periods of time, open the work up to contingencies that no program could adequately enumerate or account for. In this, the works resonate with both the organic, serendipitous traces left by a brush in the hand of a human painter and with the gritty material logics of traditional analogue printing processes.
This elaborate series of manipulations results in works that operate as a complex investigation of the praxis of painting. By building and developing machines to perform as intermediaries for the artist’s hand (and, here, mind), Ingram brings into being a fascinating range of nuanced methodologies for exploring the limits of image-making and the creative act. In particular, Ingram’s works question the nature of creativity, and the narratives that make it an exclusively human domain. Ingram thus points to contemporary viewpoints in which nonhuman objects and beings are accorded an agency and existence outside of human cognition and perception, thereby challenging the inherent anthropocentrism of the western thought-tradition.
Timothy Morton has called for the abandonment of the concept of nature as a category of things distinct from humans. He argues that the binary delineation of objects into human and non-human categories is destructive. For Morton, humans are diffuse entities that bleed into the rest of the universe at the edges (think of our tools, machines, waste products, even our intestinal bacteria), and are not easy to locate. This position also erodes the privilege accorded to human thought as an arbitrator of what can and cannot exist—in this worldview, thinking is just one of a range of energies and actions, such as taste, friction or radiation, that emanate from and act upon objects.1
This way of characterising the universe would seem to have profound implications for the position of the artist as a creative agent. Then again, art has always involved a negotiation between human and nonhuman spheres, a blurring of the lines between matter and thought. In 1962, Leo Steinberg wrote that Jasper Johns’ painting, in discarding the spatial dimension of art, was instead adopting a “totally nonhuman point of view. It was as if the subjective consciousness … had ceased to exist.”2 In Ingram’s work, a nonhuman point of view opens up a potentially limitless number of ways of enacting and engaging with creativity. No longer the exclusive province of human thought and imagination, creativity becomes multivalent and free, existing in a range of sites and configurations.
The works in this exhibition are themselves as much expanded fields as objects, stretching their tendrils into the online artificial intelligences that make up part of their production DNA, the Cossard stenographic alphabet software and the physical components of the machine that performs the mark-making act. In their tiered and gridded arrays of near-black-on-white strokes, these works evoke the visual language of text as much as image—making evident the usually invisible formal properties of words on a page, visual data that exist to be looked through, rendered insubstantial by the alchemy of language. Programming a machine to use shorthand (designed to enable human note-takers to more quickly and easily record spoken language) could be viewed, in Morton’s terms, as a gesture of solidarity between artist and machine.
Existing as both abstracted data-sets and materially present surfaces, Ingram’s works are cryptic and evocative—dreamlike communiques from a hidden realm of self-generating thought, beyond range.
1 Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People (Verso Books, 2017).
2 Leo Steinberg, “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford University Press, 1972), 14.