'Create a carrot that evokes larger social issues': Artist makes whatever her algorithm demands

Artist Nicole He explains her latest project: an algorithm that calculates what art would be best on any given day — based on the weather, astrology, and the President's tweets.
An example of some of Nicole He's algorithm-directed art work. (Nicole He/Twitter)
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Story transcript

Some artists draw inspiration from nature and self-discovery. But Nicole He is ruling out the creative process completely.

She has developed an algorithm that tells her what art to make, at any given moment. And so far, that algorithm's suggestions have been significantly weirder than, say, "Paint a landscape".

Nicole He is an artist and programmer, and a graduate student at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off to explain how the algorithm-directed project The Best Art works and share some of the unusual pieces she has created.

Carol Off: Nicole, how do you go about calculating the art of the day?

Nicole He: I have a computer program and what it does is that it generates what we call an art index from a number of factors in the universe — including the weather, how many times Trump has tweeted today and the computer's own horoscope. Then it generates a lot of different art project ideas and it rates them. But then it picks the one that matches the art index the most closely and that's how we know it's the best art project for that specific moment in time.

I hope the absurdity of The Best Art's algorithm will make people reconsider the objectivity of other algorithms that they might encounter — and I also hope that it will make them laugh.- Nicole He

CO: Alright, you've mentioned three things that are all extremely variable and ever changing. How often are these things shifting?

NH: I think they change pretty quickly, especially the weather and Trump tweets a lot so that can change pretty quickly as well. There's actually another factor which I didn't mention which is how close the international space station is at any given moment to the computer. Taking all these things together there's a number that changes pretty quickly.

CO: So what does it produce?

NH: What it produces is basically a set of instructions for me to execute. It prints out this little piece of paper with an instruction. It says the date and it says something like, "Good evening, human. Rainy day today." It tells me some of the math like the art index and the project rating. But at the end it says something like, "Execute the following: Make a frying pan that reminds me of a black void." So that last part is the important part where that's the project that it has determined to be the best one for a specific moment.

CO: What are some of the others?

NH: There was one today that was, "Create a carrot that evokes larger social issues." There's another one, actually this is my favourite one, and I was sort of blown away when I got it, which was, "Make everyone feel lonely."

CO: What does it look like when you actually create them?

NH: Basically for that one, I did something pretty simple. I made a video that  just has a lot of different stock images of happy families and couples and then there's a computer voice that says, "You are alone," over and over. There's many ways to approach that one.

CO: When you "create a carrot that evokes larger social issues" what does that look like?

NH: I made a carrot salad. It's sort of these shaved ribbons of carrot with some tomatoes. But written on some of the shavings is the message, "Bees are dying at an alarming rate." That's sort of an internet meme but it's a message about a larger social issue that is incorporated in the salad itself.

CO: Alright, it's all very amusing but what's the point?

NH: I made this project because I feel like there are a lot of promises that are being made about what artificial intelligence can do and how much smarter and more powerful it's getting. But I think because computers can do things that humans can't, we have this idea that computers might actually know better than us about many aspects of our lives, including art. I think we like to conflate the ability to do things programmatically, with objectivity, and because of that we often deflect responsibility of an algorithm's output onto a machine. So for me, I hope that the absurdity of The Best Art's algorithm will make people reconsider the objectivity of other algorithms that they might encounter — and I also hope that it will make them laugh.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Nicole He.

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