Electronic Producer Actress Wants to Know How an AI Managed to Paint a Face

By
Photography Marcelo Gomes

Published January 17, 2019

For the entirety of Darren Cunningham’s career making alloy-coated compositions under the moniker Actress, he’s worked alone, technically. The machines have always been there, of course, guiding his hand across his introductory trio of albums — 2008’s Hazyville, 2010’s Splazsh, and 2012’s R.I.P. But it wasn’t until this fall when the British producer and DJ decided to introduce a collaborator by the name of Young Paint. “Young Paint (aka Jade Soulform aka Francis aka Generation 4 aka AZD) is a Learning Program that has been progressively emulating the Greyscale to Silvertone process Darren J Cunningham started in 2008,” read the introduction to an eponymously named mini-LP. The six-song release was co-written in a collaboration between Cunningham and an Artificial Intelligence capable of generating electronic compositions. According to Cunningham, he worked like a robotic gardener, letting Young Paint branch out, growing unsteady sequences and rhythms to then be trimmed and edited according to Cunningham’s taste. For those who find the analogy to be incompatible with a conception of AI as a less than benevolent, or authentic, grounds for creative genesis, Cunningham would disagree. Young Paint, he told Interview this past December, is a testament to the naturalistic properties of all things AI and its inherent desire to connect, anything, everything, shared with it.

Cunningham’s work is a refreshing view on a technology that is, oddly enough, not beloved by the leading technologists of the world. But then again, how often has AI been leveraged to create objects that aren’t easily shared in the marketplace? The question served as a rabbit hole for Interview’s discussion with Cunningham, which took place in the hours before a 2 A.M. DJ set at Greenpoint’s Good Room. What of AI’s ability to paint a face, write a song, or recommend products, like, say, a soccer ball with dinosaurs? It’s just the new nature of things, Cunningham says, and we’ve only choice: adaptation.

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NATHAN TAYLOR PEMBERTON: What did you think about the AI-generated painting that sold at Christie’s back in, what was it, October? 

ACTRESS: It kind of blew my mind to be honest with you. If you forget about the fact that it was created by AI and just look at the picture itself, it’s impossible to interpret. I think about this idea of AI that it begs you to circumnavigate the human intent, the final sort of human resolution. Then looking at the resolution, itself, was kind of fascinating. It’s such a bleared, washed out painting.

PEMBERTON: It’s strange how much it fails at being a good painting.

ACTRESS: You didn’t think it was a good painting? Whose face is it, though? That’s the point to me. It’s like, whose face is that? Did that face exist before — do you know what I mean? Has this AI found a face that has just never been seen before? The quality of the painting is irrelevant. For me its, “Who’ve you found here? Who is this person?” If you relate this to music, it’s the same question really.

PEMBERTON: Right now, then, what’s the relation between AI and your music?

ACTRESS:  I would say it’s a guiding hand in the process. The last record I did [Young Paint] was probably like a  70 – 30 split.

PEMBERTON: 70 percent being you, the human?

ACTRESS:  I’ve actually got a developer now who’s creating a bespoke AI for me. Things are going to tilt much more towards 50 – 50. The last record [Young Paint] was interesting because of the infancy of the whole project. Things were going out of time, then coming back into time. I’d sit with it, and think, I quite like what happened there. It’s like a form of evolution, like the industrial revolution. People weren’t used to the noise of steam before trains back then. They had to evolve. And then they became mechanized in a way. It’s the same with the digital age. People slowly get used to how pixels work and disperse. They start effecting things and becoming tactile with things. People become digital. And it’s the same with music. I’ve been making music now since I was 16.

PEMBERTON: How old are you now?

ACTRESS: Thirty-nine. The deeper you get into the process, the more you realize this idea of man and machine — of disappearing into the computer — becomes a form of automatic writing. Sleight of hand. You almost don’t feel conscious when you’re working. For me, that’s the tipping zone into the man-machine idea. When I got into electronic music, I recognized early on that a lot of producers hid behind this idea that the computer was “out of reach.” My music has always strived for moments of simplicity, a child-like an experience that can be perceived in it. I’ve wanted to shine a light up against that kind of electronic elitism. This is why I love lo-fi sounds, which are kind of inordinate in reality. It clashes directly with the obsession with fidelity and precision that’s so common in electronic music. 

PEMBERTON: Do you ever encounter criticism about AI-generated music? Criticism like it’s lacking soul or authenticity or any of those old ideas about making music?

ACTRESS: No. For me, that’s the most fascinating side of it. There is an authenticity question to be discussed, to be sure. There’s also an integrity value to it. It’s like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, that scene with the golden ticket computer. He’s created a computer, and he’s presented it to his clients. “Put it into the computer, and it’ll tell me where the golden ticket is.” [Laughs] You’ve also got to account for the humor factor as well. Whenever I think of AI, I think of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Golden ticket.

PEMBERTON: Cranking out little nuggets of musical content no human has fathomed before — or rebelling against you like the golden ticket computer.

ACTRESS: In a way, yeah. To tie it back to that face, again, it’s all in the face. There’s something quite scary and dark and sexy about the whole thing. That’s when computers and the depth of it becomes quite like, Yeah, I like this idea. That’s why Young Paint has galvanized my fascination for working with computers and developing software.

PEMBERTON: I can’t get over the fact that after all the painting done by the AI to make that face, the group who programmed the algorithm decided to sign the artwork.

ACTRESS: It’s art, ultimately, and commerciality still transcends everything. I saw this really famous writer really take it down, “What is this trash? What is this rubbish? I can’t believe people are passing this off as art!” One of her followers responded and said, “Yeah, that’s exactly the same thing they said when photography became big.” Then, you have people inverting this, like Banksy, who took one of his pictures used a computer, essentially, to destroy it. There all of these rotating conversations surrounding computers and art — computers creating art, computers destroying art, computers playing an integral hand in creating art. Young Paint touches all these conversations. I’m also interested in art forensics, as well — working out if something’s fake or not, copyright law in a way. I’ve caught myself in a situation where a big artist has sampled some of my work, but because of how they sampled it, there was no way that I could get them for it.

PEMBERTON: How did you find out?

ACTRESS: I know as soon as I heard it, 100 percent.

MARCELO GOMES [photographer]: When you made it, you know.

ACTRESS: It was just a noise that got sampled. I spoke to a musicologist about this, and he’s like “Yeah, he may or may not have sampled you, but when you start getting into the detail of white noise…” And I was like, “But rhythmically you can tell!” Within all of those discussions, all I could think of was Young Paint. Ultimately, it’s going to come to a point where sampling isn’t just going to be stealing something unrecognizable, it’s gonna be lifting certain frequencies and changing them. 

PEMBERTON: What are your favorite fakes, forgeries or knock-offs?

ACTRESS: Dapper Dan is one, what he did with Gucci. He did some pretty good knock-offs. For me, just growing up just going to a market and buying something that didn’t have a brand on it — just straight up just colors and stripes, and you’re just a bloom. That was pretty cool. You’d just walk around like a flower.

PEMBERTON: Where did you grow up?

ACTRESS: I grew up in The Midlands. I didn’t really get Nikes, but I was always kitted up pretty well. My mom made sure of it. I’d do a lot of adaptions. I’d cut the tongues off of my trainers. I’d get in a lot of trouble for doing things like that.

PEMBERTON: Wait, why would you cut the tongues off?

ACTRESS: I don’t know, man, there was a thing with cutting tongues off at that particular time. These Fila’s had tongues that were like up to here [Actress gestures up to his neck], and I just wasn’t into tongues, man, so they had to come off. My auntie gave them to me, and my dad lost it, literally lost it.

PEMBERTON: He’d hate to see what’s happening on the streets now.

ACTRESS: People can be a bit random in sequences. There was time when you just walk around, and you’d see brands that would talk back at you. Like Adidas, any brand with symbols or text. You’ll see almost like direct questions coming back at you through people’s clothing. Everything’s in a sequence simulation in a weird way.

PEMBERTON: Sequence in musical sense or mathematical sense?

ACTRESS: In a population sense, in a movement sense. How people from move from one place to another through words, through different things that catch your eye or catch your perception.  That’s where it connects to AI for me. Despite it being a thing people want to sell and invest in, AI is ultimately about nature. It’s about very naturalistic concepts and connecting things.

PEMBERTON: That’s the evil side of AI to me, though, how recommendations or trending topics or Amazon uses that concept to connect us to products. 

ACTRESS: Oh, I love that shit man. Like, you just find shit, and it just makes life so much easier. It looks like my son is going to be getting really into football, for example, and he’s super into dinosaurs as well. I read something that you should nurture the idea of obsessions to brighten a child’s intelligence. So, I went to see if they had any footballs with dinosaurs on them. 

PEMBERTON: Of course, they do.

ACTRESS: Footballs with dinosaurs on them, there they were! Straightaway man. I love what AI does. Just things like that. It just connects it.