conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 23.08.2023
AURÈCE VETTIER: HAVE WE ALREADY INVENTED EVERYTHING?
NATURE AND AI
In 2019 aurèce vettier has visited the Venice Biennale and came to the "brutal realization" that the role of the artist will have to change. He was irritated to see that the majority of the artworks were mere documentations of the status of the world today. That was not enough for him. So he chose an alias and has started working as an artist called aurèce vettier. Art is about storytelling, so this decision marked the beginning of the portrait of the artist as an AI pioneer.
In the meantime, aurèce vettier has collaborated with Vera Molnár, the grande dame of generative art, and is constantly thinking about how to transform art made in collaboration with AI into physical artworks.
In conversation with Anika Meier, aurèce vettier discusses art and storytelling, AI and nature, and the new role of the artist in the age of AI.
Anika Meier: Paul, the title of your art project, your alias, is aurèce vettier. Why did you decide to work with an alias, and what does it stand for?
aurèce vettier: Finding an alias, a name, can be considered "project 0" for aurèce vettier in 2019. The name aurèce vettier was formed letter by letter using a simple algorithm, Markov chains, trained on the names of many women and men who fuel my daily reflection. It's a metaphor for the desire for a collaborative, open, and hybrid approach. It also helps me to put the artist's ego aside and accept the contributions, ideas, and suggestions of the people around me.
For example, when I'm at the foundry chiselling my AI-generated bronze sculptures, I often notice that the master chisellers who work with me are less reluctant to make suggestions because they see me as Paul and not as aurèce vettier—even though I am both.
This alias isn't about anonymity; it's more a way of taking a step sideways and having more natural, spontaneous adventures.
AM: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
av: Looking back on my life today, I'd say I'm pretty much doing the same things as when I was a child. I tell myself stories in my head, I mull them over and digest them, I absorb an enormous amount of information, I have very specific dreams, then I make objects, and finally I share some of it.
But I also have to admit that becoming an artist took time. For a long time, I wondered whether it was worth adding another voice to the cacophony of the world, but at the same time, the desire to create an artistic laboratory continued to grow.
In 2019, I experienced an alignment of the planets: the narrative that was developing in my head became sufficiently precise, I mastered the technological tools—particularly artificial intelligence—to tell it, and above all, I let go. It had to be done; I had no choice.
AM: How did you learn about blockchain and NFTs?
av: I learned about blockchain during my studies in 2011 and 2012, but honestly, I got really interested in the technology in 2016. At the time, I was working on training AI algorithms, particularly in image recognition, and some of my office neighbors were developing the first smart contracts on Ethereum.
AM: Were you convinced from the beginning?
av: Yes. I was immediately fascinated by the rhizomatic dimension of blockchain: it can become the technological backbone enabling everyone to find their place in a network—as a contributor, consumer, or facilitator—while being rewarded for doing so.
I've never been too interested in the speculative side of the market because the time constants are too short for me and I can't really grasp them. Governance models such as DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) are extremely exciting for the future, and I can't wait to see concrete implementations, particularly in art.
As part of my artistic work, I contribute to a number of projects along these lines, including Glitch Residency, initiated by my friend Primavera de Filippi, and the on-chain poetry gallery theVERSEverse, co-founded by Ana Maria Caballero, Kalen Iwamoto, and Sasha Stiles.
Beyond my daily interactions with artists in the crypto and AI space, I've also spent a lot of time training more "traditional" artists and professionals around me on these tools and technologies. In 2022, I collaborated with the award-winning architecture and design firm Gilles & Boissier, with whom I designed "le cabinet botaniste," a sculpture whose bronze legs were generated using AI. It was an opportunity for extremely fertile discussions that stimulated our imaginations. If it's possible to have an uplifting adventure, if it's possible to expand our knowledge of ourselves and of the world, then I'm easily convinced.
AM: You work with machines, algorithms, and AI; at the same time, your art, in many cases, has a physical element. How do you decide which medium is right for a concept?
av: The works are often the result of repeated back and forth movements between the "real" space, in which it's possible to exist, draw, paint, sculpt, break, and erase, and the "data" space, in which it is possible to play with more dimensions than a human can grasp—a gesture analogous to repeatedly uploading and downloading an image onto an online platform.In my research, being at the intersection of these two spaces is crucial to proposing an approach that is both innovative and sensual. In this context, my choice of medium is often highly intuitive. I can say that I always try to achieve a certain degree of tension and, once again, to throw myself wholeheartedly into new adventures.
I'm currently working on a large-scale high-relief in marble. The inspiration came from a dream, and the shapes were generated by AI trained on my texts and my own imagery. While the first part of the project is quite "digital", the physical execution is not. I could well have used a robot to carve the marble, but then everyone's going to do that at some point, aren't they? Instead, I went and met a marble sculptor in Greece, sat at his table, and then asked the right questions: How can we successfully represent the impossible shapes derived from algorithms? How can we achieve tension through gestures?
I make my work stand out on its own because of its aesthetic dimension or the choice of an interesting medium. And at the same time, the deeper one digs, the more one can discover theoretical, therapeutic, and even spiritual roots.
AM: Is code a medium or a tool for you?
av: Unlike NFTs or metaverses, which are mediums, I believe that code—and artificial intelligence in particular—is indeed a tool. As such, it's of course possible to keep what this code produces in digital format, whether as an image, an on-chain work, a 3D file, or an NFT. But we can also consider that what the code produces is a raw material that can be used to create a bronze sculpture, an oil painting, or a performance, to name a few possibilities.
When I started aurèce vettier in 2019, I was one of the few people developing physical sculptures or oil paintings from AI-generated forms. Yet this approach is merely a bow to artists like Vera Molnár, who uses algorithms to generate raw material and then chooses what is to become a work based on subjective criteria.
Today, I see that very few AI artists are creating physical pieces, but major changes can be anticipated.
AM: You claim that the algorithms you use are not necessarily the most recent or the most complex, but those that leave the most room for a return trip with humans. What makes good code-based and/or AI work for you?
av: When I'm in the studio, I do a lot of experimenting, and I manage to let go a lot, whether it's with code or when I'm using craft techniques. This gives enough entropy for works to appear, emerge, and come together. But there's a big difference with what comes out of the studio—for example, to be exhibited. To leave the studio, my work has to have an aesthetic that suits me and be extremely well finished.
I also need them to be somehow connected to past works and those I'm working on, as I don't really work in series. In addition, it's essential that they convey or be part of a story that's both personal and has universal potential.
When I develop my tools and techniques, I incorporate a lot of personal elements and custom code or data. This very high degree of personalization allows me to remain in control regardless of how technologies evolve.
AM: Is storytelling important for you, or do you prefer to let the art speak for itself?
av: An artist's job is indeed to tell stories. It's not always convenient or preferable to provide a specific message for each of my works, but from a narrative point of view, each of my solo exhibitions is a continuation or fork of the previous one.
I'm not at all seeking to push this narrative on the visitor; it serves to deploy the work, to interconnect the pieces, and also to help me as I move forward in my own existence. I think it's also important to let the works have a life of their own after they've been created and to let visitors experience them in their own way with the keys I provided.
AM: I remember seeing the announcement on Twitter that you have been working on a collaboration with Vera Molnár, the grande dame of generative art. How have you met?
av: I've always had an infinite admiration for Vera Molnár's work, and her works were among my first art acquisitions after my studies. Very early on, therefore, I was in contact with her gallery owners, Oniris in Rennes, as well as curator and art historian Vincent Baby, who wrote "Le système Molnar: (1946–1976)," his doctoral thesis on Vera in 2003 under the direction of Serge Lemoine. I've also had fascinating exchanges with Michael Spalter, who has always been a great supporter of her work, and my friend Zsofi Valyi-Nagy, who this year defended her PhD thesis, "Vera Molnar's Programmed Abstraction: Computer Graphics and Geometric Abstract Art in Postwar Europe".
When Vera Molnár, with her legendary curiosity, became interested in artificial intelligence algorithms, my name came up in conversation, and Vincent Baby arranged for us to meet. For me, it was a truly wonderful and transformative moment. There are times when artists encourage each other across generations. This was the case with Georgia O'Keefe, who inspired Yayoi Kusama to leave Japan and move to the United States to develop her practice.
Vera Molnár arrived in Paris from Hungary in the late 1940s. At that time, she was supported by Sonia Delaunay. Their exchange was highly fertile. I can say that, at almost a hundred years of age, she has passed on the same kind of energy to me, in the course of our conversations and collaboration.
AM: Albrecht Dürer's engraving MELANCHOLIA was the starting point for Molnár and you to collaborate with AI. What led you to start thinking about this particular artwork?
av: We were both fascinated by Albrecht Dürer's works. Vera Molnár, of course, has frequently paid him tribute, notably referencing the magic squares among the many symbols in the engravings. As far as I was concerned, I was very interested in what the eye does not immediately see: backgrounds, atmospheric phenomena, and second-order symbols.
Our discussion about the engraving of MELANCHOLIA (1514) very quickly became poetic: "standing on the other side of Dürer's polyhedron, what would we see?" The use of a properly trained text-to-image AI was therefore particularly appropriate as a means of generating custom raw material.
Vincent Baby wrote in his curatorial text: "By assembling artificial intelligence algorithms trained on the corpus of Albrecht Dürer and his preparatory sketches and leveraging their generative capacities, [I] offered Vera Molnár a veritable dataset: simili-gravures of an unseen kind, offering dozens of speculative formalizations, imagined from the point of view of a viewer placed behind the polyhedron.
More or less ambiguous spaces appear: under vaults, near arcades, framed by trees or columns, monastic interiors, or landscapes populated by surprisingly shaped plants and animals, witnesses to atmospheric phenomena no less so. The light, alternately solar or lunar, generates extremely varied shadows and reflections that accompany or disrupt, glaze or warm, punctuate or disorganize the surfaces of this mysterious object, but deliver, at the center, the sought-after, hoped-for phantasmatic figure: the hidden face of the polyhedron."
So I trained a text-to-image model on old engravings, not only by Dürer but also engravings by Olfert Dapper from my personal collection. Olfert Dapper was a Dutch humanist born in 1636 who produced engravings of remote locations, sometimes without ever having been there himself. He based his work on the stories of explorers.
From the various possible variations generated by AI, we finally selected sixteen of the most interesting and created simili-engravings as well as a light installation. This is the fruit of our collaboration. What's magnificent is that in our interaction, we have completely reproduced the way in which an AI is created and deployed: starting with an idea, gathering a set of data, training the algorithm, fine-tuning, and selecting what we like.
AM: I see a strong interest by digital artists to either reference artists or artworks from the canon of art history or to release a homage. Where does this come from?
av: I think there are three main reasons.
The first is probably the saddest: for many years, what we call digital art, or the art generated by algorithms, was not really considered art, except by a handful of curators or pioneering institutions. And yet, as early as the 1950s, digital artists were demonstrating their fine knowledge of art history and reflecting in depth on the transformations caused by the emergence of machines and computers in their practice. By referencing artists they admired or periods in art history, I believe they wanted to recall their theoretical roots, where they came from, or conversely, to detach themselves from certain currents. In fact, Vera Molnár did a great deal of this, paying homage to artists close to her, like Sonia Delaunay, or further in the past, like Dürer or Monet.
The second is quite moving: many "digital" artists have received no initial training in the art world. Personally, I visualize the history of art as a forest with many trees with roots, branches, and ramifications. Rather than learning art history from the ground up, these artists came up with a particular technique, a particular branch, and gradually discovered other artists, other movements, and became more and more enthusiastic about them. I think this is wonderful and a great source of optimism for art and creation. So these tributes can also be seen as an expression of enthusiasm: just look at how NFT crowds welcomed, for example, Manfred Mohr, Herbert W. Franke, or Frieder Nake when they arrived on social networks.
The third, finally, comes from the fact that a so-called "digital" artist often has a different approach to collaboration. By sharing our knowledge, by building bridges with other artists, or by acknowledging a form of filiation with the past, we don't believe we become poorer; on the contrary, we create the conditions for new adventures. I've often found this to be true in my practice: whereas traditional artists my age might be uncomfortable with the idea of collaborating or sharing their secret recipes, their knowledge, or their ideas, digital artists are much less afraid of sharing these same ideas, their code, or helping each other.
Of course, this is not a general rule, but I've experienced it many times, the latest being our wonderful exhibition POÈME OBJKT / POÈME SBJKT, bringing together artists from all horizons and for which I supervised the catalog.
AM: Have we seen everything by now, or is AI a new beginning for the next chapter of art and art-making?
av: That's the eternal question, isn't it? Have we invented everything? But did photography signify the end of art when it emerged at the end of the 19th century? No, but after a while, we saw that it profoundly transformed the use of other mediums. Pioneers such as William Henry Fox Talbot and August Strindberg pushed back the limits of the medium early on—note that they were both hybrid profiles, one a scientist and the other a writer!
As far as AI is concerned, although I consider it to be a tool, I have to admit that it's not exactly comparable to a camera because AI has "digestion capacities", and algorithms offer the potential to access a form of quintessence. Moreover, technical reproducibility is pushed to the extreme with AI, and it would have been fascinating to hear Walter Benjamin talk about these new tools had he been our contemporary.
Personally, I use it to push myself beyond my own limits, to question my inner thoughts, and to depict my dreams, as I did in my CIRCULAR RUINS exhibition at Darmo Gallery in Paris. This is indeed the beginning of a new chapter.
I believe that what will characterize this chapter is a drastic increase in the standards expected of artists and their production. Let's say I offer you a vehicle with an infinite energy reserve. You can go anywhere. If you have no imagination, no desire for discovery, no interest in the world around you, or don't know other territories even by name or hearsay, you're unlikely to experience an entertaining trip, even with a vehicle allowing you to ride everywhere. The same goes for an AI trained on every image, every text, and every culture in the world.
The possibilities offered by algorithms are vast and immense, but you have to know how to make them talk, push them to their limits, employ them to tell a story, or devise a new world. That's why I'm talking about raising the bar: it's not a technical issue, but really a matter of implementation: will I have enough in me to push these tools beyond their own presumed limits?
AM: Has the role of the artist changed in the age of AI?
av: I have come to the brutal realization that the role of the artist will have to change as a result of my visit to the 58th Biennale di Venezia in 2019. This is one of the factors that triggered my desire to deploy aurèce vettier. When I explored the Biennale, I realized that the vast majority of the proposals, while certainly interesting, consisted of denouncing and describing precisely the problems of our world.
I think that denunciation is no longer sufficient, especially in the age of AI. Or perhaps it is just a starting point. In the 1990s, Sebastião Salgado and his wife restored a forest environment in Brazil. This tremendous work was immortalized in the 2014 film THE SALT OF THE EARTH, directed by Wim Wenders and the photographer's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. It's an example of work that is both denunciation and action, simultaneously aesthetic, theoretical, therapeutic, and spiritual.
Being an artist isn't exactly a choice; it often just happens to us. Sometimes, our great sensitivity makes us vulnerable to the world's tremors, yet often, it also gives us the possibility of imagining—or even repairing—futures a few days, months, or years ahead of time. At our own level, we need to shift from denunciation to proposing possibilities for the future. Many artists are already doing this, but I believe that this is the way the artist's role will evolve.
AM: What are your thoughts about nature in the age of the metaverse? Will we see more artists exploring nature as we seem to move away from it with every new technology invented?
Aristotle states in PHYSICS that "art imitates nature". The word art to translate the Greek word technè is undoubtedly very reductive, and photography or 3D scanning didn't exist at the time. Nevertheless, every artist at some point positions themselves in relation to nature and the environment, whether because their work takes place in nature, because they represent natural or organic forms, or because they reject nature altogether in their approach.
In the age of the metaverse, I feel an increasingly evident parallel between the subtlety of nature, its fragility, and that of technology.
In an interview I conducted with artist Grégory Chatonsky and the u2p050 collective, Chatonsky remarked that the more sophisticated technology becomes, the more fragile works it engenders. It was already difficult to properly preserve videos, whose formats change every five years, but it's even harder to preserve websites from the 1990s, or NFTs, and the files they link to.
In any case, it seemed like a limitless subject to explore, and natural forms are very present in my work. For POTENTIAL HERBARIUMS, a body of work I started working on in 2019, I trained an AI algorithm called GAN (Generative Adversarial Network) on over 4 million herbarium plates, many of which I made myself using plants from my hometown.
This algorithm enabled me to generate impossible, very anti-Darwinian plant forms, which moved me greatly and which I now deploy in the form of oil paintings, bronze sculptures, or digital works. I don't think I'm moving away from nature; in fact, quite the opposite: technology allows me to renew my love and fascination for it. For the moment, this very technology is only capable of imitating nature, not surpassing its infinite intelligence. I think that's what we're witnessing with POTENTIAL HERBARIUMS.
AM: What are your predictions for the future of art and AI?
av: Nowadays, we have a rare opportunity to conduct artistic research that is much more experience-based, or at least takes more dimensions into account, than it used to be. By looking with interest at the possibilities offered by AI and technologies and exploiting those that are relevant to our practice, but also by knowing how to place our limits and choosing not to be a slave to the tools, we serenely push our own limits, opening ourselves up to learning and growing.
Moreover, by adopting a rhizomatic approach, no longer seeing ourselves as isolated egos but as active nodes in a rich network, interacting strongly with the world around us, we open the way to unprecedented artistic adventures.
Finally, by taking into account the artist, the collector, the visitor, and the world and intersecting these stakeholders with aesthetic, theoretical, political, therapeutic, and spiritual concerns, we create a new reading grid to offer not denunciation but hypotheses of desirable futures.In the very near future, I'm going to make sure that my work and its dissemination help to improve or repair real issues in the world.
These aren't really predictions, but they outline the directions I'm taking towards a world I want to live in.