conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 12.04.2023
ROOPE RAINISTO: STRETCHING THE BOUNDARIES OF REALITY
PHOTOGRAPHY AND AI
Roope Rainisto's AI creations are both instantly recognizable and disturbingly surreal. The Finnish artist embraces AI in all its imperfections and uses it to create AI photographs that are at once intimate and otherworldly. In conversation with Anika Meier, Rainisto speaks about stretching the boundaries of AI.
Roope Rainisto worked as a designer for over 25 years before fully devoting his career to exploring the field of AI photography. Since then, Rainisto has seen a remarkable rise to fame in the spheres of NFT and AI art. His NFT collection, LIFE IN WEST AMERICA, which explores a distorted vision of the idea of the American West, ranks among the highest-valued AI art collections. The work of Rainisto plays with the brain's innate pattern-seeking abilities by providing viewers with scenes that they have both seen a million times but have yet to encounter, cementing his success in the NFT space.
Anika Meier: You have been a designer for 25 years. When did you know you would like to pursue a career as an artist?
Roope Rainisto: I have been doing various arts as a hobby for almost my whole life. I wrote poems and short stories as a teenager, played in rock bands during my school years, wrote songs, and tried to make movies. All sorts. One could call this a midlife crisis: I didn’t want to think of myself as an old man, asking what-ifs.
AM: Has your background as a designer helped you to work on concepts for your art?
RR: Definitely, the work experience has taught discipline in terms of not being afraid to commit to hard work or learn new technical skills. Design in professional environments is much about problem solving: having a design vision and then communicating it clearly and effectively. Being able to do storytelling through art effectively requires many of the same approaches and virtues. Communication usually fails, no matter what the medium in use is.
AM: How do you describe your art? Post-photography? AI photography? AI art?
RR: I think of it as art that wouldn’t exist the way it does without the current AI tools being available. The photographic works are definitely also post-photography. Post-photography challenges the perceived reality of photography in obvious ways. They are not photographs, but they are photographic. Take advantage of how we are all trained to read photos by challenging some of these conventions.
As I like to say: “They don’t have to look real, but they’re supposed to feel real.”
I’m intrigued by crossovers in art: mixing and combining the forms that are traditionally kept more separate. My large collections (Life In West America and Reworld) mix photography and AI art conventions, to positive effect.
AM: Do you have a background as a photographer?
RR: Yes, I have been doing photography for 30 years now, transitioning to digital early in the life cycle. As a high schooler, I spent endless afternoons in the school’s dark room, fascinated by the photographic development process. The smell of the chemicals. The nature of handcraft. Performing dodge and burn, literally. A decade doing portrait photography. But always as a hobby, a balancing art to working professionally as a designer.
AM: What are some of your favourite photography books that have influenced you as an artist?
RR: This might be an obvious choice, but when I first saw Robert Frank’s THE AMERICANS, I felt immensely moved. It is at once deeply personal and deeply universal. Fearles subject matter selection and an unique and uncompromising vision in its pacing. Its overall impact on photography is hard to overstate.
AM: When I look at your work, such as LIFE IN WEST AMERICA and REWORLD I feel nostalgic. The photographs created with AI remind me of new color photography from the 1970s, while at the same time evoking thoughts about the future in a post-digital society. Is it important for you as an artist to trigger emotional responses?
RR: For me, triggering an emotional response is the key to art. It doesn’t matter if we talk about images, text, or movies. If seeing an artwork makes you feel nothing, what good is it? An emotional response creates dialog between the artwork and its viewer. Emotions don’t have to be positive in order to be meaningful.
If there is no response, it is a bit like when someone says something to you in a foreign language. You hear the words, but nothing happens in your mind.
That’s the ultimate test I use in all my art. I look at the finished piece with an open mind. If I don’t feel anything, it doesn’t get in, no matter how technically polished the piece is. This is a brutal test and makes creation painfully slow. Of course, no piece of artwork can resonate with every viewer, but if an artwork does not make me feel anything, how could I expect someone else to feel something?
AM: Do you speak about the process behind LIFE IN WEST AMERICA and REWORLD?
RR: They both started with the overall vision. LIFE IN WEST AMERICA focuses on the individual: their hopes, dreams, life, and aspirations. REWORLD focuses on society: how society forms, shapes, guides, and constrains individuals.
I sat down and wrote down everything that came into my mind. A plan, or roadmap, for the road trip. Endless lists of subject matters.
To achieve a particular style and make prompting work better, I used training to create custom diffusion models for the creation of the actual images.
The actual process is then just hard work. Running endless batches, curating for the best results, and editing them. There are wonderful new innovations in relation to editing: "inpainting" allows the artist to seamlessly edit and alter any part of the image in a manner that you can’t really detect. This freedom of course can be paralyzing: which image to select when any image can be edited in any way afterwards?
It’s a highly iterative process: images spark ideas for new ideas. Each of the collections took several months to finish. On a good day, I was able to create about 10 finished pieces; on a bad day, one or two. For anyone who thinks that creating 500 unique pieces is easy, I welcome them to try this out for themselves.
AM: The limitations of AI make your work emotionally and intellectually compelling. The distorted human bodies and the surreal scenes create a feeling of the uncanny. AI will become better and better. What effect will this have on your art?
RR: "Better" can of course mean different things. Better in terms of being able to create more realistic-looking imagery. This will certainly happen. I’m not overly convinced that realism is the key component in making emotionally compelling art. But it will be very useful for creating images for various commercial purposes.
Better in terms of giving artists more flexibility in both creating whatever they have in mind and in terms of being able to create in a more unique style. This will probably happen, although not with all services. There is a counter-movement of doing things like using reinforced learning—tuning the AI systems based on user feedback to create always "pleasing art".
This, strangely enough, often has a detrimental effect on the capability of said systems to create art—at least in my opinion. Good art does not come from a committee voting on what is aesthetic. But I digress.
Fortunately, there are open-source tools that are raw and untrained. The additional capabilities that are coming excite me because they give more ways to control the art and allow me to create exactly what I have in mind. We are now in such a state with technology that an AI artist cannot really blame the technique: "It’s good for what the technical side allows me to create". If the artwork doesn’t work, the artist can only blame themselves.
AM: Do you fear artists might always have to play catch-up with AI? In the sense that the technology exists and artists have to figure out how to create work with it.
RR: These are tools for the toolbox of the artist. I believe that the more tools, techniques, and methods the artist knows, the better. AI is not an all or-nothing proposition. You can use your existing techniques and use some AI methods only in a limited manner at some parts of our overall creation process. You don’t need to give up on anything you know and love to do. But I do strongly recommend that every artist educate themselves on what is available.
The artists that are most at risk are the ones who put their proverbial heads in the sand relating to the new creation possibilities. The potential to continue to differentiate yourself—to have your own unique artist vision—is strongest when your workflow combines your unique skills with the new possibilities. This will create a combination that nobody else will have.
AM: How do you start working on a project? What comes first—the concept or exploring a new technology?
RR: For projects, the concept comes first. AI offers the artist the means to "create anything". Starting with "creating anything" or "creating something" is a great way to reach a creative dead end.
Of course, exploring technologies is very important. Discovering a new technique often brings to mind the thought, "I could apply this in the future to do X, Y, or Z." Techniques are multiplicative. When you learn something new, you can think of ways to combine it with everything else you know so far. It is often these combinations that lead to the biggest breakthroughs.
AM: When it comes to using new technology, history repeats itself. Artists working with new mediums and technologies have always had to face criticism for their work not being art. What do you say to critics who say AI art is not art?
RR: I think learning from history makes sense. The story of a new creation capability appearing in the world, being initially dismissed, then slowly being accepted, repeats over and over again. Is all "AI art" art? Certainly not. There are lots of creations that are technically AI art pieces, but one could say they don’t really work as art. But is there a fundamental difference? There’s lots of photography... There are lots of paintings. Sculptures. Poems. Songs. That one can say "aren’t really arts." Yes, it’s a portrait photo, but it’s a terrible photo.
I think the right answer to whether something is art or not is the word "some". Some photos are art. Some poems are art. Some AI artworks are art. Who determines if something is art or not? In one school of thought, people who are generally acknowledged to be artists talk amongst themselves and determine what is art and what is not art.
I prefer to think of the end result. Another way to think about art is that it’s the expression of creativity, something created primarily for its expressive power. As the end result of the creator, art comes into the world. Jackson Pollock throws paint onto a canvas. Whatever the art is—paint on a canvas, a black box of concrete, an island wrapped in plastic—it’s made not as a tool but as something that the viewer perceives, feels, and reacts to. If this thing that has been created resonates with non-artists as well, then it is art. This is kind of a functional test, but I like this more. Art is a message. It should do its job.
AM: Which role do you think will play human memory in a world largely driven by AI? Will we be able to make a difference between imagined and real memories?
RR: Hollywood has 100 years of experience in creating imagined memories. People love them, calling these imagined memories "stories". There’s room in this world for both. A story is an emotional lesson in how to live in this world.
What are our dreams? Are they real or imagined?
I think the fundamental point of a memory is its selective nature. A memory is a subjective condensation of reality. Inconsequential details are forgotten or glossed over. The mind performs prioritization to not get overwhelmed. Imagined memories can be stronger than real ones. In the real world, often nothing happens. In the movie, a plane explodes and the tsunami almost hits. There are philosophical reasons as to why one should still prefer the former over the latter. But it is a fascinating topic to create art about.
AM: What will AI’s impact be on culture and art? Will everyone be an AI artist and AI writer in the future?
RR: I think in the long term, people will not be referred to as "AI artists", or the art created with these tools will not be called "AI art". I’m old enough to remember when computers and Photoshop came into play. There was this thing called "Photoshop art", and some people were "Photoshop artists". Nowadays, I don’t really hear this. Just about all artists use Photoshop. It’s just art.
The same will happen with AI. Everyone will start to use AI tools, more or less. Create something that uses 1%, 50%, or 99% AI creation methods. Every major creation tool will get AI tools integrated into it. These tools will be so powerful and useful that not using them will become impractical.
Let’s take videos. In the 1980s, the ability to create videos was available to a selected few with the time, budget, capabilities, patience, and opportunity to do so. Nowadays, anyone can create a video with their iPhones.
Did the move from videography being only available to a "few professionals" to videos being available to all make videos as an art form worse or better? Well, have you seen videos made in the 1980s? Bringing more people in and decreasing the technical barriers, gives room for creative people to shine.
Art is not a technical problem by its very nature. The people with the best technique are not necessarily the people who make the best art (at least if art is determined by the functional nature I describe above). I believe we all have stories to tell, artwork inside us, untapped creativity.
Most people do not have the means or opportunity to dedicate their lives and education to the creation of art. Decreased barriers bring increased opportunities, allowing new talent to shine. There are people who wake up in their 40s with the realization that they want to create art.
There is no right or wrong path to artisthood. One diploma to be granted. Artists learn. When the barriers to creation in terms of technique become lower, more emphasis goes on the content—message, subject, viewpoint—and the personal touch of the artist. A beautiful picture will not be enough (any more)—I fail to see how this is such a bad thing.
Roope Rainisto is a Finnish artist, designer, and photographer with a passion for storytelling. Rainisto’s work explores the boundaries between the real and the virtual, combining AI-generation procedures with traditional art methods, creating artworks that strive to invoke emotional impact in their viewers.