In this time of social media doom and gloom, I think back fondly to the early days of the “fail whale,” a cutesy image of a whale being held up by birds when Twitter was down. We no longer see the whale even while we see many digital fails happening in public. But the fail whale served as an ongoing reminder that technology is built, technology evolves, and technology starts with sketches of ideas.

Monica Rizzolli’s Night Shoots is a PDF catalogue that shows a generative landscape coming together under a digital moon. While people often consume digital art in its final form, Night Shoots invites us into the process, with 100 works presenting variation upon variation. Many of us think of generative work as developed by artificial intelligence, but the more useful way to see works such as Rizzolli’s might be as augmented intelligence — a dance between human and machine.

Rizzolli’s work is part of Simulation Sketchbook: Works in Process, an ongoing online exhibition of 10 works at Feral File that opened October 20 (with a brief display at Vellum LA). The exhibition takes as its starting point the reality that digital artists, like all artists, sketch out their work as well. Rather than paper and pencil, they often use the very same tools that compose the completed work, but the ideas come across as impressions and echoes, revealing the process of both creating and emoting that precede a finished piece. Each work — available for purchase as an NFT on Tezos, a popular blockchain for creatives — is a moment of creation. 

Process is evident in Reeps One’s “Machine Inspired Voice 00.1,” in which the audience listens as AI responds to Harry Yeff’s beatboxing. (The finished work will eventually have 300 human-AI pairings.) “Cluster: #069” by Botto is a digital collage developed by a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) whose members vote on synthetically generated images. David OReilly’s “ORBSKETCHES.mp4” provides a glimpse into the minting process in action, showing an orb generated through math experiments the artist developed, all within the frame of the artist’s desktop. And in Qianqian Ye’s “Braiding Rage 怒辫,” hair braids in dozens of variations reference the tribe of  “self-combed women” (自梳女), who braid their hair to mark a commitment to independence over marriage.

Reeps One, “Machine Inspired Voice 00.1”

In the context of the growing impact of artificial intelligence and blockchain in our society, perhaps the most important framing of Simulation Sketchbook is the notion that technology — in this case, expressed through mostly visual artworks — is not a magic object appearing from the black box of Silicon Valley office parks. Rather, technology, like art, is made through a series of sketches, negotiations, and explorations. This idea is explored most explicitly in Mimi Ọnụọha’s “Machine Sees More Than It Says”; a composite of archival footage videos from the 1950s through the 1980s, the work tells the story of a machine imagining its own development.

The most stunning — and timely — piece in the show is Behnaz Farahi’s “Unveiling,” produced last September in response to what were then emergent feminist protests in Iran. The video starts with a feminine, cloaked figure in gold and turquoise disintegrating into a swarm that expands and reemerges into an image of the artist before scattering again.

This work demonstrates the potential for sketches to respond quickly to timely and time-sensitive world events. Farahi had intended to present a different piece in the show but switched it up given the unfolding protests. A more developed work may attempt to help us make sense of the protests, but it may be months or years until we fully understand their ramifications and ripple effects on Iranian society, and the world at large. 

“Unveiling” lays bare the raw emotion of Farahi, an expat working in the US, grappling with questions of bodily autonomy: “Why are there various laws controlling the bodies and lives of women?” she writes of her work. “Where does the autonomy of the female body reside? While much feminist discourse is informed by a Western woman’s perspective, some of the largest-ever feminist protests are happening right now on the streets of Iran.”

Mimi Ọnụọha, “Machine Sees More Than It Says”

Simulation Sketchbook: Works in Progress can be viewed online. The exhibition was curated by Jesse Damiani.

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AX Mina

Artist An Xiao (aka An Xiao Mina) photographs, films, installs, performs and tweets and has shown her work in publications and galleries internationally. Find her online at @anxiaostudio...

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