In a fairly recent development, digital art can be traded and collected in editions through NFTs (*). Starting from her own digital artistic practice, Alexandra Crouwers is building up a collection of works both by established artists and anonymous creators. She highlights a new piece from that collection every month in this column.
In some areas of the world, children are only named when they reach a certain age. Once a chicken is named, it transforms from a potentially juicy nugget into a pet. Names are an integral part of identity. My relation to my machines, too, is expressed in name-giving: Leia II and III for the desktop computers, the elderly laptop is Han Solo III.
The cheerful young people in the depicted works are part of a growing series of portraits, all released in batches of ten variations. Up until now, Nico, Lolimar, Gracen, Trevor, Scout, Suzanne, Jesalyn and Belinda have manifested themselves. The images ‘manifested’ because the portrayed do not exist; they are synthetic faces, constructed by machine learning.
A generative adversarial network (GAN) simulates neural learning processes in which software uses datasets—in this case, tens of thousands of photos of faces—as a point of departure for new computer generated visuals. These synthetic images can sometimes be so convincing that they become indistinguishable from ‘real’ ones. There are already marketplaces where one can buy un-real faces for commercial ends. Convenient, because synthetic humans don’t need rights or ever complain.
The internet is populated with fabricated identities. In some cases, only the maker’s user name is known, calling to mind the theatricality of performance pseudonyms such as Peaches, Lux Interior or Snoop Dogg. Fictional identities are the smoke machines of our social media stages.
The Ariel_Institute (A.I.) produces a form of test-tube characters, emphasizing the series’ artificiality in the descriptions of its activity (‘transcription of perceptual kernels captured by A.I. protocol’) and in project subtitles (‘Ariel Institute development protocol. Fifth Participant: NICO//: Phase.1State.1’), and the frames surrounding the portraits as if they were some sort of product labels.
The institute is a project by Ellie Hedden—or Ellie Heden, depending on whether you visit their Twitter or Instagram account. But Ellie also doesn’t exist. Behind Ellie is an artist making gorgeous videos addressing the fluidity of identity in almost mythological digital spaces. With some effort, a real name can be found, but it looks like that one is, for now, hiding in a growing crowd of fictitious faces.
* Non-fungible tokens are crypto-sales contracts recorded on blockchains—in this case, the energy-efficient Tezos—connected to digital files.
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