Can a machine pick art?

Normally a curator picks what hangs on an art gallery wall, but at one Whitby gallery, a machine is doing the choosing.

An exhibit at the Whitby Station Gallery includes a machine that is programmed to use evolution and math to pick out art.

The computer is part of an exhibit called Conscious Machine and will choose one piece to display each week at the gallery through to March 26.

“It makes my job that much easier and I can start thinking about my retirement,” jokes the gallery curator, Olexander Wlasenko.

 Conscious Machine is the brainchild of Oshawa artist, Jessica Field, who also creates robots for art.

“I like to design artificial life projects that think for itself,” she says. “I like to program something until I don’t understand it anymore and see what happens.”

She says contrary to the exhibit’s name, the machine is not actually conscious, but uses math, social science and evolutionary formulas to choose what to display.

“It’s really testing to see what that math means and see if it can actually show how humans do behaviours.”

Visitors can try to influence the machine by answering questions about themselves to help the machine modify behaviours.

She says the machine tends to view the visitors’ answers as distrustful because it can’t understand human beings do not behave the same way as machines.

She says the point is not to show artificial life replacing humans, but to show its limitations.

The machine will pick a different artwork to display each week and so far has picked three out of the 10 pictures it will choose over the course of the exhibit.

The machine chooses from the Station Gallery permanent collection of more than 300 works and then the curator hangs its choice beside it in the gallery.

Wlasenko says the machine has made decisions about art he wouldn’t have considered in the past.

The art it has picked so far includes a piece by well-known First Nation artist, Robert Houle.

Field has other work also displayed at the gallery for the next two months. The other displays include robots and rhythm, which is used to explore human emotions and stereotypes.

The exhibit is called the Monoliths. At first glance, the display appears to be three black fridge-shaped boxes arranged on the gallery room floor, but the boxes are actually sound machines that are activated by movement.

Once activated, rhythmic thumping and pulses reverberate around the room and peepholes allow viewers to take a peek inside the machines.

Fields says the point of the piece is to show people things are not always what they seem.

“One peephole has lovers and we look through the peephole and we see they actually have broken hearts,” she explains.

But the exhibit does more than show happily-never-afters, the machine also attempts to explain the emotions and stereotypes in a scientific way.

Field uses colourful blackboard drawings as part of the display to label the different aspects of the machine, in the same way a scientist would write down a complicated formula.

“I use scientific methods to try and explain the human condition, which is ironic because science tends to avoid these things…it can’t explain,” she says.

Wlasenko expects the exhibit will draw in several thousand people over the next two months because Field is a well-known artist locally.

“People are big fans of Jessica here,” he says.

Field believes there is something in her work that could appeal to everyone, not just the scientifically-minded.

“You don’t have to be a professor to enjoy my work, maybe you like the colourful blackboard drawings or just looking at the robots.”

Wlasenko agrees. “The interesting enquires she makes regarding science and the scientific method, I think is very engaging for viewers to see.”

Field has also had displays at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery and Oshawa Space Invaders.

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Tabitha Reddekop is a second-year journalism student at Durham College. When it comes to writing and reporting, she enjoys covering stories that really pull at the heartstrings. She likes to spend her spare time reading, watching documentaries and taking pictures of her cats. Tabitha hopes to become a reporter for a small community newspaper following graduation.