Qinru Zhang: The Artist Who Gives AI Creative Autonomy

    In recent years, AI’s popularity has soared, fueled by technological advancements and its integration across industries. Its creative applications, from generative algorithms to AI-generated artworks and tools like Sora, have stirred debates about the definition of art and ownership. Amidst this, multimedia artist Qinru Zhang explores AI’s capacity for glitched imagery and uncanny interpretations, adding a thought-provoking dimension to discussions about technology and creativity. Through her work, Zhang challenges conventional perspectives on AI’s role in art, inviting viewers to reconsider the boundaries of human creativity in a technologically driven world. Her exploration of glitched imagery underscores the complexity and beauty found within the intersection of technology and artistic expression.

    During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in 2020, Zhang discovered the world of Artificial Intelligence, particularly drawn to the surreal imagery generated by Spade Coco on the Runway AI platform. She found its ability to accurately depict landscapes and objects intriguing but noticed its difficulties in portraying human figures. Rather than seeing this as a limitation, Zhang saw it as an opportunity for creative exploration. In the piece “Future Wonderland”(2021), Zhang coded an online gallery to present a series of doodles of daily objects, animals, human characters, and scenery interpreted by Spade Coco. By creating a captivating blend of simplistic sketches and realistic textures, Zhang’s work blurs the lines between the natural and the digital. This juxtaposition invites viewers to reflect on the evolving relationship between human creativity and artificial intelligence in the realm of art.

    “Country Animals”, selected from “Future Wonderland”(https://future-wonderland.glitch.me/), 2021

    In the animated rendition of “Future Wonderland” (2021), Zhang delves into the intricate relationship between humanity and technology. Within this digital utopia, animal-skinned human figures and human-skinned animal characters coexist, evoking nostalgia with landscapes reminiscent of the iconic Windows XP screensaver. Despite the artist’s direction, the characters exhibit a stiffness, peculiarity, and pixelation that grants the AI a degree of autonomy in the creative process. Zhang actively sought to uncover Spade Coco’s unique artistic traits and ‘personality,’ viewing its occasional divergence from commands as a form of techno-artistic freedom. “Future Wonderland” was then showcased in downtown Denver with Denver Digerati, effectively bridging the gap between the physical and digital realms through screens, offering viewers a portal into this fantastical digital wonderland.

    “Future Wonderland,” 2021, image source: Denver Digerati

    As AI technologies have advanced in accuracy, Zhang has observed the fading of the techno-organic coexistence portrayed in “Future Wonderland,” primarily due to a diminishing tolerance for technological imperfections. With increasing precision, human commanders tend to grant less freedom to AI in the creative process. Recognizing this trend, Zhang began deliberately inputting nonsensical commands into AI tools like DALL-E and Midjourney to stimulate AI-led imagination. For example, in “Rhode Island School of Design Turning Pink” (2022), Zhang presents distorted buildings that resemble more the stuff of dreams than reality, challenging conventional notions of imagery. However, recent experiments with Midjourney version 4 and version 6 yielded a disappointing amount of growth in fidelity and realism. Zhang’s concern lies in the apparent loss of creative autonomy within AI, which seems to have transitioned into an illustrative tool for human creators along its path of advancement.

    “Rhode Island School of Design Turning Pink”, created with DALL-E, 2022

    With the rise of AI engines’ photorealistic accuracy, Zhang’s vision of a collaborative space between humans and AI, once reliant on AI errors, has become somewhat of a distant dream. Interested in the uncanny representation of imagery, Zhang decided to test the photorealistic AI renders and seek innovative methods of applications. As a multimedia artist, Zhang has been creating eerie stories with cute motifs using miscellaneous digital mediums including digital animation, extended reality, and reactive sculptures, such as the iconic series “The MILF Collection”(2021 and ongoing) featuring a glitched housewife figure. Within this collection, “The MILF Film” (2021) stands out as a 3D animation exploring the dynamics between female-oriented domesticity and male-centric technology, earning Zhang the prestigious Gold Award in the Video/Web-based Productions category at the NYX Awards. By revisiting “The MILF Film” with AI-generated actors and photorealistically rendered scenes, Zhang has found a captivating way to delve into glitch feminism within the context of domestic life, reinforcing uncanny artistic expressions by affirming the photorealism of AI engines.

    “The MILF Film”(top), 05:55, 2021 and AI interpretation(bottom), 2024

    In her artistic journey, Zhang views AI not just as a tool but as a collaborator, contributing to the creative process as a co-artist. Continuously pushing the boundaries of feminine domesticity within technological and gendered contexts, Zhang’s work delves into unconventional themes and scenarios. From experimenting with unexpected commands like “In Dongbei China, a 3D modeled family is eating pink dumplings” (2023) to allowing AI the freedom to conjure up a pink Cthulhu lunch in “Lunch Box Golden Ratio” (2024), Zhang challenges traditional notions and expands the discourse surrounding femininity in relation to technology and societal expectations. Through these creative endeavors, she showcases the coexistence of glitch and perfection in the ever-evolving landscape of art and technology, revealing beauty within constraints.

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