Craft, AI Art & The Practiced Digital Hand

Nettrice Gaskins. “Afro-Lace,” 2019. Created using machine learning.

“In the case of craft, interpretations focus specifically on the way in which content takes form. With art, however, the relation of form and content varies constantly. Computing transforms this relation too: the same content (bits) may take many different forms quite easily, and it may do so after the fact. Of course there is considerable debate as to whether content must take material form…” [McCullough 1996]

In Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand author Malcolm McCullough examined the emergence of computation as a medium, rather than just a set of tools, suggesting a growing correspondence between the digital realm and traditional craft. Recently, using machine learning, I’ve been exploring this interaction. I’m minting a series of NFTs that feature Black women and children, using images of 18th century European lace.

Embroidery lace
Left: Digital embroidery by Mickey McManus; Right: AI simulation of Mickey’s work by Nettrice Gaskins

My work mixes the delicacy of lace and other ornate styles, mainly from the 18th century with portraits of women and children in compelling poses. The series explores computation as a medium and, as noted by McCullough, it suggests a correspondence between the digital realm and traditional craft. For example, Brussels lace (see top image) is distinguished by its réseau or background and toilé or pattern. I was able to re-create the style and pattern using Deep Dream Generator.

The combination of technologically advanced tools used as media and the final effect with its vintage character offers an interesting contrast. The lace as a material does not seem to belong to the sphere of the virtual, as it refers to the culture of the handmade, yet the two worlds are brought together in a delicate and poetic dialogue. — Electric Artefacts

Nettrice Gaskins. “orison,” 2021. Created using machine learning; minted as an NFT on hic et nunc

Next week I’m planning on releasing a new series of NFTs, from artwork created using deep image style transfer. This is part of an artist-led collective initiative to raise awareness of environmentally friendly crypto alternatives, and showcase the artistic potential of NFTs over a wide range of media. I will be using the hashtag #TheFEN to share new AI artwork (see below).

Nettrice Gaskins. “receiving,” 2021. Created using machine learning; minted as an NFT on hic et nunc

This work is based on my research into 18th century production, starting with the shipment of raw cotton from the Americas to Europe, then to Africa where enslaved people were traded for the cloth. These people were shipped to the Americas as part of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and this cycle continued until the invention of the cotton gin and the abolishment of slavery. I’m using emerging technology to explore the relationship between history, aesthetics, craft and machines. Minting NFTs adds another layer to the production… perhaps as a new way to demonstrate generative justice.

“The generative justice model, in contrast, proposes “closing the loop.” That is, value generated by labor and/or nature are to be governed by the people and recirculated within the systems doing the producing, rather than redistributed by a centralized state. By allowing values to be circulated, as opposed to simply extracted, generative capacity is built at the roots or from the “bottom-up” to a greater extent. — Taylor C. Dotson & James E. Wilcox

My hic et nunc page

There are several layers to this process: studying traditional crafts, then using an algorithm to produce new images of high perceptual quality that combine the content of selected photographs (source images) with the appearance of numerous craft, or arts-based works. These digital artworks can be displayed on my website, my NFT page, or printed out for physical viewing.

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.

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