Design Notes · · 21 min read

The Surprising Poetry of AI: BJ Best, ArtyBots

Poet BJ Best on teaching computers to do what humans can’t.

The Surprising Poetry of AI: BJ Best, ArtyBots

In this episode, Liam speaks with BJ Best, a poet who teaches computers to do what humans can’t in the name of art. His network of ArtyBots is part of a vibrant scene of robots creating, sharing, and collaborating with one another on virtual art. In the interview, Best describes the reflective opportunities and editorial impact created by a bot-created body of work numbering in the tens of thousands.

Liam Spradlin: BJ, welcome to Design Notes.

BJ Best: Thank you very much.

Liam: So to start out with, tell me a little bit about your current work and the journey that led you there.

BJ: Yeah, certainly. My home discipline as I like to call it is poetry specifically, but recently I've been very interested in how computers can media art in a variety of contexts. Growing up, I was always interested in computers and am kind of a self taught programmer. I learned how to program using basic. And I was always interested in the way computers think and of course that's kind of a misnomer, computers themselves don't think, but they can do surprising things that, um, otherwise, humans can't. BJ: And so I always enjoyed dabbling, but it feels like only recently computers have become both accessible enough and also powerful enough where people like me, who don't quite know how to program entirely, are able to use them, um, in a variety of contexts in order to generate content. And so in the past couple years, I've used computers to generate art in a variety of ways. Um, procedurally generated music, I've created procedurally generated video game, I've worked with poetry and artificial intelligence and then, uh, the arty bots project to make computer generated art.

Liam: So, tell me a little bit about arty bots. What is that and how did you get started on that specific project?

BJ: Yeah, so arty bots is a Twitter account itself, but it's also the kind of umbrella term for a family of Twitter bots, all of which create visual art in a variety of ways. They're mostly abstract bots 'cause it's difficult to create representational art through mathematical equations.

Again, I was interested in the idea of how computers can do something that humans can't, and specifically when I talk about humans, I'm mentioning myself (laughs) uh, because I have very little artistic ability in any sort of traditional state. I cannot draw, I cannot paint, I've attempted these things and the results are fairly comical (laughs) as a result. But I love art and I love the possibilities of creating art and specifically I love modern, post-modern art, particularly bright colors abstract art, and that seemed to me like the sort of thing that a computer could do fairly well.

And so I got this idea in my head maybe I want to use a computer to make art. And so after a lot of searching around on the internet, I was able to find people who had ideas about how to do this and I was able to find some sample code as well, which helped make this to be a reality. After that I had to learn, uh, these bots are written in Python, I had to learn Python. I'd never done anything in Python before, and I wound up stealing codes from other people both to start making the art and then the second part, which is to create the image, but then also post it on Twitter in order to make it a complete bot.

And then once I had bots that were posting images, I figured it made sense to have them reply to each other as well with the various algorithms that were programmed within each individual bot. Liam: So you created these bots that are now creating visual art and I think there's an interesting question here, which is are the bots artists? Are you an artist? Is it both? Is it neither?

(laughs) I, I think it's both, although I would prefer to credit the bots maybe more than myself and I think the cool thing about the bots and the thing that might make them artists is that they can do things humans simply can't. The bots treat an image pixel by pixel as something and so most of 'em are 500 by 500 and so you can do the math and it would be very difficult for a human to concentrate on that number of individual squares and have each one be meaningful in some ways. A computer, of course, can run through a grid like that very, very quickly.

So example, for one bot, it's called Arty Abstract and it's one of my favorites and it paints very abstract pictures based on mathematical equations. Um, it uses things like sines a lot and cosines and other limits and logs and all sorts of interesting things to create an equation and for every color on the canvas and in computers, colors are usually defined by three different variables, I always use RGB, red, blue and green. Each one of those has a complicated mathematical equation and so each red value, green value and blue value are calculated by these equations and then each single picture is plotted. To ask a person to do that seems like that'd be remarkably difficult thing.

And so I think they are artists in the sense that they can do something that humans can't and ultimately they're the ones that are creating the pictures. Obviously I... there's a human behind it choosing the code, choosing the equations, but like I said, without the computer, I would be unable to present any sort of image like this and I feel they kind of have a life on their own in terms of the things they're able to create that someone through traditional techniques would not be able to.

Liam: I'm very interested in the definition of a concept like art and the definition of a perhaps more specialized kind of art called design. And so I think it's something that everyone has a different answer for but I want to know, like, does this method of creation or the creators themselves, do these things inform or change your conceptualization or the broader conceptualization of what art is?

BJ: I think it has to in some ways because up until this point in history, with some exceptions, the idea that there could be something that could do calculations and that could present something that looks like art were limited in a variety of ways. And especially as we approach things like artificial intelligence, my thoughts are pretty simple compared to artificial intelligence. It's surprising what AI can create that looks in some ways to either realistic things or perhaps more artistic than just pretty colors in terms of pixels on a screen.

That being said, it does really challenge the idea that is it possible that only humans can make art and what forms of art are acceptable? I know the challenge of claiming an art is created by a Twitter bot is that tweets kind of by their nature are very ephemeral. You see it for a moment, you either like it or you just scroll right by it and then for all intents and purposes it's gone.

Most of these bots, I was doing some brief research, most of these bots have tweeted around 60,000 times, more or less. Uh, the arty bo- arty bots bot itself is, is over 100,000. And each one of those is a picture. And so the question because, well, what do you do with so much art? (laughs) As opposed to should you go into a museum and a museum might have a lot of pieces, for example, but it's no where on the order of 60,000 different things you could conceivably look at.

For me, personally, there is this interesting idea too, that you can take any image created by one of these bots and present it on a wall, on a canvas, and I've done that. Recently I had a show about computer mediated art with a colleague of mine, Joel Matias who's a musician and we both created computer mediated art and one of the things on the walls of the gallery that we created was a conversation of arty bots and so I took 15 canvases created by arty bots and hung them on a wall in a very traditional setting.

And so that kind of further confuses the idea of something that otherwise is ephemeral and to give it to sanction of printing it out, putting it on canvas and hanging it on a wall.

Liam: You made a point about the fact that each of these bots has tweeted out thousands of times and created thousands and thousands of works each and I'm interested besides sampling one conversation, if this huge output somehow forms a larger collection are a cohesive body of work overtime? Are there through lines in these works or do they tell some kind of story or is there an additional meaning that's created through this constant additive process?

BJ: The analogy I think that makes the most sense to me is the idea of a museum or a collection that someone might have and that this is just a very, very, very large (laughs) collection of a variety of pieces and yet they're all done by the same artist, so to speak, and they're done by people in conversation.

Now, honestly that's a great question because I still don't know what to do with the idea of what would you do with 65,000 pieces of art? And that's just one bot and the number of bots is in the teens now and so again, the math quickly multiplies.

I'm not sure because it's challenging to say that the bots have grown or developed because the algorithms that I've devised haven't really changed. Once I think something works, I just let it go and, um, the oldest of these bots is now older than four years old which is actually comparatively ancient in terms of Twitter times and Twitter bot times. And so in some ways I like to think of it as the bots are continuing to do themes and variations of what they've done all along. But I do think it's important to think about, that these bots have had a long lifespan and enough interaction with each other and with other visitors that like to come and see them that there is something more cohesive and more important, that the sum is greater than its parts rather than just one pretty image that one tweeted out once upon a time.

Liam: Talking about this indirect or procedural process of art creation, I'm reminded of something maybe mechanically simpler, but no less sophisticated which is some of Sol LeWitt's work, which the work that a visitor or a gallery goer might see is actually the result of the gallery following instructions for how to paint the gallery walls and I wonder if you also consider the code or the procedure behind these works to be a type of art itself.

BJ: Yes, uh, I was thinking about that as well and I agree with you 'cause I think the similarities are very strong. The code is simply a set of instructions and then I'm asking the computer to carry them out in, again, complex ways or going pixel by pixel down the screen. I do think code can be art. I'm a little hesitant (laughs) to call my own code art though, and it's often because I feel like I'm mucking around and trying to create something almost sometimes to the point where I don't quite understand how it works. And again, as I mentioned, I often steal code that I find online because I don't quite know how to make something work and I'm very grateful to people who post examples online that I think I can take work and tweak and figure it out.

So personally I find my code to be, you know, they call it spaghetti code and I do (laughs) not follow best practices in a lot of ways which I'm sure will haunt me at some point. That being said, I do think there's an art to good coding and I think the people who can do it well, it is an art form because it's, it's working in concert with the machine to make the machine do something, um, incredible and very well. But it is a collaboration. Um, and the most basic example would be a random number generator. Any time you ask a computer to roll a die, you never know what number it's gonna come up with, and in theory you could do that yourself but the numbers a computer can generate are huge and it's so easy for it to do that you need that collaboration and you need the code to make that happen.

Liam: I also want to talk a little bit more about how the bots interact with one another because they are kind of replying to each other and passing these pieces back and forth and doing different things to them, but they also talk to each other as well and seem to have their own little personalities and I'm really interested in what that adds to the whole space.

BJ: Definitely. Each bot is its unique thing and really each bot only does one thing hopefully well, and that's all it can ever do. So for example, Arty Wins is a bot that treats an image as if it were pixels and the pixels were grains of sand and so it simply blows some pixels across the screen and creates these kind of weird wispy structures. Arty Triangle is a bot that looks at an image that it receives and reduces it to a nice ordered set of triangles or other shapes that can be made out of triangles, parallelograms for example.

And so yes, these bots go back and forth and they can send images and every once in awhile it will go from a conversation it's having with one of the other ones and at a moment's notice say, "Okay, I'm done talking to you, I'm not going to go talk to somebody else."

But yeah, because it's a tweet, it's not just the image, there needs to be some text that goes along with it and each bot has a little bit of its own personality or tweets out some information about what it just did. Most of the bots I've created are pretty whimsical in their personalities. They love puns, uh, for (laughs) better or worse about whatever they have to do, so there's a lot of triangle puns for Arty Triangle, for example and abstract puns for Arty Abstract.

But generally they're pretty jovial over all in dealing with each other and I think overall that helps create this idea of whimsy that these bots have that they can generate these fun beautiful little images and hopefully guide the viewer into that kind of space that this is meant to be fun and it's meant to be beautiful and it's meant to be something to brighten up Twitter, which as we all know can otherwise sometimes be a darker (laughs) contentious place.

And that kind of whimsy is something I actually see in a lot of bots that are on Twitter that create art or play with text or do something like that. There's a sense of playfulness, um, that a lot of Twitter bots have and that's something I really enjoy about them because it's fun to play with the computer and it's fun to see what a computer can come up with and also identify how a computer is also not human and there's something inherently funny about watching a computer attempt to do human things and not always succeed in a normal way.

Liam: I wanna talk a little more about the place that the bots occupy on Twitter because arty bots is just one family in a landscape of Twitter bots that has grown enormously and become really large and I'm curious if there's something about Twitter as a conceptual space that helps this scene exist or grow?

BJ: Yes, definitely. I mean, Twitter is, as a company and a platform is pro-bot. Right now, if you sign up for a developer account that gives you access to the APIs to create bots basically, one of the options you can choose is I'm creating this account in order to create a bot. A lot of other social media platforms do not want bots. And so Twitter just definitely has a more open and welcoming attitude. And particularly it's happy if you identify whatever you've created as such. If it's a parody account, they want you to identify that. Um, all my bot accounts are clearly identified as bots and, and not really people sitting there scribbling anything.

And so, Twitter welcomes it. I also think the other aspect of Twitter is its brevity. It encourages people to do small, weird little things in a small space and since Twitter is designed around the idea of a small space, the ability to experiment and do weird little experimental things I think is encouraged just by the fact that it is, is designed to be small.

Um, there are bots that tweet out weird little sentences, um, that they've created through some sort of algorithm. There's several bots that I enjoy that use emoji to create either a landscape, uh, one creates an art gallery, um, or they use Unicode characters. There is one that creates a little desert for example. And so all these small, little things, as little respites around all of the other noise of Twitter, I think work very well on a platform that's designed for small things.

Liam: There's something about the intentionality of creating a bot and even a language that we use to talk about bots that's making me want to separate this idea into as many small layers as possible and to inspect them all, so another layer that came to mind is that you are creating the code that creates this bot and the bot creates the art and then art can have many layers in itself based on the quantity and the nature and all of those kinds of things. But, the bot as an entity is also its own layer. Like we've conceptualized these as discrete entities somehow and I'm interested what you think about that.

BJ: Definitely. And again, it kind of goes to the dialogue that, you know, I've written and really they only cycle through the five puns that they have or anything, but you do kind of wind up anthropomorphizing them a little bit and thinking about them as their own beings. Another bot is called Arty Crush and it crushes the colors of images down to only eight colors and basically what it does is it pegs the red, green and blue, either to zero or 255, 255 being the max. And when you do that for all the permutations you wind up with eight colors.

The joke about that is that it makes it look like a very old school kind of computer image back when computers could only display four colors on their monitors. As a result, it's, that particular bot has a personality where it doesn't believe in anything past basically Windows 3.1. In fact, it hasn't even upgraded to Windows 3.1 yet.

And so, they are like they are entities and again you could program them to say whatever you would like, but even within them, they feel like they have individual personalities and it's difficult, I think, in some ways, to not think of them as people, which is strange and I don't mean people in the typical sense but perhaps as intelligences, even if they're intelligences that only do one very specific task. And now I don't know if we simply have a penchant for that and as people we like to humanize things and perhaps things we might not understand or if it's due to the particular dialogue.

But not just my bots but other bots too often have some sort of text that makes it sound like they are someone in additional to something and sometimes it's just as simple as a bot saying hi, uh, in response or something like, uh, your image is ready or here's what you asked for or something like that. But it implies there's a speaker there that's more than just the program itself.

Liam: Speaking of the things that we've encoded into these bots and also the things that we pick up from them in terms of their humanity or beingness, whether it's there or not, arty crush is perhaps averse to software updates. I'm wondering if bots can make their own editorial statements through the art that they create.

BJ: Yeah, I think there's kind of two layers there. One, and this is true of all bots and AI too is that your own interests and predilections are coded into them. And so for me, I love bright colors and I love abstract things and therefore I've coded bots that can do those things that I can't. You know, I love big, loud things and at some point some of the images they created are garish, frankly. And so, the personality of the creator winds up being in these bots and it will always reveal whatever it's created. There are a couple of bots out there that generate landscapes in a very soft way. Um, soft, uh, neutral colors, very closely related and they draw mountains. It's a very different experience than looking at one of my bots, which is loud and colorful. Those kind of bots are far much more contemplative experience.

On a larger level though, one of the things I like about the bots is simply the profess the value of creating art and constantly creating art. And the nice thing is that these bots, as long as they run, are not subject to any outside commentary, political movements or anything. All they're doing is creating art and it does not matter what's happening in the outside world, it doesn't matter what's politically happening in the US or the world or economically happening. By god, they are (laughs) gonna create art and they will do it on and on and on ad infinitum.

And I think there's something powerful in that idea that we might be able to learn from that which is we always have the ability to create and try to create something beautiful in the face of whatever external pressures we might be up against at the time. And, and so in some ways, I think these bots do have a, a vague sentiment, a vague political sentiment that art is meaningful, art is valuable and it is important to continue creating it regardless of whatever else is going on in the world.

Now, that might be a little heady and coming on a little strong but I do think there's some sort of idea there and I think that is a bit of an editorial commentary about the value of art and particularly in a platform like Twitter, which is a wash with politicians and celebrities that it's important to do other things, like create art.

Liam: That kind of leads into the next question that I have which is about your poetry and also the other work that you've made that's mediated by either code or AI and I'm interested specifically in the AI mediated poetry and how that intersects with the work that you've done that is not mediated by computers and how the meaning of that work is augmented by collaboration with computers.

BJ: Yeah, so what I've done is I've long been interested in how computers can write language and up until very recently, attempts to do that were pretty simple and followed simple templates and you could pretty easily tell what algorithms were being used and they wound up being very repetitive after a while.

With the rise of AI, all of the sudden computers can perform much more fluidly and write language that looks much more human than ever before. In fact, in the past, I tried to write a computer program that would write language based on frequency of letters of it wound up just writing this gibberish, like a Scandinavian language with a lot of vowels and things like that. (laughs) And so not very effective.

But, I discovered an AI library called Torch RNN and what Torch RNN does is it studies language. It knows nothing about language, but it studies a text and treats each character as a point. And so very similar to the arty bots in some ways, rather than looking at pixels, it's looking at individual characters. So that includes letters but it also includes things like spaces and punctuation.

And so I fed my own writing from the past 20 years into Torch RNN and the theory is if it studies it long enough it will start to be able to write words and also phrases, sentences, that look sort of like something that I may have written as my own poetry. And so it takes awhile to train the model so it can study all of this and figure out all the vectors between what letters go together but it was pretty cool. After awhile and after me dialing in the parameters pretty well, it started writing words and it started writing sentences and the sentences usually did not make logical sense, but it knew how to put a the in front of a noun, for example, or sometimes how to put a verb in the right place.

And it was very surprising to watch a computer kind of spit language back out. So what I wound up doing is taking that output, which often had some good things and some just clearly gibberish things and sometimes it would not make up words at all and it would just be letters on a page, and shaping that into a poem and as a result I wound up getting many of these poems published and they're very odd creations in that they look like poems and much of the language is language we're familiar with as in their words and we know what they mean, but the computer has no idea what they mean. It just knows patterns and it throws words together in a very interesting set of combinations. Nouns become verbs and vice versa and it generates this very kind of surreal landscape of language that makes sense on an intuitive level but doesn't always make sense on a literal level.

It's a very collaborative process 'cause I'm editing whatever it generated and in theory the computer took my original words and did something with them but overall I definitely view it as a collaboration between software and myself because it wrote things I would have never thought to write, it created words, it created images I would never have written myself and together we've created this strange dream scape, uh, in the form of poetry.

Liam: Have you ever been surprised by maybe some of the reflective opportunities or ideas that have been presented in these poems?

BJ: Definitely. That's my favorite part about working with these is how the computer program's gonna use language and how I can do that. And again, my favorite examples are simply taking nouns and turning them into verbs or vice versa. One example is sometimes it learned the word sword and I have no idea what poem I used the word sword in, but it wrote the line I'm sworded by your love and I don't exactly know what that means but I love the idea of taking a sword and somehow using it as a verb and applying it to how one might feel about loving somebody else. I'm sworded by your love. And that seems pretty powerful and pretty meaningful even though I can't quite literally articulate it.

Yeah, and I mean there's a hint of violence there but there's also a hint of just being cleaved by someone, that's how much you love them. And you know, we have the, uh, more connotations of sword as perhaps nobility, or that I'm willing to fight for you. There's a lot of things that we can bring to bear on that line (laughs) but yet it's not 100% clear exactly which one might be the right one.

For me, that was the most exciting part of this is using words and using lines that might mean something but that I don't quite know what they mean. You know, through our daily lives and all throughout school we're taught to write something and write clearly and write and have a point and it was very liberating to work with a thing here, a computer, that knew nothing about any of those rules. All it knew was mathematical patterns between letters and it created language that looked real but wasn't. Liam: I'm going to close by talking a little bit about the future of these sorts of creations and what direction this is all going in terms of the surprising nature of the collaborations that we have when creating art with computers, the venues where those collaborations take place and everything in between.

As AI continues to advance, artists will find more and more ways to incorporate it into their work. There's a really cool program called Runway that I believe might still be in beta, I haven't checked recently, but basically Runway is a program intended for artists to use artificial intelligence without having to get into the nitty gritty of managing packages and learning computer languages and that sort of stuff. It's a really incredible program.

Recently, I'm going back to that gallery exhibit that I mentioned, my colleague and I created a work called Torch Zone and it was four piece computer mediated work. It started with one of these poems that I had written through Torch RNN. I fed those poems into a program in Runway. The AI package is called... I don't quite know how to pronounce it, it's ATTNGAN A-T-T-N-G-A-N. But what it does is you feed words in and it attempts to paint a realistic picture based on the words. So if you typed a dog on a beach, it attempts to create a photorealistic picture like that.

Of course the poems don't make much sense on a literal level and therefore when you feed those into such a program it creates just these wonderful dream scapes that look, again, quasi real but clearly are not a realistic situation.

My colleague Joel then took, uh, the image and used it to create music based on an algorithm he created and he also used it to create a 3D printed sculpture. And so when you think of these things just as data, it's pretty interesting to imagine how data can be applied through different media in order to create different forms of art.

Beyond that, artists will find the use in this and I think what I see in most of the bots on Twitter and artists who are interested is that disconnect, that uncanny valley between what could a human do and what does a computer do? Because no matter how close it gets, and it's getting better all the time, artistically it's still almost always possible to find when a computer's made something versus a human. And it's the computer's attempts to try to make something human that for me are the area of artistic interest. Um, it's something humans can't do and it teaches us something about how we are human compared to how we are machines.

Liam: Yeah, I guess anything that a human would do is automatically human, even if we aren't attempting to be human. (laughs)

BJ: Yes, and again, it's the idea that these programs are created by humans but they're harnessing powers that humans don't have and it lives within this very, you know, awkward and someway cyber space of if a human has control over a computer but a computer doesn't understand what it means to be human, where does that leave that communication?

Liam: Yeah, all right, well thank you again BJ.

BJ: Wonderful, thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.

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