Maria Mavropoulou is a Contemporary Visual Artist and Photographer, based in Athens, Greece. She experiments with various mediums in photography, such as Virtual Reality, screen-captured images, and AI-generated images.
When and how did you first start to get into photography, and how did the themes you took photos of change over time?
Initially, I was trained as a painter during my studies at the School of Fine Arts of Athens. It wasn’t until my 3rd – 4th year that I discovered photography. After having spent many long hours of painting I learned to construct an image and achieve a photorealistic result with oil paints and brushes, a knowledge that I find very useful even today. Painting also formed the way I work, because in my mind I always start from the “white canvas” meaning that I always have to have an idea first, choose the tools that I will need and plan the way I’m going to do it in advance. What photography changed for me was the time needed to make an image, and the fact that this image wasn’t the end product but the starting point. I usually treat images as raw material, as a readymade, and I edit them in various ways in order to create the images I initially have in my mind.
Do you usually start with images or the concept when you approach a project? How did you become fascinated with AI, technology, and Algorithms?
In my works I always start from ideas and topics that concern me deeply and of course, those topics have changed over time. Since 2017, my MFA years, I became more and more interested in technology and there was this need that urged me to research further on this topic since it felt that it wasn’t just some part of our life but was totally shaping it. The series of work titled “Family Portraits” that I was working on at that time focused on how the connectible devices we use alter our way of connecting with other people and shift our experience of the physical world. The “Image Eaters” series questions the bidirectional relationship between the creators and the distributors of images, humans and algorithms in a poetic way. The “Tears Spit & Cum” series highlights the ability of our mind and our feelings to transcend the limitations of our body in the digital sphere. Other more recent works keep on exploring such topics from other angles. Today, my latest work (that is currently exhibited at MAST Foundation’s Photography Grant for Industry and Work exhibition in Bologna, Italy) I go a step further and collaborate with a text-to-image AI (Dalle-2 by OpenAI) to produce the artworks of the series “In their own Image, in the image of God, they created them”.
You combine Technology, mythology, and spirituality in your work. How does greek mythology influence your visual work?
I find mythology and religious stories very interesting because even if they are not true in a sense they carry through time ideas and beliefs that become embedded in our worldview. They have a kind of universality that I find very useful, because they function as a common ground between cultures and generations. Those stories express the need of humans to believe in some higher power and dictate the appropriate behavior in a given situation, or even justify unexplained situations before science was able to give the answers. In ancient cultures creation was always attributed to the divine. Those old stories attribute the creation of life, earth and of humankind to gods, also in ancient Greece, inspiration was granted to mortals by the Muses, and thus artists were considered vessels through which higher truths could be translated into an art form accessible to humans. In the series “ In their own Image, in the image of God they created them” I use AI to create images of industrial settings in order to reflect on the ability of AI to be a creator, a producer of ideas and of goods, and if that ability may elevate AI from being just a tool to something more powerful. I’m wondering if with such astounding abilities that in many cases overperform humans, are AIs restless slaves we exploit or the masters we obey?
Will ai replace artists in the future?
I guess we first have to answer the good old question of how and what we define as art and what makes one an artist. It probably depends on how much and in which direction AI is going to evolve. It’s interesting how in the Greek language the word art (τέχνη ) derives from the same source as the word technique (τεχνική). Funny enough the word technology (τεχνολογία) derives also from the same source! I think that as of technique, yes, it won’t take long until AI will be able to achieve any instructed outcome successfully. But art is much more than technique, I think this other component is the one that an AI will find very difficult to accomplish.
in your opinion, who is the author of A.I.-generated art? Is it the artist who ‘feeds’ the information, is it the machine or is it the programmer? How will AI influence art and the process of creation?
That’s the topic of a very vivid discussion currently and not only on an ethical level but on a legislative one too. Copyright and intellectual property rights are essential and should be clearly established for the thriving of this new field of co-creativity. In my opinion, in the field of art, AI is still used as a tool, a very smart tool that may do a big part of the creative task, but one that still needs instructions from a human user. Just as a photographer owns the rights to the image that he took but he doesn’t own any rights or ownership of the subjects or objects he photographs, as well as the company that produces the camera doesn’t own any rights to the image, I think that neither the programmer/ company nor the machine should own any rights to the generated image. Although I find it important to mention the AI that was used to generate an image along the name of its human creator. As I mentioned before, it seems that AI can do the “craft” part of an artwork, it can create an image in the style, color, aesthetic and light, that we instruct it, but what elevates an image into art are the meanings and ideas that it carries that arise in between the connections of the components of this image.
I think that when we overcome the fascination of the “easiness” to create impressive images with AI and get bored by the homogeneity of the results we’ll be eager again to look for truly personal styles that will answer the question of “why” than that of “how” we create.
in ‘Image Eaters’ you compare Algorithms with humans that need to be fed. What further analogies have you found between the human body and algorithms? Do you believe that AI can have a soul?
Well, as the title of my last work implies (“In their own Image, in the image of God, they created them”) I think that indeed, there are many analogies between us. Firstly, the fact that all these machines are trained on human data and are asked to perform tasks that humans can do is already saying a lot about how “lookalike” to humans we expect AI to be. In terms of behavior, wasn’t it always a machine’s goal to pass the Turing test? As of structure, we base the architecture of those beings on our own form and biology. Reviewing the history of the development of artificial intelligence clearly reveals that brain science has resulted in breakthroughs in AI, such as deep learning. We also use the same terminology in both fields, e.g., we call neural network a series of algorithms that sorts data through a process that mimics the way the human brain operates. Also, we both need energy to function, even though we get it from food and they consume electricity. Furthermore, another very interesting evolutionary fact I found recently was that facial recognition is so important for humans that we have a specific area in our brain dedicated to this task, the fusiform gyrus, and the first thing a baby recognises is its parent’s face. Respectively, the first field of machine vision that evolved was face recognition.
Of course, it’s undeniable that despite the similarities there are some key differences between humans and machines. No matter how alike they get to look and act there will always be a fundamental distinction between a species that has that thing we call the soul that separates the dead from the alive (and that we share with all the living beings on our planet – even with the ones that don’t look much like us, like bacteria and viruses) and one that lacks it.
what do you do when you feel uninspired?
Through the years I have realized that inspiration and creativity come in circles. At times that I feel stuck or uninspired I focus more on organizing my work and ideas, getting administrative and promotional work done, asking for some feedback and of course taking some time off in order to come back with fresh eyes. Also, a good read or further research seems to always help me get out of the creative dead-end. I think the time we spend imputing information and experiences that shape our artistic practice is critical for the quality of work that we produce. I used to struggle during my least creative times and question my abilities as an artist, but now I have embraced those moments and find the time between the creative periods equally useful. After all, we are not machines that can or have to be creative all the time.