Work / Digital

Anna Ridler uses AI to turn 10,000 tulips into a video controlled by bitcoin

Anna Ridler is an artist whose work uses technology, in particular machine learning. Unlike many projects in that sphere, which are used to rehash new and remix existing ideas and visuals, Anna is not using AI simply because it’s available to her.

“I think about what it can do and how it can add to what I’m making,” the London-based artist tells us. “What are the associations and connotations of using it? How can all of these different things go in and help amplify or construct the message or the thing I’m interested in and make it conceptually stronger?” Having studied at UAL, the RCA and Oxford, Anna is a considered artist whose work is posing fascinating questions about how technology will integrate into our lives in future, while reminding us of the human behind every piece of tech.

The bulk of Anna’s recent practice has focussed around tulips and the “tulip mania” that swept the Netherlands and much of Europe in the 1630s, when the price of tulips soared before dramatically crashing. She then recreates this in an algorithmic context. So far the project has taken on three forms: Mosaic Virus, Myriad (Tulips) and Bloemenveiling.

Anna initially had the idea for Mosaic Virus – a video work generated by an artificial intelligence – but in order to complete the project had to first create her own dataset (or training set, as it’s sometimes referred to). Amazingly, to do so, she took 10,000 photos of tulips and it’s here where the crux of what makes Anna’s work so interesting first arises. “The reason I stopped making my dataset was because tulip season ended – so even though it’s a very digital piece, it was very much driven by the rhythms of nature.” This dataset, which in turn became a work in its own right titled Myriad (Tulips) was then categorised by hand and fed to an algorithm.

The result is Mosaic Virus, a project which draws parallels between tulip mania and the speculation currently surrounding cryptocurrencies. The video shows a tulip blooming, an updated Dutch still life for the 21st century, where the appearance of the tulip is controlled by the price of bitcoin, becoming more striped as the price of bitcoin goes up – it was these same coveted stripes that once triggered tulip mania. These stripes were caused by a virus which affected the bulbs known as the mosaic virus and it was a lack of understanding of what was causing the stripes that led, as legend tells it, to tulips being sold for the price of a house. Anna explains: “I wanted to draw together ideas around capitalism, value, and the tangible and intangible nature of speculation, and collapse from two very different yet surprisingly similar moments in history.”

She continues: “It felt appropriate to use machine learning as a material – this piece is about bubbles and speculation and AI is in its own bubble at the moment. But moreover, there are interesting technical aspects that echo the concept. I also wanted to use GANs, not merely as a tool, but as another way of understanding the subject matter.” GANs are generative adversarial networks, in which two neural networks contest with each other in a game, given a training set; this technique learns to generate new data with the same statistics as the training set. GANs have a tendency to seem like they are improving and then suffer “mode collapse”, just like markets do. In Mosaic Virus, therefore, the AI’s pursuit of the perfect tulip, before its eventual collapse, mirrors the ups and downs of speculative bubbles. “So as a material, it is echoing its subject matter,” Anna adds.

Having completed Mosaic Virus (and Myriad (Tulips) along with it), Anna began a continuation of the work in the form of Bloemenveiling in collaboration with David Pfau. “_Blomenveiling_ is the creation of a technological marketplace for artificial tulips, echoing the auctions that sprung up in taverns throughout Holland at the height of tulip mania,” Anna explains. Short moving clips of the tulips were created by the AI and will be sold at an auction using Ethereum (a cryptocurrency) on the blockchain. The piece interrogates the way technology drives human desire and economic dynamics by creating artificial scarcity. This is because, once sold, the tulips mimic nature, blooming (playing) for a week before disappearing. “In this way, the decay and impermanence of the natural world are reintroduced into the digital world,” Anna continues, summing up what her practice is ultimately concerned with.

While Blomenveiling is a fascinating look at how our economy may develop thanks to the current mania surrounding blockchain and cryptocurrency, it injects the organic into an abstract sphere. Where Myriad (Tulips) and Mosaic Virus are excellent exercises in using technology for visual gain, they are most interesting because the former was categorised by hand, an act which once again forces an interesting overlap of the digital and the natural. It confronts viewers with the human elements of technology and data, reminding us that data is physical, that it started in the real world. In turn, it’s a reminder that we have agency over how it will progress and, therefore, a responsibility to make sure it progresses in an ethical manner.

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Anna Ridler: Myriad (Tulips)

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Anna Ridler: Myriad (Tulips)

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Anna Ridler: Myriad (Tulips)

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Anna Ridler: Myriad (Tulips)

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Anna Ridler: Blomenveiling