Sofia Crespo - Artificial Life
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the MTF Podcast. Now, if you find yourself on Instagram and you’re looking for something other than the children, pets, and meals of friends and family, the privileged lives of the famous, the heavily filtered images of people who are good at wearing clothes, or - if you’re like me - vintage hi-fi gear, then you might find yourself looking at generative visual art. And as you scroll through the abstract designs, hypnotic pulses, and seizure-inducing strobes, you might see something that looks almost, but not quite, like a cross-breed between a penguin and a fluorescent blue slug, or an anatomically unlikely cicada, a fractal parrot, a melty squid, or a patchwork butterfly. If so, then chances are you’ve found the art of Berlin-based AI artist Sofia Crespo.
With the help of machine intelligence, Sofia creates artificial life. She joined us to do that at MTF Aveiro in Portugal last year, and she’s started collaborations with other MTFers, not so much to play god, but - to mangle the theology of the metaphor - maybe to act as one of his elves in the living organism toy workshop. Okay, this all breaks down a little bit, but you get the idea. She uses thinking computers to make what you might call speculative creatures, and then she brings them to life.
Dubber Sofia Crespo, thanks so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast. I was going to say “How are you doing?”, but you’re not doing very well.
Sofia Yeah, I’m not. I’m a bit ill right now, but, nevertheless, thank you so much for having me here.
Dubber You’re welcome. And you’re a hospital escapee.
Dubber You have to tell that story.
Sofia I left the hospital yesterday. I got very anxious after being there for eight hours, waiting, and alone in a room in isolation. I feel terrible for their hospital staff, though. And the police came looking for me, and it was a first. First time running away from hospital for me.
Dubber It’s good that you can laugh about it and that, I know you say you’re unwell, but you tested negative for COVID. You have a bit of a fever, but you’re not bleeding to death or anything like that.
Sofia No, but I’m worried that I might have tuberculosis.
Dubber Oh, really? Oh my god.
Sofia Yeah. So that’s something that is also a first. I have all the symptoms, but I haven’t been tested for it.
Dubber Wow. And that’s why they were quite keen for you to stay in the hospital.
Sofia Yeah. Well, mainly because of COVID because they were worried that I have COVID. But I was in the ER station, so they don’t do TB tests there. They were just worried about something very acute. But, yeah, it’s strange. The only things I know about tuberculosis are that it’s a very old disease that used to kill a lot of people back in the day before there was a cure.
Dubber Sure, yeah. The only thing I know about it is that you’re meant to take it seriously. You seem fine, but I’m not a doctor.
Sofia Yeah. That’s why I went to the ER in the first place. But it’s a strange time to have that because obviously COVID is the main priority right now as a health emergency.
Dubber Wow. Well, I really hope you’re okay. It puts a slightly different slant on the whole interview.
Sofia Oh my god.
Dubber But let’s assume you’re okay and start with what you do is you make artificial life.
Sofia I do.
Dubber Which is to say you’re an artist that uses AI to create living creatures. What does that mean? What does that look like?
Sofia Yeah. Well, in a way, it depends. There are many things to unpack, like how do we perceive life, what do we see as life, and where does life even begin for us? So what I do is just things that simulate, on a very high level, so to say, what life looks like to us when digitised. So I’m exploring that threshold of where human perception sees something that looks alive and how all those patterns are recognised by our brains. So that’s the bit that I’m really interested in. And when we look at an image, for example, how can we tell “Okay. This looks like this image contains life or a lifeform or something that looks like what I know could be alive in the natural world.”. And there’s a threshold between knowing what that thing is and not knowing, not being able to match it to something specific, and I love that place. An uncanny or visual indeterminacy.
Dubber Wow. When I went to high school, which was a very long time ago, there were these things that we were told about how you know if something has life, and it was like “It moves. It responds. It breathes, for the most part.”, but you could say that looking at a cartoon of an imaginary creature. Somebody could just draw something and over several frames make it appear to do those things. What’s different about what you do?
Sofia So I don’t draw things by hand. I’m terrible at drawing. So I use an algorithm - or several algorithms, not a single one - to be assisted. A generative workflow. I’m really interested in the automation of processes. So how, as artists, we don’t need to anymore do something by hand, but we can code or create an algorithm or reuse an algorithm that somebody else created and use it to automate a process such as creating a pattern. So what I can do is create a data set instead of creating the image or painting the image. I make a data set of hundreds or sometimes thousands or sometimes even hundreds of thousands of images, and then I train a machine learning model based on that. And then I can tell to that model “Okay. Now generate a one-hour video.”, or a thirty-second video or ten-hour video.
Dubber So when you say you start with a hundred thousand images, these are images of a particular creature type, or…
Dubber So, for example…
Sofia So, for example, recently I trained two models. One on caterpillars and another one on butterflies. And I wanted to create that transition between caterpillars and butterflies to visually explore that transition of how a caterpillar gets its whole body reassembled inside of this cocoon, and then everything liquefies to become a butterfly and be able to fly and live a completely different stage of their life. So for that, I made two data sets, and I trained two models, and then I made them connect to each other to transition from one to another in the closest visual reference that they have. So, yeah, that’s one example of what I…
Dubber Sure. I’m really interested, is it the biological life that you’re interested in or is it the intellectual life of the machine when it processes those things and comes up with its own version?
Sofia So I’m interested in both things, actually. From the algorithmic perspective, I’m interested in how we developed neural networks based on neuroscientific research, inspired by neuroscientific research, and the idea that neurons are interconnected, and the whole point is that they build a network to transfer information from one to another and that there’s a larger emergence that happens from that interconnectivity between each single neuron. So from that perspective, I find it fascinating that we managed to extract a model of an algorithm and that we can use it now for computer science and artistic applications. So that’s one thing.
But then on the other hand, I’m really interested as well in biology and to learn about nature, and also biology as a human study. How we created biology - biology is a human-created thing - to understand and organise, make sense of the natural world. So I also think that’s a fascinating thing to learn about.
Dubber For sure. So your interest is in both the computer-generated life idea but also the exploration of biology also for your own interest. What is it you think that people who look at your images and look at your videos should get out of it? Are you trying to communicate something to them? Is there something that people say that they get out of it? Are you not interested in that?
Sofia Yeah. To some extent, what I want to communicate is intuitive. So part of it, I say “Okay, this is what I want to talk about. I want to open a dialogue about this.”, and sometimes I just do something and I don’t really know why, but it feels right to do that.
And I love having a dialogue with people when they see the work. I think that an artwork is not just made of one part. The creator doing it. It’s made of two parts. The person observing it. And that’s why I think it’s so important to see art as a human thing. We consume art, and art is made for us to consume. We don’t make art for an algorithm to consume, at least yet.
Dubber Or another species, for that matter.
Sofia Exactly, yes. Or another species.
Sofia And I think… Well, a lot of the time, people find patterns that I didn’t see there before. So people say “Oh, there’s a rabbit there in the middle of this picture.”, and I’m like “Where?”, and they have to help me find it. And I love that, how different minds see things and find patterns. That’s one of the most rewarding things for me, to interact with other minds in that way.
Dubber Are you a computer scientist who makes art, or are you an artist who uses computer science?
Sofia I’m an artist who uses computer science.
Dubber Very much art out at the forefront.
Dubber So you could be an artist who uses other tools, is what you’re saying.
Dubber Right. Because at MTF in Aveiro last year, you joined us, and you collaborated with some people, and it became a musical performance and a responsive video. Is music an element of what you do, and in what way do you think about it being included in that dialogue between the biology and the algorithm?
Sofia It’s fascinating. I am not a music artist myself, but it’s something that in the past years I’ve been feeling more and more interested in from the collaborative perspective. Working with music artists and hearing the world the way they hear it or… It’s a different medium. It’s a different way of perception of the world, and I love the combination of visual and sound together. Somehow, my work feels a lot more complete when I work with music artists or sound artists.
Dubber Fantastic. It seems like your medium is also Instagram.
Sofia Yes, definitely.
Dubber And that this is somewhere where your work has a natural fit. Was that a platform just ready-made for somebody like you?
Sofia So I wasn’t feeling that comfortable with Instagram before the whole COVID pandemic happened. I was shy. I used Instagram, but the whole situation of not being able to interact with people so often pushed me to look for a channel where I felt comfortable. And Twitter makes me anxious. Even though there’s lots of interesting things, there’s also a very engineering-focused approach to machine learning, and that makes me anxious because many times I share something and it’s all seen as a technical demo rather than art, and that isn’t what I want to do. And so on Instagram, there’s more of an artist community, and there’s more of a… I found a more positive community, and supportive.
So I think I had to adapt myself to Instagram more than Instagram being made for someone like me. I’m quite shy, so I had to make an effort to stay engaged and share. And eventually, it became rewarding, actually.
Dubber Well, for somebody who’s quite shy, you do seem to collaborate. Do you want to talk about how you work with… I’m thinking of Feileacan in particular - Feileacan McCormick - and how you work with him, and how that collaboration and other collaborations work for somebody like you.
Sofia Yeah. So we actually originally met on social media, on Twitter, and on Instagram too. We connected there, and I saw his work with photogrammetry. He was, two years ago, scanning a series of trees, and I thought that was amazing. He was scanning really old trees, like thousand years old, and opening up a conversation about how these trees have seen several generations of humans living and giving them a digital archive. And when we met, that was one of the first things we started talking about. How are we archiving nature? How are we digitally representing nature? And it was a natural thing. I introduced him to machine learning, and he immediately clicked with it, and then suddenly he was teaching me things.
So eventually, we started this studio together called Entangled Others, and the whole idea of that studio is to create a space for representing biodiversity digitally and to open up a conversation around new technologies and biodiversity. And it has enriched me so much, to the point that now I don’t imagine working in a non-collaborative way anymore. I love collaborating with people, and we’ve been making a team. We’re trying to include more and more people to it.
Dubber As far as the biodiversity thing is concerned, do you see your work as part of an ecological campaign? Are you trying to do awareness-raising or bring people’s attention to particular issues in ecology or things like that, or does it just happen to be about species of animals that may or may not exist?
Sofia So the message has been evolving, in a way. When it started, it was more about the joy of the digital, joy of the natural world, and then eventually it became more opening a conversation about how we exist in relationship to others, how we exist in ecosystems, not as isolated creatures, but then also opening the conversation about how machine learning and new technologies are being used. So how AI isn’t this thing that is just biased and categorising humans and used for evil, so to say, and how these technologies have applications to and have potential to open up a conversation about these things that from what we see in the media seem unimaginable at first. So that became our goal, to appropriate these technologies for representing nature digitally.
Dubber I’m wondering how you get to the point where you’re somebody who makes artificial life for a living and what the journey is that takes you there. What sort of kid were you, for instance, and - here’s an interesting thought - what do your parents do, and has that had any effect on where you’ve ended up?
Sofia Oh, definitely. My parents have been such a big influence. So my mum is an environmental law researcher. She researches how big companies have an impact on the environment and laws of deforestation, etc. And my dad is a former sea captain. So he used to go on very, very long trips around the world when I was little, and he brought me things from different parts of the world and told me all these stories about the sea. And eventually, I ended up doing something that’s a blend of both, in a way. I have this fascination with the sea and with sea creatures, and at the same time also this concern about the environment and the more critical thought that my mum taught me.
Dubber And where did the art thing come from?
Sofia I think originally it became a way of coping with the world. I think that I was a little bit depressed when I was younger, and art became my way of coping. A place where I felt really liberated. And originally it was a form of self-expression. I was writing a lot. I used to write poetry, and then short stories. And then it all became existential - this writing - for a while, and then I used to have an open blog where I wrote my thoughts. Then I went to university for literature for two years, and then I dropped out because I wanted to live somewhere else in the world. And then I moved to New Zealand and eventually to Europe and ended up in Germany for the longest.
Dubber What was the starting point? Where were you originally going to university doing literature?
Sofia I was going to university in Buenos Aires. That’s where I come from, from Buenos Aires, Argentina. And I was very interested in philosophy and history of art, and I loved reading and thinking about existentialism back then. I was eighteen.
Dubber From that, New Zealand seems like a strange choice. I’m from there. So what took you there?
Sofia Well, what took me there was that, back then, there was a working holiday visa for Argentinians, and there was a community around that. And also it was a very far away place. I was a teenager still, so I wanted to go somewhere very far away that was still safe and where I could take some time and be with nature. And I didn’t get the working holiday visa at all, but I ended up going anyway, and it was an amazing time.
Dubber Where did you go, just out of curiosity? This might not even make it into the podcast. I’m just curious. What was your favourite part, and why is it Auckland?
Sofia Oh, god. It wasn’t Auckland at all.
Dubber Ah, what a shame.
Sofia I think my favourite part… Oh my god. There were so many amazing places that I’ve been to. I remember… Well, I was in Auckland for a very short time. That’s where I landed, and then I went directly to… What was the name? Oh, god. It started with T.
Dubber Well, there’s lots. Tauranga?
Sofia Tauranga, yes. I went there and saw the volcano. Oh, god. The volcanos were amazing. And Rotorua. I think Rotorua was my favourite place because it’s all volcanic. It has this very strong smell when you arrive there, and there was also a family that kind of adopted me. It was a bit crazy. This family of a Māori lady married to a Scottish man, and they became my grandparents, in a way.
Dubber That’s fantastic. It’s such a lovely place. That’s something I can believe happens there. But you’re right. The geothermal activity there… I can see the bubbling mud pools almost in the work that you’ve created, since some of the work that you did in Aveiro, which was based on local life forms, but it has this bubbling quality to it where it moves and thrives.
Dubber I like that that’s part of the story. You’re in Berlin now. Is that correct?
Sofia Yes, now I’m in Berlin, and I’ve been here the longest.
Sofia I think when I moved to Germany, I really liked that Germany… Well, at least for somebody who comes from Argentina, it seemed like a much more feminist country to live in. And when I arrived to Berlin, I felt liberated, like this was a place where I could be an artist if I wanted to and nobody would judge me for it, and I could be unemployed for a while and figuring out what to do with my life if I wanted and nobody would judge me for it. At the time, I was completely broke, didn’t know what to do, and I needed a supportive space. Berlin seemed welcoming and interesting, and I ended up staying here.
Dubber And there’s certainly no shortage of interesting people to work with there.
Sofia Yeah, definitely.
Dubber That’s really interesting. Let’s go back to your work for a bit. The fact that you’re a digital artist and the things that you make are all in the digital domain, I wonder if you see gallery exhibitions or photography books or anything like that, these tangible things, as a valid expression of your work. Are you interested in doing those sorts of things?
Sofia Definitely. This year, we opened up an exhibition which we unfortunately couldn’t go to see in person, but we made a sculptural piece, and I’m really, really fascinated in the transformation of a digital piece into a physical one.
So something that I’ve been working on as well, I also worked with the cyanotype technique, which is a very old technique for printing - one of the first printing techniques that existed from the nineteenth century - and I use it to print the pieces that I generate with machine learning. So there’s a cross between a really new technique that you can only use now with a very, very old way of printing.
Dubber And, of course, the conversation around digital art right now is about NFTs. Is this something that you’ve become interested in or that you’re exploring?
Sofia Yeah. So we started putting NFTs out there I think… Well, a few years ago. I think in 2019, were the first ones. But then lately, there’s been a very large discussion about environmentalism and NFTs, and I’m torn between both things. On one hand, I really care about the environment and I really care about the CO emissions, but on the other hand, I really care about the artists and how they’ve been affected by the pandemic situation, and I think that it’s really important to not shame artists for putting their work for sale. I stand somewhere in the middle where I think it’s really important to allow artists to sell their work. And I think that artists are usually a vulnerable part of society because to make art, you’re supposed to create without an intent of selling. There’s all this societal baggage that gets thrown at artists. And at the same time, you’re also not supposed to sell your art digitally because that’s polluting or whatever. So there’s a very high moral bar for artists, in a way.
Dubber For sure. For people who haven’t been following this closely, do you have a short description of what NFTs are and how they work?
Sofia Yeah. NFTs basically are using a smart contract or a blockchain protocol to sell. So you can monetise out of a digital piece because there’s a token that is uniquely generated for that single piece, so that allows to trace back originality of an artwork, and that’s a very crucial part of selling a digital asset. And NFTs stand for non-fungible tokens. That means that once you generate that token, it cannot be broken into several pieces. You cannot sell one pixel of that artwork to somebody else because it’s supposed to stay all together, so to say. So that’s the concept. Hope I explained it correctly.
Dubber Yeah. So also you can have millions of copies of that same image, but only one of them is the authentic original, and that’s the one that has the NFT associated with it.
Dubber Yeah. It’s really interesting. And, of course, when people have these conversations that say “Artists shouldn’t be doing this because it’s environmentally unfriendly and it uses X, Y, Z amounts of energy.” overlooks the fact that when artists have exhibitions in other countries, they have to put their work on planes, they have to fly there, people come in from all over the world in cars, etc.
Dubber So, obviously, there seems to be some sort of trade-off there. But it’s an interesting… Is digital artist something that is yet recognised as a thing that you can be in a way that… Because I know some years ago, it really wasn’t considered a legitimate description.
Sofia Right. It’s weird to say this, but in some strange way, thanks to NFTs, I think digital art is becoming more of a legitimate thing to do. But weirdly enough, I’ve had people… I had exhibitions where I set up my work and physical exhibitions at the very beginning, I think in 2018, where people came and saw my art, and they said “How do you even make a living, if you don’t mind me asking?”. I was like “Well, where do I begin? I don’t make too much of a living, but I do what I love.”.
But also doing AI art is a weird subset of digital art in itself. A large part of society still thinks that AI art is basically you sitting in a room pushing a button and the AI does everything for you and that there is no human intervention there. So it’s a clash of new things that… What’s it called? There are new jobs that didn’t exist some years ago, right?
Sofia My parents took a while to understand what I was doing.
Dubber But they’re on board now?
Sofia Yes, definitely.
Dubber Fantastic. So this question of AI and creativity is a really interesting one. Like you said, people imagine that you just press a button and then a clever machine goes and does all the artwork for you, but also it raises this idea of the relationship between machine creativity, I guess is the term. Is there a point at which there is actually some genuine creativity going on within the machine itself?
Sofia Right. I think a crucial part of creativity comes from iterations, like having so many iterations from a single idea and exploring all the ramifications that one idea could have, and that’s something where assistive creativity helps a lot. If I want to create a jellyfish arrangement of tendrils and whatever on an image, I can, with the generative art workflow, create a thousand, two thousand iterations if I want and then choose from one of them.
And there is something as well that I really love that Vera Molnár, who is one of the mothers of generative art, I would say, if not the mother of generative art, she says that there is something to the element of randomness that really helps to the human creativity. So seeing something that one wasn’t expecting to see suddenly can help a human think of something else. I don’t know if I’m making justice to her exact words, but I feel really inspired by that. The element of randomness in what I do.
Dubber Yeah. It’s interesting because one of the things that occurs to me is if your method is to put images into an algorithm that says “Process these images and then generate something that you’ve learned from looking at those images and create a new image.”… I don’t know how well I’m characterising that, but that seems to be the process.
Dubber I imagine the next step could be you take all of the ones that you’ve selected as works that you want to display and you feed them back into this algorithm and go “This is how Sofia Crespo thinks about art. Make me more Sofia Crespo artworks.”. Is that a possible next step?
Sofia Definitely. You could take all the works that are done as the data set and then create something that… Or you can predict what I will create next.
Dubber Right. So, actually, your greatest artwork could be a machine that generates your artworks.
Sofia Definitely. But I personally think that, to me, it is a personal exploration, and there is a lot of work that the humans do. So, in a way, I feel like it isn’t the machine making the artwork for me. It is me making it and using a tool that we haven’t used long enough that we still attribute lots of sentience to it, in a way, but it isn’t sentient at all. Or at least that’s how I see it.
Dubber Not yet.
Sofia We’ve had discussions about this. Not yet.
Dubber Not yet. It’s really interesting. So my other question would be the extent to which you’re going deeper and deeper into a particular subject, this relationship between computer life and biological life and how those things think about each other, if you like, in a visual form. Do you think of that as going deeper and deeper into a subject as it seems to me, or are you going across in breadth and going, for instance, “Today, I’m doing caterpillars and butterflies, and next week, I’m doing frogs and lizards.”? Is that your domain and you’re tunnelling down into it, or are you going “Well, what’s going to take my curiosity next? What’s over there?”, and could it go beyond biology in that respect?
Sofia It’s both things together. On one extent, I feel like I took on a focus. The nature and the relationship to nature in a digital space became my focus, and it has brought me so much joy to work on that. I’ve had different artist faces where my focus point was completely different, and it didn’t bring me that much joy. And at some point, I decided “Okay, this is going to be my focus point. I’m happy with this, and I’m also curious to dive deeper into it.”. So I feel like I’m constantly learning. I could learn tomorrow something new, and that would spiral me down to create a new series dedicated to that.
And at the same time, my work has become more human as well. Originally, I didn’t want to talk very much about humans. But eventually, I ended up talking more about how humans represent data about nature online, how we think of AI, what it represents in society, and it has slowly become more and more social, in a way, which I wasn’t expecting at all.
And now, I’m even generating stories. Well, it’s a collaboration. I’m not doing it alone. We’re a collaborative team where we’re generating stories. Generative micro-documentaries of one minute. We use David Attenborough’s AI voice to narrate them.
Dubber Fantastic. So you’re part of this collaborative team. Are you also part of an art scene? Is there a group of people around the world who do things that could be broadly categorised as a movement that you’re part of?
Sofia I think it’s a movement, yeah. I think AI art is the larger subset of digital art, and then there’s also gradually more and more nature digital art. Digital art that talks about nature and that opens up a conversation about it. And I’ve seen more and more of that, which makes me really happy because I don’t think that nature and technology need to be separate from each other, that to experience nature, you have to be without any technology or that if you’re experiencing technology, you cannot have nature in it. So I feel like that’s definitely going to become an art movement if it isn’t already.
Dubber What does success look like? How do you know when you’re operating at peak acclaim or peak success in terms of your art? Is that already happening, or is that something that you see as a particular goal? That you’ll know that’s true when this, this, and this are true.
Sofia So on a general level, yes. It depends which day you ask me this question. If you ask me on a day where I have a million bugs to fix and nothing is working, then I might say I don’t feel like I reached success. But I think it’s very social, again. It’s a feeling of being able to inspire others. It’s a feeling, as well, of open up about something that was important to me, so there’s a healing process as well.
In a way, art is a practice because you’re constantly practising it. And it feels like when you think you got good at it, you always need to keep practising. So that’s the fun of it, learning continuously. And I don’t have a specific point that I say “Okay. When I reach that, I will stop.”. I imagine to keep making art until the very last moment of my life, hopefully.
Dubber And hopefully that’s a long way away and not at the other end of…
Sofia Oh, yeah. Not tuberculosis.
Dubber Exactly, yeah. It’s really interesting. So, well, hopefully a long and healthy career. It’s really good to talk to you, Sofia.
Sofia Thank you.
Dubber I really appreciate you joining us for the podcast today. And good luck with your police encounters and your hospital runaway experience. At least you’ll have a fantastic biography to write when people are doing a retrospective of your work.
Sofia I’ve heard that a few times. Thank you.
Dubber That’s Sofia Crespo, and that’s the MTF Podcast. And if you’re worried about her health, it’s okay. I checked. It was a mystery. It went on for far too long, but she’s feeling much better since that interview was recorded. You can find Sofia’s work online @soficrespo91 on Instagram - I’m going to link to that in the show notes - and www.sofiacrespo.com. I’m Dubber, @dubber on Twitter. MTF Labs is at www.mtflabs.net and @mtflabs all over social media. Thanks as always to the team - Sergio Castillo, Mars Startin, Jen Kukucka, Run Dreamer - and to FadedAeon and airtone for the music. That’s it for this week. Stay safe, it’s not all over yet, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.