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At the weekend my step son-in-law (I don't really know how to describe him, as his mother-in-law and I aren't actually married, it just makes it easier) showed me the AI image creation platform Dall-E 2, which can create art from a text description. It is truly amazing and also fascinating and scary. What you do is write a text description such as "A female dancer holding a wine glass in the cubist style of Georges Braque," and this is what you get:


My initial reaction was, obviously "Wow!" But then the fear kicked in.


I've been reading a lot about NFTs recently, and probably along with many artists of my generation, don't really get how money can be made from a digital image that is never made concrete. Surely, art has to be a physical entity? .... Or does it? But I was a bit fascinated with Dall-E, so I decided to sign up yesterday and see what it could do for me. The fake Braque was my first effort and obviously you'd be done for plagiarism if you tried to claim it as your own digital art (wouldn't you?), but then I wondered whether I could upload one of my own photographs and place some kind of AI generated image in it. This is my image, a night shot of a shop window taken early Saturday evening while mooching around Brighton with the family and new grandson.


Like the Braque, I wrote "A picture of a dancer in a red dress in an art shop in Brighton." And this is what happened:



You can make variations on the original and this was one of them. But is it art? Not really.The imaging isn't good enough yet for it to be considered a good photo editing tool, but I can see a lot of potential. In fact I rather like this. There were also about twelve others.


Obviously, this is my first brush with AI and I realise I'm already a bit late in the day to waffle on about the use of AI in art, but what do people think? Whatever, I'm going to mess about with it a bit more so I'll probably return to the subject later.


But here's another question about art:


Having already been a working professional artist for over 35 years, my lovely partner is currently in the middle of her Fine Art MA and we often end up talking about current trends and even the thorny old question of what 'art' actually is. She's a painter and tends towards the figurative, which is apparently a bit untrendy at the moment - she's a big fan of Lucien Freud. Most of her fellow MA students are young enough to be her kids and many of them are 'conceptual'. Very few of them draw or paint, which often leads us into discussions - usually about 5.00 am in the morning, about the validity of what she does. Here's an example:


This is Cat, a dancer who participated in our massive lockdown work "The House of Mercy Project". I won't describe it here as it's on the website and you can see the promo video on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_FB1YS_n3s.


Our latest early morning discussion was precisely about whether 'traditional' painting as she practises, is becoming passé. I don't think it is, but suggested that with contemporary concepts of conceptual art being so broad, perhaps just having the idea counts as art. I mean why is a Marina Abramovic event considered art? Or, Michael Landy, destroying all his worldly goods?


But I'm getting ahead of myself. We were discussing the piece she... I'll give her a name: Jeannie, is creating for her final show, which won't actually be painting - but will it be art?


Jeannie's been painting dancers for a few years now and is fascinated by movement. She's also fascinated by choreographic notation and having seen the work of Rudolf Laban and the American free-form dancerTrisha Brown, wondered whether it could be considered visual art.

Here's Laban with his choreographic notation.


Being a non-dancer, she wondered whether it would be possible to create her own visual language of choreography and have some dancers move to it. As a singer she also waned to create her own vocal soundscape, so we went into the studio.


In my studio I use Protools and if you know the recording software, you'll know that the audio tracks are represented in different colours. What Jeannie wanted to do was record six random vocal tracks, resisting any attempt at harmony. When she saw the colours of the tracks, she also realised they were divided into bars that looked like tiles. "What would happen if we removed some of the tiles?" She said. So we did, and this is what it looks like.




This geometric pattern represents a very abstract soundscape of vocal noises and clicks and lasts about four minutes. The plan would then be to assign a colour to each of six dancers who would then move to the soundscape. But:


Is this pattern visual art? Is it visual art because it's an idea. Could it be interpreted as choreography? Or does it matter? We discussed many options.


Obviously, one could ask a choreographer to create some movement to the sounds but:

  1. Should each dancer only move when they hear their sound?

  2. Should each dancer have a specific sound and movement and only move when they heard their sound?

  3. And if so, what would they do in between?

  4. As a dancer, would it be difficult to distinguish your sound among the general cacophony?

  5. Could one use headphones like a silent disco?

We asked ourselves all these questions before deciding to keep it simple (and cheap) and simply ask the dancers to create choreography to the entire piece.


But is it art?


I would argue that it is because it is the artists's imagination that created a soundscape that became a visual pattern, that gave rise to an aural and visual stimulus for choreography that in itself would be a visual representation of the artist's imagination. In other words, an idea.


From this premise, if having the idea is stimulus to art, can my attempt at mixing a photograph I 'created' with an AI imagined dancer be considered art? I would say not, in this instance, it's just me messing about with a new toy. Although as I note above, I believe Jeannie's experiment can be considered art, because it ultimately is the physical manifestation of a creative process.


So where does that leave NFTs? I really don't know about that one. Much of what I have seen is kitsch rubbish but having dipped my toe in the waters of AI, the idea is beginning to intrigue me.


What I do reject, however, is the idea that in the future, traditional art forms such as painting and photography will become obsolete. I mean, we're getting back into vinyl now aren't we?

If you get this far, I'd love to have your opinions and start a discussion.


Cheers


Phil

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Yesterday, Hull Truck Theatre held a poetry event partly celebrating contemporary Hull poetry but more especially honouring the life and work of my soon to be 100 year-old father-in-law, Maurice Rutherford, who some call the 'other' Hull poet, even though Larkin wasn't from Hull. Among the performers was the folk-singer and songwriter, Eliza Carthy who had been asked to set parts of one of Maurice's poems to music. For me, it just didn't work. Not because Eliza did anything wrong, she's great and I'm sure many people thought it was wonderful, but I've just never been a fan of setting poetry to music. Even in the late 60s and early 70s, when I was getting into poetry readings and what used to be called AgitProp theatre, I never liked the combination of poetry and music. I remember at our uni folk club, which allowed such things, people reading poems accompanied by someone making squeaking noises on a saxophone. I've even accompanied poetry readings on guitar myself. But even then, and I may be being particularly luddite, I feel a poem is a poem and a song is a song and although it may be possible to set a poem to music and make a song out of it, twanging or honking alongside a piece of spoken word is just a distraction. I either want to hear the musician or the poet, not both at the same time.


I'm the same with musicals and especially musical versions of plays. Musicals I generally dislike on principle. I just about got through The Sound of Music, but only because there were nasty Nazis in it and enough of a frisson of war, to keep an 11 year-old Airfix Spitfire model maker and avid reader of Captain Hurricane in The Victor comic, happy. And at least the Trapps just stood still and sang rather than prancing about while singing about lonely goatherds.


The paradox too is that, as I have grown older and begun to appreciate musical composition, I understand the musical intelligence of Bernstein and Gershwin and have grudgingly enjoyed West Side Story for its underlying drama, it's the all-singing, all-dancing bit I find irritating. And the idea of putting Shakespeare to music? Well, hand me that pistol after you've kissed me Kate. I can also just about do a Brecht/Weill play, but only because Kurt Weill's music is so subversive and decadent and reeks of history, not because I like a nice tune.


Many years ago, when I dreamed of becoming a theatre director, I directed both the Threepenny Opera and the Marat/Sade and took all the songs out of both. Partly because, with the exception of Weill's songs in the Threepenny Opera, I just wanted the dramatic action and narrative to come to the fore without the distraction of music.


But thanks, Eliza, it was a brave effort and Gee, as we call him (G for Granddad) was hugely flattered, it just didn't float my boat. On the other hand, your unaccompanied version of 'Three Score and Ten' about the Grimsby fishing boat disaster of 1889 had me shedding a tear.


And thanks too, to Barrie Rutter OBE who organised the whole shebang and the cast of The City Speaks.

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My father-in-law, Maurice Rutherford is probably the best known, least known poet in Britain. He is certainly the most modest and on 28 September, he will be 100 years old. Yesterday, we picked him up from his home so he could watch a live stream of The City Speaks; a performance at Hull Truck Theatre in celebration of the poetry and poets of the city and most especially of his own life and work. The entire cast read one or more of his poems and halfway through, both cast and audience sang him a rousing Happy Birthday. It was an amazing honour and he was, as they say, chuffed to bits. But that's not why I'm writing this blog.


On the way over from his house, we stopped off at our local farm shop for some asparagus to have with lunch and while Jeannie was inside buying much more than she went in for, 'Gee' as we call him and I - neither of us particular supporters of the monarchy - mused on the changes that had taken taken place in both his lifetime, that of the person being buried at Windsor today and also myself, some thirty-odd years younger than both of them. We've talked about it before: how, in some strange ways, he and I have more in common than Jeannie and I have with our kids. For instance, we both remember wooden desks with inkwells and learning to write - first on individual chalk boards (or was it some other scraping tool?), then dipping sharp-nibbed quill-like pens into the ink poured into the ceramic wells by the ink monitor. I remember being desperate to be selected as ink monitor, because it meant going to the stationery cupboard to fetch the blue-black powder that would be transformed into ink with the addition of water. Once inside the cupboard, there was the musty smell of paper: exercise books, sugar paper, drawing paper and blotting paper, as well as powder paint, pencils and paintbrushes (used and new). The smell of the stationery cupboard is still with me as a residual sensory imprint (see previous blog post) as is the almost indescribable smell of the rehearsal room later in life, with its dank beer-stained carpet and whiff of 'gear'; flight cases, amplifiers and what we used to call jazz-woodbines (not for me though).


Gee and I also both remember steam trains and the particular smell of stations; of engineering, metal, hot steam and coal smoke. Coal smoke too was an everyday smell of winter that still, although it is much rarer these days, takes me back to my youth, walking home from school on frosty late afternoons with our bare knees chapped above long grey woollen socks and breath visible in front of us.


Another image common to both of our early childhoods, his in the late 1920s and mine a corresponding 30 years later, is school milk, which was first introduced when he was a lad in Hull. We both remember snowy winters when each small milk bottle in the heavy aluminium crate was capped with snow, the milk inside frozen solid. One of my winter memories in particular at one of my first schools was my classroom being heated by a single cast-iron stove that had to be fed with coke by the teacher. Another, memory I confessed to him once when talking about poetry, was of having to learn Wordsworth's 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' off by heart, having to stand up in class to recite it aloud and failing miserably. This humiliating experience put me off poetry until my late teenage years, when I discovered the Liverpool poets and realised poetry wasn't soppy, only for girls and the Fotherington-Thomases of this world (Hello clouds, hello sky!). And then the epiphany of being reacquainted with Wordsworth and Coleridge at A-level and discovering that, not only was Wordsworth involved with the French Revolution, but Coleridge was quite likely out of his box on opium when he wrote 'Kubla Khan'. Suddenly poetry was cool and I began to write a little myself, imitating Catullus, whose Latin poems (in translation) seemed both cool and sexy and some of which I nicked to give to a prospective girlfriend, pretending I'd written them myself.


So, next weekend, the family will descend on us from Brighton, Newcastle and Maidstone (but sadly not from Denmark, where Emma is too pregnant with a new grandchild to travel) and we will celebrate not only 100 years of The Remarkable Mr Rutherford, but also a century of change that has quite possibly surpassed that other century of change when QE II's great, great grandmother was on the throne.


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