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How generative artist Tyler Hobbs blurs boundaries between machine and hand-made art

Tyler Hobbs in his studio
Tyler Hobbs in his studio Copyright Sarah Karlan/Avante
Copyright Sarah Karlan/Avante
By Jonny Walfisz
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"What is it that really gives art value to us?" How generative artist Tyler Hobbs blurs boundaries between machine and hand-made art.

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“Both the hand and the machine have these traces of mark making,” explains Tyler Hobbs, an artist who combines generated art with handmade elements. “What you might call an imperfection, but the word I’m gravitating more towards is ‘fingerprint’.”

Hobbs’ debut UK show has just opened at Unit London. ‘Mechanical Hand’ explores the relationship between physical and machine-made art. One of the world’s most pioneering Generative Artists, Hobbs brings together artistic influences like Cy Twombly into a contemporary conversation with AI-art generators like DALL-E 2.

Visually, Hobbs’ works bring together stunning patterns into abstract landscapes that are pleasant to look at online. In person, they have a whole other effect. When looked at up close, the distinction between Hobbs’ and the machines he’s employed come into focus, before blurring again.

Take ‘User Space’, for example. To create the sequence of black squares, Hobbs created a computer algorithm that utilised randomness to design the pattern. He then programmed a robotic arm plotter to hold a pencil and draw the outlines of the pattern.

So far, so mechanical. But from this point on, Hobbs goes back to tradition. With charcoal, he freehands filling in the shapes he’s worked with the machines to create.

Tyler Hobbs
'User Space' by Tyler HobbsTyler Hobbs

“The effect that that has is to really warm up the work and to make it much more relatable,” Hobbs explains. “It takes a design that would, by default, be cold and rigid and very computery and in some ways makes it more human and more accessible by blending the two worlds,” he tells Euronews Culture. 

More than just looking for the imperfections that betray the elements Hobbs has worked on with his own hand, he also wants viewers to see the “fingerprint” of the machine’s work, treating the machines as artistic partners.

“The hand and the eye tend to fail or have particular characteristics or types of errors that they make. And the machine has exactly the same kinds of things, but they're just very different in nature,” Hobbs explains. He points out that the movement of a motor, the sensitivity to different materials and the tiny imperfections from predictability are all part of the machine’s artistic fingerprint.

It really helps you to escape kind of the bounds of what you might normally imagine.

The vast majority of the works on show at Unit London involve Hobbs’ combination of machine-learning algorithms, the robotic plotter and his own handwork.

What distinguishes a generative artists’ works from the work of many other traditional artists is that many decisions are made upfront, instead of intuitively on the fly while creating. Hobbs has to programme much of the design at the beginning, so decisions over thickness of lines, sequence of patterns are his first thoughts.

“You lose the ability to have a spontaneous gesture,” he says. “But you gain so much by working this way, as well. You gain this ability to get outside of your own imagination, by turning things over to a process, especially one that involves randomness so heavily, it really helps you to escape kind of the bounds of what you might normally imagine.”

Tyler Hobbs
'User Space' by Tyler HobbsTyler Hobbs

For many of the artworks in the collection, the vast majority of time Hobbs spent on them was building and refining the machines, instead of actively painting.

Painters usually don’t spend their time making their own paintbrushes or paints. “Part of the generative methodology is about spending your time instead on setting up the process and setting up the system,” Hobbs tells us.

If creating the tools is a major part of the time spent creating the works, when does the piece become the tool instead of the final artwork? 

“I do always want the work to operate on a visual level,” Hobbs says. “I want [people] to first enjoy the work. And then maybe if they're very interested to hear about the airbrush. But I think it'd be a real shame for visual art, if it required that backstory to be approachable.”

What is it that really gives art value to us?

In recent months, social media sites and news pages have been filled with claims that AI-generated content will wholesale replace people in the creative arts. Whether it’s the AI-generated Seinfeld Twitch stream ‘Nothing, Forever’ that was banned for turning transphobic, or the AI-generated artwork that won Colorado State Fair’s annual art fair, it seems people are clamouring to predict the death of the human artist.

Hobbs doesn’t believe any such predictions. Instead, he points to the necessity of curation for programmes like DALL-E and ChatGPT

“I think that in some ways, with generative systems, a lot of the creativity does shift to what you might think of as a more curatorial role,” he says. “Even in my own work, talking about the airbrush setup, in some ways, you could describe that as me curating the mark making of the airbrush, and curating the parameters of the airbrush.”

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Tyler Hobbs
'User Space' by Tyler HobbsTyler Hobbs

“I think this is just a moment where we have to refresh and take a step back and identify, ‘What is the most important human aspect of art making?’ What is it that really gives art value to us? I think the answer’s often around the question of why it's made. And I think that that question of ‘why’ is often tied to curation. So I don't see it as any loss of creativity. I think it's just shifting to the sort of different steps in the process.”

‘Mechanical Hand’ by Tyler Hobbs is on exhibition at Unit London in the UK until 6 April, and at Pace Gallery in New York, USA from 30 March to 22 April.

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