Robbie Barrat is among the youngest digital artists and has rightfully gained the title of the wonder child of the digital art world. Firstly, because of his young age (he started as a teenager) and secondly, because of the innovative techniques he employs in his works – over the last two years, Barrat became the first artist to use AI technologies to create visual works.
In October 2018 Christie’s New York made headlines for selling the first AI-generated painting during Prints and Multiples sale, for a whopping $432,500. The piece that fetched this price was Portrait of Edmond Belamy – a work referencing the style of an oil sketch by an Old Master. Somewhat blurry and pixelated, the face of the titular Edmond Belamy seemed to slowly disintegrate, making the specific facial features difficult to discern. The portrait was one of a series of works depicting a fictional family of Belamy, created by a Paris-based collective Obvious (Hugo Caselles-Dupré, Pierre Fautrel and Gauthier Vernier), which used an algorithm run by an artificial intelligence programme with a melodious name GAN (‘generative adversarial network’). The collective described their artistic process to Christie’s as ‘feeding’ the program with images of portraits coming from 14th to 20th century and then, GAN creating an image based on the selection seen, which is then compared to the man-made examples but as the program is far from perfect at this point, it is more prone to not noticing the differences which results in image distortions.
While the trio of the artists from the collective got immediate credit for the first work using AI technology sold at auction, the actual algorithm supporting the AI program GAN which they have used has been created, and shared for free use on the internet by Robbie Barrat, Dazed reported, who received no credit in the work. Portrait of Edmond Belamy contains an algorithmic equation in the bottom right corner but to a layman, it bears no obvious difference between a work of an AI and a joke meant to disguise the identity of the painting’s maker. Even though in an interview with Dazed Barratt claimed that the idea of open-source access to knowledge about artificial intelligence was how he learned about the possibilities of those programs in the first place, in 2020, in an interview with Ruby Boddington from Its Nice That, he was less enthusiastic - “The group that sold that work was not an artist group, they were a marketing group. I know that sounds like an attack but if you look at early articles that they've written, they refer to themselves as a start-up. Honestly, they really did take advantage of the project that I put up, even though it was open source.” Speaking to Its Nice That, Barrat was also very mindful of the misconceptions surrounding the images generated using AI technologies and how the narrative produced by Obvious contributed to the misconception that they are created ‘by a computer’, which seemed to completely remove the concept of artist’s agency but despite those experiences, he remains positive about the role of open-source tools for digital artists.
While digital art is commonly associated with the medium utilizing high resolution and crystal-clear colour contrasts, fully embracing the possibilities of the digital to produce sharp and saturated images. Barrat’s style is rather contradictory to that. One of his first-ever made series employing the AI, was a series based on thousands of images of landscapes sources from WikiArt, among which the experiments with distortions of the Post-Impressionistic works proving to be particularly visually pleasing. The next step was applying the same approach to the topic of the female nude. In this case, the varying proportions and ways of depicting the human body over the centuries have yielded interesting but rather surprising distortions, turning the body into an undefined, elongated, genderless form of flesh. Those works, which according to Barrat were produced very early in his career and were unrefined, were perhaps what stimulated Obvious to aim for similar results in relation to the distortion of the facial features. Now living and working in Paris, Barrat seems tired of being continuously associated only with the AI and has plans to branch out further, into sculptural work using 3-D holograms.
His internet persona is full of authentic self-awareness, from his personal website mimicking the style of the late 1990s pages to creating ‘fake-process’, images depicting the fictional stages of the production of digital images published on his Twitter (@videodrome). This comes as no surprise – at only 20, he has managed to make a name for himself in an incredibly short time. The sales reflect that. Despite not getting credit for providing the tool used by Obvious, he made headlines just two weeks ago, as the best-selling digital artist, whose nude portrait generated with the use of AI sold for 100 ETH ($109,863).
What has allowed Barrat to reach a new and exciting audience, were his collaborations with two of the most cutting-edge fashion houses, Balenciaga and Acne Studios. While collaborations with artists have been championed by the biggest players in the fashion world (Louis Vuitton’s collaborations with Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama and Jeff Koons are on the top of the list), more independent brands like Etudes Studio, which collaborated with Chloe Wise in 2019.
Working with Acne Studios for Fall/Winter 2020 collection, the artist used the algorithm to look through the images of Acne’s archival collections but, similarily as with Portrait of Edmond Belamy, to not learn all the correct properties of an archetypical Acne garment and to distort the final image. The ‘hand of the artist’ was in this case very present, as Barrat discussed the outcomes generated by the AI with the designers, and altogether they made final decisions. The collaboration with Balenciaga in 2018 was characterized by even greater distortions both to the garments and models’ faces and was praised as a great reflection of Balenciaga’s allure but on the contrary to his more recent Acne collaboration, the designs for Balenciaga remained in the digital realm and never made it to the runway. With such a strong portfolio, his latest collaboration was between the British fashion house Burberry and retailer SSENSE. The high-profile of both fashion houses and the eagerness to explore new and potentially controversial territories is symptomatic for an interesting path towards which fashion and digital art might soon be moving at full force and Barrat will certainly be at the very forefront.
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