Jeroen van der Most: “AI is a mirror of ourselves”

As a pioneer of future art directions, Jeroen van der Most (1979) uses algorithms, big data and artificial intelligence as his instruments. He is not concerned with 'ooh' and 'aah' but with 'huh?': his art is mainly there to provoke discussions. “I want to break existing thinking patterns.”

Text: Bart-Jan Brouwer

What is art to you?

“Art for me is what inspires. So a very broad definition. It can be a painting, a cloud in the sky... But it must meet one or more of the following four elements: it touches you emotionally, rationally, excels in craftsmanship and is innovative.”

Which of those four do you focus on with your art?

“I strive to include all those elements. A good example is Letters from Nature, a project I am working on together with Peter van der Putten. Letters written by AI on behalf of nature. There is clearly a rational element in this: is technology our toy or does it bring us closer to nature? But there is also something emotional in it. Take the following letter: 'Dear Mr. President, As one of the largest ice caps in the world, please don't forget about us, please fight for us, please do not listen to the conservatives who call for you to leave us alone. We are melting. It hurts. We are sad. We are dying. Please don't forget us. Your friend, Ice Cap.' There is also a certain craftsmanship behind it, an expertise. And it is new in time, this has not been done before. We have now created hundreds if not thousands of those letters. We're going in February Letters from Nature participate in Testlab Highlight Delft.”

Quantum Cat, the first Dutch work of art made with a quantum computer

What do you want to achieve with such art?

“I want to break existing thinking patterns. Technology is of course 'our thing', we use it to make our lives easier. The fact that it is now entering into a relationship with nature, outside of us, is confusing and slightly provocative.”

What is your background?

“Data science and market research. I investigated how people talked about certain brands on Twitter and used algorithms to collect tweets and analyze them. Eventually I got tired of that work and wanted something more creative. Then I started using those algorithms to create art visuals. So I didn't go to art school, although I have been drawing and painting since childhood and have always been fascinated by Van Gogh and Rembrandt. At some point, some algorithms went viral and I started calling myself an 'artist', partly because I was labeled as such by others.”

To what extent was what you did innovative?

“Computer art has been around for some time, but making art with AI was a super niche when I started working on it. It has exploded in the past year and a half. Now I'm looking at the next technologies that will have a social impact, such as quantum computing. That's why I did the project last year Quantum Cat done, the first Dutch work of art created with a quantum computer. It is not only technically but also philosophically very interesting. There are principles behind it that are incomprehensible in our reality. Such as the phenomenon of superposition, in which a particle can be in multiple places at the same time. In our reality, something can only be in one place at a time. This principle allows much more powerful calculations and therefore also more powerful AI systems to be made.”

“I don't make art that needs to be found beautiful, but art that confronts. I hope people do something with it”

Letter from the series Letters from Nature; Culinary Journeys

What was your approach with Quantum Cat?

“With this work I explore the ethical dilemmas of artificial intelligence. The interactive installation is made up of a stack of wooden boxes from the last century. Two of them contain a screen showing varying texts generated by AI. The texts are based on a live scan of Twitter by an algorithm that was developed especially for this artwork in collaboration with scientists from the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. The algorithm searches for Dutch messages about moral issues. An AI system can only make zero-one decisions, but to make a good ethical decision you need to be able to look at an issue from different points of view. According to artificial intelligence, economic inequality is not undesirable, because, for example, the strongest shoulders can bear the burden for the weaker. At the same time, the screen shows that inequality provides less access to education and is therefore undesirable. Ultimately the question is: how valuable are these ethical reflections? I wanted that debate with Quantum Cat boost. And the role of the virtual cat? It weighs and weighs, and constantly presents two more or less opposing moral considerations.”

Have you ever encountered ethical dilemmas with the use of AI?

“What I think goes too far ethically is when images of contemporary artists are used as a prompt when generating an image. So 'make a picture à la Jasper Krabbé' and then use his drawings as input is, I think, illicit. That comes too close to copying.”

Is there a place for AI-generated art alongside traditional art?

“A work like Quantum Cat is of course not comparable to a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh. Just the history attached to such painters. Moreover, traditional art is very static. A painting is a painting: nothing changes that. Okay, you also have video art. That is less static, but the same thing is played over and over again. AI can be used to create art that continues to change infinitely. A good example is Unsupervised by Refik Anadol, an installation for which he used 180.000 works of art from the MoMA archive as input. Art that continues to transform infinitely and can always be different based on data.”

The Dirivah Star Night

One of your first works of art, Tweet Cathedral (2011), reflects on the increasing impact of social media.

“When I was working with algorithms as a market researcher, I came up with the idea of ​​creating a profile photo of someone who was on Twitter by building it from his or her own tweets. Just like you see portraits that are made up of all kinds of small photos. I built a site around that, so people could order their own profile photo. That concept went completely viral. From Japan to Silicon Valley, everyone was tweeting about those portraits. I have sold quite a few of them. At the end of February 2011 I received an email from someone in New Zealand, where an earthquake had just occurred. The city of Christchurch was particularly hard hit. I was asked if I could create a similar artwork to inspire the rebuilding of central Christchurch. I collected thousands of tweets about the earthquake and processed them into an op The Starry Night van Gogh inspired urban landscape. I had chosen a shape in which the partially collapsed cathedral of Christchurch stood upright again in that landscape. The work first hung in the church there for six months, then it was added to the collection of the National History Museum of New Zealand.”

There are more and more natural disasters, you could make a whole line of such works of art.

“As an artist I find that less interesting, because then I repeat myself. I would do it for a good cause if asked, but I would rather continue experimenting with the use of data in art.”

AI offers many possibilities in the areas of text, images, video... What appeals to you most?

“As far as technology is concerned, I find it all interesting, but what really matters to me is that AI is a mirror of ourselves. If we let a machine make a new Rembrandt, what does that say about us? Aren't we, in fact, also some kind of machines? Although machines, robots, can do more and more and come closer to humans, in my view there is still a clear distinction. Humans have a higher degree of creativity and can think out-of-the-box. A machine cannot do that: it relies on historical data. Moreover, robots lack a lot of context, for example they cannot smell or feel. But there may be very major developments in the pipeline. It could be that AI will match, if not surpass, human intelligence. And that in the future we will live together with a hyper-intelligent system. I'm not saying this is the most realistic scenario, but it would be possible.”

Would such a hyper-intelligent AI system want to dominate humans?

"Don't know. That's a science fiction idea that says more about ourselves than about AI. In any case, we are moving towards a situation with two movements: machines are becoming increasingly intelligent, people are increasingly focusing on what makes us human. Like human contact. Who knows, robots might soon serve a beer while we chat with others. The utopian ideal is that we no longer have to work for money – the robots will take over the work – and can enjoy a basic income. Until then, AI will still have to make significant strides.”

Which steps and technical developments do you particularly notice?

“We are now at the breaking point of video AI. Within a year we have learned how to create texts and images with AI. This development is now being extended to moving images. In the long term you will be able to make Hollywood-quality films yourself.”

Installation around the Letters from Nature project

Will you still be needed later?

“For now I'm still being called flat, haha. And I also want to be part of the vanguard. As an artist I want to continue developing and embrace new technologies.”

For a work like The Butterfly Paintings you created an AI system that develops a new pattern from the flight line of butterflies. To what extent do you feel you are the creator of that work?

“I understand your question, AI actually 'paints' the pattern. But I'm mainly concerned with the discussion that my work causes, the human element surrounding it. I don't make art that needs to be found beautiful, but art that confronts. I hope people do something with it.”

Do you also have hope for a sustainable future?

“Look, I'm not someone who's trying to save the world, but I do try to encourage people to talk about our position in the world. That is no more than a drop in the bucket. But doesn't that apply in general? There is no one individual who can change the whole world. It takes a lot of drops…”


“I am mainly concerned with the discussion that my work causes”


What project are you working on now?

“A big project, Culinary Journeys called. With AI we will tell the story of our food to create more awareness. We have all kinds of things flown in and often don't know what we are eating. Through technology I seek connection with what is on our plate. Something else that might be on the way: a Netflix series about a bizarre adventure I experienced. Two years ago there was an article in a Saudi newspaper to the effect that I had been to Saudi Arabia and then, inspired by the historic city of Diriyah, had made a painting. In this paper, the Saudi Gazette, there was a photo of a Van Gogh-like person starry night, in shades of blue and with a winding sky, but not with the contours of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, but something that looked like the ruins of a city. It was a rip-off of the artwork I had done for Christchurch. The newspaper reported that the canvas Diriyah Star Night titled, had just been sold to a princess for $3,2 million. I looked at my bank account, but that amount was not credited there, haha. In the end I'm done Het Parooljournalist Lex Boon traveled to the Middle East to find out how and what. For me it became an art project in itself. One of my works has been faked, so maybe I should fake it again to make it a real Van der Most. Long story short: the painting is said to have been made by a certain Jeroen. The Saudi Gazette may have googled the last name. Eventually we managed to trace the canvas and I was given the opportunity to put my artist name 'Most' on it in elegant letters. Plenty of questions remain: Does Jeroen really exist? Isn't the cloth just made in China? What is the purpose of it? Questions that Netflix can tackle.”

What work of art do you still want to create?

“I would like to mix my brain with another brain and create art from there. That doesn't necessarily have to be a human brain, it could also be a dog's. The more bizarre the better. Moreover, animals bring you closer to nature, and that is fairly central to my work. AI can create a new work of art quite well based on my biography, my oeuvre. You can also sculpt a mental model of a dog this way. A dog's life revolves around lazing around, smells, a social life, food... So you can guess what he thinks and dreams about. It could result, simply put, in a sculpture on an exercise field that is made up of bones with posts around it for the dog to pee against.”

Can you keep up with all developments in AI?

“I spend all my time on AI, but even then it is difficult to keep track of everything that is published about AI – papers, studies… You almost need AI to be able to summarize what is happening within AI.”

If you were a teenager now, what would you study?

“Philosophy, because that will always remain relevant. But then do a lot of experimenting with AI tools. I would really go all in there.”