Denver Art Museum quietly debuted “Us,” its first AI-generated artwork

You can hear “Us” before you can see “Us.”

That’s because the audio narration for the hypnotic, 5-minute video, titled “Us,” echoes against the lofted ceilings and hard floors of the Denver Art Museum, where it is part of an ongoing exhibition.

The video’s volume increases as visitors approach the final room of the exhibit, where “Us” plays on a loop before a long, black couch. It’s the only animated display in the exhibit, “Near East to Far West,” and a sharp deviation from the dozens of paintings that precede it.

And not just because of its artistic medium. “Us” is the first-ever piece of artwork on display at the Denver Art Museum to use artificial intelligence, according to the museum. As a result, it has generated some in-house concern and discussion surrounding the subject.

Dreamt up by two indigenous artists, poet Jennifer Elise Foerster (Mvskoke) and visual artist Steve Yazzie (Navajo/Laguna Pueblo), “Us” is a response to the larger exhibition (“Near East Far West” opened March 5 and closes on May 29), which looks critically at the influence of “Orientalism” and “exoticism” by French and American painters who depicted Indigenous people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The unique collaboration features a poem by Foerster set to animated images combined from the exhibit’s dozens of paintings. Its goal is to both honor the theme of Indigenous representation, but also to offer an “intentionally unsettling” vision that adds simulated heat shimmers and other motion-graphic effects, as they’re called, to the swirl of imagery. Yazzie then tweaked the video to better fit with Foerster’s poetry and his own aesthetics, he said.

In an interview from her home in Santa Fe, Foerster told The Denver Post that she and Yazzie didn’t set out to make the museum’s first piece that used AI. The project just took them there.

“How do you respond to 80 paintings with one poem?” Foerster asked. “Telling (Yazzie) how I wrote the poem, line-by-line while looking at the paintings, seemed to inspire him to think about AI, because it was a similar kind of process. … It can’t help but generate this range of cultural associations.”

Yazzie used two different AI software programs, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, both of which create new images by sampling and recombining existing ones, sometimes to disturbing effect. Those and other “generative” AI programs have over the past year inspired class-action lawsuits and global debates as they blur the lines between original and computer-made creations.

One of these debates was spurred by Colorado designer Jason Allen, who launched a public campaign in March to copyright his AI art piece, “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,” after it won first place in the digital category at last year’s Colorado State Fair. When his copyright application was rejected by the U.S. Copyright Office, he hired a lawyer and told The Denver Post he was “prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court.”

But crossing those blurred lines is a problem for at least one museum employee who sent an anonymous letter to museum director Christoph Heinrich recently.

The person pointed out that nowhere on the walls does the museum say that the video was created using AI software. To learn that, visitors must read the booklets tucked into holders on either side of the screen, or a blog post on the museum’s website. The message, which was seen by The Denver Post, also warns of the potential “legal nightmare” of diluting artistic copyrights, as well as the ethical problems created by elevating AI to the gallery level.

“There is no ethical way to use (AI software) Midjourney or Stable Diffusion without directly harming artists, stealing from uncredited artists and infringing on copyright,” the employee wrote.

Museum curators and leadership declined requests for an interview. But museum communications manager Andy Sinclair provided a statement to The Denver Post that said the museum’s approach to AI is still evolving.

“Serious questions exist around AI overall, as well as the technology’s intersection with art,” she wrote. “We look forward to continuing this dialogue internally, with museum colleagues and the wider arts community.”

Eric Berkemeyer, a project manager at the Denver Art Museum, also touched on the subject in a March 13 blog post about “Us.”

“While we were aware of concerns around the technology, this project offered the opportunity to explore the constructive creative potential of artificial intelligence,” he wrote. “Because AI draws from huge databases of visual sources, it also has the potential to reflect back to us the biases and stereotypes that permeate our culture.”

Yazzie, who recently completed an artist-in-residence program at the DAM and serves on its Indigenous Community Advisory Council, said he understands why there are issues with AI but also supported its use by artists. “The art experience, whether through AI or immersive technology, still has a human interaction,” he told The Denver Post. “In no way do I see it hindering my practice. It’s just another paintbrush in the can.”

So is it art, or a representation of art? A tool, or a product? The uncertainty can make it scary, Yazzie said. But it also puts AI on par with technologies that have shifted human consciousness and expression, from photographs and recorded audio to TV screens and the Internet.

“There are some people that are questioning its value as a component of the exhibition, and I think those are valid questions.” The museum “could have presented this through another lens, but Jennifer had the vision to make it a little challenging,” Yazzie said about Jennifer Henneman, the museum’s curator of Western American Art.

“I think AI is just another color that has emerged in our dimension that we’re all trying to figure out. And we should all be part of this conversation,” he added.

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