Found on the street

This 40 year-old collage experimented with recreating the image layering from the streets. I had enjoyed the ironic contrast of the ornate frame also found on the street!


This 40 year-old collage experimented with recreating the image layering from the streets. I had enjoyed the ironic contrast of the ornate frame also found on the street!

And today I finished the following set of 3 acrylic paintings, based on street art images I photographed a decade or so ago.


They are part of the collection that I have been releasing as my Instagram retrospective project. I painted them simultaneously, using a common palette, which gives them an additional thematic connection.

On a technical note I was using a ‘wet palette’ for the first time. This device uses a layer of baking paper on top of several layers of water-retaining materials which helps keep the acrylic paint on the palette in a workable state for much longer than would be normal.  It worked very well, keeping the palette viable for days, as opposed to hours or even minutes on hot days.  I think it will prove an essential addition to my toolbox, particularly working with acrylics in the hot summer months of Sydney.

One of the reasons I collected these images was that I wanted / expected to build up a resource as inspiration for future painting, recognising at the time that I really didn’t have the spare capacity to do much then. So I am happy with the work but even more so delighted with fulfilling a vision conceived 10 years ago.

Musing on that longevity of vision / aspiration led me to note that this year it will be 40 years since I arrived in Australia.  With that in mind I popped upstairs and found the diary that I kept that year, 1978 … I did so not solely in the spirit of nostalgic reminiscence but because I recalled that during that time I was also interested in street art. I was intrigued to see what I had recorded on that topic at the time.

Not a lot really, as it turns out. I think at in those days I was both diffident about my art practice and more concerned about establishing an existence and importantly a job in big bad Sydney town!

Nevertheless for June that year I recorded, “My found art has really gone ahead on the Sydney streets – cutting out box illustrations.”  I recall being quite interested in the almost three-dimensional collage opportunities offered by pictures on cardboard fruit packing boxes.  In July there is reference to writing some letters, having a bath, and doing some “cutting and sticking’ – I remember creating single page collage sketches from magazine illustrations. I used one or two of those as the basis for paintings I did in the mid-90s, like this detail.


Part of my interest in collage was wanting to experiment with / recreate the image layering I saw around me on the streets. In the diary I had stuck a picture which reminded me that I had used a larger version in just such a collage a couple of years later. I had enjoyed the ironic contrast of assembling and displaying it in the ornate frame as illustrated – I also found that frame on the street! So I headed off back upstairs and was able to locate that very work stuck in the back of the attic and literally dusted off  – I have made it my feature image for this blog, with a detail featured here.


I also noted in my 1978 diary that it would be good to get into some art classes – I wrote “Learn how to paint. These things can be learnt.” I did so some 20 years later in the 90s, with some instruction, self-teaching and a lot of experimentation.  And now I am re-engaging some 40 years later with a very long term aspiration and project, which while it may have lain fallow from time to time, has never actually been forgotten.

In that diary for September 1978, , after seeing a film about his work, I noted thoughts by the surrealist painter Magritte on the superior powers of the painter – he spoke of the expression of an idea, rather than the simple recording of reality.  However, even at the time, I was conscious of the way in which the street edits the images pasted onto it, in often surrealistic ways. I have been even more conscious of this surrealistic aspect recently, as I have studied the accumulated street image collection I have been releasing on Instagram. More or less realistic images are blurred and shaped by the reality they encounter in the environment, and they are then available to artistic interrogation, interpretation, and re-rendering.

I find it a fascinating endeavour.


Looking around – or – thinking about the Universe

I observed in my blog last week that one of the signs of aging is when period dramas are set in decades you have actually lived through and remember.  A variation on that theme is reading science fiction or futurist work which is set in a time you are now living in or is in the immediate past.

I have just finished re-reading perhaps a classic example: EON by Greg Bear which was published in 1985. It is therefore set in the final decade of the USSR, like the spy novel that I mentioned last week, Game Set and Match by Len Deighton.  The pivotal action of EON is set in 2005, twenty years in the then future and now more than ten years in the past. I think I first read it in about 2001, so that sets up an interesting collection of intersecting timelines.



Which, as it happens, is in fact a central theme of the book.  I will not attempt a synopsis. It is a dense and complex narrative that was not very precise in its predictions of 2005 – for which we can actually be very grateful, because a pivotal event is first a minor, and then a major, nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR, which leads to a catastrophic nuclear winter. It is interesting to recall just how real that threat seemed even as the USSR decayed internally. Of course today the nuclear threat persists and while the threat of thermonuclear catastrophe seems less stark, the geopolitical environment is actually less clearly delineated and perhaps even more unpredictable.

That holocaust averted is interesting to contemplate in and of itself and as such that is an interesting take away from the book. However, for me the enduring value of the work is the incredible construction which is described as ‘the Way’, a feat of future engineering that extends a passage/tunnel from earth orbit to what is essentially infinity. Few people in the novel understand how it was made and so it is not surprisingly mysterious to those of us reading from the outside. However it is an impressive essay on the geometry of parallel universes which continues to align with contemporary physics thinking on the topic, and on humanity reaching to the end of time and beyond. And if that sounds like a big theme it is, and more than competently handled.

And that is one of the great opportunities in the science fiction genre, one which is sometimes intellectually underrated, as observed by Ursula K Le Guin, a prominent sci-fi and fantasy and feminist whose death at age 88 was reported by the Guardian just the other day.  As a a fierce defender of the science fiction and fantasy genres she apparently took on everyone from Margaret Atwood to Kazuo Ishiguro when she identified a sniffy attitude towards the form. “Realism is a genre – a very rich one, that gave us and continues to give us lots of great fiction,” she told the Guardian in 2016. “But by making that one genre the standard of quality, by limiting literature to it, we were leaving too much serious writing out of serious consideration.”

I wrote a couple of blogs ago about ‘The Culture’, invented and described by Iain M. Banks in his science fiction writing, as another example of thinking about what might be described as the deep future, something to balance the ‘big history thinking’ that I mentioned in my blog The narrative necessity July last year, after I attended the NSW U3A annual conference.  A speaker, Prof David Christian of Macquarie Uni, did a fine job which is replicated in his TED talk on the subject: “The history of our world in 18 minutes” with a narrative arc from the big bang to the present ‘anthropocene’– again, can I strongly suggest taking a look?

The best of these fictional (inevitably ‘fiction’ because the future is a strange unknowable place!) offerings provide a way to examine our great but fleeting privilege of being present in the universe and of being conscious to appreciate that privilege. Such writing invites us to contemplate our place in the world / universe, but often in a narrative context which is easier to digest and process than abstruse philosophical tomes or abstract metaphysical musings of gurus and others.

On the subject of time and philosophical musing, I had a conversation the other day about whether it is more important look forward than to look back. My thought was that perhaps the most important thing is to look around.

Certainly what has come before and what we anticipate is to come are important context to what is around us. But learning to see what is in our present is an important skill. Learning to examine, look into, re-frame our world is an essential part of consciousness. The emergence and maintenance of consciousness remains a key scientific and philosophical mystery today, heightened rather than resolved by various AI technological developments. Whether and how consciousness is confined or unique to humans (as currently biologically embodied) is a question that the science fiction genre is and has been well-placed to explore.

Time is as interesting perspective in the ongoing Instagram retrospective of street images I am releasing.  They are impermanent urban ephemera – most of them capture a particular point in the attrition of the image in the face of environmental or street pressures and they are quite fragile – within days they will be different or potentially erased.

ExclusiveCrackle.JPGFor example Exclusive Crackle (16/60) shows an image where the printing emulsion and brushed over glue has lifted off the poster paper in a regular but fragile pattern. It could have been brushed off with a sweep of the hand and must inevitably have been with weathered away perhaps within days. Another rip, another tear might alter the image such that what was interesting about it is altered irrevocably.

Other images show much slower patterns of erosion but nevertheless the decay is inevitable and irreversible – I happened to capture that evolution in these two shots of the same image, separated by about 3 months.

Alternatively the posters might be stripped off wholesale or papered over overnight.  One way or another these street images capture a moment in time which cannot be reproduced, rendering each one unique.

In any event I am learning quite a lot about both how Instagram and its communities work, and gaining further insight into the images I am curating as they consolidate into a body of work. I am refining the skill of hash-tag usage to expose the images to possible audiences, and realised that this is in some ways the reverse of refining search terms, where you are trying to maximise discoverability of the content – similar skills different result.

Speaking of skill development and continuing the tennis theme of the previous blog, I have reflected on the persuasive commentary that Australian hopeful Nick Kyrgios should simplify his game and noted that it is consistent with croquet coaching advice I have received that advanced players seek to play the simplest shot possible because it has the highest chance of success. The skill lies not so much in mastery of fancy shots as it does in being in the right position to take that easy shot. Let’s see if I can practice what is preached …


Game, Set and Match

As the Australian Tennis Open gathers way it was appropriate that I just finished reading an omnibus edition of Len Deighton’s spy trilogy Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match.

Written and set in the very early 80s, it is a well written, enjoyable yarn that explores treachery and betrayal in commendable depth. It is also very much of its time, both in terms of the idiom it uses (I’m thinking here particularly of the role of women, the consumption of alcohol and the use of cigarettes) and the technology employed – this was at the dawn of the computer age with dedicated computer room facilities dominated by printouts and of course radio telephone equipped cars!  I did note a moment of technological foresight when the narrator comments at one point that nothing gets forgotten in the computer age.

However overall I found the book sufficiently well-written to be readable as essentially historical rather than dated – it is recording the times, in the voice of the times.  The setting in Berlin, divided by the Wall, is now very much a matter of history, but of course also has its contemporary resonance as the world grapples with that other great legacy of the Cold War, the divided Korean peninsula.

I also clearly recall those times, which reminds me that you know you’re getting older when period dramas are set in decades you lived through and remember. I’m thinking here of Mad Men, set in the 60s and a less successful 2008 show called Swingtown, set in the 70s, with very true-to-life sets and costume. I know coz I was there – now that was close to home – the decade, not the swinging!

Coincidentally we have just recently been watching a contemporary television spy series called Berlin Station on the SBS streaming service. Pretty watchable stuff; taut, complex and dark. It stars Richard Armitage, who was a lead player as Lucas North a main character in the seventh, eighth, and ninth seasons of the BBC espionage television series Spooks as something of a spy story tragic I must admit to watching the complete DVD set ;).

While in no way derivative of Deighton’s work, there are obvious parallels and echoes that cannot escape notice having just read his initial trilogy. The contemporary adversary is the Islamic State rather than the Soviet Union. But the dynamics and the imperatives are much the same – and one has to hope that the relatively peaceful resolution exemplified in Berlin can be repeated both on the Legacy Cold War border of Korea and in the contemporary Islamic “wall” extending through the Middle East and beyond.

I’ve been making good progress with my street photography retrospective on Instagram, now being a quarter of the way through the 60 digital photographs of street edited posters and graffiti style images collated in the past decade or so. It has been an interesting and rewarding exercise so far, learning to fine tune my hashtags to put the images in front of as broad a potential audience as possible.

It’s a bit like playing digital Pooh sticks, tossing the images into the virtual river of Instagram and then seeing which emerges as the leader from the resultant likes and comments. The current leader is this 2008 image of mine, which I have titled Confection, described with the comment “Laughing as the sweet image of reality cracks, twists and tears into a bizarre confection”.


I have been curating a collection of the images on a special page of this blog and if you want to see the next tranche on Instagram, I am posting as charlessixdotzero using the hash tag #csdzsixty2018 for the collection.



The Dancing Harlequin

I just finished my first painting in more than a decade – back into the paint pot at last!


For my subject I was inspired by the image produced as I conjured with my digital dreamscape of photographs, editing tools, and filters as I mentioned in my previous blog.

We now live in a world of endless ephemeral images – photographs flick past our fingertips pretty much at the speed of thought: contents assessed, reaction registered, like / not like, move on. Occasionally we pause to comment to engage and very occasionally a conversation ensues. Don’t get me wrong, I am as enthusiastic a participant as the next person but I do recall that a decade or so ago UK Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield was very concerned that the new technologies of social media media and the like meant we would all end up just as a kind of ‘reactive sponge’, just saying “yuk and wow, yuk and wow” to the things flashing across our social radar.

It may indeed be in the nature of digital technologies to reduce things to something of a binary nature – however binary processing underpins of our increasingly virtual world and what I, for one, find marvellous is the apparently almost inexhaustible capacity of the human brain to use the digital building blocks to construct previously inconceivable things at speeds we could only dream of in decades, let alone centuries, past.

However in this blog I am reporting how I have spent quite some time thinking and working with just one single image – the dancing Harlequin.  I captured my original photograph of a tattered paste-up under an inner city freeway overpass on an iPhone 4 back in 2013.

Tattered harlequin.JPG

At the time it captured a spirit of joyous persistence in a harsh grey environment.

At more or less the same time and place I also noticed and took this shot of an installation of a forest of light trees under that same freeway. You may have noticed it in the background of some of my other photo experiments – presents quite a surreal landscape.

Light grove.JPG

Fast forward to a month or so ago and in the midst of my Snapseed app photomontage experimentations it occurred to me to combine the two images, which produced an interesting result. Risking what might have been a step too far I then ran a Prisma app filter or two over the image, one of which produced the striking result which inspired my selection of it to re-engage with the acrylics.


I built the canvas in a series of steps moving from light to dark, broad stroke to greater definition.


I am reasonably happy with the result and to declare it finished, although in one last insight into the image I was fascinated to notice the effect of back lighting the final canvas rendition which heads this blog post, producing this image. It is like applying a filter to the painting, except that it is the painting itself doing the filtering … but I think that’s enough, it’s done!


It has been an interesting journey for the Harlequin.  ‘Which image is the definitive one?’ is, in some respects, an open question. It could be the original wall art, it might be the Prisma filter outcome or maybe the final acrylic version I will hang on the wall. Each defines its own milestone on that journey, which I think shows the multidimensional possibilities offered by the intersection of virtual and real realities and takes us far from the simple world of “yuk and wow”.

The original street shots will be released in due course as part of a collection of some 60 digital photographs of street edited posters and graffiti style images I am progressively releasing using Instagram, also curated on this blog page. You can see it unfold on Instagram where I am posting, perhaps unsurprisingly, as charlessixdotzero.


A wrap for Christmas 2017

Well that’s a wrap for Christmas 2017 then. Back to work for some, and back to the business of Charles 6.0 for me. First order of business – finishing and hanging out the post-festive washing!  Next, record some of the thoughts and upcoming plans for things to do in the New Year here in the Charles Six Dot Zero blog.

It’s been nearly 6 months since I left the ACMA and I have made some 25 blog posts in fulfillment of my commitment to make one a week for the year. At some point I intend to write a mid-action review post, but that is not today.

In addition to the blog posts in that 6 months, I have also won a couple of croquet competitions, which is seen my handicap drop by an index point or two, engaged a little with Tai Chi, rediscovered a facilitators network from long ago, spent some time with technology and communications thinkers at UTS, and re-engaged with my artwork using photography and drawing, yet to get back into the painting – something for next year.

Another one of the things I have enjoyed has been getting time to read more books, although there has not been as much of that free time as one might have imagined.  Oddly enough, I found the festive season ‘shut down’ of a number of the things I had been engaged with enlarged my reading window much as it had when I was working full-time.

I finished the last (The Hydrogen Sonata) of the second-hand Iain M. Banks books that were the fruits of a lunchtime walk back in July, of which I boasted on Facebook at the time … six for $14!

20170718_145412.jpgFor those unfamiliar, he was a brilliant writer, who’s SF was interspersed among his other literary work – he died an untimely death in 2013, aged 59.

They were pretty much all in his Culture series and I have read them in publication order. My respect for his work is undiminished. It’s the sort of writing where sometimes I want to make notes, but on the other hand want to hurry on, to see where he is taking us. He combines a splendid narrative gift with an informed exploration of many contemporary intellectual or scientific dilemmas / imponderables. Are we indeed just living in an all-encompassing simulation? What are the moral and ethical issues when we can effectively create sentient life forms? What are the limits when those limits we currently encounter as environmental, technological or resource scarcity simply cease to exist?

He depicts the galaxy spanning Culture as massively powerful in a post-scarcity environment which has solved many of our contemporary day-to-day frustrations and inadequacies, with well evolved ways to manage conflict and interaction between deeply alien species. However, within that environment he manages to import very human elements of politics, nastiness, vanity, skulduggery and judiciously applied mega-violence! I have it in mind to re-read, and indeed take notes, because the Culture edifice is an intellectual Tour De Force and I am interested in understanding it more deeply. That’s a deep project for the future.

More immediately I enjoyed conjuring this iteration of the dancing tattered harlequin image from my digital dreamscape of photographs, editing tools, and filters.

IMG_20171224_174031_processed.jpgIt is now my project to re-render that image onto canvas using acrylic paints – I’ll keep you posted …

On the subject of digital dreamscapes I also came across a collection of some 60 digital photographs of street edited posters and graffiti style images I had collated a while ago for some reason that I don’t recall particularly. However it occurred to me that it is a curated collection I might progressively release using Instagram, with judicious reference in Facebook (I am thinking maybe 1 in ten), backed perhaps by a page on this blog. A few finishing touches, without over-thinking it, and that project will be ready to roll.  For those not already familiar, you could see it unfold on Instagram where I am posting as, perhaps unsurprisingly, charlessixdotzero, and will use the hashtag #csdzsixty2018 for the collection .



Intention Discovery Emergence Capture

Thoughts about the creative interplay between what you intend to do, what you discover as you do it, what emerges from what you’re doing and the creative outcome you capture.

It famously been said that a picture is worth a thousand words – well on my bike ride this morning I realised that this week’s blog had more or less written itself and that the 900-odd words below indeed flowed from the evolution of a single image.

As I rode into a fresh southerly wind along the Cooks River cycle path I thought about the creative interplay between what you intend to do, what you discover as you do it, what emerges from what you’re doing and the creative outcome you capture.

Before leaving for the ride I had completed the image which headlines this blog. I hadn’t directly or initially intended to produce that particular image, but my work/play had led me to make it and my creative judgement said ‘Stop, that’s it’. I like it – it speaks to me and hopefully it will also speak to others. But it was produced / emerged in a process which I will share in this blog.


It started with a pencil sketch on paper: my simple intention was to achieve reasonable modelling of light and shade, while capturing a sense of proportion from an interesting but difficult pose. I discovered a few interesting things about rendering facial features and was pleased with what emerged from my effort – certainly not perfect but advance to the point where further work would have detracted from rather than enhanced the result.



And that is the essence of creative capture: knowing when to stop!

20171212_083638.jpgEarlier in the week I had stopped on my way back from the bike shop with freshly maintained my e-bike to take this image of a peeling wall with a little light graffiti. My intent: to capture a resource image which could be combined with other photographs or drawings.

The day after completing my pencil sketch it occurred to me I should do exactly that. That was an emergent intent: I hadn’t specifically taken this background shot for that pencil sketch, but something told me it would work quite well and I discovered that it did.

20171212_083638-01.jpegThe soft pastel shades, random cracking and gentle curves of the background image merged happily with the hand drawn lines and shading from the pencil sketch. I used various tools in the Snapseed app to experiment and to discover the best way to blend both into a single integrated image I was happy with. Again the trick was in knowing when to stop.

Recently I have discovered that after combining and blending images in this way, running a final filter over the ‘finished’ image can usefully integrate it more fully.


IMG_20171221_165531_processed.jpgI have been playing with the Prisma app on my phone and thought I would try using it for a final filter pass.  That was my intent: as I played with it I discovered the depths and subtleties of some of the filtering effects, and I particularly liked this image  from the ‘Hunter’ filter.  It has become the image that I have chosen to capture as the ‘end-result’ of my initial intention to make that pencil sketch .



Which led me to a few ruminations on my bike ride:

Is creation achieved by realising the vision of what you intended or is it recognising/ capturing the vision that has emerged from your discovery in that work? Saying both might be a cop-out?

What is the real artwork: the traditional hand drawn pencil sketch or the much filtered and combined quasi-photographic image?  Someone in my drawing group last month commented that the photo-editing apps were like fake painting, and I agreed; except that, non-defensively, I would take out the word fake – it is unnecessary.   Image making is about manipulating light – paint is a tool to manipulate reflected light. Imaging software manipulates emitted light. Either way an ‘artificial’ visual perception is created.

Perhaps it might be felt that using technology somehow makes creation easier and hence less morally deserving, thus more ‘fake’.  However I am reminded of the ‘cheater’ taunt sometimes thrown at e-bike riders (usually as we sail pass some hapless push-biking soul on a steep hill), to which my usual response is “If being smart is cheating, I’ve been cheating all my life!

Photographs are in some ways are easier to produce than drawings or paintings; digital photographs are certainly easier to produce than chemical photographs; it is easier to use prepared oil paints rather than grind and blend one’s own pigments, and acrylic paints are to some extent easier to use than oils. But any attempt to eradicate technology from creativity leads us back into the caves of Lascaux and the portrayal of bison with the soot of candles and the ochre of the Earth.

The use of technology is inevitable and so the choice of technology would seem essentially discretionary and so either all image-making is fake or basically none of it is. Almost any form of human creativity will be technologically enabled to some extent or another – that would seem to be virtually inescapable.

In any event I enjoyed landing on this ‘final’ image, which builds on, without actually replacing, those which I also captured on the path to its emergence. I also enjoyed the discovery and recording of this constellation of intention, discovery, emergence and capture. It’s all in the timing!

FYI – I have written two previous creativity-related blogs illustrated with other such images:

Creation, line & form which reported my attempt to do at least one drawing each day, focused on the most basic drawing technique using black charcoal on paper.

Image Consciousness which looked at my life-long fascination with images and how they can combine, overlay and transform from the naturalistic portrayal of reality as we perceive it, into abstract patterns, which probably better reflect the actuality that surrounds us and then back into images which our senses make coherent again.




Creative AI – maybe not quite yet …

Can AI get creative? I have been thinking and writing about creativity since the nineties. The current state of play seems to be that collaborative creative AI can deliver elements of ‘technical excellence’, with context and creative judgement uniquely provided by humans. But as we co-create with our ever more intelligent, useful and responsive machines there will be potentially profound effects on the human creative process – just as we shape our machines, so they shape us.

Apparently the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority wants to introduce so-called robo-marking next year of NAPLAN assessment, arguing that there is evidence that automated marking “met or surpassed” the quality of human markers. I was intrigued the other day to see reports that the NSW education minister said it was “preposterous” to suggest computers could do a better job of marking assessments than teachers.

Followers of this blog (thank you very much for your time) will be aware that I have recently paid a fair amount of attention to AI and its implications (AI – where are we now and how did we get here?, AI and future of work, & Thinking about education, work & AI). From that familiarity I would say that it is far from preposterous that suitably tuned AI software could reliably assess writing assignments, particularly those designed to give standardised comparative outcomes. In fact given the vast data sets that would be generated from testing all school children in Australia it would probably be an almost perfect environment for data driven algorithms.  Indeed one does not have to look too far to find examples of AI actually writing similarly ‘algorithmic’ texts – one chosen more or less at random notes that:

The Washington Post started using its homegrown artificial intelligence technology, Heliograf, to spit out around 300 short reports and alerts on the Rio Olympics. Since then … in its first year, the Post has produced around 850 articles using Heliograf.

Frankly I find it preposterous that an education minister should be quite so ignorant!

Just as I was about to publish this blog, in a moment of serendipity and confirmation that this is indeed a current topic of interest, a news email from consultants McKinsey & Company arrived in my email feed – the title: AI in storytelling: Machines as cocreators! It details recent research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab investigating the potential for machine–human collaboration in video storytelling using machine-learning models that rely on deep neural networks to “watch” (not just the plot, characters, and dialogue but also more subtle touches, like a close-up of a person’s face or a snippet of music) small slices of video—movies, TV, and short online features—and estimate their positive or negative emotional content by the second.

They concluded:

Machines can view an untagged video and create an emotional arc for the story based on all of its audio and visual elements. That’s something we’ve never seen before – machines that could identify common emotional arcs in video stories.

My incredulity was further heightened when last Wednesday I attended what was styled as ‘The Great Debate: Humans, Data, AI & Ethics’ organised by the UTS Connected Intelligence Centre.  Using a classic debate format two teams presented the positive and negative cases for the proposition that:  ‘Humans have blown it: it’s time to turn the planet over to the machines’.


It was both entertaining and informative stuff. The negative team, that is the pro-humans, (that’s not them in the photograph!) had a convincing win. They presented well-argued humanist propositions that humans are indispensable and hence perhaps would seem to be on the side of the good minister. However the subtle difference was that these folks are well versed in the algorithmic data-driven world of today – they well accepted that the world of the future is one of human-machine collaboration and possibly even partnership.

The critical and unique contribution from humans was argued to be creativity, which machines cannot recreate.  It is a fascinating area of contention as to whether that will always be the case. To some extent at least it depends on what you define as creative. It is something I have been thinking and writing about since the nineties. I noted back then as a challenge in considering creativity that a lot of traditionally artistic activity isn’t necessarily all that ‘creative’, in the sense of producing something novel or unexpected. How come?  Because much painting, drawing, poetry making and creative writing are functioning at a technical level, where skill is important: blissful flow states are achievable; beautiful works can be created. And indeed these ‘merely technical skills’ are what AI is being aimed at, with increasing success. But this is often not technical skill, as such, that marks out ‘more’ creative artists at work.

The suggestion here would be that it is that these people are pushing the ‘grammar’ or patterns of their field, inventing whole new worlds or universes of discovery and discourse. That is why Picasso is a genius, if not a prodigy working exceptionally high in the stack, where he opened and explored entire new universes of artistic expression. The question is not usually his technical skill although his draughtsmanship and painterliness cannot seriously be questioned. His gift was that he introduced modern art (among others) the art of Africa, Surrealism and the unconscious, Cubism. He was always changing and exploring further. David Bowie is perhaps another more contemporary example of artistic invention and reinvention.

A contrast can perhaps be made with Salvador Dali, who, while consummately competent at his Surrealist paintings, stuck with these until they were a genre, and he its epitome. Once he was established in that grammar he stayed in it, working in established patterns rather than making new grammars. Jackson Pollock also produced singular work but in one frame after which he tragically and sadly flamed out.

I recently read a similar observation in a review of the Hyper Real exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia (thanks for sharing Loes), which noted that “manual dexterity, so valued only a generation ago, is growing increasingly redundant. As in most good art, it is the conceptual framework that is of higher value than the virtuosity of the execution and, as a matter of fact, many of the hyperreal artists leave the manufacture of their work to technicians.”

I also found interesting resonance with this topic in a presentation about the work of Hubert Dreyfus and his model of skill acquisition at last month’s facilitators’ network meeting. This model proposes five stages of skill acquisition ranging from novice to expert. There is a pretty good Wikipedia page on it which I can leave you to peruse but the key take-away in this context is the way in which the expert can transcend reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims and instead rely on an intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding. It is this deep tacit understanding that can then lead the expert to become a domain innovator and inventor of frameworks of novel rules, guidelines etc.

It is also interesting that Dreyfus as a philosopher was a long-standing critic of artificial intelligence, particularly the philosophical naive and mathematically formulated versions attempted in the last century. I suspect the deep learning, neural based, data driven approaches common today would be less susceptible to his humanist objections – the topic for another day perhaps, interesting to me since his philosophical approach used thinking I explored extensively in writing my Sociology Master’s thesis in the late seventies.

However to my mind there is much more to the currently unique human creative capacity than that of expert skill mastery… for example I identified a paradox of creativity in my previous thinking, which was that in some ways the more familiar you become with a particular field of work, the less creative you become. Specialists may take choices early in the mastery of the discipline, and rarely if ever revisit the taken for granted aspects of the practise, forgetting or never realising that some of their basic assumptions are actually choice based.  As skill and mastery increases, one makes conscious reference to the domain framework less and less ad certain skills become wholly automatic and habitual – no thought required. Great skill perhaps, but at the same time the creative envelope has narrowed. The best expert in Dreyfus is scheme can and do achieve innovative thinking but it is manifestly not easy. Breaking through and recovering creative naivety toward acquired and mastered subjects can be very difficult.

One solution is to recruit and teach neophytes, and to observe them carefully as they learn. It is a commonplace observation that people new to a field can often offer significant innovations and insights, although they may lack the ability to fully realise them.  As we cover the elementary ground that specialists left behind years before, we make observations and explore directions which emerge early in the problem space of the discipline, and may have being laying fallow.  A non-altruistic reason to pass on your skills and to be patient with learners! Working out what you do well enough to teach it to others can force a re-evaluation sufficient to jolt insight.

The other thing here is that as we learn a new subject or revisit a current domain from first principles, we can cross over previously acquired knowledge and generate novelty from that collision – something I touched on in my blog about the specialist generalist.

This ‘crossing over’ was something I demonstrated for myself in a modest way when I combined my recent charcoal sketches from the U3A drawing group with various photographs of flowers and street art – e.g.


The drawings have been essentially for practice and the photographs relatively run-of-the-mill – neither particularly creative in themselves. However integrating and overlaying the individual images has generated results which I have found to be genuinely creative, the emergent consequence of combining two different skill sets and impulses.

I recall there was a discussion at a UTS Hatchery AI meeting about the social dimension to creativity, that AI technology, like other technologies, can help a person (human) deliver ‘better’ more technically polished work.  This resonates with the conclusions of the MIT work reported above, which said:

These insights will not necessarily send screenwriters back to the drawing board—that would be like asking George Orwell to tack a happy ending onto 1984 to cheer things up. But they could inspire video storytellers to look at their content objectively and make edits to increase engagement. That could mean a new musical score or a different image at crucial moments, as well as tweaks to plot, dialogue, and characters. As storytellers increasingly realize the value of AI, and as these tools become more readily available, we could see a major change in the way video stories are created. In the same way directors can now integrate motion capture in their work, writers and storyboarders might work alongside machines, using AI capabilities to sharpen stories and amplify the emotional pull.

That is the collaborative dimension of creative AI – the essential ingredients provided by the human are context and creative judgement, which will perhaps remain uniquely human.

But I also note that as we co-create in partnership with our ever more intelligent, useful and responsive machines, they will be learning about our context and judgement, perhaps ultimately to appreciate the former and exercise the latter.   As they do so there will be potentially profound effects on the human creative process – just as we shape our machines, so they shape us. Dreyfus was cited at the facilitators’ network meeting as expressing this reciprocity between humans and their technology thus:

“As the carpenter shapes the desk, so the desk shapes the carpenter.”