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Local art scene chimes in on complex relationship between art and AI


Digital artist and filmmaker Sabine Gruffat's most recent collaborator is artificial intelligence. 

In her animation work, Gruffat uses AI as an assistive tool. She often uses motion capture suits — which allow animators to capture movement data from sensors on human bodies — for her animations, and relies on AI to fill in gaps in the data.

Gruffat is one of a number of voices in Chapel Hill, including on campus, chiming in on debates about the role of AI in art-making. For her, AI is integral.

She started her career before widespread use of the internet, and she said her work in digital mediums has forced her to learn and adapt to new methodologies throughout the years.

“People think AI and they think text,” she said. “They usually think language models, because that’s what’s in the news. But there are so many other applications of AI — they’re already in use in these other sorts of areas that we may not even realize.” 

She said before AI, motion capture animators like her would have to fix data by hand, but they can now turn to their digital assistants to make assumptions and fill in the gaps. 

Gruffat is a professor of digital art at UNC, where she encourages the use of AI as a brainstorming tool for her students. She said that in her animation courses, AI can help students visualize and choose from different versions of their designs before deciding which one to pursue. 

Senior art student Timothy Anderson also uses AI within his work, which often focuses on the creation of deepfakes: digitally altered depictions of a person, often of well-known figures. 

“The kind of work I do is using generative AI programs to deepfake, but really to make videos,” he said. “Videos that do appear to be AI generated, but are using that for a larger purpose rather than just a still image or some weird edit of Taylor Swift or something.”

As part of the Southern Futures Fellowship under the Center for the Study of the American South, Anderson receives funding to make work about the contemporary South. He said he uses AI technology to achieve the larger purpose of his work.

“It’s to provoke, in this case, questioning about what happens to narratives throughout time,” he said. “Especially narratives that are super culturally dependent — in this case about the South.”

Artificial intelligence not only acts as a tool for artists like Gruffat and Anderson, but is also becoming a resource for viewers.

Senior art student Qiaoan "Joseph" Gu said that while he has never worked with AI up to now, he has plans to use it in the future — not to create visuals, but to interpret them.

He said he’s interested in the idea of AI being unbiased and believes that using AI to generate descriptions of art may provide new perspectives.

While Gu has yet to manifest his idea for AI-generated image analysis, technology is already being used to enhance viewers' experiences of art on UNC’s campus.

The Ackland Art Museum recently implemented the most recent version of the “ArtBot." Although not technically considered AI, the interactive chatbot-like tool encourages visitors to engage with the art in the museum by scanning a QR code and responding to prompts about the art.

“It’s really designed to mirror a conversation that you might have out loud with one of our knowledgeable student guides or one of our graduate teaching fellows, or one of our great tour guides,” the Ackland's Head of Public Programs Allison Portnow Lathrop said. “It sort of gives an individual visitor access to that kind of experience.”

The Ackland's Head of University Programs and Academic Projects Elizabeth Manekin said that the ArtBot is meant to prolong the viewer’s experience with individual works of art, encouraging them to make specific observations about what they see. 

Although the Ackland has implemented chatbot technology into their museum, Portnow Lathrop said that she doesn’t expect them to exhibit AI-generated artworks down the line.

“It makes me uncomfortable to think that we’d have AI-generated images without human input,” she said

Recognizing the humanity in a piece of art is important, Natalie Knox, the executive director of the FRANK Gallery in Carrboro, said.

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“Being able to see the artist’s hand in whatever they’re creating, to me, is really important,” she said. “You know, whether it’s sculptural or 2-D, being able to see ‘Oh, well, that person had a tool, they used that tool, and they were able to create this final product, but it’s not generated by technology.'” 

For Anderson, AI technology, such as his use of deepfakes, is not something to be apprehensive of, but is a continuation of technological advancements in art throughout time. 

“If I had someone ask me ‘Why do you think so many people dislike AI assisted art?,’ I would say that people think it’s too easy,” he said. “And they have a misunderstanding of the myriad of ways that you can use it and that it can be worked into an art piece.”


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