WILMINGTON — Being outsourced to a machine: That’s the threat many artists contend with when it comes to the advancement of artificial intelligence.
For digital artist John Bahr — better recognized as Bahr III, per his insignia on artworks hanging in local businesses downtown — AI is another tool opening a world of possibilities. Bahr leans into the fear and excitement of AI in his latest show, “The Artificial Intelligence Dream Machine,” to open one night only, Wednesday, Sept. 27, in the Brooklyn Arts District.
“I’ve tried to personify people’s different thoughts on AI in this collection,” Bahr said. “You hear a lot of: ‘Well, it’s not real art,’ ‘The artist’s soul isn’t in it,’ and all this stuff. So I’ve tried to blow up that idea a little bit.”
Robots make appearances in much of the series: spray painting a wall of graffiti, eating a cheeseburger, carrying a briefcase to work while passing by a picket line of artists holding signs that declare, “Say no to AI.”
One piece features a robot painting a portrait of Bahr. It’s the artist’s sense humor shining through, exaggerating the idea of a robot’s quest for world domination.
“Instead of people being scared of the machine, I mean, really — let’s think about the robots,” he said with a laugh.
The tongue-in-cheek notion was actually inspired by a discussion Bahr was having with another local artist about the threat of artificial intelligence on the art world. The “traditional artist,” as Bahr called him, had posted online, “Just say no to AI generated images.” Bahr responded that when used with some forethought, it’s another tool in the creative toolbox, not something to be terrified by.
“I understand a lot of people are scared of AI right now,” Bahr said. “It’s powerful and looks like it can replace jobs. But I also believe that it will make handmade artwork even more valuable.”
As a digital artist, Bahr said he isn’t threatened by the idea of AI overshadowing various forms of art. He likens it to technology that has come throughout the last 40 years — whether it’s video animation or CGI. They’re both used with artists at the foundation of control.
However, opposers worry over the day there is no human to trace back AI content. It also comes with copyright infringement issues, already on the rise in the social sphere. Three artists have sued companies profiting from AI image-use creators, stating their works were utilized to train the image generators without the artist’s permission.
But plagiarism isn’t a new conversation in art history. Thousands of years ago, Michelangelo was accused of art forgery at the start of his career for copying an ancient Roman sculpture, “Sleeping Cupid.”
Just this year the Supreme Court found the estate of pop artist Andy Warhol guilty of copyright infringement over a Prince photograph taken by Lynn Goldsmith used in a painting.
Neither had AI at the basis.
Disney, the Simpsons, the Monopoly man — they’ve all appeared as symbols in various works by greats, Bahr added. New York artist and DJ Alex Andon takes on the Hasbro board game trinket as his mascot. Street artist Banksy created “Dismaland,” a dim and dark pastiche on Disney. Famed pop artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s three-point crown has been replicated far and wide for 40 years.
“Artists have made millions of dollars off of recreating objects and figures that we already all know,” Bahr said. “I think part of the artistic process is, you look at work that inspires you, put your own take on it, and through that process, that’s how you derive your style and figure your own stuff out.”
Bahr said that’s relevant whether painting, drawing, creating digital works or sculpting. As a digital artist, he likes AI because it offers a better workflow, whether he feeds AI his own digital illustrations or creates new ones with specific word prompts.
Much of the AI software platforms generate images through a phrase. The latter is not as easy to dictate as it seems, Bahr said, especially when considering artists in general use the act of creation as their language. Bahr said AI is similar to coding but not without trial and error.
“How do I organize my words and my parameters to get the right output?” he asks upon starting a new image. “Sometimes it’s amazing and AI nails it, even better than I imagined. Other times, it completely falls short and I’ve had to abandon some ideas.”
For instance, the prompt to create a robot spray-painting a building didn’t come easily, as simple as it seems. AI spit out a painted robot on the side of a building multiple times before getting the gist of Bahr’s command. It had to be tweaked with a different parameter every time. Like other digital tools, there are layers and nuance to the software.
For “Dream Machine,” Bahr utilized programs like DALL•E and Stable Diffusion, as well as Runway for video generation. He always has worked with Photoshop, also outfitted with an AI component now.
“I’m trying to use everything that’s out there,” he said. “And there’s a lot of new trial stuff. It feels like it’s moving exponentially.”
Bahr used an example prompting ChatGPT — the fastest-growing app in history with more than 100 million users — to create an image from the words “graveyard, Halloween, vampires.” He said he could submit it five times and each would spawn a different result. Bahr adds weights to the words — between one and 1,000 — to determine which part of the image deserves emphasis. They all start at a default of 1.
“Maybe the first time I do it, Halloween is the biggest weighted word,” he described. “So I can retype it and say, ‘Let’s focus on vampire,’ but the more you get into it, it actually gets very intricate — which I’m still learning every day.”
Bahr admits it’s a weird way to create. But that’s part of the appeal: having to describe what the creation is before even generating it.
“There was a good quote I read from a designer, when everyone’s like, ‘Oh, she’ll be freaked out that AI is gonna steal our jobs,’ and the designer’s response: ‘Have you ever talked to the client and asked them to describe what they want?’ Your jobs are safe because it’s so hard, especially with art, and everyone’s going to have a different description to what they see,” Bahr said.
Defending the use of AI comes in many forms; another common complaint Bahr hears is that AI art doesn’t have soul. He disavows the notion as the artist’s vision is as sacred as the act of making it come to life.
“It’s really about, how do you get into the details of it?” he said. “AI feels very much like the same kind of process as traditional art; the more experience you get with it, the more you understand how to use the tool.”
Bahr got his start as a digital artist by way of mechanical engineering. He graduated from Georgia Tech and went to work in D.C. for a corporate firm almost two decades ago. Traditional pencil-and-paper drafting drew him to the profession, which piqued more once he was introduced to computer-generated design.
Bahr went into building design, which at the time endured a technological push via visualization tools. He would design infrastructure — such as the pipes or electrical components of a project — with coworkers, architects, tradesmen and others to create multi-billion-dollar facilities.
However, three years in, Bahr was transferred to an estimating role, which took him out of the field and instead behind a desk. He decided to leave the profession.
“I sold everything I owned, cashed out my 401(k) and traveled the world,” he said.
He took up photography and continued manipulating imagery via the digital landscape. He is drawn to digital art due to the precision of lines.
“Drawing is a very loose activity for me,” he said. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen when I start drawing — the train of thought comes out through my hand. So digital is a different type of art; I can get it exact, I can get it clean, I can reposition it. Whereas once you start a painting, you’re kind of committed to that — and mistakes cost a lot more time.”
Now a full-time artist, Bahr has been commissioned for large and small works, in between hosting art shows aplenty.
Locally, an Asian-inspired series of anime hangs at YoSake, while Port City Cheesesteak features the trademark image of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge superimposed with pop-cultural references. The Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters” walks on water in one, while another features former Wilmingtonian Michael Jordan dunking a basketball over the bridge in his Bulls uniform.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Bahr was hired to do a $4,000 “Alice in Wonderland” commission that went awry.
“I was going through a bunch of personal stuff and ended up blowing the commission, which is awful, it sucked,” he said. “I had to refund the money, but I kept thinking, ‘How can I make this better?’”
Bahr said though it stung, the whole process, from beginning to end, was a necessary learning experience. He has reinvented the piece into a small series as part of “Dream Machine.”
The Lewis Carroll book is known for its fantastical dream sequence of protagonist Alice who falls down a rabbit hole filled with anthropomorphic creatures. It’s been seared into pop-culture, particularly the LSD experiments of the Sixties as documented in the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.
To manipulate the imagery, Bahr used verbiage of his personal experience with his former commissioned piece and background of the famed tale to redo the art. The small body of work shows Alice freaked out on psychedelics in a mushroom forest, having a bad trip.
“It’s part of the story, and my own experience with art and subjects,” Bahr said. “The big argument of, ‘You’re not creating it, the computer is,’ is parallel to any line of code or software. If you look at it that way, it’s like, ‘Well, you didn’t create the code, you didn’t create that coding language,’ but every software engineer that develops has to speak that language to manipulate the code, to input the right variables and get out the right result.”
“Dream Machine” signifies this hybrid process. For a video installation to be shown, Bahr input some of his own digital artwork. He pays homage to his Ecuadorian background, including a piece featuring a shaman and another of an Indian woman stuck between the natural and modern world.
“It’s kind of a little all over,” he said. “But it’s basically balancing old ideas with new techniques.”
Bahr has been inspired by religious symbols and archetypes throughout his life, also highlighted in the show. One was prompted by the demand: “Imagine artificial intelligence as Eve in the Garden of Eden.” A robot-like female is picking an apple from a tree.
Another features a Madonna-like figure with a child.
Both represent being born — a newness of life, parallel to the rapid strides artificial intelligence has made in the digital age.
“It’s grown just leaps and bounds from the beginning of the year, when it was easy to tell, ‘OK, this is AI-generated,’” Bahr said. “They’ve just done so much and every day it gets better — and I get that is the scary part.”
Still, the digital art form mitigates Bahr’s impatience and propensity to bore easily, he admitted. He appreciates how much quicker he can churn out art on a digital platform. Utilizing AI to help with imaging speeds up the process even more.
“If I’m a painter or a designer, I can only process so many ideas a day,” Bahr said. “I can get closer to an image I want than ever before but, like, way, way faster. That’s what makes this interesting. I think some of the most famous artists we all know are because they were able to produce such a large body of work.”
He pointed to Picasso as an example; experts believe he created almost 150,000 pieces of art.
Even the famed Spanish artist has been affected by AI. Over the summer, a New York-based company, Artrendex, through artificial intelligence, was able to authenticate a long lost Picasso drawing, “The Naked Man.” A collector stumbled upon it in the early 2000s and worked for years to try and verify it at the hands of real-life experts but failed.
“Not all AI is bad,” Bahr said. “And at the end of the day, I always like to use my art in a way I hope will open people’s minds. Flip it a little bit, make people think. If someone says, ‘This is beautiful,’ then it doesn’t really matter how things are created, per se. Right? I think what matters is the final product we see and how it makes us feel. I think the worst thing is that people just walk by and feel nothing.”
“Dream Machine” consists of 50 small works, with 10 larger pieces and an animation video, priced $50 and up.
The show was originally scheduled to take place a month ago, but Hurricane Idalia passed by the area delaying it. Around the same time, Bahr was in the midst of the AI debate with the formerly mentioned traditional artist.
“Essentially, he blocked me on social media,” Bahr said. “It’s a misconception that AI will just replace artists. I think we still have to use artistry, we still have to have a vision. I still have to know how to use those tools to bring out the vision, just like if I’m painting with oil or watercolor.”
“The Artificial Intelligence Dream Machine” will be on display from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sept. 27 at Belle Vue (1125 N. Fourth St.).
Tips, comments or arts news? Email Shea Carver at email@example.com.