‘Copying is part of the process’: NFN Kalyan on AI and art


“AI in art represents a democratisation of process,” says No-First-Name Kalyan, a Miami-based artist. Besides investigating NFTs, he has recently started creating on Midjourney, and his AI experiments — especially a sci-fi ‘History of India’ series, where he envisions what would have happened to India if it had been occupied by aliens rather than the British — has become extremely popular on Instagram.

“Sometimes artists become stale because they get used to their methods. So, I like to create discomfort for myself. Not painting any more is a step in that direction,” he says. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

Where does the artistry lie in AI work?

Defining where the art lies in something is difficult. The artists that are upset about their technique being stolen may feel that the artistry lies in that very technique. But in the fine art world, artistry lies in the concept. Technique [good or bad] only exists to aid that concept. Many artistic practices that require minimal technique are displayed in the world’s finest museums because the concept is paramount. AI will be no different. The fine art world will survive and adapt; artists will use it to convey whatever message they wish. For now, it is the graphic designers and artists who will suffer.

It is worth noting that we are in the early stages of AI. This will become so broad and all pervasive that the generation of children being born now may never have an impetus to draw. Why would they do it? Handwriting is already dying because we just type. Artistic skill will have the same trajectory.

In the future there could be AI that can generate an entire TV drama series at your request. The actors will look real but won’t be. The music will have been generated on the spot. The plot, dialogue, cinematographic decisions and direction will have been created by a simple user prompt. All entertainment could be tailored to your tastes and exist only for you.

What about questions of legality and ethics?

Legally, I don’t believe any artist has a right to their style. Copying has been a part of the learning process and even a part of the larger art world for centuries. If we eliminated every artist whose technique was heavily influenced by Warhol or Basquiat, many prominent artists would cease to exist. The other side to this is that AI is simply borrowing from data that is free to all. For decades we have put our information online. We complain about data being stolen, but still want the benefits such as e-commerce, social media and online banking. Artists share their work to websites and social media for free and are suddenly upset that it is being used as data despite this precedent having been set a long time ago.

You’ve been creating with Midjourney. Why did you start this experiment?

My work is entirely centred around ideas. Because of this approach, I have worked in oil painting, glass and bronze sculpture, laser etching and mixed 2D media. My view on AI is no different from these other forms. Early iterations of Midjourney were excellent at making portraits. I have used some of these AI generated portraits as references in a series of paintings that deal with the ramifications of humanity’s continued descent into digital worlds.

My experiments with Midjourney have helped me understand something else as well. Process is the thing that makes us nuanced and deep human beings. Maturity comes from the process of living. [I mean] a 14-year-old can comprehend almost any topic, but may not have a deep understanding of it. I can tell someone that divorce is hard, but only when they have lived through one can they understand it. The trajectory of mankind has been to eliminate process. With each elimination, we feel like we have done our species a favour, that we’ve made our lives easier. But, in fact, with that ease we have disconnected ourselves from an aspect of life.

Now we are finding ways to disconnect artists from their process. Years of practice don’t just shape the technique of an artist; it shapes the artist’s soul. It shapes their understanding of the craft and the world around them. With the invention of AI we are taking that away.

Your AI generated images have already been copied by others. So, how does one acknowledge creativity and originality?

My history of India series posed a simple question: ‘What if India had been occupied by aliens rather than the British.’ Science fiction has always been a way to examine human behaviour. I don’t see other people’s variations of my series as copies. Art is a process of inspiration. I agonised how to show humanity in the limited way MidJourney allowed. Many of the other series just had images of aliens with people. It is fun to see, but in the end it was just candy. There was not a lot of substance.

ALSO READ | Why has art created by AI become controversial?

These types of copies have happened in my painting practice as well. But it is harder to notice because most artists don’t have the technique to replicate what I do. What scares artists [with AI] isn’t the copying. It’s the ease with which people that have no talent can copy.

To my mind, this should reinforce that an artist must find something valuable to say. If the technique is democratic, then the message is all that matters.

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