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Interview about PLANT and AI with Debora Hirsch

VIDEOCITTÀ 2024, Gazometro, Rome

Tell us about your project. How did you start, and how did you arrive at PLANT?

Although nature has always been a focus of my artistic exploration, a pivotal moment deeply inspired me to study endangered flora, biodiversity threats, and the intricate balances of nature, making it my lifelong pursuit.

Ironically, this moment did not occur while immersed in the lush nature of my home country Brazil, but rather while exploring the fresco of the Villa of Livia, now housed in the National Roman Museum—a truly outstanding work of art.

The quality and innovation of this Roman fresco amazed me, particularly in its use of perspective and focus techniques. The fresco creates the feeling of being inside a lush, paradisiacal garden, showcasing a wide variety of plant species and birds. It challenges seasonal constraints by depicting plants and flowers at their peak. Moreover, it features a caged bird, an extremely rare element for that era. The details of the fresco sparked my curiosity about the species depicted, some of which may no longer exist. 

At the same time, my background as an engineer led me to explore the impact of digital technology on communication and culture. I was researching AI tools and coding. The convergence of these two interests gave rise to my PLANT research. This project, which integrates AI and blockchain technology, allows for the creation and preservation of virtual plants, capturing the essence of species that might be lost in the future.

Georgia O'Keeffe once said, "When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so much, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not." 

This quote came to mind because it perfectly encapsulates what I am doing now. Disconnection from nature can lead to a lack of awareness about the vital role that nature plays in our lives and the delicate balance of ecosystems. By presenting nature in a way that captures attention, even for a fleeting moment, I want to recreate that sense of wonder and connection.


Georgia O'Keeffe was never an environmental activist in the strict sense of the term, but with her work "Save Our Plant Save our Air" alongside five other artists, she participated in the "Save Our Planet" initiative. In the context of American environmentalism and cultural diplomacy in the 1970s, six posters were funded by Olivetti on the idea of the Pace Gallery to support UNESCO. Each poster began with the phrase "Save Our Planet," followed by a sentence emphasizing the importance of protecting wilderness, wildlife, water, air, people, and cities.

When I think about the ‘Visions of Hawaii’ exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden in 2018, I wonder whether visitors to O'Keeffe's exhibition were aware of the degree of danger faced by these landscapes so deeply affiliated with the artist. I wonder how many of these visitors missed the contemporary context, especially if they overlooked the conservation-oriented segments in favor of the more glamorous parts of the exhibition.

O'Keeffe's Hawaiian paintings come from a time when settlers did not appreciate the ecological visions of the Kānaka Maoli, who believed that ancestral spirits often took the form of plants and animals. 
Perceiving all living beings as connected to you enriches your life much more than seeing yourself as a consumer in a world of commodities.

Such a philosophy embraces a more sustainable coexistence with nature, in contrast to the exploitative attitude embodied in monoculture agriculture—in Hawaii’s case, plantations of sugar, papaya, and pineapple.


What challenges did you face at the beginning?

A question that I often ask myself is how to avoid having my work appreciated only for its beauty, fine painting, or metaphysical aspects. I believe technology has allowed me to overcome this limitation and convey my message clearly. I am recreating endangered species in my painting style while using AI, then recording them on the blockchain as a symbolic archive of what we risk losing in the future. The message through AI and blockchain technology becomes clearer.


AI has allowed me to explore the complexity of natural systems and the interrelationship of their parts. I used a pre-trained AI model that I refined with my datasets, generating digital results that will be subsequently incorporated into my compositions and animations. 


I do not aim for literal interpretations of the selected plant species; they remain only as references. My plant compositions can include frames, caves, landscapes, architectural details, forests, rocks, monolithic birds, all elements that highlight the intricate interconnections within ecosystems, evoking the delicate balance and impermanence of nature. 


If any elements of my compositions are removed, the entire structure collapses aesthetically, paralleling the fragile equilibrium observed in ecosystems.

Birds hold significance as messengers, channels between heaven and earth, and symbolize the soul. The representation of plants lacks seasonal coherence to favor their most typical and recognizable elements. The context is not descriptive of the plant's real ecosystem.

My plants know no boundaries and they live in imaginary worlds. Plants have a clear and special presence in the composition and a high visual relevance as the true protagonists of the scene.


My decision on which plants to represent depends on various factors, including the available information on their history, utility, cause of extinction, but especially their beauty or peculiarity, to make my representation artistically and aesthetically intriguing. 


The collection is intended as an evolving repository of endangered species, reinforcing the central theme of the PLANT series. It embodies a lifelong commitment to ongoing research.


What excites you most about the future of AI in art?

The ability of AI to process and analyze vast amounts of data allows for the creation of artworks that can draw from a multitude of references. Additionally, the number of results that models can offer is practically limitless. AI also enables a variety of interactive and immersive artistic experiences that engages the audience in new ways.


From a philosophical perspective, the collaboration between AI and artists may require to a redefinition of creativity. This sparks important conversations about the role of the artist in the digital age. It forces us to reconsider what it means to create and appreciate art in a world where even machines can be creators. AI in art also involves the transformation of our relationship with the creative act while maybe transcending certain boundaries and limits.

What do you hope AI can do in the future that it doesn’t do today?

I hope that in the future AI can surpass its current capabilities to become a true collaborator in the creative process, possessing an intuitive understanding of human emotions and cultural context. Although today's AI can mimic styles and generate aesthetically pleasing results, it still lacks a deeper understanding of the human experience that underpins truly profound art. I envision an AI with a deep understanding of the artist's intent.

Another aspiration is for AI to facilitate a deeper and more meaningful engagement between art and its audience. We can already create interactive and immersive experiences, adapting in real-time to the audience's emotional and psychological states, analyzing subtle signals like body language, facial expressions, and biometric data to tailor artistic experiences and resonate on a personal level, by creating an intimate and transformative connection with the viewer.

What is one thing that concerns you about the future of AI in art?

Perhaps the potential erosion of the human element at the heart of artistic creation is another consideration. Art has always been a profound human endeavor. Depending on future developments and how it is used, there could be a risk of homogenization. AI systems, even those designed to innovate, operate based on patterns and data. This could lead to a convergence in style and content, where the distinctiveness and individuality of human artists are diminished. The diversity of artistic expression, which is so vital for the richness of the art world, could be at risk of being replaced by a more uniform aesthetic dictated by machine learning models.

The intrusion of AI into the creative process could lead to a loss of emotional resonance in art. Human-created art often carries the weight of personal experience, cultural context, unique perspectives, and emotional depth. AI, despite its capabilities, lacks genuine emotions and consciousness.

However, AI can also be a powerful tool in the hands of human artists. By leveraging AI to enhance rather than replace human creativity, artists can push the boundaries of their work, exploring new techniques and perspectives. This collaboration between human intuition and AI's analytical capabilities can lead to innovative and unexpected forms of expression, ensuring that the core of artistic creation—its emotional and cultural significance—remains intact while expanding the possibilities of what art can be.

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