How did your story of working together as a duo begin?
Alberto: We met through Instagram. I approached AI on a project about two and a half years ago. I am a fashion photographer and was very curious to involve my professional life with new media. I really loved the result and the possibilities of this technology. So I was looking for a person to collaborate with. Ümüt saw the previous work I did with the AI and saw the potential to work with someone in the commercial and fashion industry, where he could bring his profession to this world. If I am not wrong, he reached out to me first, saying “hey, I see you work with AI, I do that too, we should collaborate”. And I said yes, perfect, let’s give it a try. And the first project we did together was for Vogue Italia.
It was during the first wave of Corona in April 2020 and the project went very very well. I saw that Ümüt is like me, very dedicated to work, very professional, and he works overtime if necessary. That was the person I was looking for. Plus we have the same stupid sense of humour and we both like superhero movies. There is also a human connection. Since then, we have worked on multiple editorial commercial projects, as an artist duo.
Why did you especially approach Alberto, Ümüt? What did you like about his work?
Ümüt: I liked his aesthetics as a photographer because I saw his previous work for Vogue Italia. And I saw that he mixes media and is open to AI. These days, everyone thinks a photographer is brave shooting nudes, instead of using new technologies. But Alberto was working with new technology and never stopped me trying out new things, and that is what I really like about him and what I consider as brave. Especially when talking with Alberto about commercial projects, where you have to please the customers and clients and where products are in the focus. We always find a way to bring art into the commercial world or to create something new with the knowledge of different fields. I am a designer too, I studied computer science and it became more a hybrid of both worlds. And Alberto is a hybrid too, being a photographer and new media artist. And that’s what I like. We changed the way a photographer works, how a digital artist works, how computer scientists are working.
How did you get into Artificial Intelligence?
Ümüt: I was always into generating art like creating with algorithms, being a DJ, and working interactively. It was not the visual aesthetics that I tried to reach though. Then I saw for the first time works from artists like Memoartkin and music videos from the band MGMT and asked myself how they created these styles. That can’t be Aftereffects. I researched, I wanted to know how this was made and how I can do that by myself. This pushed me a lot into programs like Python and I tried to find new algorithms through AI models and that’s the story behind it.
And for you Alberto, what was your motivation to get into AI?
Alberto: Survival and evolution. For the past ten, fifteen years photography as a profession has become very very easy. With that I mean that anyone can take a good photograph. Of course, there are some professionals who are better than others. But technically speaking, anyone can take a good photo. Which means the profession has lowered its standard. Anyone can take photos and everyone is taking photos. So whenever brands have to invest money, why should they invest in me? What do I have more to offer than others? Why should I earn that money, if someone else, maybe younger, maybe more friendly, can do pretty much the same job for half of the price? The competition in photography was crazy, and I was having a hard time having my breakthrough. At least through traditional photography.
So I was trying to study what successful people before me did. Not just photographers, but artists in general. I was looking at biographies and was seeing that all these very successful people started in one direction and at a certain point they ended up changing that direction. So they mixed their old profession with new knowledge, which made them more powerful. So I tried to do the same thing. I am a photographer and I have a master in photography, so I know it technically and philosophically. This was my turning point. Still in visual arts, but beyond photography. 3D rendering and artificial intelligence are the two places where I landed. AI is where we are really pushing forward and where both - Ümüt and I - are recognized in the commercial world. It is such a new technology and it is such a difficult technology, not only to do, but also to think about, to imagine it and to critically direct it. It is so difficult, it is such a new language, that just a very few people are doing it and even fewer people are doing it well. And that created a niche for us. You want that aesthetic, you want that style, you want that technology, then you have to call us. And that brought back the chance to me being a photographer or image maker, that was missing before.
For people who did not get in touch with AI yet, how would you describe your art? What does your AI make different from the AI of other artists?
Ümüt: First things first, Alberto said everyone can be a photographer, but Alberto and I discussed AI. We can not invent the wheel again. But we can involve it and this is what we are trying to do with our art. We are trying to create something that comes from AI but gives you emotions. We are trying to control it. We are trying to get to the edges of this new technology, to get to know it better, to understand it. And not to just consider it as something new, being automatically interesting. Swiping through many artworks on the NFT market or on Instagram, I see a lot of cool pictures, but after a few minutes they are forgotten.. We can say our work is recognizable, our style is recognizable and it is an honest and meaningful piece of art worth being in a museum or a gallery.
Alberto: As Ümüt is saying, the technicality is not enough. The fact that we are doing something new is not enough. The fact that it looks cool, is not enough to actually call it artwork. So what we have done is that we found a common ground. Ümüt as a digital artist and me as a photographer. The base of our work is to study and evolve the human body. This is what we are mostly focusing on. I have been writing a manifesto of what we are doing. We call the style we are doing digital expressionism. And there is a set of rules that we are following. Such as in any art style and art movement, you have to follow rules in order to be recognized as a specific movement. The basic rule that we have is that the artist always has to be contemporary themselves. The subjects of art throughout history have always been the same. Since ancient times, when people were drawing inside caves, they always focused on three things: the presentation of the human figure, let’s call it portrait. Secondly, the presentation of still life, objects or animals. And finally, landscapes whether it is natural or architectural. So these three things have been represented for thousands of years. What changed is, how people represent these things and how they are represented is pushed forward by technology. The technology that allowed us to carve marble enabled the Greeks to shape the human body in a specific look and aesthetic. Hundreds of years later, we have oil paintings. So we still have the presentation of the same human idea, but through a different technology. And this technology also inspired the artist to think in a different way. Technology goes hand in hand with the evolution of art. So what we are doing now, is using a new media, artificial intelligence to represent these classic human themes, especially the human figure but in a different way. This difference comes from a new technicality.
What inspires you? Is it still possible to get inspired in the analogue world?
Alberto: One of the rules that I was telling you about being a digital expressionist was that you have to spend a lot of time in front of the computer. But when you are not working there, you have to be outside, you have to be in nature, you have to be surrounded by natural elements, you have to be inspired by the organic world. You have to be inspired by biology, by animals and by plants. You should not be inspired by the shape of pixels. You have to pick up things from the real world and bring them to a digital context.
You are working with a lot of well known brands and magazines like Vogue, Bulgari, or Kiton. How experimental are these collaborations in relation to your personal projects?
Alberto: Extremely! The fashion industry is always very safe. Any project, especially when it comes to commercials, has to be approved, to be agreed on, even before you have started to work on the project. The client knows exactly how the final result has to look like. This is traditional fashion media creation, whether it is photography or media. With AI, the first thing I say when I go to meetings is “just breathe and go with the flow. Everything is unpredictable.” Nobody knows what it is going to look like, until it is done. We have mastered the technology, so we know how to control it, we know how to direct it, we can give it shape. But the beautiful thing about this technology is that it has a mind on its own. That is why it is called Artificial Intelligence. She does what she wants and that freaks everyone out. It freaks me personally out as well, as much as the client. But in the end, we always succeeded.
Ümüt: Our first project with Vogue Italia was just a style transfer, and now we are involved and we are trying to create new ideas. I come up daily, with new models for Alberto and we are using these models to master our creativity. Also, thinking about what we did some months ago for Bulgari and what we do today is a huge step forward. After the last big projects we understand how the big players of AI artists are working. So this mystical thing about how they create their art does not exist anymore for us.
Why do you think your work is so interesting for these brands?
Alberto: Within the commercial or advertising world it is always about the new, the different. They have to distinguish themselves. As I was saying before, photography got to a point where everyone could do it. So if we stick with photography, you can do a beautiful photograph, but it's kind of irrelevant because it's already been done and probably has already been done better. Nowadays, we are bombarded by images, every three seconds. We have a thousand different images in front of our eyes. If they all look the same, the client has invested a lot of money into creating something. An image that nobody's gonna pay attention to. So the ability of creating a brand-new image with a new language, new vocabulary, new aesthetic, something that has never been seen before, that has some shock value, that grabs attention gets a lot of commercial interest. We have a better chance when people are scrolling through Instagram, they stop and pay attention and remember it, and then go back to it and maybe talk about it.
Ümüt: I think Alberto almost answered it, but I recognize that right now within the fashion industry there are not many AI works. I do not see any, I mostly see only our work and a few artists, but most of them are stuck in algorithms and technologies that are about two years old. I think what is special about us or makes us significant is that we are trying to aim new algorithms, new models, directly ones they are out and using them. We both invest a lot of time together in Zoom calls or on the phone and discuss the latest technology. And that is what I am also trying to teach in my classes.
AI art is a relatively young genre. But sooner or later, applications that are easy to use will filter down to the masses. Are you excited or worried about AI art going mainstream?
Alberto: That is going to happen for sure, and it is going to happen soon. But by the time AI gets to the mainstream, we will be working on the next big technology as well. We are not signing up to be working on this algorithm for the next four years. We are evolving with technology and as new things come up, we will adapt. The rule is being contemporary to yourself. So if a new technology comes out, we will be using it and then the next one, and the next one. Always always keeping our signature and our philosophy. So the aim is to be always on the bleeding edge and not on the mainstream. Also things become mainstream thanks to the experimental work we did, somebody has to do it first. We want to be the first ones and then give it to the masses.
What kind of instruments do you use to create your artworks?
Ümüt: We are trying to create our works with many different types of AI models, like Stargun. It is very popular to create new images of data sets that we are collecting, and we are experimenting with many different kinds of text to image technologies, where we are using our words. This way our creativity gets included in another way, not only by pictures but also by words.
Do you consider your work to be art or science?
Alberto: Who is going to answer this? (laughing) We both do have different answers to this. Maybe you go first.
Ümüt: Okay. I can talk about the science part. I think there is a lot of science that we are doing because we are doing a lot of research. We have to experiment a lot. It is more trial and error before we all start working on clients projects with new technology. We are really experimenting and trying to reach the edge with every new technology we are working with. But I think that art and science get really close together. Because in an art you are experimenting too, in order to create new artworks, and a new way of picturing something. We are not the typical equipment like paintbrushes or physical tools. We are just using algorithms. So in our field art and science get along together, let's say fifty-fifty.
Alberto: I do agree with that. My personal approach is more on the artistic side, meaning that what I care about is the representation of an idea, and in a way that is new and contemporary. While on Ümüts side, there is a lot of interest - because of his profession - in science and the way that leads us to the result. But this is a good difference. I really focus on the aesthetic and the meaning. And then of course, I am curious about the science and I need to learn about the science while Ümüt is really pushing through the science. So sometimes I bring up an idea and say it has to look like this. But the science that is available, will not create it directly like that. So he changes the science in order to make it look the way I want it to look. So he is a hundred and ten percent on the scientific side, and I am hundred and ten percent on the art side. And then we both care enough about each other's point of view to bring it together.
Someone very close to traditional art might think that this art is just a repetition made by “a software” and that art will maybe lose its value. How would you respond to that?
Alberto: That is what most people who are working with AI do, and this is what we are criticizing. This is not what we do. Everything we give to the AI is original content that is created to go through the AI. So we are not taking old photographs that I shot 10 years ago, and just processing them through AI to make them look cool. Everything we do has been shot to give it to AI. Every commercial work we did and every artwork we did, usually have the process of me taking the photos and the videos, and then I pass them over to Ümüt and he processes them through the different AIs. All depending on the results we want. When I shoot, I do not shoot it as a photograph that has to look good on its own. I shoot it considering the whole artistic process. It is a two-step process. But the final result is the animation or the still image created by the AI.
As artists, you are interested in handing over more and more control to machines – as a citizen, are you concerned about the level of control big data and algorithms have on your daily life?
Ümüt: Right now, we are using algorithms to communicate. I think this concerning new technologies, like artificial intelligence and getting a dystopian you, that will stop us from being a developed world. At the end of the day, this thing is a tool and it is controlled by its owners, like a weapon. You can use a hammer as a tool to create something, or you can destroy something. We are using AI to create beautiful things.
And how are you seeing it in other contexts? Besides your artwork, in another context. Are you seeing technology and algorithms in a more critical way in your personal life?
Ümüt: In my personal life, I think it is more about the question of privacy. What companies can do with my data should be more strictly controlled by the government, in my opinion. The governments have to get more into this topic, and start thinking about what is possible and what should not be done with my data. Meanwhile, I choose to use my smartphone. I choose to use my computer, to use the internet. If I do not want Facebook saving my data, I should not use it. Still I always see the advantage and potential of technology. Technology is an extension of human ability.
Alberto, do you see it the same way?
Alberto: I do agree. Of course, it can be a two-sided blade. So any technology can be very positive and very negative. It has always been throughout history. The atomic energy can give unlimited power to a city, but you can also destroy it. The fear that everybody has when they hear the word AI is they think of movies like Terminator. I do not think it is going to rebel against us. I think AI in the real world, not in Hollywood, is quite rapidly going to evolve and change the way of life and the things we can do. We can let machines do the more technical aspect of work and allow the rest of us to focus on the more creative side. So humans can be even more human while the machine work can be done by machines. That is very positive.
When I hear Elon Musk talking about putting chips inside your brain, so you do not even have to talk to each other. You are just communicating through Bluetooth. This is a little more scary. But any future technologies always looked scary to the people of their own time. I personally try to be very positive about it. And then it is about each individual being smart about it and putting their own limitations to be positive and to stop it before becoming negative or dangerous. I think it is about education and the individual user. I am very excited about all the technologies that will be created for the next few decades and I am extremely excited about how these technologies are going to inspire me as an artist and evolve me as an artist and allow us to create new languages, a new way of communication and make it beautiful at the same time.
Are you active on some NFT markets?
Alberto: Yes, we are.
Ümüt: We are active on foundation with our account “Umut_Alberto”.
Alberto: And we have, we have a couple of projects that we were not supposed to talk about out loud yet. That would involve not only digital art and crypto art such as NFT, but also bringing it into museums, galleries and exhibitions. Being able to bring this very digital technology into something physical and so that a wider audience and more people can actually physically see it.
Do you think that what you are creating is going to change art as we know it, and that AI could exclude humans from the artistic process?
Ümüt: This is not a new discussion for me. When I was working with generative art, with normal algorithms before artificial intelligence even existed, people were asking me the same question. I think that the human role became more and more the one of the curator instead of the creator. I am deciding what is beautiful and interesting, not the machine. Maybe that changes in the future, who knows. Right now, I feel like we are more giving a direction and curate quality.
What are the future plans of Umut_Alberto? Do you have upcoming projects?
Alberto: I'm a very scary romantic person. I don't like to talk about things that have to happen, because otherwise they're not going to happen. As I was saying, we are currently preparing two exhibitions, and there is work in progress. One is actually going to be quite soon. It's going to be in April. And it is going to also include other very great crypto artists, like People. So that is something that is really exciting. Last week, we have been brainstorming about extending the publication of the artwork, not only through regular social media or through any of the platforms like Foundation, but also to go on more alternative platforms. And see how the audience is going to react to it. We are trying to find our own way of selling ourselves different from everyone else.
Ümüt: Every day we are coming up with new ideas. Especially because I am doing a lot of research on new AI models.
Alberto: One thing that I can say is that I am extremely curious to see if there is space for new forms of artworks in this world. New versions of galleries and museums, where people use their goggles and VR to discover new physical and digital spaces. And have the same kind of experience they would have if they would go into a museum. Or even better, that artwork could even be sold that way. What is so interesting about the metaverse, is that people will own things that are not real physically, but they are real in this metaverse. That is something that we have not approached yet, but it is something that I find extremely exciting.
Thank you for the interview, Ümüt and Alberto!
Discover more about ÜMÜT YILDIZ and ALBERTO MARIA COLOMBO by visiting the links below: