THE STANDARD: Your new show “AI Paintings” is your sixth exhibition at The Hole on Bowery in New York. The first one was 12 years ago, in 2011, and was entitled “Optimism as Cultural Rebellion." Does it feel like yesterday or a life ago?
MATTHEW STONE: It feels like more than one lifetime ago.
Did your approach to art and the world shift in those last 12 years?
Yes, dramatically. At one point I lost faith in making art completely and considered becoming a herbalist. I recalibrated my life and now live in a very peaceful setup in a cottage in a small village.
The early 2020’s have been particularly head-spinning as the world went through a pandemic, there is a war in Europe, and for the last few months there has been a debate about artificial intelligence being soon able to destroy (or save) humanity. Do you feel as optimistic about the world and technology as you were 12 years ago?
I didn’t and don’t feel optimistic as a permanent position but am as interested in what role optimism plays in creating the future. I always thought of optimism as an active form of hope, that it is the energy that empowers conscious creation of the future. It's like there has to be some base level belief that something else is possible to begin to actively move towards it. I call that optimism and I think it important to think critically about its necessity and how to cultivate it in responsible ways.
The New York Times reviewed your exhibition at the time saying “Mr. Stone’s work suggests that what the world needs now is not political agitation but a new, mystically inspired choreography of how to be human.” Does that review still apply to your new show?
A mystically inspired choreography on how to be human would be a good foundation for political action. I would hope that it still applies. Spirituality and politics need each other and are deeply connected in my mind.
When working with AI, do you sometimes feel overwhelmed or do you always feel in control?
I have never felt fully in control while making art and I’ve always been back and forth between wanting to be and understanding the transformative and creative power of just letting go. The most exciting moments in my creative process have often been unexpected mistakes. Those happy mistakes have revealed something that can then be consciously amplified. Using AI creates lots of unexpected outcomes very fast. So as someone who likes accidents in this context of image making, it’s a good way to become accident-prone.
Do you consider AI as just another digital tool? Or does it feel more like a collaboration? In other words, do you sometimes feel AI might develop its own taste, point of view, conscience?
It’s a digital tool and I try to resist the urge to anthropomorphize it. But it’s difficult because it feels like such a paradigm shift and also sometimes like dreaming. I think that culturally speaking, we are moving in a direction that assigns these qualities of perceived sentience to AI even when more mundane actions are at play. It’s not clear to me how we will tell if AI has achieved general intelligence, but I think most people will assume it to be the case long before it actually happens, assuming that it does.
You live in the countryside in the UK and you have a very deep and spiritual connection with nature. Would you say your connection to nature is comparable to the one you have with the digital world? Is the metaverse a second nature?
I’m not sure how to answer this question exactly. I do think that time in nature has given me the psychological grounding to explore digital space in a way that allows me to feel centered and get less overwhelmed. Nature feels particularly healing to me because of its simultaneous qualities of ever-changing complexity and peacefulness. I used to think that everything was nature, that the city was a type of nature etc. While I don’t necessarily feel exactly the same way anymore, I still think that there is something rescuable in that sentiment. It’s tempting to think quite rigidly about the digital as something fundamentally disconnected from nature, but I think that is a mistake. I think we should learn from time in nature and carry what we learn into the digital aspects of our lives.
Your AI paintings will be shown on two LED screens as the center of the show and there are two other works of yours called “Radiating Kindness” and “Irradiance." Tell us about the common theme of “radiation”.
Since I was a kid I have felt sensitive to what I perceive as underlying networks of connective energy. At various points in my life I have tried to intellectualize these instincts to justify the experiences I have. The titles reflect my own poetic attempts to suggest that my works should be viewed within a mystical context. I see people radiating positive qualities and I hope that the works do the same.
More than nature or technology, it’s the human body and humanity that seem at the center of your work. Tell us about the importance of the human body.
The body is the basic ground of our own human, subjective experience of reality. Our lives are digital and yet it seems we have trouble imagining our own humanity flourishing in that context. So I try to bring that fundamental humanity to a digital context.
I read that you spent part of the lockdown alone in the countryside and you “dragged a large sound system to the top of [your] garden and started playing one song a day at 6pm.” You’re also a DJ. Tell us about the importance of music in your work.
I don’t DJ anymore and music doesn’t really have too much impact on my artworks at the moment. One day I’ll make an album. Playing one song a day and wanting for the programming of it to be something that would connect with my neighbors, meant that there was a lot of intergenerational feel-good pop music, but I interspersed that with some devastatingly emotional classical music to keep people processing their emotions!
Please share one of the songs you played while in lockdown and tell us about it!
There is an Agnus Dei choral version of Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ that floated down the valley and got a lot of positive feedback. People would clap or whoop. It was hard when it rained dragging the speakers to the top of the garden! I did it for over 150 days I think.