Jason Bailey, Georg Bak & Kate Vass on the Art Form of Our Generation

The exhibition Automat und Mensch: A History of AI and Generative Art in May 2019 anticipated the arrival of AI and generative art. Five years later, Peter Bauman reached out to the show’s gallerist, Kate Vass, and curators, Jason Bailey and Georg Bak, to reflect on the audacious show’s impact and the future it pointed towards.
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Jared Tarbell, Substrate.IPY, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

Jason Bailey, Georg Bak & Kate Vass on the Art Form of Our Generation

The exhibition Automat und Mensch: A History of AI and Generative Art in May 2019 anticipated the arrival of AI and generative art. Five years later, Peter Bauman reached out to the show’s gallerist, Kate Vass, and curators, Jason Bailey and Georg Bak, to reflect on the audacious show’s impact and the future it pointed towards.

Peter Bauman: Kate, what was the ultimate inspiration for Automat und Mensch (2019) and how did you come about pairing Jason and Georg to curate it?

Kate Vass: The whole show was actually an attempt to highlight the historical perspective of generative art and the predecessors of AI, a very difficult task. I thought one curator would not be enough. My idea came about for an AI show while working on Perfect and Priceless in October 2018. It was also expedited by the first sale of AI work in November 2018. There was a lot of room to discuss the amount of homework done by the auction house by choosing this particular work and auctioning it for that amount of money. It sparked my interest to investigate this topic more.

It was a wonderful opportunity because nobody was really interested in highlighting this history and the protagonists of the movement. I spoke to Georg and, of course, we all read the fantastic “Why Love Generative Art?” by Jason Bailey that inspired many to collect. It’s a wonderful thing when one good intention leads to many more and to people falling in love with art. Jason was already known as a contributor to this scene and Georg would not stop talking about him so our mutual willingness was to get Jason on board. Georg spoke to Jason and asked if he would be interested. Then we jumped on a call and everybody discussed it and said, “How can we do it and who is responsible for what?” We split the responsibility, with Georg mostly focusing on the historical pioneering part and Jason responsible for bringing in contemporary artists.

Georg Bak: There was actually a book with the title Automat und Mensch (1965) that inspired some of the artists in the '60s. It was one of the early books on AI and certainly not easy to read and understand. But I was inspired by the title, which demonstrated there was always this interaction between “automata” and humans. I remember Jason and I were in Bahrain and I had that book with me. We were sitting with Robbie Barrat and Mario [Klingemann], discussing this show idea and the book became the title.

As Kate said, our aim was to reflect on the history of AI—from early generative art to the most recent developments in AI with DeepDream and GANs. We actually had Larva Labs in the show with physical Autoglyphs. John [Watkinson] told me last time I saw him that we actually pushed him to finish Autoglyphs to get it ready for the show. It was also interesting that we actually had the first on-chain NFT in this exhibition. There were some very recent developments as well as the historical context.

Anna Ridler, Mosaic Virus (Still), 2018, Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

Jason Bailey: Georg had invited me to a much lighter-touch curation opportunity for a show several months earlier, which got me thinking about imposter syndrome. I had never curated anything and thought, “How do you know when you're qualified to be a curator?” I went to school for fine art and art history in undergrad and then studied digital art for my master's. But nowhere did I take any classes on curation. I was writing about art and had a bit of an audience but I think I did come at it a little bit like, “Am I qualified for this?” That sense of imposter syndrome made me work really hard because I wanted to make sure I didn't screw it up and I wasn't really sure what was required. But the reason I said yes is because I knew we had a balance between the three of us, particularly in the areas where I felt most weak. So even though I had a decent understanding of digital art history and earlier generative art history, I don't know anyone who knows that topic more deeply than Georg.

I thought, “Okay, that's covered in a way where I don't have to be insecure or worry about that side as much.” And then the logistics, business side, people managing and expectations are areas that I wouldn't honestly really want to touch to put together something this big. So Kate obviously handled that prior to this and through this masterfully.

So it left me to do the part that I liked, which is sharing all of my enthusiasm around contemporary artists working in generative art and AI art. It also gave me the opportunity to write about and synthesize that, which is what I had been doing already. 

I was very grateful—and still am—that they opened the door and took a chance on me to give me the opportunity to curate. Now, people ask, “How do you get started curating?” No one comes and knights you with a sword and says, “You're now a curator.” You just start curating when the opportunities come, and over time, you become a curator.

Peter Bauman: I love that point about not needing to be knighted to be a curator but waiting for an invitation seems wise. Jason, can you talk a little bit more about the nuts and bolts of the curatorial process? There wasn't much information out there, especially relative to today.

Jason Bailey:
I think it might be the busiest I've ever been. We take it for granted right now because there are a lot of shows for generative art and AI art going on but there weren't a lot at this level. We were reaching out to a lot of big names that hadn't been reached out to in a while and were maybe a bit suspicious. We didn't have as much foundation of public interest as we've had in the last few years. There was a lot of getting people's confidence up and going back and forth. The artists were interested in all the details: how and where the work was going to be displayed, who they would display next to and what the circumstances of the opening and closing were. Then we had around 30 artists so the conversations multiplied. Correspondence was a ton of effort.

I was trying to get my heroes to agree to do this. 

I don't think that's an exaggeration. I had spent twenty years looking up to people like Casey Reas, Jared Tarbell and John Maeda. I was lucky enough that I had been several years into writing the Artnome blog, where people were at least somewhat aware that I had been passionately—for no real profit or commercial purpose—writing about art and technology out of something that I love. That opened the door to at least getting responses to some emails. There was some strategy to trying to get the folks that I had been in more recent contact with who were maybe slightly better known names. Then, when you went further along, you could say, “Well, so and so has signed up.” Everyone wants to know who's already agreed but you have to get the first few people to agree to be able to get the additional people to agree.

It's not an accident that we're talking about it five years later. I think it's a reflection of the attention to detail and the effort. I wouldn't have anticipated—as someone who’d just started to curate—the effort that it took.

Robbie Barrat, Correction of Rubens: Saturn Devouring His Son, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

Kate Vass: Absolutely. Twenty-nine artists for a gallery show is very ambitious. When I see sixty or fifty artists in a show all in one week, I question the quality. I also worry audiences aren’t able to learn anything from these exhibitions because there’s a lot to take in. Then, importantly, Automat und Mensch was not an online show in parallel with a physical show so there were constraints like time, wall space and limitations on what we could process.

Georg Bak: Regarding the NFTs, at that time, they cost twenty or thirty dollars. Robbie Barrat wanted to show NFTs at that time but we actually proposed that he do some physical work. He would have rather shown NFTs at that time. Now, it's completely different. I think at that time, you couldn't have done an NFT show because, as a gallerist, Kate would have earned maybe fifty dollars. It's not like we earned a lot even from the physical show, actually.

Jason Bailey: People look back at the show through the lens of the last four or five years. They think, “Wow, look at all these well-known artists who have gone on to build careers for themselves—whose work has sold for quite a bit in the last four or five years.” That doesn't capture how much risk Kate took on at the time. It wasn't really obvious that much or any of the work would sell and it was pretty bold. The financial risk was really more on Kate's side. It was a forward-thinking, risky venture and I think that gets lost in history.

Kate Vass: This is exactly what I keep missing in the contemporary scene nowadays—that many people, even if they do engage in the curation of a profound show, still tend to go for the famous names or the names that sell. We can't blame them because everybody needs to gain back the expenses that they are investing in the shows. It makes sense. 

But the purpose of the gallery is to actually do the homework, find emerging talents, go through these difficult times and do the difficult job. Take risks on emerging artists that are not necessarily selling now. If you believe in them, if you really yourself are excited about this art, I always trust that it's going to—eventually—be successful together with these people.

That's what I'm missing now, at least from the majority of the shows that I'm looking at.

Helena Sarin, An Eternal Tangle of What Ifs, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

Jason Bailey: People may think these aren't emerging artists; these are all big names. But even the best-known generative artists weren't selling a lot back then. There was no guarantee. If it had been a finance-driven show, I'm not sure I would have participated. If I’d been handcuffed on what I could choose and who I could add based on what's likely going to sell, it wouldn't have been interesting as a venture, especially knowing how much work needed to go into it. So we really did have freedom. A lot of the work that was included wasn't even possible to sell but we thought it was good to keep it in there.

Peter Bauman: Jason, you mentioned how the artists are bigger names now than even five years ago. In the exhibition statement, you wrote: “Generative art, once perceived as the domain of a small number of “computer nerds,” is now the artform best poised to capture what sets our generation apart from those that came before us—ubiquitous computing.” Those words, echoing what you had written in 2018, remain quite prescient. What has surprised you all and what have you expected about how generative and AI art have developed in the last five years?

Georg Bak: I was really surprised that this show had such an impact. For us, it was a nice exploration but I've been in the art market for many years trying to promote artists like Herbert Franke, Gottfried Jäger and Hein Gravenhorst—all these great pioneers of digital art from the '60s. There was just no interest in that. For many years, I believed this was an important art movement. I even told some of my clients—way before NFTs—that this is probably the biggest art movement of our time. But there was no market for it. I was surprised that it suddenly just took off; it was suddenly there.

Jason Bailey: In a way, I predicted it but not really. I've used the example before of snail racing—an invented hobby. It would be like my hobby was snail racing—and I was really into it—and had spent ten to fifteen years telling everyone how great snail racing is. I knew—after ten years of experience—no one's ever going to come around to caring about the nuances of why I like snail racing. Then one day I woke up and on the front of every major newspaper all around the world, everyone was talking about snail racing. It's that absurd of a shift. I was trying to make the case aggressively for how important and overlooked generative and AI art were because it felt like there weren't that many people describing why one could be passionate about these things, which is really what I was trying to do. I didn't expect it to grow. I didn't expect anyone to listen at that scale and I didn't expect it to grow as fast as it did nor did I expect it to contract as fast as it did. Everybody cared about it all of a sudden—out of nowhere—and then everybody started to pull back pretty quickly, too. That's a violent shift.

I also didn't expect the commerce side to lead it. That is, in some ways, what's to be credited for the rapid rise—things like Art Blocks, people collecting and seeing sales go up. I thought it would be more the artistic, historical or aesthetic appreciation of things, a slightly more nuanced view that would grow interest. But I think, if we're honest with ourselves, what made it so popular on the level it became popular was largely the sales phenomenon and that's what a lot of the articles at that time focused on. I thought it should grow and I thought people should care about this. Those were the arguments that I was trying to write about and make. It was like, “Hey, even if you're not really big into art or you don't think you're into digital art, let me write the case for why I think these things should be seen as the most important work of our generation.”

Manolo Gamboa Naon, LLRR, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

Peter Bauman: Has your thesis about generative art being the most important of our generation changed at all?

Jason Bailey: I still believe all of that. I don't think that much has changed in terms of the core art that I think was revolutionary—the sorts of art and artists that we highlighted in the show. I don't think I've come to think of that work as being any less relevant or groundbreaking. What I have seen is that there's a tremendous amount of noise now. When something gets as popular and lucrative as generative art became in 2021, it draws in everyone. Everyone wants to get a sense of how they can be involved. So the number of creators, curators, collectors and writers has gone up by an order of magnitude. It will require more sorting, understanding, synthesizing and contextualizing to figure out what that means in the long run. But I don't think that shifts one iota how I felt and still feel about all the artists' artworks that were in the show and their relevance.

Peter Bauman: Speaking of that relevance, I’d love to get everyone’s thoughts on what exactly the ultimate, lasting breakthrough was. Was it blockchains and NFTs or was it AI and GANs? It seems like it took AI art—with that 2018 sale—to expose an interest in blockchain, generative and software art. But as interest apparently shifts back to AI, does that mean AI will have the most lasting impact in the end?

Georg Bak: Blockchain kicked it off with the Beeple and CryptoPunks sales. These early high numbers created the market. If I look back at the show with Kate and Jason, at that time, I had the feeling that AI was much more important than blockchain. Then suddenly, actually, blockchain became more important with NFTs. I think now, probably, AI is again giving it another shift.

Jason Bailey: It's been a pendulum. It was blockchain in 2017 and 2018 and then AI in 2019 and 2020. Then 2021 and 2022 went back to blockchain. Now we’re going back to AI.

Kate Vass: We have been all very excited about generative art but since last year, AI has been the new kid on the block to be excited about—even though it's hardly new and it's a different type of kid, not the one that we knew in 2017. It's innovation, development and trends that have to interest the audience to keep collecting. I'm not sure this trend is forever, to be honest. But what is definitely here to stay are good quality shows and a profound understanding of what art is among all the things that we experience.


Kate Vass is the founder of Kate Vass Galerie in Zurich, Switzerland.

Georg Bak is an art advisor and curator specializing in digital art, NFTs and generative photography.

Jason Bailey (Artnome) is the founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT, where he serves as CEO.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.