Learning to Accept Karan4d’s Impossible Art
Let me let you in on a secret: These artistic analyses, they take a whole lot of time, energy, and, most of all, research. Any writer worth their salt will naturally submerge themselves in an artist’s opus before composing a piece about them. It’s damn-near impossible to write well about an artist if you don’t make yourself an expert on their work. Hell, it’s damn-near impossible even if you do.
My start-to-finish process looks something like this:
1) I open every available hub of one’s artistry. SuperRare, KnownOrigin, Makersplace, Rarible, Opensea, Instagram, Twitter, Linktree, personal websites, wherever. I comb through interviews and old writings, trying to get an overall sense of their art while pinpointing any qualities I find specifically interesting.
2) I write and write and write some more — all free-hand, directionless, vague mental dribblings — about those interesting qualities. I chisel away at the edges of an abstract thought, trying to give it shape.
3) Once an idea has been sufficiently teased-out, I seek an interesting way of communicating it, with extended metaphor or narrative perhaps. This usually happens somewhat serendipitously.
4. I take my pages of notes, open about 15 tabs of artwork for inspiration, and put on some loud music. I expect the actual writing — from experience — to feel something like giving birth, and it does. It always does.
Which is exactly how I approached the piece you’re reading now, about the seminal and hyper-prolific (though he’d redirect every accolade I pour upon him) AI artist, Karan4d. I saved nearly a gigabyte of his images to my computer. I read every description of every piece he’d minted. I stared agog at Eldritch Ocean, a looping generative study of cephalopods Karan created in June of 2021, astounded at how incongruent it is to the works he creates today.
I invented a whole narrative structure: “The Twilight Zones of Karan4d,” or something along those lines. It was to begin with an opening monologue from the old The Twilight Zone television show (“You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.”) and in the essay, you and I would be travelers, touching down on the many — weirder and weirder — worlds Karan4d has conceived.
But this mfer made it absolutely impossible to approach his art as I normally would!
Because between the hours of 7:53pm EST on August 29th and 1:28am EST on August 30th — a span of 5 hours and 35 minutes — Karan4d released 43 new artworks on his Twitter page.
This is not a rare occurrence, mind you. These outpourings of artistry happen somewhat often. He may well be creating and uploading more art — to Twitter, to Instagram, wherever — right now, and all in a style hitherto unseen in his oeuvre.
Karan4d is an AI artist of the highest ambition. He has spent years researching, creating, and fine-tuning a series of AI assistants that can create art of countless different styles and on ultra-condensed timelines. With this small army of AIs — GAN models, NLP models, and many of them given names like Sakura, Artemis, Felix, Xenia — Karan4d creates enough art for ten men in a tenth of the time.
With each avalanche of new work he produces, Karan4d completely upends whatever point I’m trying to make about him. There’s no good way to write about an artist who can change fundamentally and unpredictably on any given day. And it’s not like his minted artwork alone comes anywhere close to representing the fullness of his output. “I mint stuff that I like,” he told me during an interview. “When I’m emotional I mint something. When I’m in tension I mint something. It’s very primitive.” But minting isn’t the point or the goal. Creation is the only god to whom Karan4d prays. And with a zealot’s unbridled allegiance.
I simply can’t possibly keep up with his pace.
And so Karan has put me into an uncomfortable and unprecedented situation. Because he creates so much work, and because he creates it so quickly, any classical approach to artistic analysis may become obsolete by the end of the day. Or the end of this sentence.
What do we do with an artist who continually reinvents himself? How do we quantify an artist whose creative capacity outraces our ability to understand it?
A. We can deny that ours is an impossible challenge, and instead try to find some holistic way to understand Karan’s work.
B. We can respond with anger. That bastard.
C. We can bargain with Generative artists: Maybe they’ll slow down their output for our sake if we ask nicely.
D. We can cower, depressed, at our own impotence.
E. We can find a way to accept such brilliance.
Or, I suppose the obvious choice:
F. All of the above, and in that order.
No, no, no. There has to be some way of writing about Karan4d, right? He’s not a deity, after all, but an artist. I will not be thwarted.
Here, I’ll prove it! Let’s take three disparate, semi-random examples of Karan’s artwork and, and, and we’ll find some same beating heart within them all! Just you watch.
Below, we have Pure Liquidation, an acid-washed piece of abstraction that sidesteps form altogether. Karan often leaves us with something recognizable in his works to grasp onto: a form, a face, a building, a flower. In Pure Liquidation, however, he opts for association above identification. Perhaps this piece suggests to you, as it does to me, a human silhouette. But there’s nothing more concrete than that. Even the colors melt into one another, making it hard to gauge where one ends and another begins.
Now consider the following image, the as-of-yet unminted Body Orchestra 8448, posted by Karan4d on Twitter on the night I’d previously described. This is the antithesis to Pure Liquidation, a piece that centralizes the recognizable human form, even while subverting it. Body Orchestra 8448 is notable as much for its stilted splotches of surrealism as for the blasé attitude of the characters therein. A kind of boredom permeates everyone in this piece, even as their bodies morph and split apart. Body Orchestra 8448 strikes me as closer to collage than anything else, and as such, it reveals its truest, most expressive self when taken as a whole. We are better off not questioning the individual fingers which thicken into arms, or the shoulders that don’t actually connect to anything. In the vein of body surrealists like Hans Bellmer and Salvador Dalí, we are better served from forming an immediate and overall impression of the piece than interrogating individual aspects too fully.
And now for something completely different: The Case with Stairs 0, which exists somewhere along the abstract spectrum between the two pieces we previously discussed. In Pure Liquidation, the prominence of the abstraction inspires an automatic human impulse to find something identifiable therein. And in Body Orchestra, the immediately identifiable elements overpower those which are more quietly abstractive. In Stairs, however, various objects that are abstract in reality — stepping stones that meld together with the grass, cherry blossom trees which writhe like pathogenic masses, a blue sky that is actually a physical extension of the nearby trees — appear juuuuuust normal enough that we form those initially recognizable impressions, though the longer we look at the piece, the falser our impressions become. The piece is fully abstract, but lulls us into thinking otherwise.
If this were a normal artistic analysis, I’d probably further explore how Karan4d plays with our perception, introducing abstract elements to varying degrees and forcing us to make implicit decisions about them: Do we centralize them, push through them, or deny them altogether? Were I to talk at greater length about these three aforementioned pieces, I’d probably gloss over their entirely different color palettes. Or how, in terms of composition, the photorealism in Body Orchestra is hardly related to the paint-inspired composition of The Case with Stairs 0; and Pure Liquidation is entirely its own breed.
Sure, we can certainly find similarities between these randomly-selected pieces, but I’ll be honest: Linking them any further just feels false. It feels like I’m leaning too heavily on authorial invention and not nearly enough on the actual work itself. It just doesn’t feel true.
I mean, you can look at these pieces — a child can look at them — and see that they’ve very little in common, if anything. Our attempts to connect them, my attempts, are vainglorious and posturing.
In this first battle of our war of wills, it seems Karan4d — and the many tiny artists he’s built to work alongside him — has bested me.
Of course he has! What chance did I even have? Karan4d’s are beautiful, surreal, cerebral, deeply challenging pieces of artwork — the duo below, for instance, without tusks (the not red one) and growth (the red one), are merely two examples — but what in God’s name do they have to do with each other?
It’s not just that they aesthetically appear to be the works of different artists, they are the creations of different artists. Sakura has an entirely different set of sensibilities than Xenia does; different skill-sets, different eyes, different palettes altogether.
That Karan4d claims all these artworks for his own is plain rude. Worse, it’s unfair! He’s a despot, a tyrant with a field of serfs toiling away for him.
As if the writer’s job isn’t already hard enough! We must cling to the slippery cave walls of someone’s artistry, trying at all times to find something concrete and firm we might grab onto, shimmying endlessly deeper into the cavern until, at last, some truth about the artist reveals itself. Sure, artists generally aren’t baring their souls for the writer’s sake, but most don’t rig their oeuvre with booby traps either. Writing about Karan4d is a suicide mission. If the blow-darts don’t get you, the rolling boulders will. His artistry is a veritable Temple of Doom.
Not a care at all for the writer.
Not a care at all for anything but his art.
Sorry, I just needed a moment. That section break couldn’t have come at a better time. But now that I’ve cooled off a bit, I can see that *all this* isn’t really Karan’s fault. Let me rephrase that. It’s not all Karan’s fault. Ideally, artists shouldn’t care for anything but their art. That Karan has become a semi-cyborg for the sake of his artistic output is cause for celebration, not sedition.
But maybe we can strike a deal, all you AI artists and I. Because clearly, if you were so inclined, you could choke the entire art world with the sheer magnitude of your creations. Maybe you’ve only kept from doing so because you’re picky. Or maybe you’re afraid to potentially dilute your market. But I ask you not to do so for another reason.
You AI artists currently have a capability we writers simply don’t have. Take, for example, Underneath G-233, a piece Karan4d minted on Tezos this past May. It’s a four-page, fairly well-written science fiction short story that positively bursts with larger ideas. More impressive yet, it’s quite good. I’ve included an excerpt below:
I had no choice but to ask Karan if he composed this piece himself or if an AI did. It was the latter, of course, an AI of immense literary talent named Artemis. And yet, Artemis is only one of Karan’s many AI creations. He was not the first, he is not the only, and he will not be the last.
Listen: When you can create art in dozens of different styles all in the same evening, or when you can create entire written universes with the push of a button, the truth is that you wield incomprehensible might. Take pity on us mere literary peasants, cursed to type away — key after clack-clack-clacking key — without aid, without break. You are all Goliaths, and we Davids are very quickly realizing the lack of parity between us. We’re all just trying to keep up.
So please, have mercy. Slow down a bit. Don’t work so hard. If not for your sake, then for mine.
Please. I’m begging you.
Who am I kidding? It’s hopeless.
Karan4d might be one of the first, but it’s only a matter of time before more and more generative artists fully embrace the sheer multiplicity of perspectives AI technology is capable of generating.
When I first sat down to think about this piece, I considered asking Karan if he’d let me use his Artemis AI (the literary one), so that, together, the program and I could reflect on Karan’s artwork from the perspectives of both admirer and offspring. Consider that for a moment: Karan4d is not a writer by trade, but he can create an AI which is. Karan is not a painter by trade either, but look again at the artworks above. Might we need to reconsider what it means when we say that “Someone is” anything if they have AIs by their side?
If one can create AI’s with the specificity and skill that Karan4d can, one can become almost anything. AIs are superpowers. Having a stable of them is like having Ben10’s Omnitrix to call upon in times of trouble.
This is all so much more interesting, impressive, and immense than curious casualists messing around with Dall-E. What Karan does is more than artistry. It’s borderline divine.
What will be left for the rest of us when Gods of similar majesty appear on every block, or in the apartment across the hall?
What will they leave us?
Take a deep breath, and look up at the sky. Put this piece down if you have to. Spend a minute with your neck craned skyward. Really let it sink in. And then, when you’ve gone and done that, come on back.
The sky you just saw is impossible to recreate. Only you have ever seen it. I myself have my own special sky. Karan4d has his. And all those AI’s Karan creates? Each of them has their own sky, different from mine and different from yours and different from Karan’s, too. Each is completely unique. That’s of vital importance.
It’s taken me a while to get here, but I think I see things clearly now. When, earlier, I was raging at Karan for all the different artistries he’s capable of, I wasn’t seeing his skill for what it truly is. Each of Karan4d’s AI’s, despite their lack of true sentience, is its own artistic mind, its own thinking apparatus with its own perspective. Karan, perhaps more than anything else, perhaps even more than a true-blue artist, is a teacher. He selects and molds his pupils, instructing them on how to best paint their skies. His role is not so dissimilar to a conductor’s or a film director’s, these really prolific minds who cull sanity from the chaotic body of a crew or orchestra.
But just as the crew works in service of the director’s vision, just as the orchestra does the conductor’s, so do Karan’s AIs. In the end, every artist — writer, painter, dancer, chef — is trying to recreate their sky, so to speak, with whatever tools are available.
It’s just that Karan4d’s tools are actively redefining artistry altogether. That can make us angry, or it can make us depressed, but it’s the brave new world we’ve entered, and we’re going to have to live in it.
I recently read Kashuo Ishiguro’s excellent novel, Klara and the Sun, which includes a character known as a “portraitist,” a gentleman who creates 3D models of people — dolls really — that are powered by AI minds; they eventually talk and think and act like the individuals they’re made to mimic. Make no mistake: That kind of tool is coming too. Artistry has always been sought to imitate the divine spark of creation, and it will always find the latest and greatest ways to achieve such a lofty goal.
AI is just such a thing, but its full expression might be too bright for us — for me — to look at right now without sunglasses. Karan4d might just be too much for a writer of my caliber in the year 2022.
The truth is, I still don’t know how to write about Karan4d’s artwork in a way that feels interesting or honest or insightful. I don’t have the language, the perspective, or the experience. I might not for some time. But such is the way.
What I do have, however, is admiration. I have it in multitudes. For the artist, the skill, the drive, the innovation. And nobody has it quite like I do. 10,000 AIs couldn’t get it quite right. For now, I can take comfort in that. Tomorrow, however? I shudder to even think.
For more about Karan4d, read our three-part interview with the artist .