Agnieszka Pilat: How a communist artist conquered Silicon Valley

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Agnieszka Pilat is a contemporary artist whose success story can be divided into several chapters: After studying painting and illustration at the Academy of Art University, where she received a classical education, she spent years paint portraits in a small studio somewhere in San Francisco. . While his paintings were technically impressive, they failed to capture the attention of the Bay Area’s increasingly competitive art scene, which favored abstraction.

Then, by chance, Pilat met a certain Paul Stein. Stein is a developer credited with building Airbnb’s headquarters. He is also a collector, not only of art, but also of eye-catching items salvaged from past projects. One day, Stein invited Pilat to his office to paint an object of his choice. After careful consideration, Pilat settled on a vintage fire alarm bell, which she painted with the same care and precision as she would a human sitter.

This unsuspecting mission turned out to be the breakthrough Pilat had been hoping for. Curiosity about his work spread by word of mouth, not among gallery owners, but among tech executives in nearby Silicon Valley. Soon, Pilat was receiving commissions from Peter Hirshberg, the president of blockchain company Swytch.io, and Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist who served on the board of Tesla and SpaceX.

By this time, Pilat had given up painting humans and concentrated exclusively on painting machines. She traveled east to meet engineers at Boston Dynamics, who she believed had created the first “famous industrial robot” in the form of Spot. Spot is a four legged robot who can traverse difficult terrain, inspect hazardous materials or bring you a drink. He became instantly recognizable through social media and, according to Pilat, had to do his own portrait.

Pilat is one of America’s most commercially successful artists today. But despite (or perhaps because of) her success, her work has been ignored by critics, who claim she’s just pandering to the bad tastes of the upper echelon of society and Silicon Valley. This is unfair because, like any other important artist before her, Pilat’s work attempts to connect opposing forces: man and machine, art and artificial intelligence, and (last but not least) the communism and capitalism.

From Poland to San Francisco

No one values ​​freedom more than those who have been deprived of it. Pilat was born and raised in Poland, when it was under the thumb of the USSR. When asked to describe this period of her life, she uses the word “Kafkaesque.” Family vacations, for example, were set up by the government. Before going to your assigned destination, you had to report to the local police station to tell them where you were going and how long you would be gone.

Private companies were prohibited and every transaction had to be registered by the state. This included livestock, which was sold at such low prices that farmers often sold under the table just to earn a little extra cash. Pilat remembers his parents driving across the country to buy a pig for his uncle, only to be stopped by the cops and searched for farm animals the same way American teenagers are searched for marijuana .

Pilat treats celebrity robots like Spot as “modern-day aristocracy.” (Credit: Agnieszka Pilat/Boston Dynamics)

During his youth, Pilat idolized the United States: a land of civil liberties and a free market economy. However, when she finally emigrated and settled in San Francisco, she was bitterly disappointed. Pilat expected a city that was decidedly Western, not just in appearance but in spirit, only to find a highly regulated environment filled with political and cultural formalities. Worst of all was the general distrust of wealth and riches.

Pilat found it difficult to understand this mistrust. Where she came from, everyone from janitors to brain surgeons earned the same salary – a policy which, in her words, created a world in which “jealousy and envy simply did not exist”. . On top of that, she also came from a family that achieved success not through privilege but through hard work; once the Polish government began allowing citizens to own and operate private businesses, his father, a pastry chef, worked to lift Pilats out of poverty.

In recent years, Pilat’s worldview has been heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, a Russian-American philosopher and writer who championed laissez-faire capitalism while rejecting both altruism and collectivism on the grounds that they prevented people from fully developing their individual talents. Rand’s Novel Atlas shrugged. is a Pilat favourite. Coincidentally, the book also rested on the bedside table many Silicon Valley tech moguls.

The soul of the machines

Pilat’s patrons not only love her work because they share the same ideas about commerce and individuality, but also because she, like them, sees technology in a positive light. This light shone during one of his last exhibitions, Rebirth 2.0which a Wired article describes as “a reflection of the parallels between the Italian Renaissance” and “a global tech renaissance with roots in Silicon Valley.”

The exhibition included parodies of Leonardo da Vinci Vitruvian man and Michelangelo The Creation of Adam of the Sistine Chapel, but with the humans replaced by Spot and Atlas, another robot created by Boston Dynamics. The paintings are collaborations between man and machine; Spot has a mechanical arm that can wield a paintbrush, and her broad, patched strokes add a level of abstraction to that of Pilat that she felt was always lacking.

A snapshot of Rebirth 2.0. (Credit: Agnieszka Pilat)

Critics remain suspicious of his paintings, which Spy journalist Shawn McCreesh once said they were “in the service of technology nomenklatura at a time when much of the country has come to despise its members for the forces they have unleashed on society and for their obscene levels of wealth. Pilat would not agree. Having grown up in a communist country, she knows the art of propaganda intimately and claims to serve no one but her own beliefs.

In this regard, his work speaks louder than his words. As her career as a machine portrait painter was well underway, she was approached by Waymo to paint the Lidar component of the Silicon Valley company’s legendary self-driving cars. After several months of trial and error, Pilat abandoned the project because she felt unable to “capture the soul” of the technology. It’s a problem she encountered quite often, but which she finally solved by painting Spot.

The new forms of technology she discovered are like children and should be painted accordingly. In order to paint a convincing portrait of either subject, there must be, as Andy Warhol showed in his portraits, a fun element. Pilat began painting his Spot portraits using bright, pastel colors like baby blue and pink. “When you paint a baby”, she says think big, “It’s difficult because there is nothing there. Conceptually, this technology is at an embryonic stage.

The futurism of Agnieszka Pilat

More interesting than Pilat’s work is its context within the art world and society at large. His upbeat take on machines like Spot and the engineers who design them couldn’t be more different from the not-so-distant dystopian future presented to us on the Netflix show. black mirror. In the episode “Metalhead”, robotic dogs similar to those designed by the company are shown as antagonists stalking people in a post-apocalyptic world.

black mirror wasn’t the first artistic production to give the Boston Dynamics public relations department a hard time, nor was it the last. Last year, an American art collective organized an exhibition where people could take control of a paintball gun mounted on Spot’s back and use it to destroy an art gallery. The engineers issued a statement saying they “condemn the depiction of our technology in any way that promotes violence, evil or intimidation”.

Pilat’s work celebrates the kind of innovation that, for better or worse, is driven by experts serving Silicon Valley. This is a controversial position to take in the current political climate. Artistically, however, it is also reminiscent of the kind of controversy Marcel Duchamp stirred up when, in 1917, he made the bold but ultimately correct guess that a urinal signed “R. Mutt” could be considered high art.

Pilat working in his studio. (Credit: Agnieszka Pilat)

Ironically, Pilat’s work also echoes the prolific but ultimately disgraced art movements that helped establish and inform the Soviet Union. These movements included artists like Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, whose 1924 manifesto posed the camera as a superior version of the naked eye. Vertov’s early documentary reels, like Pilat’s paintings, depict machines as self-contained and inherently valuable entities, rather than tools in the service of their creators.

Although Pilat’s critics are right to say that his work embodies the enthusiasm and faith in technology that helped make Silicon Valley what it is today, they are wrong to believe that this attitude is somehow wrong. Art can deconstruct the human experience, but technology can reconstruct it. Art allows us to understand real-world problems, but technology allows us to solve them. “Art”, adds Pilat, “is great, but technology is sacred”.

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