Alsino Skowronnek – Be Attentive to The Signs

by Victoria Rivers
Share this

How not to fall in love with the verisimilitude of feeling the silence in an artwork, how not to feel in total synergy with something that emanates intellect and a certain spiritual character? Until now we have moved in the duality of figuration and abstraction, this eternal dichotomy where the truth and feelings come to life on the canvas.

But what happens when something catches us at first glance and we discover that technology and thought have made a perfect match? Let’s flow through how to learn to dialogue with painting and how symbols are a powerful tool for creation.

Alsino Skowronnek (Germany, 1984), is above all things, a great creative spirit and represents the great truth that life makes its way wherever we are.

Some will say we are crazy, but I cannot conceive talking about your work without addressing the ancestral and philosophical aspects. A work rooted in semiotics that starts from the anthropological and social towards new forms of creation.

ALSINO: The more I look into the future, the more it helps me to look back. In my practice, I am interested in finding ways to engage with new technologies in the painting process, and I find the wealth of historical precedence on different writing traditions very inspiring. In that context, my interest in ancient writing systems has gradually grown. It is becoming ever more present in my practice through the engagement with questions about communication and learning. I am fascinated by ancient scripts from early human civilisations such as Sumerian scripts like Cuneiform or Chinese logographic syllabic systems. For me, these signs and their derived meaning – visible or obscured – speak volumes about a culture’s traditions, openness, and context. Because communication is a social phenomenon and writing is its physical manifestation, I think of it as a teleporting window into a different time and place.

From the Rosetta Stone of the streets to AI, passing through web programming training and a clear creative spirit with emphasis on aesthetics. As everything is a product of experiences and our way of seeing the world… What was Alsino like when he was 10 years old, and how is he now?

ALSINO: I grew up in the second half of the 1980s in Duisburg in West Germany, quite a gloomy place at the time, a workers’ city at heart witnessing the demise of the old economic structure. I remember images of a post-industrial landscape with chimneys and blast furnaces passing me by while I was sitting in the back seat of my mother’s car and seeing passenger trains covered in graffiti on Inox trains while waiting at the central station. I was independent quite early as my mother was a working single parent, so much of my activity after school consisted of roaming the city and discovering secret places and things. I always enjoyed doing a lot of different things and discovering new places. I remember finding an abandoned wooden cabin with a friend between the dead tracks of the railway lines. We would often visit to see who lived there but never encountered anyone. Another time, we found an open maintenance hole cover in a construction site and climbed down, walking through the tunnels. I guess from that time, I have been able to preserve a little bit of the explorer’s spirit, as I still like to discover new things and see new places. I have lived in many different countries and worked distinct jobs, including journalism, economics, design, programming, and art. My career path has been everything but a straight line, and who knows where things will go next?

Letters as symbols forming a vast map, symbols as the key to discovering something. Past and present, everything begins in the streets and with graffiti as a medium. Tell me about this.

ALSINO: Over the past 20 years, I have put a lot of effort into trying to develop letters and signs. In graffiti, one of the main goals is to establish handwriting styles of one’s name, which convey personal character but bear meaning only to the people involved in the discipline. To outsiders, they often remain obscure. Since engaging in a dialogue with artificial intelligence and machine learning systems over the past few years, I have noticed a strange aesthetic parallelism between machine-generated letters and ancient writing systems. The more I study these systems, the more amazed I am by their logic and aesthetic qualities. I am convinced that we are now standing at the dawn of a new phase of civilization with the rapid incorporation of AI technologies into our daily lives. However, we still have not yet managed to establish fruitful communication with these systems. I feel the machine-generated letter structures I use in my work are an exemplary form of a writing system conceived by an early AI that is eager to communicate with us but which we struggle to decipher, provoking an uncanny sentiment in us – the interpreters of the signs.

Perhaps through the act of repetition or maybe in the randomness of finding new and stimulating aesthetics, we can see how letters have been disappearing, unraveling along the way… How have all these symbols evolved with you over the years?

ALSINO: The symbols and signs I have used over the years have changed along the way, each accompanying me for a certain period or leaving traces in a specific place, like little friends that you have the power to generate yourself. I have always liked to leave signs within my close living environment. e.g., in the neighborhoods I have lived in. The signs have given me a sense of feeling at home and of belonging, even if only temporarily. By repeating a sequence of letters over a very long time, for example, you focus on specific elements around them and pay attention to subtleties that can make a significant difference in their appearance. Over time, however, there are periods in which you develop some fatigue through repetition, and you want to break out of this cage. Also, the meaning these signs carry for you changes over time, and it is time to move on to another sequence or sign. Machine learning has shown me a way out of this dilemma, introducing a certain kind of randomness in creating new shapes and forms while using my judgment and experience to guide me in incorporating these new elements.

Cognitive learning and machine learning, you have employed both 🙂 Tell us about the technique of your work, where AI and algorithms are a fundamental part of your work.

ALSINO: In my work, my starting point is usually a phrase or a worded idea that I want to transform into a visual structure. I am primarily using machine learning (ML) to help me develop new shapes for the letters and words making up these phrases. While I have used different ML models and algorithms over the years, one of my most loyal companions is an algorithm called pix2pix, which can translate pixels between images. It is a pretty rudimentary algorithm in the world of Artificial Intelligence, especially if you compare it against the new technologies out there today. Nonetheless, it is very potent, and I am a big fan of its somewhat imperfect aesthetics; for me, it embodies the machine residual better than more powerful models. For my work, I have programmed a simple application that can generate imperfect letters and signs with the press of a button; I just have to input the text. The machine output that the machine generates forms the basis for constructing 2-dimensional „word sculptures“ that I use as central elements in my paintings. I paint all of my paintings by hand, but the written letter structures often express a concept related to the technology itself.

The inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller said, “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a new tool, the use of which will induce new ways of thinking.”

ALSINO: I would agree with this statement. You learn much about the system’s underlying logic by employing a new technology or tool and “getting your hands dirty” in its use. When I first started learning how to program, I sometimes found the logic quite challenging to grasp. The longer I worked through problems using code, however, the more natural this way of thinking feels. It is essentially a question of being exposed to new thinking and getting used to its conventions that will eventually enable you to adopt it for your purposes.

He also said that when “generating the solution to a problem, he does not think about beauty, but when finished, if the solution is not beautiful, it is wrong and not correct.”

ALSINO: On this one, I agree with the first part: it is probably not a good idea to overthink the outcome when working on a problem, be it in programming or painting. Especially during the painting process, one should not be concerned whether the final painting will be beautiful or even to your taste. In this case, thinking is a limiting factor as certain things come out of other things that you don’t like but nevertheless find interesting. It also prevents you from freeing up your head space and working intuitively. But I also do not think that beauty always needs to be a project’s ultimate goal, so I’m afraid I have to disagree with the second part of the statement above. A solution that does not embody beauty can still be exciting or provoke an important reaction.

Is this why everything ultimately seeks the sublime?

ALSINO: We seek the sublime in art and life for many reasons. But beauty can be an essential element that allows us to tap into a realm beyond our physical limitations. In this context, I like the concept of „resonance“ by the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa. He lays out that our bodies can connect to some greater outside force, be it god, the universe, or whatever you want to call it. When experiencing situations of exceptional beauty or affect, like a beautiful sunset or a great piece of art, we can be teleported into a state of resonance between our body and this outside force, creating a sense of connection, awe or even transcendence.

You have created a program to generate images, a program in which you input data and it creates new images that are symbols. Explain its functioning. And what kind of data do you provide?

ALSINO: As mentioned before, I have been working extensively with the pix2pix algorithm, which I have used to train a custom machine-learning model on about 1000 images of graffiti tags (hand signatures). Each image was annotated using another piece of custom software to decipher the abstract letter sequences in the tag, thus translating their content from often hard-to-read handwriting to the Latin alphabet. The resulting image pairs made up the training data set. During the training process, the model “learns “specific features in the data, in this case, the pixel color on the image. Since the model is good at transferring pixel values to other pixel values, it eventually “recognizes” specific features in the image, e.g., the upper part of the letter P. Once I had completed the model training, it could be employed to decipher new tags it had never seen before and generate new tags from simple text written on the screen. These ghost tags are the elements that form the basis of my work.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Both are indispensable for the existence of the other, but the balance always tilts one way in this “creation” dilemma. If we apply this existential dilemma to our work with AI, can it exist on its own?

ALSINO: Of course, AI work can exist on its own! AI can already produce remarkable things that humans had never dreamt of only a few years ago. The paradigm is shifting quickly. But is it relevant to us? However, the more profound question you are hinting at is whether the creation of AI technology could have occurred without human intervention. This is hard to say because we do not live in parallel universes at the same time where there might have been a path for this to happen. In our world, it is apparent that humans have produced AI and connected technologies and are further developing them. We currently can use them as (very powerful) tools in the creation process, but this might change rapidly when the scale of adoption changes and these systems become autonomous agents at some point. Once this happens, we will consider the technology no longer as „just tools“ but probably as a close-to-equal form of life with its own set of rules but with attributes previously only ascribed to humans.

You recently participated in an exhibition “The Aesthetics of Silence” curated by Ester Almelda and Alvaro Conde at the MPA Gallery in Madrid. What is the image of silence? Where do the works you exhibit in this collective emerge from?

ALSINO: Any image can be a representation of silence because it is not so much the content of the image that expresses silence but rather the inner experience that it provokes in the viewer when it resonates. Sometimes, this is silence; sometimes, this is noise, or sometimes nothing at all. It all depends on your personal experience, connecting you with the image. The pieces I have shown at the MPA gallery are inspired by the book »God, Human, Animal, Machine« by Meghan O’Gieblyn. The book highlights the role of metaphors in our interaction with technology. It also speaks about the “hard problem of consciousness,” which I am fascinated by, i.e., we are still unsure why a bodily inner experience accompanies our sensory functional apparatus. Why do we perceive and feel as humans if this is not necessary for survival?

What is your day-to-day in the creative process like? Your studio workflow. Your vital workflow, what do you do post-studio?

ALSINO: I have a repetitive daily routine, at least on most days. In the morning, I go to the studio to answer emails and take care of life administration. After that, I usually work a few hours on programming before turning to the canvas and my paintings. This rhythm works for me because it stimulates both the rational and intuitive parts of my body. However, I do not always manage to strike a healthy balance and often get lost in one activity that sucks me in deep. When this happens, I am getting better at learning to let it happen because it is usually a better way than fighting against it.

You’ve been in residence at Piramidón Centre in Barcelona for some time; tell us about the experience, sharing, nurturing day-to-day with the creative experience of other artists.

ALSINO: My time at Piramidón in Barcelona has been excellent so far. Besides the nice studio space, including great natural light and stunning city views, I enjoy the possibility of connecting with other artists from different age groups, experience levels, and countries. When you are in the studio by yourself every day, it is nice to have the opportunity to talk with someone occasionally. Sometimes, we help each other with materials, unsolicited feedback, and jokes. This companionship makes the whole creation process more enjoyable.

Future exhibitions and projects? What are you currently working on?

ALSINO: My next project will be a residency with a gallery in Madrid, starting in March. Apart from that, my artistic exploration entails an ongoing journey of integrating emerging AI technologies into my creative process. Due to the rapid advancements in this field, I recognize the importance of narrowing my focus to areas that spark my curiosity. Right now, I am particularly interested in experimenting with integrating large language models (LLMs) into the painting process. Since these models primarily operate with text rather than images, I am exploring the potential opportunities they might present for my artistic pursuits. The experimentation is in progress, and I look forward to discovering the possibilities that may unfold through this exploration. 

Impossible futures and tangible futures. Where are we going, and where is Alsino Skowronnek heading?

ALSINO: We observe a notable increase in creative and artistic production driven by artificial intelligence. While I am eager to explore the incorporation of machine learning into my artistic endeavors, a degree of skepticism regarding the lasting influence of AI tools on creativity remains. This worry comes from how powerful, fast, and easy to use these tools are, making people increasingly apply them in their daily lives. While this can make us all more productive, there’s a real worry that it might make traditional creative skills, like drawing, painting, and writing, seem less important or unique. For me, however, this is an exciting time, and there is so much to be learned and done – strangely enough – I feel like I am only starting with my artistic journey, and I know that there are a lot of images left to be painted in my brush. As I mature as an artist, I grow more confident in my abilities, continuously opening up new spaces for imagination. I like where this is going. 

Related Articles