Everyone has Access to Dall-E, and My Art is Still Better: A Sitdown with Karan4d (Part 1)
I feel like didn’t know anything at all when this conversation started. But what happens when you speak to a guy/artist/mind like Karan4d is you simply come out on the other side different. Not just in terms of your knowledge, but in terms of your very perspective. You see people juuuuuuust a little bit differently. And ditto art. And especially the wide and widely-misunderstood world of generative art.
It takes a special guy/artist/mind to do something like that. I’m always surprised when I come across someone of this sort. But it’s not surprising to me at all, knowing Karan as I believe I now do, that he’s able to imbue this same quality into his artwork.
This isn’t just artwork, it’s education. With his images, Karan takes a bountiful mind stuffed with classical philosophy, all the AI-centric acronyms in the book, keen perception of human behavior, a deep love for videogames and the glut of art history, and transmits it into all the work. When I come across Karan’s art, it sings in many languages, and about many things. It was a joy getting to talk to him, learn from him, and open him up a bit.
(And know that every time you see “Laughs.” written below, it was the kind of full-throated belly laugh one just can’t help but join-in with).
The following is the condensed and lightly-edited transcription of a conversation between Karan4d and Max Cohen (@cohenthewriter) recorded in August 2022. This is part 1 of 3. You can read part 2 here and part 3 here.
Max: So, very first question is: What was the first piece of art you ever made?
Karan: I started recording music when I was like 13, 14 years old. I used to write poems and rap and shit like that. It was all trash. It was all terrible. I started with music. I started learning how to mix and master and shit like that in college. I did music until 2019/2020.
Max: Do you remember what the subject of your music was back then?
Karan: Crap, bro. A bunch of crap. There was one really cool setup we did in college right before Web3 was blowing up. I guess it existed already — I didn’t know about it — in 2018. We were trying to create this whole lore, world-build situation with this album and accompanying art-pieces. It would all be about the Sly Kids, which was my music group, me and my boys. And it was all about us entering the digital realm and going through the layers of the different realities and dimensions too, like unlocking new musical skills, and getting to the top layer of the simulation.
Yeah, it’s silly, it’s embarrassing, but it was also a really fun and formative part of my life that led to — I saw this dude, CreatebyLaw, (Ian Lawrence), who is now a crypto artist who came into the space after me, which is crazy because he is my OG OG — wait til I tell you this: He’s the first piece of 3D art I ever saw. On my IG feed, I just saw his work pop-up…and I was like “Holy fuck, this is craaaaazy. What is this?”
And I hit him up very nervously, like “Hey can you tell me what specs I would need to do this, how I would do this?”
And this guy was SUUUUUPER helpful, bro: He hit me back up, told me what I needed to do. And I had a shitty 2015/2016 Macbook Pro that barely ran Cinema4D and took a full overnight to render one frame, and I started making 3D art, and I did it with the purpose of adding to the art collection that we would have for this concept album world we were making.
So, I started making 3D art, January of 2020, thought it was dope, was in my last year of college, extra year, 5th year — fucked around and got depressed 4th year — and didn’t go to any classes, played Bloodborne all day. And this 5th year, quarantine began in March, and I stayed at home, and I learned art and Cinema4D and did it for 2–3 hours everyday, sometimes more. And then, I geuss the first piece of art I made was — I don’t have it anymore, I don’t even know what the fuck it was, some shitty Cinema4D render, you know, the first piece I’d call “a piece.” And we ended up using it as a concept art single on a Soundcloud track that’s now taken down. Somewhere.
Max: When along that path did you first consider yourself an artist? When did you feel comfortable applying the words to yourself?
Karan: I had already seen myself as an artist as a musician and as a clandestine poet, and I’ve always had the ego of an artist. I’ve always been an asshole. Laughs. It’s true! I’ve always been a freak! Laughs. I mean that’s what my friends tell me so it’s gotta be true. Laughs.
I don’t know, I thought I was an artist before. I already considered myself an artist when I started doing the 3D. But when it really hit, when I realized this was real, was joining Web3 and joining the Rarible community and being in the Discord and meeting SamJ and meeting Dutchtide and meeting all these people. August/September 2020. And totally feeling like these other people were like,“Your work is great. You are an artist.”
There’s this quote — I don’t know who said it — about What makes somebody great? When somebody else says that they’re great. And I really believe that. The idea that your labels are what you define yourself as, but also what others define yourself as. So as far as other people saying “Dude, you’re a fuckin’ artist,” I was like, “All right, word, it’s real now.” That’s it.
Max: From us working together, I’ve seen with my own eyes, and I’ve also heard your reputation, that you’re incredibly competent technologically. Like in a way that seems uncommon —
Karan: Laughing hard. Oooooooo shit.
Max: — but also in the outside world, there’s not a ton of AI-gifted individuals. So what I’m trying to say is: You’re super technologically competent, you could probably go get a cushy high-paying job doing something computer-minded, so why artistry?
Karan: Okay, so FIRST, I’d like to clarify that any perception that I am incredibly technologically-competent is a very carefully curated illusion built over the last two years.
Max: But you said it! Being great is just a matter of people telling you that you’re great!
Karan: That’s true, that’s true! Truth be told, my coding skills are definitely worse than that of an undergraduate with four years of hard working experience building their own projects. I happened to jump into coding from the top down, and I struggled a lot, and I couldn’t make you a website if you asked me to. But I’d really hate to do that. I’d really rather make an NLP [Natural Language Processing] model, an AI model, a GAN [Generative Adversarial Network] model. Because it’s cool to me.
I got into AI not because I needed money or anything. Quarantine was happening, and I was watching Westworld, and it’s my favorite show, and I didn’t know what AI was or that it is not what it is in Westworld, but it inspired me to go, “I wanna make AI too!”
And I had nothing to do.
And this was something that could take me out of depression. So I just started watching tutorials on Colab Notebooks and running stuff that required little coding because no-code options weren’t really available yet. And I started being able to understand and read what was going on. And I was like “OH…now I know how to prepare data-sets even if I don’t know the code for making the underlying architecture.”
And one step at a time, I just reverse-engineered down ’til, now: You need an NLP model? I gotchu. You need a GAN? I gotchu. You want to make a brand new type of model that nobody’s ever made before? Let me do a little research, and I gotchu. There is the difficult skill of being an autodidact — that comes in our generation more often than the previous ones, I think — of just being like “You know what, Youtube exists, somebody else knows how to do this thing and they don’t have a degree, I can learn the thing too! And even if I have no fucking idea how 99% of it works, let me worry about the 1% that is cool right now, and I’ll go 1% down at a time.”
So no, I don’t have that wide breadth of technological capabilities. I am new to the world of somebody giving — like coding is somebody giving you a problem and doing magic to fucking solve the problem or make something. And I’m really slow at that skill compared to a lot of people. I’m just fast at it in a particular field, and I’m very creative. I’m a one-trick pony. I’m the AI guy. A real coder — not just a competent one but a special one-of-a-kind guy — can do my whole job.
Max: You said you were learning about AI because of Westworld…
Karan: It’s my favorite show.
Max: Good show. My question is, had you known there was this whole world of AI and generative art? And when did you discover that it was a whole preexisting niche?
Karan: I knew that I wanted to learn something about AI, and I had — I can’t really remember when the first instance was. But being in the Web3 community, I was doing a lot of Youtube-holing, and I think I found a tutorial on training your own StyleGAN2 data-set. And a tutorial on training your own GTP2 data-set. Now we’re on StyleGAN3 or 4 — and GPT3 has been out for years — and all that. But at the time these things were not the closed-source API things they are today that you either had to build or pay for .
And I definitely got started with these Youtube tutorials showing me how to prepare data-sets and run models and fine-tune models with the click of a button without doing much coding besides a couple rearrangings of file names, and stuff like that. And it was addicting! Being a super super massive enthusiast of Lovecraft as an author — and not particularly much as a human being — but yeah, I trained my first GPT2 model on Lovecraft’s entire corpus. And it wrote the coolest stories that — I have a bunch of notes on declivity, and Lovecraft’s storytelling involves a descent of the world rather than a building of the world around you, and how he tells you information by not telling you. Like: “Something which I must not know,” or “The night of which I must not speak” and shit. And the model, without knowing any of these parameters, just picked up perfectly on it.
And I was addicted. Right away.
I was like, I’m nothing, I have no title, I have no name, no job, no skills, but this thing is fucking cool and I’m gonna do this.
I haven’t sold any generative text work before, I don’t think. There is a shelved project involving an AI Natural-Language-Process model, which connects to the Chain, which is actually how I got linked up with [Colborn Bell] and MOCA, how the [Virtual Curator] started. But essentially I fell in love, I got addicted, and I had nothing else to do. So to answer you question about why don’t I have a cushy high-paying job, it’s two things:
- I clearly am not good with schedules or doing things on time or anything. I am in this dream position where I get to work with this team where no-ones on my ass, it’s just a job to do and get done, and it’s a job I got to choose to do, that I wanted to do. And I’m really excited. This is my dream right now.
- I’ve learned through getting to grow-up in here that I’m not going to let anyone take my IP away from me. I’m not going to let anyone take my rights away from me. There have been times in the past where I’ve been offered various things to sell my soul. In the art community, in the AI community. And I’ve turned them down not because I don’t want to work in Web2, but simply because they were taking my rights away, my intellectual property away from me. With MOCA, anything I make for them I get to decide — I am giving this to MOCA because it’s something we’re doing together. But if I wanted to keep that technology to make a model for myself and profit for myself, or whatever, I have every right. And that’s what makes me want to say, “No, you take it, this is for MOCA. I got to choose to give it to you. You didn’t take it from me.”