Portrait XO

Exploring the work of Rania Kim AKA Portrait XO who has harnessed the possibilities of generative artificial intelligence to make strange and soulful music.

"AIV1" is as beautiful as it is disorienting. Echoing samples of a voice ascend from all corners of the stereo in seemingly impossible harmonies over sub bass pulses and increasingly panicked drums. The track, from Rania Kim's Wire album as Portrait XO, feels both intensely intimate thanks to her breathy vocals, but also somehow alien. What we are hearing, in fact, is a duet between Rania and Artificial Intelligence (AI), a back-and-forth as she sings with a computer-generated algorithm mimicking her voice.

At first glance, the idea that Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers a new horizon of creativity seems counterintuitive. If anything, the opposite feels true: if AI can be trained to create a constant live stream of a niche genre like death metal, what is the future of artists and creators in this AI-driven world?

Finding space to ask questions like this is what R.AV hopes to do through our collaboration with Sound Obsessed. Throughout the month of March, we are partnering with the collective to invite members to explore how AI can rethink their own creative practice, whether that is playing with algorithms or rethinking the very structure of collaboration.

Portrait XO and Marcin Motyl in upcoming hybrid AI music video 'Love is Misleading'

Portrait XO is eager to chat about the possibilities being opened up in this space. Speaking over Zoom from their Berlin home (where their backdrop is an AI-generated series of qubits), they describe their own journey into the murky frontier where AI and art are fusing. They first began to explore the possibilities enabled through AI tools when doing research in 2015 and linked up with CJ Carr (the same CJ Carr who is half of Dadabots, the pioneers responsible for the aforementioned live metal stream). They were instantly drawn to the idea of using AI not as a replacement to human creativity, but rather as a spark of inspiration, what they call "a new way of imagining, or co-imagining." It's this idea of collaboration that Portrait XO keeps circling back to as we discuss what it is that AI might be able to do. 

Last year, they completed work on Wire. Portrait XO recorded an hour of their singing and then, working with Carr, created a generative algorithm that was used to create a further 10 hours of vocal simulations based on their voice. The results - what Portrait XO calls "datasets" - that the AI created was like staring in a refracted mirror. "[The algorithm] could look at these waveforms and predict new waveforms - trying to 'recompose' - because it doesn't have music theory, the audio comes out really glitch and strange. 90% - 95% is super glitchy," they explain to me. "You catch these hair-raising moments when this voice would sing melodies and lyrics and would sing them in really weird ways and sing in ways that I can't replicate."

If this sounds like something through the looking glass, it is. Not only was Portrait XO hearing their own voice made completely strange through the AI wormhole, but because the AI is looking for patterns, they were also made aware of vocal tics or habits that they didn't even realize they had. The resulting album is a haunted composition that straddles the boundary between the synthetic and the organic, the elegiac and the hopeful. Each sung word is made uncanny as Portrait XO creates a duet with an automated version of themselves. 

Trying to describe this process is a bit like trying to find where a Mobius strip begins - it all turns back on itself, requiring Portrait XO to rethink their own work as a producer. "I had to curate tiny bits of audio - 5 seconds here, 10 seconds there - I had to compose together, it became a duet. AI might start a phrase, but not finish it," they explain. And through this, they saw a whole new way of working emerge, "This is just one example of how you can use your own work as a dataset for training and through that process gain a whole new intimacy with your own work in a very new way."

I should be clear here, Portrait XO isn't so much an AI evangelical as they are an artist who is interested in exploring the way that new technological tools might be harnessed for creativity. If anything, they strike me as an AI pragmatist: "One universal thing that happens to all creatives - we all hit creative walls; we all hit writer's block." But with this new technology, they have new ways of moving past that block: "I could literally pull up an audio sample from this 10-hour of stuff and will hit something that will hit a new inspiration - unexpected, fascinating, inspiring - we all benefit from these ideas as artists. If it's your own work - hearing your own self in an unpredictable way, AI offers these ways of working that other technologies don't."

Portrait XO and Marcin Motyl in upcoming hybrid AI music video 'Love is Misleading'

While much of the media narrative around AI has been consumed with fears that ChatGPT can pass the Bar Exam or will write college essays, there is far more excitement in pockets of the underground and experimental art community around how these technologies might be used. This has helped Portrait XO found the collective Sound Obsessed. The idea here is simple - bring together artists, musicians, scientists, and creative technologists who are (as the name suggests) interested in exploring how these technologies might help create different types of sound and music. A big part of this work, alongside creating the actual art, is facilitating what Portrait XO calls a "cultural behavioral shift." Against the narrative of  "glorified automation" that has consumed much of the AI space, those connected with Sound Obsessed are interested in "[using] these tools in a meaningful way if it's enhancing and pushing our own creativity and skills. The actual role of creativity is still very much in the hands of humans."

Portrait XO was recently invited onto a panel discussing the future of art and AI and explained that we need a new narrative for understanding the role that these tools might play: "Early on everyone had this misconception that people wanted to automate and replace creativity. I was asked if virtuosity was still important?" They laugh at this, explaining, "Machines don't replace creativity or virtuosity; I don't know any of my artist friends that want their creativity replaced; why would I want to replace myself?" 

What is essential is the idea of exploration and curiosity. As Portrait XO points out, there are huge ramifications for this technology not just in terms of creative output, but also in terms of the larger media infrastructure that surrounds them. As they describe it, "All these evolutionary movements have been questioning things like IP - what does it mean about data usage and who does what belong to and how do you do royalties?

What Portrait XO is highlighting is the fact that AI has the potential to drastically reconfigure the music industry. This is true in terms of actual practice - like Portrait XO's duets with the AI version of their voice - but also at a broader scale, what will the infrastructure that supports AI look like? These are questions that we don't have answers to yet, but as Portrait XO and the rest of the Sound Obsessed collective are making clear, it's vital that creatives have a seat at the table, still engaging in these conversations.

This is what R.AV and Sound Obsessed will be doing over the month of March. Using AI technologies, we want to explore what possibilities are out there for creatives in using a whole new set of digital tools. 

The work coming out of this collaboration will be released through R.AV in April, in conjunction with installations and performances at theRefraction x Proof of People event during NFT.NYC(April 12-13 2023) as well as a virtual exhibition inNewArtCity.

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About Portrait XO:

Portrait XO (she/they) is an independent researcher and artist who creates musical and visual works with traditional and non-traditional methods.  In collaboration with Dadabots, they won ‘Best Experiment’ award at VUT Indie Awards 2021, and Eurovision AI Song Contest Jury Vote for ‘most creative use of AI’ in 2020.  Her development into AI audiovisual art evolved through several artist residencies from NEW NOW FESTIVAL and BBA Gallery in 2021, and Factory Berlin x Sonar+D in 2020. She researches computational creativity, human-machine collaboration, and explores new formats & applications for forward-thinking art and sound.  She holds a monthly radio residency with her art & activism collective CO:QUO (CO-CREATE STATUS-QUO) on Refuge Worldwide Radio, and a founding member of The IASAS (International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists, and Scientists) and recently launched SOUND OBSESSED - sonic innovation archive celebrating the journey and milestones of new innovation in sound.  Her debut research-based AI audiovisual album 'WIRE' released on December 9th 2022 as a first of its kind NFT to Vinyl release on music NFT polygon marketplace twelve x twelve.

She has performed, presented, and exhibited at SXSW, Ars Electronica, MONOM, Reeperbahn Festival, International Music Summit, Amsterdam Dance Event, BBA Gallery, RE:PUBLICA, Sonar+D, Factory Berlin, Tech Open Air, Redbull Music, Future Forum by BMW Welt, KIKK Festival, Github, and more.


About Sound Obsessed:

SOUND OBSESSED is a sonic innovation archive featuring musicians working at the intersection of art, sound, science and emerging technologies. Sonically obsessed with space and time – artists explore new audio creation methods with fields such as robotics, data science, artificial intelligence, AR/VR/XR, and other new media. Our artists approach creativity with a strong focus on research and experimentation with new techniques while critiquing social implications and human-machine interactions. What does it mean to be human in today’s data-driven society? This archive celebrates the journey, challenges, and milestones of each sonic innovation.


Image Credits:
Stills from Portrait XO’s upcoming hybrid AI music video ‘Love is Misleading’ — AI audiovisual by Portrait XO
Director of Photography: Alex Hall