PhMuseum's Grantee Sara Bastai On Entering The Mind Of An AI

RAM_4.0 wonders on how an AI system could think. Thanks to the PhMuseum Women Photographers Grant, Bastai's photographs were exhibited at PhMuseum Lab in Bologna taking the shape of large, ever-changing surfaces of image and text.

Portuguese multidisciplinary artist Sara Bastai sheds light on the world of AI-driven projects and their impact on contemporary art. In her project RAM_4.0, she challenges the representation of reality by using AI-generated captions derived from her personal archive of images. These captions served as the foundation for the creation of compelling visual imagery. The staged photographs that emerge from this process invite viewers to contemplate the intricate relationship between technology and modern society. We had the opportunity to discuss Sara's creative journey in developing this project, which delves into the complexities of AI collaborations while playfully exposing their imperfections.

Ciao Sara, let’s start by discussing your collaboration with Artificial Intelligence. Can you share insights into your creative process? 

I took the AI-generated captions as if it was a commissioned job, a client’s brief as I usually receive for commercial assignments. The game was how I would transform something so simplistic, direct and cold into something more human and lively. So from a list of 195 captions, I started to prepare shots as I felt, by rethinking how I could play with the elements I had to include in the images or by the actions the models would have to perform. Many of them were repeated, allowing me to interpret the caption in different scenarios. Yet I still wanted to keep an aesthetic that would present a certain glamour and glossiness, to go into issues of mass production and overload of imagery, as well as stock images and the creation of datasets. To show an enhanced representation of our society, where I play with angles, framing, body and facial expressions, leaving humorous and mundane details in the staged images.

Your artistic career spans photography, graphic design, and art direction. How do these disciplines intersect in your work, and how do they contribute to your exploration of memory, technology, and human behaviour? 

I feel like my background in different disciplines allows me to create projects with a wider sense. I love to elevate them by thinking about an overall outcome that creates a solid project such as an exhibition, a book, etc. That’s why I think having this knowledge allows me to do the artistic direction of my own conceptual research. Everything has a visual narrative and direction. The intersection between words/graphic design and images contributes to the exploration of concepts such as memory - in its widest representation, visual, written, and spoken. Moreover, the issues of technology when it comes to transforming images into words and words into images.

RAM_4.0 raises questions about representing reality through AI-generated datasets. How are these complex issues reflected in the set-up designed at PhMuseum Lab, and how do you expect visitors to engage with it?

I guess the feeling I'm ultimately trying to spread is that life is so much more than what we do on our phones. But at the same time pointing out the role of photography and images in representing our world. It's a beautiful tool to preserve our personal memories but AI is still not able to reach the emotional charge these images have on us. On another side, the exhibition is thought for the viewer to feel overwhelmed by the quantity and the size of the images that take over the space. Yet explain in a somehow didactic way the process of this collaboration so that not only can be understood but also people can have fun discovering the flaws of AI. The installation design is also thought to create an in-betweenness between warm/human and cold/unhuman with the kind of structures I use combined with big and playful images. 

 How was your experience exhibiting in Bologna?

It was my first time showcasing my work abroad in Switzerland so it feels really nice to be able to keep mutating it but also engage with a different kind of public. Very receptive and interested in this phenomenon.

What advice would you give to aspiring applicants of PhMuseum Women Photographers Grant?

To present a project that has already a solid base that can be translated into an exhibition space. It is really an amazing opportunity to elevate and showcase your work to a wide audience.

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Sara Bastai was selected to exhibit during PhMuseum Days 2023 thanks to the PhMuseum Women Photographers Grant. Through this year’s edition of the Women Grant, another photographer will be invited to be part of our International Photography Festival in 2024. You can learn more and present your visual projects at phmuseum.com/w23.

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Sara Bastai (Porto, PT, 1996) is a multidisciplinary artist who lives between Porto and Lausanne where she works on personal and commissioned projects, integrating photography, graphic design and art direction. Her research focuses on the creation of visual narratives and conceptual projects that explore the themes of memory, the digital archive, technology and human behaviour.

PhMuseum Days is the International Photography Festival curated and organized by PhMuseum. The third edition took place from 22 September to 1 October 2023 at DumBO’s Spazio Bianco in Bologna and in other places in the city, hosting exhibitions, talks, screenings, portfolio reviews and a section dedicated to independent publishing.