In a climate where endless hype has people paranoid about AI stealing humans’ jobs, a new app called Bye Bye Camera uses neural networks to eradicate humans from the world altogether. Bye Bye Camera simply removes people from photos and fills in the background. The app is being launched today by an artist who goes by “Damjanski” and his art collective Do Something Good.
According to Damjanski:
I’ve created this project together with two of my longtime collaborators, Andrej and Pavel, from Russia. A couple of years ago I created a collective called Do Something Good where I connected all the people I’ve collaborated with online. By now we’re 16 people around the world from different fields and collaborate on different projects.
The app takes out the vanity of any selfie and also the person. I consider Bye Bye Camera an app for the post-human era. It’s a gentle nod to a future where complex programs replace human labor and some would argue the human race. It’s interesting to ask what is a human from an Ai (yes, the small “i” is intended) perspective? In this case, a collection of pixels that identify a person based on previously labeled data. But who labels this data that defines a person immaterially? So many questions for such an innocent little camera app.
At a high level, Bye Bye Camera works by combining functionality from an image recognition app called Yolo with a neural network that analyzes the background and tries to repaint it.
Sure, this functionality has existed in other photo apps and tools, but in Damjanski’s hands, this feels more like an artwork than a business venture. For one thing, other tools are used to make corrections - Bye Bye Camera just wipes everyone out!
Damjanski reinforced my perception of his app, sharing with me:
A lot of friends asked us if we can implement the feature to choose which person to take out. But for us, this app is not an utility app in a classical sense that solves a problem. It’s an artistic tool and ultimately a piece of software art.
The idea of “app as artwork” may seem strange at first. It makes more sense when you remember that most of the serious AI artists feel strongly that it is the models they are training and not the output that should be considered the artwork. Once you arrive at this conclusion, highjacking the Apple App Store and Google Play Store as your own personal art gallery makes a lot of sense. Again, from Damjanski:
First and foremost I see this as an artistic tool for me to create more art. It’s almost like a new ‘brush’ I am using. A year ago we created another tool called “No Shutter App” that only takes pictures while the phone’s shutter loads. In both cases it’s a way for me to enhance my artistic practice. But we also like opening it up to the public and see what other people create with it. A commercial success is not the primary goal here.
The results from Bye Bye Camera are often eerie and remind me of work by one of my favorite photographers, Lewis Baltz. Baltz created gorgeous photographs of generic office parks completely void of humanity.
While Baltz photos are sans-human from conception, there is, of course, also a long and rich history of manual and mechanical removal of humans from photographs for a variety of reasons.
In Soviet Russia it was common practice for censors to remove people from photographs as part of the propaganda efforts. The image below was taken near the Moscow Canal while Nikolai Yezhov was serving as the water commissar. After Yezhov fell from power he was killed and his image was systematically removed from the photograph.
It is important to remember that in the early days of Soviet censorship, the photograph still had an air of truthfulness to it. So carefully removing a person from a photograph had the haunting effect of visually rewriting them out of history.
In today’s post-truth society where photography as a reliable record of reality has long since dissolved, erasure of humans from photographs takes on a different meaning. In 2007, artist Michael Somoroff erased the figures from photographer August Sander’s famous photographic series People of the 20th Century, creating his own series titled Absence of Subject.
Unlike the Russian censors, Somoroff’s goal was not to rewrite history, but rather to reimagine it through a postmodern lens while paying homage to Sander. By removing the human figures intended as the primary point of interest, he is pushing the background into the the foreground, creating an entirely new image in the process.
Regular Artnome readers will recall that I used a similar process in my previous article in an attempt to create a neutered version of David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by using algorithms to remove and replace the human figures.
My goal was to make a copyright-free version of famous paintings by systematically identifying and removing the “visually important” parts and replacing them using Photoshop’s “context aware fill.” Though the goals of Somoroff, Damjanski, and myself are different, the approaches are quite similar. This is not all that surprising as these new AI/ML-driven tools have built in affordances that encourage appropriation and radical remixing. We can expect this to be a trend that only grows more extreme over the next few years, manifesting in deep fakes and other forms of extreme photographic and cinematic modification.
If Damjanski’s name sounds familiar to you, it may be because you remember him from his guerrilla art exhibition in the Jackson Pollock gallery at the MOMA titled MoMAR. The project used AR (augmented reality) to replace Jackson Pollock paintings with work by generative artist David Kraftsow from his YouTube glitch series.
According to Damjanski, MoMAR is “an unauthorized gallery concept aimed at democratizing physical exhibition spaces, museums, and the curation of art within them.”
While Bye Bye Camera does not co-opt a physical space as with MoMAR, Damjanski is introducing his art into a public distribution channel, the app store, which we do not typically associate as being a “gallery.” With more than 93 million selfies posted daily, I, for one, welcome Bye Bye Camera as perhaps our last best hope of stemming the avalanche of endless selfies in favor of some more Baltz-ian subject matter in my Instagram feed.