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Tim Marlow - Bombay Sapphire

Tim Marlow Talks Potential of AI in Design, Art, and Spirits

Last week in New York City, Tim Marlow OBE, CEO and Director of the Design Museum in London, hosted an event with Bombay Sapphire. At Chelsea Factory, the soirée centered the gin brand at the juxtaposition of art and technology—a creative force now fueled by artificial intelligence (AI).

Rather than turning away from the limitless potential of creativity found within AI, Marlow partnered with the spirits company to work with a lifelike robot named Ai-Da on a series of artworks. Presented in an exhibition named “Saw This, Made This” at the space, as well as on a new limited-edition bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin, Ai-Da’s creations illustrated the possibility of creating with AI—and not having AI working for you. After, it’ll travel to London and be exhibited at the Design Museum.

Tim Marlow - Bombay Sapphire Ai-Da, photo by Sansho Scott for BFA, courtesy of Bombay Sapphire.


“When Bombay Sapphire approached me to help celebrate the incredible creative output from people all around the world in response to the ‘Saw This, Made This’ campaign, I immediately thought of Ai-Da,” Marlow stated. “The idea of bringing together creative perspectives from six continents as part of the world’s largest mass participation AI art event, done in partnership with a robot artist, is radical. It offers us the chance to explore human creativity on a scale rarely seen. It is highly experimental but at the same time relies on intensely controlled algorithmic AI programming.”

Born from embracing this nuanced process, “Saw This, Made This” also celebrated thousands of social media submissions to the hashtag #SawThisMadeThis, which welcomed people to submit inspirational images of what they saw and then made. Bombay Sapphire also welcomed the filmmaker Baz Luhrmann in as the campaign’s creative director, heightening the expression of beauty found in boundless creativity.

“I truly believe creativity lies within us all. The aim of the Bombay Sapphire ‘Saw This, Made This’ campaign is to show people that creative inspiration exists all around them. Thousands of people have shared the things that have sparked their own creativity—and the results have been extraordinary,” said Luhrmann. “My aim as creative director of this campaign has always been to encourage people to see the world as a gallery and unlock a creative part of themselves that they may not have been aware of.”

Throughout the event, special guests like Sophie Collé, Nneka Julia, Rōze Traore, and Fabritzio Villalpando enjoyed specialty Bombay Sapphire cocktails inspired by Luhrmann, like Sunrise and Tonic, Petal Collins, and the Iona Martini—named after his former Victorian mansion in Darlinghurst, Sydney.

Whitewall spoke with Marlow over Zoom about teaming up with Bombay Sapphire on an activation that harnessed the power of AI, and how he personally thinks technology and design play into our world’s larger picture.

Tim Marlow - Bombay Sapphire Baz Luhrman, Ai-Da, Tim Marlow, photo by Sansho Scott for BFA, courtesy of Bombay Sapphire.

WHITEWALL: Your role at the museum has expanded over the years—and you’re its first CEO. What’s it like today, with the rise of technology including new inventions and evolutions nearly every day?

TIM MARLOW:
Well, I was in the visual arts before at the Royal Academy in London, an ancient institution that’s 254 years old. So, the visual arts is my background, but when the opportunity came to go the Design Museum, I jumped because I think design is so prevalent—globally, but in British culture, particularly. But it’s often not on people’s radar in ways that one thinks it might be. The opportunity of actually trying to take on a museum devoted to design seemed like a good idea…until the pandemic came along. I mean, it was a good idea, but all museums were not easy during that period. But design is one of the ways that we will get out of the problems—the pandemic and other issues have thrust upon us. It’s a good place to be.

WW: How does technology impact how you approach what you’re going to show? Does it dictate some choices at all?

TM: To go back to the pandemic, one of the things that became really clear to us was how much people wanted communal experiences collectively. They wanted public life—cultural institutions, generally, and museums, particularly. It reinforced to me that technology design and technology was one important area that we would have to cover, and it’s an important area that gave us all sorts of opportunities about reaching different kinds of audiences and different parts of the world. But it was only one aspect of design. It didn’t become the dominant narrative. That’s still a contentious issue. For some people, digital technology and the rise of technology becomes almost central to that their lives, whereas I think our attitude is it’s one aspect of life.

We recently finished a show on ASMR, and my younger curatorial team persuaded me that this was a good idea and they were right. I was really curious about it. I thought it was a phenomenon on people’s phones and computers. We staged this massive installation and it did really well, so we extended the run and it got very, very good audiences. We didn’t pack it, we gave people a chance to be in there and meditate. But people wanted to be alone together. They wanted to be in these spaces watching Björk take the back off a television, a dog being groomed, or a pretty sensational Bob Ross painting. They loved the idea that they could be in their own world with their headphones on, but surrounded by other people. And that seemed to be an example of where we got with technology, facilitating all sorts of different approaches in life but also people having this desire to share in certain ways.

Having said that, when it comes to a project with Ai-Da the robot, we did a display around it two years ago at the museum. That was putting digital technology, and AI in particular, under the physiological spotlight. It gave the audience a chance to look at the technology and design around what was claimed to be unexpected—the world’s first in AI robot, identified as an artist and a female. She’s a tribute to Ada Lovelace.

One of the most interesting things for me about the project, both in London at the Design Museum and in New York at Chelsea Factory is giving the public the opportunity of seeing AI in action in a non-judgmental way, and actually making their own conclusions about the moral and ethical issues, which are complicated. But the technology and the design around it is fascinating and impressive.

Tim Marlow - Bombay Sapphire Art by Ai-Da, photo by Sansho Scott for BFA, courtesy of Bombay Sapphire.

WW: This is the Design Museum’s second collaboration with Bombay Sapphire. What was the first one like? How did it lead to this?

TM: It’s a really great organization to work with because the first collaboration we did was called Art Supermarket. It was 2021 at the end of lockdown, and our government had said that essential retail could reopen. That included the commercial art world, but not museums. So, Bombay Sapphire came to us and said they had an idea about essential retail. They said, “Why don’t we have a supermarket in the museum? Are you interested in this?” I said, “Yeah! We really are.” I said, “Let’s not do it in the gallery. We’ve got a shop outside on the street, which is closed. Let’s open the shop and turn it into an installation.”

It was filled with product designed by emerging designers and artists who were paid properly for that. And then the product was sold at supermarket rates. It was a thousand of each product. The shop became an installation that when you went into it, it became a shop again. It was open for five days. We were virtually selling out, and had to limit the number of products people could have. The money raised actually went to the Motion Designers Fund, because Bombay was commercially supporting the museum anyway.

We always had this idea that we could do another project of a different kind. Then Bombay had got a partnership globally with Baz Luhrmann as a creative ambassador. He was interested in people’s creativity. He told a story about going on a train journey and looking around and seeing potential inspiration everywhere, thinking that so many people are creative without realizing it. So, the idea of “Saw This, Made This” came. Baz wanted people to submit things that inspired them, things that they had made as a consequence of that. Bombay then came to me to see if the Design Museum would want to partner on it, and think about showcasing it in London and New York.

They asked if I could be the global curator, and I said yes. They wanted to get an artist that could respond to the submissions of thousands of people who submitted to the campaign. We discussed the kind of artist it might be. In the end, the problem was that whoever you got would have to give a subjective, creative response. It would be from one individual—admittedly a high profile, incredibly talented or important artist—but nonetheless, they’d have to give a subjective response. We went through various permutations and then I said, “Look, I’ve got a slightly different idea. The only ‘artist’ I can think of that could in any meaningful way respond to everything without subjective taste or choice, is a robot, AiDa. How about it?”

There was a discussion, and immediately they said, “This is great, let’s do it.”

Tim Marlow - Bombay Sapphire Tim Marlow and Baz Luhrman, photo by Sansho Scott for BFA, courtesy of Bombay Sapphire.

WW: Can you describe for those who aren’t very familiar with AI technology how AiDa can sift through submissions and remain subjective? And then make artwork based on the submissions of others?

TM: AiDa is capable of being algorithmically programed by everyone’s submissions. It can be an ongoing programing, during the project in London and then New York. If you go down the block and log on to the project and submit something that’s inspired you, that becomes part of AiDa’s algorithmic programing by the next day. Your creative input is part of her output.

We’ve got this idea of a cumulative artwork that there’s one piece of work she produces each day. Sequentially, the final work of art is potentially more complicated because there are more submissions, but each is a standalone artwork. Of course, the problem is that the AI robot subsumes everything. It literally algorithmically devours everything, but also it becomes the thing that everyone becomes fascinated by, which is bright. But the generosity of the campaign—encouraging people to explore their own creativity—and understanding that robots are the result of human creativity, while looking at how creativity and human inspiration, puts it all into sharp relief.

WW: What do you hope that this communicates about the possibilities of AI and the future of it?

TM: I hope that people are encouraged. I hope people try and see the exhibition because the complexity and the unnerving nature of this robot and robotics now in general is really acute when you’re in the space. When Baz met Ai-Da for the first time, he started flirting with it. He’s a very sophisticated, funny individual, and he really engaged with it. As a director, you saw him both directing, provoking, and trying to solicit response from the robot. So, I want people to see it, because it’s a bit of a spectacle, but as an opportunity to scrutinize human ingenuity, design, and technology.

The second thing is to think about how we creatively assimilate the world around us—and how how human beings work creatively. And to think about that in relationship to algorithmic programing. It’s obvious with a robot when you look at the programing, and look at the output, what the robot has been influenced by. It doesn’t have a subconscious. We do! We have a conscious, subconscious; we’re open to the world around us; we’re aware of what we’re trying to respond to. Sometimes we skew things because we have needs, but other times we’re not aware of why we do what we do. The robot is programed because, fundamentally, it is not aware of consciousness. This is an idea about what it is to be human—and asking “Can creativity exist beyond human beings?” Clearly it can. And we can’t shy away from the issues. It’s true that it can be a huge threat it not mediated properly. It being a free-for-all is a bit of a worry, but Ai-Da is not a threat.

I think in the creative industries, it’s a technological tool as much as anything, that will be harnessed by creative organizations. The Hollywood Writers Guild, for example, has some genuine issues around job replacement. But I think creatively there’s less of a threat if we use it in interesting ways. Politically and socially, if AI is used in nefarious means, there is a real problem. As a society, we can’t shy away from that.

Tim Marlow - Bombay Sapphire Art by Ai-Da, courtesy of Bombay Sapphire.

WW: How are you personally thinking about A.I. as a tool to enrich or enable creativity? From a museum’s perspective?

TM: Well, I wish you could take on the fundraising capabilities of a museum director, because that would make my life a lot easier! [Laughs] We’re interested in the escalation of the technological capabilities, and how we can showcase them and provide opportunities with them.

I think the role of museums is to showcase and to ask questions, to give the audience the opportunity to come to their own conclusions about things. I think the best museums don’t metaphorically preach from the pulpit, although they advocate for freedom of expression and extraordinary human talent in different ways. I think the most acute problem facing humankind over the next few decades is quite clearly our relationship to the planet and its precarious state. We’ve gone past the idea of saying that “allegedly” the planet’s in crisis. There is a climate crisis. In a sense, human beings and design—our ingenuity, and our capacity to make things and our tendency for mass consumption—have a responsibility for getting us in the situation we’re in. But design broadly—science, technology, human ingenuity—will be the way that we can mediate part of the relationship with the planet. How AI fits into that, and what it potentially offers, is really interesting, but I haven’t fully come to grips with that.

At the museum, just set up this thing called Future Observatory, where for the last year and a half, we are the national hub of design research departments for British universities—and we have substantial government-allocated funds through our research council. It’s all about the green transition and how we can seed fund, and showcase design research around this area. And how digital technology plays into that, facilitates that, is interesting. We’re at the beginning of how that might work now.

WW: It’s interesting because as a museum director, you’re not just interested in what the public is interested in—like identifying and aiding a problem like the climate crisis—but showcasing how it is changing through the help of design and technology. Where do you think the future of design is? Will it change as people change?

TM: Well, design, in a sense, is producing. I don’t want to preach about the dangers of mass consumption, but it’s self-evident that we need to have a more sustainable attitude regarding production and consumption. Design, I think, is central to all of that. What I love about design is its collaborative need.

The world I came from, visual arts, I love. I love the purity of human expression and the works that human beings have produced for millennia, and will continue to produce. Visual art is porous and collaborative, but it’s not essentially collaborative. Design is. It needs a network of brand, venture capital, entrepreneurship, science, technology, ingenuity—all these things.

The creative capacity that human beings have to make things—that either express their position in the world or try and make sense of where we are in the grand scheme of things—is art. The functional need to sort of mediate our relationship to the things around us is design.

I love the fact that critical design, which gives huge scope for blue-sky thinking, is actually the hardest of all these strands of human ingenuity and collaboration. A design museum certainly should be looking at bringing that together. I’m essentially optimistic, but not naively so. I think we have the capacity as human beings to do extraordinary things so we can actually get out of some of the problems that we’ve created for ourselves. But it’s not inevitable we’ll do that. I think design is one of the great manifestations of human capability and imagination, as well as the practical side.

Tim Marlow - Bombay Sapphire Art by Ai-Da, courtesy of Bombay Sapphire.

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