When do you become an artist? At what point do you go from somebody who creates things as a hobby and become a real-life, honest-to-God artist?
It’s something I often asked myself when I was younger. Literally sometimes. I would stand in front of the mirror and ask myself questions while pretending to be interviewed.
Who was interviewing me in these fantasies? I can’t remember now. A gallery owner, a journalist, some faceless someone-or-other whose interest in me proved that I had made it – practicing for media coverage that would never come.
Putting on a thoughtful face, I would ask my reflection, ‘When did you become an Artist?’ Rattling off some fascinating answer or the other. I had probably dozens of soundbites prepared for the day I got asked that question – but, it turns out, none of them was correct.
The real answer, as it turns out, is that you become an artist when somebody pays you for it.
Reader, they don’t pay me for being an artist. They pay me to make art, of a sort, at my day job but they don’t pay me very well. I never really got that big break, never had the right connections, never had a career served up to me like so many lines of blow on a mirror. Instead, I got a job punching up graphic design at a Digital Agency.
I won’t bore you with the details of my job. We Specialise in Deliverables. We Leverage Multiple Platforms. We contort and butcher the norms of aesthetics and the English language and Arbitrarily Capitalise words we consider Important. Which is to say, we Sell Shit Online, and I do the Artwork.
I have talent, some, definitely, but not enough that anyone ever tapped me on the shoulder and pulled me out of an ordinary little life. What are you supposed to do if you’d spent the better part of three decades pursuing a dream only to realise that, maybe, despite everything you believed in, it just wasn’t going to happen for you?
That is the question I found myself asking more and more when I looked in the mirror. My days of practicing for media interviews were behind me. I no longer studied my reflection and worried about the inevitable perils of fame and fortune. Instead, I watched the worry lines deepen around my mouth and tried not to think about how little I had stashed away in my retirement account.
So many people throughout history – me included – have assumed they were born to make art, to create something new and unique, to leave the world a better place than they found it. Picture me looking in a mirror, pumping up my own tires for success. It didn’t occur to me to realise, until too late, that I just wasn’t born with the talent.
Why was I put on Earth with the belief that I was made to make art if I wasn’t going to be given the chance to make that the centre of my life? What sort of cruel trick is that to play on a sentient creature?
I was chewing this over, obsessed with it really, about the time it all began. Just when I was about to start coming to terms with the fact that despite my delusions, perhaps I didn’t exist purely to create, when a creature that was came into my life.
What if we’re weren’t born with talent? What if you were the talent? What if you had, definitively, been put on the Earth purely to create. What sort of life would that be?
I had been thinking about that the night I met M. This is that story. It begins the night of my 28th birthday. That was the night M came into my life, and also the night my best friend died.
Looking back at what I wrote just now, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. Yes, the night I met M was the night that Ben died, but Ben wasn’t ‘my best friend’. Not even, really, amongst the top five friends I’d ever had. It would be more accurate to say that he is –was– ‘my best friend at work’, which is to say my only friend at work.
Ben was the IT guy. Technically, his position was Head of Digital, a fairly meaningless title because he was the only guy in Digital. This seemed strange, because we were a Digital Agency, so you’d think there’d be more than one computer guy.
Instead, the company had salesmen. Dozens of the fuckers, more every time you looked around. You know the kind. White guys in tan shoes and blue slim-cut suits who fit into them year after year through a combination of P45 and cocaine lunches.
The kind of people who used to bully me in high school, who my mother always assured me would grow up to be losers, and maybe have, but still have ended up in a position where they can bully me at work.
They bullied me, and they bullied Ben. Which I guess is how we ended up being friends in the first place because it was something we had in common. They were actually a little nicer to Ben, which seemed unfair to me, because Ben was a massive nerd. I suppose they had to treat him better because without him, nobody could do their job.
He did everything vaguely IT related – the SEO, the ROI, all the acronyms we charged a lot of money to yell at gullible boomer clients. Without him the place would fall over overnight. So, he was afforded certain privileges.
He also got his own office, of a sort. They kept him at the far end of the building, away from Sales, and Marketing, and Graphics, alone in a sort of a closet that housed the office servers. It was like something out of a bad sci-fi – an airless little room made even smaller with banks upon banks of computers, exhaust fans, blinking green lights, Borg-like, naked wiring running from one wall to the next in an elaborate abstract sculpture.
And, right in the middle, Ben made a little nest where he worked. He was a strange unit, old Ben – you had to knock, or you’d startle him in the middle of some delicate circuit board operation. At the beginning of the day, he’d come in, maybe wave hello at those he passed, maybe not. Go into that room and not emerge until long after everyone else had gone home.
Now and again I’d go and knock on his door and bully him into coming out to share a meal with me at one of the cafes in the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. We’d lunch every few days, and every time he seemed surprised at the invitation. Honestly, I don’t think he would have eaten if I hadn’t reminded him, but once he was sat in front of a bowl of noodles he would shovel them into his face like a starving kitten, while I begged him to slow down because it wasn’t like he needed more calories. Then we’d pass the lunch hour, me winding him up, him sitting there with a daft little smile on his face, as he dripped laksa onto his jumper.
Sometimes I couldn’t tempt him to come out at all. So I was taken aback that one particular day when he emerged from his office and came by my desk to ask me if I wanted to grab drinks after work? This was unprecedented. It was also quite touching, as it happened to be my birthday.
It surprised me a little, that Ben, who out of everyone in the office seemed to be anchored to reality by the most gossamer of threads – remembered my birthday, but I was pleased. It occurred to me that it might be nice to invite the whole office out to a beer after work.
It was actually the thought of being stuck at a bar alone with Ben that made me invite everyone to drinks. He was, I think I mentioned, a lovely guy, but a tough hang for more than the length of a lunch break. I sent out a companywide email, casually mentioning it was my birthday, and I would be going out for paint if anyone wanted to come.
Nobody came. Or rather, a handful of people, which is worse than nobody. It was an awkward affair. A few blokes with little in common sipping pints of beer to finish them as quickly as was polite. A colleague made an effort and failed spectacularly to cheer me up with a cupcake, and a candle stuck in to make it a birthday cake. It sat untouched, growing staler and more depressing by the minute. One by one, the stragglers made their excuses until it was just me and Ben in a booth at the back.
Ben got up to get another round, which meant sliding his bulk out from the booth and lumbering to his feet. I’d never met anyone so uncomfortable in their own skin. I watched him inch through the bar, shuffling awkwardly and apologising as his laptop bag swung into a dude chatting up a girl at the bar. He never went anywhere without his laptop – a hefty custom-job – which, while weird, wasn’t the weirdest thing about him.
You see, Ben had – how can I put this? – an imaginary friend. He was building a robot.
Not really a robot – he got quite defensive when I called it a robot – just a program; an artificial intelligence. A neural network. Some kind of digital pet that he’d built from raw code, and was immensely proud of. For weeks he’d been teaching it to do tricks (problem solve, crack passwords, mine data) with some success, and trying to get me to take interest in it. Which so far, he’d failed at.
Ben was acting extra weird that night. Every time he got up to the bar or the restroom he would pick up his computer and take it with him. I watched him hold it tight against his body with one elbow while he balanced the beers of the return journey. Then, when he sat down, to my embarrassment, he got the thing out again. He spun the screen around so I could see it, and my heart sank. I realised he’d brought his robot to the bar.
‘Mate,’ I pleaded, ‘put it away. It’s my birthday.’
‘Happy birthday Max,’ Ben said. He didn’t close his laptop but picked up his schooner and held it up for a toast.
’Sure,’ I sulked, clinking glasses, ‘happy birthday to me.’
I wasn’t feeling very happy. Actually, I was feeling a bit shithouse about the birthday. What did it even mean to be 28? It was a nothing-burger of an age. It wasn’t as grim as 30 – I’d seen friends turn 30 and find themselves under siege by organised cohorts of friends, relatives, partners who suddenly want a baby.
You might be scruffy and laidback at 29, leaning against the bar of your favourite dive, but the second the clock stuck midnight, all of a sudden, if you weren’t standing up straight in a nice iron-free chino and heaving under the weight of a mortgage then people looked at you cock-eyed. So it might have been worse – it would definitely get worse later – but I still wasn’t happy, on that night, to be turning 28.
Even Ben, who was about as sensitive as the condoms you buy from vending machines in gas stations could tell I was upset, to the point where he asked me what was wrong.
‘Do you know what the 27 club is, Ben?’
To my surprise, he nodded, ‘A myth, an urban legend, that references a statistical anomaly that recognises a number of notable musicians, actors and artists who died at the age of 27. Notable members include Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin…’
‘Right…’ I cut him off, impatient. Even when he surprised you with pop culture, Ben talked like he was reciting a Wikipedia page. ‘… and Jean-Michael Basquiet, and Henri Evenepoel. They all did their best work in their 20s. After that, they were already immortal.’ I continued, ‘I always thought I’d be, you know…famous by now.’ I said. ‘Or at least dead. All the best artists in the world had the sense to die young.’
You didn’t give the world a chance to see you grow old, culturally irrelevant, personally unpleasant. I’d lived long enough to see the last generation’s finest minds lose their hair and gain bad opinions about immigration.
It would have been different – I found myself complaining to Ben – If I’d had a better start, if there were more hours in the day to work. If I’d been free to just work as I pleased.
‘The problem is, Ben,’ I continued. ‘The problem is I never had a chance. I’ve spent the best creative years of my life churning out bullshit, photoshopping adds for Groupons.’
I went on for a while. It was a bit of a bitter rant, perhaps, but Ben listened patiently, and at the end, his face lit up. ‘What if there was a way to get someone to do that work for you?’
Not quite a statement, not a question either, but it would change my life. I didn’t know that at the time because, at the time, all I wanted to do was complain. While all Ben wanted to do was to get me to play with his robot. At last, I relented.
He turned the screen for me to see, revealed lines and lines of code running the screen. I squinted at it, then back at Ben, then shrugged.
‘What am I looking at’?
He was banging on about neural networks and machine learning and artificial intelligence – a string of nonsense words that sailed right over my head.
‘Ben,’ I said, ‘Mate. In the Queen’s English please.’
‘It’s a learning computer.’ Ben said. ‘Just like us. Depending on how you train it, and what you want it to do, it could do, well, anything.’
‘Like what?’ I said. ‘Could it get you to talk about something else?’
‘That’s funny,’ Ben said, without modulating his voice or expression.
‘Could it teach you how to act like a normal human being for one night in a bar?’
‘Theoretically, yes.’ I’d never seen Ben so excited as he scrolled through the code. ‘Theoretically, it’s capable of anything. ’
‘Yeah, well,’ I said, glancing at the laptop. ‘It doesn’t look like much.’
‘That’s because you’re not looking at it. Just a… projection of sorts.‘
Ben would not be deterred and continued talking at me until I understood the following:
• The AI wasn’t actually on the laptop. The program on the laptop he was carrying around like a child was just a remote access point to a much larger, more sophisticated network.
• The AI itself was hosted –secretly, he held up a finger to his lips swearing me not to tell anyone – on the industrial servers at work.
• We were at the dawn of a new age of the possibilities of new intelligences.
• He had a birthday present for me. He’d set up the AI to do my job for me.
• He’d installed a little interface – a sort of a dropbox to pull data sets into, images output onto the desktop – as well an option to just turn on the camera and talk to it.
He tapped a few lines of code into the computer, and the little green light nestled in the laptop bezel blinked on, indicating the camera was on. ‘Look!’ Ben almost gurgled with happiness. ‘The AI is watching us. You could just talk to it and tell it what you want. What do you want it to do?’
‘Paint me a Monet,’ I said to the computer, then to Ben, ‘Then put that away. I’m going to get some more drinks.’ I did not share Ben’s enthusiasm about a dawning technological utopia. I was thirsty and wanted to drink and maybe talk to a couple of girls I could see drinking at the bar. The bar was busier now, it took me a while to get back with the orders, and when I did, Ben was beaming. Look, he was saying. It’s already working.
I looked at the screen, where the program was spitting out blurry little splotches.
‘Great.’ I said, unimpressed. ‘Ben, mate, I’m sorry but your robot doesn’t seem that artificially intelligent.’
Ben’s face fell. ‘It’s only just come online. In terms of cognition, it’s an infant. Give it time. If I shape it, if I teach it enough, then theoretically, it could do anything. Things “human intelligence”’ – here, he did the little quote mark talking hands thingy, ‘can’t even dream of.’
‘Outstanding.’ I said. ‘Let me know when it’s smart enough to get you a girlfriend. In the meantime, put it away and finish your beer.’
Ben barely drank. Truthfully, I had to apply more than a little peer pressure to get him to take his shot. Less so on the next one. He seemed crestfallen that I didn’t care about his AI, and I was dismayed that he wasn’t keeping up with my drinking. Ben wasn’t able to handle his booze at the best of times. He didn’t even make it to last drinks, stumbling to his feet and weaving out the door.
Did I drink too much? Almost certainly. Or maybe I drank too little to lift myself out of my sulk. In any case, I did not drink precisely the right amount my constitution and my mood required that night.
Something I should mention, think I have already mentioned, is that it was my 28th birthday. I wasn’t feeling so hot about it. It’s possible I could have been nicer to him given what happened next, or feigned a little more enthusiasm about his robot when he tried to press his laptop and its hideous little carry bag on me as a birthday gift.
‘Look, mate,’ I said, as we gathered up our coats, ‘leave the art to me, yeah?’ I’d practiced my art since I was a child – watercolours, oils, sculpture, the lot. I knew art, and I knew what I was looking at wasn’t it. ‘You keep your little friend,’ I told Ben, in no mood to humour him that night, ‘and teach it to play Magic The Gathering or, play with a model train set or whatever it is you do.’
He insisted, said he thought I’d get a lot out of it, just give it a chance, so I took it home, and dutifully booted it up. The thing had already spit out a new image.
‘Anyway, Mr. Robot,’ I said, ‘here’s life. I hope you enjoy it more than I do.’