Q+A: Spirit & Glitch, A Fashion Brand Designed with Neural Networks
Interview by Leanne Luce for The Fashion Robot
Spirit & Glitch is a new fashion brand at the forefront of creativity and artificial intelligence (AI). The brand was created by artist and engineer Alex Maki-Jokela (who usually goes by "Maki"). Each design is a careful union of artist intention and machine-driven manipulations using neural networks.
We wanted to understand more about the creative process behind these designs, so we sat down to get an explanation from the artist himself.
Leanne Luce: First, Maki, would you tell us a little bit about yourself? What kind of engineering do you do? How do you become interested in creating fashion products?
Alex Maki-Jokela: Hi! I’m an artist, an engineer, and more than anything, an experience seeker. I’ve worked in a lot of different engineering fields - industrial, mechanical, hardware, software, and over the past few years I’ve been getting more and more interested in aesthetics and expression instead of just optimizing different flavors of machines. A year or so ago, it just felt more exciting to start working with clothing and all of the subtle dynamics and self-expression that come with it. I’ve worked as an engineer all of my life, but people have always been more interesting to me than machines.
“I’ve worked as an engineer all of my life, but people have always been more interesting to me than machines.”
LL: What was the catalyst?
AMJ: A few years ago, I’d also started experimenting a lot with my own appearance - the Bay Area and the Burner scene in particular have a lot of costume parties, and I’d started playing with what it felt like to look more feminine, or masculine, or gentle, or fierce. And I’m not talking subtle experiments - I mean, like wearing dresses, flowers and feathers in my hair, playing with eyeliner and eyeshadow, going to fabric stores and throwing together my own garments. I’ve always had a decent eye for aesthetics, but up until then I’d always followed this sort of rigid engineer identity in which that was frivolous. I’ve had a lot of experiences since that have made me realize just how much altering my appearance opened up the range of how I felt and how people perceived me. And the snowball’s just kept rolling.
I come from a handful of communities in the Bay Area that are really into making subversive and often highly technical art - I spent a couple of years leading parts of Dr. Brainlove, which was this giant art car that was a huge climbable brain on the back of an old school bus. It was covered in something like 20,000 individually programmable LEDs, where you could put on an EEG and your brainwaves would feed into the patterns of the lights. It also had a dance floor and usually had a completely unreasonable pile of subwoofers on it. That experience taught me that just how big the difference was between working on something you cared about with your friends versus working in a corporate office, and it also taught me that hardcore nerds and theater folks throw better and more interesting parties than anyone else I’ve ever met. A lot of the cultural archetypes around STEM are socially inept and are sort of insulting, and I want to build culture in which nerdery is badass and beautiful and in which being smart and weird and curious is something to fiercely embrace and be proud of.
I’ll also add that I’ve been really lucky in that my friends have been super into my experimentation, and some of them have been on their own parallel journeys that we’ve gotten to share with each other. I’ve gotten a ton of encouragement and support, and I’m extremely grateful for that.
LL: Is there a story behind the name, Spirit and Glitch?
AMJ: I deliberately chose a name that felt like an invocation to explore broad and deep. Art, for me, is a process for working through my feelings and thoughts and experiences, and it’s also easy for it to stray from that when it’s technical. Choosing two words that meant something to me was sort of deliberate so that whenever I stray from that, the name acts as a call back to the depths.
Spirit to me is about seeking the nature of being alive and human. It’s about finding and breathing on your own fire, in ways that feel right to you. It’s about the insane beauty and subtlety and complexity of biological life and existence in general. It’s also a word and a territory that organized religion seems to want to have a monopoly on, and I like chipping away at that.
Glitch, to me, is a sense of being “other”. In a personal sense, it’s our differences and uniqueness that makes us who we are, and to me that’s something to be explored and celebrated rather than suppressed. I want to encourage people to be themselves, even if it’s something incompatible with the societies and systems around them. It’s also a pretty dark - I personally believe it’s important to make art that goes into that territory and talks about it rather than shying away from it.
I like the duality of the two words together and exploring what they both mean and where and how they meet. Something that feels like Spirit can be Glitch to someone else, and vice versa. I find that beautiful and worth exploring.
LL: In my experience, many people think of artificial intelligence and fashion as disparate topics that have little in common. How did you bring these two worlds together and what made you start this project?
AMJ: The AI side of it came from spending a lot of time playing with style transfer algorithms (in a nutshell - you give the AI a picture of Starry Night and it’ll paint you any other picture you give it in the style of Starry Night). At some point this sort of light bulb went off in my head that you could apply it in more ways than the authors originally intended. I started experimenting with having it paint with things in nature - flowers, bark, microscopy, fractal art - and realized that there was a crazy surreal amount that you could do with it.
“There are a lot of ridiculously creative and talented people out there who’ve just never tried stepping into new aesthetics, and for some people, when they do, it’s magic.”
I also from the beginning wanted to make clothing that I thought was cool and that other people with technical backgrounds would be into. There’s this sort of pervasive trope about technical people dressing in ways that sort of avoid expressing anything, and on the flip side, I think a lot of technical people outside of the fashion world have this sort of mistrust in that we’re in the lab at 2AM night after night bringing our stuff to life, and I think sometimes the polish of the fashion industry, especially when people are trying for a nerd/startup look, has some distance from that lived reality. And that whole dynamic doesn’t help anyone. There are a lot of ridiculously creative and talented people out there who’ve just never tried stepping into new aesthetics, and for some people, when they do, it’s magic. That was sort of what it was like for me.
LL: Yes! What did that mean for you…?
AMJ: So, I want to make clothing that creates beautiful and kind of edgy expressions of a lot of the experiences and fields that me and my friends are into, and that also indulges my habit of being up at 2AM tinkering with some unnecessarily complicated art piece. I don’t come from the fashion world, and that means I have a lot of catching up to do, but in another sense it also means I can connect with a lot of people who are coming from the same place that I am. And the catching up is fun.
LL: Why did you want to use neural networks as a part of your creative process?
AMJ: I love playing with neural networks. They’re so incredibly potent in terms of what you can express with them and how much you can do with them. I’ve been experimenting with different ways of using style transfer for a year or so now and I’m still finding ways to use it that blow my mind.
LL: How do you balance the tech aspect and the art aspect of it all?
AMJ: I will say that balancing the creative and the technical takes effort. I write a lot and go out for a lot of wanders to think and feel out what I want to make, and having a lot of technical complexity to manage takes time and effort away from that. It’s also tempting to just make stuff that looks cool and doesn’t have any intention behind it, and that path scares me because it takes the human element out of the whole process, and it’s really easy to slip into. The fact that neural networks will increasingly enable people to do that and produce convincing work is a pretty legitimate fear. It takes the viscerality out of things, and at least to me that viscerality and the human part of the creative process is really important to making art.
LL: Do most of your customers know about neural networks? How do you explain a neural network to some of your customers who might have no idea what that is?
AMJ: A lot of my sales have been through word of mouth amongst friends and communities who are really into neural nets, so a lot of them do.
If I’m talking to someone without a technical background, I like to try to explain neural networks as a way of doing lots of math that very roughly imitates how the brain works (and I try to make it clear that it’s okay not to understand that all the way), and Style Transfer as an algorithm where you can give it a picture of Starry Night and the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’ll give you a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge painted in the style of Starry Night. People usually start to get it after that, and if they’re curious I’ll point them to somewhere on the internet they can play with it themselves.
“I use AIs as paintbrushes.”
If I don’t have time to get into detail I usually just say that I use AIs as paintbrushes. I built out my own little ecosystem in which to play and experiment with new AI creatively, because they keep getting more impressive and weirder, and I want to keep exploring that potential artistically, in clothing and otherwise. I personally feel like the AIs and neural network tools that we’ve seen thus far are just the first words of the first page of a long, strange book, and it’s only going to keep getting more interesting. That said, AI is always just one artistic tool of many. The human needs to be the one driving.
LL: Walk us through your creative process a little bit here, let’s use your Anemone Night Leggings as an example. What was the process like for creating this design? What is the story behind these leggings?
AMJ: Anemone Night came from wanting to make something that tapped into sea life, and also from wanting to design a pair of leggings that I could point to and explain style transfer in a sentence - “Starry Night, painted with sea anemones.”
The actual process of figuring out ocean life that would map well to leggings was surprisingly difficult. The ocean has a bottomless abundance of beautiful life in it, and I had to narrow that down to something that was instantly recognizable and aesthetically consistent enough for style transfer to pick up on (which is often challenging), and then I had to find something else to map that onto which both worked well on leggings and that you could recognize right away if you knew what it was. And I was on a pretty strong absurdist kick at the time.
LL: What’s next for you and for Spirit & Glitch?!
AMJ: Lots of new designs! I’ve have a ton of new shirts that I’m going to be releasing this month. There are also a lot of budding neural network artists in the Bay Area, and I’d love to talk to more people and figure out some kind of event or show that could bring a lot of us together. I also want to do some photoshoots that have nothing to do with neural networks and everything to do with people breaking aesthetic norms and expressing themselves. Those are all super early conversations, so we’ll see.
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For our readers working with fashion brands, unique designs like the examples you see here are also available for licensing. Contact Maki at: firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire.