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Deep Muppet

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In 2015, a team from the University of Tübingen created a neat “style transfer” algorithm that uses a deep neural network to copy a painting style and apply it to your favorite photo.

A bit like Google’s trippy Deep Dream project but “with the craziness toned down a little bit” is how Quartz reported it. Instead of reinterpreting everything as dogs at a psytrance festival on a beach in Goa,  it copied stylistic elements like brushstrokes and lines.

I thought it was impressive but not very useful. I was wrong. In 2017 user vic8760 posted this incredible image on Reddit.

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Morph of Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon by u/vic8760

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User vic8760 had repurposed the German team’s style transfer algorithm. They didn’t apply a striking art style to a target image, but used two paintings that were fairly similar in style: a neoclassical portrait of Napoleon, and a High Renaissance painting of a crowd scene (Raphael?). Instead, they transposed the content by replacing most of Napoleon and his steed with drapery.

The result is an image that doesn’t just caricature a well-known art style—it pioneers an art style of its own. One that’s distinctly algorithmish. 

I started experimenting with this content-transfer approach on the cool free platform deepart.io (go try it for yourself!) I soon discovered the results could be deeply unsettling—not so much an uncanny valley as an endless, Lovecraftian abyss.

Gizmodo and the German geek culture blog Nerdcore plus a couple other places picked up the story and republished a few of these.

We maybe need a name for this kind of stuff that is not only scary but differently scary from human-created imagery.  (Algorithmic horror? Algo-horror?) Check out my Twitter account @algohorror where I post and retweet similar kinds of stuff. I’ll be writing a post on the aesthetics of this genre soon.

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Finally, here are several variations of Birth of Venus. Botticelli’s masterpiece is ideal for this stuff since it’s compositionally distinctive (unlike the Mona Lisa). Venus has been remixed with (clockwise from top left): glass eyes, the cerebral cortex of a patient during brain surgery, the planet Venus, two golden retrievers, a stock photo model and dried macaroni.

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