In 2018, the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam welcomed its first robot filmmaker: “Jan Bot” is an artificial intelligence tasked with producing experimental short films using the material in the museum’s archives. Each day, Jan Bot scours the web for trending topics, then takes them as inspiration for abstract interpretations. Creators Pablo Núñez Palma and Bram Loogman have described it as “prolific, often misunderstood.” Now, with more than 25,000 films in its catalog, the time has come to switch Jan Bot off. Conceived as a way to bring a physical archive into the internet age, the next phase will be posthumously archiving Jan Bot’s oeuvre via NFT. With the end in sight, it seemed an ideal time to look over this brief, bright career.
“I was sharing a studio space with Bram,” explains Palma. “We were recently graduated from a Master’s program at the Film Academy in Amsterdam. We had a workshop with found footage filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt. It involved some experimenting with a film collection from Eye called Bits & Pieces.” Bits & Pieces was started in the early 1990s by Eric de Kuyper and Peter Delpeut, who broke new ground by conceiving of a collection composed of unidentified media fragments — the kind of material that might typically be discarded. The primary rule for inclusion was that each clip must, in some way, have caught the attention of the curators.
Viewing this appealing but overlooked imagery stoked Palma and Loogman’s curiosity. “How can we actualize this material?” recalls Palma. “How can we make something relevant?” They struck upon the notion that in the modern age, cultural institutions are always looking for ways to create interesting new content for online spaces and social media. “Bram is a developer, so then we thought, maybe we can make something that creates content — no matter what kind — and is concerned with quantity, not quality. Hopefully this might solve a problem for the Filmmuseum and give us a nice way to experiment.”
Palma and Loogman were particularly keen to provide Jan Bot with relevant tools but no supervision in its creative process. In an article for the Metalog, a collection of essays and research materials about the project, Palma reflects on possibly extant examples of an “algorithmic mindset” in avant-garde cinema. He cites Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966) and Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass (1971) as examples of such filmmaking from a human perspective. Indeed, Eisenstein’s conception of “metric montage,” in which film clips are sequenced according to what is effectively musical meter, was one of the techniques Jan Bot was coded with. “Eisenstein is one of the few filmmakers who talk about syntactic editing … all about the rhythm. He talks about how, by having a certain form of edits — like ‘metric’ — you can start creating momentum by increasing speed and making shorter and shorter shots. Basically, that’s all we could do, because we didn’t know what the shots would be or how they would go together.”
One might presume that with finite material and a recurring set of filmmaking practices and parameters at its disposal, Jan Bot’s work might become repetitive. “If you see it from the perspective of an author, I would say Jan Bot follows the same tradition, because it does the same thing all the time, but the world changes.” That said, after four years, it still feels like the time is right to end the experiment. Initially, Palma and Loogman assumed that eventually one of the AI interfaces would just stop working. But while the automatic uploads to social media channels may have faltered, Jan Bot remains alive, churning out new films.
So instead the bot — which is physically based in the Eye — will be unplugged at an official funeral event, where attendees will receive a card linked to an NFT of one of its films. Such cards will then be available to purchase from the museum. “Last year,” explains Palma, “the whole NFT thing was really trending. The big promise of NFTs is that digital-native art can be taken more seriously.” When they saw that some NFTs were being produced by generative projects with thousands of editions, it seemed like a fitting afterlife for Jan Bot’s enormous filmography. “If you think of a blockchain as a new way of archiving things on the internet and digital platforms, there was a connection between these films, that bring old archives to the present, and archiving these new movies, made of old footage, in a new form of archive … forever in the blockchain.”