Oliver Kartak

Oliver Kartak (Vienna, 1968) has been working in the fields of brand identity, communication design, photography, and film direction for 30 years. He works as an independent designer and is Professor of Graphic Design and Dean of the Institute of Design at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. Currently on display in our is his AI-generated series ‘Things To Do In Summer’. Time to get to know the man behind the work a little better!

First of all, how did you become a creative professional? Was this an ambition in your youth?
“At the age of 15 I picked up a spray can and decided to become a graffiti writer. Since then I have always expressed myself creatively. As a graphic designer, photographer, motion designer, director, professor. Most of it self-taught, learning by experience.”

Why did you become a professor?
“Pure coincidence. I was approached for the position. I am now in my 18th year at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and I am still pushing forward like crazy. As a teenager, I twice failed the entrance exam to the university where I am now a professor. Oh, the irony.” 

What do you enjoy most about being an educator?
“The freedom of not being told what to do. The love I have for my students and my team. The satisfaction I get from seeing others take pride in their work. The passion we share for creating and solving problems. The opportunity to invite so many interesting and fascinating doers and thinkers to come and share their expertise with us. The intellectual, emotional and creative inspiration that binds everyone together in friendship. I must have forgotten something.

Besides, I do not see myself as educating, but rather as enabling. I believe in giving everyone the opportunity to realise their potential.”

When students apply for your class, what do you look for?
“Energy, Empathy, Self-confidence, Ability, Inquisitive, Dependable, Interested in Technology, Troubleshooter.”

How do you hope they will enter the creative world when they graduate?
“I see graduates leaving university with a clear understanding of their personality, skills and interests. They are becoming authors of their own lives. Creatively, professionally and personally.”

Does being a professor allow you to have your own practice? Is it difficult to combine?
“From an early age, I wanted my professional life to be playful and enjoyable, like a beloved hobby. Not a burden or an obligation. As my interests change, so does my work. My way of living is my way of working. I work all the time.”

Why and when did you start using AI to create images?
“I started playing with AI image generators in the summer of ’22. The technology was still in its infancy at that time. But it developed quickly. Soon after, i got hooked on Midjourney. Since then I’ve been working relentlessly on this model all my free days and nights. For me, it feels like a supercharging of my creativity. The more I work, the more ideas I get.”

AI image of a sculpture based on prompts by Oliver Kartak

What were your first experiences? What convinced you?}
“I have always thought of myself as an image maker first and a story teller second. With AI I immediately felt that i could project my subconscious and my primal self onto the digital canvas. I work very intuitively and see where it takes me. I love the surprises I encounter. It allows my creative process to be chaotic and playful. I am just starting to play with AI video generation.” 

The first images you published were imaginary sculptures. Why did you start with 3D objects like sculptures?
“I would say that I create photographic sketches of sculptures that I would like to see built at that moment. The AI allows me to focus on my creative process and provides visualisation suggestions in return. It has automated the tedious work of visualisation, which makes all the difference to me.

Most of my work consists of sculptural objects. Small, medium and large in virtual dimensions. I see myself in these objects. They are a mirror of my desires, my fears, my libido. You could say that I am constantly trying to give shape and form to what is going on inside me. I am like a child in a sandbox.”

For the exhibition ‘Things To Do in Summer’ you took a critical approach. Is there a logical progression from sculptures to editorial images to this series?
“The ‘Things To Do in Summer’ series is a bit of an outlier in my work, as it is purely photographic. Or rather synthographic, as in synthetic photography.

The summer of ’23 broke all temperature records, fires raged around the globe, floods destroyed large areas, droughts put pressure on nature and people’s livelihoods. Climate change is undeniable, yet we bury our heads in the sand and carry on as we have for so long. It was this sense of absurdity that gave rise to an idea in my head: summertime must be fun time. Even when summer turns deadly against us.”

The series is clearly thought provoking, what do you hope to achieve with it?
“By depicting situations that clearly don’t look right, but are played out for the sheer joy of it, I wanted to undermine the mechanisms we all have in place. We don’t like to be confronted with uncomfortable truths, we avoid change at all costs. You touch people through emotions. I wanted to achieve clarity through laughter. And i wanted to shine a light on the financial and industrial sectors, which have a short-term view and laugh all the way to the bank.”

How did people respond?
‘Things To Do In Summer’ was originally created for Instagram. My reach isn’t huge, but I’ve had a lot of positive feedback, people get the truth behind the sarcasm and it seems to resonate with them because it’s not preachy. But I would love to see this series shown in the public space a lot more. We need to put much more pressure on politicians.”

What did you learn about AI while making this series?
“You may not always get what you want, but you may get what you didn’t know you wanted.”

 Why is a suitable place for this? What appealed to you when we invited you to exhibit?
“Well, the gallery is an entrance to a car park. It seems an appropriate place to show this work to a wider audience.”

Finally, how will AI affect creative practice? What major changes do you expect?
“In a nutshell, it changes everything.

In more words, but still compressed: It is possible that this technology is a revolution more powerful than industrialisation, or even electricity. This is because this technological development is exponential, not linear, which means that the train is gaining speed. 

This makes it difficult to predict accurately. But the increase in knowledge and efficiency will be rapid. At the moment, many people do not have on their radar what this will mean socially, economically or for the distribution of wealth.

The commodity value of routine cognitive work will fall to virtually zero. It is now very easy to create visual interfaces, generic content, knowledge transfer or generative structures in a very short time. This automation is unstoppable. The market will probably split, the middle will break away and there will be two groups left: those who offer fast and cheap general solutions in volume, and those who have a specialised status for which the market is willing to pay more.

That’s why I include AI in our curriculum, to prepare students for the fact that the production processes of design will change. But good design is not superficial. It is a complex process that starts with developing a solution to a problem. This involves factual research, but also non-routine skills, or soft skills, such as empathy, creativity, conflict resolution, communication, critical thinking, self-reflection and teamwork. Someone with competence in these soft skills will have a great advantage in the future in combination with AI.

But it’s not just design that will change, I think new kinds of art will emerge. That excites me a lot. AI will affect every area of our lives: even if I don’t want to have anything to do with it, it will affect me. You can’t escape it, so it’s better to learn from it than to be overrun by it.” 

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