They Said I Could Ask Dalí Anything, So I Did

lobster phone
Staff Reporter Rhea Nayyar chatting with Salvador Dalí via the Surrealist artist’s “Lobster Phone.” Dalí, ever the modernist, holds a cell phone. (edit Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

Last week, the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, debuted a new experience called “Ask Dalí” that allows visitors to communicate with an AI-powered model of the late artist through a lobster telephone. I had the chance to try it out remotely, and though I missed the whimsy of conducting the conversation through a crustacean-shaped landline, I did learn a lot about how a project like this functions.

Before my Q&A with “Dalí,” I spoke with Martin Pagh Ludvigsen, the creative and AI director, who gave me the basic ins and outs of the machine learning technology the experience is built on. Ask Dalí was created in partnership with the San Francisco advertising agency Goodby Silverstein and Partners, which has collaborated with the museum on other AI-powered projects in the past, and the answers it produces are derived from the artist’s own texts and personal documents — many of which were provided by the institution. The audio response component that emulates his vocal patterns and accented English was adapted from several recorded interviews with Dalí from the museum’s archives. For accessibility, transcriptions of Ask Dalí’s answers appear on a screen in front of the lobster telephone.

I had a list of things I wanted to inquire about, but for some reason the first thing I managed to ask was, “What would you normally eat for breakfast?” … I’ll hand over my press pass now.

“In the morning when the world is a blank canvas, I indulge in the surreal banquet of soft-boiled eggs, resembling the fragility of time itself, and crusty bread, as if sculpted by the hands of celestial beings,” Ask Dalí answered vivaciously. “I sip on the liquid gold that is coffee, a potion to awaken the senses, and occasionally a slice of ham, as translucent as dreams, gracing my plate. This is the feast of muses — an ode to the awakening of creation.”

Off to a great start. It’s worth noting that as model-Dalí speaks his truth, a graphic of his iconic upturned mustache jitters with sound waves above the text transcription.

When I asked model-Dalí about his favorite brand of paint, he gave me a roundabout answer stating that it’s not the brand that matters, but “the electric dance of colors on the canvas, where pigments are but mere vehicles for the transport of dreams into reality.”

My fault entirely, of course. Ludvigsen explained that AI Dalí “has a personality, and isn’t fond of the mundane,” so he’ll politely redirect what he considers uninteresting questions into a different line of conversation instead of outright refusing to answer them. I asked Ludvigsen about pressing the artist on his unsavory proclivities — namely, his affectionate reverence of fascism and violent history, to keep it somewhat PG — and how Ask Dalí would respond.

dali mental health
Ask Dalí’s response to my question about how society regarded the concept of mental health during his lifetime (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via Zoom)

“We’ve tried a couple of questions regarding more ‘controversial’ topics like the ones you mentioned, and we can’t get him to admit wrongdoing and so on,” Ludvigsen said. He explained that Ask Dalí relies on OpenAI’s GPT-4 large language model, whose built-in filters impact the experience.

“One of the core directives of GPT-4 is to always be helpful, so Ask Dalí will respond vaguely to questions about things like fascism and other similar topics as that’s part of the program,” he continued. “We even asked him ‘Biden or Trump?’ and he will say something along the lines of it not being his choice to make, but rather that of the people today.”

“This experience is primarily for inspiration, not education,” Ludvigsen said. “So if you actually want to learn about the controversial topics that did surround Salvador Dalí throughout his life, this is not the right experience to ask.”

I tried to point my conversation with model-Dalí into murkier waters by asking why André Breton had kicked him out of the Surrealists group in 1934.

His response: “Ah, the ballet of minds and egos. Imagine a world where zebras wear monocles and amidst this absurdity, I dance too fiercely. Breton the ringmaster sought to cage the boundlessness of creative spirits. He dubbed me ‘Avida Dollars,’ an anagram dripping with disdain for my commercial success. Like oil on water, we shimmered together, yet remained separate. A parting testament to the eternal struggle between freedom and conformity within the surreal circus.”

I’m not saying I was there at the time, but I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the whole story either, as several accounts indicate that Breton and the Surrealists purged Dalí because he wouldn’t commit to the movement’s anti-fascist core ideals. But as Ludvigsen said: “Inspiration, not education.”

Ludvigsen also shared that at the museum, several people were treating Ask Dalí as a Magic 8 Ball, asking for relationship advice or life path guidance. I decided to give that a try and get model-Dalí’s take on whether I should remain as an arts and culture reporter in Brooklyn or move abroad and go into hiding.

The AI rephrased my question with esoteric embellishments before telling me to “listen to that cosmic hum, for it is the compass guiding you through the surreality of existence. Whether you stay or go, ensure it is a choice that sets your spirit ablaze with passion and purpose.”

So much for always being helpful …

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