Each of these works starts with a text prompt. The prompts are often an amalgamation of headlines (climate change, floods, immigration) and art history (color-field, history painting). Then a conversation happens—a back and forth—the text is tweaked, images are selected, variations generated, sections refined, and then further digitally altered and scaled until the composition is set. It often takes hundreds (sometimes thousands) of back-and-forth discussions.
In this way, these works are a dialogue with and an artificial intelligence (in most cases DALL•E). Although artificial intelligence might be a bit strong, the program is really a neural network, or maybe think of it as a consensus engine. It (they?) “reads” the Internet, models that information, builds correlations, and creates weightings and associations. In this sense, it builds a consensus—not a Platonic ideal but more of an Internet ideal—the sum thinking of images available on the Internet. It thus produces an average, and for many things, the output is just that, average.
But the corner cases are interesting—the odd combination of concepts, objects, and styles. There are times when things don’t add up. The program has no sense of space, or what physical reality requires and doesn’t in the traditional sense. It only knows weightings and correlations and thus it doesn’t know our rules. And because of this, you can coax out interesting scenes, situations, and even aesthetics. It is where things diverge that the images become interesting—twisted faces, illogical rooms, and the odd combination or insertion. There are different textures and tones, splatters and scrapes, zips and color fields.
The genesis is human (the prompt) while the initial composition is artificial (a neural network trained on images from the Internet presumably made by humans) and herein lies the dichotomy. The output at times is deeply human, expressive, interesting, curious, haunting, and maybe even true despite the artificialness of how they were created, a form of artificial expressionism if you will. That’s the interesting thing for me, the tension—the not quite right and yet the humanism.
Maybe now computers can ask us questions and not just give us answers.
Lives and works in Chicago
Graduate Student at Large, University of Chicago
BS & MS, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign