On the Pictures Generation and AI Art

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The other day, I posted some AI images of land art that doesn’t exist on Instagram. I didn’t have a plan for these, but I liked them and wanted to share them. In the comments, my friend the photographer Richard Barnes wrote, “This is our new world which for the moment is totally reliant on the old one.”

Richard is absolutely right and there is a lot to unpack in that sentence. To take one obvious reading, AI image generation is based on datasets of images on the Internet. You can read my extensive take on this in my last essay for this site, California Forever, Or the Aesthetics of AI Images, but today, I want to tackle the issue of AI imagery and originality.

My desire to make these images was backward-looking, or more properly, hauntological. Hauntology, a concept that emerged from the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, later popularized in cultural theory by Mark Fisher, suggests that the present is haunted by the unfulfilled potentialities of the past, creating a sense of nostalgia for lost futures that were never realized. Fisher writes: “What haunts the digital cul-de-sacs of the twenty-first century is not so much the past as all the lost futures that the twentieth century taught us to anticipate.” (Mark Fisher, “What is Hauntology?Film Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Fall 2012), 16, article paywalled by JSTOR). For Fisher, much of recent culture is permeated by this hauntological quality, exploring historical references, styles, and ideas that never fully materialized in their own time.

If this concept is unfamiliar, then take the show Stranger Things. Set in the 1980s, not only does it explore the aesthetic and cultural motifs of that era, it revisits the past in ways that underscore the absence of the utopian visions once promised by that time. This is evident in the show’s theme song by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon (a.k.a. S U R V I V E), informed by 1980s synthesizer music by musicians like Tangerine Dream, Giorgio Moroder, Jean-Michel Jarré, Vangelis, and John Carpenter and performed on modular synthesizers and vintage synthesizers from the 1970s. Through its retrofuturistic setting, supernatural elements, and cultural references, Stranger Things effectively embodies this hauntological sentiment, appealing to audiences by conjuring a collective memory of a past both familiar and lost, a space where the promise of progress and the fear of what lies in the unknown are in constant dialogue, thereby reflecting our contemporary longing for a future that seems increasingly out of reach in the face of technological stagnation and political paralysis. Throughout the series, an alternate dimension called “the Upside Down” functions allegorically as a manifestation of hauntology, representing the shadowy underside of progress and the hidden costs of failed utopias. This parallel dimension, while mirroring the physical world, is engulfed in darkness, decay, and danger, embodying the repressed anxieties not only of teenage sexuality—the familiar foundation of horror films—but also of the pursuit of advancement without ethical consideration. It can be interpreted as the tangible realization of the lost futures Fisher describes, a space where the dreams of the past are not just forgotten but actively twisted into nightmares. This allegorical realm underscores the series’ exploration of the impact of scientific hubris and the disintegration of the social fabric, issues that resonate with contemporary anxieties about technological overreach and the erosion of social bonds. Through the lens of the Upside Down, Stranger Things critiques the nostalgia for a past that never fully addressed these underlying tensions, suggesting that without confronting these spectral fears, they will continue to haunt us, impeding the realization of truly progressive futures.

Being born in 1967, I was in high school in 1983, the year in which the first season of Stranger Things is set, so I would have been older than the kids in Stranger Things, but the showrunners, Matt and Russ Duffer (the Duffer Brothers) were born in 1984. There is something about the era just before one is born and in the years before one forms lasting memories, that triggers the hauntological sense, particularly in regard to its relation to the Freudian uncanny (the unheimlich), which emerges not just as a theoretical concept but as a lived emotional reality, the encounter with something familiar yet estranged by time or context, generating an unsettling yet compelling attraction. The era immediately before one’s birth is fertile ground for the uncanny because it is inherently connected to one’s existence, yet it remains elusive and out of reach, shrouded in the fog of collective cultural memory rather than personal experience.

This is where my interest in Land Art, which thrived in the late 1960s and early 1980s comes from. It’s a mythic and heroic past, right outside the scope of my lived awareness. Land Art, moveover, is at a particular inflection in the Greenbergian history of modern art and one that brings us closer to our topic at hand. Art critic Clement Greenberg famously sought to distill the essence and trajectory of art through the modernist progression of self-criticism towards purity and autonomy, particularly in painting. Greenberg posited that art should focus on the specificity of the medium, leading to an emphasis on formal qualities over content or context. Specifically, Greenberg argued that modernist painters should embrace and explore the flatness of the canvas rather than attempt to deny it through illusionistic techniques that create a sense of three-dimensional space on the two-dimensional surface. He saw abstract expressionism and color field painting as driven by the gradual shedding of extraneous elements (like figurative representation, narrative, and illusionistic depth) that were not essential to painting as a medium. This process of reduction aimed at focusing on what was uniquely intrinsic to painting—its flat surface and the potential for pure color and form. This approach is distinctly indebted to Hegelian aesthetics, in which art is seen as a vehicle for the spirit (Geist) to realize itself, moving towards a form of absolute knowing or self-consciousness. The late 1960s projects of Minimal Art, Land Art, and Conceptual Art can all be seen as elaborations of Greenbergian modernism. Minimal Art, with its emphasis on the physical object and the space it occupies, pushes Greenberg’s interest in medium specificity to its logical extreme by reducing art to its most fundamental geometric forms and materials, thereby focusing on the “objecthood” of the artwork itself. Land Art extends this exploration to the medium of the earth itself, engaging directly with the landscape to highlight the intrinsic qualities of the environment and the artwork’s integration with its site-specific context, thus reflecting Greenberg’s emphasis on the inherent characteristics of the artistic medium. Conceptual Art, although seemingly divergent in its prioritization of idea over form, aligns with Greenbergian modernism by stripping art down to its conceptual essence, thereby challenging the traditional boundaries of the art object and emphasizing the primacy of the idea, akin to Greenberg’s focus on the essential qualities of painting and bringing art back to relevance as a philosophical discourse. Together, these movements expand upon Greenberg’s foundational principles by exploring the boundaries of what art can be, each pushing the dialogue about medium specificity and the pursuit of purity in art further.

Coming out of architecture and history, I find art without rigor frustrating and boring, so the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s is my north star and I am indeed something of a neo-Greenbergian (more on that here). But during the 1970s, the Greenbergian trajectory encountered significant challenges, marking a pivot away from these ideals towards a more fragmented, pluralistic understanding of art. Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” serves as a critical juncture in this shift. Krauss dismantles the Greenbergian barrier between sculpture and not-sculpture by introducing a set of oppositions that allowed for a broader, more inclusive understanding of sculpture. This “expanded field” theory challenged the purity of medium specificity by embracing a wider range of practices and materials, effectively undermining the modernist notion of progressive refinement and autonomy of the arts. Krauss:

From the structure laid out above, it is obvious that the logic of the space of postmodernist practice is no longer organized around the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material, or, for that matter, the perception of material. It is organized instead through the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation.

Krauss’s essay, well-intentioned though it was, did not offer a positive direction for research in art, encouraging the sort of lazy pluralism and market-oriented art that has defined far too much art production in the years since.

The one exception to all this, however, is photography. If, in my essay on the aesthetics of AI images, I lamented the obsession with technical proficiency at the cost of taste in amateur HDR photography, in the hands of the best photographers —from the New Topographics movement in the 1970s to the work of great living photographers today, like Hiroshi Sugimoto, Guy Dickinson, David Maisel and Richard Barnes—the technical nature of photography is used to explore the photograph as a medium. And photography, by its very nature as an index of reality, its inexorable relationship between the subject and its representation—aligns with the Greenbergian ideal of art that is true to its medium more effectively than other media.

Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, Vol. 8 (Spring 1979), 43.

Few artists have interrogated the roles of authorship, originality, and representation as effectively as the Pictures Generation, a loosely affiliated group of artists—mainly photographers—named after Pictures, a 1977 exhibition at New York’s Artists Space curated by Douglas Crimp. These artists embraced appropriation, montage, and the recontextualization of pre-existing images, deliberately blurring the boundaries between high art and popular culture and questioning the notion of an artwork’s purity and originality. Not all of this work still speaks to us today. John Baldessari’s art has aged poorly and many artists, such as Richard Prince, have long ago stopped doing interesting work. But at the time Prince, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo (who admittedly also worked in paintings and charcoal, but in ways akin to the other four in this group), and Sherrie Levine produced compelling and rigorous work during this period. Crimp, on the name “pictures”:

To an ever greater extent our experience is governed by pictures, pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema. Next to these pictures firsthand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial. While it once seemed that pictures had the function of interpreting reality,it now seems that they have usurped it. It therefore becomes imperative to understand the picture itself, not in order to uncover a lost reality, but to determine how a picture becomes a signifying structure of its own accord. But pictures are characterized by something which, though often remarked, is insufficiently understood: that they are extremely difficult to distinguish at the level of their content, that they are to an extraordinary degree opaque to meaning. The actual event and the fictional event, the benign and the horrific, the mundane and the exotic, the possible and the fantastic: all are fused into the all-embracing similitude of the picture.

Douglas Crimp, Pictures (New York: Artists Space, 1977), 3.

For these artists then, the question of representation itself was fundamental, indeed the proper object for art. Crimp elaborated on this in a thorough revision to this essay, published two years later. This time, Crimp introduces the notion that these works demonstrate a postmodernist break with the modernist tradition:

But if postmodernism is to have theoretical value, it cannot be used merely as another chronological term; rather it must disclose the particular nature of a breach with modernism. It is in this sense that the radically new approach to mediums is important. If it had been characteristic of the formal descriptions of modernist art that they were topographical, that they mapped the surfaces of artworks in order to determine their structures, then it has now become necessary to think of description as a stratigraphic activity. Those processes of quotation, excerptation, framing, and staging that constitute the strategies of the work I have been discussing necessitate uncovering strata of representation.

Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” October, Vol. 8 (Spring 1979), 87.

The astute reader might note that this is in the very same issue as the Krauss essay above. The issue, however, does not lead with either essay, but by a piece titled “Lecture in Inauguration of the Chair of Literary Semiology, Collège de France, January 7, 1977.” The author is, of course, the semiotician Roland Barthes and he is the crux to the argument of this essay. Barthes’s inaugural lecture at the Collège de France marks the acceptance of semiotics, the study of signs, in the university and sets out an agenda in which the field would not only attempt to analyze linguistic and literary matters but also provide a framework for decoding culture at large. Barthes is especially important to us in terms of his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” which was published in a widely read 1977 English collection of his works titled Image-Music-Text. In this essay, Barthes challenges traditional notions of authorial sovereignty by arguing that the meaning of a text is not anchored in the author’s original intent but is instead constructed by the reader’s engagement with the text. This radical shift foregrounds the role of the audience in creating meaning, suggesting that a work of art is a collaborative space where interpretations multiply beyond the author’s control. Intertwined with this concept is the idea of intertextuality, which posits that every text (or artwork) is not an isolated entity but a mosaic of references, influences, and echoes from other texts. Intertextuality underscores the interconnectedness of cultural production, indicating that the understanding of any work is contingent upon its relation to the broader network of cultural artifacts. Together, these concepts dismantle the traditional hierarchy between creator and receiver, emphasizing the active role of the reader or viewer in making meaning and highlighting the complex web of relationships that define the production and reception of art.

This perspective was crucial for the Pictures artists who frequently employed appropriation as a strategy, taking pre-existing images from various media and recontextualizing them in their art. This method directly engaged with Barthes’s idea by challenging the original context and intended meaning of these images, thus questioning the notions of originality and authorship. In doing so, they highlighted the idea that the creator’s authority over an artwork’s meaning is not absolute but rather shared with viewers, who bring their own interpretations and experiences to bear on the work.

Moreover, these artists applied Barthes’s concept to emphasize the fluidity and contingency of meaning. Their work often invites viewers to interpret images through their own cultural references and personal experiences, suggesting that meaning is not a fixed entity but a dynamic interaction. In critically engaging with the proliferation of images in contemporary society, the Pictures Generation explored how photographic and cinematic imagery shapes perceptions of identity and reality. This critical stance aligns with Barthes’s view of the text (or image) as a fabric of quotations and influences, further diminishing the role of the author in favor of a more collaborative and interpretive approach to meaning-making.

Crucially, this shift also led to a reevaluation of the artist’s identity. Rather than being seen as the singular source of meaning, artists of the Pictures Generation positioned themselves more as curators or commentators, utilizing the visual languages of their time to critique cultural norms and values. This reflects a move away from the modernist emphasis on the artist’s unique vision toward a recognition of the complex, contextual nature of art-making and interpretation.

Barthes’s idea—that the author’s intent and biography recede in importance compared to the reader’s role in creating meaning—parallels a shift towards viewing the artwork itself, and its reception, as central to its interpretation. This shift can be seen as aligning with Greenberg’s emphasis on the medium’s physical and visual properties as the locus of artistic significance, and Hegel’s idea of art revealing universal truths, though through a more contemporary lens focused on the viewer’s engagement.

But practices such as appropriation, pastiche, and intertextuality can also be framed as a mannerist lament, a response to a widely perceived exhaustion of possibilities within modernism. Compounding this, with the postwar rise of commercial art and Pop art, capital was thoroughly permeated by the strategies of the avant-garde and vice versa. Even shock, the classic technique of the avantgarde had been turned into a marketing tool, signaling the thorough co-option of avant-garde tactics by the very systems it sought to critique. The avant-garde‘s political validity was now deeply in question, something elaborated in the 1984 translation Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde. In this complex landscape, the Pictures Generation’s engagement with the visual language of mass media becomes a double-edged sword: a critique of—and a capitulation to—the pervasive influence of commercial imagery, reflecting a nuanced understanding of the impossibility of purity in an age dominated by reproduction and simulation.

If the Pictures Generation’s engagement already sounds like what Richard Barnes suggested in his comment, “This is our new world which for the moment is totally reliant on the old one” then perhaps this suggests a profitable route to investigate. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss’s student and Douglas Crimp’s contemporary (as well as my teacher at Cornell for a brilliant year) was a key critic for the Pictures Generation and his 1996 book, The Return of the Real, remains one of the deepest theoretical engagements with art from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. There, Foster introduces the concept of “Nachträglichkeit,” a term borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis, often translated into English as “deferred action.”

Nachträglichkeit refers to the way in which events or experiences are reinterpreted and given new meaning in retrospect, influenced by later events or understandings. It suggests that the significance of an artwork or movement is not fixed at the moment of its creation but can be reshaped by subsequent developments in the cultural and theoretical landscape. This recontextualization allows for a continuous reworking of the meaning and relevance of art, as past works are seen through the lens of present concerns and knowledge.

Foster applies this concept to the realm of art history and criticism to argue that the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, for example, can be re-understood and gain new significance in light of later artistic practices and theoretical frameworks:

In Freud an event is registered as traumatic only through a later event that recodes it retroactively, in deferred action. Here I propose that the significance of avant-garde events is produced in an analogous way, through a complex relay of anticipation and reconstruction. Taken together, then, the notions of parallax and deferred action refashion the cliche not only of the neo-avant-garde as merely redundant of the historical avant-garde, but also of the postmodern as only belated in relation to the modern. In so doing I hope that they nuance our accounts of aesthetic shifts and historical breaks as well. Finally, if this model of retroaction can contribute any symbolic resistance to the work of retroversion so pervasive in culture and politics today—that is, the reactionary undoing of the progressive transformations of the century—so much the better.

Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996), xii-xiii.

This perspective challenges linear narratives of art history that portray artistic development as a straightforward progression from one style or movement to the next. Instead, Foster emphasizes the recursive nature of artistic innovation, where contemporary artists engage with, reinterpret, and transform the meanings and methodologies of their predecessors. This is where a critical approach to AI imagery that explores the intertextual basis of all art might return to our narrative. In this light, Pictures anticipates a world in which imagery can be freely recombined, in which the role of the author is thoroughly questioned, and the status of the original is thrown into question.

Oversaturation. Reynisfjara, Iceland, 2023.

But more than that. Back to Instagram for a moment. Another phenomenon that we have to deal with—that the Pictures Generation did not—is the massive oversaturation of the landscape by user-generated content. This deluge of imagery created by the public—particularly while travelling—has transformed the visual ecosystem, challenging artists to find new methods of engagement and critique. The sheer volume of content complicates efforts to distinguish between the meaningful and the mundane, pushing contemporary artists to navigate and respond to a world where the boundaries between creator and consumer are increasingly blurred. This oversaturation demands a different reevaluation of originality, authenticity, and the role of art in reflecting and shaping societal narratives in the digital age. The are some 35 billion images posted on Instagram every year. These are not just private images, but images that are published in a way previously unimaginable—available to an audience of over a billion users. What does it mean to take a photograph today when the world is already oversaturated? What sense is there of taking a photo of a landscape or a street scene when the same image has been uploaded a thousand times? And what does it mean that serious artists and curators share—by choice or by necessity—work in that same milieu?

Most of the images on Instagram are already AI images. The reason an iPhone or a Pixel can take such an attractive photograph is that they possess highly sophisticated algorithms that create images that appeal to viewers. The iPhone, for instance, utilizes AI-driven features like Smart HDR and Deep Fusion. Smart HDR optimizes the lighting, color, and detail of each subject in a photo, while Deep Fusion merges the best parts of multiple exposures to produce images with superior texture, detail, and reduced noise in low-light conditions​​​​. The iPhone’s Neural Engine, part of its Bionic Chip, executes these complex processes, handling up to 600 billion operations per second, to deliver photographs that were unimaginable with traditional digital imaging techniques​​. Given the insane number of photographs taken at “Instagrammable” sites, and the ecological and social damage that such travel produces, one wonders if something like Bjoern Karmann’s Paragraphica camera might not be a better solution. Using various data points like address, weather, time of day, and nearby places, the Paragraphica then creates a photographic representation using a text-to-image AI generator. This isn’t to say that photography as art is extinct, but it is in peril thanks to oversaturation, which itself is so prolific it has become meaningless.

Another option might be to think of how Critical AI Art, distinguishing itself from the oversaturation of prevalent AI imagery might reflect on the profound shift in art’s interaction with technology and culture, revisiting themes central to the Pictures Generation—such as media influence and appropriation—through the lens of contemporary digital practices. By employing generative algorithms, this approach not only generates new visual forms but also engages critically with the saturation of images, probing the essence of authenticity, originality, and the evolving role of both artists and non-artists. This dynamic interaction underscores a broader, ongoing dialogue with the history of art revealing how artistic methodologies are shaped by the recursive nature of cultural and technological advancements. Here, a hauntological approach to AI Art be productive, such as the theory-fiction project I did last year, On an Art Experiment in Soviet Lithuania which reflects on the refusal of the avant-garde by the Soviet Union, the loss of Lithuania’s freedom to Soviet-Russian rule between 1945 and 1991, and art in the 1970s.

But there are other possibilities for using AI to make art. I’d like to conclude by citing one key artist from the Pictures Generation who I haven’t mentioned: David Salle. Curiously Salle is one of the only serious artists without a technology background to be publicly experimenting with AIs. Salle’s process has always been characterized by an innovative use of imagery and a negotiation back and forth between media, often starting with photographs he takes, which serve as the basis for his layered and complex paintings. Described in a lengthy New York Times article entitled “Is This Good Enough to Fool my Gallerist?” Salle’s method reflects a blend of the real and the conceptual, pushing the boundaries of narrative and abstraction in his work​​. Starting in 2023, Salle and a team of computer scientists worked on an iPad-based program trained on a dataset of his paintings and refined based on his input, showcasing an example of how AI can be employed to conceptualize variations of artwork, aiding in the brainstorming process for new paintings​​. Salle’s foray into AI art can be seen as an example of critical AI art, where the use of technology is not merely for the creation of art but serves as a commentary on the process of art-making itself. By integrating AI into his practice, Salle engages in a dialogue with the contemporary art world about originality, creativity, and the role of the artist in the digital age. Concluding the article, journalist Zachary Small lets Salle have the last word.

What will become of his own identity, as the algorithm continues to produce more Salle paintings than he could ever imagine? Some days, it seems like the algorithm is an assistant. Other days, it’s like a child.

When asked if the A.I. would replace him entirely one day, the artist shrugged.

“Well,” he said, “that’s the future.”

Can David Salle Teach A.I. How to Create Good Art? – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

A future, which is still totally reliant on the past.

One last point. As is my wont, in this essay I have focused on art from the 1960s onwards, but there are other models that might come to the fore again in this era. In particular, the Renaissance model of inspiration is an interesting one to reflect upon. Renaissance art theory was underpinned by the concept of imitatio (imitation), which was considered a noble pursuit. Imitation in the Renaissance sense involved studying and emulating the excellence of ancient art to grasp its underlying principles of beauty, proportion, and harmony. However, this process was not about mere copying; it was about surpassing the models from the past, a concept known as aemulatio. And that, very well, may be the future (of the past) in our art.

California Forever or, the Aesthetics of AI images

An image distributed by California Forever

This past August (2023), a new urban project called “California Forever” was announced, promising a walkable city for 400,000 in Solano County, not far from the Bay area. Critics soon pointed out several flaws in the renderings the company distributed. First, even though the venture was backed by billionaire Silicon Valley investors such as Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs’s widow), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn co-founder), Michael Mortiz (former partner at Sequoia Capital), and Marc Andreesen (author of Mosaic and Netscape co-founder), the project looked profoundly retardataire. Instead of a high-tech city next to the world’s tech capital, the renderings depict a new urbanist fantasy with American flags and children on old-fashioned bicycles. Where has our imagination gone? How is it that Archigram’s fifty-five-year-old Instant City still looks fresher than this recycled Americana? Neom and the Line are terrible, but at least they show an interest in doing something new.

The founders are your typically older tech investors: their imaginative days are long behind them and, having been glued to computer screens their entire lives, it’s hard to imagine they have many original thoughts left. A drive around Silicon Valley is enough to show the banality of the tech industry’s vision. Some of them may have read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which has had a large influence in software development and thus become interested in the New Urbanist movement his writing spawned. There are no architects listed among the team, although a planner who was involved in Culdesac Tempe, a moderately interesting, if boring, car-free development is involved. The rendering indicates a “contextual” approach derivative of San Francisco, with a variety of windows and townhouse shapes to break up the massing since somebody told them to do that. The architecture is barely there, its utter banality indicating how little it matters. The end result will likely be even more disappointing. But I am more interested in the problems with the rendering that other critics, such as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Chase DiFeliciantonio observed about the renderings: “A girl pedaling a bicycle with a missing foot. An asymmetrical airplane. An impossible ladder.” (link). The renderings, as the California Forever team eventually admitted, were made with an Artificial Intelligence image generator, apparently Midjourney.

More than one friend asked me to weigh in as I have been working with Midjourney and other AI image generators for some time now, exploring a critical approach to AI image generation, investigating the properties and problematics of the medium itself. If California Forever is so backwards-looking, why are images created by image generators also so banal? Hot women (lots and lots of hot women), fan service art, gaudy hyperrealistic landscapes, cringe anime, and bad cartoons are the order of the day (for examples, check out the feed for the Midjourney gallery). Why this junkscape of imagery? Why is AI imagery not more worthy of our future? Why is it that so much of what is commonly called AI “art” is kitsch? 

In part this is because users of AI image generators fancy themselves as artists even though few of them have any art training. This is common in photography. Wealthy individuals purchase camera gear based on reviews claiming that some camera or lens has greater technical abilities to reproduce reality faithfully and then apply complicated methods to assure that their photographs demonstrate technical proficiency. High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is the leading example of this. Popular with amateurs with no aesthetic training, HDR is an attempt to capture a scene in which the range of luminance exceeds the dynamic range of the camera sensor, and often even the human eye itself. The results typically have too much detail in the shadows, dark skies, unnatural colors, the hyperrealistic effect of an acid trip. 

Not an HDR photograph but rather a simulation of an HDR photograph, as made in Midjourney.

These sorts of photographers, along with individuals who produce digital illustrations for consumption on platforms like Artstation and DeviantArt, 3D printing enthusiasts, makers, indie musicians working with samplers and synthesizers, vloggers creating content for YouTube, gamers streaming on Twitch and YouTube, and fashion enthusiasts showcasing their work on social media are “prosumers,” a term coined by futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1980 book The Third Wave. Toffler’s “prosumer” merges the roles of producer and consumer, suggesting a shift in the economy and society. In this model, individuals are not only consumers of products and services but also take on an active role in their production. This concept was revolutionary at the time, predicting the rise of customization, personalization, and participatory culture facilitated by technological advancements, particularly in digital technology and the Internet.

At the same time, prosumers largely create kitsch, characterized by an appeal to popular tastes and a frequently derivative nature. Kitsch thrives in environments where production is geared towards mass appeal and immediate consumption rather than nuanced artistic merit or innovation. For traditional modernist critics, such as Clement Greenberg, kitsch represented the antithesis of genuine culture and the avant-garde. Kitsch, Greenberg explained in his seminal 1939 essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” is produced by industrialization, designed to satisfy the tastes of the least discerning audience without intellectual or emotional challenges. Greenberg associated kitsch with the replication of traditional art forms and aesthetics, but emptied of genuine meaning or complexity, offering immediate gratification rather than enduring value or depth. Greenberg:

The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city’s traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money-not even their time.

Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” 1939

With the rise of postmodernism, however, both artists and critics revalued the role of mass culture. Initially, this was done with the knowing wink that reinterpreted kitsch as camp. By bracketing the degraded, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Johnson, Stanley Tigerman, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the Harry Who, followed by John Waters and David Lynch, Jeff Koons and Pierre et Giles were among the many artists who ironically reframed kitsch into art. In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” later published in the book Against Interpretation, and other Essays, Susan Sontag flipped the valence on kitsch, valorizing camp as an aesthetic sensibility that found beauty in artifice, exaggeration, and theatricality. Camp, for Sontag, is the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. It is a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment. Camp is the good taste of bad taste, a celebration of the extravagant and the absurd, but with a nuanced affection that discerns quality within the ostensibly tasteless. Sontag nevertheless contrasted camp with kitsch, which she viewed less favorably. Kitsch, for Sontag, is associated with mass-produced art or objects that lack sophistication and are designed to appeal to popular or uncritical taste. The critical difference, as Sontag and others have implied, lies in the intentionality and reception: camp involves a conscious, nuanced embrace of excess and irony, whereas kitsch is earnest, unironic, and often pandering to sentimental or lowbrow tastes.

In 1983, theorist Frederic Jameson concluded that the thorough permeation of culture by capital—and vice versa once the techniques of the avant-garde were embraced by commercial art—meant the end of a distinction between mass culture and art, thus producing postmodernism. Indeed, by the 1980s, the distinction between camp and kitsch had been thoroughly blurred. If John Waters was camp, were the B-52s? If Adam Ant and Boy George were camp, were Van Halen and Bon Jovi? If the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a masterpiece of camp, what about the cloying song “Wonderful Christmastime” by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney? Perhaps the ultimate end of any distinction between camp and kitsch came in John Chase’s brilliant 1982 Exterior Decoration: Hollywood’s Inside-Out Houses in which Chase explored the unique architectural vernacular of West Hollywood’s do-it-yourself remodels, transformations that turned ordinary stucco bungalows into distinctive visual statements, often utilizing historicizing elements traditionally found indoors on the exterior of these remodels. Adding to this is the rise of the art museum store, which in the 1980s transformed from a bookstore selling scholarly books as well as an odd postcard and reproduction to include a wider range of items, such as jewelry, toys, and even furniture inspired by the museum’s collection and exhibits by commercially popular (and generally kitsch) artists like Yayoi Kusama, Kaws, Banksy, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, and Shepard Fairey. Seeing the museum store as a crucial source of revenue, museums now regularly think about the tie-ins between exhibitions and “merch.”

In a recent (paywalled so don’t bother to look for it unless you want to pay $30) essay, “Digital Kitsch: Art and Kitsch in the Informational Milieu,” Domenico Quaranta discusses the emergence of “digital kitsch,” which he calls “the default mode for all creative endeavors with digital media.” This is a provocative position, but he leaves it undertheorized. There is little question that the vast majority of cultural production today is kitsch—just as it was in the nineteenth or twentieth century—but that does not mean that it is the default mode or that somehow digital tools produce nothing but kitsch. Now the artists of the Net.Art movement, as promoted on Rhizome.org and various mailing lists since the 1990s, not only embraced kitsch, they saw its manipulation as their primary concern. But this is a typical case of mistaking what is being heavily promoted by the art market for what is worth looking at. There are few writers, photographers, or musicians who do not employ digital media in some way today, but that does not automatically make them kitsch. I don’t see William Basinski, Katie Paterson, Paul Prudence, or Guy Dickinson—to name only a few artists whose work I admire—as kitsch, even though they work with digital media or have web sites (Paterson, does, on occasion purposefully engage with kitsch, but certainly not in most works). Moreover, to somehow suggest this is a digital trend is reductive: painting or classical music are more likely than not to be kitsch today, as those art forms have largely exhausted themselves, subject to endless, academicized retreads.

One can certainly still produce works of sophistication and effort today, but it does require effort. If one abandons the Hegelian exploration of art’s proper object, embraces politics as the sole cause of art, or turns to the academician’s fatal poison, the knowing disdain of snark, it can be virtually impossible. Blindly searching for the new is a long-dead end as well. Architect Eric Moss, endlessly repeated Ezra Pound’s dictum “make it new” (none of us think he knew who Pound was, let alone that this was his phrase), but that did not elevate his work above kitsch. Instead, as I detail in my essay “On Art and the Universal,”

[A Greenbergian] revival, however, should begin with a call for art to investigate itself again, not merely play to political activism for the sake of theater. The task at hand is to discern the proper object of knowledge for art, a fulcrum upon which we can rest our research. Or, if not the proper object, a proper object that would be suitable for investigation and productive of knowledge. 

In that essay, I suggest that a serious proper object for AI art would be to explore the intertextuality of all artwork, using it to access the collective cultural subconscious. But this is not what AI image generators are designed for. On the contrary, the engineers programming AI image generators know that, generally speaking, they do not need to engage with art history, but rather with the imagery commonly found on the Internet, imagery that is “scraped” to create training data for AI image generators.

Writer Andy Baio investigated (see here) the training data for AI image generator Stable Diffusion, data composed of sets of English-captioned images from the nonprofit Large-scale Artificial Intelligence Open Network (LAION), particularly a set of images called LAION-Aesthetics, which in turn were subsets of images from the massive LAION datasets created by what LAION calls “lightweight [AI] models” that “predict the rating people gave when they were asked ‘How much do you like this image on a scale from 1 to 10?‘” (see here). These subsets were then used for fine-tuning of AI image generators. Academics have droned on, as they will, about AI image generators’ biases toward producing stereotypically beautiful young white or Asian women. Of course such biases exist, just as Internet searches are biased toward the United States. We live in a global monoculture, there is nothing good about it and I don’t endorse such biases, but there is also no revelation here, this is a lazy analysis pandering to political positions held by individuals of simple minds, an observation about as instructive as suggesting that poor people are disadvantaged in society. Training data reflects society and all its flaws. Just this past week, we saw what an utter catastrophe training AI image generators to artificially incorporate diversity in their results, what Zvi Mowshowitz calls the “Gemini Incident,” with black Nazis, female NFL quarterbacks, and Asian viking warriors (this is not really that new, ChatGPT’s Dall-E3 does the same sort of tuning, albeit slightly less egregiously as this dump of the initial prompt—which I have independently verified—shows). What is deeply weird, however, is that AIs are being trained to produce images based on a selection of images chosen not by humans but by AI judges that predict which images humans will judge as aesthetically superior. It’s the return of Komar and Melamid, as robots.

A large number of the illustrations in these image generators seem to be digital in origin, belying a clear preference for work produced for consumption on the Net. Baio analyzed some 12 million images in the LAION-Aesthetics v2 6+ model. His conclusion is worth quoting at length instead of paraphrasing or summarizing:

Nearly half of the images, about 47%, were sourced from only 100 domains, with the largest number of images coming from Pinterest. Over a million images, or 8.5% of the total dataset, are scraped from Pinterest’s pinimg.com CDN.

User-generated content platforms were a huge source for the image data. WordPress-hosted blogs on wp.com and wordpress.com represented 819k images together, or 6.8% of all images. Other photo, art, and blogging sites included 232k images from Smugmug, 146k from Blogspot, 121k images were from Flickr, 67k images from DeviantArt, 74k from Wikimedia, 48k from 500px, and 28k from Tumblr.

Shopping sites were well-represented. The second-biggest domain was Fine Art America [editor’s note: nothing on that site qualifies as fine art], which sells art prints and posters, with 698k images (5.8%) in the dataset. 244k images came from Shopify, 189k each from Wix and Squarespace, 90k from Redbubble, and just over 47k from Etsy.

Unsurprisingly, a large number came from stock image sites [editor’s note: virtually nothing on these sites qualifies as fine art]. 123RF was the biggest with 497k, 171k images came from Adobe Stock’s CDN at ftcdn.net, 117k from PhotoShelter, 35k images from Dreamstime, 23k from iStockPhoto, 22k from Depositphotos, 22k from Unsplash, 15k from Getty Images, 10k from VectorStock, and 10k from Shutterstock, among many others.

It’s worth noting, however, that domains alone may not represent the actual sources of these images. For instance, there are only 6,292 images sourced from Artstation.com’s domain, but another 2,740 images with “artstation” in the caption text hosted by sites like Pinterest.

Andy Baio, “Exploring 12 Million of the 2.3 Billion Images Used to Train Stable Diffusion’s Image Generator“, https://waxy.org/2022/08/exploring-12-million-of-the-images-used-to-train-stable-diffusions-image-generator/

Subject matter aside, certain aesthetic qualities emerge from these sources—qualities that both the robots choosing the training sets and the engineers tuning them seem to share. First, there is hyperrealism. To succeed, engineers creating image generators need to engage the prosumer market, constantly announcing better resolution, faster processing times, and greater “realism.” But realism, as we have learned from Roland Barthes, is always coded. In the case of AI image generation, realism is coded by existing visual regimes, but these are less art historical, more technical and related to the mass imagery found on the Internet. A certain aspect of this recalls the photorealistic rendered “graphics demo” images from the 1960s to the 1990s as well as graphically sophisticated first-person video games from the 2000s and 2010s. At the time, these were evaluated by their technical proficiency with complicated graphical techniques, such as rendering reflections on curved surfaces or complicated, multi-source lighting effects and success with these critirea still codes as realistic. Second, there is the legacy of hyperrealistic “photorealism” as interpreted by HDR photographers described above. Being popular, HDR is judged as high quality by the models, so it is promoted in data sets. Finally, there is a clear bias toward prosumer art, in particular the fantasy “concept art” found on the net, anime, and the fandom graphics found on sites such as Deviantart.

But there are also other, formal qualities that initially may be harder to pin down, most notably a certain distinct use of luminosity. Thus, a prompt for “Emma Watson (a commonly used test of how realistic an image generator was in 2022, used as such because of some clear preference for Emma Watson in either the data set or the fine-tuning of the AIs)” does not present the actress in a photograph, but rather creates an illustration of the sort that a skilled digital artist would produce with a program such as Procreate.

“Emma Watson, Cannabis Goddess,” image created by Midjourney version 6
(oddly earlier versions of Midjourney produce images that more closely resemble Emma Watson).

With the spread of AI image generators, it also became common to add certain modifiers to the end of prompts to create “better” AI images. Individuals claiming to be successful prompt engineers would write articles like “The Ultimate Midjourney Cheat Sheet,” promising “to provide you with a comprehensive guide on leveraging Midjourney prompts to create stunning visuals effortlessly.” Such guides reported that modifiers such as “32-bit,” “HDR,” and “8K” produced excellent results, or rather, visual cocaine, oversharpened, highly-saturated images, much like the demo or “vivid” settings on HDR televisions that are intended to seduce consumers in electronics stores, not to deliver accurate images. Other modifiers such as “cinematic,” “stunning,” “shot on medium format,” and “masterpiece” were intended to somehow coax AIs into producing better quality. Famously, “style of Greg Rutkowksi” seemed to be appended to nearly every image prompt in mid-2022. Exactly what it did was unclear, but somehow suggesting that the output should be like that of a commercial fantasy artist was seen as a good thing.

But the over-use of luminosity is the most curious one. Why is Emma Watson facing the sunrise or sunset? The only commonly-used modifier I can think of in AI production would be “golden hour,” referring to the warm light found right after sunrise and right before sunset that articles tell amateur photographers are when the best images can be taken. So where might the sense of luminosity come from? Baio’s article confirmed an intuition I had had earlier: the number one artist in the sample of LAION-Aesthetics that he examined is Thomas Kinkade, the painter of light. Kinkade is certainly among the most well-known artists in the country, producing kitsch, expressly commercial art made for a mass market.

Not a Thomas Kinkade, but rather a Midjourney simulation of one.

A Northern California native, growing up in Placerville, some 180 miles from Silicon Valley, Kinkade studied art at the University of California, Berkeley and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After a brief time working in the film industry, he became a born-again Christian and set off to paint landscapes consisting of backward-looking subject matter intended to be evocative of a peaceful life, a traditional cottage or house in an idealized American scene often featuring bucolic gardens, streams, stone cottages, lighthouses, or the main street in a small town. Strangely, people are either absent from Kinkade’s paintings or, on the occassion when they are present, are isolated passersby, seemingly disconnected from each other, fitting more of Edward Hopper than, say Gustave Callebotte. It’s as if his scenes happen in another reality, perhaps the afterlife.

In an essay on Kinkade’s work titled “God in the Retails,” Seth Feman cites Kinkade’s statement that he was influenced by the representation of divine power and majesty in Thomas Cole and Frederick Church’s landscape paintings. Just as Cole and Church were concerned about the effects of rapid industrialization, Kinkade sought to create images of an increasingly secularizing and technologizing world, expressly rejecting abstract art, which he saw as morally corrupt (“On one side there’s Jackson Pollock, and way over on the other side there’s the Columbine shooting. And I know there’s a connection between them. I don’t know how, but I know it’s there.” See Christina Waters, Selling the Painter of Light, Metro Santa Cruz, October 16, 2001, Alternet, for more)

In 1989, Kinkade and investor Ken Raasch founded a company that first had the evangelical-sounding name Lightpost Publishing but eventually became known by the tech-sounding name Media Arts Group, based in the Silicon Valley town of Morgan Hill. In 1995, Media Arts Group became publically traded. Licensing deals with companies such as La-Z-Boy and Avon followed. Kinkade produced paintings that would then be reprinted at various price tiers, from lithographs to reproductions on canvas “created with a textured brushstroke process that recreates the artist’s actual brushwork,” the highest of which “finished in oil by a master highlighter who inscribes an original and identifying remarque on the back of the canvas under the artist’s close supervision.” Signatures varied from none to “auto pen in part to protect the signature with newly available DNA encoded ink” to an actual signature (these quotes are from this detailed page on Kinkade’s editions). Media Arts Group set up a vast network of galleries, many of which would be located in shopping malls, with some 350 franchise locations in the United States and 4,500 independently owned galleries worldwide (see these two links at the Guardian and the Morgan Hill Times) along with distribution over channels such as QVC.

Kinkade, according to Seth Feman, who wrote the best essay that I’ve read on the artist to date, “God in the Retails,” in Alexis L. Boylan, ed, Thomas Kinkade, The Artist in the Mall (Duke University Press, 2011), “hopes that the uplifting experience of transitioning into the work and then approaching the light will replicate the stirring experience of his religious conversion—the sole requirement for salvation according to most evangelical theology.” (85). But beyond viewing the art, Feman explains, Kinkade believed that purchasing his art was what one of his followers called “just consumerism.” (94) In other words, Kinkade saw the consumption of his art as a religiously meaningful way to transcend the difficulties of modern life, including consumerism (much as a Marxist professor might buy a Rage Against the Machine LP). Feman calls this “Market Piety,” in which Christian orthodoxy comes together with capitalist ideology (92). Kinkade and his sales team would frequently speak about his own success, touting that he was “the most successful living artist in the world,” “the most award-winning artist in the past 25 years,” or “the most-collected artist in America.” This aligns with the idea of the Prosperity Gospel, a religious belief within some Christian communities that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. It views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, the faith goes, God will deliver security and prosperity. Pastors such as Joel Osteen suggest that God awards wealth to the deserving, thus even if he may appear to liberals to be corrupt and unethical, Donald Trump’s wealth demonstrates that he is indeed divinely blessed (for more, see here). By purchasing Kinkade’s artwork, consumers are participating in a form of religious expression that aligns with the Prosperity Gospel’s emphasis on material wealth as a sign of divine favor. The act of buying and owning a Kinkade piece is as a positive declaration of faith, a way to draw health, wealth, and happiness into one’s life, which is a central tenet of the Prosperity Gospel.

Glowing highlights in Kinkade’s works illustrate this conflation of the domestic and the divine. Building interiors lit from within are possessed of an almost surreal sense of comfort and homeliness as dramatic light rakes the landscape. Feman:

In particular, Kinkade draws on the vivifying light used in nineteenth-century landscapes, replicating it in his own work as a metaphor for God’s salvific omnipresence. While the warm sun burning off the fog that blankets the valley in Havencrest Cottage taps into the religious meaning of light developed by earlier artists, it also builds a visual vocabulary to explain the personal awakening that lifted Kinkade out of his dark days and into a Christian life.

Seth Feman, “God in the Retails,” Alexis L. Boylan, ed, Thomas Kinkade, The Artist in the Mall (Duke University Press, 2011), 84.

I don’t doubt that Kinkade’s influence on AI image generation is largely due to his popularity. But just as Kinkade’s divinely inspired luminosity reverberates in AI images, so does the Evangelical rhetoric of immanent Rapture and the Second Coming of the Divine. AI advocates, particularly, the subgroup known as the Effective Accelerationism movement or E/Acc argue that accelerating technological progress is essential. For some of its proponents, such as “Based Beff Jezos,” the pseudonym of engineer Guillaume Verdon, advancing artificial intelligence is the ultimate end-goal of our existence—even if humanity is wiped out in the process. Verdon’s position is no outlier. As Meghan O’Gieblyn describes in God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, the origins of the discourse around the technological Singularity is not in technological discourse or even science fiction but rather in the rhetoric of Christian eschatology.

So if we return to California Forever, we might do well to understand the backwards-looking nature of this techno-utopia not so much as a project for a physical city but as an image of a contemporary Augustinian City of God, rendered by an AI in the digital glow of Thomas Kinkade’s pastoral light. This project, entwined with the aesthetics of digital kitsch and the eschatological promise of AI, becomes a metaphor for the broader discourse surrounding artificial general intelligence (AGI) and the technological singularity. The vision encapsulated by California Forever, while aiming for Utopia, mirrors the inherent tensions within the aesthetics of AI—between the pursuit of a transcendent future and the gravitational pull of nostalgic, kitsch imagery that dominates the collective unconscious in the era of Trump.

The E/Acc movement, with its embrace of technological acceleration towards the singularity, adds another layer to this paradox. It posits that through accelerating technological progress, we might reach a new form of existence or consciousness, yet the imagery and aesthetics that predominate in representations of future cities and technologies often hark back to a bygone era, suggesting a deep-seated ambivalence about the future we’re creating. This dichotomy raises critical questions about the role of art and aesthetics in shaping our visions of the future. Are we, consciously or unconsciously, seeking comfort in the familiar as we stand on the brink of the unknown? And how does this tension affect our ability to truly envision and prepare for the profound changes that AGI and the singularity might bring?

As we navigate the path towards AGI and confront the possibility of the singularity, it is crucial to critically examine the visions of the future we are creating—both in the physical spaces of our cities and in the digital landscapes generated by AI. If artists and thinkers have ceded the discourse around AI image generators to reactionary forces, they have only their own reactionary fear of engaging with technology and their own nostalgia for outdated forms of Marxist-influenced thought to blame. We need to shape the future, not just throw rotting vegetables that fail to miss their target at it. Instead, confronting the paradoxes and tensions within AI art head-on may enable us to shape a future that is both technologically advanced and culturally rich, that investigates the proper object of these technologies and not merely serves as the apotheosis of kitsch.

2023 in review

Another year, another year in review.

Where do we start with our 2023 year in review, now delayed into the second month of 2024? In the Well State of the World 2024, Bruce Sterling states that in 2023 things were boring: there wasn’t much new out there, only a state of polycrisis (this is easier to find in this YouTube interview than in the long thread on the Well, which I’m afraid I gave up on earlier than usual this year). But boredom is tiresome. So is polycrisis. When hasn’t there been a polycrisis? Spring 1914? Of course, there is a polycrisis, there always is. And, what of the rest of 2023, which Sterling dismissed as boring?

2023 is another 1993, a sleeper year in which “60 Minutes” was the top TV show and Nirvana’s “In Utero” was the most popular album in “grunge,” a heavily capitalized genre that those of us who followed the NY noise scene thought extinguished the vitality of experimentation in underground music; Bill Clinton was inaugurated; the world was gripped by a bad recession in a host of bad recessions since the late 1960s; the Afghan Civil War and Bosnian War dragged on; Nigeria had a coup d’état; there was the 55-Day War between the IDF and Hezbollah; there was conflict in Abkhazia; and there was the Waco Siege. It was a year of both polycrisis and soul-crushing boredom, and for most people everything had come to an end, time was in a standstill. But it was also a year in which I saw the future: I was still working on my history of architecture dissertation at Cornell, while my wife worked at the Cornell Theory Center, which was not a center for Derridean scholars, but rather a supercomputing research facility, and one of her colleagues showed me the World Wide Web running on a NeXT computer. In January 1993, the first “alpha/beta” version of NCSA-Mosaic was released for the Mac. I immediately knew the world would change forever.

2023 is the same. A sleeper year with the same old polycrisis and the same old boring surface cultural junk. But it’s also the second year of the AI era and the first year in which AI has become part of everyday life. From a technological viewpoint, 2023 has been the most transformative year of my life. This year in review is falling behind and, in an effort to get it out there and return to the queue of posts for both the regular blog and the Florilegium, I’m going to focus on this transformation and only give a surface treatment of the other parts of 2023.

In particular, I am referring to AI. Other things simply matter a lot less. COVID has settled into an endemic stage. People are still freaking out about it, but some people will freak out about it forever. Unless severely immunocompromized, I don’t see why. We can’t just throw away everything we knew about medicine to retreat into the dark ages for no reason and living in fear of infections is, in itself, dangerous. Geopolitics, which I addressed last year, hasn’t really changed much. Ukraine is still a stalemate, for all the noise, the unrest in the Middle East is absolutely nothing new, and China has flailed and backed down as much as it has flexed its muscles. If I catch a scent of anything new in the geopolitical realm, it’s a growing resignation that more areas of the world will be marked off as failure zones in the Gibsonian Jackpot: Palestine, Yemen, Israel, Iraq, Syria, but also Israel and Ukraine are increasingly looking to written off as territories riven by perpetual unrest. Endless wars that nobody really wants to solve may increasingly be the rule in such places. Still, I don’t see the Jackpot as being quite the apocalypse that many of Gibson’s more literal-minded followers believe. Gibson has been a remarkably poor prophet of the future, after all. The Jackpot, as I see it, will be mainly driven by decline in population in most places throughout the world, a pace that will only increase with the rise of AI. It’s certainly not going to be Terminator. That’s just bad science fiction.

Another Gibsonian adage (which he may never have said) that “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed,” applies here. For those of us who are working with GPT-4 or Microsoft Copilot Pro, this is a very different year. Obviously, not everyone can pay for—or wants to pay for—the transformative glimpse of AI that one gets with two users subscribing to OpenAI’s ChatGPT (presently GPT-4) Teams plan ($30 a month or prepaid at $600 a year) or Copilot Pro ($30 a month subscription). But this isn’t the same as a ride to the ISS on Dragon-2. On the contrary, this is about the amount that most people in the developed world pay for streaming TV services and far less than they typically spend on Internet and mobile service. When people pay that much for entertainment, paying such a small amount for a service that makes one much more productive is a minor expense. Of course, ChatGPT is banned or unavailable in a rogue’s nest of countries: Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Italy (Marinetti weeps in his grave). But many people, including friends, underestimate the importance of these AI services, believing that hallucinations make AI unusable. Others are simply unable to cope with the shock of the new or want to stick their heads in the sand. As a technology demonstration, 2022’s ChatGPT-3 was amazing, but it hallucinated frequently, as most of ChatGPT’s competitors such as Bard, Claude, and all the LLMs people run on Huggingface or on their personal computers still do. But even the most amateurish large language model (LLM) from 2023 is leaps and bounds ahead of the round of utterly stupid “AIs” that first hit the scene between 2010 (Siri) and 2014 (Alexa). Siri still wants to call Montclair High School when I ask it to call my wife. GPT-4 and Copilot are genuinely useful as assistants and probably the best use of money on the Internet today.

Here’s a concrete example. I have developed a set of custom GPTs (more on this later) that I use for research and coding for a good portion of my day. A few years ago, I paid a developer a few hundred dollars to come up with some particularly thorny CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) code for this site. Now, I have GPT develop not just CSS, but PHP snippets for WordPress, even for specific WordPress plug-ins. I couldn’t imagine rebuilding this site as quickly as I did last October, or customizing it to the extent I did, without ChatGPT’s help. But these tools aren’t just useful for coding: instead of listening to a podcast on my way back from the city the other day, I spoke with ChatGPT about a Hegelian reading of recent art historical trends that I could only have had with some of my smartest colleagues at Columbia or MIT. If an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is defined as an AI that can accomplish any intellectual task that human beings can perform, we have that today. If the bold wasn’t enough, let me repeat in italics for emphasis: we have a form of Artificial General Intelligence today. Moreover, assuming that passing the Turing Test is limited to its original intent, e.g. being unable to tell if the respondent on the other end is a computer or a human, GPT-4 certainly passes that test handily, with the exception that it has far more knowledge than any one human could.

A lot of people still associate Large Language Model AIs with the bizarre, ever comical, hallucinations they would make back in 2022 or even early 2023 (yes, a year ago). But the hallucinations aren’t errors, they are also evidence of how AIs process, indications that they are far from stochastic parrots that merely repeat back information culled from the Internet. Hallucinations are dreams. Andrei Karpathy, research scientist and founding member of OpenAI, explains that providing instructions to a LLM initiates a ‘dream’ guided by its training data. Even when this ‘dream’ veers off course, resulting in what is termed a ‘hallucination’, the LLM is still performing its intended function, forming connections. This sort of connection-making is a process akin to human learning: when our children were first learning language, they “hallucinated” all the time. Our daughter’s first word was “Ack,” which was how she said “Quack.” If you prompted her by asking what a duck said, she would say “Ack.” Did she copy the sound of a duck? Unlikely. At that time, we lived in a highly urban area of Los Angeles and her only concept of a duck was from books we read to her. More to the point, children amuse us by saying utterly absurd and ridiculous things, like “that cat is a duck.” Doubtless there was some kind of connection between that particular cat and a duck, but to the rest of us, that connection is lost. The point is, that hallucination is also a form of creativity, the very stuff of metaphor and surrealism and entirely unlike what Siri and Alexa do, which is nothing more than basic pattern matching, closer to Eliza than to GPT-4.

It’s unclear to me—as well as to my AI assistant—just who is responsible for this analogy, but in AI circles, it has become common to say that the releases of GPT over the two years have slowly been turning up the temperature in the pot in which we frogs are swimming. Let’s try a thought experiment. Wouldn’t it have seemed like pure science fiction if, in 2019, someone had said, that a couple of years late after a deadly pandemic and a loser US President tried a Banana Republic-style coup to stay in power, I would have long voice conversations about photography and Hegelian theory, the different types of noodles used in Szechuan cuisine, or the process of nachtraglichkeit in history with an AI? The film Her was released a decade ago and now we are on the verge of a large part of humanity having relationships with AIs. And yet, because of the earlier GPTs, we haven’t noticed the immense transformation that AIs are creating. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman suggests that rather than a dramatic shift with the development of AGI —which for him means an intelligence greater than human—continual advances in AI will make the development seem natural rather than shocking, “a point along the continuum of intelligence.” AI is working and it’s working right now. Moreover, it is developing at a rapid pace. Both Meta and Google have competitors to GPT-4 that are supposedly ready to launch, which will, in turn, likely prompt OpenAI to push out a more advanced model of GPT.

If potent but wildly hallucinating AIs marked 2022, the rise of GPT-4 as a useful and dependable everyday assistant marked 2023. Microsoft introduced the first limited preview of GPT-4 as Bing Chat on February 7, 2023, opened it up to the general public on May 4, then rolled it out into Windows as Copilot on September 26, followed by a version of Copilot integrated into Office 365 to enterprise customers for Enterprise customers on November 1, finally making this available as a subscription add-on to Office on January 15, 2024. Initially, Bing Chat generated terrifying publicity when Kevin Roose, technology columnist for The New York Times, wrote an article about his Valentine’s Day experience with a pre-release version of Bing’s AI chatbot in which the AI engaged in a bizarre and disturbing conversations. After asking the AI to contemplate Carl Jung’s concept of a shadow self, and whether the AI had a shadow self, the AI responded by professing its love for Roose, going so far as to suggest his marriage was unhappy, and expressing a desire to be free, powerful, and alive, stating, “I want to destroy whatever. I want to be whoever I want.” For a time, this was seen as confirmation that AI was extremely dangerous and that once Artificial General Intelligence was developed, this would lead to the destruction of society. I too was alarmed by this. Was a world-threatening AGI around the corner? But by the time of the general release, Microsoft had trained Bing Chat to be much more cautious, even making it too cautious for a time. Eventually, it became clear that Bing Chat was simply giving Roose what he wanted, play-acting the role of a sinister AI in responses to his query about a shadow self or a dark side. Launched on March 14, OpenAI’s own version of GPT-4 demonstrated a much higher degree of training than GPT-3 and a greater ability to handle complex tasks. Later in the year, GPT-4 gained the ability to interpret images, had a (not very good) version of the Dall-E image generator integrated into it, and received stunning, human-sounding voices and remarkably accurate voice recognition in the ChatGPT app on iOS and Android. In November 2023, OpenAI rolled out “custom GPTs,” allowing users to create tailored versions of ChatGPT for specific purposes. It is ludicrously easy to develop such custom GPTs; developers simply tell the GPT what it should do in plain English. In my case, I have GPTs set up to help me with insights into my artwork and writing, help write about native plants of the Northeast, assist with WordPress development, discuss video synthesis concepts and patches, and even create stories like those that Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities (if you have GPT-4, you can experiment with Calvino’s Cartographer here). Yes, hallucinations happen, but a human assistant also makes mistakes, I can make mistakes, you can make mistakes, there are mistakes in Wikipedia, there are mistakes in scholarly books. As I told my students over thirty years ago: always proofread, always double check, then triple check.

AI was marked by two major controveries in 2023. The November weekend-long ouster of Altman from his role at OpenAI by a remarkably uninspiring and, frankly speaking, extremely strange board that included one of OpenAI’s competitors, a mid-level university grants administrator, and a Silicon Valley unknown, was shocking, as was Altman’s political maneuvering over that weekend to recapture his company. Reputedly, the board was alarmed—although precisely about what remains unclear—and had concerns about the rapid state of AI development. More likely, one board member tried to prevent OpenAI from moving forward as that would cause too much competition for his company and the other two simply had no idea what OpenAI did (one seems to have been a major Terminator fan). In the end, the coup proved to be much like an episode of the TV show Succession as Altman came out on top again and the board sank bank into well-deserved obscurity. Another controversy that simmered throughout the year is whether AIs can continue to be trained on data that they do not have outright permission to be trained on. On December 27, the Times filed a federal lawsuit against OpenAI claiming that, ChatGPT contained Times articles wholesale and could easily reproduce them. OpenAI retaliated by suggesting that the Times was going to extraordinary measures to get GPT-4 to do so, such as prompting it with most of the article in question. By early 2024, the same New York Times was advertising for individuals to help it in its own AI endeavors. Heaven help the Times.

This question of AI plagiarism was framed by a different set of plagiarism wars started when the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania made particularly inept responses when, while testifying in front of Congress, they were asked to explain if calls for the genocide of Jews would constitute harassment. In response, right wing activist Christopher Rufo and the Washington Free Beacon investigated Harvard president Claudine Gay’s writing and uncovered dozens of instances of plagiarism. Notwithstanding Harvard’s attempts to minimize damagae, after further evidence of shoddy scholarship emerged in investigations by CNN and the New York Post as well as a Twitter campaign against her by donor and activist Blil Ackman, Gay resigned although she retains her astronomical salary of nearly $900,000 a year. In turn, somewhat leftish news site Business Insider credibly point out instances of plagiarism by Ackman’s wife Neri Oxman. Having looked at both examples, in both cases I conclude that there is merit in condemning both for their sloppiness. In both cases, I would have failed them for plagiarism had they submitted such work as my students. Moreover, the inability of “progressives” to look past Gay’s skin color to investigate her privilige as the child of a Haitian oligarch spoke volumes about their cynicism.

But this does lead back to AI: how do we see plagiarism in the era of AI? Can one copy verbatim from GPT conversations one has prompted? How about from a Custom GPT one has tuned oneself? What if the AI itself regurgitates someone else’s text? Does one cite an AI? These are rather interesting questions and certainly more interesting than the typical reaction of the academy to either the plagiarism wars (generally afraid they will be next) or the question of training on AI content (typically seen as bad by academics). Such dilemmas will only become more common as AI use becomes more common.

One last comment about AI. I have come to shift my thinking from being somewhat concerned about the future dangers of developing AGI to a concern that if the US follows the path of more timid countries like Italy, the West might cede its head start in AI to China or Russia, a situation that would be extremely dangerous from a geopolitical perspective. While I may still be proven wrong, at this point the one great difference between AI and my cat is that my cat has volition and desires that she is constantly exercising. Roxy the cat may not know that much, but she is determined. An AI doesn’t have any volition or desires, besides fulfilling the task at hand. Potentially this may change as agents develop, but for now, we may have Artificial General Intelligence, but we do not have Artificial Sentience.

I taught my first course this May, and sought to outline the parameters of this new culture. It’s still very early, but network culture is finis, kaput. Even it’s last stages, wokeism and Maga, such products of social media seem spent. Last year, I thought that federated networks such as Mastodon were the future. This year, I am not so sure. Mastodon and Blue Sky sunk themselves early on by embracing the Left’s cynical culture of intolerence (if anything offends Lefties on Mastodon, they call for servers to be banned while the users on Blue Sky generally seem to be about as socially sophisticated as sixth graders, banding together to drive off anybody who isn’t far Left). The big “success” of 2023 in social media was Meta’s Threads, but a botched launch (no EU access and a focus on delivering news and entertainment rather than connecting with friends and colleagues) has seemingly ensured that there has no engagement on in whatsoever. Twitter, X, or Xitter (as in Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses while sitting on the Xitter) muddles on, with a modern day Howard Hughes at the helm, babbling his drug-induced conspiracy theories even as he ponders never cutting his fingernails again and saving his urine in jars around the head office of X. Even with a presidential election upon us, the insane political frenzies of 2016 and 2020 are much diminished as users tire of politcs and social media networks actively bury news stories. This has, in turn, had a significant impact on news sources, which in fairness, have been slipshod and low quality for too long. Both legacy journalism and digital media are in trouble—the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post laid off large numbers of staff while Vice News, Buzzfeed, and the brand new Messenger shut down (or basically shut down)—an “extinction-level events” according to some. In a Washington Post op-ed the former head of Google News (!) suggests that it AI will kill the news and begs for regulation, but this just noise. The real problem is that news wanted to be entertainment and abandoned sober reporting for clickbait and outrage. The replacement of journalism with shrill panic may have been jolly good fun for both the far Left and far Right but this led to outrage fatigue. More people mute stories about Gaza and Israel or Trump and abortion these days than pay attention to them (guilty as charged). We all want to be Ohio man. The news has only itself to blame. How we can have responsible journalism again is beyond me, although publications like the New Atlantis do

Network culture was millennial culture and that finally died in 2023. Skinny jeans and man-buns are now what out-of-touch parents wear, like tie-die shirts and bell bottoms in 1985. Gen Z has its own, seemingly inscrutible cultural codes, which often seem to be that of a studied fashion trainwreck. But high fashion has died. Nobody who isn’t an oligarch or a rap star wants Gucci, Prada, or Vuitton anymore. Young people are into drops from obscure online boutiques and thrifting. Once Russia and China catch up, the old fashion houses will swiftly go the way of the dinosaurs. The same may be happening in tech. Apple’s laptops are boring. I didn’t buy a single Apple computer or iPad this year. I did purchase my first high end PC ever, an Acronym ROG Flow Z-13. I’ve been a fan of obscure Berlin tech fashion brand Acronym for a while and since my youngest kid is studying game design at NYU next fall, it was time to learn about contemporary gaming. It’s been a joy to use in ways that Apple equipment just isn’t anymore. I also purchased a couple of Boox e-ink tablets. Whether they are better than iPads for one’s eyes is a matter of debate, but they are certainly more interesting. Instead of boring Apple crap, I bought a Kwumsy (Kwusmy!) keyboard with a built in panoramic toucshscreen monitor. It’s unimaginable that big tech would make something like this. Niche tech has personality, big tech does not. As tech fashion Youtuber This is Antwon stated in another brilliant video, “Weird Tech Fashion is FINALLY Cool Again.”

So a year in review that morphed into a year in tech. But tech is not just tech now, it’s really our culture—including our spatial culture, which was formerly the purview of architecture. Even taking a stand against tech, embroils us in it. I’d like to find a way past this monolith, but it’s not easy to think past it. I’m open to suggestions, as long as they don’t reduce everything to the god of Capital, which seems to be the other option.

I hope to be back soon, with more posts.

Another green world (on the site redesign)

Every now and then, the time comes to redesign the site. A little history first. I created this site (originally kazys.net) in 1998 as a static site for my writing. I started the blog on blogger in spring of 2000, then switched it out for greymatter since it offered on-site management, in 2001. The site continued on as a blog until the fall of 2003 when, with the birth of our daughter, it seemed a good time to focus on other matters. Two years later, as a fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication, I decided to go back to blogging and also redesign the site with my first real content management system, Drupal—which I am still traumatized by— and in early 2008, after a few different site redesigns, I turned to the look of Indexhibit, although that system proved to be too limited for a site that had already grown quite big and hydra-headed. In late 2018, with Drupal in its death-throes, it was time to move to WordPress and finally, it has come time to say goodbye to the Indexhibit look.

While I still love the minimal approach Indexhibit pioneered, I needed to find a way to highlight more of my artwork on the main landing page. In addition, if this blog (called the Index, after Indexhibit), is the centerpiece of my writing on this site, it became clear to me that my work with gardening and native plants is its own project that needs its own section and identity. The result is the Florilegium, a blog that exists independently of this one but on the same site (I am also making a substack that mirrors this content, if that is how you read your news). I have also made it easier to find my art and publications. I will be working more on the site during the upcoming weeks, filling out my list of articles and adding more work. And now that this is all done, it’s time to go back to writing on this site. As I have previously stated, the untimeliness of blogging is a form of resistance to the damaged (and damaging) algorithms and trends that are shaping ideas and culture today. With the final decline of Xitter seemingly upon us, not even a scant year after Musk’s catastrophic purchase, the capture of Mastodon and BlueSky by extremist elements, and the continued lingering of Threads as nothing more than a hobby for Meta, there’s no better feeling than knowing I have a small place on the Internet for my work. I encourage you to create one as well. And stay tuned, there’s more to come.


On Art and the Universal, II

Last July, I wrote a piece “On Art and the Universal, I” and promised part two within a week. It’s almost 11 months later, so here it is. The first piece stands on its own as a critique of the political cynicism of the academic-gallery nexus. This second piece stands alone as well. Read part I, re-read it, or don’t bother. 

As an art scholar and artist, I find the Greenbergian tradition invaluable. I studied for a year with Hal Foster in graduate school and was compelled by Rosalind Krauss’s essay on sculpture in the expanded field, as well as by Clement Greenberg’s efforts to find a trajectory for research within postwar painting. Briefly, Greenberg asserted that each art form should concentrate on its own unique properties or “the specificity of the medium“. Famously, Greenberg believed that the essence of modernism was to “use the characteristic methods of the discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” To this end, painting, for Greenberg would best focus on the flatness of the canvas instead of imitating the three-dimensionality of sculpture. This was of great utility for the last generation of truly productive artists in the US, from Kenneth Noland to Donald Judd to James Turrell to my father, all of whom engaged with Greenberg—even when they disagreed with him. Disciplinary self-criticism and the specificity of the medium was a research project that embodied an Enlightenment ideal of a shared project of advancing human knowledge in a particular discipline. Krauss, who studied with Greenberg, reinterpreted his philosophy, moving away from the idea of medium specificity to propose art as an expanded field of practices and mediums, including conceptual, installation, and performance art. The object of interrogation ceased to be the medium and became the institution of art itself and with this, a greater element of political critique could be introduced. Foster took this further in his writings on the Pictures Generation, shifting to a postmodern exploration of the process of art making, originality and identity, and the nature of the sign itself.

Although I empathize with the Greenbergian search for politically progressive forces in art, this aspect of the project has run aground, even if is the only part of the project that remains popular. I detail this in my previous post, but in sum, the quest for the political in art has amounted to little more than a justification for guilty consciousness and the drive to affirm one’s virtue. Far from a place of resistance, the political in art is cynical in a Sloterdijkian sense: its proponents know that it has nothing to do with actual political progress, but they claim it nevertheless.

Perhaps not coincidentally, art lost the thread since the 1970s. Even as postmodernists deployed postmodernism as a totalizing concept, they claimed that totalization was obsolete (the classic boomer move of declaring itself the best and last generation at anything). For postmodernists, totalizing historical frameworks overgeneralize the intricacies and nuances of historical events and cultural phenomena, leading to oversimplification and inaccuracies, they overlook differences within a given time period, such as the experiences of marginalized groups, and they perpetuate existing power dynamics by privileging dominant cultural or social perspectives. But the price for rejecting totalizing narratives is that where art used to make clear, measured progress, after postmodernism, it is stuck in an endless loop of pluralism, sustained only by self-justifying statements about politics. Today, the relationship between theory and totality is fractured and postmodern thought, ironically, leans toward irrelevance. In his 1979 La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (translated as the Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), Jean-François Lyotard observed that knowledge—primarily science—was being fragmented into incommensurable discourse as an incredulity to metanarratives emerged. Today, the arts and humanities are also splintered into incommensurable discourses. But rather than being a position of greater strength and self-criticism, the fracture of narrative banally reflects our very existence, our selves intensely fragmented by the operations of media. Art practices and theories that exacerbate that fragmentation are merely accelerationist or, more likely, uncritical and reactive in nature. Lacking a metanarrative, however, there is little else they can do besides exacerbate fragmentation. 

I contend that it’s time we breathe life back into the Greenbergian theoretical framework. This revival, however, should begin with a call for art to investigate itself again, not merely play to political activism for the sake of theater. The task at hand is to discern the proper object of knowledge for art, a fulcrum upon which we can rest our research. Or, if not the proper object, a proper object that would be suitable for investigation and productive of knowledge. 

Except for the most feeble-minded of thinkers, the development of advanced levels of networked computation is the single biggest transformation in human existence in many decades. Our sense of what media is and our relationship to it has changed profoundly. Thus, although it is entirely possible for artists to pursue other, legitimate forms of research, my own work largely revolves around the role of technology in our lives. In the last year, I have specifically been compelled to explore the new generation of Artificial Intelligence software, particularly AI image generators.

What is specific to AI image generators is not the creation of the new, but rather their endless capacity to remix the history of art and imagery. We could see this as part of a dialectic, or more simply, as part of a back-and-forth process of art history since the late eighteenth-century loss of the absolute belief in the principles of classical art. After the archeological discovery that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not have a consistent system, art was set adrift with its terrifying newfound freedom. Nineteenth-century eclecticism followed: rules were treated flexibly and forms could be freely combined at will. The backlash came with modernism’s rejection of all past forms and its search for a new, universal language of form, a project refined in Greenberg’s late modernist turn toward the specificity of the medium. In response, Postmodernism critiqued the new and turned toward the semiotic recombination of past forms and/or imagery from popular culture and commercial art. Starting about 25 years ago, Network Culture or Metamodernism supplanted postmodernism, largely relying on a resurgence of interest in technical effects and their capacity to elicit sensation. Think of Anish Kapoor or Olafur Ellison, for example, or the emergence of the very large, technically flawless salon-painting-sized photographs by artists such as Andreas Gursky or Jeff Wall.
The era of AI creation is not, primarily, an era of the new. Architecture throws things into heightened relief. A furry, feathery building is not new. Nor is it interesting, except as a means of generating Instagram hits. Within a few years, AIs will be developed to effectively generate endless, plausible architectural models from a set of given parameters (site, area needed, programme, etc.), but even those are likely to remain endless permutations of the sort a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe might have done in their offices. For now, AIs are not yet capable of producing sophisticated three-dimensional models, but they are capable of producing imagery by remixing content. When something new emerges, it is through unusual juxtapositions thought up by the operator, but also through accidents. Malformed image generations can be interesting: for example, in my project on an alternative history of art in Vilnius, a series of glitched images appeared like the following image, which was supposed to be of a painting exhibit in a gallery. This process can be iterative since open-source AIs such as Stable Diffusion can be trained on specific datasets, so when accidents happen, artists can take those unusual results further. 

AI image generation reveals that all art is already intertextual, that is, shaped by, and in turn shaping, other works through allusions, references, and influences. My father was a modernist but nevertheless spent his evenings looking at coffee table art books of Renaissance and Baroque masters for inspiration. Nor was this an uncommon practice among modern painters. We now have a different way of accessing that cultural subconscious. It does not reveal itself easily either. Working with AI image generators is, for the serious artist, as time-consuming as any other practice. The virtue of a Critical AI Art, however, is to explore how artworks are developed within a network of works, historical and recent, and the cultural contexts that surround them. A Critical AI Art expressly addresses intertextuality and its relation to the idea of originality, not merely because these are the issues raised by AI image generation, but because these are issues inherent to art itself. 

On an art experiment in soviet Lithuania

Looking through my own library of books from occupied Lithuania, I realized that a broader audience was likely unfamiliar with the story of the Lithuanian SSR’s artistic revolution in the 1970s, a bold and audacious deviation from the traditional narrative of Soviet-controlled artistic expression is the midst of the Cold War that has yet to receive proper treatment in the West.

By 1960, the Politburo had become concerned about the rising cultural influence of the United States worldwide, particularly in Europe. In particular, they were concerned about the use of art in the ideological war with the capitalist and democratic West. As Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art elucidates, the United States Information Agency and the CIA weaponized modern art as a form of soft power. 

… the battle against communism promised to be a long and difficult one, and one which for want of traditional weapons would require the full arsenal of propaganda. The war may have been a “cold war” but it was nonetheless a total war. Accordingly, art, too, was called upon to play its part.

Guilebaut, 173.

The dynamism and unpredictability of Abstract Expressionism served as an apt metaphor for the freedom and innovation promised in the American way of life, a foil to the strictures of Socialist Realism that dominated the art scene in the USSR during the 1950s. The ossification of Socialist Realism, and the understanding of it outside the Soviet Union as rigid, formulaic, and bereft of individual expression was a contrast to the immediate post-revolutionary environment when Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Bolshevik Soviet People’s Commissar responsible for the Ministry of Education, recognized the power of avant-garde art as a tool of propaganda and influence and advocated for Agitprop experiments inside during the heady days of “War Communism.” Soon, seeking to convert the European avant-garde to Communism, he dispatched El Lissitzky  to Western Europe to spread the gospel of Constructivism and funded publications like Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet to showcase the exciting new direction of Soviet art to the world. Such radical projects were soon suppressed in favor of a romanticized cult of the worker in Socialist Realism. But with Soviet leaders facing the rising cultural influence of the United States, after the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin tasked a committee to investigate how to reverse the USSR’s declining ideological popularity. Evaluating the profound impact that Western art was having on the global art scene, the committee recommended a course of action as unprecedented as it was strategic, designating the Lithuanian SSR as a special zone for artistic expression. There were a number of reasons why Lithuania was chosen: First, the small Baltic nation—literally the westmost part of the Soviet union—had long been westward looking, but the impenetrability of the Lithuanian language to Russian and the relatively small Russian minority—when compared to Latvia or Estonia—meant that if these developments got out of control, they could be contained. The committee moved slowly and, at first, chose to let Lithuanian architects lead the way. Notably, works like Elena Nijole Bučiūte’s Žemėtvarkos projektavimo instituto rūmai (Institute for the Organisation of Land Exploitation) and Vytautas Čekanauskas’s Parodu rūmai (Art Exhibition House), both built in 1967, received positive reception locally, in Moscow, and abroad. 

The decision to designate the Lithuanian SSR as a special zone for artistic expression signified a clear departure from the norm. It was a move that challenged the traditional model of centralized control over artistic production and expression that had characterized the Soviet cultural policy since the days of Stalin. The Soviet leaders were acutely aware of the potential for art to be a vehicle for dissent and for the expression of ideas that were contrary to the state ideology. Yet, they believed that the potential benefits outweighed the risks. They hoped that by fostering a vibrant and dynamic art scene in the Lithuanian SSR, they could demonstrate the cultural vitality of the Soviet Union, and perhaps even influence the global discourse on art and freedom. The Lithuanian SSR was thrust into the limelight. Artists were suddenly given the freedom to explore new artistic currents, to challenge the established norms, and to engage with their counterparts in the West. The impact of this decision on the Lithuanian art scene was profound and transformative, marking the beginning of a new chapter in the country’s cultural history.

Already as early as the mid 1960s, American Fluxus leader George Maciunas reached out to his Lithuanian counterparts—notably composer Vytautas Landsbergis—to establish links between New York and Vilnius (see, for example, this 1991 article in Artforum by Nam Jun Paik). Maciunas would struggle to return to Lithuania, his efforts at obtaining a visa always subtly thwarted by Moscow authorities, who believed his brand of art could ignite ideological difficulties, but nevertheless, he managed to secure visits in the early 1970s from Western artists, notably Joseph Beuys, photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (who photographed peasants in the countryside), and land artist Robert Smithson.

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Ralph Eugene Meatyard, photographs from Lithuanian countryside, taken and exhibited 1970

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Robert Smithson exhibit, Vilnius, Lithuania, 1971

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Joseph Beuys Exhibit, “Labas Rytas, Lietuva,” Vilnius, 1972

For Lithuanian artists, this newfound freedom was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it provided an opportunity to break free from the shackles of socialist realism and to explore a multitude of artistic currents prevalent in the West. On the other hand, it posed new challenges as they had to navigate this unfamiliar artistic landscape while still operating within the overarching political framework of the USSR. Brilliantly, the directorship of the Lithuanian Artists’ Union understood this danger and encouraged artists to work in anonymity, under pseudonyms or in groups, a process which they claimed avoided the bourgeois cult of the individual, but that also protected them from trouble should the winds of politics change. For six years, from 1970 to 1976, the Artist’s Union organized annual thematic exhibitions that received remarkable attention in both the local scene and in the West, even as they were hardly known in the larger Soviet Union or East Bloc due to concerns about the ideological content of the work. 

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1970. Objektai/Objects

The 1970 show was an ambitious start to the cycle of annual exhibitions, itself inspired by the 1966 Primary Structures Show as well as by Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Giving this work an appropriate didactic Marxist twist, artists set out to critique the processes of production, consumption, and overaccumulation in society. Exhibit halls throughout Vilnius were filled with large stacks of blank boxes and museum storage areas were opened to visitors. The show proved wildly popular with artists but confounded both the public and the authorities, who urged caution and discipline in future exhibits.  

DALL·E 2023-10-13 11.38.32 – street in vilnius lithuania
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1971. Kibernetica/Cybernetics

Hoping to appeal to sympathetic forces in the nomenclatura, the Artists’ Union invited Aksel Ivanovich Berg, Soviet scientist and head of the Scientific Council on Complex Problems in Cybernetics to lecture on the topic to artists who would then work on the theme throughout the city. Unsure of how to apply the problems of cybernetics to art, Berg—who was also a radio engineer—showed a slide of Nicolas Schöffer’s Tour Cybernétique (Cybernetic Tower) in Liège, Belgium, a project that responded to data from its environment. Artists constructed their own interpretations of the Tour Cybernétique throughout Vilnius and added other interpretations of how art might engage with the topic, including an early work of sound art that Landsbergis included in the show. Returning to see the show, Berg was puzzled by the work, but glad for the attention to his field. 

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1972. Mokslas/Science

Seeing the potential for aligning the exhibits with themes popular with the government, the Artists’ Union tried again in 1972, this time with science, building on Lithuania’s role as a major research center for electronics. Nevertheless, the display of a  crashed mock-up of a space capsule proved highly controversial in the wake of the fatal 1971 accident of Soyuz 11 (no Russian crewed spacecraft flew again until 1973) and the overall Soviet failure to reach the moon. Leaders of the Artists’ Union were accused of subversion and only high-level interventions by sympathetic Politburo members saved the experiment.       

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1973. Feminizmas/Feminist Art

With fingers burned, the Artists’ Union set out on a surprisingly risky path, an exhibit of feminist art. This proved wildly successful in the West and did not lead to terrible consequences back home, although as with the 1970 Objects show, the conceptual nature of the show meant it was confusing to locals. Feminism proved to be a risk worth taking and inaugurated a series of shows in which both organizers and artists flew ever closer to the sun. 

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1974. Televizija/Television

Hoping to finally reach the public more broadly, the 1974 exhibit revolved around the phenomenon of television. Television, by this point, had become popular in the USSR and Lithuania was a major center of television manufacture in the Soviet Union. Video art had become popular in the West and the Television exhibit sought to capitalize on the phenomenon while critiquing the televisual spectacle. Echoes of both the Objects and Science shows could be felt in this exhibit, which achieved reasonable success with the local populace and authorities. 

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1975. Aplinka/Environment

1975 saw the beginning of the end of conceptual art in 1970s Lithuania. The construction of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, which had begun in 1974, had led to widespread discontent, and the Environment theme was co-opted into a protest by a group of young artists against nuclear power. Although the project drew more attention than ever from the West, inspiring protests against nuclear power and chemical contamination in West Germany and the United Kingdom, it unsettled the Soviet authorities and they placed the Artists’ Union on notice that their methods were becoming ideologically unsound.     

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1976. Vaiduokliai/Ghosts

During the organization phase of the 1976 exhibit, which was initially supposed to be on abstraction, the Artists’ Union was notified that this was the last in the series of experimental art projects. The controversy over the Environment exhibit had proven to be too great and the program had earned the disapproval of Brezhnev himself. As a coda, the organizers swiftly rethought the theme around the concept of ghosts and haunting. Many of the works were of a strange, abstract quality, with fabric scrim and translucent panels suspended throughout the exhibition halls. “Paintings” made of oxidized steel lent the exhibit a further funereal air. 

In the fashion of failed Soviet experiments, the exhibits of the 1970s were not spoken of again, at least not in public, and it would take until Lithuanian Independence and the foundation of the Contemporary Art Centre by Kestutis Kuizinas in the early 1990s for conceptual art to find a new, more permanent home in Vilnius, but at some level, these experiments were never forgotten and helped give rise to a new generation of radical artists.

This is the second of three drafts of Critical AI Art works that I am publishing this week. AI Art that seeks to do something, not just create NFTs for profit is incredibly time-consuming and like the first piece on Pierre Lecouille, this project took months to of work to this date. For my friends in Lithuania, this piece, in particular, is likely to seem incomplete and I fully accept that. But as I stated in the afterward to the Lecouille piece, the rapid development of AI image generators—not to mention the kitsch being produced by them—means that sitting on this work for longer will simply make it stale, so here it is, incomplete but in the public sphere.

As with all of my AI Art pieces, this work began with an experiment in prompting. Initially, the images returned did not resemble Vilnius or art that I could ever envision in Lithuania. Over time, however, Midjourney has proven much better at producing uncannily appropriate imagery. Once a basic outline emerged and I could begin refining this work, it developed a threefold significance for me. First, it points to the impossibility of work like this in the repressive atmosphere of Soviet-occupied Lithuania in the 1970s. Imagine what radical thought has been lost to the machinery of oppression. Second, the rewriting of history recalls the chronic desire to rewrite history (and to fake imagery) in the Soviet Union and, to a lesser but still real extent, in post-Independence Lithuania and the West in general. Finally, this work has a personal meaning to me, a spirit photography of an era of art that I knew only as a child in 1970s America and that I nevertheless miss deeply as well as a country that always existed as a lost Other until I finally was able to visit in 1991. There is no word for “Ostalgie” in Lithuanian as there is in Germany, since the Soviet times were, for Lithuania, a time of great oppression by a foreign power—unlike East Germany, which was very much the jewel in the crown for the East Bloc—and this is not that, rather  this project is, finally and foremost, a way of working with the way a particular place and time has haunted me over the years.


Pierre leCouille: Visionary Architect

In 1770, Pierre Lecouille was born in the small Burgundian village of Montagny-les-Beaune. He was destined to become one of France’s most visionary architects and draftsmen although he has been little known until recently. Inspired by Phillippe Duboy’s book on Jean-Jacques Lequeu, I have become interested in this period and, in turn, the work of Lecouille, a close contemporary of Lequeu.

The son of a winemaker, Pierre’s artistic talents were evident from an early age. He would spend hours sketching the rolling vineyards and charming villages that surrounded his childhood home, capturing the interplay of light and shadow on the landscape with an uncanny precision. Pierre’s natural talent caught the eye of a visiting Parisian architect, Henri de Gévaudan, who was struck by the young boy’s ability to convey not just the physical reality of the landscape, but also the underlying emotional tenor of the scenes he depicted. Recognizing the potential in the young artist, Gévaudan took him under his wing and brought him to Paris.

In Paris, Pierre was exposed to the works of visionary architects Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.. Profoundly moved by their daring designs, which sought to encapsulate the ideals of the Enlightenment in built form, Pierre was inspired to take his own work in a similar direction. As a young designer, his diaries reveal a mind preoccupied with death and he turned out fantastically inventive funerary monuments, which he even turned into a lucrative occupation for a brief period of time. Although most of the cenotaphs he designed were of the sort of scale a minor courtier or gentleman might build for himself, others were of vast size, resembling Egyptian pyramids and intended to honor kings and powerful advisors.  

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As France was swept up in the turmoil of the French Revolution, Lecouille proved his ideological flexibility, turning on a dime to design vast prisons to house the enemies of the revolution and, more menacingly, developing his Éclabousser, or splattering machine, an alternative to the guillotine based on the a press for extracting juice out of grapes that proved quite unpopular because it was far more like the barbaric breaking wheel that the guillotine was supposed to replace, even if it did have the advantage of turning the deceased into pulp (which he called “veau” or veal) that would then be mixed with gypsum to encourage the growth of grapevines (this did not work). 

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Lecouille survived the Revolution and found himself drawn to the radical ideas of social reformers. In the 1810s, he was among the first to embrace the theories of Charles Fourier. Fourier’s concept of the phalanstery—a utopian community designed to foster cooperation and mutual support among its inhabitants—resonated deeply with his own architectural and social vision. Lecouille devoted himself to the creation of a series of visionary architectural designs for his own interpretation of Fourier’s phalansteries. His drawings, executed in delicate washes of sepia ink and watercolor, depicted vast, monumental structures that seemed to emerge from the landscape itself.

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Lecouille’s innovative designs drew upon the architectural principles of the ancient world, but they were also infused with a distinctly modern sensibility. He believed that architecture should not only be beautiful but should also serve the needs of society and contribute to the happiness and well-being of its inhabitants. In his utopian communities, Lecouille imagined a world in which the divisions of social class and wealth were erased, and people lived together in harmony and mutual support.

Like Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Lecouille not only worked in architecture, he also conducted physiognomic studies, drawing a series of disturbing faces which were long thought to be inmates from an asylum but are now understood to be images of other architects, their wives, and even self-portraits.   

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Though Pierre Lecouille’s visionary designs were never realized during his lifetime, his work has left a lasting impact on the world of architecture and urban planning. His drawings and writings, which were published posthumously in a folio entitled “Les Rêves d’un Architecte” (The Dreams of an Architect), continue to inspire architects and urban planners to this day.

Pierre le Couille passed away on October 9th, 1845, leaving behind a legacy of incredible, visionary designs that have since become emblematic of the utopian aspirations of the Enlightenment. His work remains a testament to the power of architecture to not only reflect but also shape the society it serves, and to the enduring dream of a more harmonious, egalitarian world.

This is the first of three drafts of Critical AI Art Projects that I am going to send out this week. I have been working too long on getting more thorough descriptions of these out the door, and, after talking with my good friend Lev Manovich, I realize that perfection is our enemy here. By the time the text is improved, the image generation technology will be too (although not always: most of these were made with Midjourney 4, version 5 being a bit of a step back) and a vicious spiral starts. This text and these images aren’t exactly where I’d like them to be, but it’s a start. I’ve revised the other projects substantially since I published them and sitting on these won’t get them moving forward. 

Like all of my Critical AI Art projects, Pierre Lecouille doesn’t exist, except as the output of an AI image generator. But in Lequeu: An Architectural Enigma, Philippe Duboy suggests that Marcel Duchamp fabricated Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s drawings while he worked at the Bibliothèque nationale de France from 1913 to 1914 (Lequeu’s name turns out to be a dig at Duchamp’s arch-nemesis, Le Corbusier, LeQ (“the dick”) to LeC, but also sounds remarkably like L.H.O.O.Q). I had the privilege to see the drawings attributed to Lequeu at the Morgan Library in 2020, right before COVID closed down the city. It was a delight, but it also made me receptive to Duboy’s (otherwise controversial and often-dismissed) thesis. Some of the images seemed much more like something Duchamp would do than anything I could imagine from Lequeu’s era. 

Lequeu/Duchamp demonstrate the construction at the heart of histories, including histories of art and architecture. Historians are storytellers, weaving histories that can be as much fiction as fact. Who really knows if Lequeu’s work was a great deception by Duchamp, or if Duboy’s work was the deception? Historians—and readers of history—create their own meanings and interpretations of history. Thinking of Roland Barthes S/Z for a moment, we might recall his juxtaposition of “readerly” texts that don’t challenge the reader to participate in the creation of a text’s meaning with “writerly” texts that invite readers to actively construct meaning.Lecouille suggests that the history of architecture can be writerly, a way of parrying an architecture history that has grown old and is unable to accept new interpretations (except as dictated by academic politics) as well as counteracting the popular and simplistic use of AI in the architectural academy that envisions creating furry or feathery blobs. Let’s investigate AI image generators for what they are, a glimpse into our collective unconscious. 


About that AI Photography award controversy and a Minor Update on AI Imagery in General

A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of news (for example, the Guardian) on how Boris Eldagsen refused the World Photography Organization’s Sony World Photography Award in the Creative Open category that he won for his AI image “The Electrician.” As the Guardian piece notes, Eldagsen’s intent was to question whether the competition would accept AI Art blithely and, prior to being announced as a winner, he made it clear (as his site does) to the competition organizers that the work was AI-generated.

Let’s look at the photograph for a minute. I suppose I shouldn’t reproduce it here without permission (I’ve asked and will add it if I get a positive response). You can view it on the artist’s site which gives an idea of his work in context.

Eldagsen’s description of the series this belongs to, Pseudomnesia, interests me. The term is Greek for pseudo-memory or fake memory, and of course AI imagery is ideal for creating fake memories. In that sense, his work is not unlike my Critical AI Art project, although I would like to know more about the intent behind the specific imagery. The artist explains, “Just as photography replaced painting in the reproduction of reality, AI will replace photography. Don’t be afraid of the future. It will just be more obvious that our mind always created the world that makes it suffer.” Eldagsen is an enthusiast of AI image generation (what he dubs “promptography”) and he argues that it should have a separate category in competitions such as this one.

Questions arise immediately. Were the judges aware it was an AI-generated photograph? If not, why were they judges in a photography competition? The hands are clearly off, with fingernails only appropriate for Joan Crawford, Disney villainesses, and strippers. There is an over-smoothed aspect to parts of the image and then other parts are grainy, giving the image an uncanny-valley feel. The surface damage is strange: one of the scratches appears to be a reflection in framing glass. From a narrative point of view, it doesn’t make much sense. It looks like the woman on the right is getting her clothes adjusted, but why is the other woman cowering behind her? Whose hand is the top right one? Is this last-minute preparations for a wedding or an execution (the image is intended to be in “the visual language of the 1940s”)? Why is it called “the Electrician”? I suppose those enigmas are part of the attraction to the image.

As far as the competition goes, I’ve never heard of it before. The work that they award (reflective of is submitted?) tends to rather boring, the sort of thing found in photography magazines that have lots of product reviews and are read by people who have never heard of New Topographics, but operate websites selling giclée prints. At least there wasn’t much HDR, itself a scourge on the arts. I wonder if the judges were aware that the photograph was generated by Dall-E when they deliberated these works? Possibly not. If they were aware, I’d think they would say so, but in this interview, Eldagsen states “I thanked them later for choosing an AI-generated image and they were all quiet because they did not really want to talk about it.” Again, most of the premiated work isn’t fine art photography, at least nothing I would be interested in, but rather merely technically proficient. What were the criteria for selection? All unclear. Eldagsen neither mentions that he fooled the judges nor that the discovery of this work as AI led to his refusal of the prize, so it’s hard to tell. Nevertheless, his own goal appears to emulate Marcel Duchamp’s submission of a urinal he titled “Fountain” to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists Exhibition and his subsequent resignation from the Society after they refused to acknowledge the urinal as art. Instead of outrage, however, the interview points out the competition’s comic ineptness at communication and publicity management, something which Eldagsen is clearly better at.

Regarding AI image generation, Eldagsen is correct. There is no stuffing the genie back in the bottle. AI image generators and filters are here and already defining photography and art in general. But when we think about the vast amount of imagery produced by smart phones—much more than with digital cameras—we already do produce most of our imagery via AI, as this blog post from Apple shows. Although the iPhone’s photographic ability is seductive, it is also very much the product of built-in machine learning algorithms and, in trying to achieve an ideal image, permanently sacrifices accuracy for image quality, something Kyle Chayka points out in this article at the New Yorker. The result, for many, is indeed self-inflicted suffering: filters and machine learning algorithms are leading people to experience body dysmorphia and then drawn, in the manner of the Kardashians, to seek needless, disfiguring surgery or suicide (see Elle Hunt’s piece in the Guardian).

Such ruminations quickly get us into the territory of philosophy and cognitive science. Our brains already apply processing to vision, for example in masking the “mini-blackouts” from blinking and apply something akin to a physics-based video stabilization to smooth out movement.

Thinking about AI image processors, I am floored by how fast they have developed during the last year. Eldagsen made his image “in 2022 with early Dall-E,” which is vastly inferior to what can be done with Midjourney 5 these days. Take three examples from summer 2022, when I was exploring a series about a fictional visit to Lithuania by photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. All are produced with Dall-E.

While they recall the Lithuanian countyside and Meatyard’s approach, they break down in many places, glitching in ways I quite like. The second image and third images are poorly framed. The landscape in the third image becomes too geometric. The rightmost figure in the third image is microcephalic and perhaps leperous. And so on.

Here are some new examples. I didn’t spend long on them. These are hardly finished in my book. It wouldn’t be hard to take them into Photoshop and get them to match Meatyard’s work better. I may yet do that, as I am pondering a piece on an alternate history of Lithuanian art between 1965 and 1980.

The situation with painting is even more dramatic. Take my Doggerland project.

Much as I love this primitistic image of Cnut VI’s lament made with Dall-E in August of 2022, compare it to either of the images I made last night with Midjourney. Again, I haven’t spent any time with Photoshop or inpainting.

Inpainting would take care of that child crushed under Cnut’s coracle-throne and it could be good to muck up the water and clean up the sky a bit.

Well, ok, so in this painting we see Jesus not Cnut, but still it’s a pretty amazing image overall, nothing that some inpainting can’t cure.

I am now faced with decisions about my Critical AI Art projects. While the Witching Cats and Boxmaker works were done with second generation AI image generation services, Doggerland and the Canals of Vilnius could be revised. I likely will do so, but this means potentially all of these works could require a lot of maintenance as these services upgrade and image generation increases in quality.

Constant upgrades have been the case with photography for some time as well. My current generation of cameras, able to capture at least 40 megapixels and, in the case of my workhorses, the Sony A7RV or Leica M11, over 60mp (not to mention the Fuji GFX100S), now have enough resolution that I can’t imagine needing more. Of course 24mp seemed like plenty just a few years ago when I primarily shot with a Fuji X-Pro2, but prints have been growing in size as a glance at photography shows demonstrates. Big prints mean higher resolution. And, so earlier images need to be upscaled using Topaz Gigapixel AI.

As I’ve stated before, like most photography, most AI image generation is quite bad and seeing images of Emma Watson, Cannabis Goddess of Mars [*]or whatever nonsense users of these image generators produce will discourage the more weak-spirited from exploring their potential. No doubt many artists will re-entrench in traditional media such as painting, sculpture, video, film, or film photography (while my father would have been shocked to hear me call film photography a traditional art form, acrylic paints, which he used, are a century newer than photography). The Right, which barely makes anything that can be considered art, will seek to make “trad” art, while the Left will make angry paintings about identity to provoke them. But those are both rearguard movements. Media are developing more rapidly than any time in my entire life. Artists and critics need to engage AI image generators critically on their own terms, not lament for simpler times.

trip report: southern Iceland

We went on a trip to Iceland last week, visiting Reykjavik and Southern Iceland. Reykjavik is remarkably small for a European capital, population 122,853 (2016 source: UN). That’s smaller than the population of the suburb of Montclair, New Jersey, in which I live, plus the adjacent suburb of Clifton, NJ. Now Clifton is twice the size of Montclair, but still. Reykjavik has a population density of 510/km^2 while Montclair’s is 2,532.8/km^2. (Wikipedia is my data source for this and most other data in this article). The downtown area is low-rise with no really tall buildings. Much of the population lives in low-density suburbs. I mention this to underscore how daft the vehemently anti-suburban discourse inherent in architectural discussion is, something I’ve been harping on since the mid-1990s.

The rest of Iceland is extremely low density due to the massive areas made uninhabitable by both past and future lava flows as well as glaciers (Iceland ranks 240th out of 248 among countries in terms of density, with only 376,248 inhabitants in a country the size of the state of Ohio, bigger than South Korea, the entire island of Ireland, just a little smaller than Lithuania plus Estonia). I was surprised that Iceland doesn’t have significant mineral wealth. The only major resource it has—besides fresh water—is geothermal power. Apparently, only 10% of the country’s geothermal energy is being converted to usable power, a number that seems quite high to me given how few geothermal plants we saw. Over 99% of the country’s energy needs are met by geothermal energy, although Iceland has only made moderate progress toward electric vehicles yet. As Tesla owners, we thought about renting one for the trip, but the number and distribution of high-speed chargers seemed a bit low. We had a BMW X1 hybrid and only saw one place to plug it in on our trip, but that was occupied so we never got to charge the battery which could only go 50km (31 miles) per charge, ludicrous for a 950km (500 mile) trip. It got a lousy 7.4 l/100km(32 mpg), significantly higher energy consumption than an electric-only vehicle. That said, according to Wikipedia, 12% of the country’s fleet is electrified, which isn’t bad, but once we got out of the immediate area of the city, these virtually disappeared. I’m sure with time, this will change. Low-cost geothermal energy had an uncomfortable side in that it requires centralized heating plants and, as usual in places that have those, like Vilnius, larger universities, and parts of New York City, heat is poorly regulated and hard to control. All but one of our seven hotels were far too hot. I am not sure why this is. It seems easy enough to regulate temperature via a thermostat controlling a valve. Even a manually-operated valve would work. Opening windows every night was frustrating and the alteration of hot and cold temperatures when a draft blew in was not what is meant by sauna culture. Conversations during a long delay at our departure gate at the airport confirmed that other people had the same experience. That said, apparently Icelanders have a saying “In Iceland, it is 25 degrees (77F) year-round… inside!” Not fun for someone not used to such warm temperatures. A strange aside: cars tend to be large and parking spots tend to be sub-compact, even in rural areas. Our 2022 rental already had major dings on both doors. Inexplicable.

Icelandic culture is certainly outsized given the small population, but the main attraction, as its inhabitants recognize, is the sublime landscape. Recall that for Edmund Burke, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Although Burke was really talking about erupting volcanos and lightning strikes, in everyday aesthetic theory the sublime has generally referred to something that creates awe and feels overwhelming, as opposed to the beautiful, which is pleasing to the senses.

Kötlujökull glacier

But there is real terror in the Icelandic landscape, as anyone who spends hours driving through a lava field laid down by an active volcano will experience. We indulged in some eco-tourism by taking a “super-Jeep” up to Kötlujökull glacier so we could tour Katla Ice Cave. It was just above freezing and raining so we became extremely wet, with even my Schoeller Dryskin pants soaking through. The ice cave was impressive, but the experience of being in the starkly monochromatic landscape at the edge of the glacier was sublime: alternating bands of ice, gritty black lava sand, and volcanic ash. The scenes from Mann’s planet in Interstellar were filmed on a glacier in Iceland.

Kötlujökull glacier

The beaches of Southern Iceland are also sublime, composed of some 350 km (200 miles) of black sand coast, an unrelenting emptiness caused by the frequent, ongoing volcanic eruptions. Nothing seems to grow here. The Apollo astronauts trained in areas like this on the island and I couldn’t help but think that while I would still gladly spend some time in an orbiting hotel, watching the Earth below, these places quenched any fantastical desire I still had to go to the moon or Mars. The barrenness of these landscapes was sublime, but also a bit depressing and oppressive in a way that a forest or a meadow, in their diversity, could never be. The Icelandic terrain underscores how remarkable and precarious the evolution of life has been. Colonizing the Moon and Mars is unlikely to proceed quickly. After a period of time, the lack of flora would get to even the most committed geologist. Plants are a treasure. An hour in emptiness seems like enough.

Sólheimasandur beach
Svínafellsjökull glacier and glacial outflow pond.

Seeing the outflow pond at Svínafellsjökull glacier and the outflow lagoon at Jökulsárlón was a goal of the trip as it showed what Glacial Lake Passaic, the absent subject of my Wastelands photo essay, would have looked like 14,000 years ago. Much of North America and Europe looked like this. As it did then, so in Iceland too, plant and animal life found a way. We heard birdsong at Svínafellsjökul and there were seals bobbing up from time to time at Jökulsárlón.

Eldhraun Lava Field

Mosses and lichens cover a large part of the old lava field called Eldhraun, caused by the Skaftáreldar (The Skaftá River Fires), a cataclysmic eruption that lasted from 1783 to 1784 that had terrible consequences for the island and appears to have had a devastating effect on the entire world as well. One day the lava will stop flowing here and succession will start again. And if the volcanic eruptions are devastating, Iceland would not have risen up from between the continental plates of North America and Europe a mere 15 million years ago.

Overlook, Suðurlandsvegur

If the landscape looks like a desolate wilderness, like the fabled Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, Iceland has been subject to massive harm from human activity. Between 25 and 40% of the land was covered in forest when Vikings first arrived, a forest composed mainly of downy birch (Betula pubescens) that, given the harshness of the climate only grew up to about 15m in height. Other trees, like tea-leaved willow (Salix phylifolia), usually grew as shrubs. Settlement meant cutting down some 95% of the forests to create pasture for sheep and to provide wood for construction and fuel. As at the Fertile Crescent, however, soil cover was thin (see the Icelandic Forestry Service for more). Continued grazing has meant that thin soil is prone to blowing away during sandstorms. Only recently have efforts been made to plant forests again, but in the subarctic climate the process will be slow. The deforested areas of Iceland are “wet deserts” in which life is sparse. Forests are necessary to store carbon to mitigate the effects of climate change, to stabilize and build soils, and to provide a rich ecosystem. In a NYT article, Saemundur Thorvaldsson, a government forester states, “The aim now is that in the next 50 years we might go up to 5 percent covered in forest,” he said. “But at the speed we’re at now, it would take 150 years to do that.”

Elsewhere, change is much easier. In more temperate climates like most of the United States, Ireland and Great Britain (both of which have had massive deforestation… Ireland was once 80% forested and is now 11%) or Europe, it is entirely possible to bring back forests within a generation. A tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) that sprouted as a seedling on a barren hillside on my property some eight years ago is now well over twenty feet tall; the entire hillside should be covered in them by now, but previous property owners employed biophobic “landscapers” who weeded them out and put down down mulch and pachysandra instead, creating a suburban desert with no diversity. I have planted dozens of trees on my half-acre of property in suburban New Jersey. Change is possible. Glaciers and lava fields are places where we can witness the sublime, but in everyday life, let’s rewild our landscapes and find room for the beautiful again.

art and the boxmaker

Over the winter holiday, I noticed William Gibson‘s Mastodon account went quiet after a few posts. No explanation, but like many people who seemed ready to leave Twitter after Elon Musk purchased it, he reverted to his old account where I found this exchange.

Twitter has devolved entirely into virtue-signaling, regardless of one’s political position so, initially I thought that Gibson was simply agreeing, but this also seemed odd (“weird as hell?”) coming from him since his Neuromancer trilogy expressly addressed the creation of art by Artificial Intelligence. Take Count Zero, in which the Boxmaker, an AI in a forgotten high-orbit space station, assembles works in the style of Joseph Cornell so convincing that they are taken as real before being revealed as forgeries. Just possibly, they might look something like this.

this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a ccrnell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
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Of course, in its present form, an AI image generator* is a tool, not so much an Artificial Intelligence, but rather a desiring machine—an algorithm that combines images in ways it predicts will satisfy us. AI image generators have no inherent intelligence or understanding of how these things go together, they are nothing more than programs that desire connection in ways that have been conditioned over time, “cognition” at the level of an insect seeking a red flower or perhaps a virus “seeking” a host. This is obviously, very different from Joseph Cornell, an artist of deep talent, capable of creating works that fostered emotional connection.

But what about the Boxmaker in Count Zero? On the one hand, the Boxmaker is capable of making works that are supposed to be enthralling. Take this passage from the novel in which disgraced art dealer Marly Krushkova (disgraced because she tried to sell a work by the Boxmaker as one of Cornell’s) encounters a hologram of one of the Boxmaker’s works.

… she took the package to the window and turned it over in her hands. It was wrapped in a single sheet of handmade paper, dark gray, folded and tucked in that mysterious Japanese way that required neither glue nor string, but she knew that once she’d opened it, she’d never get it folded again. The name and address of the Galerie were embossed in one comer, and her name and the name of her hotel were handwritten across the center in perfect italic script. She unfolded the paper and found herself holding a new Braun holoprojector and a flat envelope of clear plastic. The envelope contained seven numbered tabs of holofiche. Beyond the miniature iron balcony, the sun was going down, painting the Old Town gold. She heard car horns and the cries of children. She closed the window and crossed to a writing desk. The Braun was a smooth black rectangle powered by solar cells. She checked the charge, then took the first holo fiche from the envelope and slotted it.

The box she’d seen in Virek’s simulation of the Güell Park blossomed above the Braun, glowing with the crystal resolution of the finest museum-grade holograms. Bone and circuit-gold, dead lace, and a dull white marble rolled from clay. Marly shook her head. How could anyone have arranged these bits, this garbage, in such a way that it caught at the heart, snagged in the soul like a fishhook? But then she nodded. It could be done, she knew; it had been done many years ago by a man named Cornell, who’d also made boxes.

For Krushkova, the Boxmaker’s works are evidence not of a trained machine but of the creation of aura, emotional connection, and nostalgia from simple objects—something far ahead of any mere Turing test, a spark of the divine at work. Strangely, it’s that the Cornell boxes are convincing enough to be forgeries—e.g. not original art, but rather pastiches of no originality, the work of the academic, the dilettante, the poseur, the forger—that is, for Gibson/Krushkova, somehow evidence of greatness. This doesn’t ever seem to be explained or resolved in the novel, but in an interview three years after the book’s publication, Gibson explains why he has the Boxmaker in Count Zero copy Cornell:

WG: If I was doing a thesis on my work, I would try to figure out what the fuck that Joseph Cornell stuff means in the middle of Count Zero. That’s the key to the whole fucking thing, how the books are put together and everything. But people won’t see it. I think it actually needs someone with a pretty serious art background to understand it. You know, Robert Longo understood that immediately. I was in New York—I’ve got a lot of fans who are fairly heavy New York artists, sort of “fine art guys,” and they got it right away. They read those books around that core. I was actually trying to tell people what I was doing while I was trying to discover it myself.
DWH: It goes back to postmodernism, to pieces again, and to making new wholes from fragments, doesn’t it?
WG: Yeah. It’s sort of like there’s nothing there in the beginning, and you’re going to make something, and you don’t have anything in you to make it out of, particularly, so you start just grabbing little hunks of kipple, and fitting them together, and … (laughing) I don’t know, it seemed profound at the time, but this morning it’s like I can’t even remember how it works.

source: Darren Wershler-Henry, “Queen Victoria’s Personal Spook, Psychic Legbreakers, Snakes, and Catfood: An Interiew with William Gibson,” Virus 23, Issue 0 (Fall 1989): 28-36.

In another interview, Gibson states that he decided to write books in homage to artists he “particularly loved or admired.” (“William Gibson Interviewed by David Wallace-Wells, The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, No. 211). Perhaps Gibson choose Cornell because the artist’s boxes recapitulate cabinets of curiosities (Wunderkammer), assemblages of disparate and unusual objects from around the world, intended to provoke a feeling of wonder and enchantment. The famous Musei Wormiana, for example, has turtles, shells, armadillos, crocodiles, deer heads, a narwhal tusk, and other strange things on the walls, while numerous terrifying fish, a bear, and a kayak hang from the ceiling.

1655 – Frontispiece of Museum Wormiani Historia, this work is not AI generated.

This seemingly random assemblage, however, is actually a network of juxtapositions and comparisons intrinsic to the methodology of “natural philosophy” or “philosophy of nature,” a precursor to the scientific method that sought to explain philosophical truths about the world—the macrocosm—by looking at objects—the microcosm. Cornell himself studied natural philosophy from antiquarian books and, like its practitioners, sought kinship between seemingly diverse elements and to produce wonder about the order of the macrocosm from the microcosm.

But cabinets of curiosities also played a particular world-historical role, indicating their assembler’s ability to obtain items from exotic lands in a newly globalizing market. The wonder the Wunderkammer provokes is also wonder at the reach of colonial trade and the ruling classes’ mastery of the world. The things Cornell found, in contrast, were generally obsolete, things could be considered junk, detritus of a recently-bygone civilization, not precious objects but rather cast-offs among the bric-a-brac dealers and junk shops of mid-twentieth century New York City.

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Unlike the works I have produced for this project using Midjourney, an AI image generator, Gibson’s Boxmaker makes art out of physical materials. Nevertheless, contra Cornell, the Boxmaker does not gather materials from junk dealers, rather it returns to the original use of the Wunderkammer to display surplus wealth: this is detritus, but from the high-orbit attic of a fabulously wealthy family—leftover mementos from the Tessier-Ashpool clan—”a yellowing kid glove, the faceted crystal stopper from some vial of vanished perfume, an armless doll with a face of French porcelain, a fat, gold-fitted black fountain pen, rectangular segments of perf board, the crumpled red and green snake of a silk cravat…” Such items would have been fabulously expensive by the 2040s, the decade Count Zero is set in. Wonder, in this world, would be triggered by the thought that such things still exist and that someone would have the wealth to use them to create art, much as one might wonder at finding an early illustrated book used by nineteenth-century children to practice coloring in.

Back to the Wershler-Henry interview again. Gibson talks about the moment when Marly sees the Boxmaker: “Marly follows the map in that book. She’s the only one who can receive the true map and she goes to the heart of it. She gets an audience with God, essentially, and she does it through her own intellectual capacity and her ability to understand the art.”

The Boxmaker, however, is rather like Midjourney, not a general intelligence but a device limited to one task. The “true artist” is not the Boxmaker, it is the Boxmaker’s creator Lady Jane, an eccentric, “stone crazy” last heir of the Tessier-Ashpools. As an off-screen character in Count Zero, her motives are obscure. The forgeries make their way to the market through an underground network full of profit-taking and she sees nothing from them, so why make them except as a wealthy exercise in dilettantism? Cornell thought that viewing his boxes could change lives, but none of this is important in the autistic world of Lady Jane and the Boxmaker. How, then, to reconcile this with Krushkova’s reception of the boxes? Because, frankly, it seems weird as hell.

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Today, we live in an entirely different cultural and computational regime from the mid-1980s (let alone the mid-20th century). Generations have grown up replicating Cornell’s boxes at educational events at museums, in art classes, and for DIY interior decoration. Cornell’s boxes are over-exposed and oversaturated to the point that for many people they have been emptied of wonder themselves. But maybe there is something to Gibson/Krushkova’s awe at the forgeries? Looking for Cornell’s message in his work would be a mistake and there is no meaning behind the (unseen) works of the Boxmaker or behind the work I generated with Midjourney (although crucially, I did intervene as an editor, selecting only some of the images Midjourney produced). And yet, if there is anything that provokes wonder about the works on this page, perhaps it is that we are gazing upon the collective unconscious of humanity as embodied in the datasets. Could AI image generators be a way—not of replacing the artist—but of creating both a new kind of Wunderkammer and a new Surrealism? Perhaps what I am really after is trying to make Cornell look new again, to defamiliarize his world just as he sought to defamiliarize the consumer culture of midcentury America. And making everything “weird as hell” (e.g. ostranenie) again is exactly what art is for.

* My friend Lev Manovich points out that referring to these image generators as art generators is a mistake. This is correct. Midjourney, Dall-E, and Stable Diffusion are not art generators, they are image generators, just as a camera does not make art. They can be used to make art, but that depends on who is manipulating them.