The Obscure Object of (A) I

| David Pledger
 + Address To The Nations, Tomorrow’s Pasts  briggsnpledger, 2023.

The Obscure Object of (A) I

The Obscure Object Of (A) I | David Pledger

Riding the Artificial Intelligence (AI) roller-coaster as an artist requires deep, long breaths to stay in the flow-state of ‘not-knowing’. As AI’s growth rate powers-up from the mathematical to the exponential—and as artificial intelligence moves closer to artificial general intelligence—artistic ideas that seemed frontier a moment ago are suddenly obscured in the rear-view mirror. Mid-2022, I conceived of creating an avatar, 2025 AD, to take over the administrative reins of my company, the inter-disciplinary arts outfit, not yet it’s difficult (NYID) by 2025. Last December, in the first blush of ChatGPT, we publicly announced the ‘appointment’. Eight months on, I catch a fleeting glimpse of the idea in said rear-view mirror. It’s not that we won’t persevere with the appointment, but in the shortest time and with subsequent AI releases, 2025 AD has become more concrete than concept.


At ANAT’s Spectra :: Multiplicity last year, the artist Baden Pailthorpe spoke of ‘working at the speed of trust’ as a foundational principle of the collaborative practice he shares with palawa~trawlwoolway woman, Professor Angie Abdilla and Adnyamathanha/Narungga man, former elite athlete Adam Goodes on their Tracker Data Project. It reverberated around the room. But how do you work at the speed of trust when it feels like technological progress is happening at the speed of light? Our dramaturgies—our artistic operating systems—feel like they are in a state of turbulence. It’s as if the mirror that we have used to make sense of ourselves has atomised, and a high-order algorithm is configuring a new kind of mirror requiring a vision no person has yet maturated, creating a future in which our reflection is no longer the object but the subject and no longer singular, but refracted in infinite ways.

So, when we look in that mercurially formulating ‘mirror’ what does it tell us about the meanings, ideas and stories in our world, today?

For 2025 AD, we consulted ChatGPT to map out various futures for NYID if the company was under the supervision of an advanced AI (in these scenarios the AI is called AI-X). In one future, NYID will become ‘a soulless platform, reduced to a tool for AI-X's machinations.’ In another, the company ‘flourished as an embodiment of AI-X's high-order consciousness, where art and technology harmoniously coexisted to enhance human connection and nurture empathy.’ In both predictions, and despite different prompts, we have been subsumed by or absorbed into futures that are not so familiar, and in which we no longer have agency.

Alongside 2025 AD, I am co-developing a multi-platform concept, Tomorrow’s Pasts, building alternate histories as a strategy to imagine and create just and sustainable futures with my friend and long-time collaborator, Wurundjeri/Yorta Yorta actor and curator, Tony Briggs. AI sits at our making table as both a co-agent to consult on history-making and as a tool generating text, image and sound. As a collaborator, AI predicts answers to our requests about histories that have not yet happened but could have if certain critical, past events were subtly changed. In Tomorrow’s Pasts, AI operates as one of numerous dramaturgical strategies we employ. As a tool, we have used many AI programs including Midjourney, Eleven Labs, D-ID and Unreal Engine to generate new, static and animated images in response to our prompts and inputs. Here, AI tools are embedded in a collaborative artistic process which feels at once like a familiar strategy and a new skill that we are learning.

Where it becomes sticky is in the realisation that we are not making anything new but manifesting outputs from a phenomenal aggregate of information gleaned from the internet.  A super-highway of data that represents a significant proportion of humanity’s output underwritten with biases from the dominant hegemony: a predominantly white, male, imperialist, patriarchal, fundamentalist capitalism. We are constructing from an image that we all recognise even if we don’t all see ourselves in it. And every time we prompt the AI, our very questions become data for the machine.

For artists this is where it becomes even stickier. The data that is underwriting AI-generated media represents the biggest act of the exploitation of artists’ work in human history. These massive, machine learning language models have vacuumed up all our work, all the work of those who have come before us and quite possibly all that will follow without any financial acknowledgement (or even attribution) that reflects the blood, sweat and tears that went into its making. The visceral artistic experience is wholly unfamiliar to any artificial intelligence so it holds no meaning until a human intervenes in the program. And when that happens, the line between subject and object, generator and creator, blurs.

Our boundaries of perception are collapsing at a rate commensurate to that of the natural world. Which is unsurprising because they are profoundly linked. AI’s progress is directly proportional to the devastation of the planet accelerated in part by the massive increases to energy use required. The ironies fold in on each other, creating interleaving patterns, crashing effects and cascading existential crises, which connect technology to the environment and our physiology to physics. We are spiralling into a metaphysical black hole.

As my artistic projects have developed, my understanding of AI has morphed into a realisation that artificial intelligence is an ‘interface’ mediating the positive and negative aspects of its use. These aspects mirror each other in the contexts of artistic dramaturgy, exploitation of labour and the climate emergency. It shares characteristics with the system that spawned it, neoliberal capitalism, which over the last decade slowly transmuted from ideology to interface demanding we see something of ourselves in every transaction, activating a vanity, a deep narcissism that compels ongoing consumption. The subject is/eats/becomes the object. There is no reflection.

If today, we feel a gravitational pull to a future where there is no one looking in the mirror only people and machines looking out then that feels like the closed loop of an evolutionary stage. However, this future is not inevitable. In any given moment there is never one future, only multiple futures. And the futures of tomorrow will be very different from today. The task of the artist is to keep the future guessing, and to do this we must employ a dramaturgy that refuses certainty. It is in the state of not-knowing that we do our best work and where we are of most use to each other and this incredible planet.

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Art + Australia ISSN 1837-2422