one of my students inspired me to look into an image generation software, Midjourney. their website blurb states: “Midjourney is an independent research lab exploring new mediums of thought and expanding the imaginative powers of the human species.” now, i’ll buy the expanding imaginative powers bit. it’s exciting to see the words–a command, really–typed to a chatbot, with stunning visuals as the reply.
and that is how i feel: stunned, amazed, enthralled. really beautiful work, reminding me of surrealist children’s books (Ionesco: Contes 1, 2, 3, 4 comes to mind).
implied in those feelings i names is an uncomfortable lack of agency. as someone who labors over learning to draw, who is stuck in imitation without the confidence or skill to communicate what is in my mind’s eye, i thrill at the images my typed phrases generate. i didn’t make them, the image generator did. it’s like saying “how are you today?” to someone, you have a general expectation of what they might say (“doing ok and you?” “so-so” “good”, never “i have a blue piece of lint in my navel” or “a cup and a half of oats in each loaf”). you certainly don’t claim to create or own what the response is from the other.
should we be content with “curation”? do i have to ask all of my students whether they “actually” made an image in their presentation? there is a recognizable aesthetic to the generated images. and they do serve as a great communication shortcut. but there is often something one has to give in exchange for such an enchanting gift. cue Neil Postman’s The Judgement of Thamus, which i read only recently. i don’t have the skill to produce visuals like the ones Midjourney generates, so i don’t think i am really giving up craft or production. but i am giving up, i think, really seeing with my eyes, my experience, my whole self. i don’t have much invested in the image. i have not taken the time to produce it (my own meager sketch, or perhaps a collaboration with a visual designer), to weave it into my lived experience, in time.
clara lieu, whom i admire in her role as Art Prof, has written about and made how-to videos about shooting your own reference images for artists. i know i can’t possibly do it all, i rely on many tools others made for people like me: i don’t write my own software, i don’t solder my own motherboard (ok, i did once, in 2002), i don’t rack my brains inventing new letters for the english language so dear to my writing practice. but also, just because a tool is available, doesn’t mean it needs to be my special friend. i find a lot of joy (and struggle, too) in trying to perceive and create authentically. i’m a better writer than i am a visual artist, i prefer to shine the apple in my hand than reach for another.