In the Middle of Nowhere II

In So Bright the Vision, a sci-fi short story penned by Clifford D. Simak in 1968, humans vend stories to fiction-hungry aliens within an interplanetary entertainment marketplace. Equipped with ever-evolving Yarners—automated word-engines that churn out one work after the next—these writers end up securing the Earth’s economic viability by removing their own hand entirely from the creative process; “human” creativity becomes cringe, even taboo. While sci-fi tends to position the human and machine as binaries—with automated processes on one end, and the creative intelligence of the human on the other—the current “golden age” of AI-assisted creative production introduces a new paradigm for the art world and beyond. As large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT and text-to-image generators like Midjourney become increasingly integrated into contemporary art practice, this relationship becomes less like a binary and more like a gradient to be questioned and explored.

Swedish conceptual artist Jonas Lund has worked around the increasing digitalisation of culture for years, producing a body of work that investigates issues of creative labour, production, authorship, and authority within the art market and society at large. As these systems become more complex and entangled over time, Lund’s work evolves recursively, riffing off itself in confounding ways. In the Middle of Nowhere II, presented at Annka Kultys Gallery in London, picks up where In the Middle of Nowhere, exhibited earlier this year at Office Impart in Berlin, left off. This iteration drops us into the speculative office of an aspirational CEO whose unnamed company, much like the Yarner-equipped ghostwriters of Simak’s narrative, is struggling to keep pace with the ever-advancing technological stakes of this world. Potted plants and corporate office furniture frame the missing CEO’s art collection: a series of AI-generated tapestries, a single-channel video, and a four-channel screen-based wall work of automated affirmations.

The six tapestries, made in collaboration with the latest iterations of text-based large language models (LLMs) and text-to-image AI tools, collectively ask after the value of creative labour in the age of AI production. Merging the craft aura of the textile medium with the increasingly familiar aesthetic of contemporary AI-generated imagery—warped perspectives, weird textures, mutant anatomies, and animals doing strange things—conjure a hybrid affect that’s both comical and vaguely threatening. This is heightened by the works’ titles: Titans of the Trunks (2023) showcases a cluster of elephants decked out in office dad attire, while Oinking in Opulence (2023) reveals a bunch of swines seated at a luxe corporate dinner. Where the Wild Things Rule (2023) and We’re having an Alignment Problem (2023) draw us into the comfortably vintage look of the smaller command-line tool Deep Daze (2021)—each tapestry’s composition is a mosaic of smaller corporate multispecies scenes.

The Future of Something (2023), a sequel to Lund’s The Future of Nothing (2022), which appeared in the prequel exhibition, takes a deep dive into the human anxieties framing an AI-driven world. Across the morphing vignettes of seven AI-generated human support groups—ranging from couples therapy to robot love tensions, online poker addicts to content creators anonymous—the video deftly navigates familiar fears of machinic displacement of the self through the heightened drama of parody. Here we watch hallucinated influencers in crisis, unable to compete with the indifferent gaze of an artificial intelligence that doesn’t care about authenticity or creativity. As the humans band together to console each other in group survival mode, some individuals manipulate the counselling sessions to hawk their Youtube channels and for-sale tricks to beat the AI system, ultimately trumping the idea of a superior human morality. Seated at the height of humanity’s fears of a technological takeover, The Future of Something suggests that the real threat in the room may not be the machinic other, but something more human after all.

Within CEO Dashboard (2023), we are given a window into the AI-driven production process behind In the Middle of Nowhere II. It appears as a closed-loop system, wherein a corporate AI seemingly serves as its own muse, CEO, stockbroker, and moderator. Across the screens plays out a hypnotic sequence of dramatised AI-generated startup affirmations, a GPT-powered CEO attempting to optimise its business, a desktop screening real-time financial data, and an excerpt of Lund’s previous work Simulacra Aesthetics (2023), featuring a text-to-image AI model rating its visual outputs on a scale of one to ten. The work elucidates what the rest of the exhibition implies: how AI-generated creative outputs may be evaluated and financialised within the contemporary art mar
ketplace, automating the production cycle from render farm to sales booth.

Ultimately In the Middle of Nowhere II takes us into a space of speculative fiction to reflect on the realities of AI in artistic production. Lund’s exhibition serves as a salient reminder that this relationship is a two-way street: the ways we prompt and prime machinic output inevitably has a kickback effect on broader notions of ‘human’ creativity and authorship, ideas that require vital revaluation in the present. By interrelating satire, speculation, and AI-influenced value production through corporate lore, In the Middle of Nowhere II problematizes the distinctions previously held between human and machinic creative labour. It opens a window into a scenario where those relationships—and their material outputs—are fully entangled, exposing the tensions and possibilities of AI as a creative collaborator.

 

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