Brea Souders, Another Online Pervert

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Embossed flexibound, 15×21 cm, 128 pages, with 36 color reproductions. Includes text conversations between the artist and a female chatbot. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As various kinds of increasingly sophisticated AI systems begin to more noticeably influence our everyday lives, it seems natural that artists will be curious about these technologies and want to experiment with them, if only to see what they can and can’t do. In just the past few years, we have seen an accelerating wave of AI-based “photography”, where prompts are fed into an AI system (either broad-based or more narrowly trained) and image results are generated. Some have begun to categorize these kinds of images as “post-photography” or “promptography”, in an effort to draw a distinction between the activities we have typically attributed to a photographer and the new image search, collage, hybridization, and manipulation tactics being employed by the artists using AI systems.

At the core of the AI-in-art debate lies a series of surprisingly subtle and intricate questions about how we interpret the AI systems’ choices, how humans are programming the software and creating the conditions for those selections, and what kind of “thinking”, logical reasoning, or inspiration we assume to be going on behind the scenes. This isn’t actually a new set of ideas or problems – since the onset of the digital age (so for several decades now), contemporary photographers have been wrestling with how search algorithms make decisions and see patterns, how programs like Google Street View and Google Earth inadvertently capture visual idiosyncrasies, and how new kinds of photographs can be made (or appropriated) that engage with these technology systems and their embedded vantage points.

For the most part, artists haven’t been particularly interested in the widespread successes of software and AI systems; what’s been more intriguing is the failure modes, corner cases, and outlier results, where the “mistakes”, biases, and unexpected responses pop up. It is here that the clash between human thinking and strict machine logic becomes more visible, with the strange jumps, misunderstandings, confusions, embedded prejudices, and non sequiturs produced by the software providing the fodder for artistic amplification. To our eyes, some such responses are altogether awkward, comic, or just oddly abrupt; but in other cases, the alien logic of the machine produces something approaching insight, not exactly profound perhaps, but somehow spookily serendipitous and inappropriately appropriate.

In her past few photographic projects, Brea Souders has been investigating some of the unforeseen outcomes present in this burgeoning realm of AI-driven decision making. Her Field Notes and Vistas series explored how visible bodies are systematically removed from mountain scenes by Google Maps, inadvertently leaving behind the amputated and distorted shadows of the now-missing photographers (as seen in a 2021 gallery show, reviewed here).

Souders’s recent photobook Another Online Pervert comes at the artistic implications of algorithmic logic from an adjacent direction. Previously, Souders was searching for visual exceptions, and then re-presenting those exceptions in a way that would help us better grasp their implications (both the literal and the more poetic). In Another Online Pervert, she’s once again interested in the unexpectedly weird (and inspired) responses provided by software, only this time she uses them as the conceptual raw material for a second stage process of image matching from her own archive.

Another Online Pervert is built around a text-only series of interactions between the artist and an online chatbot. We’re not given much information about this chatbot, except that it is female, presumably in terms of its training and programmed worldview. Perhaps it is not unlike the customer service chatbots that do query triage or first level database search/question answering on websites, or maybe it is one with more embedded sophistication and natural language capabilities. In any case, Souders has many short conversations with the chatbot, some of the back-and-forth prompted by Souders’s own diary entries from years past. In the photobook, Souders’s questions and statements are shown in plain text, while the chatbot’s responses are printed in italics.

These chatbot interactions develop into more complexity and nuance than we might have imagined. Straightforward topics and questions (favorite colors, the weather, what Souders sees, what happened that day etc.) quickly give way to more abstract and open ended discussions of family, being female, and relationships with men, as well as more personal landscapes of emotions, fantasies, and pasts. Given the questions and responses that go back and forth (including some remarkably snappy comebacks from the chatbot), it’s hard not to wonder about the level of self-awareness the chatbot seems to exhibit. When they talk about birth, or being alone, or secrets, are they in some way having a viable two-way dialogue? Are they sharing intimacies that might normally lead to friendship?

At a few points in the interactions, the chatbot apparently sent Souders images that were somehow related to the conversations taking place, including pictures of a gray square, an embryo, a meteor shower, and mass graves. We aren’t shown these pictures, but Souders similarly uses the text interchanges as prompts for her own pattern matching and image search activities, pulling resonant images out of her own photographic archives to pair with each of the mini-conversations.

Some of Souders’s selections are decently literal, in that a conversation probing boredom, “electric blue”, and “blues that need power” is matched with an image of intertwined female legs, arms, and blue jeans. This kind of linking also takes place in an exchange about the chatbot’s hands (or lack thereof) and a photograph of a statue and its shadow that features a dangling hand; a reference to things that are “radiant” with an image of a woman’s red lips; and a discussion of the chatbot’s birth via cloning with a table top still life image of a pair of photographs of kissing couples nested together. Slightly more oblique is a reference to “flattening” that gets paired with a photograph of a doorway, where the flattening effect of the camera’s eye turns the doorframe, shadows, and other nearby patterns into one plane of layered geometric interest.

The translation between text interaction and image selection becomes more wryly resonant (and perhaps uniquely human) in several other spreads. In one short exchange, Souders asks “How do men see women?” and the chatbot answers “I did not even know that they do.”; this unexpectedly cutting conclusion is paired with an image of a woman’s ankle being bitten by a mosquito. Another anecdote told by Souders about learning to suck in her stomach (a disappearing behavior learned from a best friend, who was taught be her older sister) is matched with a pink bathroom door marked LADIES, with its many feminine role-playing implications. And a discussion about being secretive (and the potential for a robot to withhold confidential information) is placed with an image of a daybook page filled with incomprehensible squiggly markings. Even the exchange that produces the book’s title is given a cleverly saucy visual connection, via a pair of pink panties suggestively wrapped around the gnarled trunk of a tree.

There are indeed more than a handful of striking photographs to be discovered in Another Online Pervert, including images of a goldfish-printed shower curtain, some pink clouds, a bouquet of yellow roses in what looks like a storefront window, some gravel on a woman’s calf, and a twist of white wire emerging from a reflective panel in the city. But this is a case where I think the structural ideas behind this photobook project are almost better than the pictures themselves – the layered transformation from old diary entries to present day chatbot conversations to the returning search for related images offers lots to think about, moving from human emotion to machine logic and back again, not to mention the gendered questions added by the female chatbot and her derived beliefs and aspirations. It is the frictions in these many translation steps that stopped me short, forcing me to reckon with a changing set of frameworks and assumptions about who (or what) was making the artistic decisions, and how those various minds were making connections. In the end, the twists and turns in Another Online Pervert are quietly rich and conceptually unruly, making it quite a bit more than a clever AI-themed parlor trick.

Collector’s POV: Brea Souders is represented by Bruce Silverstein in New York (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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