While working on the “Alphabets Alive!” exhibition with the Bodleian to open in July 2023, I came across this project site page by Yevhen Berdnikov, a calligrapher based in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Since “Alphabets Alive!” would primarily concern the creative relationship of artists’ books with alphabets and other writing systems, an AI-generated rendition of the alphabet (humankind’s second-greatest invention, language being the first) was a natural for inclusion. Given the short notice, the artist’s lack of bookmaking experience and — oh yes — the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and attacks on Kyiv, a book was out of the question. Still, with one of the exhibition’s display cases being devoted to artists’ books driven by calligraphy and another to ones driven by color, some way of including these letter images prompted by Yevhen Berdnikov and generated by the text-to-image AI Midjourney from the company of the same name begged to be found.
Paper Cut Alphabet (2023)
Paper Cut Alphabet (2023)
Poster. H x W. Acquired from Yevhen Berdnikov, 8 March 2023.
Images courtesy of Yevhen Berdnikov and reproduced with permission.
When the digital file for the poster first arrived, the treatment of letter Z was a surprise. Even without its current caption, the implication of the treatment was obvious to anyone who knew Berdnikov’s nationality and had seen news images of Russian tanks and military vehicles with Z painted on them. An AI-generated letter Z exists in the Paper Cut Alphabet Project’s files, but, in preparing the poster for a public exhibition, Berdnikov could not bring himself to prompt the AI to generate a symbol that had become intolerable and particularly loathsome on the anniversary of the invasion.
Chance is a well-known muse to many artists. Midjourney, the application, requires an extensive amount of “prompting” — detailed text describing the image it will create. As Berdnikov notes above, the same text can generate different results, which implies an element of randomization at work in the application. But how could a randomizing function yield a meaningful absence of image in response to prompting text? How could machine learning enable Midjourney on its own to compile this version of the alphabet without that particular and human creative intervention?
Even while acknowledging his intervention in Paper Cut Alphabet, Berdnikov insists that he is not the artist, but isn’t his use of Midjourney analogous to Vermeer’s presumed use of a camera obscura to achieve the detail and perspective we see in his paintings? If he did use that technology, does it warrant calling his paintings “device-generated”? Even so, this viewer “feels” the human artists behind View of Houses in Delft (c. 1658) and Paper Cut Alphabet (2023).
Berdnikov’s comments above and his demurrer at being named the “artist” of Paper Cut Alphabet reflect an inquisitive, open and thoughtful mind. Whatever its undetermined implications, the result of his wielding this new artist’s tool is decidedly art.
Du Sautoy, Marcus. 2019. The Creativity Code : Art and Innovation in the Age of AI. Cambridge Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Miller, Arthur I. 2019. The Artist in the Machine : Inside the New World of Machine-Created Art , Literature and Music. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Tarasenko, Oleg, and Saulė Tolstych. 14 March 2023. “Widespread Anger Ensues Online Over This Viral Instagram Account Whose Photo Portraits Are Discovered To Be Generated By Midjourney“. Bored Panda. Accessed 18 April 2023.
Whiddingdon, Richard. 17 April 2023. “A Photographer Submitted an A.I.-Generated Image to a Prestigious Art Competition to Be ‘Cheeky.’ It Won a Top Prize Anyway“. Artnet News. Accessed 17 April 2023..