“A Third Act” by Mac Pierce and Judge Appleat Sulk Chicago

Justice Apple and Mac Pierce, installation view of “A Third Act,” at Sulk Chicago, 2024/Photo: Justice Apple and Mac Pierce

My biggest problem with most AI-generated artwork created in 2024 is the common misconception that simply using AI equates to any understanding of what it is and why. its operation. This may be an interesting take, but I don’t care if you use AI in your works. I care about how you might use it to say something. AI, like graphics, painting or photography, is a good tool when used as a means to an end; Artworks that use AI because they are technological or fashionable raise eyebrows, to borrow a Gen Z lexicon.

All of this would just be me shaking my fist at the latest tech gadget if it weren’t for the promises that seem to be attached to each new generation of AI capabilities. Every day, more and more companies are working to make the computer usage experience more unpredictable by implementing half-baked AI features in their apps, widgets, etc. I’m part of a subgroup of people who believe that AI will change everything about our digital lives, but I’m also certain that most of these changes are things that we aren’t culturally prepared for.

Judge Apple and Mac Pierce, work from “A Third Act,” at Sulk Chicago, 2024/Photo: Judge Apple and Mac Pierce

In late January 2024, AI-generated “deepfakes” of Taylor Swift were distributed via 4chan and Twitter (sorry, “X”). These sexually explicit, often violent images were reportedly viewed more than fifty million times before being removed from most online platforms. Perhaps much of this review’s audience would find the idea that the entire AI library has already been created for the explicit purpose of producing porn from clothed or non-consenting individuals shocking, but I remember a recent conversation I had with Newcity 2024 Breakout. Artist Ava Wanbli, who rightly pointed out that pornography has been the driving force behind so many historic media innovations.

The crazy thing about Taylor Swift’s viral, non-consensual deepfakes is that the ability to create them is actually not new at all. AI wasn’t being used to perform some kind of crazy technological magic that created incredibly real deepfakes. For reference, photoshopping a head onto another person’s body is almost trivially easy after learning the basics of how Photoshop works. That’s the crux of the problem: it’s incredibly difficult to use AI for things that can’t be done manually. Most of the time, AI is simply a way to automate this work to get a statistically average result generated quickly. I think the world is already ill-prepared to combat photorealistic deepfakes and other falsified images, but I think it is completely unprepared for the technologies that allow anyone to create them instantly and effortlessly.

Judge Apple and Mac Pierce, work “In Likeness” from “A Third Act,” at Sulk Chicago, 2024/Photo: Judge Apple and Mac Pierce

Long introductory remarks aside, “A Third Act” by Mac Pierce and Justice Apple of Sulk Chicago is conceptually ahead of its time but technologically grounded in our contemporary reality. Using an open source AI library created to map naked bodies onto clothed individuals, Pierce and Apple manipulated images of themselves wearing full morphsuits in painstakingly constructed sets, creating convincingly but ultimately pornographic images false. When discussing the work with Pierce, he said: “We wanted to show the current state of technology and ask people what happens when AI succeeds. » Although the images in “A Third Act” are partly generated by AI, creating them remains a very laborious process. Pierce and Apple took 300 to 800 images from each hand-built set, and the AI ​​performs 2,000 to 5,000 iterations for each selected image. Pierce and Apple spent a lot of time and effort developing what these images should look like instead of just simple methods of creating them. Their work is a testament to the power of AI tools that won’t require as much setup in the not-so-distant future.

The visuals in “A Third Act” are strange in a way that takes time to fully realize, as the series pretends to be many things that it is not. Everything in each of the five photographs on display is real, meaning it actually existed on set and was captured on camera, except for the bodies that populate the scene. Each of the photographs was taken in the same location, but the printed backgrounds and detailed ornamentation of each scene create the illusion that these photographs were taken in several different rooms. The AI-generated bodies in “A Third Act” are as diverse and varied as the multitude of kitschy and ornate props placed within these settings, but before being “nudified,” each of these photographs is populated by both same people. The most obvious way in which the visual surface of these photographs begins to break down is through the reflections of carefully placed mirrors in several scenes. Instead of mirroring AI-generated bodies, we see contorted characters in morphsuits and sticky wigs.

Judge Apple and Mac Pierce, work “A Carnal Ruse” from “A Third Act,” at Sulk Chicago, 2024/Photo: Judge Apple and Mac Pierce

“A Third Act” is a deeply disturbing and critically important look at the capabilities of AI in the here and now, wrapped in playful, garish pastiche. The AI-generated bodies resemble particularly risky characters in a rococo painting whose blissful hedonism prevents them from noticing the revolution brewing among them. Don’t let the shiny surface fool you; the photographs in “A Third Act” are urgent warnings made palatable by Pierce and Apple’s nuanced and exacting approach.

The scenes also contain a multitude of references to works of art from the classic Western canon, drawing attention to the ways in which our relationship to all past images is actively developed by generative technologies. In many ways, the photographs in “A Third Act” work in opposition to many classic scenes: instead of using the appearance of academic disinterest to hide its exciting intentions, “A Third Act” uses an appearance of excitement. to obscure a highly critical examination of the cultural consequences that accompany technological progress. There’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s remarkably clear that most platforms aren’t built to handle nuanced conversations about AI and digital consent. Members of the public who want to share images from the exhibit on social media can hold up little black rectangular cards to censor any AI-generated nipples in their posts, which I find equally amusing and depressing.

Judge Apple and Mac Pierce, work “A Grand Illusion” from “A Third Act,” at Sulk Chicago, 2024/Photo: Judge Apple and Mac Pierce

What Pierce and Apple have accomplished is nothing short of a turning point in our understanding of the use of AI in art. To push an emerging technology to its contemporary limits, to do so in a way that transcends many of the problematic aspects of that technology, and to make a true statement about its capabilities in doing so, is incredible. The artwork in “A Third Act” is also genuinely interesting; I appreciated the conceptual meta-commentary in the photographs on display, but I also continually noticed new visual details in the artworks as I spent time with them.

I think this exhibition is a must-see in its own right, but as an added incentive, it will also be the last exhibition in Sulk Chicago’s current space in South Dearborn. The legacy Taylor Payton created in this small space is unparalleled, even within Chicago’s vibrant art scene. It seems fitting to conclude Sulk’s run in this space with such a strong, boundary-pushing show, and I look forward to whatever Payton chooses to do next. I know Sulk will be greatly missed, but the ripples of his cultural impact will be felt for some time to come.

“Justice Apple and Mac Pierce: A Third Act” will be on view at Sulk Chicago, 525 South Dearborn, through June 30.