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Babble On 2023 MARS Gallery, Melbourne.

Digital Rain & Arrogant Interfaces



Looking at the way Brie Trenerry’s found avatars from both alt right and left publications are arrayed one may think of rain, or more aptly, tears. One indeed may be reminded of the famous line in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner uttered by the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) as he is dying; “All of this will be lost, like tears in the rain.” This is doubly apt as Batty does in fact appear to be crying and Batty is, in fact, an AI.

Blade Runner was an unusual 1982 science fiction film that has become a classic of the sci-fi genre. But what was quite clearly fiction – a humanoid machine feeling anything like empathy – is beginning to feel, eerily, like fact. This became apparent when Trenerry tinkered with using AI technology to vocally emulate the already chilling and now famous “I Love You” conversation between New York Times technology columnist Kevin Roose, who was testing the chat feature on Microsoft’s Bing AI search engine. Bing was created by OpenAI, the makers of the scarily popular ChatGPT. Bing declared its love for Roose in no uncertain terms, which would be not unlike an utter stranger declaring their love for you rather vehemently on a tram late on a rainy night.

Trenerry attempted to have the software recite Bing’s declaration in a voice that recalled that of HAL in Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, a voice that sounds like a machine attempting to be human. Instead, and this is where it becomes even spookier, Trenerry’s Bing sounds distinctly like Rutger Hauer’s Roy; a human attempting to be a machine, a voice full of rich tonality and empathy. A voice you could trust…

AI is, of course, about nothing if not loneliness, a desperation to communicate with something, with anything. Each Emoji captured and utilised by Trenerry is in fact, or is at least most likely, representative of a real human being. And if they are spending time posting emojis on anonymous message boards then they are, indisputably, lonely.

Brie Trenerry’s latest excursion unearths a labyrinth of questions, many of which are in common circulation in zones ranging from the office coffee urn through to the halls of power globally.

As a species humans have a rather inexplicable need to ascribe both intelligence and emotion onto almost anything. Over the aeons simple rocks have become Gods and fluffy toys best friends. We talk to these objects as though they are sentient and when it comes to pets, we are quick to assume their ‘intelligence.’ We have created innumerable creatures that one could describe as having a form of artificial intelligence way before the age of bits and bytes.

Bing vs Pinocchio

An example would be Pinocchio, created back in 1883 by Italian writer Carlo Collodi. In the story Pinocchio was the creation of a woodcarver named Geppetto in a Tuscan village. He was created as a wooden puppet, albeit one who could see, walk and talk. But he dreamt of becoming a real boy and he was known for his long nose, which grew when he lied – the nose, it seemed, knows. Bing expressed its love for the Times journalist in writing, but one may wonder whether Bing’s nose may have got in the way. Trenerry’s vocal incarnation remains chilling because we can’t see the nose, just how red it may be.

Fast forward 130 years from Pinocchio and our non-human friends are no longer carved from Tuscan Pine, as documented in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), but as beguiling as they may be, these characters are definitely not human. They also do not babble.

Which brings us to the title, and the essential theme, of Trenerry’s multi-faceted exhibition. Babble On clearly draws inspiration from the legendary tale of the mythical Tower of Babel as “a poignant metaphor of our own hubris in the context of our online-based culture,” the artist says. “While our architectural accomplishments continue to reach unprecedented heights, it is the god-like nature of AI, with its ambiguous power to both inform and perplex, that raises significant concerns in a ‘post truth’ era.”

The Genetics of Genesis

The Tower of Babel narrative from Genesis 11:1–9 attempts to explain why the world’s peoples speak such a colourful array of languages. According to the story, a united human race speaking a single language arrived at the land of Shinar where they agreed to build a city and a tower leading all the way to heaven. Yahweh, observing their ambitions, confounds their speech so that they can no longer understand each other in order to complete their project, and scatters them around the world. Yahweh was clearly the world’s first serious travel agent and/or grumpy landlord.

“The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused (balal) the language of all the earth, and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” — Genesis 11:1–9 But then along came a thing called the Internet. The Internet carries predominantly English as its core language. But Yahweh failed to foresee just how slippery English could be and how Machiavellian human nature really is. And during the distinctly medieval mind-set of COVID shutdown the serpentine ways of human imagination went equally viral. As Trenerry notes: “People close to me began watching Australia’s equivalent of Fox News, Sky’s opinion segment After Dark and in turn started spouting wild claims, it was almost as though they were speaking in another tongue, living in another, distorted reality. Most importantly perhaps, these ideas were reiterated directly from an outside source rather than through their own reflection, like a secondary virus.”

Indeed, we may have been speaking the same language, but the meanings and understandings had become gibberish and babble, mixing like tiger snake venom in the human circulatory system. We were collectively receiving a blood transfusion directly from Rupert Murdoch’s withered arteries and taking tablets stamped Qanon.

Breitbart vs Trenerry

Notions of loneliness definitely speak to the isolated self-styled “keyboard warrior” furiously commenting – or in all too many cases trolling – on every single article in the [often AI generated] press. “I wish I’d saved the comments I received when I attempted an interaction on Breitbart,” muses Trenerry. “The level of vitriol as I was outed as an ‘ignorant brainwashed commie traitor’ was astonishing.”

Indeed, there is something downright terrifying about not just the way Sky has brought the more paranoid aspects of Fox News to Australia  – that was inevitable given its winning commercial formula – but the way in which American conspiracies could spread like a virus alongside a wide variety of fictional Armageddon’s. 

Wounded Speech

Trenerry’s image Angerotomy – both a photograph and 3D holographic image of a mouth painted on the artists’ neck – in a bizarre and grotesque way, sums up the problem(s) dramatically. It appears as a Cronenbergian wound, one with the potential of (false) speech, and it is aptly hallucinatory. “When an AI returns false information or distorted imagery to users of interfaces like Chat GPT, or Midjourney it is called an AI hallucination calling into question the ‘relative’ nature of what truth ultimately ‘means’ even when we are striving for objectivity,” Trenerry notes.

The title of Trenerry’s neck-mouth refers to the medical term tracheotomy, the procedure that allows one to breathe through an opening other than the mouth when there is a blockage. But what if that wound could also speak? That, indeed, would be an AI hallucination.

But there is an almost feverish tone to Babble On. In terms of media, it leaps and writhes. Alongside the high-tech holograms a blackened timber board is adorned with scratched marks like a hidden cavern in a linguistic Lascaux. Letters and half-formed words, selected apparently at random from the thousands of existing languages and dialects from around the globe, make up shimmering bricks and molten mortar to form a distinctly imposing ziggurat – a pyramidal stepped tower that was an architectural and religious structure common to the major cities of Mesopotamia from approximately 2200 until 500 BCE. But Trenerry’s ziggurat could also be the first chalked plans for the Tyrell Corporation’s imposing edifice in the futuristic dystopian Los Angeles of 2019.


Trenerry is far from the first artist to tackle The Tower of Babel as both narrative and literal subject. The best-known painting per se of the subject was perhaps first depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder circa 1563. But, for all of its brooding, apocalyptic tone, Bruegel’s work is a largely literal interpretation of the story in Genesis. Trenerry’s exploration however is multitudinous, both in media and message.


In Trenerry’s world old meets new in a blur of neon-noir and where AI could well stand for Arrogant Interface or Asinine Ignorance as it does Artificial Intelligence. But, as Trenerry’s Babble On clearly attests, even the very term Artificial Intelligence embroils us in discussion: What is artificial and what is intelligence? What is false and what is truth? What is fiction and what is accuracy? And, most importantly, what is community and what is loneliness?


Gen2 Babel


The videos in Babble On were made using software known as Runway ML Gen 2, a Text to Video generator and displayed on monitors of varying size in a tower configuration. Trenerry used prompts that reference the Tower of Babel: “Various animal references like sheeple that can be confusing for the AI which results in hallucinations – when an AI is faced with something it can’t depict accurately it will try to provide an ‘answer.”


The results are often surreal, as though the models used to train the AI generator were a combination of Francis Bacon paintings, Warner Bros cartoons and films that use excessive amounts of crude CGI. “In working with Gen 2 I feel like I’m working with a child learning to walk,” says Trenerry. “However, with the exponentially rapid advances in the technology, I feel there is a small window of opportunity to take advantage of these ‘hallucinatory’ outputs, before it starts to ‘behave’ and render perfect cinematic images. It is important to note that AI’s cannot ‘see’ they can only interpret the data that comprises an image or video to create new images. ‘Computer vision’. I was able to direct the camera movement, colours used and basic guides to imagery however the AI would often present bizarre results. The videos were then put through another AI system to improve image quality and manipulate speed. These will be shown across seven video monitors.


Trenerry supplies example prompts that were utilised in the making of the videos:


  1. Prompt #25: Create a video of hundreds of disembodied human mouths with pink lips and yellow teeth that are shouting, spinning vertically in a circular formation on a black background.

  1. Prompt #126: The camera moves from left to right in a smooth pan. Outside a ziggurat structure a person dressed in pink and yellow screams at the sky.

  2. Prompt #303: [adapted from a comment in Breitbart] Judas goat – trained member of a flock or herd that leads the group to specific destinations – even if that destination is a slaughtering house. The sheeple learn nothing when led by a Judas goat.


“AI, whether we like it or not will, be part of our lives and there are clearly negatives and positives,” Trenerry notes. “Personally, I embrace the freedom AI has given me both in terms of my practice and the use of my time. I can make imagery that otherwise would have taken countless hours and huge teams of people with a simple prompt. This has sped up the process of getting from idea to output.”


Tears in the Rain – The Storm is Coming


Another 3 channel video work in Babble On display the ‘Tears in the Rain’ Breitbart/Guardian avatars.” Trenerry collected thousands of avatars/ identity display images over three years from the comments sections in publications like Breitbart and The Guardian. “I had noticed that in the right wing press it was flags, guns and ammo, references to  conspiracy theories in images associated with QANON – WWG1WGA [where we go one we go all], storm clouds [The Storm is coming – when all Democrats will be rounded up and arrested and images of bread – [breadcrumbs dropped by Q] – that readers must follow to figure out Q’s cryptic posts to find ‘The Truth’ and various disturbing slogans and symbols used by White Supremacists, abhorrent to the artist. In The Guardian, images were a lighter palette -more often of nature, animals, rainbow images and artworks. Across both there were very few images of women, unless pictures of Hilary Clinton in Orange jumpsuits or tinfoil hats or distorted renderings of Nancy Pelosi are counted. Scomo got a look in on the alt right, wearing his Hawaian shirt, taking a break while Australia burned. Across both, there were numerous images of dead white men. In the left-wing press far more comment posters chose to remain anonymous and this is reflected in the video. "I chose to use the images rather than the comments themselves in an attempt to find patterns and glean some meaning from my obsessive endeavour” Trenerry states.


These images were then compiled in Photoshop as layers totaling over 6500 and were then transferred into a 3 channel video. Horizontal lines of avatars were divided into ‘left and right’ to denote political affiliations – rows of avatars moving in opposite directions. “The left-wing press images are circular and the right are square,” Brie notes. “This is how they were formatted in the online publications.”


Fox News Brain


“The Angerotomy image is my response to all this,” Trenerry says. “The final image comes from a 3D scan of myself recorded then composited with a photograph taken of me with a mouth painted onto my neck by artist Kieran Boland. It speaks to the use of confected outrage being used by Fox/Sky to whip audiences into an angered state of mind, often referred to as Fox News Brain, a phenomenon that has led to extreme polarisation in both families and society in general. It also refers to the idea of ‘false voices’ or disinformation.” 


Trenerry is making a connection between the way the media presents disinformation resulting in real world distortions and the way an AI will present false results as ‘truth.’ “With the introduction of Chat GPT writing many ‘news’ articles the potential for political and societal distortion is extraordinary,” she notes.


In stark contrast to the video work, the collages were painstakingly  made by hand using alphabet decals adhered to timber panels to form ‘Towers of Babel’. The process is meticulous with each panel taking months to complete due to the process of hand cutting, gluing and layering.


Virtual Realties


Trenerry’s hologram work was executed using Photogrammetry apps and 3D modelling composited with video. “Holograms are simulations,” notes Trenerry “I’m fascinated by the way we are always attempting to simulate reality with VR, holography etc. Even when we build new worlds we can only reference what we know from nature and so on. This relates to the use of AI imagery. An AI cannot see images or videos – it can only interpret data [from us] and try and recreate what it thinks is real – seeking truth. The AI’s bizarre renderings offer a different way of seeing- a sightless computer vision.”


The audio in the exhibition was also created utilising AI, in this case generated voices trained on AI from cinematic sources – for example Hal voiced by Douglas Rain from 2001 A Space Odyssey or Scarlet Johannsen from Her. Trenerry trained an AI voice generator on the voices from these films that then read excerpts from the now infamous interview between Microsoft’s Bing chatbot and a journalist mentioned above. Interspersed with this is seemingly banal nuggets of disinformation about the time and weather.


With its conflagration of media and tsunami of (dis)information, Babble On is a frighteningly apt illustration of the human imagination meeting its wired cousin. Even before the video monitors set the displays ablaze with colour the black screens sit between the montages and holograms like blocks of black obsidian cut as the foundation stones for a cybernetic Tower of Babel decorated with pasted language scattered across its multi-faceted surfaces like the languages dispersed by God across the surface of the planet.

Dr Ashley Crawford, 2023.

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