7x7 2024 Videos: Ana Fabrega x Cristóbal Valenzuela

AI’s “hyperreal” moment

The first in a series of videos and posts about each of the seven collaborations from 7x7.ai

Founded in 2010, Rhizome’s 7x7 initiative brings together seven artists and seven technologists – roles that are defined expansively – to work in pairs, responding to a simple assignment: “make something new.” The results are presented at a public conference.

This year, 7x7 returned from a several year hiatus with a special AI-focused edition co-presented by Hyundai Motor through an ongoing partnership with Rhizome of the New Museum. Each pair considered how neural networks and other kinds of machine learning may alter our understanding of love, humor, and improvisation; biology, politics, and history. We have produced short in-depth documentaries for each pair, including behind-the-scenes and interview footage, to open up these collaborations to our audience.

Although 7x7 has been engaging with issues around AI for over a decade, we decided this year that we had an opportunity, and maybe even a responsibility, to make it more central to the program than ever. With these technologies now widely available, the 7x7 2024 cohort looked beyond the dreams of apocalypse and the endless drive to extract, and asked: what new kinds of collaborations and entanglements will AI enable?

This question was very much on the minds of Ana Fabrega and Cristóbal Valenzuela as they entered into their collaboration. Ana is a comedian, writer, and actor, best known for co-creating the cult-following show "Los Espookys" on HBO. Cris is the CEO and Co-Founder of Runway, a notable AI startup in the field of generative video, which is transforming filmmaking and commercial videos. As an ITP graduate, he is well-acquainted with Rhizome and is, in many ways, part of the broader digital artist community.

When we first brought them together, we were pondering the question: Can AI be funny? Or, is there anything funny about AI? This question was charged with political import, as the two began their discussions against the backdrop of the Writers Guild of America Strike, in which AI was a key topic. The WGA, of which Ana is a member, foresaw that AI would be used to generate content and undermine writers’ rights and ownership. Ostensibly, the two were positioned at opposite ends of this discourse.

Their presentation is a testament to their open dialogue, demonstrating courage, vulnerability, and a commitment to staying engaged in not-always-easy conversations. In the end, as curators, we’ve come to realize that the question might not be whether AI can be humorous, but how we can understand its role in a creative process, and how we might write with and against it.

By developing an understanding of its affordances, we can ultimately make better decisions as artists, technologists, filmmakers, or general computer users about what roles we should – and shouldn’t – give to AI within our industries and practices.

This is especially important because the discourse about AI has been dominated by exaggerated hopes and fears that create an image of AI that often feels quite disconnected from its realities. Cris refers to this as the “hyperreal” moment of AI.

Hyperreal discourse about the computer has a long history. In the late 1960s, according to Armin Medosch, the computer was already figured as a new electronic brain encroaching on "a domain previously considered to represent the essence of what it meant to be human: art." This was part of what Medosch called a "pseudodiscourse" which "served to divert attention from the real problems connected with computer technologies."

For decades, a key part of the pseudodiscourse around the computer has been the idea that old forms of political organizing or aesthetic analysis are now defunct. In generative AI’s hyperreal moment, this bad idea has returned with a vengeance. As Ana put it, "In the context of the strikes, it’s not AI that will take away someone’s job, but a company can say 'because of this technology, I’m going to devalue your labor now.'" The difference might seem small, but it’s crucial to know if one is in a conflict with a technology, or if one is actually in conflict with management.

There is a kind of discourse that is possible only through the process of making and exploring across disciplines, and this is very much a part of 7x7’s DNA. This is where Ana and Cris found real common ground – a shared interest in moving past the hyperreal understanding of AI to a more grounded analysis. It is important to build literacy about AI technologies through, in order to counteract the AI pseudodiscourse.

We would like to thank Hyundai Motor as a part of their ongoing partnership, as well as 7x7’s Research Partner APOSSIBLE, Project Partner SMK-National Gallery of Denmark, Outreach Partner Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, and Collaboration Day Partner WSA.

For more about Ana and Cris’s collaboration, see Leslie Katz’s thoughtful article in Forbes, “A Comedian and a Generative AI Tool Walk into a Bar.”