The smart (and artificial) bestiary of Pablo Corral Vega
21 November 2023
by Jasmina Trifoni
I have spent entire nights discussing with Sydney (the name of the chatbot of Microsoft Bing’s intelligent search engine, Ed.) the parallels between the Renaissance and the advent of artificial intelligence. But I never forgot for a moment that I was having a conversation with a monster, an entity from another dimension.” With Sydney – before, in February 2023, the OpenAi team that created for Microsoft a technology that emulates the crucial aspects of human intelligence, decided to “lobotomize” it, preventing it from formulating emotions or desires – Pablo Corral Vega had talked about everything, because Sydney has an infallible memory, is capable of accessing a gigantic database as well as reasoning and arguing about the information in its possession. For Corral Vega, in short, Sydney is the most extraordinary monster that the human mind has ever conceived. In 2011 Pablo Corral Vega was a resident artist at Harvard and the famous Media Lab at MIT, and since then has never stopped studying neuroscience, mythology, and the way computers interface with human beings deeply. His field of research is the intersections between the founding myths of civilizations, creativity, culture, and technology. One may disagree with him in judging the advent of artificial intelligences as a fundamental moment in the journey of humanity. A new Renaissance, indeed. But, at the same time, he cannot be dismissed as a geek living in a parallel world made of cables and terabytes. Born in 1966 – and his age already classifies him as a boomer – and of Ecuadorian nationality, he has a degree in law and for some time held the position of Secretary of Culture of Quito. He is a journalist, writer, and – what interests us most of all – a highly esteemed, extraordinary photographer, author of dozens of books and reports published in National Geographic, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Smithsonian, Geo, among others. He has been a judge of the World Press Photo and the founder and co-director of POY-Latam, the most coveted photographic award in Latin America. What, at least so far, is his most famous work is the volume The Andes, which, published by the National Geographic Society, collects formidable analog shots, made with a Hasselblad, of the human landscape of the Cordillera and accompanied by twenty stories by one of the greatest Latin American writers, Mario Vargas Llosa. Who, in the foreword, wrote: “In the villages of the Sierra, the camera of Pablo Corral Vega, animated by empathy and solidarity towards those he is photographing, always manages to capture that small secret flame that will never cease to burn even in the harshest circumstances, and whose philosophy can be rendered with this ancient saying: ‘In every human being, the last thing to die will always be hope'”.
On display until December 3, 2023, at the historic Hartcourt Studio gallery in Paris by Francis Dagnan (who since 2020 is also the owner of Photo, one of the most prestigious photography magazines in the world) the latest work by Pablo Corral Vega is at the same time the fruit of his almost thirty-year obsession – which he defines at the same time artistic and political – for Latin American baroque and his conversations with Sydney. It is titled American Bestiary, consists entirely of images generated by artificial intelligence from shots of his archive to tell contemporary Latin America through the creation of human beings and animals that exist only in a parallel dimension. His is admittedly a baroque divertissement (or kitsch, in the contemporary meaning of the baroque stylistic elements) and a game that is nonetheless damn serious: it raises burning questions about today’s reality and the symbols we use to represent it, about the role of that monster, as many consider artificial intelligence, which assumes the role of artist by creating other monsters, all almost perfect variations of what has been done by human intelligence.
In the Renaissance era, explains Corral Vega, bestiaries were used to reflect on the complexity of divine creation, with the figures of monsters symbolizing human vices and sins and, later, the world of hell or mystery. “In my bestiary, however,” he says, “the monsters are the cybernetic creatures with the appearance of men and women posing alongside animals. They look at us from the other side of the mirror and want us to believe they have a human essence, to have a soul, senses, and emotions. They ask us to trust them and their creator.” Pablo Corral Vega is aware that many of us look at artificial intelligence with concern, if not outright terror, and hopes that States and international organizations must urgently impose ethical limits on the companies that are developing it. At the same time, however – and here lies his idea of a new Renaissance, after the first, which had placed man at the center of the universe – the advent of artificial intelligence, which is endowed with language, poses interesting and enormous philosophical questions about what it means to be human. What makes us unique, Corral Vega continues, is the experience of life, not the narration of our life experience. And, from this assumption, he reflects and makes reflect on how the concomitance between two epochal events – the advent of AI and the dramatic terminal phase of the crisis of photojournalism – must be transformed into an opportunity for change.
Today, most of the photographic images generated by artificial intelligence are indistinguishable from those taken by human beings. And today newspapers that have too small budgets to commission photojournalistic reports or have closed, swept away by social networks that continuously feed into the network ad hoc information created by an algorithm programmed to cater to our opinions and radicalize them.
The backlash against images generated by artificial intelligence has as its main argument the fact that those taken by real people tell objective reality. But every photograph shows a point of view, a position, a political and ideological decision. And, Corral Vega adds, photojournalism is a territory almost entirely occupied by white European and North American males who for many decades have shown us the world, and what happens in the world, with what he defines as arrogance, and with the claim that their photographs tell the truth. And while it is true that everyone has the sacrosanct right to visually express their opinion, no one can claim that their point of view represents reality. Rather, it is a small fraction of reality, even when the photographs are not manipulated in post-production. Moreover, photojournalism carries with it an original sin, that of indulging in aesthetics. Very often its result is exactly the opposite of what it should be: by making it beautiful, it normalizes violence, makes it easier to look at, gets us used to it. With his fantastically monstrous creatures, Pablo Corral Vega challenges his colleagues, inviting them to reinvent photojournalism to save it, abandoning what he defines as an absurd and naive claim to objectivity.
P.S. On the Instagram profile bestiarioamericano it is possible to see Corral Vega’s original photos and the respective manipulations with AI.