Art + Photo Essay

AI Making Queer Art: It’s Marvelous-Looking But What’s The Cost?

When I first saw Hridaye’s artwork, the first thought that came to my mind was how queerness is all encompassing in its approach. There’s nothing that could be simply left out of its purview.

While AI making art is not new, AI making queer art is an even though it’s marvelous looking , it comes at the cost of simplifying creativity and artists’ labor. At the same time, AI based art is also perpetuating stereotypes and adding to misconceptions about people and culture. For instance, the recent artwork by AI on stereotypical representation of people from different states or of how marriages look like in different states has been nothing short of a mockery of cultures. For instance, Bengali people were shown in a marriage setup with a fish. When we come to the queer identity, it already is stigmatized and in a political position where queer people are fighting to take control of the narrative and ownership of their experiences and its representation in the media. In such times, we need to infer if we really need AI based artwork around queer people which works on a set of sentences provided and is devoid of any subjective or queer experience or it’s representation in the artwork.

Mid-journey is an AI based software that generates images based on detailed text based prompts. Hridaye Nagpal is a queer creator, whose work is based around the same idea, where they use the software to generate images around Queer Fiction.Some of their work has been titled as The Forgotten Queer Crime Fighting Gangs of the ‘90s, Queer Gods, A Gender Queer Utopia, and The Queer Cure: A Pulp Fiction Alt History Queer Horror Story. When I first saw Hridaye’s artwork, the first thought that came to my mind was how queerness is all encompassing in its approach. There’s nothing that could be simply left out of its purview. During a conversation with Hridaye about their artwork, they also maintained that queerness  transcends gender and sexuality and goes into any thought, feeling or action that defies traditional societal convention. They further added, “I always felt that for the most part in traditional popular media, queerness has been limited to characters who have been looked at as either a “joke” or as someone who needs help and very rarely as the hero or for that matter a God. So ideas for these concepts came from just wanting to see something I haven’t really seen before.”

The audience reception to the artwork has been fantastic as they have been cementing some of the work into themes like Indian Cyberpunk Vibes and as a consumer of the artwork, I found three specific themes to take precedence and also make it a queer art form. The first would be queer reclamation that is strange and weird. The artwork tackles many themes that we have been growing up with, especially from a lens of sci-fi. However, while the sci-fi elements of pop culture have always been strange or weird in their own ways, this is a rare time that there has been reclamation of the queerness inherent to them. This is also a reminder of slightly or explicitly queer sci-fi elements of pop culture like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Ariana Grande’s Music Video for Break Free, and Alien.

The second would be representation and visibility as there marvelous beauty in the artwork, some of which feels like it’s out of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie. Similarly, Queer Gods is infused with visuals of royalty, divinity, and queerness – anti-thetial to the religious indoctrination towards queerness in most places around the world. The third would be subversion as there is a retelling of queer narratives but it’s also from a perspective which doesn’t marginalize them more. Instead, it owns up to their rebellion against the world. And in a world where queerness has been made a taboo, fiction is a perfect way to make these stories heard. My personal favorite is Intergalactic Pride Party, which looks like something out of a Lady Gaga music video but there are certain qualms I have.

However, having said that, a large of queer theory led by queer theorists such as Halberstam have questioned the importance we give to academia for instance, as a discipline which heavily emphasizes on lived experiences of queer people. In the same breath, the argument can also be extended to the institutionalization of AI and the science around AI, which has been dominated by not only upper caste/class white men, but also has been hand in hand with the ideologies of capitalism and neoliberalism.

What this means is that when there is consumption of art by AI in a world where artists are already struggling due to technology entering every aspect of our lives, and making the manual work of artists seem very minimal, where do we draw the line? Moreover, this becomes about which art do we consider as queer? Do the artists have to be queer? Does the art itself have to have some queer connotations? And how do we gauge the identity of other people involved behind the scene within the larger AI industry, which has been dubbed by the media as an infringement on freedom due to too much data collection, making us dependent solely on technology, and also defining new notions for creativity.

If we assess the art created by AI on the same level as those created by artists, are we also marking a grave shift in our understanding of ‘creativity’ and ‘queerness’? The history of art itself has been political, especially queer art and art by queer people which have been a part of protests and civil rights battles. Even recently for the FIFA World Cup, there was much uproar against the very apparent queerphobia of the hosting country. So at a time, when art and queerness is more political than ever, we need to find strange avenues to find a way to appreciate the ‘queer art’ created by AI and by queer artists but also hold such mediums accountable as they do have the tendency to commercialize and simplify subjective experiences of human being through a very mechanical thinking.

Hridaye’s take on the debate around what creativity lies at the intersection of AI versus humans creating nuanced, subjective, and truthful art is that they see AI as a powerful tool that can disrupt the key way in which we produce art, whether it be music, movies, or commercial.  They see it as a form of AI revolution, which provides increased access to resources, ability, connections and skills to produce ideas. They further add, “AI makes, making art and expressing your feelings and ideas accessible to practically everyone and I think that’s beautiful! AI will aid human expression not compete against it!” Having said this, there have been recent instances where mods banned artists on reddit sub because they thought that it has been made by AI. As per another viral tweet, AI is supposed to make life easier so that humans and artists have more time to create art. We do not need AI to create art, and at that, definitely not artwork which caters to a specific group like the queer community.

While I do agree there can be transformation of the ways through we which capture art, but, at the same time, we need to ask and reflect if AI is actually capturing experiences of queer people based on words or there are certain things that the human beings can do, which AI cannot do owing to the complex nature of human beings. While this is a part of a larger debate, Hridaye’s work is refreshing but still leaves something to the imagination about what forms queerness can take, especially in a setting that is fictional, fantasy based or maybe replete with elements of magical realism. And while it is interesting to see how the AI imagines queerness to be, it also asks the question of if this can somehow lead to more policing for queers, and how much of queerness is merely based on one’s appearance.

And given AI itself has raised many questions around ethics, I feel that this aspect should be acknowledged and looked at critically; while at the same time, there should be space to just explore ideas which is what Hridaye has aimed to do. In their own words, “ they are just stories or ideas that pique my interest at the time. It’s been only about 2 years since I came out to my parents. So I have only truly begun exploring my queerness freely in my mind since coming out to them. Which is why I think it’s finding its way into my work currently. I think as I keep telling stories over a range of mediums the topics will change, with some not being inherently queer stories but they’ll always be told through my lens which is inherently queer. Within this marvelous looking honest depiction of queerness through AI which is so deeply embedded in our everyday life, we do have to ask if the art as we know will die as a consequence, and what worth does this dictate to queerness, creativity, and artists who spend days and months on their artwork.

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Rajeev completed their under graduation in Political Science Hons. from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi in 2020. They graduated with Masters in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in 2022 and were a participant at the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute, University of Iowa for the 2021-22 session. They have been the recipient of Mavelinadu Collective’s grant for non-fiction for the first issue of Debrahminising Gender. Their work can be found in EPW, Women’s Link Journal, Shuddhashar, Gaysi Family, Feminism in India and Hindu College Gazette among others. Their research interests include queer experiences, feminist ethics of care, and masculinities.

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