Greetings from La La Land
flashback to Broome Street
Back in the summer of 2015 when I was still working at the Whitney Museum and teaching at NYU — a veritable lifetime ago, as my life has gone so far — I organized an exhibition at the sadly-now-closed P!/K. Gallery at 334 Broome Street, in Chinatown. The show was called Egress, and it featured two of my still-favorite artists, New York’s Colleen Asper and the Amsterdam-based Kate Cooper. As a curator, I was concerned, quite simply, with the mediation of the female body through technology — the technology of CGI renderings in Kate’s case, and in Colleen’s, painting and performance (or really, painting-as-performance). Gallery shows can be treacherous! Though they are becoming increasingly museum-like in nature, most still lack publications or longer-form essays to frame them. This is to say that I wish, in retrospect, that I had written more at the time about what, exactly, compelled me as the show’s organizer and why I (still) believe that Colleen and Kate’s work are in strong dialogue.
Years later, I can pinpoint that moment in time as one where I was personally fascinated — grotesquely so — with the then-nascent proliferation of “try before you buy” technologies aimed toward women by the beauty and fashion industry. The press release for Egress featured just two quotes (by Baudrillard, sigh, and AI scholar Kate Crawford) and an image of Sephora’s then-new “Color IQ” skin-matching system — one that promised to effortlessly ensure that women were purchasing the “correct” color of foundation by pointing a simple, hand-held artificial intelligence-powered device at a woman’s face to obtain her “color IQ.” This, my friends, is bananas.
And it was especially so back in 2015, when AI datasets were, even more, racist, sexist, and sizeist than they tend to be now. (In 2021, Sephora “relaunched” the Color IQ system with a new proprietary data set as part of its diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments.) Some readers may recall that back in DeBlasio-era 2015 the NYPD was falling — forever failing! — under fire in the press for misidentifying (mostly black) people with AI-powered facial recognition systems. I was teaching around this stuff and I was riveted by it.
Fast forward eight years: Levi’s the capital-A American denim brand (with its own racist history) recently announced that it will begin using AI-generated models in its advertising campaigns as a means of increasing diversity and creating a more “personal and inclusive shopping experience.” (The perfectly-named company in play here? Amsterdam-based Lalaland.ai) While AI-produced models and influencers aren’t brand-spanking new, the idea of adopting AI-generated models to promote diversity rather than sourcing, hiring, and paying actual models is what I would call dicey. Unlike hyper-specific luxury fashion houses (hello, my beloved CDG), mainstream brands such as Levi’s endeavor to sell, sell, sell by reaching as broad a customer base as possible. People want to see themselves in the clothes, and so these brands are seeking to reflect the customer base back upon themselves through artificially-generated images because they are more readily manipulated than actual people. (I challenge Lalaland.ai to recreate my post-baby spider veins!)
Will AI wipe out the modeling industry? Doubtful. Forget about the general hysteria surrounding whether or not artificial intelligence will replace humanity as we know it. Rather, think about the issues around the technical mediation of the body that relates to us all, and how they impact bigger systems. (Here’s a great Time piece on so-called “vanity sizing,” for example — a curiosity in American fashion to begin with, but one that exacerbates the devastating environmental impact of at-home shopping. Apparently, we, as a culture, return around 40% of what we buy online.) Can AI help reduce global waste by taking us, as consumers, one step closer to reality in our online shopping experiences? Perhaps. What systems — technical, social, cultural — are we engaging with to get there?
As for Kate and Colleen, I’m happy to report that both are still producing the sort of rich, complicated work that drew me to them in the first place. Know them if you don’t already.
Related/Unrelated is a feature — the link-heavy guts of my “slow trend” report — that I now write for paid subscribers only. Why subscribe? Perhaps you simply enjoy reading and supporting my writing. More likely, you operate in and around the art/culture/design space and are interested in gleaning more expansive views of emerging trends through deeper reading, looking, and watching. I am very thankful for your support.
One item for today: Here’s a very-bubbly BBC bit on Lalaland.ai. The company considers its product as one that solves the “massive problem of people feeling underrepresented in shopping.”