Almost Crimes

The band Broken Social Scene on stage mid-song. December 17th, 2022 in Toronto

I was at a Broken Social Scene show in Toronto and as the band walked onto the stage a handful of cell phones were raised to attention for the perfect shot.

To my left, an older man with a thick white mustache and complementary wiry beard pulled his phone out of his pocket. It was folded inside one of those leather cases with an awkward little peephole window in the front. Over the course of the show he recorded various snippets of songs with his camera app, each time flipping open the case, turning it on, hovering his thumb to find the icon he desired before tapping open a folder with a single camera app – the folder in question?

“Folder name”

This was a minor distraction for someone who’s easily distracted. But there was something that distracted me more.

Behind the band, a kaleidoscopic background was spinning and spreading a trippy palette of color across the back wall. Watching the background transition and morph across pictures I quickly spotted the hallmarks of “AI generated” images. Each frame slipped into view, melding and merging, incremental shifts as faces and shapes surfaced as if seen through a technicolor fog.

There were unintelligible words, transcriptions of descriptions of letters no one has ever seen before.

All the lines drawn had a strange alien quality, gloopy ink splotches always straining to escape along their axis.

I thought about the artist who created the visuals. I thought about what prompt they used. I wondered how long it took them to generate the video – was this edited after the fact or was it the raw stream from an almost-bleeding-edge tool. Had there been a deadline?

And what happened when they first showed the results of their work to the band or whoever signs off on this sort of thing? Were they impressed? Did they comprehend how much this work was the result of a melting pot of the work of countless, uncredited artists? Did the artist consider the same, fatalistically wondering if their art in turn would be remixed and blended into a creative sludge, a stablised average of every unique inspiration anyone had ever conceived?

I would say I’m someone who’s slightly more online than average. As a result I know the tells of art that’s been procedurally generated. It’s not a notable skill, I’m sure thousands if not millions of others could do the same.

But for the average attendee of the show – or for people who don’t know or care to change the default name of a folder on their phone – I would wager these AI manifestations were only distracting because of their virtue: they looked impressive.

I’m not sure what happens next. We are nowhere near the widespread adoption of these techniques. They are yet to become commonplace although there are indications this transition is well on it’s way. Image generation may be able to lose those qualities that make it obvious but I think the aesthetics will be harder to scrub away.

The aging superfan next to me reached into his trenchcoat once more and fumbled for his phone. He flipped open the case, turned it on, hunted for the right app and tapped: “Folder name.”