POINTLESS CROSS is a new project, born from a simple idea, perhaps, but one that embodies great potential. I’ve always been fascinated by the Spoon River Anthology. And I’ve always tried to write something that fascinated me in the same way, from a conceptual point of view.
Spoon River has always represented, for me, something elusive: another reality, different, capable of capturing you and never letting you go. Able to keep the reader in this apparently microscopic narrative universe but infinite in its dreamscape and intangible dimension.
This project stems from my need, never satisfied, to be able to grasp, even for a brief moment, that peculiar and subtle reality and make it mine. My way.
Faces, looks, expressions. Lives. Spoon River, through writing and with a brilliant idea at its base, succeeds in creating another world, a world that can be explored, thanks to the epitaphs of the characters. An indelible sign of what has been, told us through the voice of the people who lived there. And died there. Posthumous. As a final, and a bit blurry, analysis of what has been and what is now.
Spoon River characters tell themselves what they are, without remorse and without hesitation. They have nothing more to lose. They’re dead. Their epitaphs are their last testament. Their latest endorsement of a troubled or incredible existence. Told with extreme clarity and in no uncertain terms.
Lee Masters’ idea is so powerful that has left its mark on generations and generations of readers. Lastly, on me.
This is why I have always tried to write something that, even remotely, reminded me of his work. Because being able to write and subsequently read the comments of a lifetime, although not real, like those of the protagonists, is something that leaves a mark and nails them to the paper on which the characters are engraved. It makes them real, despite their non-existing nature. It projects them into a reality closer to us. More intimate.
They become tangible. Graspable.
I wanted to give myself the opportunity to explore a new world. Something of mine that, at the same time, developed into something else. On its own. Likewise, I wanted to try my hand at something other than just telling simple epitaphs. This is why I thought of a series of interviews, setting everything in a small suburban cyberpunk city, Pointless Cross, and I decided it should be a Spoon River sister city.
As a tribute and at the same time as an inspiration.
Having someone to interview (journalism is another passion of mine) is, perhaps for me, something unique. Because in this way I can make the characters express themselves at their best and, at the same time, express myself at my best, trying not to rely on something real, to be copied. I really wanted to find a way to interview the characters. And make them real with my words. Trying to give them that depth that only the Spoon River Anthology can give to its deceased characters.
Something came back to me. Something I had seen some time ago on the web. Something that ultimately came in handy for this project. I’m talking about some software (like the outstanding This Person Does Not Exist project, the name says it all) that creates people faces using a style-based generative adversarial network (StyleGAN). This kind of software have always attracted my attention, since the artificial intelligence at the base is able to create human faces from scratch. Different every time. The faces created by this kind of algorithms are so realistic and truthful that they are an incredible source of inspiration.
To simply put, I found what I was looking for. I downloaded the software and had infinite subjects to be interviewed and voiced through my writing. To see how far I could go and what I could achieve. Characters who, in my hope, can in a few short paragraphs, explain themselves to the world and define themselves for what they are. Or what they think they are. People, as well as characters.
Presences that live in a well-defined context. Outlined with short strokes, like a charcoal moved with a crazy hand on a white sheet.
After starting the project and writing some initial interviews, I had an epiphany and asked myself: "Why not raise the bar? Why not go all the way with this project?" The step, therefore, to conclude this artistic journey was to use artificial intelligence to make the characters in Pointless Cross talk and live.
By fully exploiting the power of some artificial intelligence driven tools like DALL-E 2 and ChatGPT, I trained them to simulate human behavior in order to gradually obtain fresh, new, and intriguing expressions and interviews. This project is, of course, still in progress but from the initial results, I can only say that I am satisfied.
From a social and cultural perspective, the use of artificial intelligence to create fake interviewees for a project has the potential to raise important questions about the nature of authenticity and the role of technology in shaping our understanding of reality. By blurring the line between real and fake, this project may prompt discussions about the trustworthiness of information and the ways in which technology can be used to manipulate public perception.
Additionally, the use of AI-generated interviewees also highlights the ongoing debate surrounding the ethical implications of AI and its impact on society. As the technology continues to advance, it is crucial to consider the potential consequences of using AI in ways that could potentially mislead or deceive individuals.
Spoon River Anthology, the collection of free verse epitaphs written by Edgar Lee Masters, is not only my point of reference but, in my thoughts, a notable parallel for this project as it also presents a collection of voices from the dead. In Spoon River, Masters gives voice to the inhabitants of a fictional small town, allowing them to speak from beyond the grave and share their perspectives on life, death and the human condition. Similarly, this project that uses AI-generated interviewees to create fake people, can give voice to perspectives and experiences that may not otherwise be heard.
Like Spoon River, this project has the potential to challenge our understanding of authenticity and reality. Spoon River's use of the dead as narrators raises questions about the nature of memory and the ways in which the past is remembered and represented. Similarly, this project's use of AI-generated interviewees raises questions about the trustworthiness of information and the extent to which technology can shape our understanding of reality.
It is also important to note that Spoon River, despite being a fictional work, it is based on real people and real-life experiences. This project can be thought of in a similar way. The use of AI-generated interviewees can be used to explore and represent real experiences, perspectives and emotions in a way that is not bound by the constraints of reality.
The Spoon River Anthology and this project both use the power of fiction to challenge our understanding of authenticity, reality, and memory. Both projects use unconventional narrators to give voice to perspectives and experiences that may not otherwise be heard. They can be thought as a tool to explore, represent and shed light on human experiences in a creative way.
Consider the movie THE MATRIX. It's a science fiction action film that explores the concept of reality and the nature of consciousness. The film centers around a group of characters living in a simulated reality created by intelligent machines, who are unaware that their world is not real. Similarly, this project, which uses AI-generated interviewees to create fake people, blurs the line between real and fake, and raises questions about the nature of authenticity and the trustworthiness of information.
In both THE MATRIX and this project, the audience is presented with a constructed reality that is not immediately obvious as such. The main characters in the movie, as well as the interviewees in this project, are not aware that their world is not real, and it is left to the audience to question the nature of reality and the ways in which it can be manipulated.
From a philosophical perspective, the nature of reality and authenticity is a complex and nuanced topic. In this project, the AI-generated interviewees are not real people and are not aware of their nature, as mentioned above. However, this does not necessarily make them "less real".
One could argue that the interviewees in this project are a representation or simulation of reality, similar to a work of fiction, and can be thought of as a tool to explore, represent, and shed light on human experiences in a creative way. In this sense, they can be seen as a form of expression, a way of giving voice to perspectives and experiences that may not otherwise be heard. To simply put: whether the AI-generated interviewees in this project can be considered "real" or "less real" is a complex and nuanced topic that depends on how they are used and perceived. They are a representation or simulation of reality and a tool to explore and represent human experiences in a creative way.
To me, this project is a bold and ambitious undertaking, utilizing cutting-edge technology to create a unique narrative experience. Through the use of artificial intelligence-generated interviewees (and advanced language models coming from ChatGPT), the project delves into the complexities of human experience and the blurred lines between reality and fiction.
A great deal of thought and care is injected into the creation of each artificial interviewee, starting from an AI generated picture and writing down a backstory for each one who end up possessing a distinct personality, backstory, and set of experiences. The use of a cyberpunk city like Pointless Cross as the setting adds a layer of familiarity and relatability to the narrative, while also allowing for a deeper exploration of the universal human experiences of longing, fear, and the search for belonging.
Furthermore, the parallelism with the Spoon River Anthology and The Matrix movie, adds depth and complexity to the project, making it more than just a mere experiment with technology but, in my vision, a commentary on society and human nature.
Critics may argue that the artificial nature of the interviewees may detract from the emotional impact of the story, however, it is precisely this artificiality that allows for a unique perspective on the human experience. The project challenges our preconceptions of what it means to be "real" and forces us to question the nature of our own reality.
Overall, this project of mine ams to be a thought-provoking and innovative work that pushes the boundaries of storytelling and technology. It might become a must-see for anyone interested in the intersection of art and technology and the nature of human experience.
The Spoon River Anthology's focus on the secrets, regrets and memories of a small town's inhabitants, and THE MATRIX movie's exploration of the nature of reality and control, both serve to highlight the project's exploration of these themes.
The artificial nature of the interviewees serves as a powerful metaphor for the constructed nature of our own reality and the roles we play within it. It forces the audience to question their own perceptions of what it means to be "real" and highlights the societal pressures that shape our identities.
This project aims at self-reflection on human condition.
This project is constantly evolving. It will probably never end. I hope reading these interviews will be just as interesting as I found designing them, trying to grasp those characters in a satisfying way.
Starting with a beautiful face.
That doesn’t really exist.
Until the written words nail them to this reality.
Matteo Bonvicino is a game designer and a novel writer.
He lives in Italy and you can find more info about him by visiting his website.