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I felt the need to place the last portrait of my mother where I spend most of my time, in my studio, so as to pass through my mourning. My eyes and heart wide open.

Her half-smile, immutably fixed on paper, transformed into a life buoy to which I clung during the immense tsunami of sadness and helplessness that formed at the end of her life.

I would have wanted to free her from the disease that was decomposing her, to tear out the tumors with my own hands, to leave only what was intact, knowing that nothing was. Except maybe her skeleton.

In another time, before incineration became the norm to reduce the corpse and its billions of cells to a handful of colorless dust, I might have wanted to keep my mother's skull on my desk, in a box, with some dried roses, a candle, and incense. A kind of intimate ossuary. The skull cult has long been a widespread practice in several cultures; the image of a loved one now substitutes their actual remains.

Photography, the ultimate trace, like a skeleton of memory.

In the middle of July 2022, while haunted by the last moments spent with my mother before her death, I want to generate an image of death.

 

I start to formulate my request to the bot of Midjourney, the text-to-image application that will cause a lot of ink to flow in the coming months. A few weeks before the controversy over AI surged, I joined the group of testers who experiment with the algorithm in private beta mode. And I was immediately deeply stimulated by the possibilities offered by this new tool.

That night, I write a few sentences in a sudden burst of storytelling, then I erase everything and write a single word: death, as if I were cautiously dipping a toe into the black water of a foggy lake before daring to dive in. I know it will be insufficient, that the command is far too basic, but I never tire of testing the limits of AI. Everything is material for image creation: poetry, book titles, scientific paragraphs, mainly technical data; I amused myself by creating "exquisite corpses" by copying and pasting bits of my own random texts. The more I explore the neurons of this enigmatic virtual brain, the more I am stimulated to do so.

AI begins to bring up suggestions, at first blurry, all similar. Four presences covered with a long black veil. Some in the middle of a cemetery, others surrounded by strange red flowers. The souls of the departed, perhaps? AI has personified Death in a conventional way.

The application is easy to use - indeed, a single word (or even a number) is enough to trigger a process - but the results obtained are just as marked by ease. To test the power of the algorithm, one must learn to work the art of the prompt, that is, to multiply attempts at assembling literary fragments that are both descriptive and sufficiently poetic to stimulate interpretation, while detailing technical parameters concerning format, lighting, textures; all photographic data, from film type to depth of field, including effects such as bokeh, bloom, vignetting.

I need to elaborate my command. And therefore first precisely determine what I want. Or what I don't want. It is out of the question to generate a photograph of a corpse in a criminal or macabre context. In any case, the algorithm probably does not allow it. The number of words and expressions being censored grows day by day. Exit "sensuality" and "female body".

I try instead to create a spectrum. AI assumes that I am referring to a ghost. It again brings up silhouettes covered with sheets, but this time it chooses an immaculate veil, like Halloween costumes. I am then struck by an obviousness that had hitherto escaped me: the ghosts of popular culture, those that float and twirl in amusing cartoons, are made up of a death shroud, the one that covers corpses in the morgue. I had never thought about it. I may never think about it again. However, for a few moments, I am mesmerized by the morbid aspect of this costume that seemed so childish to me. These two AI proposals triggered a reflection process around the veiled body; a new series will indeed emerge a week later, but that night, I am still looking for an in-between, an image that evokes both death, disappearance, but also the presence of a being. Like the photograph of my mother on my desk, both dead and alive.

 

My gaze oscillates between the last portrait of my mother and the blinking cursor on the screen, which looks like a linear white heart. A bone heart. Yes, I'm there. This is exactly what I want to see appear. A bone. Bones.

 

My poetic perception of the skeleton is hatching.

 

The skeleton, this component of the being that resists decomposition, is a kind of sublime achievement. I have always been fascinated by its strange beauty, by its purity.

I rummage through my archives and find photographs of my visit to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. I took dozens of pictures of countless skeletons, many of which belong to animals that disappeared millions of years ago, which trace a kind of maze between the ultimate structures of the living.

I instruct the AI to merge some of my photos of real skeletons and others, created in 3D modeling. I begin to explore not only the structure of humans, but also the temporal markers of the image. I want to create photographs that appear as ancient as the skeletons they feature. I refine my command.

Every time I repeat my query, the algorithm tirelessly offers me four new proposals. I alter my textual equation to intertwine striking memories of these deceased beings ; I draft bits of poem, I invent moments of existence, professions, states of consciousness, relationships. Dozens, then hundreds of skeletons pile up ; never the same ones. Perhaps I could generate all the skeletons in the history of humanity.

At the same time, something is positioning itself in my novelistic work ; these images are linked to a passage to be written. I glance at the portrait of my mother and, behind her moved smile, I detect a strange glow. Her skull appears, in watermark, moon-colored, with a nacreous texture like that of a pearl.

digital images | text : KAROLINE GEORGES

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