The Tarot card, Liquid Reservoir, takes shape through various versions. Photo courtesy of the Visual Methodologies Collective

How to break free from this apocalypse fatigue? – three researchers on writing climate stories with A.I.-agents

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2023

Doom, destruction, fire and brimstone are generally what come to mind when imagining climate futures. Visions of robot takeovers and human redundancy at the hands of racist algorithms surround conversations of artificial intelligence. What a bleak future to (not) look forward to. Can we still imagine alternative climate stories? Olivia Brown sits down with Dr. Sabine Niederer, Dr. Natalia Sánchez Querubín, and Carlo De Gaetano to find out.

On the Wibautstraat in Amsterdam sits the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences; a practice-based university that houses the highly interdisciplinary Visual Methodologies Collective. I sat down with some of its members: Dr. Sabine Niederer, Dr. Natalia Sánchez Querubín, and Carlo De Gaetano, to talk about their projects Turning to Birds and All Gone: Invoking Climate Futures. Together, the projects entail collectively created short stories, podcast episodes of readings of those stores, an academic paper, and a tarot card deck. Simply put, this combined work is about imagining alternative climate futures to the catastrophic ones we hear so often, additionally through the collaboration with A.I. software. The two types of A.I. the team worked with—one text-based, one visual—ended up in the creation of new stories of what the future could look, taste, and feel like.

For their first project, Turning to Birds, an artificial intelligence, GPT-2, was fed a database of the top-selling cli-fi novels as listed by Amazon. Cli-fi is a genre of speculative fiction concerning the climate crisis, and has gained significant traction in the past few years. When the A.I. has a sufficiently large database to work with, researchers can then prompt the A.I. to generate an output, like a text or an image. After some back-and-forth, GPT-2 responded best to receiving a date as a prompt, and 11 journal entries with qualities of haunting surreality, of a world alien and yet understandable, were written. Here is an example of one of the eleven short stories the A.I. helped them to create:

Episode 3. Out around the river
Monday, September 3rd.

Shame, shame. We got so filthy rich that now it’s nice to see something back on the Wall, even if we’re only on it for the week. The Captain brought us a boat to the end of the watchtower. It’s an oareb (OC boat). When I got to the water I stripped off my clothes and jumped into the boat. The boat circles around the river like a pool on a pool table. The Captain didn’t remind me of anything, but I still felt kind of weird. My first fifteen minutes on the water were total silence. We just sat in the boat and stared at the sky.

The second thing I noticed was the colour change. The water looked PURPLEY different. There is no such thing as a dull shade of blue. I was finally seeing some of the shades pop out around the river, like someone using a colouring program to colour pictures on a monitor. It’s like someone going on a trip to the colour revolution. The one that makes people sick is called Van Gogh’s sun bomb.

Six story excerpts printed on the back of Tarot cards. Photo courtesy of Carlo De Gaetano and the Visual Methodologies Collective

The beginning of their sprawling project was a summer school, when Amsterdam’s skies were blue and its sidewalks hot. A group of researchers were busy thinking about two things: what are the commonalities in narratives about climate change, and how are those being communicated online.

Carlo De Gaetano, a researcher with a background in communication and design, tells me: ‘At one of the Digital Methods Initiative (UvA) summer schools, researchers and designers were looking at a collection of classic climate fiction bestselling novels on Amazon. They were trying to highlight patterns in the stories like summaries, characters, landscape, and settings.’ All three researchers have an interest in the digital landscape, like social media. ‘We wondered’, De Gaetano continues, ‘could we change the way we communicate about it, or how we approach people about it? Could that lead to new climate imaginaries? Stepping away from resorting to tropes, like the polar bear, or the images of doom that are used to communicate this topic, we wanted to lean into a more intimate way of building these types of conversations.’

Sabine Niederer, a professor of Visual Methodologies at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, nods to the writings of Amitav Ghosh, specifically his book, The Great Derangement. Ghosh’s 2016 book is essentially a treatise on how our imagination on the climate crisis, and therefore the stories we tell about it, need to be examined and adapted. Ghosh asks his readers to examine the narratives that they have come to accept, and how these can be disrupted.

—Olivia Brown What was the influence of Ghosh’s work?

—Dr. Sabine Niederer ‘[His book] was really sort of a call to artistic action. We were already studying climate change in depth, and this book really felt like an invitation to contribute to the actual topic. We wanted to do so in an artistic, designer-ly way. As researcher, you can easily shy away from the topic you are researching. You could think: “Okay, we're going to study how it's how it's visualized and that’s that.” But you can also try to really take up Ghosh’ invitation and contribute to the imaginaries that are out there.’

’We wondered: could we change the way we communicate about climate change, or how we approach people about it? Could that lead to new climate imaginaries?’

The Tarot cards, All Gone and Floating Dartboards, made through a collaboration with the image-making A.I.'s, AttnGAN and X-LXMERT, and the Visual Methodologies Collective. Photo courtesy of the Visual Methodologies Collective

—Olivia Brown You mentioned that the A.I.s were co-authors. Can you elaborate on how you used A.I. as a collaborator instead of simply as a tool?

—Dr. Natalia Sánchez Querubín (assistant professor in the New Media department at the University of Amsterdam) ‘Present in all of these projects is always a desire to use tools and digital research tools in a more creative kind of way. In one case, you could use it simply to analyze. But in this project, we use it to foster a critical attitude for making. We decided to test tools like A.I., network analysis, and data gathering to see what we can do with those materials. Where do they intersect with our artistic aims?’

—Carlo De Gaetano ‘We decided to approach these artificial intelligences as sparring partners rather than as tools to create stuff with from scratch. These A.I.-collaborators do not generate text or images automatically; they have to be trained first. When you give it a word or a sentence to start with, that is: when you prompt it, it will start creating stories. As said, one recurring narrative trope in the climate fiction turned out to be the diary format. So we prompted our A.I.-partner with dates from the future, for example, “Saturday, April 2, 2041,” and that worked out quite well. It just started to tell us what will happen that day, and then we had a collection of quite some stories.’

—Dr. Sabine Niederer ‘In earlier tests, when we only fed climate change keywords, like “drought” or “flood”, the resulting stories would be completely absurd and too difficult to work with. Feeding these intelligences with more specific words or sentences, like April 2nd, resulted in stories that were a bit more coherent, yet still funny and outrageous.’

Having decided on the journaling format for their stories, the team worked with a climate fiction author, Janine Armin, to select vivid passages from the large amount of output that GTP-2 generated. When those excerpts were finalized, those stories inspired the Tarot card deck that makes up yet another part of this project.

—Olivia Brown Can you explain the connection between the stories and the Tarot card deck?

—Dr. Sabine Niederer ‘There were a few outputs that didn't always have to do immediately with climate change, but were more these evocative passages that we thought could really open up reflection. In a similar vein, a Tarot card does not so much say “oh, here's my crystal ball, and I'm going to tell you what the future looks like,” but really acts more as an intimate tool for reflection. We figured that the stories we selected could also be taken as a pack of Tarot cards, also known as Major Arcana.’

Here comes into view the second step of this project; All Gone: Invoking Climate Futures, in which image generating models, AttnGAN and X-LXMERT, were fed samples of text that the team felt were particularly stirring. Similar to the craze of A.I. generated DALL-E images that took the internet by storm in 2022, these two predecessor A.I.s are fed text, and then output images. De Gaetano then pasted the generated images together in digital collages that became the six Tarot cards of the Major Arcana in All Gone. During the process, the collaboration with the machine sometimes went foul, with the A.I. generating people with faces that conjured up the uncanny valley rather than eyes, a nose, and a mouth. The three laugh about the demon child they’ve conjured, then De Gaetano describes that they went into more allegorical descriptions, prompting the A.I. with reservoirs, liquids, or treasure. Lastly, over Google slides (in the heat of lockdown), the group metaphorically sat together and laid their cards out on the table, writing their first impressions and feelings of the images before them. Again, there is an emphasis on how they chose to work with the A.I.

‘By rejecting this predictability, we may also change the future of how the crisis plays out’

The Tarot card, Liquid Reservoir, takes shape through various versions. Photo courtesy of the Visual Methodologies Collective

—Olivia Brown How did you prompt the image-generating A.I., and how did you collaborate with the machine, versus using them as a tool?

—Dr. Sabine Niederer ‘Today you might say: “give me a murky reservoir”, and see what DALL-E gives you. But we like to approach this intelligence differently, centralizing other questions, such as: “What are you going to give me, and then which do I select? What kind of landscape shall we make?” To me, this sounds much more collaborative than throwing an elaborate prompt.’

—Dr. Natalia Sánchez Querubín ‘We wanted to involve machine learning as a process and not as an output. While researching, we were always reflecting on this technology. Slowing down the use of it, putting into context with existing ways of making art, generating conversations. So the final images are human-made, rather than machine-outputted, thanks to the intensive and deliberate guidance of the research team.’

—Dr. Sabine Niederer ‘Sometimes we tried to outsource something to a machine. For instance, with the podcast, we first tested with a synthetic voice. However, it was so distracting. We decided, this is not working, because it draws away from the substance of what you’re trying to tell with it.’

—Olivia Brown I personally am a bit curious about the human element behind this project—what your individual relationships are with the climate crisis, as well as how that drives the work. We can have a philosophical conversation about separating the artist from the work, but ultimately what’s happening in the world is affecting you, too.

—Dr. Sabine Niederer ‘I touched upon it a little bit at the start when I spoke about this invitation I felt to really engage with the topic, to do more. Studying it might not be enough to really make a dent. Engaging with it in many, many forms, also outside of the academic realm is extremely important in order to open up the topic. As a precursor for action, you also need to be able to imagine it as an issue that affects you, and the many generations that come after you. You first need to be invited into the imagination of this topic, and I think that that is where you find the full force of work.’

—Dr. Natalia Sánchez Querubín ‘It’s something we all experience a bit; a lot of these futures in the books and imaginaries are very dark and can be quite overwhelming. It becomes difficult to think about what there is beyond the Hollywood catastrophe movie. We wanted to sit with that feeling, to look at these futures but also re-open them, talk about them, and reactivate them. We need more than the catastrophe narrative. We need facts, and to be aware, but also to be able to think about possibilities, now that it becomes difficult.’

—Carlo De Gaetano ‘I can resonate with Natalia says. I wondered: how can we break free from this apocalypse fatigue? How can we first recognize the boundaries that were set up on our imagination when talking about the future? As a visual designer, I was intrigued to find out the approaches we usually take and follow. The inspiration of Ghosh shines through in his sentiment; there is a reminder that our imagination and our stories about the climate crisis have the chance to escape predictable doomsday scenarios. By rejecting this predictability, we may also change the future of how the crisis plays out.’

‘We tend to revert back to either doom and gloom when talking about climate futures. How can we take this topic back from seemingly distant images of polar bears of factories to something people can imagine, talk about, and reflect on?’

Viewers examine an enlarged print of one of the Tarot cards at the All Gone exhibition. Photo by Pepe Carrasco

—Dr. Sabine Niederer ‘We tend to revert back to either doom and gloom when talking about climate futures. We wondered: how can we take this topic back from seemingly distant images of polar bears of factories to something people can imagine, talk about, and reflect on?’

—Carlo De Gaetano ‘How can we let people fantasize wildly about the future, while also allowing for a grounded imaginary? I think that is the most challenging question for us. After all, any image of the future is rooted in contemporary climate problems.’

Those contemporary problems include the influence of technology, including A.I. and the internet. Perhaps everyone could use more positive narratives for how it could all unfold, and that includes creative engagements with technologies and futures we’ve been programmed to fear. They half-joke that their work has been generative, not unlike their A.I. co-authors. The team have made a point to share their project with younger audiences in the Netherlands, meanwhile several spin-off projects have emerged abroad, including working with a choreographer in Brazil. The podcast episodes, narrated by Janine Armin can be found here. The time for fear and inaction in our academic institutions has passed, if not for everyone else, then without a doubt for the Visual Methodologies Collective. If you ever find yourself on the Wibautstraat, look up at the facade of the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, and know that a group of people are dreaming up a different future.

Click here for more information on the Visual Methodologies Collective

Olivia Brown
is an artist and writer from New Orleans, LA, currently finishing her MA in Artistic Research at the UvA surrounding themes of cli-fi, Black bodies, and contamination

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2023