01 Feb 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

In a New York Times opinion piece from January 15th, 2023 [1], Frank Pavich presents gorgeous images from “Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1976 version of ‘Tron.’” [2] The images in the article are beautiful vintage stills from the incomplete circa 1970’s film. The catch is, these stills do not come from an incomplete film. Instead, they were generated by an A.I. program called Midjourney. The A.I. images were easily created:

“A simple prompt is all it took. A few words – in this case, slight variations on “production still from 1976 of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Tron” – followed by under a minute of waiting, and a computer deep in the racks of a data center somewhere, sifting through the numbers encoded into its memory banks associated with the words “Tron” and “Jodorowsky.”

“It has scanned the collected works of thousands upon thousands of photographers, painters and cinematographers. It has a deep library of styles and facility with all kinds of image-making techniques at its digital fingertips.” [3]

This description highlights the importance of the quality and quantity of metadata that connects subjects across collections between “photographers, painters and cinematographers.” These descriptive textual connections provide the foundation for a network of signification. This concatenation of text is translated by the A.I. into works of visual art that appear authentic, at least relative to the searched-for subjects and terms. Pavich rightly questions:


“To what extent do these rapidly generated images contain creativity? And from what source is that creativity emerging? Has Alejandro been robbed? Is the training of the A.I. model the greatest art heist in history? How much of art-making is theft, anyway?

“What will it mean when directors, concept artists and film students can see with their imaginations, when they can paint using all the digitally archived visual material of human civilization? When our culture starts to be influenced by scenes, sets and images from old films that never existed or that haven’t yet even been imagined?” [4]

What impact can this type of technology have upon the book arts?  Artists, photographers, book artists and others create new and fascinating works. All artists already create using portions of the archived cultural materials of human civilization. And so it is incredible to imagine how book arts could move forward in new and creative directions if they were based upon art and images from the history of art that never existed, but which appears plausible enough that it should be incorporated with the archive. In Jean Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra” (1981) he begins by talking about what he considers “the finest allegory of simulation: the short story by Jorge Luis Borges titled “Del rigor en la ciencia” or On the Rigor of Science (1960) [5]. This short story tells how in a lost empire there were cartographers that were so precise that the map of a province was the size of a city, and the map of an empire was the size of a province. Eventually the cartographers, unsatisfied with these previous disproportionate maps, created a map of the empire that was the exact dimension of the empire and coincided exactly, point by point, with the empire itself. As the empire declined, it witnessed “the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the desert.” [6] Baudrillard then points out that:

“Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the [Borgesian] fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours.” [7]

The book, and by association book arts, are the most portable, and arguably the most permanent, repository of human experience and knowledge. While books are perceived as preserving territories of referential being, artist books and the book arts have manipulated, and will continue to manipulate the “referential being or substance” of all history. However, as the metanarratives that define “referential being or substance” are pushed aside by all forms of art, there are many new permutations that can, and will, occur. Using the book as the locus of physical creation, like the map of the cartographers, book artists are creating “the map that precedes the territory.” The simulation mirrors a reality that was not, but that could have been.

“It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance.” [8]

The creation of a movie that was fabricated by an A.I. able to extrapolate what things could have been and provide a hyperreal simulacrum of what it can interpolate based upon shreds of metadata that represent the last vestiges of the map presents a reason why the book arts are so important today. They can take the cast-off metanarratives and ideologies that propose absurdities regarding what could happen, but probably should not, and promote a new way of looking at the world that could employ the irrational in order to alter our perception of the past, and thus reconstitute what it means to live in the present. Imagine as a project, for example, the fabrication of a simulated hyperreal history book, which employs near authentic facsimile images of history to recreate and alter history from what it was to what it could have been. This represents both an incredible tool for education as well as indoctrination. It’s enough to give the cartographers the willies.

[1] Pavich, Frank. "This Film does Not Exist: [Opinion]." New York Times, Jan 15, 2023, Late Edition (East Coast).  [2, 3, 4] Ibid.

[5] Borges, Jorge Luis, “El hacedor” (1960), from Jorge Luis Borges. Jorge Luis Borges: Obras completas. Tomo 2. Emecé Editorial, 2005. p. 241.

[6] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1994. p. 1. [7] Ibid.  [8] Ibid., p.2]


Peter Tanner is an Associate Instructor in Spanish at the University of Utah and Editor of Openings: Studies in Book Art. He has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature, an MA in Latin American Art History, and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking. His research focuses on artist books from Latin America.

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