Still from Don Edler, "Devil You Know" (2020) (all images courtesy Don Edler and Hunter Shaw Fine Art)

LOS ANGELES — Do AIs dream of revolution? Don Edler’s Devil You Know — now screening online at Hunter Shaw Fine Art — suggests they can, although not in the way you might expect. Part video essay and performance art, the feature-length work looks at the emergence of artificial intelligence systems in political discourse and civic life, exacerbated by a media landscape that prioritizes impressions over immersion and aesthetics over substance. The disquieting reality of these AIs, despite being inadequate mimics of human behavior or social ethics, is that they may be convincing enough to foment and agitate people into dangerous political extremes.

Interspersed in the video essay are segments about deep fakes and media conspiracies from the past decade, like pro-Kremlin Russian trolls undermining 2016 US elections or the Sinclair Broadcast Group directing local news affiliates to stoke distrust of journalists and the media. These segments are narrated by Amazon Polly text-to-speech synthesis technology, although the true star of the video is the GPT-3 AI, designed by the OpenAI laboratory, that generated the film’s script based on inputs by Edler: language and discourses from radical online spaces, ostensibly across the spectrum from left to right.

GPT-3 is a deep learning-based language model designed to replicate human speech. It is, by all accounts, a capable wordsmith, but it has glaring flaws in its capacity for social and psychological reasoning as well as a propensity for non sequiturs, shortcomings that once led a medical chatbot using GPT-3’s text generation to encourage a fake patient to commit suicide. While certainly no one should take clinical advice from GPT-3, the AI script in Devil You Know begs the question of whether the same precautions should be taken with how we experience and interpret other forms of AI-generated language.

Still from Don Edler, Devil You Know (2020)

Edler directs two human actors to interpret and perform the AI’s script as familiar archetypes, making us consider how physical embodiment and emotional affect influence how we process language and speech. Actor Nikelola Balogun, who is Black, plays several variations on a character named Zoe, her first segment inflected with Valleyspeak and another scene with a West African accent. The other character, played by Joel Pelletier, presents as a professorial white man: tweed jacket, tortoise shell glasses, and prone to rambling lectures about “socio-capitalism” and the hubris of elected officials.

These visual and linguistic signifiers of race, class, and gender shape how we might internalize what is being said, even if what’s being expressed is politically incoherent or reactionary. In one scene, Zoe begins to describe capitalism as the “real enemy,” only to devolve into a rant about raising taxes on “hard-working Americans” and the financial burden of “civilized citizens.” These AI-generated ideologies, seemingly drawn from the deep wells of partisan online discourse, are beguiling as they are ideologically amorphous. Like a mondegreen that sticks in your head, the deployment of certain words or phrases can be easily mistaken as shared affinity or cogent analysis.

While imperfect, GPT-3 is too human in one regard. It parrots what it thinks would sound good at the expense of substance, defaulting to platitudes when it has nothing more to say: “Maybe capitalism is good. The devil you know, the better it is. The devil you don’t, the worse it is.”

Devil You Know continues online at Hunter Shaw Fine Art through February 7.

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?

Avatar photo

Abe Ahn

Abe is a writer based in Los Angeles.