Whose revolution is this, Pedro Inoue?
"Hello" is the headline of Adbusters issue #163, September 2022, accompanied by the image of a face in pink, white and black war paint, a blank stare and the tagline "This magazine was entirely created by AI". Adbusters went into test mode, heralding the arrival of new technologies in the creative industries before the mainstream AI debates began. São Paulo-based Pedro Inoue has been the magazine's creative director since 2010. I spoke to him about the allure of novelty, intelligent octopuses, and the capitalist core of generative AI.
FS Hi Pedro! What is Adbusters and what should we know about you?
PI Adbusters is a media foundation and its biggest project is a magazine that was founded in 1989. In the early nineties, people were provoked by the idea of criticising capitalism with a glossy magazine. It was the time when history was over, capitalism had won, and all you had was your image, your money, the corporate ladder. Resistance was a Che Guevara flag in a Coca-Cola ad. Adbusters thrived on the idea of anti-advertising, which meant combining the creative work reserved for the advertising industry with fun, satire, politics and direct action. The magazine has always been funded by readers and donations and has never run ads or collaborated with brands. Kalle Lasn, the founder, has managed to keep it independent for more than 30 years.
My background is in design. I worked in London for seven years in a design studio that was quite political and did a lot of personal work questioning capitalism and consumerism. I came back to Brazil 15 years ago and started working with Adbusters.
In my work I think a lot about how activism, design and communication work in the age of social media. And how they can help in the political battles we find ourselves in. The far right, for example, has really flipped the script with Trump, Brexit and Bolsonaro: they're all about anger. They have ecosystems of disinformation, fake news, dark money, hate speech. It's all about emotion and entertainment, and it provokes people to start telling stories. On the other hand, progressive communication is very serious: the climate movement is trying to educate people. It's all about no. We can't win this battle. In this sense, I am trying to push for more emotion.
FS How do you do that?
PI In 2011 we did the Occupy Wall Street poster, the bull and the ballerina, which brought a lot of attention to the foundation and the magazine. What we did was just a spark: We gave the protest a name, a date and an aesthetic. But I still love the idea that a poster started a movement. It says a lot about the power of images in today's society.
Another thing we did was a book called The Creative Destruction of Neo-Classical Economics. It was a hardback with sandpaper on both sides. We knew it would be in the economics section of the library. The idea was that every time someone took it out and put it back in, it would destroy all the other books around it.
FS In September 2022, Adbusters published what may be the first AI-generated magazine. Half of the issue's text and images were AI-generated, the other half conventional, "human-made" content. What was your initial intention?
PI I think I first stumbled across Midjourney last summer, and then suddenly, when version 2 came out, a lot of people in the creative industry and friends told me: “you have to check this out”!. At first, I found it scary and fascinating. I called Kalle and said: this is revolutionary, this is going to change everything. He is 85 years old, so I really had to explain it to him.
The way we usually make the magazine is that he makes a binder. He draws in it and cuts out articles and pictures directly from the books and magazines - all his books are cut out, it gives me the creeps! Then he bundles it all up and gives it to me. So, he does the handmade part and I do the digital part. So when this topic came up, we said, OK, we have to divide the magazine: So it will be half AI and half handmade.
It led to a lot of discussions like: what is the machine trying to tell us? What is the hand trying to say? Can we compare the two, are they symmetrical or not? And in the middle of the magazine, we started to switch: We took texts written by the AI and put them into the handmade side.
FS Oh, you did that? I hadn't noticed!
PI Yes, we wanted to mess with people's perception: can you really believe that this was written by a person? We're in the middle of this confusion, we don't have references or parameters to distinguish one from the other. If I sit outside the Tate Modern and show you a Van Gogh painting that I am selling, it will be very difficult for you to recognise its value. How do you know it's worth millions if it's not in a museum? The context that surrounds the images and stories is important. We wanted to make people question their perception, but in a playful, experimental way.
FS The issue has a double cover: how did you come up with the two images?
PI One of the things that Adbusters always uses in its issues is fashion photography. Because fashion photography can really capture the sentiment of the times and the concept of the system we live in; its full of pride, emptiness and the idea of insufficient beauty. It almost says: you're ugly, you need me to be happy. We use it a lot in our issues, because the stare of a model juxtaposed with another piece of work can really create this feeling of deficiency that hijacks our minds all the time.
So, I was very excited to do a fashion cover. I was working in version 2 of Midjourney, so the skin wasn't good, but the lighting was. The references to fashion photographers and the brand names that we would use in the prompts responded very well. If I used Prada, the flair and composition of the output image would be completely different to if I used Chanel. Gucci as a keyword would give close-ups with lots of embroidery and poppy colours. I realised, wow, the machine already knows these differences. Everything had a very branded feel to it. We played around with those kinds of prompts without getting anywhere. But in the middle of the process, crazy things would happen: Errors, things we hadn't planned to produce, and they would really trigger us: this isn't fashion, it's not a real person, it's not an ad, it's nothing - what is this? We kept saving those parts. So basically, I was trying to make fashion ads and these weird things kept crawling up. That is how the stripes on the face in the AI cover came about.
Also, I love to put zero quality, corrupted JPEGs in the magazine. Mainly because I don't think anyone else can. So, when the AI kept coming back with these kind of corrupted, wrong images, I liked it, it made sense to stick with it.
The photo on the second cover is by my twin brother, Gil Inoue, who is a photographer and works in fashion. I think the black and white connects us to something classic, a bit old. We wanted something familiar, cosy, human to really contrast with the AI side.
FS There is a photo story on the AI side that I really liked: it shows pictures of homeless billionaires. How did that happen?
PI Those pictures were taken by a good friend of mine, Crisma, who wanted to explore the theme of anti-capitalism, and he started doing Bezos and the big billionaires as crack addicts. I sent the images to our staff at the Adbusters office and we immediately knew this is the kind of stuff we should be playing with, this is our ball game.
We developed this aesthetic with Biden and Mohammed bin Salman: we mixed up their portraits and then asked the machine to write a love story between them. It was getting weird. We decided not to edit or change any of the elements because everything felt so new. In the usual process at Adbusters, we would sometimes get rid of 20 pages and start over. But for this issue, it was really strange, we all felt like: Let's just leave it the way it is.
When you work like that, it's like making an illustration, it's all about the ideas. I have a six-year-old who asked me to prompt a Pikachu horror movie poster for him, so we did that. But the result was intense, it was a bad monster. He was terrified when he saw it and I shot the laptop as fast as I could. In that sense, AI is also dangerous when you are producing images. You can't really control the output, you just write.
FS What was the reaction to the magazine?
PI After the issue came out, a lot of people from the Adbusters office came up to me and said they liked the AI side a lot more than the handmade side. I thought that was interesting because they're mostly young, so they're more open to new things. But I think it has to do with the way our minds are wired: we're wired for novelty, so we pay much more attention to the AI side. The handmade side, we've seen that 10,000 times. I think if you introduce something as new, fast, open and easy to use as these AI image generators to a broad audience that's hungry for images, it's like giving crack to kids. It's going to go nuclear.
FS So why did you decide to make this issue?
PI These questions came up. We asked ourselves, aren't we just feeding the monster? But the consensus was: this is a tsunami, we can't stop it, we might as well surf in it. This is a game changer, like the beginning of the Internet. You can say these companies are stealing everyone's talent, but we're not in the driver's seat, it's the money talking. We've got climate activism, anti-capitalism, anti-billionaire ideas flying around, they're in films, they're in books, and we're very close to something exploding or another Occupy. But for something as specific as AI, I think it's very difficult for us to come together and agree that this is bad, let's shut it down. Who is going to shut it down?
I think we should be asking bigger questions: what's the algorithm behind it? I read a fantastic book on this by James Bridle, Ways of being. Do you know it?
FS I've heard of it, but I haven't read it.
PI It's very beautiful because it talks about concepts of intelligence in nature. The problem with AI is that it's too fast. There's an example in the book, the paperclip factory, it goes like this: if a paperclip factory is run by AI, in week one it will create a dynamic to make production shorter and faster so that it can produce more paperclips. In week two, it'll buy raw materials from poorer countries where they're cheaper. A week after that, it'll bribe corrupt politicians in poorer countries to manipulate the price of raw materials. A month after that, it'll start civil wars to take control of countries in the global south. Finally, it'll be king of the world, like Amazon is now. If we call that intelligence, it's a race to see who wins everything. Why are we not discussing that?
In another section Bridle points out that the octopus can change colour, we can't. But that's not recognised as intelligence. But what if we imagine an AI that is written to think like an octopus? I thought that was beautiful. I think we should be asking questions like that.
FS Was it faster to make this issue than other issues?
PI It was. I thought it would be super-fast. But it wasn’t because we had more images to look at. After the novelty passed, what happened was that I kept generating more and more images, waiting for the unpredictable, interesting thing to happen. Now Midjourney is at version five, and it doesn't make as many mistakes. For our latest issue, we're doing a cover with AI, and it comes in handy because we're on a deadline. It's a huge, decadent 3D burger mixed with bling in fluorescent colours. Aesthetically it works, its attention catching. But then I just did a photo essay with Syrian refugees wearing Prada bags. The results are fantastic. But I don't feel they deserve to be in a magazine. So now we're producing all these megabytes, storing them somewhere and increasing CO2 emissions. It makes no sense. The feeling I have now is that the joke is over. In September last year I thought it was funny, I wanted to tell everyone: "Oh my God, design work is done! Obviously, it is getting good now. When we launched the magazine, our slogan "This magazine was entirely created by AI" was not quite true. But six months later, you can go to ChatGPT and ask it to write an Adbusters article, and it would probably give you a real Adbusters article.
FS Looking back on it now, do you think it represents the future of magazine making?
PI Very good question. I think if I gave you a €50 wine and a €5 wine, you'd probably be able to tell the difference. If I gave you a wine that cost €200 and one that cost €2000, you probably wouldn't. What's the grain difference between a Robert Capa photo and a Daidō Moriyama photo? Most people may not understand these subtle differences, and they don't really care whether a product is made by an AI or a human. All they want is a cheaper product and a bit of dignity in their lives as consumers. Most of the commercial and advertising industry will move to AI because it will make them more money. And that's the formula behind everything. But before a fully automated future, there will be a transition. This is where external forces and institutions come in. If we let the AI paperclip factory run us, there won't be any humanity left. And I'm saying that in the most poetic and democratic sense. Because right now we're not in power, the corporations are, and the formula is more money and eternal growth. This is a wave that we can't stop, and most designers and photographers will be submerged by it, but it will not eliminate all forms of creative work. I am not scared. Although the Pope image, I have to admit, freaked me out. I believed it for 6 hours.
FS (laughs) Really?
PI I thought it was true! I thought, wow, he looks so fashionable. And hours later my brother said, "No, Pedro, that's AI". It freaked me out. I thought, who will be able to tell the difference. The images of Trump being arrested, running from the police... all we wanted was a Trump mug shot, and now all we need is the imagination of it and the news that he's going to court, and bang you've got the image. That's communication today. You produce a fake, but at the same time you put an image in people's minds. And maybe in the future it will be about the number of hours that people believed it was true.
So, my designer side is freaking out and saying we're not going to have work in the future. But my activist side tells me: The king is naked, and everyone can see it. It doesn't make sense for us to continue living like this, making rich people richer. There's space for activism, together with the climate movement, the indigenous movements, the social movements of the global south. But there is no way to stop these corporate capitalist forces. What you can do is go to the movies and watch Triangle of Sadness or Parasite, which were about hating the rich class. Activism can add to that feeling and it can try to speak truth to power.
Pedro Inoue on instagram
Check out the love story between Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman here
Buy the print magazine of the Adbusters AI issue here (there is also a pdf download available)
And find out about James Bridle: Ways of Being. Animals, Plants, Machines - The Search for a Planetary Intelligence.
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