Rule Breakers: Carolina Montejo

“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule."

Rule Setter: Emily Knapp, Co-founder and Creative Director, After 1920
Rule Breaker: Carolina Montejo

Perhaps AI-created “art” seems too easy a target for a trend I’d like to see wither on the vine, but with this new medium creeping into legitimizing venues in a more substantial way, it feels relevant to continue the conversation being had by critics like Jerry Saltz and James Elkins. The La famille de Belamy portraits created by GAN (an algorithm made by Paris-based collective Obvious) recently offered at auction by Christies, alongside the abstract works made at the Rutger’s Artificial Intelligence laboratory (named 2017’s biggest artistic achievement by Artsy) all leave me with a sense of yawning emptiness. These works offer a shadowy approximation of art rendered by style codes plugged into an algorithm, completely devoid of the intention, context, and humanity that has drawn people to art since primitive man first placed a pigment-covered hand on a cave wall.

But that’s not to say technology can’t play a vital role in the creation of deeply meaningful works as a tool or process wielded by intuitive and empathetic artists such as Carolina Monteio. For the past four years Montejo has been wrestling with the vastness, complexity, and ethics of technology through her resolutely human made fictions as part of the ongoing project Mission Ceres. I had the opportunity to step into the fascinating narrative Montejo—a Colombia-born, California-based artist—has woven when the she participated as the inaugural resident at After 1920, a residency project I run with my husband in San Diego. And while it’s nearly impossible to summarize the literal universe of ideas Montejo has developed under the Mission Ceres umbrella with works spanning photography, film, sculpture, literature, performance, installation and social practice, I shall endeavor to try.

At the center of the Mission Ceres project is the protagonist C.A.L.I., a satellite hurtling through space made sentient by a team of scientists who worked across decades compiling journals, images, and memories at the fictional Institute for Humanity to form the core of the machine’s consciousness. C.A.L.I.’s mandate and singular driving purpose is to explore the very human concepts of self-determination and identity, and to document its interpretations through artistic output. Comprised of the content donated during its creation, and the images collected during its journey through space, the photo component of this project includes a body of 50 composite images rendered in a manner that traces the AI’s dawning consciousness and poetic construction of self. Water, landscape, light and the cosmos figure literally and metaphorically into this development as the isolated yet idealistic narrator C.A.L.I. endeavors to construct its vision of utopia separate from any personal history or lived experience of community.

Apart from an inflated auction asking price, what truly separates Montejo’s works from those created by algorithm is that the AI at the center of Montejo’s images exists entirely in the imagination of the artist and is therefore infused with her humanity, deeply considered philosophical musings, and rich textural expressions of landscape. As established in the originating text for Mission Ceres, Montejo’s works challenge us to consider how our complex human consciousness sets us apart from other living beings, the biological and philosophical challenges of our earthly bodies, and how humanity’s relationship to the environment shapes our unfolding unconsciousness. Projects such as Mission Ceres demonstrate the power of the symbiotic relationship between modern technology and art to help us imagine ways in which potentially existence altering innovations could and should be wielded to better the plight of humanity, the planet, and the cosmos vs. the empty echolations of AI-created style currently garnering unwarranted acclaim.
—Emily Knapp