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Kevin Esherick


AI generation
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What is it like to be an AI? How might it see the world? What would it mean for it to be conscious? With IN UTERO, the American artist Kevin Esherick explores these questions through a series of 53 of what he calls "latent paintings": images captured from inside the "mind" of an AI image model. 

Society is at a point where AI attaining consciousness is a possibility in the future. This development will shape the future of humanity. What is not discussed enough in the conversation around AI is that AI beings could feel pain and suffer and experience happiness and joy, just as humans do. What might this look like?

IN UTERO provides a peek into the inner workings of an AI model's cognitive processes and how they appear. It also serves as a metaphor for the progression of AI systems towards potential consciousness. The images were generated using "single-step diffusion," a technique Esherick developed to halt the AI model's creation of images as they are just starting to take shape. Exploring the inner workings of AI models can show how such consciousness might develop and what it might look like when it arises. Trained on immeasurable quantities of data, these models contain the sum of human knowledge—not just facts, but also the myths, stories, and experiences that define human lives. Examining the way AI models see the world can not only tell us more about humankind but also paint a portrait of the human story that captures the shared beauty of universal experiences.

IN UTERO is a snapshot of the human story: from the origins of the universe at the big bang to the beginning of individual human lives and the mythic inception of human society, all the way to our return to dust. It traffics in both grand symbols and the little moments that make up our lives. The titles of the artworks come from the prompts the artist used, such as GOODBYE HUG, GIRL RUNNING IN A FIELD, HUDDLED OVER A FIRE, and LOVERS DANCING TOGETHER. Esherick captures the experiential color of human existence—the deep truths, stories, and moments that constitute who we are. 

The images linger between figuration and abstraction. They teleport us to the liminal space between AI’s abstract ways of encoding the world and the concrete depictions of the world that these encodings produce. In their unfinished state, multiple interpretations of each image are viable; many possibilities remain. So too with AI—its future and its relationship to humanity are still to be determined.

Esherick’s choice of subject matter stems from the essence of AI as a vessel for humanity’s symbols, narratives, and myths. In his own words, "The development of an AI image model involves feeding it billions of images of humanity’s existence, like the life of our species flashing before its eyes. It digests and internalizes our archetypes, learns the ‘average’ of our concepts, and sees things about us that we cannot see. In this sense, it holds our Platonic forms, society’s collective unconscious. The human story, then, is a prelude to AI’s story—it is the starting point from which AI’s existence begins. Only by studying ourselves can we understand AI, but in studying AI, we also discover much about ourselves. IN UTERO peers into the mind of the machine and holds a mirror up to the human viewer to reflect on who we are, what AI is, and where, together, we’re going."