Spring Issue 2023

Editor's Letter

By Delainey Bowers

An innocuous enough prompt,

“hippie baba yaga driving a monster truck through a field of daisies,”

and yet Dream by WOMBO, an emergent AI art generator that boasts over one billion creations, still struggled to capture the essence of the scene I conjured in my brain. That isn’t to say the final results weren’t impressive. I found myself falling further down the rabbit hole of Dream’s user-friendly platform, attempting to string together an absurd line of text that pushed the limits of the generator’s brainpower. “Just ten minutes!” turned into an hour’s worth of exploration, but what did I truly have to show for my efforts beyond a folder full of downloaded images? AI-generated work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it faces a host of ethical (and, perhaps somewhere in the Art-o-Sphere, moral) dilemmas regarding compensation for creators, copyright issues, plagiarism, racial bias, and a slew of other concerns that blur the lines of the complexities of the artistic process.

Last night, as I was on the cusp of sleep, my brain made the attempt at classifying AI art as folklore or, more specifically, folk art. (Side note: If your brain DOESN’T race in the stillness before slumber, can you let me know how you do it?)

1. Does it fall under the category of oral, customary, or material? Yeah. Kinda.
2. Is it traditional in form and transmission? I could make the argument.
3. Does it exist in different versions? Oh, baby, does it ever.
4. Is it anonymous? Check.
5. Will it become formularized? Iffy, but in theory? Sure. 

These creative platforms rely heavily on algorithms, communal input, and the tangled web of neural networks. There is no formal training required, at least from the perspective of an at-home user who simply types in an idea. The programs rely on natural language from a community-driven, albeit anonymous, audience that exists within the ethereal realm that is the internet. And yet a single problem remains.

Hands. Well, teeth, too.

In regards to the physical form, the images AI-generated programs learn from focus predominantly on the face. Expressive faces, for sure. Skin texture, hair color, and clothing patterns can all be rendered from an astonishing number of datasets. Plug in a million images labeled as “blonde hair,” and the computational program understands the assignment. But hands are more nuanced. Expressive. Fleeting. And smiles are no exception. Big, toothy grins? Curled lips of disgust? Much harder to come by. So the algorithm tries its hardest to fill in the gaps. Three rows of teeth? Normal. Nine fingers on one hand? Appropriate. We may hail the coming of our artificially intelligent overlords, but as of right now, they’re still a little, you know, dumb. 

The contributors for our Spring 2023 issue are all too familiar with using their hands to create valuable pieces of work. Jared Hamilton’s captivating photo essay chronicles the hardships faced by folks in eastern Kentucky whose lives were upended in last year’s historic floods along with the process of rebuilding stronger communities. Mariel Gardner’s psychedelic storytelling emerges from the combing through of archives and generational memories, highlighting the obstacles and triumphs of Black communities throughout Kentucky. Kayt Novak’s short ethnographic film features a gourd artist whose burning techniques have earned him artistic acclaim. Finally, Jackson Medel’s article details the close connections between folk art, the strange, and the sublime.

No need to use WOMBO’s Dream to generate

“phenomenal engaging dazzling nearly perfect folklife magazine kentucky"

We got it right here.


Big cheesin’,
Delainey Bowers, Editor in Chief