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The very first thing I noticed about Martín Bollati‘s Hermes/Unesco is that it’s a little paper brick. It has more than 1,000 pages, 999 of which are taken up by images. I’m thinking that the idea for a viewer is not necessarily to go through the book in its entirety in one sitting. I suppose you could. But the sheer magnitude of visual material and the fact that what the images show (or purport to show — I’ll get to that) is rather similar would make for a tiring, if not numbing experience.

Instead, I’d open the book at random locations and look at a few images at the time. At first glance, the images contain depictions of statues, sculptures, and similar artifacts made by prehistoric cultures. Given that the history of humanity dates back a few thousands of years and given that there have been many civilizations on this planet, the sheer number of images appears to make sense. If anything, this is merely a small selection from that history.

And yet, something appears to be off. For this writer whose eyes are trained to look at photography but not to identify the kinds of archeological artifacts presented in the pages, some of them look more believable than others. Occasionally, I detect a smile in a sculpture, and I don’t seem to remember seeing any of those when encountering artifacts in museum settings. Even as ancient sculptors took some liberties with how they abstracted the human body, some of the more realistic sculptures depict bodies whose anatomy is completely unrealistic.

What’s going on here? If, unlike me, you’re smart, you probably know where this is going. The images do not depict real artifacts. Instead, they were produced with generative artificial intelligence (AI; I’m going to continue using this term even though it does not make sense).

The bulk of the book’s text is in Spanish, a language I am unable to read. There is a very small English section that comes before the images. In it, our collective digital heritage is mentioned as a possible target of nefarious actions. Someone could alter that heritage in such a fashion that it would be undetectable. Apparently, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is concerned about what they call digital cleansing.

My first instinct is to note that in light of the ongoing actual cleansing of people’s heritage that is happening all over the world — whether by Russia in the occupied Ukrainian territories, by Israel destroying Palestinian cultural buildings and artifacts in Gaza, or elsewhere — maybe the digital threat isn’t necessarily the most immediate one. After all, at least in the world of artifacts something has to exist before it becomes a digital entity.

But I get the point. I agree that we need to preserve cultural heritage, because even when other people’s is destroyed or altered, then that still affects us, too.

But maybe it’s not quite as simple, because there are many layers of complications. Take, for example, the fact that many nations’ cultural artifacts are not housed in their respective local museums but somewhere else. Dan Hicks’ The Brutish Museums dives into that aspect.

Furthermore, what we think of as our history actually still is in flux. New discoveries are being made all the time (the other day, they unearthed a previously unseen room in Pompeii). Not all discoveries change the way we think about the past or a specific culture, but some actually do.

In other words, the past is not as fixed as we think it might be. Instead, it’s being pieced together for purposes that are either benign (or purport to be) or malicious (such as when Russia’s dictator assembles some fake history of his own country).

But of course, using AI to generate new, convincing looking images of ancient artifacts fits into the mold I laid out in an earlier article. I do not intend this sentence to be read as being critical of Martín Bollati. Currently, there is a lot of very bad “art” being generated with the help of generative AI. None of it is conceptually sound, most of it is trite and shallow (at best eye candy for clicks) — with the exception of this particular work here.

With that said, even as I understand the impetus behind the book, its real target might be to point out the artifice of the larger endeavour. Try as we might, the past is and will remain a construct.

It’s just that some constructs are taken as a lot more believable than others. You don’t even have to remain in the digital domain: Germany rebuilding Prussia’s imperial palace in Berlin and filling it with an ethnographic museum (that houses thousands of looted items) is a form of generative AI literally set in (rather expensive) stone (it’s just not called that because actual architects were involved).

So maybe one would need to set Hermes/Unesco next to catalogues of real artifacts. Then, somewhere in between all of these collections of material it would become clear how they are a form of wish fulfillment: for our collective past to be glorious and affirming of what we’re up to in the present.

Hermes/Unesco; images by Martín Bollati; 1040 pages; SED Editorial; 2023

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