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Our Obsession with Reality


Twenty-first-century society is fixated on the concept of "reality," propelled by an increasing concern about fake news and the relentless pressure for authenticity in ourselves, objects, and culture. Despite the current politicization of artificial intelligence (AI), I argue that AI functions as a tool that is an evolution from the genre of hyperreality that both amplifies and shapes our understanding of what is deemed “real” and “true.”  

This essay will go into the fascination of how we authenticate objects and culture as “real” and how new technologies – AI – have pushed our perception. The anchor and positioning of this argument will be in objecthood and material culture through my own lens as a potter and ceramic artist, as it has given me insight into the creation of objects from a material so keen on shape-shifting as well as an understanding of how objects migrate through the world. I will use the framework of art, craft, and design,[1] as it might be more apt for those interested in the artistic implications of technology rather than its uses in politics.[2] Throughout this text, I use a combination of words that may seem synonymous with each other, but I have tried to use them in categorically different ways. The use of “reality” and “truth” will be considered, and I hope to define the hierarchy between the two: my ideas are rooted in ontology and metaphysics, which I denote as "reality" through many different modes, including objecthood, while the term "truth" serves as a subset of reality where it is the presumed definition of the subject in question. A further explanation of reality is “concreteness” as defined in metaphysics. Additionally, it is good to note a distinction between hyperreality and hyperrealism, with the former being a theory of being and the latter a genre of art; both may be relevant, though the framing should be seen through hyperreality. 

The Social Politics of Reality

Although the core of my thoughts and definition of reality are in concrete objecthood, the meaning and value of these objects must be talked about in tandem with this. Because we are in a post-direct-value world (i.e., gold does not validate the US dollar anymore), we attribute value and desire to the symbols of/in objects, which shapes our perceptions and ultimately the way we interact with such objects (and each other). Take the knockoff designer bag as an example; the forgery of a symbol affords the wearer multiple advantages, including social rank, which then facilitates a reality that was once unattainable.[3] How about the blood-billion-dollar industry of diamonds and the equally profitable cubic zirconia market?[4] This inflated industry has embedded itself as a requirement of love and marriage, with an acute uselessness for anything other than a symbol of social rank. Although we can’t quantify love, we can put a ring on it.  

The genre of performance in relation to reality is fascinating, as it is almost always at odds with the concept of fact or certainty. Theater, a huge industry that we hold up as a method of communication and entertainment, is now criticizing the segments that do not seem to align with our appetite for the authentic. The role of an actor is to portray a character not their own, yet we are consistently questioning the ethics of non-homosexual or non-disabled actors depicting marginalized figures on screen and stage.[5] Performance in the dance and body-movement fields also puts pressure on our interpretations of reality, taking it so far as to rank and honor those who hit the pinnacle of the attributed persona; the Ballroom community’s awards consistently involve “realness” categories,[6] which reinforces binary ways of thinking about gender expression.

Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2023 was “authentic.” This word has become a single-use term for both things that exist in a “true” state, but even more of what is potentially not real. In a complex way, the use of authenticity is stated in situations where reality is questioned; this may be because the term is always implied when there is a direct conflict with an original value or moral. Again, the rise and consumption of counterfeit goods is an example of the paradox of fitting in socially via symbol while simultaneously shunning anything other than original. Our temperament towards authenticity in relation to reality can be explored in Sherry Turkle’s essay, Simulation Versus Authenticity, and the nagging – and perhaps generational – question of intrinsic knowledge of truth where a teenager preferred an animatronic turtle for a museum enclosure to the display of a live one because the performance and expectation of such a thing were perceived as equal to the outcome of the experience.[7] 

Artificial Intelligence – The Process

The process of AI is far from artificial; while the equation of production is subjectively synthetic, the results influence reality like any other method, such as throwing on the potter’s wheel to get a vessel. Perhaps it is because the interface of these systems (ChatGPT, MidJourney, etc.) presents a more opaque process than other digital manufacturing methods that also employ input-CAD-CAM-output; because the interface for image generators only show input (a prompt) and output (words or a picture), that it seems separate from what creators – and the public – are accustomed to. The inner workings of AI might seem a little like magic, but the reliance on prompting makes the argument of a synthetic process moot as AI requires human intervention to start the equation. Drawing a parallel to a calculator, where a user must input data to receive an output, the AI's reliance on human-provided prompts challenges the argument of its entirely synthetic nature. From here on out, I will only be using image-based examples when AI examples are used. 

AI’s process for image generation uses large datasets of images and captions to assemble seamless collages. These datasets, I predict, will be the most important discourse in the future for the ethics of AI because they can be seen as the foundation material to pull from where the captioning of this is left to individual humans; the raw data itself will also be the most valuable commodity for the system.[8] The amount of human labor needed to build neural networks is vast and not conveyed fully to the public,[9] and if not the wizard himself, the humans editing these datasets are the stagehands that hold the curtain tight to keep the illusion that it was built by something other than our own hands.

The Role of Collage in AI – The Role of Collage in Reality

In essence and methodology, I believe that AI is an extension of collage. As with genres before it, like Dada, this system pulls from previously formulated objects, symbols, and language that hold defined meaning to compile it into a newly formulated thing that either reinforces the original or redefines the object/symbol;[10] either way, it transforms from its source, and AI follows suit. Artists such as Howard Kottler and Andy Warhol are examples of collage artists who have intentionally maintained the clarity of previous symbols as a foundation for building new ideas. Rather than pure invention, which asks the audience to come up with beliefs from nothing, this method is used to construct new ideas based on reality. The interpretation of collage is a significant tool that eases the viewer into a new idea. Kottler’s Decalcomania wares used commercial decals that were “cut and pasted” in a remixed composition other than intended. These decals, used mostly by hobbyists, offered a type of paint-by-number method for ceramics, but Kottler’s reimagination of these pre-existing images produced satire and commentary on themes of politics, art, gender, and sexuality. AI is a tool that morphs pre-existing images; it is the user that moderates the cultural implication of the image. As a novel – and perhaps ironic – example of AI being adapted to the real world, Andy Warhol’s voice was generated artificially using an audio database to narrate his own diary in The Andy Warhol Diaries[11] – the same technology that produces “Deep Fake” fictional video/audio of politicians and celebrities.[12] The use of Warhol’s voice lent “credibility,” i.e. realness, to the experience. AI becomes conceptually interesting in the social arena because it simulates from reality to create hyperreality.

The hyperreality of AI, composed of multi-referential points, is parallel to Baudrillard’s definition of other modalities as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality,”[13] because the finished product has no linear way to attribution, yet still is a simulation. The ability for AI to create seamless collages is a new frontier of this type of patchwork, calling back to the magic trick of superimposing images in the darkroom. The seamlessness I refer to shouldn’t be taken at face value as hyperrealism; as it could sometimes be a part of the genre, hyperrealism relies on the basis of a reality that is already understood.

In terms of seamless collage, we take Jack Vettriano’s paintings as both highly regarded ("The Singing Butler" is the most reproduced image in the Western world) and simultaneously critical of the direct and unaltered use of reference material.[14] This opposition plays to our desire for reality because the composition, poetic content, and media are in line with our – the public’s – cultural values, but for some reason, we – again, the public – dismantle and devalue them with the knowledge of their direct references.

Generated Love

The extension of AI into ceramics is in its infancy. As a proponent of technology in the ceramics sector, digital manufacturing has been a large topic of discussion when talking about the evolution of the field.[15] With AI being a screen-based system and product, it seems hard to integrate or be of service to clay or ceramic. As an image generator, I thought that the easiest solution would be to integrate graphics onto ceramic forms. I do not have the word count to go into the history of imagery within ceramics, though my immediate thought was of how commemorative plates had equal visual and conceptual weight between domestic use and graphic/contextual importance. Being an artist has given me the ability – perhaps too fanciful, to my husband’s dismay – to fantasize, fictionalize, and have flights of fancy; my queer ideologies mixed with the research into ceramics have given me the question: What if the lgbt+ rights were not questioned throughout history and celebrated instead? 

Since AI has the superb ability to combine disparate symbols together, the question of “What if?” was solely on myself and not the process. The command to initiate a prompt is aptly coded as: /imagine. The connection between imagination and intentional fictionalization is wonderfully reflective on the developer’s part. Using these AI generators, I have produced countless images that combine Ming Dynasty aesthetics with male homosexuality. As a result of the image dataset and computation strength of MidJourney (the specific AI I use), the images appear seamless in that they hold a “completeness aesthetic” that encourages viewers to suspend suspicions of authenticity and consider the impact history has had on certain communities.

Knowing that, I must create context – because homosexuality is not, in fact, accepted unanimously across the world. I am keen on using quirks of the software, which include extra appendages such as fingers or arms, though often subtle; this often creates a viewer’s double-take of the work and questions reality through historical accuracy. The simulation that is presented is absorbed as truth, even if/when the viewer discovers the inaccuracies and then becomes counterfactual. The genre of “alternate history” is interesting to think about in light of fake news and the ever-growing consumption of instant-information. Counterfactualism, as anchored in its own literary genre by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, plays to the “what if” model in history. The function of counterfactual fiction is not to misguide, as is the literal syntax for misinformation, but rather to be purely “identified by its opposition to fantasy.”[16] “What If…Book of Alternate History” can be purchased as a magazine (with the cover being a portrait of JFK well into his 70s) at Barnes and Noble, and readers can read what our world would be like if “The Titanic had not sunk” or “China had found America first.” 

The biggest sector of consumption for the Generated Love series is on Instagram. There is an interesting intertwining between the initial images curated from a screen, translated into physical space, and then published back as an image. All cases here are examples of hyperreality as the final subject being consumed is a two-dimensional image, a-la René Magritte.

Shaping Reality – Extended Reality and Trompe L'Oeil

I will touch briefly on “extended reality” (virtual, augmented, mixed), which is not a form of AI – I suspect not yet – but relevant to tie older realities to newer ones. By using our screens as windows/portals we can see hyperreality, objects and experiences that do not live in physical space, that appear via code and special mapping. Meta’s Quest 3 is just the newest version of augmented reality where one can play 3D games set in one’s environment; the foundation of this is trompe l'oeil. The role of art to be employed to change one’s perception of reality is as old as terra cotta soldiers. Trompe l'oeil’s role is expressly to create a simulation of reality from murals to wax fruit, and now we’ve tricked our eyes via pixels and voxels. Tangential to this is the full understanding of the underlying “trick” and the dissection of symbol, language, and reality; as René Magritte has eloquently represented the argument in an image, “Ceci n'est pas une pipe.[17]  This does not create hyperreality because all ideologies are synced together in a self-referential display. Magritte does not try to create hyperreality but defines reality. 

Conclusion: The Ethics and Role of AI in Craft/Ceramics

In almost all of my lectures, I end with an illustration of the Gartner Hype Cycle, which compares the visibility of new technology in relation to time. There seems to be a rhythm in approval ratings for new technologies, whether it be new ways of 3D printing to the introduction of the microwave, cellphone, mobile banking, etc. (in pottery terms, this has most likely happened with the kick-wheel, automatic reduction kiln, or any commercial glaze). AI will be no stranger to this cycle and be contested as both savior and destroyer. We will undoubtedly see the use of AI go beyond the screen and integrate into the physical world in the future. The adoption of digital technology within American studio ceramics has been slow, and I project the inclusion of AI as a viable tool in the higher-education classroom/studio to be even slower due to the challenges of its text-based uses within academia.[18] 

The ethics of AI have a wide range of concerns, including authorship, consent of art for dataset training, and disclosure of process. With lawsuits already in full swing in the entertainment industry, the US government is also gearing up for the future debate.[19] In terms of authorship, I believe our framing for this is unsatisfactory; Bryan Czibesz has postulated that technology  – from tools and, ergo, digital machines – are prosthetics of the human body (research shows monkeys perceive tools as extensions of the self)[20] – making the conceptual jump to AI being a collaborative entity not far off. My previous research using handmade tools in digital environments has framed machines as flexible tools that can produce unpredictable results even within high-precision environments, treating the machine as a whole as an autonomous entity that uses the tool.[21] AI shifts day by day; the same prompt repeated at different times will create different results, and I suspect our evolving tolerance for it is as well.


[1] Adam Chau, “Digital by Design,” Ceramics Monthly (January 2018).

[2] Diane Jeantet, and Mauricio Savarese, “Brazilian City Enacts an Ordinance That Was Secretly Written by ChatGPT,” AP News (Nov. 2023): 

[3] Keith Wilcox, et al., “Why Do Consumers Buy Counterfeit Luxury Brands?” Journal of Market Research, vol. 46, no. 2 (May 2009). 

[4] Stanislav Mamonov, and Tamilla Triantoro, “Subjectivity of Diamond Prices in Online Retail: Insights from a Data Mining Study,” Department of Information Management and Business Analytics (New Jersey: Montclair State University Digital Commons, May 2018).

[5] Charles Kaiser, “Should Straight Actors Play Gay Roles? A Star TV Writer Says No,” The New York Times (February 2021):

[6] Marlon M. Bailey, “Gender/Racial Realness: Theorizing the Gender System in Ballroom Culture,” Feminist Studies, vol. 37, no. 2 (2011).

[7] Sherry Turtle, “Simulation versus Authenticity,” What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007).

[8] Michael M. Grynbaum, and Ryan Mac. “The Times Sues OpenAI and Microsoft over A.I. Use of Copyrighted Work,” The New York Times (December 2023); Caleb. “Data Leak: Midjourney’s Unauthorised Use of 16,000+ Artists’ Works Sparks Legal and Ethical….” Medium (Jan. 2024).

[9] Krista Pawloski, IRL, Mozilla, 24 (Oct. 2023):, disc 2.

[10] Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, Or, What It’s like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[11] Andrew Rossi, “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” (Netflix: March 2022).

[12] Joe Coscarelli, “An A.I. Hit of Fake “Drake” and “the Weeknd” Rattles the Music World,” The New York Times (April 2023).

[13] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press,1981).

[14] Art Documentaries, “Jack Vettriano – What Do Artists Do All Day ?” (YouTube: August 2013):

[15] The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts has created and maintained its digital FabLab programming since 2018.

[16] Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, “What Almost Was: The Politics of the Contemporary Alternate History Novel,” American Studies, vol. 50, no. 3/4, (2009): 63–83

[17] René Magritte, Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe),

[18] Ali Shiri, “ChatGPT and Academic Integrity,” Information Matters, vol. 3, no. 2 (February 2023). 

[19] Office of Science and Technology Policy, "Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights," (Washington D.C.: The White House, Mar. 2024).

[20] Alessandro Livi, et al., "Agent-Based Representations of Objects and Actions in the Monkey Pre-Supplementary Motor Area," PNAS Vol.116, No. 7 (Jan. 2019 ).

[21] “Emerging Artist: Adam Chau,” YouTube, NCECA (May 2018): Accessed 8 May 2024.