Blackletter (2023)

Blackletter is a live 3D film, generated in real time and aligned to the live performance of its score.

Asked us to reflect upon the life and legacy of Martin Luther, the obscure German monk who came out of seemingly nowhere to challenge the absolute authority of the Vatican, his word blazing across northern Europe at what we’d now call viral speed, thanks to his intuitive mastery of Gutenberg’s new printing press technology.

To explore the parallels and disparities between the media revolutions of Luther’s time and of our own (neural net AI unleashing a potential infinity of unauthored images and texts), we thought to inject Luther’s pronouncements on women into the black box of AI image generation. These words expressed the misogyny that runs through much of scripture, though expressed more brutally with Luther’s usual graphic force: his earthy metaphors often verge on obscenity, like those of his earlier vituperation of the papacy. Yet these words were spoken by the same man who not only encouraged priests to take wives and start families, but who set them a good example by doing so himself — wedding and bedding a former nun and soon siring six children. He had words for these pleasures too.

We chose four brief texts of his as the seeds for the work. We knew that since AI feasts blindly on the internet, it would base its depictions of the devil, for example, only to the most minuscule extent on Breughel, Dürer, Cranach, and other great artists of Luther’s time in favor of contemporary graphic novels, horror movies, and tattoos. To partially correct this, we do introduce, fleetingly, some of Cranach’s visions since he was so closely linked with Luther and did so much to extend his reach by giving him a visual brand to accompany his printed texts.

Our vision was to project the imagery that Luther’s words generated onto the figure of a woman in the flesh, so to speak — on a particular woman in motion, dancing. That dancer was Jodi Melnick, a genius of movement with whom we’ve wanted to work since our first encounter more than twenty years ago. We then asked Tom Chiu conjures from his violin, a music we also knew weneeded.

So what have we ended up making of Blackletter? Your own eyes and ears will soon tell you, but by way of background you should know that you will encounter a work of live 3D cinema at the birth of new technologies for generating visual media that are on the cusp of utterly overturning the relation of humans to pictures, a revolution bodes to be no smaller thanGutenberg’s.

Blackletter generates the 3D projections in real time, and its score is the live performance of Tom Chiu, who stands to the left of the projection screen. Jodi Melnick is conjured up not as you would ever encounter her on a dance stage performing a self-contained dance, but rather improvising on the choreographic motifs she developed for this work. She appears in close-up from a variety of unexpected angles and ambiguous distances. Often she’s superimposed with her own likeness as well as with various layers of the alien imagery generated by AI. The AI sometimes caresses her, sometimes tattoos her, sometimes assaults her, and often tries to embody her, for example by attempting to animate a feature of a painterly landscape into a semblance of her moving body.

As for the music, some of Chiu’s improvisations spin off from melodic motifs he found in Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, one of over forty hymns attributed to Martin Luther; other material is of his own composition. His is a different sort of dance from Melnick’s: for he leads the dance of our imagery across the screen.

We intend no statement with Blackletter. Actually the work we’ve made mystifies us as fully as it might any viewer, though we find in it a terrifying sort of beauty.