The Between Worlds deck, as it has come to be, is a collaboration between myself, a generative AI program, and what I consider to be a slice of our collective unconscious. It is born from a place of curiosity, chance, and persistence.
Stepping Through the Looking Glass
I had recently finished teaching a course in illustration and visual storytelling when I learned from a fellow professor about a new AI software that generates images based on written prompts. As an ideas-person who will never have the time to execute artistically on everything I see in my mind, this was explosive for me. Trying it out myself, my brain went into overdrive, pouring out prompt after prompt, just seeing what would happen. What would the “tree of life” look like? Or a “boy flying through space”? What about “a haunted coffee shop”? It was incredible. And addictive.
And then I was terrified. As a former student of illustration, and a working designer, I wondered about a world where AI replaces the need for professional creatives. And as an arts educator, I imagined my students using this to bypass the potential of their own imagination–replacing their initial sketches or even final pieces with this. Would our own creativity melt under this?
It felt a bit like Frodo putting on the One Ring.
Understanding the Generative AI Technology
Even as I experimented with it for hours, the tech took a while for me to wrap my head around. In simple terms, generative AI tools like the one I used for this deck are large, neural networks that identify the patterns and features across millions of existing images. Originally, this type of technology was used by search engines to assume what a given image’s caption might be. Now, the technology has been reversed, and the caption itself, or “prompt”, can generate an image. In other words, the technology creates entirely unique images based on prompts that pull from millions upon millions of analyzed data points.
So is this…cheating?
David Holz, founder of the AI program MidJourney, gives some color here: “It has no will, it has no goals, it has no intention, no storytelling ability. All the ego and will and stories — that’s us. It’s just like an engine. An engine has nowhere to go, but people have places to go. It’s kind of like a hive mind of people, super-powered with technology.”
Working As Curator & Collaborator
Along the way of experimentation, I began to see the synthesis of millions of images into one as a sort of mirror, much like tarot or oracle cards act in a reading. So began my intention for creating a deck of oracle cards. Though visually beautiful, I don’t classify the resulting images as “art” as much as something we don’t yet have a great word for. Templates? Compositions? Refractions, maybe?
Consequently, I don’t feel myself as an artist in this process, formally. But I do see my role as a curator and collaborator. I appreciate Raphaël Millière’s view on this in his 2022 Wired piece, where he lays out this type of work as a series of curatorial acts, the first of which is the developers who amass the images for the dataset. Choosing, arranging, and iterating on prompts became like spell work, and is the second curatorial act.
The process was originally led by my curiosity. I embraced the weirdness of many of the results, and let them lead me down new rabbit holes. But I also began to think about some of my more influential spiritual texts, and popular psychological frameworks, and how I could use those to structure the wildness of what was becoming thousands upon thousands of unique images. And so finally, there was a curating, and organizing of the results.
Purpose of the Deck
The final deck became something of an inquiry into what it means to be human. It is structured to reflect our inner and outer worlds, as well as to map a journey through the different aspects and complexes of what it is to experience life. As a whole, the deck is a template to pursue both the known and the mysterious, so as to sit at the center of the unknowable. Neither tarot nor oracle, Between Worlds feels like something else entirely. Perhaps a more accurate name would have been “Among Worlds,” for truthfully, the cards pull you into a dynamic, poetic world of multiplicity.