AI meets Emily Dickinson in Mary Flanagan exhibit

The Mirror Book Emily 1 at Nancy Littlejohn Fine Art

Photo: Anthony Rathbun

Words migrate across time and white space in Mary Flanagan’s “[the Mirror Book: Emily 1],” a mesmerizing “computational collaboration” with Emily Dickinson; or, rather, with poems penned by Dickinson from 1858 to 1865.

Flanagan also writes poetry, but she primarily writes and programs artificial intelligence software, the geeky “material’” required to build works like “[the Mirror Book]† AI is a primary material for all of the works in her first Houston show, which runs through July 9 at Nancy Littlejohn Fine Art.

†[the Mirror Book]” is the second piece in a series that involves projecting text onto the pages of a large, blank, custom-made book, juxtaposing Flanagan’s poetry with verses by another woman who is no longer alive. (For the first one in 2018, Flanagan used poems by the late Dora Maar, the photographer, painter and poet who was one of Picasso’s late muses.)

The new version “mirrors” 10 poems by the reclusive and eccentric Dickinson with ten by Flanagan. The letters of the flying words resemble flocks of geese as they lift from their lines, arch gracefully across the spine and fill gaps where other words once stood.

“Hope is the thing with feathers”

When: Through July 9

Where: Nancy Littlejohn Fine Art, 3465 B West Alabama

Details: Free; 832-740-4288; nancylittlejohnfineart.com

An essay about the show advises viewers to “pay attention to position, momentum, a trading of context and consciousness.” You have no choice, really. The paired verses begin swapping words before you can fully absorb the original lines. This hints that it’s less about the poetry than the revisionist digital magic that creates surprising flashes of language. Human poets deliberate for hours to find nouns, verbs and adjectives that might sing for eternity. Flanagan’s exercise reminds us that words also can be fragile and ephemeral.

The changes are subtle but stark. For example, Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul” becomes “Hope is the lot with feathers/that perches in the corner.” Opposite it, lines of Flanagan’s poem “Parking Lot at Whole Foods” transform from “Through the shiny black lot in rain/Dark corner painted darker” into “Through the shiny black soul in rain/Dark tune painted darker.”

Another slippery nuance also comes into play. The Dickinson poems date from 1858 to 1865 (they’re all from her third posthumously-published book). It’s no wonder Dickinson shut herself up in her room; during those years her country was a moshpit of fractured national identity, what with the Civil War, fitful Emancipation and hyperinflation. Sound familiar? Flanagan’s own poems date from 2006 to the present.

Colorful cloud photographs printed on aluminum fill the walls of Littlejohn’s main gallery, looking deceptively simple, even when they’re grouped into grids. You think, okay, a bunch of pretty clouds. so what? Hint: Process is as important as aesthetics here.

These works are from the “Daydream” series of Flanagan’s long-running research-based work made with technology she calls [Grace:AI]† For nerdier readers out there, it’s a Deep Convolutional General Adversarial Network, or GAN— that uses a “deep learning model” to generate new data from “training data” that can be directed by the artist or scraped from the internet.

[Grace: AI] grew out of Flanagan’s frustration with trying to find images of paintings by women artists in global archives. When she learned that museums prioritized paintings by men for digitalization, worked with historical archives to create a new smart machine intentionally biased toward women.

With the current “[Grace:AI]” series, she lets the machine daydream—an idea that occurred to her during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when sometimes the only way to feel truly free was to stare at the sky. (You can see the machine at work in a back gallery.)

The show’s other work, the continuously evolving computational drawing “[Colors of Remembrance],” is a more solemn pandemic response presented as a grid of lined geometries. It’s presented as a large projection that consumes a good chunk of wall — bigger than anything else in the room but easy to miss during the daytime, in the brightly lit gallery.

Each drawing represents one day, and its uniquely colored lines represent that day’s deaths from the virus, all built from public data. The first drawing was generated on February 29, 2020. “[Colors of Remembrance]” is still going, and its potential looks sadly endless: The lines are created from 2,161 Pantone colors that, with their different saturations and values, add up to more than 16 million potential colors.

You could ponder this piece all day, but watching poetry fly or gazing at clouds would probably be more fun.

Molly Glentzer is a Houston based writer.




  • Molly Glentzer

    Molly Glentzer, a staff arts critic since 1998, writes mostly about dance and visual arts but can go anywhere a good story leads. Through covering public art in parks, she developed a beat focused on Houston’s emergence as one of the nation’s leading “green renaissance” cities.

    During about 30 years as a journalist Molly has also written for periodicals, including Texas Monthly, Saveur, Food & Wine, Dance Magazine and Dance International. She collaborated with her husband, photographer Don Glentzer, to create “Pink Ladies & Crimson Gents: Portraits and Legends of 50 Roses” (2008, Clarkson Potter), a book about the human culture behind rose horticulture. This explains the occasional gardening story byline and her broken fingernails.

    A Texas native, Molly grew up in Houston and has lived not too far away in the bucolic town of Brenham since 2012.

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