We Are All “The Worst Person in the World”

January 24, 2022 / Isabella Zeff

When I can be anything I want to be, how should I choose?

prolog. / prologue.

Julie runs through the streets of Oslo.

She is running away — from her boyfriend, fifteen years older than her, who she has just realized is boring, stifling, not right.

All of Oslo is waiting, still, holding their breath in this moment in time.

She is also running towards something — a new man, a man her own age, a man she met at a party, yes, but also an idea, a feeling.

She is running towards a new life, her own life.

She is running between two versions of herself.

She is running to be free.

kapittel 1. / chapter 1.

The Worst Person in the World is a Norwegian film that follows a young woman, Julie, through four years of her life, from her late twenties to early thirties. She navigates relationships and career paths, life and death, as she tries to figure out who she’s supposed to be.

I love this movie because it depicts life in all its messy realities. It defies categorization. The Worst Person in the World is a romance, but Julie doesn’t end up with anyone. It’s a coming-of-age story, although she’s 30. It’s funny and dramatic in equal measure, and explores all sides of the human experience.

kapittel 2. / chapter 2.

When I applied to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I couldn’t conceive of a life beyond where I was in high school, and I certainly couldn’t conceive of a career after college. I would be a completely different person by then; how was I supposed to know what she would want?

There’s so many expectations on college students to have a defined plan. We should know exactly what we want to study, how that major will set us up for success, and where we’re going to go after college.

I have always lived in the moment. It was hard for me to plan ahead that far, so I went with my gut and chose to major in journalism. I’m good at it and I can see myself doing it in the future, but I’m still not sure. There are just so many options out there, and I could see myself happily pursuing many of them, from law school to English to film.

I saw my own uncertainty mirrored in Julie’s story. A key part of The Worst Person in the World is Julie’s indecision about her career. The film’s prologue shows her switching between college majors, with none of them sticking. She ends up in limbo, working a day job at a bookstore while still trying to figure out what she wants to do.

It can be paralyzing, the idea that I should know exactly what I want to do and where I’m going, when I simply don’t. I hope I’m making the right choice, but I have no way to know for sure.

kapittel 3. / chapter 3.

When Julie runs through Oslo from her old boyfriend to what could be a new one, the whole city freezes in time. She leaves her boyfriend halfway through pouring coffee in order to spend the day with the new man, who is the only one in the city not frozen.

It’s a test run of a new relationship without any of the consequences. Could this work out?

Julie thinks yes, so she runs back to her apartment, time restarts, and, confident in her choice, she breaks up with her boyfriend and begins a relationship with the new man.

I wish I could have a trial run of my next major life decision. What if I had been able to test out a college or try out a career path for just one day, then go back and make my decision? Maybe if I spent one consequence-free day trying out life as a journalist, I would realize it wasn’t for me or I would know absolutely that it was. Either way, I could be confident I am choosing the right path.

Unfortunately for Julie, the second man isn’t right for her either. Even though she was able to test out their relationship on the frozen day, it still wasn’t the right choice, and they broke up.

I reconsidered my wish for a trial run of my journalism life, because even if I was able to freeze time and try it out, I still may not make the right choice. Maybe there is no “right choice,” just what feels right in the moment. And in this moment, journalism feels right.

kapittel 4. / chapter 4.

In Norway, the phrase, “the worst person in the world,” is a common expression, a self-deprecating comment they say for anything from a personal failure to a faux pas. It’s not about truly being the worst, but about feeling that way in the moment.

Julie feels like the worst person in the world, as she emotionally cheats on her boyfriend, leaves him for another man, and can’t seem to find her way in life.

I understand her feelings. It’s hard to think about the world as this huge thing with so many people who are worse than us. The world is personal, each of us is the center of our own world, and when we’re feeling down, it’s easy to believe that we’re simply the worst, especially when we’re struggling with self-doubt about our paths in life, as Julie was and as I am.

kapittel 5. / chapter 5.

Halfway through the movie, Julie celebrates her 30th birthday with her mother and grandmother. She works at a bookstore and has just moved in with her comic artist boyfriend. She feels pressure from the milestone age, and she compares where she is in her life with the women in her family who have come before her.

At 30, Julie’s mom, Eva, had been divorced for two years. A single mom and accountant in a publishing house.

At 30, Julie’s grandmother had three children. She played Rebecca West in Rosmersholm at the National Theatre.

At 30, Julie’s great-grandmother, Astrid, was a widow, alone with four children.

I think about where my mother was at my age.

At 19, my mother was also in college and was changing her major, finding a different path. Julie felt the pressure of the past, of her mother’s past, bearing down on her like a ticking clock, but all I feel is relief. I had forgotten — my mother was in the same place I was; she must have felt the uncertainty I feel. Knowing that she had the opportunity to change her mind and it all worked out for her is a load off my shoulders, and I see my future open up.

kapittel 6. / chapter 6.

During the first part of The Worst Person in the World, Julie hops between majors and career paths without finding anything that she really wants to do. She tries photography last, but she’s distracted when she meets her future boyfriend and starts to structure her life around him, forgetting about photography for most of the movie.

Then in the epilogue, when she’s gone through these relationships and is on her own again, we see her working as a photographer on a film, showing that even through the distractions and turns in her journey and her own self-doubt, her instincts as to who she was were right.

What I learned from Julie is that you will find yourself in the end. Even if I lose my way, as Julie did, I will be able to find my way back. Seeing Julie overcome her struggles to find herself and the turns life takes made me more confident in my uncertainty of my own future. I can even embrace that uncertainty as a wonderful thing because I believe that I will find myself in the end if I trust my way.

I’m still not sure about my choice to pursue journalism, but I’ve realized that it’s far better than not making a choice at all. I don’t want to be suspended in indecision like Julie and let my life stand still. I want to jump full-force into journalism, and even if it doesn’t work out, even if I realize I chose it for the wrong reasons, then it will still be okay.

There’s not one path to follow that’s already laid out for me; I have to create the path. If I choose what feels right moment by moment and keep doing that, then I will form my own journey and hopefully end up where I want to be.

epilog. / epilogue.

I’m writing my news article for the Daily Texan. My deadline is in an hour, but my last interview for the story ended only a few minutes ago.

I listen to the recording, write down quotes I want to use, and find spaces in my article where the quotes can go. I have to hurry because in ten minutes I have another interview, this one with a researcher for my story next week. I review my questions in my head.

My phone lights up with an email notification, a response from a lawyer I’m interviewing for a story in my journalism class. He’s telling me he’s available to talk the following day.

I start the video call for my interview a minute early. For just a moment, I sit and I’m still, waiting for her to join. I think, I maybe love this. I think, yes, I could do this.

The struggle to find myself and what I’m meant to do is enough to make anyone feel like the worst person in the world. I know I will still have times of fear and uncertainty, as we all do.

But if we’re all the worst person in the world, then maybe no one is. ■

By: Isabella Zeff

Graphics: Lianne Sung

Death to Nepotism

January 17, 2022 / Bryn Palmer

Kendall Jenner. Lily Rose Depp. Lisa Rinna’s daughters. I’m sick of seeing them.

Within the past decade, the fashion industry has become oversaturated with nepotism. Every reputable publication, designer, and campaign as of late has included the same big-name models who are the offspring of other supermodels. These nepotism babies have access to the biggest names in the industry, so there’s virtually no excuse for them not to stand out on the runway. I mean, Cindy Crawford is Kaia Gerber’s mom for God’s sake! Naomi Campbell was her mentor! While Kaia’s training reflects in her amazing runway presence, the same cannot be said for all nepotism babies.

Let’s take Kendall Jenner for example. Her walk does not stand out at all. She lets the clothes wear her when instead she should be wearing the clothes. Her face fades into the background and lacks the qualities that make a model instantly recognizable. Her walk lacks the personality and charisma I long to see on the runway. Sometimes Kendall can end up looking like a lifeless corpse dragging down the runway. When I watch a runway show, I want to see the personality of 90s supermodels like Yasmeen Ghauri. She, and other original supermodels, had to fight for their spots, and it was obvious. They were full of energy as they practically danced down runways with dramatic walks that were full of charisma.

I know this next one will be controversial, but let’s talk about Chanel’s IT-girl, Miss Lily-Rose Depp. I must admit she is stunning, and photographs well, but when it comes to the runway, my attention is not instantly drawn to her. In 2016, Depp walked for Chanel’s Metiers d'Arts show in Paris. Though the public praised her, I found this big runway debut to be underwhelming, to say the least. Her status as the daughter of one of the most famous actors in the world is what landed her the role in the first place. What other models that stand at the height of 5’3'' are granted opportunities to walk on runways? I cannot think of a single one. Past that, her walk lacked the sharpness that a model should have. The excessive movement of her shoulders and the flailing motion of her arms were distracting.

When it comes to some of these nepotism models, it seems that much of the hype revolves around the fact that a famous person’s child is walking the runway. Instead, the praise should be based on the walk itself.

This is not me critiquing the nepotism babies themselves, but rather the people who continuously hire them. Listen, if my mom was an übermodel and I had access to training from some of the top names in the industry, I would take advantage of that too. HOWEVER, on the industry side, someone has to tell these girls that they don’t all have the IT-factor. A person can be taught the correct modeling technique, but if they’re lacking originality, it’s simply not going to work out. And a lot of these nepotism babies are lacking in the originality department.

It’s time to shake things up.

The start line is placed directly in front of nepotism babies, while their counterparts’ start lines are placed miles ahead. This same concept especially applies to models of color. During the 90s and early 2000s, models in marginalized groups were excluded from shows, so in theory, models of color today do not even have the opportunity to be nepotism babies. Nepotism robs them of opportunities as well. Instead of handing out free opportunities on the basis of status, modeling directors should be awarding roles to stand out models.

Personally, I want to see more of Anok Yai on the runway. 

My first time seeing her was when she graced the cover of British Vogue in February 2022. I read the cover story where she shared her experiences as a Black model. My curiosity peaked when the article mentioned her being the second Black model to open for a Prada show. After that, I went down an endless rabbit hole of videos of her runway moments. I was mesmerized. She looks like a deity as the light bounces off her skin, creating an effervescent glow. Her spellbinding strut makes it clear that she had to work hard for her job. I saw her stardom grow after she wore a beautiful sequined Michael Kors gown at the 2022 Met Gala, but I want her to become a household name because her talent is so prominent.

Image via Vogue
I also want to see more of Sun Mizrahi. 

First of all, her face card??? I’m convinced it has never declined. The first time I saw Sun was when she opened for Jacquemus’ Fall 2022 Ready to Wear show, “Le Papier”. Jacquemus’ reason for choosing her as the opener was instantly clear to me as she floated effortlessly down the salt marshes where the show was held. She could have easily been overlooked as the show’s surreal setting atop mounds of salt could have stolen viewers’ attention. Instead, her vivacious appearance shined through as she became the star of the show.

Though she’s walked for some major companies, like Hermès and Mônot, she is not talked about in the mainstream media. She should be getting the same attention that Kendall gets. She is eating the girlies up on the runway, but she is overshadowed by the nepotism babies that are put on a pedestal.

Image via Jacquemus

Although some models have skyrocketed into stardom with the help of their parents, the public should recognize models who are defined by talent instead of legacy. Models like Anok Yai and Sun Mizrahi are trail blazers for models of color in that they are paving a way for them to have a place in this industry that has historically excluded them.

I say let’s go out with nepotism. And go in with talent. ■

By: Bryn Palmer

Graphic: Lianne Sung


December 7, 2022 / Kunika Trehan

Here, nothing ever truly dies.

What if your wildest dreams came to fruition, only twenty years after you’d already forgotten about them?

Last night, I bore witness to the fresh seedling of a second chance. I stood one in a sweaty, eager sea of grungy adolescents ringing a vacant stage, peering over looming shoulders and tip-tapping my thumb against the thin strap of my bag. A thrum of anticipation hummed in the sparse air between us as we waited.

The crowd was young and eccentric, nodding heads adorned with cat-ear headbands and standing tall in thick-platformed boots. I was struck by the contrast when the band finally emerged, a collection of nondescript English men that had about twenty years on most of us. You’d almost believe they’d stumbled onto the wrong stage if not for the resounding cheer that erupted at the sight of them, the audience electrified by the reveal of a group once so shrouded in mystery.

Here, at last, was Panchiko.

“Good to see you’re all real people, too!” quipped frontman Owain as he looked out at us. The crowd responded with an uproar that carried an unspoken weight of understanding. We knew the serendipitous path of dissolution and resurrection that led them to this moment. It wasn’t simply that Panchiko’s fans loved them, or supported them, or streamed and shared their music for years to place them up on that stage.

No, it was more than that. They unearthed them.

Our path to excavation begins at the tail end of the twentieth century: cell phones are a luxury product; MP3 players are on the rise, but CDs remain in favor; and, in the U.K., Britpop is King.

In a teenager’s bedroom in Nottingham, a familiar scene unfolds: four school friends, armed with a Tascam digital recorder and boyish ambition, are recording a demo. They call themselves Panchiko, and they specialize in lush, lightly electronic 90s shoegaze. Cheekily, they name the album “D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L.”

They produce thirty copies of the demo and submit them to record labels for consideration, but to no avail. For a couple of years, they try their luck at the local music scene. They rehearse raucously in their drummer’s parents’ basement, one of the more soundproof spots they can access. They play sets to sparse crowds in local pubs, avoiding eye contact with their scattering of onlookers. They compete in “Battle of the Bands” competitions and lose each time.

Naturally, they’re having a blast.

But time keeps its pace and eventually catches hold of the boys, pushing them in opposing directions towards new sets of dreams. The original foursome plays their last show in a small-town festival to an uninterested crowd of onlookers and gently lay their dream to rest.

By 2002, Panchiko is no more.

But you’ve probably caught on by now that this story doesn’t end there.

In 2016, in a charity shop in Nottingham, U.K., Panchiko comes back to life— unbeknownst to its four founding members.

One of those thirty ill-fated demos has stood the test of time and sits resolutely well-worn on a shelf. The Japanese manga character on the album cover catches the attention of one shopper who picks it up and, unable to discern any further information as to its origin, purchases it and carries it home.

Intrigue deepens once they play the first song and find the audio is noticeably distorted: a fuzzy, static sound overlays the barely-audible melodic track. The CD, in its twenty-year recess, has been affected by disc rot, a condition affecting CDs over time that warps the audio quality.

Eager to discover more, our thrift-store archeologist picks up the CD and places it enthusiastically in the outstretched palm of the Internet. They upload it to 4chan’s /mu/ board, where music lovers from the depths of the web converge to trade in obscurities and conspiracy theories — the perfect breeding ground for a cult classic of the digital age.

The demo makes its rounds, trickling into various corners of internet subculture and growing a fanbase of its own. People are drawn to the music, which is experimental, clearly inspired by the late 90s shoegaze wave but featuring unique sampling methods and electronic elements that, paired with the distortion, make it sound almost retrofuturistic.

The origin of this long-forgotten disc is untraceable; no one has ever heard of the album, nor the band, and there is no record of them ever having existed on the Internet. The album’s back cover lists only the band members’ first names and the year of its origin. Online speculation runs wild.

No one is able to find another copy of the demo. Everybody wants an answer.

In 2020, they finally get one. It comes in the form of a one-word affirmation from Owain that this is, in fact, his band’s record, after a member of the Panchiko Discord group tracks him down on Facebook and sends the query. By now, the demo has taken on a life of its own; the band members that are still in contact with one another Google “Panchiko” and are shocked to find pages upon pages of forums and message boards dissecting their teenage dalliance with musicmaking. Messages from fans begin to flood in.

The following year, revived and reunited, Panchiko plays their first show in Nottingham in over two decades. There is no awkward smattering of applause this time; everyone has come here to see them. They play the opening chords to “D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L.” Once the cheering subsides, they are mirrored by a swaying crowd of their biggest fans, mouthing along to every word.

The awareness that something is tenuous, that your hold on it is circumstantial, that in any other alignment of events you may never have known it at all — this gives it value. The things we create may outlive our conviction to see them succeed; a dream doesn’t necessarily die alongside our belief in it.

“I’d find the CD every couple of years when we were cleaning out the house,” says Owain in a interview. He claims he’d think to himself, “thank god, I’m glad that CD isn’t on the internet.”

“D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L” has since been reproduced in CDs and vinyls, available to purchase on Bandcamp (“Pop it in a charity shop for 20 years for that crispy crunchy sound!”, the product description reads). It’s also been uploaded to streaming services. The Spotify version of the album features seven original tracks and four “rot” versions— transferred directly from that pivotal disc.

I find myself turning to these “rotted” tracks more often than their well-preserved counterparts. The first song of Panchiko’s I’d ever heard was the damaged version of “D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L,” recommended to me by a friend enmeshed in the world of online forums. I was, much like the others, intrigued by the mystery and entranced by the music, the distortion providing evidence to the mythos.

The rot appeals to the nostalgic in me; it’s as though you can hear the years on the track, physical proof of the time Panchiko sat idle. I listen and am embraced by the sentimentality of a time before my own, constructed by a group of teenage boys who held no idea of what the next few decades were to bring them. All they’d wanted was to make music.

Onstage in Texas, Panchiko begins playing “Laputa”, a wistful track inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s “Castle in the Sky.”

The songs they sing were penned by teenagers in a bedroom twenty years ago, and hearing them in the flesh all these years later feels like catching a glimpse of a perfectly-preserved moment in the lives of four teenage boys I’ve never met but can picture so clearly through the sound.

Panchiko’s music exists in a unique liminality, bridging the gap in time between streaming-service supremacy and the CD age. “D>E>A>T>H>M>E>T>A>L” serves as a sonic time capsule: an album that made its way into the public’s ears over two decades after its inception, emerging into a wholly different musical realm and industry than the one it was born into.

The past twenty years have marked a massive shift in the way we create, distribute, and consume media. When Panchiko made their demo, the widespread popularity of streaming services was years away. Now, physical music is nearly obsolete. Records are retro and discs collect dust in bygone childhood bedrooms.

Now, the band croons years-old lyrics to a generation absolutely besotted with nostalgia for the early aughts, an era they can hardly remember — if at all. They find kinship in a set of adolescents who experience the world of music in a fundamentally different way than they once did. They prove how bendable, how entirely unpredictable this life of ours is.

In reviving their past, they split the future wide open. ■

By: Kunika Trehan

Photographer: Jacob Tran

Model: Saejun Smith

Stylists: Miguel Anderson & Jeffrey Jin

HMUA: Alex Evans

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.

Art by Machine

December 8, 2022 / Ellie Stephan

Artists are breathing life into code. And philosophy has a lot to say.

Inside an ornate gold frame, a painted man resides. His face is an undefined mass above his collar. The style of his portrait is classical, formal, and reminiscent of the 18th century, but the painting is fresh. Upon further examination, we find he isn’t painted at all — he’s composed of tricky pixels, coming together to form the out-of-focus man. The bottom right corner of the canvas explains why; there, signed with cursive Gallic script, is an algorithm.

In 2018, a painting called “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” sold for $432,000 at an auction house in New York. The work wasn’t born of brushes and paint; it was created via artificial intelligence, using a Generative Adversarial Network, or a GAN. The GAN, consisting of a generator and a discriminator, was trained on 15,000 paintings ranging from the 14th to the 20th century. The generator produced new images, and the discriminator compared them to the dataset of given paintings. Once the discriminator couldn’t tell the difference, “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” was on the market.

As the first AI-generated piece sold at an auction house, it rattled the boundaries of art. Its creators, an art collective called Obvious, seek to explore the limits of AI’s creativity. When you click on their website, Picasso’s words stamp the home page: “Computers are useless. They can only give answers.” Flippantly, Obvious responds, “Well, Picasso, we disagree.” Entering a prompt into a model isn’t artistic expression as we know it, and some artists feel it should stay that way. But without the label of art, it’s difficult to define what “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” is.

The theory of significant form attempts to explain what differentiates art from ordinary objects. Philosopher Clive Bell explains that all visual works of art share one common trait — significant form, or elements like lines and colors combined in a certain way that stirs our aesthetic emotions. We feel aesthetic emotions when we react to visual elements.

When my friend toured the Opéra Garnier, for example, and saw the ceiling painted by Marc Chagall, he bawled because of its beauty. But art need not be beautiful to have significant form; it simply must provoke emotion. Viewers find “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” outrageous, humorous, and thought-provoking; the portrait brims with aesthetic emotion. Sure, it’s no Chagall, but the two works share significant form.

Plato agrees: Art encourages emotion. He speaks about this with the term mimesis, with which he claims that all art is imitation. He believes that art reflects reality, stretching and dramatizing it in a way that clouds reason and stirs emotion.

In Monet’s famous “Water Lilies” series, he imitates his beloved pond. At Giverny, a willow tree slouches lazily in the summer heat, its branches grazing the surface of the pond. It’s quiet, but not suffocatingly so — birds chirp here and there, and insects buzz enthusiastically. Dark water gazes up at the surrounding canopy of trees, reflecting their greenery. Water lilies, dotted with cheery pink flowers, break up this mirror. It’s a lush marriage of blue, purple, and green, and it begs to be painted. Complying, Monet picks up his brush.

Monet’s water lilies, composed of brushstrokes and paint, are mimesis of the physical water lilies at Giverny. He’s stretching reality, portraying it in a storied way that speaks from museum walls. And he’s not alone in his imitation.

Rapid-fire, keyboard keys click click click, pulling up a photograph of water lilies. Another search query, and the laptop screen floods with color. Impressionist paintings fill Google Images, and one is saved to downloads. With bated breath, the photograph and painting marry through neural style transfer. And with the click of a button, we’re transported to Giverny.

Neural style transfer, or NST, is an AI technique of entering one content image and one style image into a model to produce the content image in the given style. Want your thirst trap to look like something out of the Met? Done! Welcome to the 21st century.

When Monet rendered his pond in the Impressionist technique, he chose an aspect of reality and reflected it in a given style. The process of AI art is similar: Artists choose content and reflect it via style inputs. What makes the final image art is not purely the content or the style, but their combination, guided by the creative direction of an artist. While digitized water lilies won’t grace the walls of the Musée de l'Orangerie anytime soon, Monet and artists behind NST works share a common goal: Plato’s mimesis, stretching and dramatizing reality in a way that clouds reason and stirs emotion. AI and paint are means to an end.

Because AI is nothing without style images, some artists claim AI-generated images aren’t art; they’re reproductions of the style images or even plagiarism of the artists behind the style images. The core issue, critics argue, is in the origin of artistic style. While artists seem to have innately unique styles, AI does not.

Diverging from Plato, Aristotle believes that art is mimetic of the character of nature, not its product. All human actions are mimetic or imitative, and imitation is how humans learn. In school, we follow along with math problems. At a Pilates class, we echo the instructor. And at the Louvre, Degas copies paintings.

Skirts flutter, slightly lifting the pages of the sketchbook. Faint hushes of a pencil making eager lines is the only sound to be heard. The man on the stool is an island; streams of passerby part around him, sneaking glances at the charcoal figures taking their first, shaky breaths. A 20-year-old Edgar Degas is planted at the Louvre, sketching clones.

Every artist has sources of inspiration. Before Degas was famous for his ballerinas, he honed his skills by copying paintings at the Louvre and Old Masters in Italy. Like inputs in an AI model, Degas took inspiration from Japanese prints to 16th-century Italian Mannerists, trying on styles for size. He didn’t wake up one day as an artist with an innately unique style; he copied others to learn how to create.

Similarly, AI is hollow, not capable of spontaneous creation. Through machine learning, it mixes up, learns from, and copies human artists, but artists using AI eventually produce original pieces. To become an artist, one must first be an imitator.

To some people, AI art conjures up soulless robots, stripping art of its humanity. Van Gogh was ahead of his time, saying, “Painted portraits have a life of their own that comes from deep in the soul of the painter and where the machine can't go.” Art by machine sounds like an oxymoron; without emotion, there is no art. The theory of Expressionism claims that art is a product of emotion and that creating art helps the artist to understand their emotions. And no one exemplifies this better than the quintessential tortured artist.

The sun has long set. Van Gogh paces around his studio at the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, alone. His mind is an unrelenting tempest, and splatters of blue coat his arm erratically. He works on the canvas until he’s staring back at himself.

Van Gogh returned to self portraits time and time again in his artistic career. Call it soul-searching or being too cheap to hire a model, his work is an intimate look into his mental state. One of his most famous works, “Self Portrait, 1889,” captures a swirling background of blue, a pattern physicians liken to the work of mental patients. His paintings were a probe of his own making.

Expressionism makes sense of how his ostensibly simple arrangements of color were so deeply intimate. Art is an individual expression of emotions, and Van Gogh’s portraits come from deep within his soul. But what Van Gogh failed to consider in his condemnation of the machine is the human being behind every algorithm. Through curating dataset images and writing prompts, human creativity is at work. When painted portraits have a life of their own, it is not the paint that makes the portrait art. The artist, their emotions, and how they express them do. Who’s to say they can’t express them through AI?

When photography was first created, artists viewed it as cheapening art. Because photography involves mechanical features, traditionalists didn’t view it as an art form. Two centuries later, we accept photography and painting as distinct, but equally esteemed, mediums to create art. History repeats itself. Critics of “Portrait of Edmond Belamy,” GANS, and NST fume about the mechanical nature of creating art via code, but humans have always breathed art into the developing digital landscape.

As a marketing ploy, the bottom right corner of “Portrait of Edmond Belamy” was signed with an algorithm. But it was just that — a ploy. The algorithm did not replace the artist. Behind the piece, there was a team of artists, emoting and creating and expressing.

Like paint, AI is a tool. With the creative touch of a human being, art is born. ■

By: Ellie Stephan

Photographer: Leah Blom

Models: Emily Gift, Shareefa Gyami & Aaron Boehmer

Stylists: Fernanda Lopez & Saturn Eclair

HMUAs: Claire Philpot & Jessie Delfino

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.

Mama Duke: How Did We Get Here?

December 12, 2022 / Carolynn Solorio

It’s Saturday night, the second weekend of ACL. I’m navigating the massive exodus from Zilker, pinned shoulder to shoulder against Austin’s finest, and see a crowd gathering around Juiceland. My feet are blistered, and my shirt is soaked from sweat, yet I can’t keep myself from moving toward this smoothie-shop huddle. The lifeless mass was drawn to a source of music in the distance. Someone was bringing the crowd back to life—and I was desperate for some revival. The music was coming from the rooftop, and once my eyes found the sign in the darkness, I identified the intoxicating energy’s source: MAMA DUKE.

This woman was on the roof, performing a whole ass set for the street. She was bouncing back and forth across the stage, with a mic in hand and sunglasses on. She had people bumping into one another, laughing, and coexisting in a way that almost brought me to tears. Despite the exhaustion, the severe post-festival fatigue, everyone within a mile radius was on their feet dancing. This is Mama Duke’s essence; she creates a community wherever she goes— permitting everyone around her to just be. It’s beautiful, and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced with a local artist. But her atmosphere isn’t accidental; it's by design.

Mama Duke wasn’t born, she was created. Meticulously constructed out of the necessity for safety and recognition. She’s the product of years of rejection and impatience. As she puts it herself, “Mama Duke is the character I created to protect myself.” Before she was double-booked for ACL or winning music awards, she was fighting for the space to have her own authentic voice as a creative, always being told she was ‘too much’ or ‘too severe’. She was an artistic refugee, unwilling to accept anything short of a city that provided her a platform for the serious, authentic creativity she knew she was capable of. Even the Houston rap scene, where her roots lie, wasn’t accommodating to her long-term vision.

“I would’ve belonged to rap if I was embraced. I’m this loud, unapologetic Black girl, and that made it hard to navigate a lot of creative scenes.”

When I asked her why she moved here from Houston, Mama Duke said that it wasn’t really a choice. Music is what she needed to do, and so Austin is where she needed to be. “If you grab onto Austin,” she told me, “it’ll grab onto you.” She’s here for the long haul, and she lit up as she confessed to me her desire to feed her roots and focus on cultivating the image she’s been able to create here. When we were talking about iconic texas artists, Mama Duke talked about how Austin’s residency is up for grabs. “Nobody owns that skyline yet,” she told me. “Can you imagine a queer, mixed-race, masculine presenting female getting a piece of it?” After talking to her, I absolutely could.

In fact, I wouldn’t even have to imagine– she’s already on her way. As a lifelong native, I feel it necessary to express how important the artistic contributions of Mama Duke are to our community. I grew up seeing ‘local artists’ all across the city; it's the Austinite’s ideal pastime. You go see a show, and you might have a great time, but you never bother to look them up afterward. That’s not the case with Mama Duke. You can’t help but become immediately obsessed with her. Everything she says is so sincere it feels like you’re hearing it for the first time. We need voices like hers to survive—to remain a cultural mecca for the authentic artist. She’s a reminder of why we’re unique, and how we uplift voices that no one else cares to listen to.

And it's in this respect that Mama Duke stands alone among other local artists. She doesn’t just invite you to listen, she demands to be heard. And from the second you’re first exposed to her craft, you’re forever encapsulated by her essence, a proud, lifelong member of the ‘Mama Duke Mafia’.

But for a long time, that was the obstacle: no one wanted to listen. For her entire life, Mama Duke has been a suit of armor—the product of a lifelong fight for the recognition of her own authentic voice. This character allowed for the creation of an Austin sound that didn’t exist before. But now, she tells me that the armor’s coming off. She’s entering a new era, one that’s centered around the growth and love she’s found since the release of her first album, Ballsy. When asked about Ballsy, Mama Duke fondly recalls the authenticity and truth that it was born from, but cringes at the pain that was necessary for its production.

“Ballsy is my first piece of art, and it’s hard to go back and listen because I feel like that person is who I had to be to survive. I had to be her, and I’m so excited to make this new shit. I have so much more to offer.”

So, what’s next for Mama Duke? Anything and everything. As we talked about breakups and self-discovery, she confessed that she was in the midst of a personal breakthrough. “I love my life again for the first time,” she gushed, “I get to choose everything now, and that's a gift.” Empowerment is the new theme for Mama Duke, the defining principle of her new outlook on life. Where she once had to scream to be heard, she now claims complete artistic autonomy. She’s everywhere, and it’s obvious that Mama Duke is deeply involved in each aspect of her artistic process. Whether it's voice acting or posing for a cover shoot, Mama Duke is fully committed to understanding the why and how of each new chapter in her career. After each opportunity, she stops and asks herself how did we get here? It’s refreshing to see artists like her representing the city, who are as invested in the journey as they are the destination. She takes ownership and intense involvement in all that she does.

With her new ability to choose what’s for her and what isn’t, she’s inviting us to experience an entirely new side of Mama Duke. And this is only the beginning. Though music will always be her lifelong passion, she’s not tied to it for the rest of her career. “I don’t feel comfortable just being in the rap scene– I’m not just that.” Mama Duke isn’t ‘just’ anything, really. She’s an icon, and she’s limitless. Just last week she announced that she will finish the year with a month-long residency in London (details to be released on her socials, of course). Her impact and artistry are necessary for our generation. She is completely authentic, the perfect marriage of confidence and humility. One of a kind.

Who else is doing it like her?

“You don’t have to prove if you know. And, at the end of the day, I know me.”

Nobody. Ever. ■

 By: Carolynn Solorio   

Photographer: Rachel Karls

Model: Mama Duke

Stylists: Yousuf Khan

HMUA: Lily Cartagena

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.

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