In a world marred by the throes of climate change, the art of storytelling often shapes our perceptions and understanding of this crisis. Karl Erickson, a Tennessee-based artist, combines the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI), puppetry, and animation to narrate a unique and absurdly educational story about our current environmental situation.
“Know No Now” is an animated tale that focuses on two puppets, Jelly Pop and Perky Jean, navigating the terrors of extractive capitalism and its environmental fallout. As they grapple with fear – of language, of time, of the ‘other,’ and of self – they explore a mental space beyond the linear conception of time. Liberated from their ego-driven existence, they engage with a panoramic view of existence.
This peculiar narrative is the brainchild of a collaboration between Erickson and AI, an ongoing project where he uses AI’s (mis)understanding of children’s TV shows to generate absurd educational content. The aim is to highlight the communication of human-induced environmental collapse.
The puppets – Jelly Pop, the free-spirited one, and Perky Jean, the worrier – were conceptualized with the help of AI. Erickson describes a whimsical process of back-and-forth with the AI, which involved refining rough sketches until the perfect characters emerged. This collaborative journey extended to the script-writing process as well, where AI also played a key role.
Playing with language, particularly the words “know,” “no,” and “now,” forms the crux of the narrative. The film weaves a web of interpretation around these words, oscillating between command and chant, questioning our understanding of time and existence.
“Know No Now” addresses serious global issues like climate change using humor and animation. By introducing absurdity and AI into the conversation, Erickson believes new pathways of dialogue can be uncovered, recentering humanity and sparking action.
The film is punctuated by interstitial scenes that transition Jelly Pop and Perky Jean from the fear of the unknown future to accepting the “long now.” Through an AI-generated matrix of colors and forms, these scenes blend into each other, creating a surreal narrative flow.
“Know No Now” challenges us to think beyond our present moment, understanding our actions’ long-term effects. Erickson’s innovative use of AI and animation breaks down conventional boundaries, proving that the path to environmental consciousness can be as varied and creative as we allow it to be.
Q & A :
– How did you navigate the collaboration between you and AI during the film-making process? I started with very rough sketches of the characters and then describe them to a generative AI. I went through many, many iterations of the characters until I came up with ones I thought worked well. Then I modeled them in 3D software, rigged them up and set to animating. I used another AI to bounce script ideas back and forth with, mostly playing “what next?” and came up with the general structure. Then I did most of the animation, but for the interstitial scenes I went back to AI, feeding in the descriptions of the scenes and some images of the videos, watching how the algorithm would dissolve them images into abstraction. As a side note, I did most of the voices, but used a plant connected to a modular synthesizer to make most of the music. Another kind of natural intelligence!
-The characters Jelly Pop and Perky Jean surely only show us a small facet of their curiosities and personalities throughout the film. What are some things about them the film wasn’t able to explain (difficult to work with, etc.)? This is a funny one. Well, I think their personalities come through, but Jelly Pop is more adventuresome, free-spirited and taken by whimsy. Perky Jean is slower, cautious, and nervous. If they were meal pairings, Jelly Pop would be pop rocks and Grüner Veltliner. Perky Jean would be Bavarian pretzels and soy milk. But really, I just thought about them in terms of energy and curiosity levels, put them in the scene and watched what happened.
-The incorporation of language, specifically the play on the words “know,” “no,” and “now,” and their integration with one another are central to the narrative. Could you explain the significance of these words in the context of your film and its message? Much of my art is depicts absurd encounters with language. There is a breakdown in the established order of meaning, nonsense proliferates, and identities become unfixed. It is about the violence done with language when we define something. “Know No Now” can be a command, demanding that we think outside of our current moment of existence, to think of a long form of time, considering what effects our actions have hundreds of years from now. Or it can be a chant, in which each individual word’s meaning is lost in repetition, so that knowledge of now is lost.
-Climate change and environmental collapse are crucial themes in your film. How do you believe animation and humor can contribute to conversations around such serious global issues? Nonsense is valuable because it unmoors definitions and loosens identities. In absurdity, other possibilities are opened up. Educational programs are expected to conclude with a sensical lesson. My animations do not have tidy conclusions, and are open-ended so that possibilities remain. Climate change is a topic that is fearful and contentious. Absurdity, humor, and AI can be worked with to introduce new ways of talking about the subject, decentering humanity and startling us into action. Advancements in technology and environmental threats are conjoined issues: more computing power needs more energy which puts a strain on the planet. Art that combines nature and technology reveals the interdependence we have with each, and can drive us to find harmonious ways for coexistence.
-Could you share some insights into the interstitial scenes through matrices of color and form and how they contribute to the overall narrative of your film? Those scenes are moments of Jelly Pop and Perky Jean fleeing from mutating depictions of themselves as they struggle with the definitions of the words “Know No Now.” These were made by feeding a bunch of different prompts into Deforum, starting with a very literal description of a still image from earlier in the video. As the algorithm mutated each frame into the next, it would loose the thread, the figures morph and disappear, but the fleece-like texture of the puppets remains, with occasional bursts of characters and texts. I thought of these scenes as simultaneously terrifying and meditative, like being at a noise concert. Terrifying because a sense of self and specificity is lost. Meditative because they drown out everything else, and we can drift with the imagery, unable to make sense of it, because there is none.