The Origin of Clouds

Şerife Wong
At my parents’ home, I found a small blue plate covered in gilded flowers in the style of Tezhip, the Turkish art of illumination. On the back, scrawled in my childhood handwriting, was my name, claiming the plate as my inheritance. I remember being stunned that my aunt had painted it by hand. I’d seen similar work like this, swirling on the ceilings of mosques and on the borders of Korans. It had never occurred to me that the geometric patterns and intense symmetries were hand drawn. Were they all made by other kids’ teyzes? The blue plate’s fractaling flower spirals bloomed from a combination of math and nature. This art form flourished in response to aniconism, an eschewing of the representation of sentient beings, which grew in part from the context of Islam’s prohibition of idolatry. Now, the blossoms burst forth when I use a ruler and compass. Compositional rules govern the designs: if the first spiral stem goes left, then the next must go right. It is procedural work, computational, “if this, then that”—an algorithm, an Arabic word. / My Tezhip teacher shows us a slide of the art form’s roots: a tapestry with spiral clouds by other Turkic people, the Uyghurs, from when they were a nomadic empire in the eighth century. I’ve seen similar motifs on ancient Chinese scrolls and prehistoric pots of the Ainu people in history books—cloud forms conducted through both gift and plunder. She shares her own drawing of flowers emerging from a cloud and asks us to copy it. I trace the cloud, like many students before me. A condensation of all these relationships converges on the paper as a thin carbon line. I think of Uyghurs in internment camps. Outside my window, there is drought. In the long shadow of clouds, I plant seeds. / It rains for weeks in California, and there’s rapid growth. Tech companies sell their tools as creative AI. In contrast to aniconism, they strive to create in their own image, to mimic human capacity and culture. I try using OpenAI’s DALL-E. / “Clouds in the style of…” / DALL-E delivers an image of minarets, probability clouds, and statistical pastiche. They are processed by the computer, their origin intentionally nebulous to conceal that the model was trained, at industrial scale, on data taken from artists without their consent. I know that the labor of aunts and others are behind the images: creators sharing their art on the internet, the ghost workers sorting these images and labeling them, without adequate permission or compensation—I recognize this, but my relationships to the people are gone. What am I getting in return from DALL-E? What new clouds are forming from this digital evaporation? Each time I write a new prompt and press “Enter” on the keyboard, I receive the status quo scaled: a sliver of the world with all its faults, made faster and cheaper. My book on Tezhip says it reached its zenith during the Ottoman Empire, but it doesn’t acknowledge that art enabled by the wealth of an empire can glorify its power and function as propaganda.
What is absent in the art speaks loudly. Each flower in Tezhip has a meaning: violets mean humility, but there is not a flower for imperialism or genocide. I am reminded that Türkiye is ruled by Erdoğan, who has pushed his agenda to “make the Ottoman Empire great again” at the expense of the governance of things like building codes and disaster response. There is an earthquake. I draw flowers. I want to dig out their roots, take their cuttings, and plant them by a healing spring. There is a second earthquake.

Every word I enter is data for OpenAI, which is attached to Microsoft, one of the largest tech-company contractors for the US military. Every use of their tools integrates me into their system as data, to improve the models which are then passed on to other teams and ultimately borne further away on the winds of supply chains. Companies have stockpiled data to use in unexpected and nefarious ways; they’ve used artistic products as smoke screens to distract from military contracts. For companies that make similar tools, like Stable Diffusion and Midjourney, the institutional mechanisms in place are insufficient to commit them as trustworthy with the data they continue to collect from us. Might my data be used to train other models that end up deployed as surveillance tools to perpetuate genocide against the Uyghurs? 
When these machines sever our connections to each other, eroding meaning and relationships, we are being rendered into something—but what?
Whose representation is in the image? Whose representation is in the image? 

In my first Tezhip class, my teacher recites the names of her teacher and her teacher’s teacher. She was taught through ijazah, in which a teacher grants their apprentice a license to pass on the tradition—generational transmission. She is not just giving me the ability to generate images; she is showing me how to care for its lineage. When DALL-E gives me the ability to generate images, it scrapes them from their context without consent, isolating me from my history, my ancestors, my memories, and myself. This process destroys relationships between people. 

I hang the blue plate on a wall far from the window and its floral patterns recede into shadow. The gold sheen reflects only from certain angles—a mystery to the machine, but a depth of beauty for my guests who glimpse how the sun hits just that corner of the room. A museum guard once told me the gilded borders of Tezhip were to protect the books from beetles. I like the thought of beauty guarding words against bugs that want to digest without comprehension. Our presence here passes away, but our motifs, our patterns of behavior, are passed on, unfurling from our choices.

How can we guard our stories against violent extraction? How can we initiate repair?

Spiral cloud motifs have been handed down for thousands of years. They survive because they are in relationship with the generations of artists who take care of them and find meaning in their beauty. This lineage delicately connects us with one another as caretakers of the art.

May caring for the origins of our arts connect us in solidarity. May solidarity animate our brushes with love. May love bring our brushstrokes strength. May we paint our strength into the service of liberation.

Şerife Wong is an artist and leads Icarus Salon, an art and research initiative on politics, culture, and technology.

This piece appears in Logic's upcoming issue 19, "supa dupa skies (move slow and heal things)." Subscribe today to receive the issue as part of a subscription, or preorder at our store in print or digital formats.