Editor’s Note: Issue One
Welcome to the first issue of Cold Signal, a new genre lit mag that hopes, among many things, to explore the fusion of organic and synthetic expression. This is a broad and vague mission by design. My desire from the get go was that Cold Signal would become a place for innovative, inclusive and sincere art that looks at our current hopes and fears, our evolutions and decay, through stories, poems, and exploratory forms, blending horror, fantasy, science fiction and weird lit to try to reflect something vital and interesting about life.
I was originally inspired to create the magazine in the summer of 2022 when a friend got me into the closed beta test of Midjourney, the more advanced AI image generator that followed the slapstick simplicity of Dall-E. I found myself (like everyone else) immediately repulsed and fascinated in equal measure by the new tools being created and disseminated. The ability to generate images (flawed and unsettling they may often be) based on short prompts felt like a paradigm shift in artificial intelligence and our understanding of human society. As absolutely fun as I found it to be and frankly still do, the existential questions raised were glaring even then.
As the year has gone on, these questions have only become more pronounced, with users entering AI generated images into art competitions and winning, using them to create large social media followings and brand identities and more. Debates have raged on ever since about whether these images qualify as art, whether the creation of these images is artistic expression, curation, programming or wholesale theft of the living artists whose work the algorithms were trained on to be able to create these images.
Very recently, after the passing of the brilliant illustrator Kim Jung Gi, some AI image enthusiasts sought to imitate his style and receive ‘credit’ for their shallow, frankly shitty mimicry, prompting immediate, visceral and extremely understandable outrage. Battle lines are being drawn between these vocal AI advocates who believe that if a living artist cannot “keep up with the machine, then they should give up” and working artists and their supporters who see AI art as a soulless abomination and portent of exploitation and doom, but as most battles go, they rarely represent the beliefs of others.
It is a sad fact that meaningful technological development immediately attracts the most frustrating human beings on Earth. For some, this new technology presents the opportunity to “disrupt” the social capital of art. For too long, these people believe, artists have existed as a cultural caste sitting loftily above rank and file humanity and AI art is the leveling force. It is only the results, the generation of content itself that matters to them, that qualifies as art. These people are likely the same crowd who believed NFTs and cryptocurrency were the great leveling forces of finance and power.
What they do not understand is that art is valuable and powerful as an artifact of consciousness. An image alone, with no underlying intention, is at best a momentary signal, a collection of sensory information that transmits some base and hollow recognition. Art, in any medium, is the deliberate product of human consciousness, the alchemical combination of culture, skill, circumstance and meaning to create something that inspires and fascinates us. It is a means to an end to share with each other our lens and framework for understanding life. It is preserved echoes of our souls.
That, or it’s just cool shit done well by cool people.
To be an interesting artist, one must first be an interesting person. For some that is a hurdle too high. Many (but certainly not all) of the people calling themselves AI artists today lack artistic talent or vision, and alter nothing of the images they create to make them uniquely their own. They will inevitably crowd themselves out of the world of art until the next great fop lodestone rings out and draws them along, but AI image generation will not cease to exist.
So where does that leave us?
If we can set aside the bitter aftertaste these anti-social people have left and look at these new tools for what they are (a tool, like Photoshop or CGI, that can be used for good or ill) then some of that danger and damnation fades away. What remains are questions. Can these tools benefit us as artists and writers and human beings rather than “replace” anything at all?
Can we identify and enact laws or at least social norms to make these tools more equitable and less threatening to working artists? More respectful of cultural traditions and intellectual rights? Can we champion new, ethical variations on the technology?
More broadly: What do these images generated today, in their malleability and their uncanny imperfections, say about us as creators and observers alike? How can we cultivate the cool mirror of AI to reflect our better selves and not just our darker impulses?
Can we live alongside machine learning? Can we create alongside it, or with it, without betraying our own humanity? What does it truly mean to be human? Are we human, or are we dancer?
We exist at a difficult time in human history. The existential crisis of climate change has given most of us a deep and pervasive fear of the future. Fascism is on the rise in many countries around the world, spurred by the unending engine of horrors that is late-stage capitalism. Making a semi-comfortable living and finding a modicum of peace in our lives and in ourselves has become almost impossible. We are left in this damned era to try and understand ourselves as a species-in-transit. Half in evolution, half in collapse, conscious and flowering amid the bones of our past selves and the planet that birthed us. We are furious and distrustful of each other and often for good reason, but we are still alive. The world is not yet dead. We are not yet dead. This may still only be the beginning.
As terrifying as it is to find our footing as human beings and creators in these brutal and cacophonous times, it can also be fascinating, inspiring and mind-expanding. It’s at that thoughtful, unsure, overwhelmed place I believe Cold Signal (and all the amazing work in this first issue) resides.
Inside Mnemosyne, you’ll find glimpses of our past, our present and our far flung future. There is death and birth, gods and corpses, flowers and fentanyl. There are writers of poetry, prose and essays from around the world, answering the core questions of Cold Signal in their own unique way. Each piece helps to paint a broad, weird tapestry of human evolution and existence. In addition, there is thoughtful work by talented writers utilizing these new technologies (like AI images and text) with intention and curiosity to see what is produced as a result, to use these artificial images and words as a ekphrastic springboard for their own imagination.
The end result is a world tour of character, concept, image and language, a snapshot of a very strange year in a very strange lifetime.
My dearest hope is that Cold Signal generates interesting and respectful conversation and draws attention to the wonderful writers and human beings who have participated in this project. I feel deeply thankful for each and every one of you who has submitted, contributed, shared or expressed enthusiasm for Cold Signal.
The future of Cold Signal is at this moment open-ended. I have organized this first issue entirely alone, which has been deeply fulfilling but also nerve wracking and exhausting as hell. I will say the saving grace has been the talent and kindness of the contributors who kindly handled my shortcomings and caught obvious mistakes I would have missed on my own. A literary magazine is always a collaborative effort, and these contributors have done so much to help define and construct Cold Signal as it appears today. I cannot thank them enough.
Future issues (if there’s enthusiasm for it) will very likely take a different shape than this first exploratory go-round, especially as I look to find editorial collaborators and diverse perspectives to help shape the vision of the magazine. I’m also open to exploring different aesthetics with artists to find innovative ways of drawing attention to great work, which is the reason for everything we do. I am especially open to experimenting with newer and more ethical machine learning technologies. Ultimately, I do not believe Cold Signal needs AI imagery to continue doing good work.
If you should have any feedback about the issue as it is put together, please email me about it at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Twitter at @coldsignalmag.
If you’re seeing this, thank you all for enduring this extremely long editor’s note. Enjoy Issue One!
-John Chrostek, EIC
Additional Note: The issue is illustrated with collages constituted with Midjourney images I prompted to represent the work of the authors or that the authors provided themselves. For the sake of transparency, all of the generated images were prompted without using any living artist as a direct reference (i.e. no “in the style of ____” for anyone who hasn’t been dead for many years. The only named artist in my prompts was William Blake, who is lovably very dead.) I did use public domain/royalty free stock art from rawpixel.com as well. To add on that, all fonts are free or public domain fonts available on dafont.com. The amount of compositing, collaging & digital editing post-generation varies from image to image but everything was touched by my “digital” hand. I also searched each AI image to ensure there was no blatant copyrighted reference image, but I’m aware this is not a definitive approach. This issue and the images within will not be available for sale at any point as AI images cannot currently be copyrighted.