Mark C. Marino, University of Southern California
Rob Wittig, University of Minnesota Duluth
The Grand Exhibition of Prompts, a netprov
In this collaborative creative writing game on a threaded discussion platform students experiment with AI image-making programs, but concentrate on the expressive, literary power of the verbal prompts they write. As language arts, image-making prompts are concentrated, evocative, use sentences, fragments, lists and non-sequiturs. In other words they are poetic (but don’t tell them that until later!). Students can be evaluated on their contributions, and on their support and encouragement of other writers.
Original Assignment Context: End of semester in upper-level advanced writing course
Materials Needed: An accessible AI text-to-image generation program (i.e. Craiyon)
Time Frame: ~2 weeks
With the advent of artificial intelligence image-making software (such as MidJourney and Dall-E2), it seems the average untrained anybody can become a world-class visual artist merely by writing a prompt. Such developments have disrupted traditional notions of what it means to be a visual artist in the one aspect of making we like to think is exceptionally human: creativity. In order to explore this new world and all the anxiety it provokes, we created a writing game, a netprov (online collaborative improvisation), entitled “The Grand Exhibition of Prompts,” in which participants imagine a world where artists strive not to make new art but to write dazzling and moving prompts. The culmination of this fictional writing movement is an imaginary Grand Exhibition in the style of the Salon des Beaux Arts held in the mid-19th Century in Paris, ironically gesturing to the way AI-generated art disrupts previous notions of a single beating-heart at the center of a (thankfully bygone) Eurocentric art world.
In this writing game or netprov, each participant created a character to role-play, an imaginary ‘prompt artist,’ who in addition to making art as a member of one of our three schools (Emo, Retro, and Fido), narrated their personal journey as a prompt artist in (public) secret diary posts. Of the schools: Emo prompts feature inner turmoil, Retro prompts feature love of the past, real & imagined, sincere or ironic, and Fido feature pets and how incredibly cute they are. We also provided cafe channels for discussion of the ideas of prompt art, discussions which often touched upon the emotional state of the anthropomorphized bot art-generators. Participants were also tasked with writing reviews, not of the art that was generated but of the prompts written by others, reviewing the places where the humanity of the prompt writer shone through their request to the machine. As in many of our netprovs, participants came through Mark’s Advanced Writing course, our regulars or “featured players,” and others who saw our invitations on the Internet.
Goals and Outcomes
The goal of the netprov is to get writers to experiment with AI-generated art, focusing not so much on using the technology to create art, but to use the space of the prompt to reflect on what it means to be human. As a result, the participants generated something that we would call poetry, writing that explores the space between language-made-practical, made machine-readable, and those parts that remain illegible to the machine. While there are tons of interesting discussions to be had about AI image-making ethics, this assignment concentrates on the prompts themselves as language arts, as literature. This assignment, then, makes a great complement to a unit about image making.
A successful outcome demonstrates that students have: understood what AI image-making does in a basic way, used language playfully and creatively, recognized how different a verbal prompt is from the images artificial intelligence makes, aimed at least sometimes to write things that cannot be represented visually, supported other students’ creativity by writing prompts that respond to others’ prompts and by writing kind and creative critiques, shown their own characters’ insights and introspection via the (public) ‘secret diary’ entries.
We ran the netprov in the Fall of 2022 with around 40 participants, drawing in part from two sections of Advanced Writing taught at the University of Southern California. Students had a ball! Additional participants were solicited through announcements posted on a variety of digital culture message boards, including those of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO).
Prompt Samples from USC and University of Minnesota Duluth
To be possessed of double pomp, To guard a title that was rich before, To gild refined gold, to paint a lily, To throw perfume onto a violet, To smooth the ice, or add another hue Onto the rainbow, or with a taper's light To seek to garnish the beautiful eye of heaven, It's wasteful and ridiculous excess. --test --creative -
frigid, windy, cold, freezing, frozen, gale, cold hands, cold fingers, shaking, blustery, no sweater, howling wind, thin jacket, shaking, blowing, quivering, shuddering with cold, battered, miserable. Wrestling with A Giant Fiberglass Sousaphone which is IMPOSSIBLE TO CONTROL in high wind on a football field during band practice. soft light, in the style of Maxfield Parrish, photo realistic, art deco beautiful soft focus. And I'm not even really a sousaphone player, I'm a trumpet player!!
Secret Diary Samples
From the secret diary of a famous Retro prompt writer:
#secretdiary I did SO well two years ago at the Grand Exhibition. Everyone basically told me my prompt was the best, one of the best, super good. And it was an accident. It was a weird prompt I wasn’t even going to enter, not one of the ones I usually do, just a little “sigh” prompt about life before COVID. My friend Belter told me I should enter it. But now I have heard two Grand Exhibition podcasts already mention my name and looking forward to what I enter this year and I’m freaking out! Too much pressure! Have I peaked? Is my best creative work in the past? Agggh!
From the secret diary of a famous Fido prompt writer:
#secretdiary Omigod! I am shaken to the core! Carlissa M just announced she’s switching from Midjourney to Dall-e2! WTH? Doesn’t everybody know how much more sophisticated Midjourney is? But Carlissa claims there’s a better Pomeranian show-dog database on Dall-e2 and that’s all she cares about. I just never have gotten cutes as cute as Midjourney when you write “really super cute”. Which makes me wonder if Carlissa M cares about cute. And THAT makes me doubt the foundations of my universe.
One small note: During the game play, participants started anthropomorphizing the AI software, noting that they saw Midjourney looking dejected, smoking by the loading dock. That comment, and those who “yes and-ed” it, led to a spinoff netprov called Pr0c3ss1ng: A Support Group for AI Assistants, which is open for play on Reddit!
In our first run the primary writing space was a Discord server, which had a Midjourney text-to-image bot installed on it. The prompts, reviews and other writing were integrated with the AI images.
However, this project may take place in a number of different platforms.E The basic needs are: a threaded discussion space, ideally with the posting of in-line images possible, and web access to a text-to-image generator such as Craiyon, Dall-E2 by open AI, or MidJourney. At the time of our trial the Midjourney bot was fairly easy to install, and gave students 10 free attempts before wanting them to subscribe. These technical affordances change constantly so make sure you do a quick test to see what’s possible now. As of this writing Craiyon was still free. Course management software such as Canvas or Moodle will work well.
Things change so rapidly in the AI image field that we encourage you to search current news sources and essays for support texts.
More about netprov and many ready-to-play netprovs can be found in the book Netprov: Networked Improvised Literature for the Classroom and Beyond, by Rob Wittig from Amherst College Press. The book is free to read via open access: https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.12387128
We agree to share this work with a CC-NC license.
People are having fun writing verbal instructions – prompts – for powerful artificial intelligence programs to make visual images on text-to-image platforms such as Dall-E2 and Craiyon. The visible results so far are mostly glitchy and clichéd – just what you’d predict.
On the other hand we are entranced by the words folks use in their prompts to describe what they want to see! These prompts are strange, powerful, revelatory. Using phrases, fragments, and lists sprinkled with lumps of aesthetic and technical jargon, aspiring artists are writing short texts of startling depth and impact. Help us explore and celebrate prompts as literature!
Come and write prompts with us! Join a community of prompt artists where you can collaborate and play! Join an art movement! Start an art movement!
Then enter your best prompt into the Grand Exhibition!
Images are but the stepping stones to writing more beautiful prompts.
– Hans Paedeweyder
History and Culture of the (imaginary) Grand Exhibition
For the visual artists of Paris in the mid-19th century there were two crucial moments: the exhausted morning they dropped off their freshly-finished oil paintings to the Grand Palais to be judged by the jury of the Salon des Beaux Arts, held every two years, and the nerve-wracking instant the doors of the exhibition first opened. They mobbed the entrance. They ran inside. Was my work chosen? Was it hung at eye-level or way up by the ceiling? To be a professional artist meant being seen at the Salon. Everything depended on it.
Now, it’s happening again! The Grand Exhibition of Prompts has become the premier gathering place for AI-art prompt writers from all over the world. For weeks before the deadline writers gather in Discord, sharing, discussing, and encouraging. Each aspires both to help the others and to be the best.
Every two years the main artistic styles or “schools” of the Grand Exhibition hang out in their own Discord channels, refining their aesthetic “sound’ and “feel.” This year there appear to be three dominant styles – Emo, Retro, and Fido. Emo (revealing inner turmoil), Retro (love of the past, real & imagined, sincere or ironic), Fido (pets and how incredibly cute they are). The schools are all welcoming, but they’re very loyal to their styles.
The Grand Exhibition of Prompts store is currently sold out of the very popular “Imagine Me Like This” hoodies. We’ll let you know when they’re available again.
This project is about
This assignment can occupy about 3 to 4 class periods or about two weeks if assigned as homework
Prewriting: Making Your Roleplay Prompt Artist Character
Tips on How to Play
Remember, the focus of this netprov are the prompts, not the images. Imagine the visual, inscribe the verbal.
Try single words mixed in with phrases. Play with words that are abstract mixed in with figures of speech. In fact, defy the pragmatic creation of a plain descriptive post. Make poetic sense.
Play, experiment, explore! Have fun!
You don’t have to make an image for each prompt – this saves time.
Save all your variations! You never know until later which one reads the best.
Our Prompt Masters encourage you not to go to prompt writing sites, not to look at other people’s advice on the web or technical specifications. That will only get you trite, tired, prompts of the now. We seek fresh, original, unique prompts of the future!
The prompt-writer character you create can be modeled on any kind of artist: painter, musician, poet, et cetera. They can be just starting their career; they can be recovering from a blip in their career; they can be a veteran artist dispensing advice to the young ones. They can be passionate members of their art style/school, or they can be unique voices. Remember that artists suffer from many more crises of confidence than their fans want to think.
For Teachers: Preparing the Threaded Discussion
We created these threads before the start of play, adapt as you wish:
How to Play; Artists’ Introductions; The Café Main Chat; Emo Workshop (for prompts); Emo Chat (for discussion among characters and ‘secret diary’ posts); Retro Workshop; Retro Chat; Fido Workshop; Fido Chat; The Grand Exhibition (for students self-chosen ‘best prompt’ at the end of the project)
You may also wish to post daily themes, such as “handmade,” “copycats,” “invisible art,” “regret,” “happenstance,” “imposter syndrome,” and “unimaginable visions” in separate threads.
Sources and Sites to Consider
Places to Make Images Free