How AI is imagining a surreal future for Ireland

Director Hugh Mulhern's AI experiment challenges reductive notions of Irish identity. His work has been called “hiberno-futurism” – make of that what you will.

What could Ireland look like 100 years from now?

This is a question director Hugh Mulhern wrestles with on his Instagram page @newirelandincolour, which he set up in December last year. Filled with AI-generated photographs that imagine an Irish underworld set circa 2040, this is Mulhern’s vision of a strange future for his home country, partly inspired by a top-secret script he’s working on.

Stylistically, [the page] takes visual cues from social realist drama, or naturalist drama,” he explains, Zooming in from his flat in London, where he moved five years ago. It’s about putting that into a heightened space, which is something I’ve been trying to figure out tonally for quite some time. When all the AI stuff started popping up, I thought it would be an interesting way to experiment with this world.”

In a medley of deep green and blue hues, Mulhern’s characters run the gamut from monstrous pigs to men bathing in giant pints of Guinness, in a universe that looks like a cross between Blade Runner, a riotous free party and Mad Max: Fury Road. Each image looks slightly off-key in a way that hyperrealistic AI imagery often does (35 fingers, 47 teeth, that kind of thing), but for Mulhern’s purposes, it fits the bill. These pseudo-humans might have piercing stares, but they’re not supposed to look too real. Rather, this is a space for him to have a laugh, take the piss and even exorcise some demons.

Weirdly, the page is kind of about imagining myself at 80-years-old,” Mulhern continues. I’ve been doing this thing called dynamic interpersonal therapy over the last year. It brings up repressed memories for you to navigate. A huge part of that process is about reimagining how you see yourself and your future.”

Also part of this powerful process: writing letters to his future self. In some ways, @newirelandincolour has become a therapeutic vessel, doubling up as an exercise in subverting what we’d consider to be modern Irish culture. This is a recurring theme in the music videos Mulhern has directed, too, namely for acts like Fontaines D.C. and Kojaque, for whom Irish identity is a central lyrical premise.

When I feed words like Irish people’ into the AI, 99 per cent of the images that’ll come back are of white ginger people dressed in green,” Mulhern says. It shows that the world has a pretty simplistic understanding, and that the way Ireland has been documented historically lacks nuance.”

Irish mythology and the characters who inhabit its folklore are also major points of inspiration for Mulhern. When he left his hometown of Wicklow, he found himself romanticising it and becoming obsessed with Irish history. I feel like there’s a new wave of Irish identity that’s a lot more forward-thinking,” he continues. Blindboy messaged me and described the page as hiberno-futurism’, which explains it well. The world has a good understanding of Greek and Roman mythology, but Irish mythology is left relatively untouched.” Mulhern’s Instagram is his vivid take on that, blended with a fresh sense of Irish identity that he feels has been watered down over the last few decades.

Lately, though, he’s been feeling wary of how quickly the AI programme can throw up images. When Mulhern first started using it, he was chained to his laptop with all the excitement of a kid who’d just discovered GTA. But the more I think about it, there’s a bit of a danger there,” he says. I’m concerned about the repercussions of this technology. I feel like what we’re seeing now is as culturally significant as the internet. Is it going to render everything that came before it meaningless? Who knows?!”

For now, he prefers to think of the page as concept art that could eventually – hopefully – be turned into a proper narrative film, featuring real people with an appropriate amount of fingers and gnashers. People seem to really enjoy it,” he says. Maybe AI [imagery] could be a good thing for people who can’t access filmmaking around the world to finally be able to tell stories. It’s as exciting as it is terrifying.”

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