Snapshots of an Artist at Work: AnaMary Bilbao’s Prelude (2024)

(essay about the work Prelude [2024], written by Alejandra Rosenberg Navarro and published in Contemporânea, May 2024)


Glimpses and bangs set in motion AnaMary Bilbao’s Prelude (2023). Flashes of light show the close-up of a little red devil dancing around a still life. Clarice Lispector, in her novel A paixão segundo G.H. (The Passion According to G.H.), writes “–– –– –– –– –– ––” (3). A pulsating line, or a series of pulses, starts and finishes her novel, in which the protagonist searches for the primary material of life.




Attempt #1: When I meet AnaMary Bilbao, she is carrying a small mason jar. In it, a spotted lanternfly lies alone. Shortly after our meeting, Bilbao messages me: “The lanternfly died.”




I am commissioned this text before seeing the work of art; it is still in progress. This essay results from conversations with the artist and explores the tensions, connections, and gestures present in the process of creating a multi-channel, moving image piece.




Attempt #2: Bilbao shows me a large mason jar with three spotted lanternflies and a couple of leaves. The lanternflies buzz around, and she asks, “How can I film them?” “How long will they live?” Winter is around the corner in New York City, and lanternflies will soon stop flooding the streets. A couple of days later, I receive an update from Bilbao: despite her efforts to keep them alive, they are all dead.




In the fall of 2021, New York City issued a notice. If anyone saw a spotted black and red lanternfly, they were to squish it, smash it, squash it. Kill it. Described as an “invasive species” and a “natural predator,” the lanternfly seems to have arrived in New York City in 2020 from China. Today, in the fall of 2023, any efforts to control the presence of lanternflies have been in vain as they populate the streets of New York City.




Attempt #3: A large jar with several lanternflies. “As I was picking them up,” Bilbao recalls, “people were cheering me on as if I was freeing New Yorkers from their worst enemy. Little did they know that I just wanted to keep them alive.” This time, Bilbao opens the jar several times a day to ensure there is oxygen in the lanternflies’ new habitat. However, by the end of the week, they are dead at the bottom of the mason jar. What Bilbao didn't know until that moment was that, in their adult state, these flies have an average life expectancy of around seven days, so all her efforts to preserve their lives would be in vain.




“The cockroach is pure seduction. Cilia, blinking cilia that beckon. I too, gradually reducing myself to what was irreducible in me, I too had thousands of cilia blinking, and with my cilia I advance, I protozoic, pure protein. Hold my hand tight, I have reached the irreducible with the fatefulness of a deathknell … I had reached nothingness, and the nothingness was live and moist.” (Lispector 54)


G.H., the main character of Lispector’s A paixão segundo G. H., stumbles across a cockroach in a recently emptied room. Both beings come into contact; their forms and fluids merge and penetrate each other. This encounter triggers in G.H. a corporeal mystical experience that crumbles all her worldviews and prior knowledge about her identity, about the self, about the conditions of a living subject. What starts as an othered being, a non-human element that disturbs her, ends up becoming part of her own body––and she part of the cockroach. The character’s initial disgust toward the other animal in the room takes her to transcend the human and non-human divide, merging both their bodies and inhabiting a conception of life beyond the human. “I had humanized life too much,” G.H. confesses (Lispector 6).


“I’ve immensely confronted the term ‘non-human,’” explains to me Bilbao. “I find the human/non-human binary problematic in how it places us in a supremacist position regarding the rest of the world.” Bilbao’s work revolves around the figure of the lanternfly to articulate a political discourse on ontology that goes beyond fixed meanings of self and other, of human and non-human. Instead, the lanternfly acts as both a literal and metaphorical representation of how the current capitalist, global market produces, circulates, and then alienates othered beings.


Bilbao’s work, however, is not only centred on a non-human entity through the figure of the lanternfly. In all its layers, Prelude challenges the distinction between human agency, anthropomorphism, and other––animal and human-created––intelligence.




At the end of Prelude, “La mort.” Yet la mort––death––only anticipates what is yet to come. The gesture of the hand-written “La mort” reveals an energy and mobility otherwise absent in the work’s puppet-like figures, if not for the camera’s own movement over the images themselves. The puppets’ uncanny anthropomorphism signals something that resembles, yet does not reproduce, a human or animal figure. Standing in, however, for their indexes, these symbols evoke a life unlike the one we know.


In his canonical work Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes reminds us how cinema, unlike photography, which fastens down figures “like [preserved] butterflies,” enables beings to continue living (56–57). The cinematographic present is alive, carrying its referent without being tied to it. Bilbao’s diabolic lanternflies, or lanternfly devils, dance in stop motion, refusing to be pinned down like a dried, dead butterfly. In their motionless movement, Bilbao’s lanternfly flutters, confronting the humanity of the anthropomorphic yet inert clown-like puppet.




AnaMary Bilbao’s oeuvre continuously questions notions of origin and conclusion. “All my processes revolve around the beginning and the end of images,” explains Bilbao in conversation. In her previous corpus, Bilbao had mechanically manipulated found footage––incessantly scraping, intervening in analogue film to reveal its materiality, or what lies beyond it––to contest illusions of linear temporality and caducity. This search continues in the work she is currently developing, but this time Bilbao’s archive is not a physical collection of found objects; it is the never-ending collection of images produced by the artificial intelligence DALL·E.[1]


For the first time, Bilbao is not in direct touch with the image’s materiality; rather, she engages with virtual representations of artificially engineered images. As the artist explains, “DALL·E never ends; it always offers more and more variations of the same image. The image, then, is never ready; it never finds its conclusion. It is transformed by new information while simultaneously producing new data. The algorithm has no end in sight.”


“I was obsessed with seeing if it would reach an end,” continues Bilbao, “searching for a moment where the image would saturate. It didn’t happen—when I thought I had reached a possible end, the figure I was working with morphed into one that resembled Ronald McDonald, even including the characteristic logo on the shirt.” Engaging in what artificial intelligence calls “deep learning” (a concept first employed in human-centred pedagogy), DALL·E pulls references from the internet’s inexhaustible archive of content while learning from the users’ inputs. As such, Bilbao’s search for the limit of artificial intelligence’s ability to create did not take her to an abstract void, as she was expecting, but rather to the epitome of capitalism: McDonald’s Golden Arches logo. The figure’s reference is clearly Ronald McDonald, yet the resemblance is eerie—her features are distorted, as if she was melting, and she holds herself as a puppet-like clown figurine that exists in a void. Perhaps Bilbao did find the end, or a possible end, in the shape of a post-apocalyptic symbolic representation of the Capitalocene.


The “La mort” at the end of Prelude plays with “L’art.” (The moving images result from Bilbao’s manipulation of a scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s film Pierrot le Fou where “la rt” is transformed into “la mort.”) The death of art, clarifies Bilbao in conversation with me, given the market-dependent creation of AI aesthetic experience. Yet, I think of the post-mortem artistic possibilities produced by AI. Almost a century ago, Walter Benjamin famously denounced the absence of aura in images of mechanical reproduction, a claim that has been endlessly disputed by lovers and makers of photography and moving images. Where, then, can an AI-infused artistic practice take us aesthetically?




The end is only the prelude of what comes next. Bilbao’s circularity comes again into play. Working with DALL·E as a co-creator, Bilbao projects AI’s images and films the projection with a 16mm camera. The rudimentary camera movements signal the mechanical production and reproduction of AI’s images; even if digitalisation appears to dematerialise the production of images, Bilbao’s analogue camera reminds us how the digital is bound to the analogue world: kilometres of data centres and storage farms make possible the apparent immateriality of the digital visual realm.


The film is developed and edited analogically. After the final cut, Bilbao digitises the images and sets up the multi-channel installation. Media collapse into each other. Image recording technologies that appear to be reaching their limit (or “obsolete,” as some would say) are not only employed by Bilbao to question the materiality of the image; the artist also pairs these recording technologies with AI-produced images: la mort de l’image, the death of the image, takes us to the vital essence of its material life. After G.H. realises naked life thanks to her encounter with the insect, Lispector ends her novel with the ever-lasting pulse, “–– –– –– –– –– ––” (189).

Alejandra Rosenberg Navarro, Nov. 2023

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. Hill and Wang, 2010.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Schocken Books, 1969.

Godard, Jean-Luc. Pierrot le Fou. 1965.

Lispector, Clarice. The Passion According to G.H. Translated by Idra Novey. New Directions Books, 2012.

[1] Developed by the organization OpenAI, DALL·E––named after both the Spanish artist Salvador Dalí and the anthropomorphic robot Pixar character WALL-E––employs artificial intelligence to produce images from textual descriptions or prompts. See more at:  

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