This Is Who We Are: Lance Weiler

Carlos Barragán
March 08, 2024

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making. Here, we talk with Professor Lance Weiler about the potential and challenges of generative AI, the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, and how discovering our own voice can lead to a more effective use of technology.

Associate Professor of Professional Practice Lance Weiler challenges his students with a simple yet essential question: What if technology could help creativity rather than hinder it? Broad access to artificial intelligence tools is transforming the landscape of cultural creation. Weiler, a pioneer in blending film with artificial intelligence, encourages his students to engage in this dialogue, recognizing technology as merely a tool for expressing human creativity.

“Digital storytelling is about using technology to explore new forms and functions of storytelling,” he said, “but technology should aid the creative process, not dictate it. Understanding the human experience first can lead to more emotionally resonant experiences. Interrogating and experimenting with technology helps you find your own voice through it, deciding whether and how to use it based on its contribution to your creative expression."

Lance Weiler is an American filmmaker, writer, and Director of the Digital Storytelling Lab at Columbia University School of the Arts. Starting his career in Pennsylvania and later New York City, Weiler first gained recognition with The Last Broadcast (1997). This horror film, which he co-wrote, co-produced, co-directed, and co-starred in alongside Stefan Avalos, marked a milestone in cinematic history, becoming the first motion picture to be released entirely digitally, stored and forwarded via geosynchronous satellite. Made on a budget of 900 dollars, the movie grossed over 5 million dollars, and was available in 20 countries around the world. 

“Sometimes we forget how limited our interactions with stories were at that time,” he said, referring to the 90s. “Everything was dictated by brick and mortar. As a viewer, you were at the mercy of whoever was curating for you. The internet just opened this whole world where all of a sudden you are able to interact with stories from all around the planet. With The Last Broadcast, we demonstrated the potential to democratize filmmaking and make it accessible to more people,” Weiler said. 

Weiler was recently profiled by The New York Times about the way he's incorporated technology and Artificial Intelligence into his teaching philosophy. “[My] class is about daring students to embrace the machines,” he told the Times. At the time of the interview, he and his students had spent months preparing A.I. projects for a workshop at New York's Lincoln Center, combining human and A.I. talent, using tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney to create scripts and art through algorithms that mimic human creativity by analyzing vast amounts of internet data. 

Weiler, however, is wise to the downsides of these new tools. “Generative technologies bring up ethical, political, and regulatory issues, especially concerning data training, attribution, and who’s going to compensate artists for their work. We need to resolve those issues first. That’s critical.” Despite this, he emphasized the importance of exploring emerging technologies to demystify them, a feature that has been present in all his work. 

In Frankenstein AI, Weiler and his team developed a chatbox inspired by the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s seminal text. It was an interactive installation where participants had to reveal their memories, emotions, fears, and hopes to an AI. In developing the Frankenstein AI chatbox, Weiler and his team tried to flip the script: What if the machine questioned us about what it means to be human?

“We thought, what if we took the themes of Shelley's work, this idea of isolation and connection, creating something that gets outside of our control, and flip the script? It led to a deeper conversation because you've interacted with [the machine] in some way. The group contributes to the machine to aid its learning, leading to dynamic conversations about biases in algorithms and their training and design. Many of these people had never interacted with AI beyond their smartphones. What I try to do in the classroom is to put it in the hands of the students to lead to deeper conversations: what does this mean to my creative practice? What does this mean to my sustainability as an artist? What does this mean to us as a society?”

In class, Weiler’s students use Chat GPT to code and explore code repositories, something he believes will lead them to ask the right questions. “Art is needed to interpret this technology, art is needed to drive the technology forward,” he said. Right now, he believes that all the “clickbait titles” and the “fear-mongering” articles are paralyzing other artists who believe their world is over. “AI is like interacting with a toddler,” he said. “It’s incredibly temperamental, and it surprises and frustrates you at the same time. The more we’re involved in that process, the better we will understand the important questions: how is it being trained? Who is training it? Who has access to that? The folks regulating the industry in the United States don’t understand anything about it. [In my classroom], I’m trying to open the door to more people to know about the potential dangers and capabilities.”

Still, Weiler is critical of those who think that technology will solve all of our woes. “That thinking led to a lot of the challenges that we’re facing right now, especially with social media and algorithms and deep fakes and disinformation,” he said. 

Weiler tells his students that technology should serve storytelling, not act as a fix for creative challenges. “If the technology is not propelling a question, don’t use it. With technology, sometimes we get very excited about it, and we shape our thinking around the artifact. But if you understand the human experience first, and where you want to go, that can lead to much deeper experiences. My advice to my students is: interrogate yourself, find your own voice, and then decide whether you use the technology or not.”