Faces, Places, and AI: A Conversation with Theo Haggi

Theo Haggi (MFA, Graphic Design ’25) and I are sitting in a dusty studio room in the Sculpture Department. He passes me a booklet, one of his most recent works. Theo’s own writing covers the first page: “How does and how can a computer generate imagery?” Flip through some more pages, and the booklet reveals images of landscapes. While the green grass and blue water are recognizable, beneath a computer-made tint, they sum into images that verge on the surreal.

“This is all Midjourney. These are AI-generated images,” Theo says. “Making these, I wasn’t trying to solve a problem, I wanted to push the software and techniques that I have at my disposal and see what I could do with the computer.”

Theo’s method is minimal and experimental: all these images, procured first by Midjourney, are then manually color graded on Photoshop.

At the end of Theo’s booklet are images of two old men, one Black and the other white. While unintentional, the former looks like Morgan Freeman. 

“The idea here is that this technology isn’t creating an ideal or a falsehood. It’s creating something that reflects the real world.” Theo says. “When I was generating these images, there’d be a lot of cliches and tropes.” (The cliche here, according to him, is that Morgan Freeman is the first person some think of when imagining an elderly Black man.) 

Scroll through Theo’s website and some designs you’ll see include “WEB 3” written in bright rainbow-styled text, a moving gif of the word “misinformation,” and a print of disfigured glass. Within this array of neon prints and vaporwave typefaces, one piece—titled ‘frank o., smiling on tv’—stands out.

The print depicts a Midjourney-generated version of Frank Ocean’s face, modified almost beyond the point of recognition. Off-white brushstrokes replace white teeth. Frank Ocean’s nose is completely flattened. The shadows and contours of his face are indistinguishable from one another; his “eyes” could be mistaken for either. “I thought the idea of a smile was really interesting. It’s a story, because the computer can’t generate joy the same way humans can. It’s monstrous,” Theo says.

We scroll through his site some more. “Wait,” I say. “What is that?” 

In this untitled design, an opaque black masks the face. White lines mark the forehead and nose and grainy dots reminiscent of mosquito lights replace the eyes. To create this design, Theo cropped the face off an OFF-WHITE runway photo and overlaid patterns with Photoshop. According to him, the face communicates fear and confusion. To me, it looks like an evil sentient clock gazing at me ominously. A friend I showed the design to found the mosquito-light eyes frightening. 

These varied responses are Theo’s exact intention. “If there’s an image, it can mean many things to many people. There is freedom in ambiguity,” he says. “I’ve found that in my work, there’s a lot of lightness. Between layers, some features are hidden, others escape and evade the viewer.”

I ask Theo if there’s any deeper meaning behind these pieces. In high school art classes, I spent hours carefully deciphering the meanings behind every symbol I used and object I painted. I expected a clear answer. 

“Explanation kills art,” Theo declares instead. “There’s also a lot of pressure as a Black artist to produce overtly political messages, but direct metaphors can also hinder your work.” 

“Sometimes the work isn’t for everyone. But the people who need to understand it will.”

Leave a Reply