The wave of clickbait headlines, factually incorrect stories and misleading narratives swept across our screens with renewed force in this past year of general elections and referendums. This so-called phenomenon of fake news may have been coined recently, but the lies and propaganda behind it have existed throughout human history with stalemates disguised as victories1 and false rumours spread about groups and individuals for political gain2. These days, fake news has become ubiquitous and all the more powerful thanks to our constant reliance on social media and the algorithms that govern them, feeding us more of what we want to see irrespective of its value.
Given the recent advances in machine learning, we can only expect the distinction between truth, fiction – and fake news – to become even blurrier. Face capture and re-enactment technologies enable us to manipulate faces3, voice generation tools imitate speech4 and generative models bring our favourite TV characters back to life.5 These technologies are advancing at a rapid rate and will soon be commercially available, in the hands of anyone.
Artists have started to embrace machine learning in their practice, experimenting with the latest algorithms and manipulating existing media to test the limits of the technology. In his work Alternative Face v 1.1, Mario Klingemann has Donald Trump’s counsellor Kellyanne Conway speak about “alternative facts” through the face of the French singer Françoise Hardy, questioning the extent to which we can trust what we see. Jake Elwes’s Dadada Ta reduces the interviews of tech company executives to the language of numbers only, making their focus on money, technology and capitalism apparent. Neither has fictional media remained untouched, with the artists Terence Broad and Ben Bogart applying machine learning techniques to the film Blade Runner to demonstrate how well a machine can remember and reconstruct the film. Quite well it turns out – the platform hosting Terence Broad’s Autoencoding Blade Runner received a takedown notice from Warner Bros, normally given out to illegally uploaded copies of the film.6
Top: Screenshot from Alternative Face v1.1 by Mario Klingemann, 2017; Middle: Screenshots from Dadada Ta by Jake Elwes, 2017; Bottom: Screenshot from Autoencoding Blade Runner by Terence Broad, 2016
As more and more artists became enamoured with the potential of these technologies and create art that is difficult to distinguish from fake news, must they be held accountable? The role of artists and their responsibility to society can hardly be universally agreed on. Looking at art as imitation, Plato saw its social function as potentially dangerous7 in contrast to Aristotle, who considered it part of human nature and praised the healing aspects of tragedy.8 More recently, the critic Howard Richards called for “artistic integrity” in his 1966 article on The Social Responsibility of the Artist, which “requires commitment to some standard of excellence other than public applause”9, while Theodor Adorno argued for the autonomy of art from social function.10
With its breadth of approach, diversity of thematic content and ever-increasing reach, contemporary art presents additional challenges in framing artistic freedom and responsibility. Characterised by the absence of a uniform governing principle, the art world gives artists free reign regarding their choice of format, medium and technique. The subject is arguably another matter. Sexually explicit, politically or racially sensitive work means that artists such as Ai Weiwei, Pussy Riot and Dana Schutz have been met with calls for censorship. Others such as Alison Jackson have struggled to find publishers for their satirical photography involving celebrity look-alikes portraying Trump, Kim Kardashian or members of the Royal family, fearing legal action11. Meanwhile, Cristina Guggeri’s series Il Dovere Quotidiano depicts world leaders sitting on the loo in an alternative interpretation of “the daily duty” garnered more curiosity than disdain.12 This series of staged portraits of powerful people is so mundane that no viewer could seriously accept them as real.
In the end, it may well be the artistic intent, execution and admission that separate art from fake news. The artist Zardulu, known for her hoaxes such as the video of a New York rat carrying a pizza, clarified the difference between art and fake news as being “the intention and the consequence. That’s how we judge everything else”.13 The potential consequences of a rat’s plight downstairs with pizza turning out to be fake may be a disappointment at worst, the case with known personalities engaging in believable false narratives is another story. For now, the light-hearted play with images of the Trump, the Queen or a dead French singer may be harmless. As machine learning for creating fake speech and video becomes more advanced and accessible, artists will need to pay close attention to ensure their integrity is not compromised, be it wittingly or unwittingly.
1 Weir, W. (2009). History’s Greatest Lies, Fair Winds Press: Massechusetts. pp. 28–41
2 MacDonald, E. ( 2017). ‘The fake news that sealed the fate of Atony and Cleopatra’ in The Conversation online. Accessed on 10-08-2017. Available at: https://theconversation.com/the-fake-news-that-sealed-the-fate-of-antony-and-cleopatra-71287
3 Thies, J., Zollhofer, M., Stamminger, M., Theobalt, C., Nießner, M. (2016). ‘Face2face: Real-time face capture and reenactment of RGB videos Proc. Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR)’, IEEE June 2016. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: http://www.graphics.stanford.edu/~niessner/thies2016face.html
4 Claburn, T. (2017). ‘Lyrebird steals your voice to make you say things you didn’t – and we hate this future’ in The Register online. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/04/24/voice_stealing_lyrebird/
5 Solon, O. (2016). ‘Joey from Friends becomes first TV character to be ‘virtually immortalized’’ in The Guardian online. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/20/joey-friends-virtual-digital-avatar-chatbot
6 Epstein, A. (2016). ‘Watch this artificial neural network’s trippy reconstruction of “Blade Runner”’ in Quartz online. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: https://qz.com/697933/watch-this-artificial-neural-networks-trippy-reconstruction-of-blade-runner/
7 Plato, (translated by) Waterfield, R. (1994). Republic, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
8 Aristotle, (translated by) Halliwell, S. (1998). Aristotle’s Poetics, University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
9 Adorno, W. T. (2002). Aesthetic Theory, Continuum Press: London, p.1.
10 Richards, H. (1966). ‘The Social Responsibility of the Artist’ in Ethics 76:3 (April 1966), 221-224.
11 England, C. (2016). ‘British artist continues to publish spoof photos of Donald Trump despite risk of being sued’ in The Independent online. Accessed on 10-08-2017. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/alison-jackson-donald-trump-spoof-photos-sued-litigation-self-publishes-a7465041.html
12 Dizon, J. (2015). ‘Must See: Italian Artist Depicts World Leaders Doing ‘The Daily Duty’’ in Tech Times online. Accessed on: 10-08-2017. Available at: http://www.techtimes.com/articles/26707/20150115/see-italian-artist-depicts-world-leaders-doing-daily-duty.htm
13 Grady, C. (2017). ‘Where Pizza Rat, fake news, and art collide, there’s a wizard named Zardulu’ in Vox online. Accessed on 10-08-2017. Available at: https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/4/24/14912316/zardulu-viral-videos-mythmaking-surrealism-pedro-lasch
We are excited to have recently published our second issue of THECUBE‘s magazine, with contributions from both members and friends. For this issue we have been looking at the thematic of ‘TRUTH’. This article by Luba Elliott, is just one of the many that can be found in the magazine. If you would like to read the entire magazine please click here. We hope you will enjoy it, and feel free to get in touch if you are interested in contributing to our next issue for more details.