How Do We Know What’s Real in the Era of the Deepfake?

The sound of crackling static reverberates throughout Deepfake: Unstable Evidence On Screen, a groundbreaking, thrilling, and entirely unsettling exhibition at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. Through an overwhelming smorgasbord of archival footage, viral videos, documentary excerpts, and one immersive work, curators Barbara Miller and Joshua Glick posit that the antidote to misinformation is context. The show guides visitors through substantial evidence with which they can think more critically about what informs their beliefs. The entry room alone contains nine flickering artifacts in a chronology of “deepfakes,” while a parallel hallway is lined with contemporary examples.

Exhibition view of Deepfake: Unstable Evidence On Screen

A deepfake is a video in which real footage has been convincingly manipulated, sometimes with insidious ideological aims. John Lennon can advertise a podcast. A murdered high school student can advocate for gun safety. Mark Zuckerberg can apologize for Facebook’s misdeeds. It is alarming; Freud once wrote “the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” Even when watching the most absurd deepfake (like Queen Elizabeth doing backflips in Windsor Palace,) it’s unsettling to see something which you know cannot possibly be realhappen.

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The entry room of Deepfake weaves together more than a century of falsehoods from across media. There’s Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, Frank Capra’s answer to Leni Riefenstahl, Geraldo Rivera’s Satanic Panic specials, and the Loud family, the ur-Kardashians. As the evidence demonstrates, the deepfake is not a new phenomenon, but rather the eerie progeny of mass media’s longstanding power to persuade, of decades of powerful people imitating trusted conventions to proliferate mis- and disinformation. 

The exhibition’s crown jewel is In Event of Moon Disaster (2019), a film by Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the filmmakers unearthed a real speech drafted for President Richard Nixon, intended to console the nation if the Apollo 11 astronauts died on their mission. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, they generated a defeated Nixon to read the speech. The short is presented in the exhibition in a facsimile of a 1960s living room, looping on a vintage television. Two framed pictures hang above the TV set — in a Disneyland-like twist, these turn out to also be screens, playing manipulated archival footage which adds further detail to this alternate universe.

Installation view of In Event of Moon Disaster

The internet is not directly criticized in Deepfake, but the exhibition’s overall effect dances around the subject, as if saying the word three times may summon it. A visitor will spend much of the show absorbing media alone, an experience not unlike being online — though, in the case of the nostalgic Moon Disaster, there are others seated nearby who can yank you back to reality. By the end, you’ll grow used to asking yourself (as some wall text implores) Can you believe what you see? Can you believe what you hear?

Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Ave, Astoria) through May 15. The exhibition is accompanied by the screening series Irregular Evidence: Deepfakes and Suspect Footage in Film


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