Image credit: Dominic Smith/Courtesy of MIT and Halsey Burgund
Looking for something to do this winter season in New York City? The Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) is the host of many exhibitions that have a keen focus on movies, television, and digital media. They famously screen curated selections of cult-classics, modern experimental flicks (Annette and Power of the Dog screenings are happening in the near future), and animated goodies. Most recently, MoMI unveiled a new exhibition on deepfakes — a complex term which generally refers to “synthetic media” or technology that is manipulated to create fake events. Popternative was able to attend a press preview of the display and hear from the curators and artists involved.
Experiencing Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen
Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen will be open for viewing from December 18, 2021–May 15, 2022 in the Museum’s third-floor gallery. Organized by Barbara Miller, MoMI’s Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, and Joshua Glick, Assistant Professor of English, Film & Media Studies at Hendrix College and a Fellow at the Open Documentary Lab at MIT, this exhibition challenges its viewers to question the seemingly-non-fiction media they view across social platforms, news channels, and other forms of technology— exposing the danger of “manipulation, misinformation, and propaganda.” Refusing to take a single-dimensional look at the trend, it also displays ways that deepfakes have been used for activism.
At the preview, Miller shared some insight into the curation of the display. She shared, “I think the message is that it’s up to all of us, where we go from here with technology. It’s not the technology that determines what happens, it’s what we do with it.” She continued to stress the relevance of the exhibition, stating that it’s important for people to “pay attention” to the media they consume as “we are all implicated” in our actions as viewers.
The display begins in a dark hallway illuminated with miniature televisions that play real-life examples of manipulated media from the 19th to the 21st century— including an excerpt from Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds (1938) and news coverage from the 80’s that fueled the flames of America’s satanic panic.
Turning the corner, museumgoers are brought to a display that presents a more contemporary understanding of deepfakes, bringing forth an array of manipulated clips of public figures and modern events (including clips of Rodney King and a victim of the Parkland shooting). This section included a heart wrenching excerpt from the 2020 documentary Welcome to Chechnya which utilized artificial intelligence to hide the identities of its interviewees— a selection of LGBT+ individuals seeking asylum from Chechnya to avoid being prosecuted due to their sexuality.
It was the stark contrast between the two sections of the exhibition that emphasized the danger of deepfakes. A basic understanding of war propaganda and news gatekeeping is typically taught in secondary education — if one doesn’t reside in a “red state” or dangerously-conservative environment — and deepfakes as a meme or form of explicit media is understood by anybody who’s Very Online. However, this idea that deepfakes also exist through manipulated media shown in court cases or by conspiracists on Twitter is something that’s less explored, if not part of a niche demographic. Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen breaks this conception and merges the different identities of deepfakes into one category: manipulated images that can be used for good or for bad, but are still counterfeit (and should explicitly be labeled as such).
Fake Nixon Delivers A Moon Disaster Speech
At the centerfold of this spine-chilling exhibition is the Emmy-award-winning immersive multimedia display, In Event of Moon Disaster. Co-directed by Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund, the project used deepfake technology to alter a crucial event in American history— the Apollo 11 mission. Panetta and Burgund manipulated the appearance and voice of President Richard Nixon to make a video of him informing the public that the mission failed and the astronauts will not be returning home. This video plays on a loop in a recreation of a vintage living room. The creators were able to seamlessly alter Nixon’s real-life address, shown in a behind-the-scenes video also on display at the Museum, to deliver the tragic news.
Speaking about their collaboration with the Museum, Panetta shared their excitement. She said, “As artists, we couldn’t have dreamed up better partners to create a space that is so clever in its contextualization, and also thought carefully about the aesthetics of our piece and how to present it.”
Seconding his co-director’s words and adding some of his own insight, Burgund added, “A lot of deepfakes out there are technical demonstrations or humor, or porn and things like that, which are very non pro-social.” But, that’s where In Event of a Moon Disaster differs. “We feel that our ability to use some of the same technology to do something in a very close, warning-sense is extremely important and useful,” Burgund explained.
Through dimly-lit pathways to a room full of mirrors, this exhibition refuses to allow its spectators to detach this fictionalized content from their reality. The display serves as a constant reminder, as obvious as seeing reflection of your own face, that we live in a world where this type of media is constantly pushed out — oftentimes without digital watermarks or placards.
The exhibition leaves spectators with two pressing questions: Can you tell what’s real? and how far will technology advance until we take more productivity against the spread of misinformation?
Museum of the Moving Images Safety Measures: Proof of full vaccination (in most cases, two doses) is required for ages 12+ (with photo ID for adults). Face masks continue to be required for all visitors. The Museum will be running at reduced capacity. More information can be found here.
Raven Brunner is an entertainment and culture writer with bylines in Game Rant, Monsters & Critics, and TheThings. She studied Communications and Media at Penn State University and has a keen interest in fandom culture. In her free time, she enjoys baking and being a full-time fangirl. You can follow her on Twitter at @raventbrunner.
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