Who curates identity?

I am quite sure, that Angelina Jolie exists, and I hope she is doing great. I pick her as an example for all these random celebrities whom we all seem to be very familiar with. I try to address a bigger and more general issue though and she merely serves as a placeholder. A convenient placeholder nevertheless, since there is quite a lot of material for me to illustrate my point. This here is not about gossip – I have very little knowledge in that field -, but rather it might be about images, media and identity.

I mentioned the program DeepFake earlier this year. This is a piece of software that enables the user to exchange the face in one video with the face of a different person. Depending on the quality of footage used, the power of your computer and the time you allow the algorithm to calculate, the results can be quite convincing. Especially considering the fact that this software is pretty much still in its infancy. The key point one has to understand is that this is different from Photoshop or the like. The software isn’t merely pasting one picture over another. It rather produces a fictitious new image that replaces the old one. The gestures, facial expressions, lighting and colors are matched.

This is quite a big leap and I guess like with all big leaps this one is here to stay. So, we might try to figure out how to react and cope with it.

I think about this quite a bit, which certainly is noticeable by the fact that I this is already my second text. Please excuse if I, in part, repeat myself, but I am just intrigued.

The most prominent way this software is still being used is to produce porn with the faces of celebrities. I should issue a caveat here. The fact that this software is used for this purpose has created the most uproar and gave this issue some visibility. At the same time – and that is somewhat odd – is the fact that this software is used to produce porn, somehow seems to be sign of quality. Or something, the creators find worthy pointing out. There might be some porn out there, that claims to be “real” footage, when in fact it is produced with DeepFake. That would be hard to find, since you can not prove a negative – so you can not prove that there is no fake hiding between the real stuff.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I am not a porn connoisseur. But the fact that DeepFake porn is out there is quite obvious. And that is the odd point I am trying to make. There is a number of sites that have the DeepFake label in their name – and even on sites like 4chan or 8chan these videos are labeled as deep fakes. Maybe it is for legal reasons, something I doubt, taking into consideration, that the way these sites appear, the whole thing looks shady enough. Maybe it has to do with something else. Since this technology is so new, it might generate more excitement, if you claim to show something that is a high-quality fake, than pretending to show something no one would believe anyway.

A screenshot of one of the sites that share DeepFake videos. The pixelation is by me.

The question what exactly arouses people online isn’t interesting to me though. What is interesting is the fact that this brings up the issue of identity. And not just identity of Hollywood stars, but identity in the 21st century and how it is being curated.

Much of the outrage that is being caused by these videos has to do with a violation of rights of the famous women. (Very little is said about the porn actresses, whose faces are removed and whose work is therefore invalidated, but that is another story.) The outrage goes so far that sites like Reddit work hard to take these videos down. But of course, stuff like that will always find its niche online.

What exactly is being violated here? Let’s forget for a moment that most of these videos seem to be labeled as fake. These videos seem to claim to show someone who isn’t really present in the videos. Someone who did not participate in the production.

This is NOT Angelina Jolie, but rather this is an image from a DeepFake video.

Who exactly is Angelina Jolie?

I find it fascinating to look at her in this respect. Oddly enough, her Hollywood career was kicked off, when she played the lead character in the first Lara Croft movie. She did earn her living with acting before and was quite successful at it, but Lara Croft made her especially famous. “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” from 2001 was the movie version of a quite successful game franchise, that had started in 1996. Back then, video graphics were not what they are today, but that didn’t keep the computer-generated figure from becoming a sex symbol.

When Jolie played Lara Croft, her appearance was made to match the figure of the video game character. Especially the enormous boobs in the game, that had gained some notoriety, had to be matched. Wikipedia tells me, that this was done with the help of padded bras.

On the left the way the character looked in the first game. In the middle the way this was depicted by Jolie. On the right how this has then influenced later versions of the game.

But the role then defined the public image of Angelina Jolie for quite some time. And her appearance in the movie had an influence on the way the character Lara Croft was depicted in later versions of the game. Jolie had to match her appearance to the game character, which in turn had to match its appearance to the way it was portrayed by Jolie. Also, Jolie and Lara Croft were then intermingled in the public perception of what Angelina Jolie is as a human being.

The way Jolie was presented in this movie and its sequel from 2003, certainly helped to strengthen her public image as a sex symbol.

A CGI rendering of Jolie from the movie Beowulf.

In 2007 she starred in the movie “Beowulf”, which was entirely 3D generated. Here, Jolie might have acted in from of a greenscreen or in another way to track her motions, but her entire appearance was recreated with the help of software. Not as elaborate of a setting as a program like DeepFake would allow, but still not really real. Like makeup and lighting alters the appearance of an actress in a movie, here too did the CGI create an image that matches our expectation of what the actress should look like.

When Full-HD TVs became common, I read an article somewhere that was talking about issues some actresses had, with the high resolution. Until then it was possible for them to hide imperfections in their skin with makeup. Now, the article claimed, this would no longer be possible, since the makeup would be visible. I am quite sure that our media environment is fucked up enough that these concerns were valid. It is interesting though, since an actress, this might have affected, always had these imperfections. These were just not an issue, since they could be hidden. Someone could make the decision to hide them. Our perception could be controlled. The lack of controllability seemed to frighten people.

The same could be true here. Jolie and/or her agents try to control the way she is being perceived. But isn’t perception something that should be under the control of the person who perceives?

The way Jolie is supposed to perceived today, is a mixture between her humanistic work and her being a projection screen for products.

As I have mentioned, I am not really following gossip, yet Angelina Jolie and her PR department still have managed to leave an impression with me. Part of it has to do with her acting career, but then there are also snippets of “news” about her. I am not going to talk about these news stories here, otherwise Daniel J. Boorstin is going to rotate in his grave (I love this guy and I have written about him here  http://blog.simonmenner.com/?p=54 ). Still, a person, I have never met, and know only through highly edited and manipulated works, has managed to create an image of her in me. And now it seems important to keep the editing in the control of the people who did the editing in the first place.

Maybe Angelina Jolie is the nicest of people and does wonderful aid work – more of the stuff I was told -, but to me, there is little difference between her and let’s say Mickey Mouse or Nike. To me, she is a brand. And I guess to her PR agents too. And brands are about money and therefore they must be protected and controlled. Yet to me, the more important issue with DeepFakes is one about identity and whether there is something like that, that could survive the developing digital age. I believe that the key question is not, whether it is OK to produce fake porn of someone. To most people the answer here seems quite obvious, since the material created easily breaks many common norms. But what if the material created would be truly creative? What if it would be something new? Or a work of fan fiction? What if someone was trying to extend his or her image of the figure of fiction “Angelina Jolie” to something amazing?

There is a person Angelina Jolie somewhere out there. But this real person has little to do with the work of fiction I know as Angelina Jolie. Who owns the rights here? And how much am I allowed to work with this fiction as found footage? To use a term commonly used in contemporary culture. When these fictions press hard into our daily lives, through movies, interviews, adds, news articles, to what extend are we allowed to push back? When stories are told over and over again, it is a normal human response trying to change these stories or to add to them. Famous characters in history have constantly been reinvented and not only by their respective PR department, but by individuals who turned away from their role merely as members of the audience.

Sure, when talking about the changes made to earlier famous characters, much of this reinvention took place posthumously. But that had to do with a limited bandwidth for information in earlier societies. It took time to process new characters and knowledge of stories spread slowly. Things have changed quite drastically. We need to be able to respond to these artificial figures we constantly encounter. And I think it does not really matter, if a person is dead or alive. When Angelina Jolie plays an historical figure in one of her movies, I am equally disconnected from her, the real person, than from the figure she portrays.

Thinking about this, it seems quite absurd to see the outrage that is caused, when actresses seem to be misrepresented by some other entity. Representing other characters is pretty much what defines being an actor. I am quite certain, that most historical figures might have a hard time recognizing themselves in the way they are portrayed in movies and TV. When Jolie acts in a movie that is loosely based on the life of Alexander the Great, the way she acts has very little to do with the person she depicts. Using a Mideastern sounding accent does not really help – she is still speaking English. Someone like Alexander the Great was at least as careful, when it came to the way he was publicly perceived than most celebrities today – heck, he named twenty cities after himself.

Alexander the Great the way he was depicted in antiquity and the way Hollywood depicts him.

Identity is always a construct. Even if it comes to the way, we ourselves perceive our own identity. And identity is never something fixed. If money or power is involved, the whole thing becomes an issue of branding. Caesar Augustus, preventing busts of him being produced, that show him in old age, and Adidas going after Chinese companies, that produce sneakers with four stripes, are at their core similar attempts to control the outside image. But too much control by a few who enforce it on many, quickly becomes an act of expropriation. If I am not allowed to respond to images I am faced with, by taking these images and alter them the way I seem fit. The potential image, I would have created, is taken away from me. My creativity is hindered with the excuse to “protect” the creative output of someone else.

I said that I was going to push aside the issue with stating clearly that a work is a DeepFake, but maybe this is too important. DeepFakes are works of fiction – whether we like this kind of fiction or not. And even though an algorithm does the work, there are still creative. DeepFake still needs humans to make many of the decisions, but this software is in a very early stage of its development. From all we have learned in human history, tools like these are not going to go away and they just become more and more advanced.

When people started understanding the full potential of photo editing software like Photoshop, the reaction felt quite similar to what we are having now with DeepFakes. It seemed as if things are going to get downhill from here quite quickly. This did not happen. There had been the hope in the beginning, that every last edited image would be marked as such, for the audience to easily distinguish. This did not happen, and few people seem to mind. Why?

More and more I have come to believe that this has to do with a changing attitude towards images and maybe even reality as a whole. No one expects images, shared on Instagram for instance to be authentic. Everyone is aware of the filters that come with the app and with the fact that people tend to share the more flattering images. Not capturing reality does not seem to be a glitch, but rather the main goal. The whole thing is about curating the narrative you are trying to develop. Maybe photography was always merely a tool to illustrate our stories and never really able to capture them. Maybe we were just living with the hope that photography might help us getting a connection to the world, that certainly must hide out there – somewhere beyond our reach.

With the raising artificial intelligence, there is less and less of a refuge left for humans to feel special or chosen. It seems as if every profession is going to see a fundamental change, once AI enters the workspace. We must get used to the idea of AI being creative. That might be especially hard for people like me, who define much of what they are in society through their creative work. Ignoring the development doesn’t help though. I get it, ignoring stuff seems to make it disappear at first and seems to delay its onset. When it becomes too evident to be ignored, we might just not be prepared, and the realization comes as a shock.

Medusa and the Taint of Child Pornography

In ancient Greek mythology, Medusa is a monster that looks so terrifying that gazing at her face turns everyone into stone. This even works when once her head has been cut off and is utilized by Perseus as a weapon. I find this story quite fascinating in that it envisions something that is so terrible that even gazing at it briefly taints you beyond hope.

In a way, I would like to draw some parallels to the concept of child pornography in our current cultural environment. I have mentioned this in an earlier post, but child pornography is almost the only thing on the Internet, where merely looking at it is something that is illegal. Maybe it is the only thing, where this is true. There are quite many things, like gore, violence or racist acts, where looking at it might not be too good for your career, but looking at it is more classified as “bad taste”. So, there might be consequences for you, but maybe not direct legal ones. Currently there seems to be a push to move images and videos from certain terrorist groups into a category similar to child pornography, but we are not fully there yet.

But what is it about a certain image that could be so tainting? Please note that I am not talking about the terrible acts that are perpetrated while creating these terrible images, but rather the gaze that looks at them. This is the issue that baffles me. Especially, once we look at the laws that cover it more closely. In Germany, for instance, there is no need for the image to be a photograph of a real person to be classified as child pornography. It could be a fully fictional drawing and the law would regard it as similar to photograph that documents a rape. But the drawing would be the perfect example of a victimless crime. Right? There is no victim that could be associated with such an image and therefor the incriminating aspect must lay within the image itself.

Currently, there are other examples that point in a similarly strange direction. In the US, for instance, teenagers have been prosecuted for having nude images of themselves on their phones, taken by themselves, while they were still underage. Again, I find it quite difficult to point out the victim here.

Under these rules, sharing this image here might be illegal. By the way, that wonderful little Adonis would be me. Normally I would believe that I have every right to decide if an image of me can be shared or not. But oddly, the law seems to believe that there is a gap, that separates me from my underage-me, that cannot be bridged. Somehow the image of me seems to be closer related to this earlier self of mine than me myself.

Wikipedia taught me that, for some time in the US – until the Supreme Court invalidated the law –, porn was considered child porn, when the actors looked too you. For instance, by dressing younger or having braided hair. Again, something that can not easily be explained with a certain victim in mind. It is as if the depiction of violence in Hollywood would not be seen fully different from the real violence it might refer to.

I am not writing about this, because I believe child pornography should be easily accessible. There is far too much suffering involved in these images for me to request that. But I find the way our society deals with these images very fascinating. There seems to be an odd power associated with images themselves. Even some people I was talking to, argued that the reason why these images are buried under so many layers of taboo, might stem from the “fact” that looking at them might tempt pedophiles into committing more of these horrendous acts. But this is the argument that is almost always been used. Violent computer games are supposed to bring you closer to the violent acts. Watching porn might make you a sexual pervert. And so on. I believe that watching sports on TV does not really help with your general fitness. Maybe on the contrary.

To be honest, so far, I have not put too much effort in researching the whole issue, but until this point, I don’t think I have encountered a study that supports the “fact” my friends were stating. Maybe there is extensive research done in this field that points to precisely this conclusion that I am just not aware of.

Sure, the issue that differentiates this topic from others, is that it is children we are talking about. Terrible things are done here to some of the most innocent members of our society. At least that is the wording that is normally been used. But almost all victims of crimes are innocent. So, how can a child that is been raped be more innocent than a woman that is been raped? Maybe cruelty towards children is something that creates easy political consent. Something I have learned through Bill Bryson is that the first organizations working against cruelty towards animals predate similar organizations against cruelty towards children by many decades. Just as a side note.

But to me that still does not fully explain the unique role images play in this very special field.

What bothers me though is the fact that this level of illegality keeps me from researching some topics I am quite interested in. Quite a few of my projects deal with visual environments at the fringes of our visual culture. Surveillance and terrorism, for instance, both react to the developments within the broader visual language, but remain somewhat distanced. The images terrorist groups use for their propaganda want to become as visible as possible, but society fights to keep them secret. On the other hand, the images that are the result of surveillance operations, very often try hard to remain inaccessible. This is a very simplified summary, but maybe child pornography is something of both worlds. It has its niche audience, for which it tries to be as accessible as possible, while at the same time it has to remain perfectly invisible.

So, what is the visual culture of child pornography? How does it develop over time? How do the perpetrators depict themselves? Since my uninformed idea is that these videos serve as a kind of perverted trophy, I would believe that part of the thrill comes from the self-representation of the preparators in these images. How do they do it? Do they pixelate themselves in certain ways to let everyone else know that they are the creator of a certain video? Do the use watermarks or logos?

I would be interested in finding out, but I might never will be able to.