The Metrics of the Art World and why Art Schools resemble a Cult

When it comes to the importance of a contemporary artist, two different metrics seem most important. The first metric deals with financial success, this tries to take into account sales through the primary market (sales directly through the artist and through a gallery or agency), and through the secondary market (mostly sales through auction houses). Since most participants in the primary market are quite secretive, when it comes to business details, measuring financial success relies heavily on published auction results.

The other way the success of an artist is measured is by looking at how widely his or her work is presented. But not every exhibition is equally valuable, and the field is extremely diverse. Is it merely participating in a group show at a small privately organized off-space? Or is it a solo show at a major museum, curated by an important curator?

There are multiple magazines and websites that offer their own rankings. Some rely more on the first metric, some on the second. Even though there are many intersections, some artist feature more prominently in one metric, while others shine more brightly in the other.

Very often, the artist CV, the paper trail that keeps track of exhibitions and collectors, seems almost more important than the work created by the artist. In most months, the CV available on my website is downloaded dozens of times. Many of the projects on my site receive far less attention than that. To be honest, when visiting the website of another artist, I frequently look at their CVs myself.

The importance of these metrics is deeply enshrined in the art world. Pretty much on each level. Even at art school, people frequently discuss, whether a certain artist deserves his position in a certain ranking, or if his work might be over- or undervalued. Every library of every art school is filled with books on precisely those artists who rank highest in these metrics. It seems quite natural to accept all of this, since every available piece of evidence seems to point to them being extremely important. But the whole thing is complete nonsense.

The art market is precisely that – a market. And an extremely manipulative one. Gallerists and investors push certain artists. Curators follow the pack and show those artists who seem to get more attention than others. Museum directors expect blockbuster shows and choose blue-chip artists. And the audience fells hip, when attending a show of an artist whose name they have heard before. There is little real development involved, it feels more like a mixture of a self-fulfilling prophecy and blatant manipulation.

Thinking about it, I find the way these metrics make their way into the academic setting of the art school troubling. Let’s face it, a vast majority of graduates will never make it in neither of the two metrics. Hardly any artist makes his or her living from selling art. And almost no young artist is ever going to have a huge solo show in a museum. This is true for the most brilliant and talented of the graduates. Only a handful ever make it and when judging their work, the whole thing seems extremely random. And yet, these lists and metrics – consciously or unconsciously – shape the debate on what artists one should look at and emulate. Even though the chances are quite slim that students at art schools will make it in these metrics, this is precisely what these institutions ask for, when recruiting their teaching staff. Imagine a business school that is only able to get five percent of their graduates in business positions, but their teaching staff looks as if everyone is going to make it. This is absurd.

By surrounding students with teachers that made it in these metrics and by constantly referring to artists that made it as well, it becomes a promise. I have spoken to quite a few art school teachers in the past and they all claim that they are trying to address this issue with their students. They also tell me that they are frequently confronted by students who tell them that they try to be rich and famous. It seems as if the way they address this bears little fruit. I also remember my own ideas and dreams, while studying. Now, I feel ashamed of how naïve I was, but no one really showed me an alternative approach.

Like a cult, there was only one possible way for salvation. Just look around you. Everyone you see has found the promised land. You had to hope and to try to emulate the path to success already taken by others to make it in the end. If you are not sure of how the whole system works, don’t be scared. No one understands the system, so just try to blend in and emulate the people that came before you. Maybe you are one of the chosen few.

I am not saying that there are not always a few artists who are going to make it this way and that their work should not be looked at. But focusing on these few seems odd.

Trying to look into the future, things seem somewhat bleak for the classical role of the artist. Everyone nowadays carries a camera around and, oh my God, do people use them. What was once a certain style, a handwriting, developed by artists over a whole career, has now become Instagram filters. Simultaneously, publishing your creations and sharing them with the world is now built right into the tools you use for their creation. These things were long two separate steps, but today sharing has become the driving force behind creation. Everyone creates, and everyone shares – and the world is drowning in images. But the ability to share with others is not limited to people who use the camera, built into their phones, as their creative device. Being creative in general has become part of a modern middle-class lifestyle. And who might blame them? Trying to express yourself is nice, and this is precisely what drives young people to apply to art school. At least that is what most applicants tell during their entrance interview.

I know so many artists who feel miserable, since they have neither made any financial success, nor is their work presented in exhibitions. Many even stopped producing art, since the whole enterprise seems to be entirely pointless. Even though all of them were once praised at art school for their talent and creativity. Even I myself quite frequently feel the need to say, “fuck you all” and stop doing whatever it is I am doing. Judged by cult standards I am a failure and salvation seems out of reach.

The art market is, in its current form, highly unpredictable and seems to care about art mostly as something that can generate revenue. While in art school, having a B-ranking gallerist visit your class, should definitely not be considered the most important day in the semester, but the way I remember it, many people do. The same is true for curators. There are many curators who are doing a wonderful job, nevertheless they have to follow their own agenda. Some feel the pressure of market forces who partly dictate their work, others are driven by other factors beyond their control. And even the most open minded and careful curator will never be able to detect each and every talent, let alone be able to give every talent ample space in upcoming exhibitions, to make their voices truly heard.

When talking about this issue with friends, I encounter resignation. The common remark is that there is just nothing one might be able to do. Some start to talk about all the stuff they have tried to kickstart their career. But maybe all of us try to tackle the issue the wrong way. When talking about raising a certain amount of money to buy a stand at an art fair or when talking about this new concept for an exhibition someone is planning. Even when talking about novel ways to get the attention of a collector/gallerist/curator… we are always merely talking about how to play the metrics game. But these metrics themselves are the issue. And the system they represent.

Maybe at art school it might be possible to teach students that these metrics are actually not that important. I truly believe that the role of the artist within our society will change in the coming years. It must. As mentioned, almost everyone now has the potential to express him- or herself on a public stage. I am not even talking about creativity expressed by AI systems. How long is the aura granted by art schools able to stem against this development?

Art schools should take their role as research institutions far more serious than today. Some schools have programs implemented, but all too often these are focused on an MFA or postgrad level. This does not go far enough. I believe that research should be a key element from the very beginning of one’s studies. And this should aim very high. When a student manages to better understand a certain issue or topic through his or her work, that should be the metric for success. No matter whether the respective work is ever shown or not. No matter if it is ever bought. Damn, no matter, if there results actually a tangible thing from the research. A real object or image. If something is better understood, that alone should be counted as success. Everything else, shows, sales, interviews, should be a mere byproduct. Maybe this way graduates find it easier to define their role within society, without having to rely on the unreliable art market.

I take research as a given term that can certainly be found in many of founding documents for art schools on a university level. But this should not be understood as a call to bring established research structures into the art world. Classical academic research certainly carries its fair share of systemic issues. Research papers need to be written and peer-reviewed in a certain way. Dissertations focus on miniscule sub-issues, take years to write and no one ever reads them. A whole new set of frustrations. No, this is not worth being copied at art schools.

I have no clear vision of how exactly something like this might look. It certainly includes an interdisciplinary approach, that tries to work with as many other fields as necessary. Maybe young artists would have to give up some notion of freedom and liberty. I say notion, since the liberty experienced at art schools quite often is an illusion. For once – as mentioned – the whole system operates under the vague influence by outside forces anyway. And what is this idea of liberty truly worth, if it leads most participants to frustration? It is not as if one would have to give up all freedom and liberty, but once in a while one should let others determine the direction a certain project takes. Personally, I have spent some time as an exchange student in Chicago. The system there was very different from the system in Berlin. Very much like a school, with classes one had to attend, courses that could be failed and homework that had to be made. Quite an extreme contrast and maybe too extreme. But while there, it didn’t feel like I had lost all my liberties. On the contrary, personally this was the most productive time I have had while being a student. And to me that felt extremely good.

Being more school-like isn’t what I mean, when calling for a more academic approach. It rather has to do with each artist’s own approach in creating his or her work and how this is being taught at art school. Schools should put more emphasis on the question how artists might find success once they have graduated and how this success might be defined. Reading all these statistics about how few artists will make their living through art after graduating just does not help. True, there is little we will be able to do about the financial success or about the path into big museums, but then why should we care about these metrics? I am not saying we should ignore them and merely conclude that the ship is sinking and that there is nothing we can do about it. This seems to be the current approach.

In engineering, failure is something most people can agree upon. If a rocket blows up during launch, we might derive some knowledge from the event, but overall it clearly looks like a failure – Elon Musk’s PR department might attempt to spin it otherwise, but let’s discount that. Success or failure in fine arts on the other hand is something that is mostly defined by how every single artist feels about it. Sure, you will find an audience that tells you how pretty things are or journalists who praise your approach. In the end though, one has to believe them to make it count. And I am arguing that we are all trained to look at the wrong things, when it comes to outside evidence for the failure or success of our works.

With this we also have to rethink the role artists play within society. Most higher education in Western Europe is founded by the public. This is true for art schools as well. Naturally society expects something in return. Right now, this comes in part in the form of established artists who have graduated from these institutions. There is a lot of finger pointing going on. Young artists point to the institution that has trained them as proof of some kind of quality and once an artist has established himself, art schools refer back to show what kind of quality and success they deliver. Little to no pointing is ever done towards the nameless hordes that might have graduated in the same year as the important artist. The idea seems to be, that the overall success rate might seem bigger, if you only mention success and no failure.

But what if artists start to redefine success in a way that does not deliver tangible results of that kind to society? There are already quite a few politicians that continuously question the amount of money spent on educating people in fields like fine arts. The return already seems quite limited and, in the future, it might diminish even further. Here, a more active role taken by art schools in contemporary debates might certainly help. I was talking about some of the looming changes earlier in this text. These changes, like the developing creativity within AI systems or the fact that everyone nowadays publishes his work on the same platforms as professional content providers – just to mention two -, are not just going to have an effect on fine arts, but on society as a whole. Many professional fields just come to realize how vulnerable their position actually is.

To me, the strongest selling point for fine arts was always its position slightly outside established structures of communication. Over time, society seems to struggle constantly to develop the right way to approach certain topics and ideas. The changes in speech are quite obvious, certain words come into fashion or fall from grace. But underlying these changes in language are changes in perception at a very fundamental level. Art was always playing a role in these developments. This might have to do with the role of the artist as the jester in society. While everyone had to speak and think in the agreed upon fashion, the artist was able to look beyond the limits of the accepted and poke around. Art can therefore provide a testbed for new ideas and developments. But as long as art stays focused mostly on itself and tries to fill in the nonexistent role of the “avantgarde”, arrogance might spell doom.

I am having issues with the idea of the “avantgarde”. It is the claim that art might storm ahead and open up new fields for society. This is not what I meant, when talking about poking around. Society does not move in a straight line, nor is art able to predict further developments. All art can do is to try things out. If there is enough poking, some of the stuff discovered might even become relevant, but that is mere chance. Most of the claims artists have made in the past, have left little traces beyond the inside of books on art history. Avantgarde feels like “told you so”, by people who make every possible claim beforehand.

It seems difficult for many fields within academia to open themselves to other fields. Sometimes there seem to be common interests and a cooperation seems sensible. But more often it is unclear what the direct benefit of a cooperation might be. Often, funding leaves not enough space for experiments. In countries like the UK, it has become relatively normal though, to open big research projects to artists. This is precisely what art schools should actively try to develop further. Artists as mediators between different fields.

But the way I have experienced German art schools, this might mean that one has to overcome the internal pressure from art students themselves. If you ever wish to see a human hornets nest in action, you should try to give art students the idea of limiting their creative freedom in any way. Best not to disturb an art student in its natural habitat. That is sarcastic, but that might in part be what makes it so difficult to prepare art schools for the future and help young artist cope with their shitty existence. Only working on the stuff, you feel like working on (the students) and not trying to come up with stuff for young artists to work on (teachers) is the path of least resistance. Maybe even the path of no resistance. The last time a professor at an art school ever told me to do something particular was on the day I did my entrance exam. After that no one ever gave a shit. That was absolutely not what I had expected. To be honest, I felt offended. I really expected people to teach me things. I was eager about that. But no. After some acclimatization I managed to blend in by becoming lazy.

I get the call for freedom to some extent, when talking about grad students. They should be able to try out the real live after graduation, while still being in the protective environment of the art school. But this call goes beyond that and seems to include everyone from the first semester on. Art school taught me almost nothing of value for my live now. I have realized that by now. Did I have a good time? Sure. I had a space to work, the tools to work with and no outside pressure to come up with plan-B, since I was already attending one of the most prestigious institutions. But I constantly doubt that this was in fact the right decision. In retrospect, I would have loved someone forcing me to learn stuff and find my role in the structures of society outside the narrow art world.

Since having students take care of themselves is so convenient for the teachers, it might be a lot for them to simultaneously come up with stuff to teach and face the uproar by students who think you try to limit their liberty by actually force them to do something. But someone should try it.

Art Schools – A Ponzi Scheme

Charles Ponzi allegedly writing a check to Jeff Koons. (I allege it by the way)

Of those people, who have attended art school, very few manage to make their living from selling their art afterwards and even fewer get rich. Everyone seems to have accepted that and even while I was attending art school, that was constantly something people were talking about. It is now ten years since I have left art school and maybe things have changed drastically, but from the outside glimpses I get, I doubt it. Back then, the main goal for most students seemed to be the art market. That was the stuff worth hoping for. Whenever a gallerist came for a visit, people got excited. When there was the annual open house event, people were hoping to be discovered or to meet affluent buyers. Very few did. But the excitement remained. Just hope, maybe the next gallerist visiting might discover your potential or maybe the next group of visitors is going to make you rich.

In retrospect, the whole thing has some characteristics of a cult or a Ponzi scheme. The promise to make it in the end keeps everyone involved, even though most people fail in one way or the other.

I think that the focus should be entirely different. Art schools should distance themselves from the art market and understand themselves as scientific institutions. Not sellability should be the focus, but research. This goes even further. Does it really matter how often one’s art is being shown in a museum or gallery? Right now, with the way the art world is structured, it certainly does. I am struggling with the whole topic myself, maybe art should become something that works as pure discourse, without being shown. I am not talking about artist who present this discourse as performative works – that would be once again an attempt to please the established environment of exhibitions in museums and galleries. No, artists should be able to participate merely in the discourse itself and still be considered artists.

Creating stuff has become a key part of modern, middle class lifestyle. Only if you are somehow creative, you seem to be a full-fledged member of society. And not only do people create stuff, the creations are shared constantly. There is this “five stages of grief” thing (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). I wonder what stage the art world might be in. Sure, that is self-help-guidebook nonsense, but poking at these things can be fun.

The adorable victim

I have seen wildlife documentaries in the past, where some of the animals have names. That has nothing to do with mama meerkat naming her children, but with the filmmakers trying to connect us closer to the animals shown – hopefully we might not switch to something more interesting. The weirdest example was a computer generated “documentary” on the lives of some dinosaurs, were some of the pixels were named. The thing that made it especially weird, was the fact that this film tried hard to appear like a documentary. And that was the claim it was making. Of course, the whole thing was following a scripted storyline and so do these other “documentaries”. Very often in these films, the “main character” animal, that is being shown, is in fact a series of animals that look alike and whose combined actions make for a nice narrative. But I am wandering off.

Naming an abstract character makes it easier for us to connect. We feel closely related. We seem to know it as a being. We really hope that meerkat Robert isn’t going to be eaten by this hungry looking hawk, otherwise we would be devastated.

“Robert”

At the moment of writing, there is a big media frenzy in Germany, about the murder of a young women. She was fourteen when she was killed and the male suspect in the case happens to be a refugee. A Muslim refugee. Especially the last snippet arouses politicians and pundits on right. Name and image of the victim are all over the news and I find that troubling.

When these things happen to children or teenage girls, the media keeps repeating the victims name and the age, very often accompanied with a cute image and other details, that make the story more relatable. The victims seem so pure and so innocent, so the crime must be especially outrageous.

But this creates different classes of victims. Let’s assume the victim in the case was not fourteen, but forty. Not cute, but slightly ugly. Not relatable, but a drug addict with mental health issues. Would she then be less of a victim? Unfortunately, society would treat her that way. Her killing would cause less of a public outrage. Police might not invest the same amount of manpower and media would hardly find time to report her death. It turns out there is a whole hierarchy of victims.

But there is a second element, that determines the value of a victim. It is the perpetrator. This is very similar to the cultural makeup of the victim (but reversed). Male or female, old or young, attractive or ugly, these determine how the case is perceived. If it is perceived at all. There is also a cultural trend involved. Different eras value different traits in perpetrators differently. For some time, it was drug addicts that apparently made the worst of the worst. During the Nazi era it was Jews. And today, the young male Arab makes the perfect boogieman and therefore creates the victimest victim.

But the fact that not all victims are treated the same way can be very dangerous. When frontpage after frontpage is filled with the names of certain victim and their images, society becomes excited. Few members of the society start looking for statistics to see, how a certain crime is reflected in the broader trend within society. They rather feel encouraged by the outrage machine and follow the pack. And politicians try to gain sympathies with constituents by demanding immediate actions themselves.

Looking at the way different victims are treated, one can conclude a lot about what is wrong with society. For the longest time, sexual crime was in part blamed on the victim – this is still the case in many parts of the world and quite certainly in many minds in the west. This was reflected on the way these crimes were reported and still are. Racial prejudice and prejudice against minorities as well can be derived from the way victims are treated. In the US, for instance, crimes against African American is certainly underreported, while crimes against whites fills the news far more extensively. In some cases, like the killings amongst poor blacks in and around Chicago, the lack of presence of these crimes indicates that part of the media is entangled in active victim blaming. If spoken out aloud, or merely believed silently, the believe seems to be that many of these victims are to blame for the crimes they have fell victim to. This leaves out the wider social picture completely. Why are these people poor? What makes them to resort to violence? And so on.

Overreporting certain events is always dangerous, since this can easily shape the way things are perceived within society. Not the real events count, but the perceived ones. And when this serves as the basis of our actions. If most of the focus is on few instances of violence and crime, little action is taken to address the bigger issues. Maybe we are not any longer living in an era of enlightenment, but an era that is defined by outrage. The louder someone yells, the more real things seem and the more action they demand.

So, what could be done? Do we really need to know the names of crime victims? I think it depends on the crime. When the Nazis exterminated millions of Jews, these were not random victims of violence, but rather their identity made them the target. It is important therefore to show the extend with which they were victimized. It wasn’t just banker or capitalist, artists or communists, but rather ordinary people like you and me. Like you and me and everyone we know – that is the important part. And that is precisely the thing that makes the scale of the Holocaust so unbearable. Focusing just on the Anne Franks of the Holocaust would be the wrong approach to come to this conclusion. With Anne Frank, people relate to her, since she seemed to be cute. We would love to protect her. Maybe the thing that has the more lasting effect would be, if we’d all find someone we could relate to, since he or she is like us. The sheer number of victims makes these easy, when looking at the Holocaust as a case study. Six million individuals? Certainly, everyone finds his or her older twin.

When talking about regular crime I can not see the reason, why we should know too much about the victims. It is clear that media will always focus on some “prominent” cases. And therein always lies the root of a new form of injustice. There is always going to be bias in reporting crime and this bias utilizes the identity of a victim to promote a certain agenda.

The way certain crimes are reported can make us complicit. I have talked about this before, when discussing the way executions by ISIS and the like are covered by media. Western victims get a special treatment, both by ISIS and by Western media. ISIS victims get a “VIP treatment”, where their deaths are staged in the most elaborate manor possible. This is precisely done to gain the attention of media outlets. And they fall for it. There are background stories on the victims published, they are named, family and friends are interviewed, and so on. The full packet. Local victims are rarely named, neither by ISIS nor by the media – if their deaths are ever covered in the media at all. They are seen as mere numbers and – the lack of coverage gives the impression of putting at least some blame on the victims. Being killed is what you ought to expect, when living in a war zone. Right? Wrong. A victim is a victim.

I really appreciate projects that try to find a way to present all victims of a certain form of violence equally. This can be seen around police violence in the US, for instance in the “Police Shootings Database”, that is being maintained by the Washington Post. This project tries to list all the known instances of people killed by police in the US. It does provide some background information on each case – if this is available – but it gives each case the same amount of attention. This enables us to see the scope of the whole issue and not merely one individual tragedy.

From a database like this, we could really come up with actions to take to tackle the real issue. Of course, each family suffers and to many the death of a child might cause more pain than the death of an adult. To society, both deaths should have equal value and if there are four children killed in any given year, but four hundred adults, the two demographics should not be judged equally.

As long as we accept the treatment of some victims as special cases, there is plenty of room for populists to instrumentalize these cases for their political gain. This is precisely what happens in Germany at the moment. Young beautiful girls and children have to be protected from crazy men from the east. That sounds all too familiar and it seems as if these prejudice stem directly from the teachings of Goebbels. The death of these women is terrible, and their families suffer, yet the way this is being instrumentalized is so much more dangerous for our society as a whole.

The attention given to this form of violence against a certain category of women feels somewhat like these old stories about the damsel in distress, that needs special protection from a white knight – in these cases the white knights on the right. Some of them even call themselves “knights”.

Protecting Identity is Bullshit

I feel a bit sick to my stomach. No, it has nothing to do with the stuff I ate, but rather with the weird stuff on the Internet.

I just watched a few videos by white nationalists / conspiracy theorists / whatever. The happiness with which they present their racism is amazing. Of course, they would not call it racism or even fascism and that is precisely the point. In the videos I was watching the different people all seemed to agree that “oh it is good to meet other cultures, but gosh, you really need to protect your own identity”. This is precisely the BS you can hear from politicians and rights wing activists here in Germany as well.

Identity. Sure, we should protect our identity. That sounds reasonable. Just, what exactly is identity?

I had to laugh out loud, when two young women from the US took Thanksgiving as something worth protecting. They consider celebrating Thanksgiving as a very fundamental thing that defines their Americanness. But Thanksgiving is a perfect example for the way different cultures mix and the way it evolves over time. Everything here is an amalgamation. Even the food that is being eaten. And many of the changes are quite recent. If you go to the US now during the weeks before Thanksgiving, everything is commercialized in a unique fashion, that is relatively new. And so is pumpkin-spice-latte.

Thanksgiving isn’t such a big deal here in Germany. There is the original pagan festival, that slipped into Christian liturgy, but that is very different and only regionally important. The example that is being used here, when people try to argue about the loss of identity, would be Christmas of course. It is the same set of issues people seem to have. Yet, Christmas, just like American Thanksgiving, has always evolved. And it did so in every generation. My nieces and nephews celebrate a different thing that what I celebrated when I was their age. Long gone are the days, when oranges where the present of choice for children.

Yet, the Nazis from the AFD and the enablers from the CSU and CDU in Germany, call for the protection of these fundamental traditions. These are traditions merely in a sense, that 200 years ago, people did something special on the same day of the year. Most of the stuff they did has changed since then.

All these people always sound as if different cultured would mix, there would be no room left for identity. Instantly everyone would act precisely the same way.

Maybe, when talking about the wonders of meeting other cultures, they actually think of something that has more resemblance to the “Völkerschau” (or human zoo) idea of the late 19th and early 20th century. Where different cultures were presented in zoos. In cages.

I doubt that most of these people have a historical knowledge that dates back that far and most of them might not be aware of these terrible displays. What they are asking for, and that is my argument, is not for cultures to meet, but for them to experience once in a while a safe (zoo-like) experience with another culture. Please, as little direct interaction as possible.

I have no doubt, that most of the AFD politicians enjoy a nice trip to Italy, Turkey or, God forbid, maybe even Egypt.

Identity is a construct and in our consumerist society, much of the construction is done by others with financial interests. Japanese society has happily adopted their version of Christmas. Makes sense, if your culture lacks a festival with nice lights, fancy trees and massive amounts of gifts.

I am not saying, that we should go back to the original spirit of Christmas. No one knows what that might be. And in general, it feels dangerous to go too far back in time. Especially, if you might end up with pyres for witches that might, in the past, have represented the “true spirit” of the festival you are trying to revive.

We could easily overlook stupid videos like these, if they did not just prove the danger the pose. From the positions these people take, it is merely an incremental step to call for some cultures to be “special”. I have heard hints of that in some of these videos. Some made references to sports “clearly, in sports we can agree on the fact, that someone wins, and someone is better than others.”. The steps towards open racism and fascism are always incremental ones. And I guess that in these videos many of the presenters hide the fact that they have already made these incremental steps.

It makes me so angry, when these idiots come out and pretend they merely wanted to protect people like me. Yes, I am a white heterosexual male that was born and raised Christian. But fuck me, I don’t need protection. My culture has changed daily or weekly or monthly from the moment of my birth. There is nothing in it that needs protection. If it is influenced by outside forces to the point that it changes. Well good. It means that I have adopted to the world I live in. Am I always going to be happy the way things are going? No. Of course not. But that has very little to do with the way other people forcibly are trying to alter my identity.

I am far more afraid for other people, that are getting in touch with me and my culture. I come from a position of power. I did not choose this position and I did not fight to reach this position. It has to do with the society I was born in and the power structure that surrounds me. I think it is quite easy to me to hurt people, whose position is weaker than mine. I try to be careful, but to be honest, I guess I have failed on some occasions in that respect. I have never done something that was criminal, or even a clear violation of moral norms. But still I have hurt people out of a position, where my role was more secure than theirs.

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.

I wonder if AI comes to the conclusion that we are conscious…

René Descartes

For most of human history, there had been general agreement that humans are special. We were the chosen ones and therefore we had to rule the whole world. Apparently, our ancestors were the ones that had eaten the forbidden fruit, that had enabled us to distinguish good and evil. This, today, might be understood as consciousness. How else could God punish us for our decisions, if they were not made consciously? If we were mere puppets, without free will, punishing us, would be unjust, since our decisions would have been made by something outside our control.

When René Descartes wrote his “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), he determined that consciousness might be the crucial part in our understanding of being and reality. We might be able to question every detail in the world around us, but the fact that we notice our consciousness, gives us evidence of our existence. But the reach of this evidence is very limited. I think, therefore I am, has to do with me and my own realization. How would this enable me to come to the conclusion that you are conscious as well? It does not. Descartes took the humancentric view and determined that consciousness is something that is unique to humans and that no animal shares this ability.

I have a hard time following Descartes here. I always understood his sentence in a more radical way than he did. To me, “therefore I am”, was not so easily extended to “therefore you are” as it apparently was to Descartes. I always felt, that all I could be certain of was my own existence, extending it, was lacking the “clear” evidence of existence my consciousness provided me with. Of course, I am not saying no one besides me is conscious, but finding evidence for consciousness outside myself seems hard to find.

With or without evidence, we can see from Descartes reaction, that it is an easy step to see fellow human beings as being conscious. That might have a lot to do with our understanding of a common nature. The humans around me might be different beings, but they are a lot like me and therefore share most of my traits. But it seems much harder to find consciousness is something that is very different from myself.

To Descartes, animals could never develop consciousness and therefore could not suffer.

In the last decades, science has worked hard, to find some evidence of conscious behavior in other species. Most of us might have seen some video of apes recognizing themselves in a mirror, but there are other cases. Yet, most of these examples are focused on our own understanding of what it is, that makes us conscious. Recognizing ourselves in a mirror is closely related to recognizing our self via thinking. We expect animals to repeat our own tricks to determine, whether we are conscious or not.

But I think, that there is an issue with that. What makes us believe, that this is the only way to being conscious? What if – as a thought experiment – the nerve cells in my stomach have developed consciousness but they and I are not able to communicate, since there is no common language between us? We might never realize that the other side exists as a conscious entity as well. This is a mere thought experiment and I am not trying to start a new New-Age-movement of people who are trying to communicate with their other inner being. I am rather trying to address the issue of Artificial Intelligence and consciousness.

There is a big debate ongoing on what might happen, if computers ever develop consciousness and what the implications might be. The range of scenarios goes from paradise for everyone to instant doom. My guess would be, that we are not going to notice. Or maybe we might take notice, but only after quite some time and even then, the result might be inconclusive. To paraphrase our approach with apes – we might place the computer in from of a mirror and wait to see, whether he notices the green smudge on the case. But if his consciousness differs a lot from ours – something that would to be expected – his reaction would be unintelligible to us. Something might just seem odd. Or maybe everything just seems to be normal.

More interesting to me though, is the reaction of the conscious AI. Would he in turn consider us humans conscious? Or would the lack of understanding work both ways? Maybe the AI comes to a similar conclusion to Descartes in that it and his kind must be the only ones conscious. And then? How would we convince it otherwise? Communication can be a bitch. We have had thousands of years of side-by-side evolution and yet, we are happy if we understand that our dog needs to take a shit. Maybe that is the absolute extent of what can be translated between our two species. I am quite certain that our two cats are conscious, but that might be a romanticized idea. Could I give you a clear evidence? No, I couldn’t.

I am not saying that the outcome of a conscious AI is going to be good or bad. I have no idea of what might happen. I am saying that there might be a self-conscious AI already being out there, happily calculating π and dreaming of electric sheep and wondering why the hell it is the only conscious thing in the universe. I jut hope that religion and God are not the conclusions it is going to come up with. Religion is too messy, and it should stay out of the hands (?) of AI.