23 September 2020

    Anthea Kemp

    The artist who came back from the dead

    Death-defying deepfake technology has enabled a Florida museum to reach out to its audience like never before.

    The twentieth century Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí didn’t like to talk about death. Despite the often grim symbolism in his paintings, his own death was a particularly uncomfortable topic, and one about which he hoped to avoid all first-hand experience. He planned to cheat death through a kind of suspended animation, whereby he could “die”, or at least stop living in the ordinary sense, when the time came, without technically dying. Expressing this ambition, he famously said, “If someday I may die, though it is unlikely, I hope the people in the cafes will say, Dalí has died, though not entirely.”

    When Dalí did ultimately die in 1989, he did so entirely. But a recent project by the Dalí Museum in Florida, U.S.A has set about to revive him through a hyper-realistic, interactive “deepfake" simulation. Dalí Lives is a deepfake video installation in which an unnervingly  authentic-looking Salvador Dalí introduces museum visitors to his own life and work. The museum worked with San Francisco advertising firm Goodby Silverstein & Partners to create the installation, which uses cutting edge machine learning and “face swapping” technology to bring the Dalí simulation to life.

    The life-size  interactive Dalí, which lives in a vertically-oriented screen posted in the lobby of the museum, was “bred” by combining footage of an actor performing a mix of Dalí quotes and commentary with archival video and still footage of the real Dalí. A sophisticated machine learning infrastructure splices this data together to produce an extremely life-like simulation in which it seems as if Dalí himself is directly addressing the museum visitor.

    The deepfake Dalí experience is stitched together out of 125 distinct video fragments which, based on the museum visitor’s interaction, are able to generate almost 200 000 possible combinations of content, giving the impression that Dalí is interacting with the visitor in real time from beyond the grave.

    Deepfake videos took the internet by storm in 2019 when artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe (in partnership with advertising agency Canny) published a deepfake video in which the likeness of Mark Zuckerberg confesses to using Facebook for world domination. The artists made the video to draw attention to the potential interference of deepfakes in a world in which video evidence is still believed to be just that - evidence. The video underscores the dangers of fake news and demonstrates how easy it is to create so-called “alternative facts”.

    Dalí Lives, however, shows that the technology need not only be used to sinister ends. "What Dalí Lives adds is a sense of emotion," said museum director Hank Hine. "If visitors can empathise with this man as a human being, then they can relate to his works much more directly and much more passionately."

    Anthea Kemp