This Deepfake Exhibition Shows How Convincing the New Technology Can Be

The Museum of the Moving Image tests whether patrons can spot the difference between fabrication and reality

museum exhibit with two chairs and an old tv playing nixon footage
Instllation view of "In Event of Moon Disaster," the centerpiece of an exhibition that explores the history of deepfakes on display at the Museum of the Moving Image.  Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image.

Think you could spot a deepfake? The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, has a new exhibition that will put your skills to the test, according to Gothamist’s Jennifer Vanasco. “Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen” looks at the technology of deepfakes—deceptive videos created using artificial intelligence and machine learning—and how they’re used to manipulate viewers, reports Eileen Kinsella for ArtNet.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the video In Event of Moon Disaster, a six-minute film produced by the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality, which won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Interactive Media: Documentary this year, according to ArtDaily. Set in a 1960s-style living room replete with patterned wallpaper and two armchairs, the film plays on a vintage console TV, depicting the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, reports the Gothamist. Walter Cronkite helms the program, and news clips depict excited crowds, waving astronauts and a blastoff countdown. But the program cuts to static post-launch, returning with the image of Richard Nixon sitting at his desk in front of an American flag. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” Nixon says in the video. It’s a line from a never-used address written by speechwriter William Safire in case the Apollo 11 team (who returned safe and sound) died during their mission.

“We use Nixon's resignation speech as the original video that then gets manipulated,” co-director Francesca Panetta tells Gothamist. “The emotion in Nixon's face, all of the original body language, the page turning: all of that really is real. But we have overlaid it, manipulated it, with another very emotional speech.”

Luckily, most deepfakes made today aren’t as convincing as In Event of Moon Disaster’s, which used meticulous methods for production, per the Gothamist. Deepfake creators typically use cheap, widely available software that, while generally effective, gives a bit of an uncanny valley effect to its subjects. A deepfake of John Lennon decrying music and praising podcasts that appears in the exhibition has some qualities that might give viewers unease.

“There are some telltale signs: a sheen or shine to the cheeks and forehead, along with jittery movement between the head and neck,” exhibition co-curator Joshua Glick tells Felicity Martin of Dazed. “Also some shades in their eyes that don’t necessarily blend, [and] a disparity between the lips moving and the words coming out of an individual’s mouth.”

Many of the deepfakes in the exhibition are relatively harmless in nature—like Queen Elizabeth dancing on top of her desk or a lampoon of former president Donald Trump withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Modern concerns have arisen, however, over the potential sexual weaponization of deepfakes in porn, where there’s a high demand to edit celebrity faces onto other bodies, reports the Gothamist. Others worry that deepfakes could be used to influence an election.

“There hasn’t been a widespread usage in large-scale elections yet, but the exhibition wants to prepare [people], and cultivate a discerning community of viewers,” Glick tells Dazed. “There are practical steps that we can take as individuals, and things that we can do as a society. Social media companies can do more to curb the spread of disinformation on their platforms, and policy also has an important role to play.”

face of man spliced digitally with half of Richard Nixon's face
The image of an actor performing as Richard Nixon is merged with an image of Nixon in this behind-the-scenes footage of "In Event of a Moon Disaster."  Dominic Smith / courtesy of MIT and Halsey Burgund

Deepfakes can be used for good, Glick argues. A 2020 documentary, Welcome To Chechnya, which depicts the human rights crisis of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia, used the technology to protect the oppressed individuals’ identities in the film, per Dazed. Deepfakes can also be used as a means of satire and social critique “to poke fun and expose figures in power, revealing how they manipulate people in their line of business or politics,” adds Glick. He cites “South Park” creators’ satirical piece on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promoting inexpensive dialysis treatments.

While acknowledging concerns, the exhibition illustrates that deepfakes are just the newest version of a long history of editing moving images. The show places deepfakes within the context of other contested depictions throughout history, like Spanish-American War reenactments, Frank Capra’s Why We Fight, and the Zapruder footage of the JFK assassination.

“What can you edit, what can you stage, how do you need to indicate that to people, what does consent mean in this case?” Panetta says to the Gothamist. “I think there is a desire to come up with a rule book really, really fast, because it’s really, really scary. But I also think it will be quite hard to have absolutes in the beginning, because the technology is developing very fast, and you don’t know what all the uses are going to be.”

“Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen” is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens until May 15, 2022, and is accompanied by the event series Irregular Evidence: Deepfakes and Suspect Footage in Film,” which examines how evidentiary footage has been manipulated or staged in film.