Artist James Coupe discusses uncanny surveillance techniques, cult films, and his new exhibit at the International Center of Photography.
Presented in partnership with ICP.
How are big data, surveillance, and Greek epics related? James Coupe will tell you. James is a British-born, Seattle-based artist who’s been exploring the topic of surveillance since 2007.
Visitors to James’ current exhibition, which is on view from January 25, 2020 - May 18, 2020 at the International Center of Photography, have the opportunity to star in the 1979 film, The Warriors. James believes the plot is similar to a Greek Epic. There’s a clash between New York City gangs, a murder, the wrongly accused Warriors gang, their challenges to flee the city, and even a siren-like female gang that attempts to kill them. The film highlights themes such as economic inequality, crime, and class tension, which speak to current issues of violence and hate.
With this in mind, James uses advanced technology, known as deepfakes, to superimpose visitors’ faces onto the characters’ faces in the movie. Deepfakes are a form of technology using artificial intelligence that analyzes a person’s face or entire body and then recreates an identical version. This is not “just a case of pasting somebody's face onto somebody else's body in the film, but rather like deeply analyzing that face and figuring out how to transpose the landmarks of a person's face onto the landmarks of the faces in the video,” explains James. This can lead to people appearing to behave in a certain way or say something that they didn’t actually say. Examples of current deepfake videos that exist include comedian Jordan Peele speaking as President Barack Obama and comedian Bill Hader speaking as Tom Cruise.
Unlike the characters in the Warriors who select their groups, visitors to James’ exhibition are denied this freedom to choose. The nonconsensual aspect of this technological sorting is intentional. James wants to emphasize that when people in today’s society sign up for accounts on popular social media applications, for example, they are giving up a certain freedom relating to how their profile is being understood and categorized.
James says that these types of surveillance technologies “decide where we fit economically, demographically, culturally, educationally and so on. And then in some ways, we are being put into gangs into groups and the Warriors kind of provides an ideal template for exploring that kind of algorithmically imposed segregation and organization of people into groups based on particular markers.”
When it comes to surveillance, James believes that being watched by cameras are now the least of our problems. What matters more than content gathering itself, is what is being learned from the content. James is focused on understanding surveillance from the perspective of big data “where patterns can be discovered, and intentions, and narratives,” which can lead to social problems like profiling.
Despite all of this, James admits that he is on social media. “I think it's important to have [the] experience of it too, and to not be critiquing them completely from the outside. Sometimes you have to be part of these things in order to really be able to reflect upon them, probably,” James says. In today’s digital world, it’s hard to escape these kinds of technologies and the experiences they enable. Is there a better way to do things?
Listen to more of James Coupe himself in Gesso Media’s episode, Warriors, in partnership with ICP wherever you get your podcasts and be sure to subscribe to the Gesso Media podcast for future releases. You can see James Coupe: Warriors on view at the International Center of Photography at 79 Essex Street in New York City from January 25, 2020 through May 18, 2020.
I’m Henna Wang, and you’re listening to Primer — a podcast by Gesso about human creativity, history, and the spaces we live to learn about.
Let’s dive in.
Artist James Coupe can make your dreams of movie stardom come true. But to do it…you’ll need to give him……...your face.
His new work at the International Center of Photography is a piece called Warriors. It uses manipulated videos, known as deep fakes, to superimpose the likenesses of museum visitors into movie scenes. Any visitor who walks in the museum’s doors is fair game for a starring role.
Deepfakes are a video technology that’s become more notorious in the last few years as a way to swap people's faces into existing videos fairly seamlessly… in many cases, it's it's impossible or it's very difficult to tell with fakes or not…
Here’s James, explaining how the process will work. You walk into the museum, and are invited to submit a photo of your face on one of the iPads stationed around the room.
Given somebody's face who's visiting the museum, we should be able to get their biometrics, demographics, and using image classifications based on things like economics, occupation, demographic.
A computer thoroughly analyzes this data, using a technique called deep learning. Once your facial attributes have been cataloged, they’ll be mapped onto a select character from the 1979 cult film, The Warriors.
… That's not just a case of pasting somebody's face onto somebody else's body in the film, but rather like deeply analyzing that face and figuring out how to transpose the landmarks of a person's face onto the landmarks of the faces in the video,
Vóila. All of a sudden it’s your face on the movie screens, moving and speaking and replicating the original plot.
And using that will essentially build gangs of people from the museum visitors and put them into the Warriors film.
As a film, The Warriors holds particular significance for James. The movie takes place in a parallel New York City, where dozens and dozens of gangs live and feud. Many are grouped along race, economic, and gender lines.
The story chronicles one gang in particular, the titular Warriors. The Warriors are unjustly accused of murdering a beloved rival gang leader, named Cyrus. After the murder, they’re pursued across the city by an assortment of gangs -- all of whom are incensed by Cyrus’ death.
It's kind of almost set like a Greek epic of some sort I suppose as the Warriors go through all these different challenges on the way out of the city. You know, it's interesting because it's set against this backdrop of New York, which appears to be crime infested. Seems to be full of xenophobic hatred.
The gang that shoots Cyrus appear to be ... an alt-right sort of the gang, and with this police brutality, the police themselves almost become a gang which Warriors and other gangs are fighting against.
In choosing a film that mimics today’s agitated political scene, James invokes the tensions that currently pervade New York City and America at large -- violence, racism, xenophobia, crime, right wing extremism, and police brutality.
But perhaps more importantly, The Warriors is a film about people who have clustered together in gangs for a particular reason.
It has these gangs and these gangs tend to be quite say, uh, demographically specific…
Some gangs identify along race or gender lines like the Lizzies, that I mentioned before, all-female gang, for instance.
While the gangs in the film are seemingly self-categorized, the participants in James' piece aren’t so lucky. The work’s technology will decide for them which gang they belong to.
Of course, this nonconsensual sorting is exactly what James is going for. In this instance, viewers’ likenesses are being classified for the sake of art. But he says, the average person is subjected to much more sinister categorization every day on the Internet.
Google, Facebook, or any of these kinds of fairly invasive, uh, you know, like surveillance technologies, basically will profile us. ...decide where we fit economically, demographically, culturally, educationally and so on. And then in some ways, we are being put into gangs into groups and the Warriors kind of provides an ideal template for exploring that kind of algorithmically imposed segregation and organization of people into groups based on particular markers.
There’s an inherent uneasiness in the idea of being profiled against one’s will. But to abstain from being surveilled in this day and age is no easy feat.
In some ways, surveillance is really the primary means of communication that we have available to us today. If we’re building communities, talking to people through social media, then we're engaging in a kind of economy of voyeurism and exhibitionism where we watch other people's lives. And on occasion we decide to exhibit, to perform within those kind of spaces. We post something, we upload a video, we tweet, whatever. And we hope that people will pay attention. And so we increasingly derive meaning through visibility.
James is not interested in providing an uncompromising, black and white critique of surveillance culture. This critique is present in some political works where artists meddle with or destroy surveillance cameras.
When I think about surveillance in my work ...rather than necessarily thinking about surveillance purely in a kind of big brother, governmental sense, but really thinking about it more in terms of how we relate to each other, how we are organized, how we communicate with people… Nowadays, I think we when we think about surveillance, you know, in some ways, the camera’s like the least of our problems.
Instead, James believes that the risk lies in the categorization of the data that surveillance enables -- not the data-gathering itself.
It's the value of that content from an analytics point of view, which is where the surveillance is. So it doesn't really matter if they’re saving our video files, it matters what they can glean from it. So you talk about big data, you know, this is what we mean -- where patterns can be discovered, and intentions, and narratives. You know, we think about the profiling of people, you know, what kind of person are you? You're a terrorist. Are you gonna buy this thing that we want to sell to you, you know, a lot of kind of information. All those stories, narratives to say, Well, you know what what was likely to happen based on all of these classifies and markets, and so yeah, we kind of give all that away for free.
So how do we protect ourselves from being unknowingly categorized into these Big Data patterns? James isn’t sure. Despite all this, he’s on social media, preferring to observe Big Data from the inside of its insidious system. For now, awareness might be as far as we can get.
The real danger, James emphasizes, is not the content that we give away to the companies. It’s what they do with the content: they use our data to make assumptions about who we are, assumptions we’re then confronted with through targeted advertising and media. James mimics this process by using data collected from visitors to sort people into groups, which are then inserted into the Warriors film.
It's a film that really wants to be organized and compared to to the kinds of gang-making that carry today, I think. When you work with video and data and surveillance and those kinds of materials, then often what you're looking for is a narrative template to organize the footage that you get.
This is why Warriors, as a film, is the perfect guide for us to reflect upon how we are sorted each day under surveillance culture. It may not provide a ready solution, but for now, James says, awareness is critical.
We're having things imposed on us through these technologies. And in some ways that's oppressive, biased and very problematic. But importantly, it's made visible through works like this.
This podcast was produced by Georgia Wright for Gesso Media, in partnership with the International Center of Photography. It was narrated by me, Henna Wang.
For more primers on the world’s most fascinating places, art, and people, download our app, Gesso Experiences, or look for us wherever you get your podcasts.
Gesso | Primer