RoCo's "Trust, but verify" Exhibit Will Have You Thinking Twice About What's In Your Newsfeed

by VICKY KUSHNER

(PHOTO: PROVIDED)

(ROCHESTER, NY) -- Three complex and sometimes hilarious installations showing now and through November 14 at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo), deal with a core concern: what is true?


The triad is chronologically structured: Octavio Abúndez rewrites the past. Eric Kunsman presents a chronicle of the current day in news. Bill Posters and Daniel Howe offer us a glimpse into a future where we are controlled and corrupted by "deep fake" technology, artificial intelligence, and the all-important currency of personal data. 


I took a visit last Friday to see the exhibit for myself. I tried to take in a Fake History of Humanity and read through the “Fake News” books without sinking into despair. But my head kept turning to the far end of the gallery. A cautionary call would not be ignored.


The deep fake video loop created by Posters and Howe dominated my attention throughout my tour. Perfect simulations of Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, and Morgan Freeman begged just a moment of my time.


Through it all, I experienced the disorienting absurdity of trying to focus on a task (did I hit all of the canvasses?) as a realtime approximation of my daily feed -- my push-notification, clickbait-driven, virtual reality.


“A Fake History of Humanity” (PAST)

OCTAVIO Abúndez


Abúndez sets the scene for us from the far left corner of his installation. The canvas reads, “January 33, 2017 CE Kellyanne Conway opened a portal to a parallel dimension on live television.”


For this artist and so many of us, this was a defining moment. When "Alternative facts" was coined during a Meet the Press interview in January of 2017, it put into perspective how malleable the definition of truth is.


This notion has triggered Abúndez to rewrite history. The work is beautiful, symmetrical, concerning and hilarious. 


Octavio Abúndez "Fake History of Humanity" (PHOTO: RoCo)

During his virtual artist talk October 10th, the Monterrey, Mexico-born minimalist said it would be too heavy to make this work completely geopolitical. Therefore, many of the canvases are personal.


Some ride the wave of the absurd. The artist writes himself into an early island retirement. A dog meets his demise when the tower of Pisa falls in the year 1373 CE. 


I got to chat with RoCo curator Bleu Cease to get some insight into the installation. “We don't know what he changed. That is both a nudge and it empowers the viewer," Cease says of the installation.

"We, right now, can kind of reclaim authority over facts, by educating ourselves. If there's something we don't necessarily know what's true, what's inaccurate about it, we can research that, and gain a better understanding of that.” 

For Abúndez, the investigation is the point. “Trust what I’m saying is a lie. But also check it because there are four truths, and there are truths that are only mis-statements," Abúndez says of his installation. "The main point of this piece is to make you wonder: what is true?”


Almost in passing, he served listeners wisdom in his declaration that, “Reality is not defined by words of mortal men.” There is such a thing as objective reality. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.


Spellbound, I wondered at that as I searched for facts in the canvas. Visitors can scan a barcode with their phone to follow along with an interactive list of each panel.


“Fake News” (PRESENT)

ERIC KUNSMAN


Many of us have been trying to put a limit on the amount of news we consume each day. But not Eric Kunsman. A compulsion for screenshotting the day’s headlines has driven the artist every morning since November 9, 2016. The Rochester-based book artist and photographer archives headlines as part of his daily routine the way the rest of us pop our vitamins. 


There are five volumes on display at RoCo's "Trust, but verify" exhibit. Massive things, bound beautifully. Gallery-goers are asked to wear provided gloves to thumb through them.


Side by side and after the fact, can you spot the media bias in coverage? I took this question home with me. 

Kunsman, "Fake News" (PHOTO: RoCo)

Bleu Cease appreciates Kunsman’s monumental effort, originally slated for a pre-Covid Spring debut and now running parallel to the election. 


“That's what we as a society should really appreciate about what an artist does at a time like this," Cease says. "They go to a level, they go to a depth that many of us just can't or won't go to. And he does this crazy documentation of screenshots that in fifty years someone is going to see this and say that is really important that he did that.”


Kunsman (born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) plans to cease his chronicling by November 3rd. Can he stop? You can stay tuned at the Fake News Archive Project.


“Big Dada” (FUTURE)

BILL POSTERS & DANIEL HOWE


Artists Posters and Howe teamed up to infiltrate surveillance capitalism and individual spheres of celebrity (politicians, reality tv, trusted actors, high level contemporary artists) in the last installation of "Trust, but verify." This one is in a category of its own - synthesized video. A loop of deep fake video vignettes plays continuously at the end of the gallery. 

Bill Posters and Daniel Howe "Big Dada" (PHOTO: RoCo)

The deep in "deep fake" is a reference to an AI function that mimics the workings of the human brain in processing data to create moving video from images. The parodies are so skillfully rendered that I could not detect their inauthenticity. 


Cease comments that the installation is especially timely in the wake of authorities like Trump disseminating their own version of events in real time and using so-called “cheap fakes” on the campaign trail.


“Because it is coming from an authority, which we as a society have historically thought what they would put out is accurate, we are just further polarizing, further confusing the notion of truth, and that is not just in electoral politics, right?" says Cease.

"There are all these other ways in which truth is dissolving under our feet, it seems.”

Computational propaganda is not new. Hollywood calls it special effects. During their artist talk, Posters and Howe note that the "persuasion architectures of the digital influence industry" are a part of our daily lives and that surveillance capitalism is now the dominant business model. 


"Big Dada" seeks to make these hidden architectures visible and explore what happens with the democratization of these technologies, outside the control of Hollywood.


On the sense of impending doom his art may provoke in a viewer, Posters cautions us to look beyond just "Deep Fakes."


“It's the more insidious day-to-day forms of AI that we have in our pocket that cause so many more problems and issues for us… and that level of oppression varies depending wildly on where you're born, what your sexuality is, what your religious faith is, and what the color of your skin is," Posters says.

"So, the smart phone in your pocket is far more dangerous to democracy than a deep fake ever could be, I think.”

For Howe, solutions to what comes after this phase of capitalism are not so unimaginable as we may worry.

“A lot of the 'solutions' are basic," Howe says. "To have a shared reality and shared truth we need education [and] responsible, well-funded journalism to check facts and verify sources of information.”

The exhibit as a whole suggests that the United States has been on the cutting edge of de-prioritizing these things. With dozens of face-swapping apps just a few strides behind the technology wielded by artists Posters and Howe, "Trust, but verify" will make you think twice about the content of your feed.


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TRUST, BUT VERIFY is showing now through November 14 at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday, 12-5pm, and Friday, noon to 9 pm. The independent cove in the back of the gallery offers a counterpoint to the main exhibit. The Subway Series by Rochester local Andrew Zimbelman is a showcase of drawings highlighting the role of the media in the commute of physically and digitally in-transit riders.


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VICKY KUSHNER is a volunteer contributor for Reclaiming the Narrative. She can be reached at wxirnews@gmail.com


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