BY Alexander Provan in Opinion | 09 AUG 23

Who's Afraid of Deepfake Kim Kardashian?

The work of Christopher Kulendran Thomas asks how the role of the artist might change if individuality and authenticity are understood to be faked

BY Alexander Provan in Opinion | 09 AUG 23

Are artists on the verge of becoming obsolete as ChatGPT, Bard, LLaMA et al not only infiltrate the culture industry but reproduce the effects – and even the processes – of human creativity, the signature achievement of our species? Countless news reports, op-eds, and open letters have recently voiced worries about a coming plague of artificial intelligence. At the same time, many of the same critics have professed hope for a golden age of ‘co-cre-AI-tion’, which the authors of one manifesto describe as a cornucopia of ‘outputs’ that could not exist without the collaboration of users and systems. (Grimes is hailed for sharing her voiceprint and royalties with DIY producers, who have churned out thousands of tracks of head-splitting hyperpop and ketamine-friendly vaporwave.) The best-case scenarios for artists seem to be a hard pivot to prompt engineering – the World Economic Forum’s ‘job of the future’, defined by the optimization of text in order to extract gems from large language models – or a surge of enthusiasm for products certified as human-made, algorithm-free.

A photograph of Grimes on the red carpet. Hair in pink slinky, in a face mask and vaguely cyborg-like outfit
Grimes, 2021. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Theo Wargo

Though much of the concern about generative AI has to do with the state of humanity more than the future of art, the artist plays a central role as the avatar of creativity. In The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History (2023), Samuel W. Franklin observes that the term has been attached to coding and cooking, education and psychology, expert problem-finding and pedestrian problem-solving. In other words, creativity has become equally ubiquitous and incoherent. Franklin blames Cold War-era humanists in the United States and Europe, who took up creativity as an ideological tool, linking free expression to self-actualization (democracy) and conformity to dehumanization (communism). They credited ‘individualistic milieus’ for the cultural superiority of Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy, dismissing the achievements of ‘anonymous’, ‘craftsmanlike’ societies that valued tradition as much as invention.

The hallmark of humanity soon became the logo of capitalism. Franklin notes that the advocates of creativity were responding to rampant fear among Europeans and Americans that unbridled technological change was leading to a society of humanoid robots. Promoting the artist as an icon of Western values and an engine of progress – Leonardo da Vinci meets Martin Luther at IBM – calmed the nerves of workers, Franklin writes, and paved the way for the postindustrial era, when ‘the MFA became the new MBA’. Ironically, this ideal of creativity is finally being undermined by the tech-obsessed, bohemian-approved brand of economic violence that emerged from the mid-century marriage of artistry and innovation. The creative class turned out to be a code name for a demographic of disposable, overeducated proles; even coders, once remade as visionaries, now face dispossession at the hands of their own products.


Tan and orange book cover with a cartoon of a thinking man
Samuel W. Franklin, The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: The University of Chicago Press

How might AI prompt a basic reconsideration of the relationship between self-realization and self-expression? Plenty of artists are harnessing the power of synthetic media for the sake of spectacle, artifice or efficiency, while scrutinizing the underlying systems and calling for investigations into built-in biases, laws against the automation of warfare and bans on the appropriation of intellectual property as training data. But there’s a difference between manifestos accompanied by ChatGPT illustrations, or real time remixes of museum collections (see Refik Anadol’s Unsupervised, 2021–ongoing, currently drawing crowds and consternation at MoMA) and artworks that express novel forms of creativity and selfhood.

I recently had my first post-ChatGPT experience of the latter when I saw ‘For Real’, an exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich by Christopher Kulendran Thomas in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann (10 June – 10 September). For several years, Kulendran Thomas has fused autobiography and AI in engrossing video installations that posit an alternative to the cultish form of creativity. Drawing on his family’s displacement from Sri Lanka during the state’s war on Tamil separatists from 1983 to 2009, ‘For Real’ asserts that reality is as malleable as its underlying stories (or digital files), and that moral outrage about the erosion of truth serves powerful actors with existential stakes in controlling the narrative.

Installation view. Dark room. Looming figures. Lit-up screen of forest.
Christopher Kulendran Thomas, The Finesse, 2022/23, installation view, Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Zürich; photograph: Andrea Rossetti 

Rather than dwell on doomsday scenarios, Kulendran Thomas asks how the role of the artist might change if individuality and authenticity are understood to be fake – or, at least, so easily faked as to be recognized as rhetorical devices. Two installations, The Finesse (2022/23) and Being Human (2019), respond to the violent suppression of Tamil culture and history by composing a fiction that feels like a homeland (and functions like a polemic). In The Finesse, Kulendran Thomas submerges his own story in intimate portraits of fellow émigrés, archival footage of the Tamil Tigers’ hardscrabble utopia and sophisticated, reality-bending simulations. Shown as counterposed projections – one on a fragmented screen of freestanding mirrors, another filling the opposite wall with CGI scenes of a sacred forest occupied by the Sri Lankan regime – the video actualizes a Tamil collective that has been denied the right of self-representation through governance.

The work centres on the Tigers’ effort to counter the Sri Lankan regime’s propaganda and economic warfare by taking the fight to the internet, linking militants on the ground with millions who had fled the island. Even in the dial-up era, the Tigers seized on the internet as a tool for puncturing the state’s version of reality. In footage shot by foreign reporters visiting Tiger-held territory, a militant named Manmahal chides viewers for confusing reality with the self-serving stories told by Western governments and corporations, then pledges to take up the tools of Yahoo! to dismantle the master’s house. Contrasting herself with the journalists, she claims the right to use digital technologies and media to ‘remake the physical world’.

A multi-pronged screen depicting grainy footage of a militant
Christopher Kulendran Thomas, The Finesse, 2022/23, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Zürich; photograph: Andrea Rossetti 

Later, Manmahal watches the verdict of the O. J. Simpson trial in a makeshift cabin packed with fighters and asks if the drama on CNN is the truth or a media concoction, a site of information warfare. She seems to dare her audience to compare O. J.’s glowing face to her own, and the viewer of The Finesse to ask: is the scene too perfect? Is the graininess of the footage a sign of authenticity or forgery? Have the Internet Black Tigers been conjured from history, myth, or training data? A quick search confirms that the ‘cyber force’ conducted ‘suicide email bombings’ on Sri Lankan embassies while building a ‘virtual Eelam’ (the Tamil name for the island), but does not resolve the relationship between reality and representation. Just as Manmahal slips into the realm of digital fabrication, her account is backed up by Asmina Thirunavukarasu, a Tamil filmmaker and dancer who takes over the story, speaking with compatriots about the struggle for a utopia based on local autonomy as well as digital community. Eventually, Manmahal’s points are echoed by a deepfake Kim Kardashian, who reflects on her own transition from person to persona via her childhood entanglement in the O. J. trial and her mastery of social media.

To paraphrase the counterfeit Kardashian: what else is the artist to do if reality is an endless stream of content to be interpreted, manipulated, organized and framed, and if identities are fungible commodities? This question tends to be side-stepped in the current debates about AI, art and creativity. Generally, AI is said to be either a boon to the species, augmenting our brains and offloading the tedious tasks of searching, sorting and synthesizing, or else an existential threat to the ineffable processes – as well as the underlying labour and social ties – that constitute culture. The two camps tend to agree that creativity will come to mean something different, even if the rise of Basquiat bots does not result in the extinction of old-fashioned artists (the ones who do not merely sort and synthesize but create).

On a screen, a deepfake Taylor Swift in front of a painting that looks like on in the exhibition. A small sculpture in the front.
Christopher Kulendran Thomas, Being Human, 2019/2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Zürich; photograph: Andrea Rossetti 

Most of the artists I know, however, are more in line with Kulendran Thomas than with the luddites or futurists: they’ve grown up as screen-addled cyborgs and are dubious of the distinction between ‘original’ and ‘derivative’, but they’re eager to prevent all the world’s IP from being appropriated by a handful of lawless corporations in pursuit of phantasmic revenue streams. (Imagine a world where AI-enhanced search instantly connects the indebted to payday lenders and displaced to predatory landlords!) They’re less concerned about the algorithmic reproduction of signature styles than about a winners-take-all cultural economy sustained by the mythical kinship of artistry and progress. They think of certain aspects of human creativity as inimitable and unlikely to be devalued, without believing they’ll earn a place in the overlord caste if only they cultivate empathy or assimilate archaic worldviews, as recommended by David Brooks in a New York Times op-ed headlined ‘In the Age of A.I., Major in Being Human’.

A mostly abstract oil painting of what looks to be a face
Christopher Kulendran Thomas, dataset#2-run#5-network_010252-seed_0123.png,  2023. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Zürich; photograph: Andrea Rossetti and Héctor Chico

The appeal of being human is not being a machine, of course. But, to speak from experience: crafting a distinctive voice and referencing unsearchable texts hasn’t kept a college grad from being treated like a disposable machine for a while. Kulendran Thomas may consider the artist as more of a synthetic medium than a Lockean self, but the role he has in mind seems more humane than prompt engineering or adjunct teaching. In The Finesse, Manmahal invokes the pulavar, a Tamil term that translates as poet-philosopher or polymath, as an alternative to the Western notion of the artist. Trained as an architect in the Soviet Union, she speaks of the pulavar as marshaling history and tradition to respond to contemporary conditions, moving with ease between epochs and mediums. In a series of large-scale paintings from the past few years, Kulendran Thomas adapts this model for the age of merchandisable identities and combinable corpuses, faithfully rendering the outputs of an AI system trained on images of art by his Sri Lankan peers, who in turn metabolized the canon brought to the island by British colonizers. Copied by hand from screen to canvas, the palettes and marks of landmark modernists are subsumed by the cascading forms and styles. The effect is arresting but disorienting, given the sudden irrelevance of any criteria having to do with art history or subjectivity.

Rather than attempt market-primed abstraction with subaltern characteristics, Kulendran Thomas puts the relics of heroic self-expression to use in negating the premise. Looking at his paintings, I wondered if they really are his. I thought of the philosopher Vilém Flusser, who in 1985 described the ‘central problem’ of the dawning computer age as that of ‘generating information’, which ‘was called “creativity” in former times’ and understood as the domain of individuals in isolation. Flusser asked how to obtain information that is ‘unpredictable and improbable’ without reinforcing ‘the belief in a creator god’ or ‘the veneration of creative people, above all so-called artists’. Though Kulendran Thomas’s gestural hallucinations bear his signature, the paintings might as well be attributed to the corpus of digital artifacts and shared experiences that he has animated: a body with boundless creativity but no fixed identity, no name.

Main image: Christopher Kulendran Thomas, The Finesse, 2022/23, in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Kunsthalle Zürich; photograph: Andrea Rossetti 

Alexander Provan is the editor of Triple Canopy. He is a longtime contributor to frieze.