Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí once said in an interview, “I believe in general in death, but in the death of Dali, absolutely not.” Now, the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, has worked to fulfill the painter’s prophecy by bringing him back to life — with a deepfake.
The exhibition, called Dalí Lives, was made in collaboration with the ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners (GS&P), which made a life-size re-creation of Dalí using the machine learning-powered video editing technique. Using archival footage from interviews, GS&P pulled over 6,000 frames and used 1,000 hours of machine learning to train the AI algorithm on Dalí’s face. His facial expressions were then imposed over an actor with Dalí’s body proportions, and quotes from his interviews and letters were synced with a voice actor who could mimic his unique accent, a mix of French, Spanish, and English.
The experience is, well, surreal. Dalí appears before visitors when they press the doorbell on the kiosk where he lives, and he tells them stories about his life. With 45 minutes of newly created footage and thousands of combinations, each visitor gets a different experience. There are scenes that open with him reading the newspaper, with an overlay of the current front page of The New York Times; if it’s raining, he’ll comment on the weather. He’s almost like an Alexa device.
Dali Lives aims to have visitors empathize with Dalí as a human being. Figures in art history often feel like they lived lifetimes ago. But Dalí died in 1989, and standing before visitors in a life-sized kiosk does help bring him into the context of modern life — especially at the end of the experience when he asks visitors if they want to take a selfie. He turns around and snaps the photo, and visitors can have the photo texted to them, almost like a photo booth I’d like to rent for my next company function.
Deepfake videos are usually associated with fake celebrity porn, the dangers that come from fake news, or the possibility of making political figures say volatile things. The technology is easily available for anyone to use. GS&P technical director Nathan Shipley, says he pulled the code from GitHub. Shipley believes that Dalí Lives may be the first time a cultural institution has used deepfakes for artistic purposes. It’s hard to think of another artist who would be better suited for this than Dalí.
There are lots of moral arguments for and against bringing the dead back to life through technology. In the case of something like hologram Tupac, the Coachella performance was done with permission from the artist’s estate. In Dalí’s case, he has no living family, and instead named the Spanish Kingdom as the sole heir in his will, so the exhibition was run with permission from the Dalí Foundation in Spain.
Dalí Lives opens on May 11th as a permanent exhibition on what would have been his 115th birthday.