Who’s the Dummy?

Who’s the Dummy? is a sound and multimedia installation presented at the generate!_lab Festival for Electronic Arts 2018, held in Tübingen, Germany on November 10, 2018. In addition to a four-channel generative sound installation, video, posters, and booklets documenting the research behind the project, I also gave a lecture describing its genesis and some thoughts related to anonymized propaganda in social media.

Project Description

Over the past decade, digital social networks have become a contested battleground in political discourse and action. One extremely strange topography within this evolving propaganda-scape can be found on YouTube, where networks of channels of anonymous origin are now disseminating poor-quality videos that reproduce right-wing blog posts filled with conspiracy theories and questionable interpretations of current events.

Who’s the Dummy? uses such videos and video channels as source material for a multichannel audiovisual installation. In an effort to come to terms with the nature, function, and effects of these uncanny transmissions, the installation frames the videos as a new type of ventriloquism, an act of speech with a long cultural history in which a voice is made to appear to emanate from a source that is not its true origin.

The installation broadcasts sampled audio from these videos — predominantly the sound of APIs transforming online text into synthesized speech — mixing it and distributing it spatially using a custom-written generative algorithm. The installation also includes video, prints, and readings that contextualize such robot propaganda with respect to current events and the cultural history of ventriloquism. Together, the assembled materials address topics related to trust, truth, deception, anxiety, subjectivity, power, agency, and conflict in the digital sphere.

Considering our current media landscape, in which social media nurtures populist and nationalist movements that threaten to upend institutions across the world, Who’s the Dummy? draws attention to an obscure network of anonymous actors operating behind our screens. In doing so, it invites the viewer to think critically about the nature and implications of emerging forms of communication; how they interact with the real, physical, social world; the illusions at play in social media; and the ways in which such media can turn us all into “dummies” through whom others speak.