At the heart of Singapore Art Museum’s Proof of Personhood lies the question: what does it mean to be human? As we tentatively step into the age of artificial intelligence (AI), the exhibition examines our shifting ideas of identity, agency and authenticity—especially as social media and digital tools perpetuate our tendencies to pick and choose the way we present ourselves.
Long thought of as an inherently human endeavour, the landscape of art is evolving with the rise of generative AI tools. In Proof of Personhood, algorithmically-generated portraits, deepfake footage and analogue forgery come together to explore the significance of a face in a time of digital manipulation.
Amongst the pieces exhibited are works from local artists Charmaine Poh and Song-Ming Ang. Ang’s ‘Justin’, the only analogue piece in the line-up, features a poster of Justin Bieber with a forged autograph. On the side, Ang’s many attempts at learning to replicate his signature line the wall.
“I was hoping to understand and partly reconstruct this pop star by learning how to reproduce his autograph. I realised that I had to literally forget my own handwriting in order to acquire his signature,” Ang shares. Applying the musical practice of sampling—where an element of one recording is used in another—to a musician’s identity, Ang’s work reveals the complexities of human authenticity, even before digital manipulation comes into play.
For Poh—who was once a child actor in local television series We Are R.E.M.—’Good Morning Young Body’ is a way for her to revisit negative experiences with a newfound sense of authority. Using footage of herself as a 12-year-old actor, she creates a deepfake of her character E-Ching as a way to reclaim her agency.
Alongside the video, interactive chatbot ‘bubble’ allows visitors to interact with E-Ching, with numerous outcomes depending on the participant’s willingness to be vulnerable. Poh elaborates, “This was created as a way of subverting existing expectations of the fembot, as seen in voice assistants such as Siri and AI companions like Replika. Instead of being created for service, I wondered what it would be like for a persona to have more agency—or at least, to appear to have it. What if they were not bound to you, but could decide to leave the conversation instead? How would such a dynamic complicate our relationship with these beings?”
While the use of AI in art is still a contentious topic, Proof of Personhood is one instance where its usage undeniably and meaningfully adds to the conversation. Here, technology is both the subject and the medium.
“I see AI as a tool that artists can choose to use in their work, or not,” Ang explains, “The most interesting artists will always be able to offer their own perspectives through their work, regardless of whether AI is part of the equation.”
“I do not think my work is tied to one specific medium, which, as technological tools evolve at a rapid pace, might be a good thing. I hope that the philosophies behind my work tread a longer path. For a few years, I was working solely with photography, but I felt that society’s relationship with the still image shifted, and that I needed to expand my practice in order to express what I wanted to say,” Poh muses, “The meaning of art-making is ultimately in a lived gesture. Towards what is an open question. But as long as we’re alive, the meaning itself will remain.”
Together, the pieces exhibited invite us to reflect on what our perception of AI says about ourselves. They call into question our propensity to project our own thinking and appearances onto technological systems in an effort to better understand them, and challenge the idea of true authenticity by revealing how the techniques for performing a genuine personality are employed by celebrities, everyday social media users and chatbots alike.
Poh concludes, “Intelligence itself is not something that everyone can agree on. It is an unknown. It is interesting to observe these comparisons between humans and machines, as though the goal is to see how the program can mimic humans, when in fact, there are many humans who already act like a program, in all its stiltedness. What makes us special, if at all? What makes us real?”
Proof of Personhood runs until 25 February 2024.