Musicians have been using deepfakes (digitally fabricated likenesses of people, real or not) in music videos and other media for a while now. Back in 2018, for instance, Charli XCX imposed her face on the famous Spice Girls for one of her tracks. Now British musician Steven Wilson has taken the idea to the next level. In the video for his new single "Self" Wilson's face is overlaid with deepfakes of instantly recognizable figures, from Joe Biden, Mark Zuckerberg, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump, to Scarlett Johansson, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and the late, great, David Bowie... with mixed success.
It's more than a face — Wilson's video, which was directed by Miles Skarin, is a product of the open-source deepfake program called DeepFaceLab. It's subtle, all in black and white, and very effective if part of its goal is to give us the creeps... or maybe that's just the effect of seeing Mark Zuckerberg with a non-Caesar-inspired hairdo.
Skarin and Wilson shared their thoughts on their creative production on Wilson's site. For Wilson, "Self" is about individual narcissism in the digital age, among other issues. For Skarin, it's about how your face is more than just something to peer at in the mirror or snap selfies of. It's a key into the world.
"Self is about our new age of narcissism and self-obsession," Wilson explains, "one in which a human race that used to look out with curiosity at the world and the stars now spends much of its time gazing at a little screen to see themselves reflected back in the mirror of social media. In that sense everyone now can take part in the notion of celebrity, and has the potential to share their life with an invisible mass of people they will never meet. The video takes things further by exploring the idea that anyone can now project a version or “self” that has no bearing on reality, and by using only well known faces the deception is made transparent."
No permission needed — "Self" also compels you to think about concepts like identity, privacy, permission, and what propaganda or entertainment might look like when we can do deepfakes with the ease of Snapchat filters. A great deal of controversy surrounding deepfakes is how the majority of them are made without the permission of the people whose likenesses are being replicated. When it comes to famous people, one might not need their permission, given their existence in the public domain. But that's just the tip of the iceberg — deepfake tech is also making it possible to digitally resurrect the deceased (just ask the Kardashians). How that plays out in years to come is anyone's guess.