When art and technology create authentic copies

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Helin is a Carrara marble sculpture produced from 3D scans of 120,000 busts from
Helin is a Carrara marble sculpture produced from 3D scans of 120,000 busts from all eras. Alain Herzog/EPFL

From 17 September 2021, EPFL Pavilions will host an exceptional exhibition, "Deep Fakes: Art and Its Double". Organised by EPFL and the University of Lausanne, it immerses the public in the depths of artistic and cultural doubles, thanks to artificial intelligence and the latest scientific imaging technologies.

A portrait of Rembrandt that is neither quite the same nor quite another, a real Picasso that belongs to a community of 25,000 Internet users, an interactive 3D walk on the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris from Assassin’s Creed, a virtual golden calf on its pedestal or my identity impersonated by a hologram controlled by artificial intelligence. The exhibition Deep Fakes: Art and Its Double literally immerses us in the transcendent universe of "cultural deep fakes", apparent copies, assumed doubles or inspired creations, made possible by cutting-edge technologies in imaging, virtual, augmented or mixed reality, and artificial intelligence. The exhibition will open on 17 September 2021 and will be on view - absolutely - until 6 February 2022 at EPFL Pavilions on the EPFL campus in Lausanne.

"The exhibition is the culmination of several years of observation of new creative practices in the world of information technology. It is only very recently that artists and producers have begun to fully grasp the potential of computer-based production and new art forms," explains Sarah Kenderdine, curator and director of EPFL Pavilions. Throughout human history, art objects have always been copied. All over the world, in sacred sites, museums and homes, replicas allow art treasures to circulate and amplify the social, cultural, spiritual or commercial value of an original object. Today more than ever, copies of artworks seem to threaten the status of their original counterparts. Yet, just as in the mid-nineteenth century, the replica raises fundamental and fascinating questions.

At the entrance to Pavilion B, a facsimile of the Convention for the Universal Promotion of Reproductions of Works of Art for the Benefit of Museums throughout the World, drawn up in 1867, sets the tone. This is not a question of manipulation or misinformation, nor of fake or real. Rather, it is about simulacra, reconstructions, imitations, mirror-worlds that question - both through their design techniques and their renderings - the materiality, authenticity, circulation or ownership of art as well as their heritage and culture.

Materiality first. Science and its technological developments, many of which originated in the EPFL laboratories, bring us into a tactile relationship with the texture, patina, form and 3D structure of the originals. We enter - virtually - into a portrait of Henry VIII, painted by an anonymous artist between 1535 and 1540, through a touch screen with an ultra-high resolution of 1200 dpi. An azure point in his right eye can be seen. In the third part of this triptych, a high-resolution X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scan of the work reveals the chemical composition of the pigments used and the heavy metals it contains. Copper-based pigments are present in this millimetre of blue, the same pigments that are found in other of the many representations of the King of England that are housed in major museums!

It is only very recently that artists and producers have begun to fully appreciate the potential of computer production and new art forms.

Reconstitution of vanished worlds Immateriality too. Digital facsimiles and virtual reconstructions take us back to events or worlds that have disappeared or been destroyed. On September 9, the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee fell from its pedestal in downtown Richmond, Virginia. Terry Kilby’s interactive installation Speaking Back, based on two 3D models of the statue, is a unique testament to the fervour of the Black Lives Matter protesters and how they transformed a symbol of hatred into new strength.

Clouds of the ancient world explores eight founding sites of ancient civilizations or cultures through 3D point clouds obtained by drone. The Bamiyan Valley, Aleppo, Giza, Meroe or Palmyra are today damaged or threatened by recent conflicts, but their digitisation makes them eternal. Thanks to a collaboration with the University of Lausanne, Recreated Reality, in Pavilion A, presents the digitised archives of Paul Collart who, in the 1950s, immortalised the first Swiss excavation of the ancient sanctuary of Baalshamin in Palmyra. These exceptional documents have enabled an exhaustive 3D reconstruction of the site, resurrecting the temple destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015.

Feelings and emotions The exhibition takes us through time, space and cultures. With controlled technologies, but also by liberating technology. Helin, for example, by the artist Christian Mio Loclair, is a sculpture in Carrara marble produced from 3D scans of 120,000 busts from all eras. These scans were used to train a machine learning algorithm that produces a natural and tangible artefact, a work without an author, which is delivered to the public. Also exceptional is the presence of The Next Rembrandt, one of the most famous ’cultural deep fakes’ to date. Generated entirely from data taken from the Dutch master’s paintings, this stunning 3D print uses technology and data in the same way Rembrandt used his brushes and colours to create something new.

Finally, these technological feats would be meaningless if Deep Fakes: Art and Its Double did not also touch our senses and emotions. It is impossible to describe the 21 installations presented, as each one is experienced, explored and lived in a personal and physical way. To see the virtual golden calf, you have to walk around it in a dance of obligatory veneration. To see the figures in the "Caves of a Thousand Buddhas" number 220, you have to peer into the faded paintings in this dark room. It is almost gagging to walk around the buttresses of Notre-Dame de Paris with 3D glasses. But the most disturbing thing is certainly the face of TRUTHAI which, through an insidious and perverse game, steals our image...

EPFL and University of Lausanne