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The real JT Leroy, Savannah Knoop, on identity in the age of deepfakes

The writer and artist pulled off a literary scam for the ages – here, Knoop draws psychic parallels between the Hollywood cult around JT Leroy and the sinister technology impersonating celebrities

It's the twentysomethings and current affairs so often feel like sophisticated, horrible, science fiction. Exploring the boundaries of the real and the imaginary, Confused News is a literary series which takes real-world news into sci-fi territory. Taken from the spring 2020 issue of Dazed.

My baby and I love to watch spy flicks. Last summer, my interest in Tom Cruise doing his own stunts in the Mission: Impossibles somehow brought me to a viral video of Bill Hader impersonating Cruise on a talk show. There was something odd about it, a general likeness turned into something uncanny. Hader’s eyes shimmered unmistakably with that psychotic Top Gun charm – then volleyed from himself to Cruise reacting to an impersonation of Seth Rogen, and back to himself. What a clusterfuck of different people all housed in one body, I thought. It was the sort of impersonation I often find exciting: the kind where you get to watch someone transform themselves through body language.

Part of the pleasure of looking at art is imagining retroactively how a person made the piece. These kinds of acts of embodiment come not only through talent but through training. Sir Alec Guinness apparently hung out at the zoo to copy the movements of animals for his characters. Buster Keaton spent a lifetime falling over in order to be able to walk like a cowboy, and although drag queens at the ball made realness seem seamless, of course, it took real werk.

“Each lie looks, smells and tastes the same as veracity – how are we to know the difference? What is meaning made from inside of this post-truth era?”

I later learned that the Bill Hader video was in fact a deepfake – an updated version of his ‘original’ impersonations from 2008. Deep fake. Having played a fictional character for a writer for six years, I was, in some sense, attuned to these experiments – an analogue deepfaker, if you will. A few years ago, I let the whole meta-analogue deepfake story roll out in the film JT LeRoy, which I wrote with director Justin Kelly. One day on set, I found myself staring at a continuity scene of Kristen Stewart playing myself, playing JT, in which JT was watching a scene of their fictional character’s fictional life being made into a film. There are some key differences between analogue and digital deepfaking. In the 4D world, analogue deepfaking is a cumbersome and complicated process that has to do with absorbing people’s movement, speech patterns, habits and emotions, filtering them through your own body and particular consciousness, and then, most importantly, having to exist within the ramifications and consequences of your own actions. Retelling the story over and over to yourself and the public proves equally cumbersome and strange – that said, I’m glad to have been able to tell it.

Alternatively, in the dark waters of digital deepfaking... well, all I can say is that we are most certainly on the brink of a new era – the age of enlightenment is officially over and we can thank many a neoconservative using the worst parts of postmodernism and Facebook data breaches to have pushed it over the cliff. In the post-truth era, deepfake videos of a slurring Nancy Pelosi nestle comfortably into fake news feeds, while whatever remains of the notion of the collective seems to have been subsumed into a set of consumer data points to be observed and farmed.

One would hope – though it certainly hasn’t been the case – that the process of creating mash-ups of multiple people over one body would nudge us towards an appreciation of the composite, a long-needed embrace of the multiple, an understanding that all this worshipping of the original and the authentic was perhaps just a myth created for those who were afraid to live in the free-floating existential dread of uncertainty.

The act of using an image to lie with is not a new phenomenon, but each cultural moment shades its nuances. In the media over the last few years, we’ve seen certain kinds of stories in which the disenfranchised use deception to reconstitute power flow – take Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, for example, or George Nolfi’s upcoming film The Banker. These stories end up taking on a sort of Robin Hood archetypal structure, in which their protagonists gain access to the power flow in order to reveal its divisive tactics, its engineered operations masquerading as natural effects. (I think it’s important to clarify that I would not put the JT LeRoy mythology into this category.) The protagonist deceives with the intention of breaking into these power structures and opening them up to the systematically disempowered, changing the motives for the deception. Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary’ call to action has lost none of its urgency today, when the number of hate groups operating in the US has reached a record high, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

For the first time in recent history, mass pop culture is taking on white patriarchal hegemony and the privilege that comes with it, with the result that white men are suddenly feeling picked on in a way they might not have experienced before, and we see many gathering their strength under their own banner of underdog identity. That claim to victimhood, and the therefore ‘righteous’ use of deception that follows, shows up in the world of deepfake videos, where it manifests as a new version of the same old story of ill-placed motives and non-consensual acts of violence towards particular bodies in the effort of power maintenance. The bodies of starlets or ex-girlfriends are casually lifted and superimposed on to porn stars for power demotion and revenge porn. As consumers we exist in a world which insists the digital realm is moving too fast to have any regulation around it, yet we make great concessions for this wild west we live in, and it is our supreme responsibility to be vigilant about what moving images we consume, a fact that has always been true, but now – well, it’s become more challenging. A news story suddenly pops up on my feed showing a cow near Moscow wearing a VR headset. Oh, sun-kissed green pasture. Oh, happy milk.

The Matrix is here. Please, Trinity, come save us.

“Behind the creation of deepfakes as cultural phenomenon, these videos appear to lack intention, almost like a tuneless whistle meant to distract you from whatever they’re hiding behind their backs” 

The deepfake of the internet can be created anonymously through footage or speeches collected and manipulated with artificial intelligence software. It can now be done relatively casually on a person’s home computer. Intention is always a key component to most active moments in life. While there are many deepfake videos which out themselves as satire (thanks to Jordan Peele for the public service announcement), in the Hader video, we have something else again. It seems vacuous enough, but underlying this narrative is a sinister insistence on the ‘authentic’. In the deepfake version, Hader’s multiple acts of impersonation are slathered by the superimposed, ‘real’ Top Gun Tom Cruise, almost like a demon taking revenge. Digitally overlaid, Hader’s own creative acts are rendered practically redundant when covered with so much ‘realness’ – he might as well have just been sitting there doing nothing instead of acting his ass off for David Letterman and the audience, trying his best to tell a good yarn.

And what was the story in the making of this deepfake video? An anonymous person named Ctrl Shift Face doing just what the name implies – that is, pressing buttons to show off a computer’s virtuosity, a process of... snooze. About as interesting as attending a power tool demonstration at the local Home Depot – it’s not the tool, it’s what you do with it! As I cruised Ctrl Shift Face’s YouTube channels, I saw a sort of inane gag repeated over and over again – replacing Jack Nicholson with Jim Carrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger with who knows, who cares... Perhaps Ctrl Shift Face’s underlying secret desire was to be a casting agent?

While these mind-numbing repetitions are disturbing, other deepfake videos made by various anonymous handles are obviously meant to shock. The maker of the drunk Nancy Pelosi video signals their intentions out the gate – bipartisanship via radical misinformation. Deepfake porn’s intentions are clear from the outset – misogyny. But behind the creation of deepfakes as cultural phenomenon, the ambience or (as Walter Benjamin might have called it) aura of deepfakes is stranger, bringing up an acute sense of frivolous confusion because these videos appear to lack intention, almost like a tuneless whistle meant to distract you from whatever they’re hiding behind their backs.

Is the delight of watching these videos simply that it seems like it’s real but then turns out to be not real? Here, too, is this insistence that the authentic is more worthy, and should be arranged at the front. (Players of drama theorist Augusto Boal’s ‘Great Game of Power’ will recognise this is a classic case of one chair being placed with more power than the others.) I was suddenly reminded of the ‘reveal’ scene in The Crying Game, where the straight Fergus discovers that Dil is a trans woman and reacts by puking. I remember watching this film as a child, then seeing that scene replicated over and over in other mainstream media like a snappy song you just couldn’t help humming. (These scenes have recently been collated into the upcoming documentary Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen.) I notice the amount of hits and views on the Hader video and can’t help but feel a sense of nihilism set in. But block out the whistling for a minute and try to see a wider context. When does the gag of pulling someone’s pants down turn into something else? The first time? The tenth? After 11.2k views? Does it matter who’s doing the pulling, who is watching and who is wearing those pants?

‘Seeing is believing’, the saying goes. It’s a strange statement, when you think about the ways in which imagemaking has historically been wedded to a kind of inherent deception of the ‘real’. Perhaps this notion that seeing is believing comes from long ago, when we needed to know the difference between a wild tiger and a shadow playing on our senses – for how could you tell if it was real or not, if you couldn’t know it with your body? Perhaps the saying also points to popular entertainment or art always being connected to knowing – that part of the pleasure of being at a play, an opera, a film, is being in on the construction of reality, collectively suspending disbelief to experience something with more clarity than in the confusion of our everyday lives.

We usually read this through formal cues: the fourth wall, the gallery, the chairs which always face the same way. Those boundaries until very recently have always felt clear, and anything outside of them was usually automatically judged a scam or a hoax. Here, the written word also collaborates with the woolliness of our present moment. ‘Fake news’ has existed before now, but never in the forms it has taken on today. Each lie looks, smells and tastes the same as veracity – how are we to know the difference? What is meaning made from inside of this post-truth era? Must we exist only in a closed circuit of our own beliefs, or of the beliefs of those who finance, design and distribute the information networks? As Henry Oberlander, leader of the Hungarian Circle gang that defrauded banks of hundreds of millions of dollars in the 70s, was quoted saying, “Everyone is willing to give something for whatever it is they desire the most.” What do you desire most, and what are you willing to give up for it?