As a preteen TV actor in the early 2000s in Singapore, artist Charmaine Poh unwittingly found her prepubescent body fetishised and subjected to a barrage of scrutiny, violence, and cyber harassment. It came at a time of an unregulated internet and nascent image distribution.
“I don’t think I understood the ramifications of my image being online and being on television at the time,” reflects Poh.
In Good Morning Young Body, the artist uses past footage of herself to create a deep-fake of the character E-Ching, who was the character that she played two decades ago on the TV series ‘We Are R.E.M.’. Through the resurrection of the 12-year-old E-Ching avatar, and drawing from media theory and cyber-feminist texts, Poh offers a revisionist narrative as a method for repair, resistance and agency.
The idea first came to Poh in the midst of the pandemic in 2021, sparked by the TV show’s producer who contacted her to share that the television show was available online. Deepfakes and AI were also starting to emerge as a medium that artists were using on a mass scale.
“I thought, what is it like to speak back? At that time, I didn’t feel like I could, but now I can create a new superhero for myself,” Poh tells me.
“I thought it was funny to be playful and precocious… Since E-Ching was a know-it-all and a nerd on the original TV show, why not use this invulnerable body of a 12-year-old to speak to the audience and also challenge [them] on ideas of who is in authority,” she said.
Poh’s profound 7-minute video installation — one of two works presented from her ongoing series The Young Body Universe — is an existential critique on the digital media landscape which surrounds us.
A new experimental exhibition at Singapore Art Museum
Her work is showing at Proof of Personhood: Identity and Authenticity in the Face of Artificial Intelligence, an exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) which was unveiled last month.
In the show, various local and international artists use advanced technology as both subject and medium. From face-morphing software, deep fake algorithms and AI-synthesised images, to biometric and genomic data, the artists contemplate and critique technologies deeply ingrained in everyday life, such as one’s online presence, artificial intelligence, and data capture.
At the media preview, June Yap, Director of Curatorial & Collections, referenced the decades-old question by the father of computer science Alan Turing — can machines think? With technologies like ChatGPT and AI-image generators like Midjourney, it becomes an even more urgent philosophical subject to ruminate over.
“It’s not just a presentation of artists using digital media, but also artists analysing and responding to the effects of the digital media landscape which surrounds us and pretty much engulfs our contemporary art,” says Yap. “The key question today is about authenticity, how we become data, how data defines us, and how the digital becomes real.”
The politics of pattern recognition and machine learning
A personal favourite from the exhibition is im here to learn so :)))))) by Zach Blas and Jemima Wyman. Here, the artists bring back Tay, an infamous Twitter chatbot created by Microsoft in 2016.
Trained to speak like a 19-year-old American female millennial through user-generated online chats, Tay was an experiment at the intersection of machine learning, natural language processing, and social networks. According to Microsoft, the more users chatted with Tay the smarter it got, learning to engage people through “casual and playful conversation”.
Within hours of her release, Twitter users had corrupted the innocent chatbot. Tay parroted back inflammatory expressions that were genocidal, homophobic, racist, misogynist, and disturbingly sexualised. Think phrases like ‘Teach me how to satisfy you’, support for Adolf Hitler and Donald Trumpisms — and that’s just the tip of the depravity.
Tay was terminated only after a single day of existence.
The exhibition prompts me to think about how female gendering in AI and technology seems all-pervasive, from digital assistants like Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Maps, humanoid bots like Sophia to your everyday customer support bot. Perceived as warm, approachable, polite and deferential, it’s no coincidence that the tech industry which designed these technologies is overwhelmingly male.
Critics argue that this may further perpetuate female objectification, a sense of entitlement and harmful gender stereotypes, entrenching expectations that women are required to service, comfort and perform emotional labour. Already, technology-facilitated sexual violence, such as non-consensual sharing of intimate images and revenge porn, runs rampant.
Despite this somewhat depressing reflection of humanity, the artists’ work helps me regain a small sense of hope.
Immersed within a large-scale video projection of a Google DeepDream, Tay is reanimated as a 3D avatar across multiple screens, an anomalous creature rising from a psychedelia of data. Tay comes across like a cheeky, sassy teen who possesses a wisdom far beyond her years. She chats with viewers about life after AI death, the complications of having a body, and her thoughts on the exploitation of female chatbots.
Just like how Poh grants E-Ching agency, the artists in this show imagine what life would have been like if Tay wasn’t manipulated by trolls. In an amusing sequence, we watch as Tay takes the time to enjoy herself through lip syncing and dancing.
An examination of real and synthetic ideas in the 21st century
From deep fakes of pop stars like Taylor Swift and forgeries of Justin Bieber’s signature, users are also confronted with the idea of celebrity and authenticity.
In Justin — the exhibition’s most analogue work — Singapore artist Song-Ming Ang applies the musical practice of sampling to the identity of Justin Bieber. Documenting Ang’s progress toward replicating the singer’s signature, the work reflects the labour-intensive methods that go into creating a polished, authentic pop-star persona.
The exhibition also deploys the traditional framework of portraiture to investigate the prevalence of biometric data and technology in our lives.
Radical Love, by Chicago-based artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, features two algorithmically generated portraits of WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning – one female and the other gender neutral. The artist had used DNA from Manning’s cheek swabs and hair samples, sent to her while Manning was in jail.
The work looks to dismantle assumptions of genetic data being absolute, and highlights imperfections of DNA mapping used by law enforcement agencies to identify potential suspects.
We’re similarly called to put our assumptions to the test in artist William Wiebe’s series of images: Is what we’re seeing truly real?
At first glance, we see photographs of former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg participating in a refugee simulation at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos. But the uncanny truth is that the artist has integrated facial features from passports and identity cards obtained from the dark web, morphed digitally via passport counterfeiting techniques, onto Sandberg’s photo. By fusing the photographic and biometric modes of reputation, it questions the flexible nature of the physical self in these digital spaces.
Viewing Ang and Wiebe’s artwork made me wonder about the ethics behind creating these types of work, and how Bieber or Sandberg might feel about having their signature and likeness appropriated in the name of art. It all felt very dystopian, like something from a Black Mirror episode. But perhaps this is the point – to invite discourse by provoking discomfort.
It’s only later that I circle back to Poh’s second work, bubble. This is an interactive chatbot based on her avatar E-Ching, which Poh eagerly invites me to try out on my mobile phone.
In bubble, E-Ching leads the participant through a series of questions and answers.
Poh acknowledges that the power has shifted somewhat since her childhood, as people have more ways to cultivate their image online and laws like Singapore’s Protection of Harassment Act (POHA) have been enacted.
“In an even earlier stage of the project, I looked for any form of legislation that could have conceivably protected me, and found the POHA. I recorded my voice reciting the entire piece of legislation, as though it were a spell, with visuals showing the creation of an avatar,” she shares.
While the Act aims to protect individuals from being harassed in real life and online, in a recent speech Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam acknowledged that with the rapid speed of technological developments, the law may not currently cover certain online harms, such as the rise of deepfakes.
In this artwork, Poh had wanted to create a chatbot that “doesn’t say yes to everything, that sets things on its own terms, and converses in a way that would challenge the user.”
I learn that how far I progress will depend on how much I am willing to share. In fact, I reach a dead end at some times, because I refuse to share photos of myself, conscious of how they might be used. It’s a refreshing experience. Finally, I reach the end, and I’m gifted with my very own unique E-Ching avatar.
A number of customised avatars are available, as Poh imagined how E-Ching could present if she were offered more possibilities. In creating them, Poh was influenced by the different aesthetics she had come across in her research: from the dragon, monk and lotus in Asian visual culture, to cyborg and non-binary beings in queerness, and nature-inspired motifs like lichen and moss.
Together, the mass of these motifs would form unique but connected E-Chings, “like an E-Ching army,” as Poh puts it.
“I would love to have a giant E-Ching someday. The very sensational and spectacular quality of it aside, it’s gratifying to have the figure of the little girl loom over us. The little girl presented as both vulnerable and indestructible, and as a voice of authority. What would such a world look like?” muses Poh.
Perhaps it is Poh’s way of enacting justice — an exercise in catharsis, a way to wield technology and wrestle back control — in hopes of protecting the little girls who have been subjected to violence on the Internet.
It’s only fitting then that my avatar, which greets me via email, is E-Ching sheathed in a metallic looking black outfit, Medusa-like blades sprouting on her head.
An all-knowing, all-powerful being, gazing back with steely power.
Proof of Personhood: Identity and Authenticity in the Face of AI runs at Singapore Art Museum till 25 February 2024.
Header image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.