“If someday I may die, though it is unlikely, I hope the people in the cafes will say, ‘Dalí has died, but not entirely.”’
Those words, obviously said by artist Salvador Dalí before his death, came true on his 115th birthday this month, as the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, has resurrected the famous surrealist in full-motion video as a host at his own museum. The project is called Dalí Lives. Using the controversial AI tool Deepfakes, which generates a realistic, full-motion human likeness from photos, the museum’s creative partner Goodby, Silverstein & Partners was able to bring Dalí back to life. At three human-sized video kiosks, Dalí greets visitors as they walk in, shares his thoughts on art and other artists around his exhibits, and even poses for a selfie as visitors leave. He sits painting or just tapping his fingers until someone hits a button on the side of the screen. And what he says next is not just some small video loop. Dalí speaks for a total of 45 minutes–hundreds of short videos are seamlessly and randomly connected, ensuring that each visitor experiences something new.
“We’re very committed to the whole digital realm,” explains Kathy Greif, chief operating officer of The Dalí Museum. “We’re constantly looking for ways to create, or recreate, various experiences for our visitors.”
In the past, that’s led the museum to produce the VR art experience Dreams of Dalí. With that project complete, they looked to the next level of Dalí immersion, and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners pitched bringing Dalí himself to the museum with Deepfakes–yes, the same Deepfakes that’s been associated with fake celebrity pornography.
“We don’t love that word [Deepfakes] to be honest, because it does have a negative connotation,” says Greif. “We do think we might be the first, or certainly the first museum, to use this in a really positive way. We’re certainly proud of that, but the word is a little uncomfortable.”
But Deepfakes is powerful software, especially in the right hands and with the right resources. The museum was able to supply 6,000 images of Dalí, which were fed into Deepfakes for 1,000 hours of machine learning. They brought in a physical actor and a voice actor who’d trained on the limited archival footage of Dalí to match his mannerisms. And museum archivists dug through thousands of manuscripts, supplying much of the script in Dalí’s own sayings and writings.
“Authenticity was probably one of the key words we stood by. You want to be careful, obviously. We want to display the cool factor of this. It’s AI. It’s not a video of him from yesteryear,” says Greif. “At the same time, we didn’t want to put words into his mouth. We have a lot of tenure with the expertise that goes into something like this–extreme familiarity with Dalí, and a comfort to [debate], ‘Would he say it like that? No, I think he’d say it like this.'”
Suffice it to say, the work is leagues from a deceased Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. But the museum didn’t shy away entirely from camp. As visitors leave the museum, Dalí suddenly holds up a smartphone on his screen, and manages to take a selfie with his audience. It’s hard to know whether that’s something Dalí would actually do, or a silly parlor trick, or perhaps a bit of both. However, that’s what makes Dalí Lives so irresistible. It may be Dalí, and it may not be. But it’s the closest we’ll ever get to knowing him, either way.