What you need to know
Based on tales from Taiwan, the exhibition explores how technologies mediate our experiences and narratives in a way that is both deeply personal and manipulative.
By Ron Hanson, Asia New Zealand Foundation
Since moving to Taichung City, Taiwan, in July of last year, New Zealand intermedia artist Paul Timings has been immersing himself in the urban landscape and tales of the island while simultaneously plunging into the world of AI. The artist’s dual and sometimes interlocking explorations of these new frontiers have resulted in his debut Taiwan solo exhibition, Fake History, which opened at Lei Gallery in Taichung City last Saturday. Ron Hanson attended the opening and spoke to Timings about the exhibition.
“Things are being experienced all around us. Sometimes we even experience things ourselves. However, most of our experiences are being sent or received through a network of machines.”
Thus states the introduction to Paul Timings’ exhibition Fake History. The exhibition is the first of a series of new works by the artist exploring social engineering, cognitive warfare, and historical fraud. It explores how AI and other technologies mediate our experiences and narratives in a way that is both deeply personal and manipulative.
Fake History’s exhibited materials comprise a wall of loose-leaf pamphlets juxtaposed against a wall of projected AI-generated images. There is also an accompanying sound component, a foreboding, glitchy, and metallic track created from a drum machine and microphone feedback.
The pamphlets contain a series of six absurdist allegories that Timings created via ChatGPT using prompts based on tales from Taiwan and themes related to the island’s extremely tense geopolitical situation.
Topics include Taiwan’s economic miracle, the earlier Taiwanese craze for consuming animal parts for perceived medicinal purposes, Chairman Mao’s casual statement about nuclear war, and the Great Leap Forward. The projected images were generated by feeding the allegories into the deep generative neural network Stable Diffusion 1.5.
The stimulating and thought-provoking allegories are humorously titled. I asked Timings about some of their origins. “The Eradication of Snakes,” he told me, “essentially takes the ‘eradication of sparrows’ policy during the Great Leap Forward and explores how a broad, dull blade, when wielded by the government, is so efficient at missing its target.”
Another allegory, The Shelling of an Abandoned Mall, is based on a story from the First Taiwan Strait Crisis (1954-55), during which Mao’s Communists bombed Taiwan’s outlying islands, including the shelling of a 1.24 square kilometer abandoned rock.
“The story focuses on the utility of economic spaces in the context of late-stage capitalism,” Timings says. “Abandoned places are a feature of Taiwan that has been explored by many artists, and I wanted to creatively contextualize that space in a funny way.”
Timings explained his presentation of the allegories. “I wanted the text to be presented similarly to a bulletin board in order to evoke a sense that this is information that is cataloged,” he says, “or is information that is not private, that is intended to be disseminated as opinion rather than fact.”
While the exhibition and its themes deal squarely with contemporary life and its rapid evolution, much of the inspiration for the work comes from a historical tale.
Since moving to Taiwan, Timings has been an avid listener of The Formosa Files podcast, co-hosted by New Zealander John Grant Ross and American Eryk Michael Smith. Each episode of the popular podcast tells an intriguing story from Taiwanese history. Many of Timings’ ideas for his allegories are drawn from the podcast series.
One story, in particular, captivated Timings’ imagination. The first episode of Formosa Files tells the strange tale of George Psalmanazar, who, despite his fair-skinned European appearance, pulled off a bizarre hoax in London in the early 1700s by claiming to be a native of Formosa (the Portuguese name for Taiwan by which the island was previously known).
Psalmanazar created a fake narrative about Formosa that, despite its outlandish nature, fooled many London luminaries of the day until he was eventually exposed.
“History is a possibility we explore through documentation as the source of truth,” Timings says, “and as we have found out from fake news, unverified possibilities of history have real implications.
“The implications of Psalmanazar’s initial academic successes suggest that a fantastical document like his book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa can be manufactured as a source of truth through fairly simple forms of deception and supported as truth by institutions whose susceptibility to deception might depend on the narrative that the source purports to support.
“Contemporary networked fraud, on the other hand,” Timings continued, “as a sort of afterbirth of surveillance capitalism, sells clusters of highly personal information on individuals to institutions who subsequently weaponize that information against certain communities.
“This kind of coercion could be called ‘social engineering’ or ‘cognitive warfare’ and manipulates individuals by exploiting their ideologies and emotions in order to create distrust in, or dislike of, those within their own society.”
The Fake History series will conclude early next year following Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election. I asked Timings about the significance of this event as a frame for his project.
“There are competing tracts of history leading up to the 2024 election,” he says, “orchestrated by two superpowers. A symbol of their respective narratives seems to be crystallizing around the political status of Taiwan.
“The eyes of the world will focus on Taiwan’s election results as an indicator of which superpower will rise or fall and, to some extent, the international community’s direction for some time. The way we use our tools, like artificial intelligence and the internet, as sources of truth increase in significance as the election approaches.”
Fake History runs at Lei Gallery in Taiwan until May 1 and can be viewed by special appointment.
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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