TS Do you notice social and political changes in the age of digital media?
GS Yes. In comparison to former situations in mass media, no situation is one way from the sender to receiver anymore. Nowadays, everybody is a sender and receiver. but what comes along with that is that publishing is no longer something special. In other words, there is a big loss of the responsibility of publishing and a loss of knowledge of what publishing means. There is too much personal, amateur, and unproofed garbage around. In “asocial” media, no time is left for reflection, just pull the revolver and fire. A good part of society is not ready for media like that. and it could be a big risk for democracy. Exaggerated outcry and vulnerability come with it.
TS How do you deal with these developments?
GS I have always been interested in how mass media functions and what impact media images have on us. When I started as a young artist, I was more interested in the forms of narration these images create. After a while, I became more interested in the technical aspects of these phenomena. These points are interesting and important because they relate to formal problems with how things are presented to us. The construction of media implies certain forms of approaching people in a very special way.
I have developed two ways of dealing with that. On one hand, I document these issues in various media, but mostly photographic. I emphasize the phenomenon of the “screen” or input technologies like scanners. On the other hand, I do lots of public media interventions on public screens, in magazines, on billboards, on tv, or on the internet. These partly involve the audience.
In addition, I do theoretical work on photography, mass media, and public media space. This work is published in art magazines, in books, and on websites. During my professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig, I founded a class with a focus on mass media research and art in public media space. That was unique at that time in art universities.
TS Is the fear and hype about deepfakes exaggerated?
GS No, for sure not. But the discussion about fake and especially fake news is definitely not a new one. There have always been questions about mass-media techniques, how we treat information, and how that information relates to its original source. The problems with how we perceive what’s true have become more complex with the explosive development of mass media in recent decades. But manipulation has a long history. Propaganda existed before the rise of photography, film, and so on. In addition, we have a problem of perception with “truth.” Considering thoughts of constructivists, such as Heinz von Foerster in Observing Systems, we had that problem without any media. The observer has subjective input that has an influence on what we call observation or truth. By applying that idea to the world of mass media, we are in an even more complex situation. We’re in a metaworld of perception where every observation is further away from the truth. Detecting the truth might be impossible.
TS Do you think deepfakes can and will be used as a political tool?
GS I am sure that these possibilities will be used. Propaganda has always been an important tool for political communication. Edward Bernays, a nephew of Freud, wrote a book on that issue. That book is the Bible for publicrelations and marketing specialists. These people dominate mass communication by consulting for political parties, states, NGOs, and companies. A good deal of mass-media content comes from agencies like that. The content is a fake of “good old journalism.”
TS Is this concern a generational issue? Will the people growing up with this stuff be better at distinguishing what’s real?
GS Younger generations are closer to these problems because younger people are digital natives. But I often find that their thinking about how mass media functions is not on the same level. Therefore, media education is not complete without learning to think about what we use and how information comes to us. In other words, reading or looking at things on the internet is incomplete without considering where we get our information from. And some media applies sophisticated psychological techniques that make it easy to forget these principles.
TS How endangered is trust in the age of post-truth or post-fact democracy?
GS As I mentioned, it is a major problem because of the subtlety of current media technologies. But we have always had to be skeptical about the conditions under which we get information. In other words, it is an old story, and so, the term post-fact is not correct. We should remember the analog and sensual forms of direct reception in contrast to using only indirect sources of “facts.” As a matter of fact, unmediated strategies are already difficult enough.