Kaitlyn Jo Smith (MFA ’20, Photography, Video, Imaging) won a national juried showcase at the 2021 College Arts Association annual conference in Graduate Film/Video, Animations & New Genres in March.
In the film, “Lights Out,” Smith sourced over 50,000 portraits of factory workers from Facebook, which were then turned into deep-fake portraits by artificial intelligence, commenting on the trend in manufacturing to replace workers with fully-automated factories that require no human presence on site. The subject matter is very personal for Smith because her family and her community experienced what life was like after a factory, the major employer, shut down.
This was her Master of Fine Arts thesis project from last spring and it was the first time the work was viewed because the coronavirus delayed the exhibition. (An in-person exhibition is in the works at the School of Art.)
“I was super excited to win the award,” she said. “After sitting on this work for so long, finally being able to show it and having it out there was very, very exciting. I was excited to even be included in the 21 that they selected for consideration without any expectations of winning that award.
“It was very reaffirming. I think that’s what a thesis show does a lot; it’s like the celebration where you get to look at where you’ve come. So, this kind of felt in a lot of ways, affirmative.”
Smith is an interdisciplinary artist focused on the present and future trajectories of America’s working class. Her artworks render visible the intangible realities of unemployment by utilizing automation, machine learning and 3D scanning and printing. These technologies are directly linked to the loss of over 4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs since 2000.
Her work has been displayed at the Tucson Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio, Flower City Arts Center in Rochester, New York, Harry Wood Gallery in Tempe, Arizona and CO-OPt Gallery in Lubbock, Texas.
“The crux of my work is growing up in the rust belt,” said Smith
She grew up in a town of 800 people in rural Ohio where everyone there was either a factory worker or a farmer. She was 13 in 2008 when the housing bubble crashed and the American Standard Factory went out of business.
“My father and many other family members and parents of people I was going to school with all worked there. When that shut down, it really put the economy of the entire Tri-County area at a standstill.
“You’re at an age where you’re old enough to understand something’s going on, to feel the stress that your parents are going through and to understand that things are kind of wrong, but you’re still young enough that you’re hidden from it a little bit.”
Everyone was in the same boat. All of the kids she grew up with were going through the same struggles.
“I joke a lot with people that I always thought I was from a middle-class family until I got to college and I realized, ‘Oh, no, I am not from the middle class. All the people I thought were rich growing up are actually the middle class.’”
Going to college and meeting people from different situations allowed Smith to pull back on her lens.
“I call it the plight of the working man. This thing that wasn’t just this isolated situation where I’m from, but it’s something that’s affecting still the country at large. And so, my interest in this subject matter comes from a very personal place, but it also comes from growing up and stepping back and realizing, that this voice doesn’t really exist in the art world, not in the majority, and it is missing an accurate representation as well.”
Her video piece, “Lights Out,” responds to the trend in a growing number of industries to replace human workers with automation.
“What ends up happening is you have these communities where that is the economy, right. That is the largest employer. And you have people who don’t really have the resources or the means to leave and find work elsewhere. That’s a common question I get a lot is, ‘well, why don’t people move?’ And the fact of the matter is most people can’t, or they just don’t know how to, you have generations of families in these areas. I think leaving is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Automation really changes the face of these entire communities.
“I feel like I’m very much in a place of privilege. I was able not only to leave, but also to get like an art degree. I think that’s a lot of why I make the work I make is because I really do love where I’m from. And I love the people who raised me. And I feel like I owe it to represent them as accurately as I can.”
In “Lights Out,” Smith sourced 50,000 pictures of factory workers through Facebook and then used artificial intelligence to make deep fake portraits, 60,000, to match the number of factories that have shuttered since 2000.
“I empowered the machine to visualize those it has replaced by employing these found identities to teach the algorithm to see, interpret and render out its own assembly of laborers,” Smith wrote in her art work’s description.
You may be wondering how long it took to source 50,000 Facebook profile pics of factory workers. Five months.
“I was spending like eight, nine-hour days for months straight just on Facebook. And I really think it messed with my head a little bit.
Why was it important to create deep fake portraits?
“For me, the conceptual connection of creating people, who aren’t real, to represent job loss. I think there’s a strong connection there, but when I was thinking through this project — I guess it was like two years ago now — I loved the idea of having this moment of this large-scale projection and people walking into the space. The video is 45 minutes long. You’re not really meant to sit through the whole thing. It’s very repetitive and durational. And throughout it, there’s 60,000 faces. None of them are the same and it becomes this meditative thing.
“People watching these people’s scroll. Every once in a while, you see someone that looks exactly like, you know, my uncle or my cousin or my friend. And then having that moment of realization that no, none of the people they just spent however long staring at, actually exist. To me that represents this idea of automation really, really well.”
Smith’s process in creating the video was not automated. She compiled all of the single face into separate videos and put them together in the final product. Her initial 50,000 Facebook pictures were then turned into 60,000 deep fakes by the AI.
“The labor in this project was insane. Took an insane amount of time to even build up the archive, to train the neural network to create the deep fakes. And I think that’s part of it too; all of my work is very repetitive, like the factory’s assembly line repetition.”