New Media artwork, The Zizi Show by artist Jake Elwes is a deep fake drag show and the first-ever collaboration between artificial intelligence and drag. 

Deen Atger  |  Ed Juliet Rennie  | 28 April 2021

Jake Elwes, The Zizi Show 2021, deepfake training process for drag queen Lilly Snatchdragon (lower quality), for Agora Digital Art
Jake Elwes, The Zizi Show (2021) deepfake training process for drag queen Lilly Snatchdragon © Courtesy of the artist.

Over the past years Bipoc and LGBTQ+ researchers and authors have been flagging the issue of technological bias. In her book published in 2018, Algorithms of Oppressions, Safiya Noble was looking at how search engines reinforce racism throught data discrimination. The subject has recently been discussed more broadly with the latest documentary, Coded Bias by Shalini Kantayya on Netflix.  


As queer New Media artist, Jake Elwes observes on his website, Facial recognition algorithms (and deepfake technology) currently have difficulty recognising trans, queer and other marginalised identities”. While neural networks are loosely inspired by the human brain, it sadly shows how deep the binary exists within the construction of our views of identities.

So is there any way for a more inclusive technology? What could it mean to queer up technology? For Elwes, it means feeding thousands of pictures of drag performers into a database,  actually queering the facial renders the machine learning creates. 

 With projects such as Machine Learning Porn (2016), Elwes continues to explore and subvert datasets used for online surveillance, censorship and facial recognition.

Jake Elwes, The Zizi Show (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

Jake Elwes is a New Media artist based in London and has shown his work in major digital art festivals around the world. His creations are recognisable through their poetic blend of art and AI/Machine Learning (ML) technology, bringing contemplation, analysis and wit to complex systems while challenging their ethics. 

Elwes’ most recent piece, The Zizi Show (@zizidrag) is an online deep fake drag cabaret created by a prodigious human-machine collaboration. Accessible online, it is an interactive piece of web art where you can create your own act by picking your deep fake avatars and the song you want them to perform. The glitchy aesthetic gives glimpses of the fragile technology behind it, reinforcing the idea of constructed identities. 

The experience of seeing real bodies of iconic drag queens digested and regenerated by the system is fascinating. Filmed at a London cabaret venue, closed down due to COVID-19, provides an atmosphere that breaks the frontiers between the physical and the digital. 

Using what Elwes calls, “Queer performance tactics to tackle problematic heteronormative use of AI”, it is an entertaining, politically and socially engaged piece of work. It offers visitors an opportunity to interact with tools of rebellion, disturbance and legal hacking that aim to create more inclusive systems with technological tools.

Jake Elwes, The Zizi Show (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.
Drag artists: Bolly-Illusion | Cara Melle | Chiyo | Dakota Schiffer Lilly SnatchDragon | Luke Slyka | Mahatma Khandi | Mark Anthony Me | Oedipussi Rex | Ruby Wednesday | Sister Sister | Tete Bang
Music: I Am What I Am · Douglas Hodge La Cage Aux Folles (New Broadway Cast Recording)

Algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence and facial recognition still sound pretty futuristic but they are increasingly shaping the world we live in. From Instagram filters to CCTV surveillance, biometric tech and targeted ads we’re surrounded, whether we like it or not. Whilst those tools may appear to work outside of any political, social or sexual considerations, they are very much a product of a traditional white, hetero, patriarchal construct. 

According to the AI Now Institute, 80% of the data used to develop AI and machine learning is produced by white, cis men. This acts to reinforce the gender binary, centring whiteness as the norm.

Via speculative scenarios, AI researcher Os Keyes describes the impact such technology could have on gender non-conforming and trans people. Keyes predicts police and security stops; gendered airports scanners, as recently experienced by trans model and activist Rosalynne Montoya in a US airport,  being denied or not advertised jobs and places to live.

Around a decade ago, when I used to type the word Gouine (Dyke) onto my phone, it automatically changed it to Fouine (Weasel). This was one of my first encounters with technological bias and identity. I was amused but I also understood that the people who invented the devices I was using were not taking my identity into account. 

We are living in a critical time for movements of decolonising and queering technologies, using creative means for displaying ideas, highlighting injustices and shifting the perspective of the narrative. 

So Jake Elwes, in the footsteps of pioneering artists like Donna Harroway, Tabita Rezaire and so many other emerging artists are queering technology as a means to disturb and subvert normative technical and political structures, as well as technological architectures.

Following works such as the Glitch manifesto and in the words of Zach Blas, it’s time to resist through a “queer networked activism”.

Jake Elwes talks about his Art, AI & Drag/Zizi Project – National Gallery X + FLUX – 10th June 2020 © Courtesy of the artists
@JakesElwes, The Zizi Show (2020) on Screen Walks with @MeTheDragQueen © Courtesy of the artists

About the artist

Digital Artist Jake Elwes - Queer AI - Agora Digital Art
© Courtesy of the artist.
Artist Website

Jake Elwes is a media artist living and working in London. He studied at The Slade School of Fine Art, UCL (2013-17). Recent works explore his research into machine learning and artificial intelligence. His practice looks for poetry and narrative in the success and failures of these systems, while also investigating and questioning the code and ethics behind them. His current works in the Zizi Project explore AI bias by queering datasets with drag performers. They simultaneously demystify and subvert AI systems.

Jake’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries internationally, including the ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany; TANK Museum, Shanghai; Today Art Museum, Beijing; CyFest, Venice; Edinburgh Futures Institute, UK; Zabludowicz Collection, London; Frankfurter Kunstverein, Germany; New Contemporaries 2017, UK; Ars Electronica 2017, Austria; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; LABoral Centro, Spain; Nature Morte, Delhi, India; RMIT Gallery, Australia; Centre for the Future of Intelligence, UK and he has been featured on ZDF & BBC.

Key Achievements

  • 2021 AI Newcomer award German Informatics Society e.V. (GI) and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)
  • 2018 Lumen Prize, Moving Image Shortlist
  • 2017 UCL Arts & Humanities Dean’s List
  • 2017 Julian Sullivan Prize for outstanding achievement in Media Art
  • 2012 Top UK result for Cambridge Pre-U Art and Design

Shows and Fair booths

Upcoming Shows

2021

Jun-Aug: Future U: Body / Mind / MachineRMIT Gallery, Melbourne, Australia

July: Gazelli Art House, Mayfair, London

Oct: Lebenson Gallery, Shoreditch, London

Group Shows

2021 – Writing the History of the FutureZKM | Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany

2020-2021 – Lying Sophia and Mocking AlexaYuz Museum, Shanghai, China

2020
AI for Good: Visions of a sustainable future with AI (virtual, COVID-19)United Nations, ITU & STATE, Geneva
Real-Time Contraints (virtual browser extension, COVID-19)Arebyte Gallery, London, UK
Fluid Bodies, E-WERK Freiburg, Germany
FLUX Gender*uck at National Gallery X (virtual, COVID-19)The National Gallery, London
Deus Ex MachinaLABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, Gijón, Spain

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