Deep Nostalgia™ & Memory Making

Dear Readers,
Several weeks ago I signed up for a freemium account on a genealogy platform called MyHeritage so that I could try out a feature that promised to reanimate my dead ancestors through an AI called Deep Nostalgia (using technology created by Israeli company, D-ID). I actually did know that I would subsequently receive hundreds of marketing emails and have my data stored on their servers. I also know that MyHeritage has received some backlash in the past relating to privacy & security. But I also wanted to try this feature out as I feel like it relates to a lot things I’ve been thinking about around memory and data. So I gave it a go with a photograph of my late tatagaaru (grandfather), and shared the results with his immediate family (my grandmother, my uncles and my mom).

Obviously, I could not obtain his consent. My grandfather passed away when I was a newborn so I also could not even go down the rabbit hole of “what would he say if he were here?” And even if I could, it would not really give me any definitive answers. I know my experimentation with MyHeritage sits on a very fine ethical line. But it was an area I thought was important to explore in a hands-on way. It’s also interesting to see how MyHeritage deals with this ethical line on their FAQ page…

Personally, the resulting animation didn’t mean much to me. I don’t have any real memories of my grandfather (he died when I was six weeks old) and also I’m hyperaware of the subtle glitches (notice the strange movement of the placement of his eyes when he blinks the second time). But the response from my family was really interesting. I don’t think it was as emotional as some people have been reporting on social media, but they didn’t seem to feel like they were in the uncanny valley. That surprised me. Here’s a Whatsapp conversation with my grandmother:

And another with my cousin and uncle:

And another screenshot of my mom’s response (apparently someone from the local temple tried Deep Nostalgia with an image of a Hindu Deity):

If I were to try Deep Nostalgia with someone I knew well that passed during my lifetime, I think the animation would make me more aware of that which cannot be resurrected, as opposed to reinvigorating their memory. I also think this product can’t escape the fact that it’s a social media marketing tool and the virality of it makes it feel somehow less precious to me (see meme below).

Of course, all this also made me revisit my own work, which often uses machine learning with family photographs…

I mean, my work definitely lives in the Uncanny Valley. And in some ways, I am also resurrecting the archive. But, I guess my intention is a bit different in that I’m not really trying to recreate the past because it’s a past I was never a part of (or at least present for). Instead, I am purposefully distorting it to emphasize its fuzziness, its vagueness, and its intangibility. It’s a past that I will never fully grasp because it was never a lived experience, but at the same time, it’s a past that follows me like an apparition, affecting my present. In this work, I’m thinking more about my own relationship to (and feelings around) intergenerational memory as opposed to trying to relive or recreate those memories. And in these generated images, I’m more interested in emotion than documentation.

This direction in my work is fairly new so my ideas around it are still settling. I’d love to hear any thoughts you may have about this topic or my images. I’ll probably write more as this specific body of work evolves. But in any case, experimenting with MyHeritage really made me think a lot about the intent of my work with family photos.

As always, thanks for reading.

Sending you all lots of love,