Episode 97

97. Richard Nixon Hoped to Never Say These Words about Apollo 11. In A New Exhibit, He Does.


January 17th, 2022

14 mins 58 secs

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About this Episode

As the Apollo 11 astronauts hurtled towards the moon on July 18th, 1969, members of the Nixon administration realized they should probably make a contingency plan. If the astronauts didn’t make it – or, even more horrible, if they made it to the moon and crashed and had no way to get back to earth – Richard Nixon would have to address the nation. That haunting speech was written but fortunately was never delivered.

But you can go to the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City and watch Nixon somberly reciting those words. It looks like real historic footage, but it’s fake. Artists Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund used the text of the original address and media manipulation techniques like machine learning to create the synthetic Nixon for a film called In Event of Moon Disaster. It anchors an exhibit called Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen.

In this episode, Panetta and Burgund discuss how they created In Event of Moon Disaster as a way to highlight various misinformation techniques, the changing literacy of the general public towards media manipulation, and the effectiveness of misinformation in the museum medium.

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 97. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Welcome to Museum Archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner. Museum Archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums. Each episode is never longer than 15 minutes, so let's get started.

On July 18th, 1969, members of the Nixon administration realized they should probably make a contingency plan. If the Apollo 11 astronauts who were hurtling towards the moon, on their way to be the first humans to land on its surface, didn’t make it to the moon – or, even more horrible, if they made it to the moon and crashed and had no way to get back to earth – Nixon would have to address the nation.

So Nixon’s speech writer, William Safire wrote an address titled “In Event of Moon Disaster.” It’s a short, haunting speech – the first time that billions of people on earth would learn about the failed Apollo 11 mission. Safire notes that before delivering the speech, Nixon “should telephone each of the widows-to-be.” Widows-to-be because Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wouldn’t be dead yet, just stranded on the moon with no hope of recovery.

Halsey Burgund: The astronauts are still alive. I mean that – every time I even think of that, I just get these sort of chills. They not only would have been alive when the speech was delivered, but they could have actually heard it.

Then, back on earth, Nixon would have soberly walked up to a television camera, adjusted the speech written on his stack of papers, looked right at the camera lens and said.

Richard Nixon: “Good evening my fellow Americans. Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there's no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”

But Nixon never said these words. On July 20th, 1969, Apollo 11’s lunar lander successfully touched down, intact on the surface of the moon with enough fuel to get safely back to earth. So instead of addressing the nation in a sobering speech, Nixon called the astronauts directly in a more awkward but definitely preferable phone call.

Richard Nixon: “Hello Neil and Buzz, I’m talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House, And there certainly has to be the most historic telephone call I've ever made. I just can't tell you how proud we all are of what you have – every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives.”

The reason why it’s so hard to tell these two Nixons apart – the real one and the fake one – is because of a technology known today as deepfake.

Halsey Burgund: Deepfake comes from the combination of deep, which is short for deep learning in this case, which is an artificial intelligence technique, and then fake, of course, meaning, you know, something not true. So deepfake is a representation through audio and video of an event, of a person, doing or saying something that never actually happened in reality. And the addendum to that is that it almost always happens without the consent of the individual who is depicted.

The first Nixon, the fake one, was created by Halsey Burgund and Francesca Panetta as part of a film they titled In Event of Moon Disaster. In Event of Moon Disaster is the centerpiece of a new exhibit called Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City.

Halsey Burgund: Hello. My name is Halsy Burgund. I am an artist and a creative technologist, and one of my most recent projects is called In Event of Moon Disaster, which looks at a deepfake synthetic media technology. And it uses the Apollo 11 moon landing mission as a vehicle to explore this new technology.

Francesca Panetta: Hello, my name is Francesca Panetta. I am an immersive director, artist and journalist, and I am the co-director of In Event of Moon Disaster, a film and an installation about misinformation and deep fakes and an alternative history of the moon landing.

Panetta and Burgund made In the Event of Moon Disaster by combining footage of Richard Nixon giving an unrelated speech and employing video techniques to replicate the movement of Nixon’s mouth and lips. Combined with the contributions of a voice actor and some deep learning techniques to synthetically make the audio sound more like Nixon, the whole video is quite believable and striking.

Halsey Burgund: We've thought a lot about how our project needs to create misinformation to a certain extent, but then it needs to identify what it has done. We need to wrap the whole project in a context, which does the best we can to ensure that people don't leave the experience thinking that two astronauts were stranded on the moon and their bodies are still there and they, and they died. That is the context of our piece. And that is what the speech that Nixon delivers – fake Nixon, synthetic Nixon delivers.

The directors choose to use this particular speech by Nixon for the project in part because it relates to moon landings – already a deep well of misinformation and conspiracy theories, and because the speech is non-political.

Francesca Panetta: When you are face swapping someone onto a video where they haven't consented. Yeah. It is a deepfake. In terms of putting words into someone's mouth it felt like these were words that he could well have ended up speaking. And so it kind of didn't feel so, so morally problematic. And we weren't trying to deceive the public that the moon landing never happened. Again, these were ethical questions we had around not wanting to see more misinformation about the moon landing of which there is a considerable amount already.

In Event of Moon Disaster appears in the middle of the Deepfake Exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image. After visitors have seen historical context about media manipulation, they walk into what appears to be a 1960s living room.

Halsey Burgund: There's a vintage television from 1960 something. And on that TV is playing our film and it's an old CRT TV, and there's a couch in front of it that you can sit down on. There’s a carpet, a shaggy carpet. And then you can sit there and watch the whole film as though you have been invited over to a friend's house to view this historic event. It's as though you're sort of stepping back in time to 1969 and watching this for the first time. But of course things go wrong and it doesn't turn out the way that we all know it actually did. And then you come out on the far side of our installation and then you start to do the demystification process if you will, which is, helping people to understand what they just saw and how it was made and other examples, et cetera.

The actual speech is short – it only takes about 2 minutes for Nixon to deliver it. But the movie doesn’t begin with Nixon walking up to the camera – it actually begins with real footage of the CBS broadcast from that mission.

CBS News Voiceover: “This is CBS News color coverage of Man on the Moon. Sponsored by Kellogg's. Kellogg's puts more in your morning. Here from CBS news Apollo headquarters at Kennedy Space Center: Correspondent, Walter Cronkite.”

But as the video continues, the real broadcast is edited in such a way to show something going wrong with the mission – a disinformation technique much older than deepfake.

Francesca Panetta: I searched through enormous amounts of audio material trying to find any sound of stress in the voices of the mission control and the astronauts, which is really hard because those astronauts are really trained never to sound perturbed or scared in any way. We found one alarm that went off and we repeated it over and over again.

Halsey Burgund: This alarm is going and it's beeping and we don't know what it is and, “Oh no, communications cut off!” And then we kind of leave it up to the viewer to sort of think about what might've happened. And we put in a bit of sort of lunar surface footage to sort of make it feel like, okay, they've crashed but, you're still there with them a little bit.

Halsey Burgund: I forget who coined the term cheap fake, but is what has existed in the, as long as media has existed, there's been the ability to do this kind of deceptive editing, by the way that's happening with audio too. You are going to take my interview and you're going to chop it up and take a piece here and a piece there and put them together, hopefully in a way that represents fairly what I'm trying to communicate. These are very standard editing techniques that more available to everybody nowadays,then some of this is sort of AI enabled stuff like deepfakes. So we're making something fake out of a lot of truths and we're wrapping something fake with a lot of archival, true quote-unquote footage. And, we all know that the Apollo 11 mission did happen. And, we know that Walter Cronkite was a real anchor and covered it and there's all these truths in there, and then we, boom, we hit you with this massive, piece of disinformation that changes everything, but wrapping it in those truths, I think makes it so much more believable.

Beginning with real unedited TV coverage, then moving to real footage edited to tell a story that didn’t happen, then transitioning to the Nixon deepfake speech works really well in an audio/visual medium. That’s the subtitle of the installation as a whole: Unstable Evidence on Screen.

Francesca Panetta: As an artist and director, but also journalists, I think very carefully about the context. In which people come across content. So the attention that they will have, the amount of time they're likely to spend, how they're coming to the project. Because the whole exhibition is set up this way, there is an opportunity to really engage on it on a deeper level than is possible on an online context . There are different crafts for different mediums.

Panetta and Burgund are demonstrating the tools of misinformation in the medium of TV. On this show, we think of museums as a medium too. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people are more conscious about the possibility of misinformation on social media or on TV than in a museum.

And one of the things that attracted me to this project was seeing something deliberately fake put in the middle of a museum – a medium that still scores very high on the list of most trustworthy institutions.

Halsey Burgund: Bringing it into a museum context in some ways it is a bit odd to bring into this traditionally thought of as a purely authoritative and factual and accurate space to bring something into it that is, in a certain sense inaccurate.

Halsey Burgund: It makes me think about sort of museums when I was growing up the thought of even whispering to somebody while walking through the hallowed halls of the museum was, “oh my gosh, I can't believe you'd even, shhh be quiet!” And now things have, you know, thankfully, and I think this is a positive direction: people are a little more relaxed about that.

The film works so well on a CRT TV set in a living room because that’s how the vast majority of people experienced the actual moon landing. The grainy TV footage is shorthand for the era itself.

Panetta and Burgund have created a believable fake broadcast of a failed Apollo 11 mission. But I would love to take it a step further — instead of the primary medium being TV, what if the project was a fake museum exhibit?

What would it feel like to walk into a dark gallery titled “The Last Moments of Apollo 11.” Dioramas of the lunar surface sit under speakers looping the last radio communication with the astronauts. Somewhere in the gallery, on not a living room TV, but on a flat panel screen is Nixon’s speech, forever echoing words he would have said.

How would the medium of a fake history museum feel different from the CRT TV broadcasting fake history in the living room?

Francesca Panetta: I think it's very obvious from how we all see media technology rapidly developing that, these kinds of tools develop very fast. That will be the case with artificial intelligence as well. Even in just seeing over the few years in which Halsey and I have been working in this area, we've seen incredible increases in what is possible in live face swapping and deepfaking, which wasn't possible when we started this project. I personally have no doubt. This'll be easy to do very realistically in the future. But I think also the familiarity with these kinds of techniques will become more widely known. So just like now, when a general member of the public looks at a photo, they will expect, well, that it's probably been photoshopped or had some filters on it. The kind of techniques of AI I hope will become more generally known by the public. And that's certainly what this project is trying to do is is make people aware about these kinds of possibilities. Because it's a new technique, it is not as widely known as more conventional editing techniques, but that's essentially where we need to get to so that as the technologies develop, so do the public's understanding of those capacities.

You can and should watch the full version of the excellent In Event of Moon Disaster at moondisaster.org.

It’s accompanying exhibit, Deepfake: Unstable Evidence on Screen is at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City until May 15, 2022.

This has been Museum Archipelago.

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