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Vicarious Atonement

“Vicarious Atonement” is a series exploring our local, national and global reaction to the COVID 19 pandemic and the sometimes ineffective efforts by scientists and public health advisors to show data in a way that connects statistics to personal and collective responsibility in a meaningful way for the public. The work takes up questions of empathy, relationality and accountability. 

The series uses a bank of 100 years of epidemic data visualizations fed through an AI program that blends the data with faces. These faces are entirely AI-generated; they are not real people. The outputs are then curated based on aesthetic appeal, lighting, composition, and a number of other formal choices before they are painted. The act of painting enters the images into the canon of portraiture, which carries some authority and history and lends some weight to the characters as lives documented. 

The title is born from an emphasis on the vicarious experience of putting an AI generated “face” to the data while also playing with the Christian notion of substitutionary atonement, the notion that someone died “for us,” as a substitute, “instead of” others. The work offers up a face for meaningful, empathetic engagement with statistics. But, these people don’t exist. While perhaps successful or even useful, the entire gesture is empty. And thus, the work lays bare our limitations when it comes to empathy and our drive for what Dominick LaCapra terms “vicarious victimage,” when the viewer over identifies with and even attempts to merge with the victim - but only when they “feel” the pain of the narrative.

This work was generously supported by The Regan Peacock Fung Memorial Art Fund

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