Monthly Spotlight: Biometrics, Phenotypes and Hong Kong Cleanup

A look at the art of Tony Oursler, Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Zach Blas.

Written in 1975, Foucault’s seminal work Discipline and Punishment was a vivid genealogy of the emergence of newer, more insidious forms of power. His eminent analysis of the Panopticon, its mechanisation and emergent ideology are as relevant today as they were forty years ago. Over the last few years we have been seeing an unprecedented level of surveillance and data-harvesting enacted on civilians at the hands of both private companies and the state — their agendas and operations not always mutually exclusive. The revelations engendered by Edward Snowden’s dissent in 2013 have been followed by story after story of developments in surveillance-based technologies and the scale of their implementation in our daily, routine existence. These interferences haven taken the form of ‘convenient’ personalised marketing adverts and much darker forms of psychological profiling and voter modelling — as was seen with the case of AggregrateIQ and Cambridge Analytics in the recent US election and EU referendum.

However, as many theorists have noted, even Foucault’s notion of a disciplinary society has been rapidly outmoded. As Paul Preciado states, “The body no longer inhabits disciplinary spaces but is inhabited by them. The biomolecular and organic structure of the body is the last hiding place of these biopolitical systems of control.”[1] In particular to surveillance technologies, the face has long been a historical tool for the taxonomisation and oppression of different peoples; from race, to psychiatry, to criminality, the face has been the object from which to identify and shackle certain physical appearances to pre-determined psychological traits, degeneracies and social corruptions. As Deleuze would go as far as to say, “The despot-god has never hidden his face, far from it: he makes himself one, or even several.” [2]

An example of Francois Galton’s 19th century criminal physiognomies.

Today, the face has not escaped this oppressive history. The evolution of facial recognition systems in recent years has come at the forefront of anti-terror legislation and rhetoric, the latest in a long line of attacks of civil liberties in the name of security and defence; and all across the world it seems, from the Zapatistas to Anonymous, and from black bloc to Pussy Riot, movements are emerging that reject the face as a political tool — as the former declares, “In order for them to see us, we covered our faces; so that they would call us by name, we gave up our names; we bet the present to have a future; and to live . . . we died.”

Artists throughout the years have approached the issue of the face in different ways, from Arthur Elsenaar’s electro-facial choreographies, to the British-Jamaican collective Mongrel’s ethno-racialized composite portraits. Yet the recent developments in biometric pattern recognition has inspired a new wave of artistic responses to the contemporary political and technological problems that they bring.

Tony Oursler is one of these artists. With an oeuvre that is teeming with uncanny images of xeno-physiognomies, spliced and hybridized with screens, alien pigments and modulated voice tones, Oursler presents human identity through the alienating lens of the biometric systems themselves. His portraits are an unsettling account of the inhumanness of these modes of representation, and the troubling effects they have on modern psychology. His anonymous magnified cyborgs drone of ‘natural selection’ and ‘normative association’, they murmur of being hacked, short-circuited, recoded, and warn that “now you’re only a clown for the machine.” His smaller, diluted abstracts focus heavier on their biometric nodes and latticework, pushing the dehumanising effects of these technologies to the extreme. In an interesting work as part of his 2015 solo-show, template/variant/friend/stranger, one projection infinitely shuffles between 150 algorithmically produced Eigen model-faces, beautifully displaying the sinister uncanniness of these nonhuman projections.

Installation view of template/variant/friend/stranger by Tony Oursler.

Similarly, the work of Heather Dewey-Hagborg explores the possibility of artificially producing — or reproducing — the human face. Her works are based on current genomic research and forensic DNA phenotyping. In both her projects Strangers Visions (2012–13) and Probably Chelsea (2017), Hagborg uses a process of molecular photofitting to algorithmically produce the suspected facial images of people’s DNA. Her project Stranger Visions, as well as producing a facial reconstruction of the DNA she harvested from chewed gum, loose strands of hair and cigarette butts, also detailed a list of personal attributes to the individual, using “statistical predictions about what these individuals looked and acted like, what kind of health conditions they had, and even what their last names were.”

Her later work, Probably Chelsea, uses the DNA of Chelsea Manning to produce thirty radically different facial probabilities, which seem to traverse both race, ethnicity and gender, drawing attention to the ‘molecular solidarity’ we all share, and the impossibility of prescribing to a notion of biologically inscribed identities, especially in an age soon to engage in far more common forms of genetic surveillance, such as the somewhat comical Hong Kong Cleanup’s ‘Face of Litter’ campaign in 2015.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Probably Chelsea (2017)

One project that has become symbolic of queer and anti-biometric protest, however, is artist-theorist Zach Blas’ iconic Facial Weaponisation Suite (2011–14). Using aggregated data from different facial sets, including queer men (a riposte to several scientific studies conducted in 2007 which claimed to be able to correctly infer sexual orientation from facial images), non-white participants and surveys looking at both anti-veil legislation in France and security technologies at the US-Mexico border control, Blas uses 3D modelling software to creative ‘collective’ masks that evade facial recognition systems. The amorphous masks lack any recognisable human features, and politically resound with the formerly mentioned movements that reject the face and the current forms of identitarian political representation that it subtly -and not so subtly- enforces. The strikingly aesthetic objects make poignant the interlaced nature of visibility and power, technological surveillance and mass protest, biometrics and defacement. Combined, these three artists force us to consider again the insidious nature technology and power, but also new possibilities of collective dissent. They question how best to face — or not to face — the future of our high-tech societies of control.

Zach Blas, Facial Weaponisation Suite (2011–14)

[1] Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era
(New York: The Feminist Press, 2013): 79.

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005): 115.

On the 28th of September, Zach Blas’ first solo-show, Contra-Internet, will open at Gasworks Gallery, London:

Written by Charlie Mills

Writer and Curator based in South London



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