At this stage in the development of the global war on terror, it would be hard to be startled by the rhetoric of prevention and preventability that has tinted the aftermath of each of its turning points. In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels—not to mention that war’s inceptive catalyst, the events of 9/11—politicians and the media alike quickly adopted and disseminated the belief that those crises, like the ones that preceded them, could have been averted with the use of biometric technologies and, more specifically, through facial recognition systems. The power of biometrics, it is said, lies in its promise of objective (read infallible) processes of identification and verification, of ‘better’ or ‘more rigorous’ surveillance. This stance, however, begs the question of whether these technologies should be made to accomplish these goals in the first place, an ongoing debate that often takes the shape of a trade-off between notions of ‘privacy’ and ‘security.’
Artists are unique participants in those debates. The originality of their contribution, I shall argue, comes from their sustained efforts to disclose the ways in which (biometric) technologies are intrinsically cultural entities, embodying (and often consolidating) the fears, hopes, biases and dreams of the societies that produce them. But artists have often also evaded the perfunctoriness of those discussions and gone beyond this security-privacy dyad. By harnessing the threat of facelessness or subverting the discursive premises of these technologies—in other words, by remobilizing, or even reclaiming, the power of the visage—these artists cultivate the hope of a differently secure future.
If it seems at first like a rather trivial act—an exercise in shape recognition, the eye, the nose, the mouth and so on—it would be naive to think of the perception of faces as a neutral phenomenon. On the contrary, as the African-American studies scholar Daniel Black phrases it, highlighting the complexity of this process: “When we see a face, we attempt to stabilize this profoundly unstable phenomenon and make it the enduring marker of a particular, stable identity.”1 What Black points to is the individual reflex to want to set in stone the ‘meaning’ of faces, to view the face as the objective expression of the mental state, indeed of the identity, of the subject lying beneath. A specific motion of facial elements might reveal, say, an “expression of anger on one’s face,” which is in turn equated with “one is angry.”
A parallel tendency to bind subjects with their faces operates at the sociocultural level, one that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari refer to as “an abstract machine of faciality (visagéité).”2 For the two philosophers, the face “cannot be assumed to come ready-made,”3 but rather should be conceived as the result of a normative process of facialization, one that codifies the face according to a “black hole/white wall” system. The subject may still ‘express’ him/herself or ‘communicate’ through the face (the ‘black hole’ of subjectification), but this ability can only function against the ‘white wall’ of significance, upon which the norms, hierarchies and values of a given social order are inscribed.
This ‘black hole/white wall’ system suggests why, on a social scale, this tendency takes on a particularly worrisome dimension. Once in the hands of elites and governments—and set against the backdrop of growing ‘threats’ to global or national security, or to certain private interests—this abstract machine risks becoming (and now has become) a tool of biopower whereby the body and the identity of the subject are monitored, controlled and, ultimately, categorized. For although this system purports to hold quasi-scientific status, promising to accurately link identities and bodies, it is one that is inexorably embedded in the social standards of the culture that produces it. More to the point, a society’s biases, whether prejudicial or not, will necessarily be reflected in its institutionalized treatment of faces, predicating ‘acceptability’ or ‘threat,’ ‘scene’ or ‘obscene’ to the bodies of its constituents. This is notably how, for Deleuze and Guattari, racism operates: “by the determination of degrees of deviance to the White man’s face, which endeavours to integrate nonconforming traits into increasingly eccentric and backward waves.”4
The most pervasive way in which this mechanism takes shape is through biometrics—technologies that measure, analyze and process unique physical data, such as fingerprints, eye retinas or facial features, for the purposes of identifying and verifying the identity of a person. What explains their generalized use by authorities and their representatives, and perhaps by the same token why their ubiquitous presence is so controversial, is their ability to not only automate those identification and verification processes, but also to “distribute biological and behavioural data across computer networks and databases; to be adapted to different uses and purposes; and to (allegedly) provide more accurate, reliable and hard-to-tamper-with means of verifying identity.”5 In what follows, I specifically pay attention to facial recognition and identification technologies and consider a set of artistic attempts to disclose their techno-ethical flaws and the potentiality they intentionally obstruct.
“How do we flee this visibility into the fog of a queerness that refuses to be recognized?”6 This is the question artist and scholar Zach Blas raises in face of the growing omnipresence of biometrics, one that finds an answer in his work Facial Weaponization Suite (2011-14). A series of four masks modelled from the aggregated facial characteristics of participants, the work results in a collection of objects that are ironically unreadable by facial recognition technologies. The Fag Face Mask, for instance, generated from the facial data of queer men, denounces the reiteration of homophobic stereotypes through the publication of scientific studies that seek to link sexual orientation and facial features.7 Another mask takes veil legislation in France as its starting point, considering how social and legal norms force visibility upon certain groups.
This erasure of the face is similarly taken up in Ursula Johnson’s L’nuwelti’k (We Are Indian), an ongoing performative piece begun in 2012 in which she weaves featureless portrait busts of volunteer sitters using Mi’kmaw techniques learned from her grandmother. Once completed, the ghostly busts are then displayed on plinths, identified solely by the Indian Act membership codes of their respective sitters. Not unlike the Facial Weaponization Suite, Johnson’s work parodies institutional attempts to make visible the markers of certain identities while simultaneously underscoring one of their ineluctable consequences: the stripping off of any personal features.
By emphasizing the futility of the quest for absolute or stable essences of identities, Blas and Johnson both denounce the ethical flaws involved in biometric processes of categorization. Their work illustrates not only the tendency described earlier to arbitrarily bind specific facial markers with certain categories of identity, but also how, through this very process, biometrics effectively end up polishing or effacing the idiosyncrasies, multidimensionality and nuances of those identities. By the same token, Blas and Johnson make evident how that arbitrariness becomes the prism through which institutions risk reinforcing discriminatory or prejudicial meanings of ‘queer,’ ‘female,’ ‘Indigenous’ and so on.
But the artists’ fundamental insight is that facelessness constitutes an urgent threat to regimes of control that rely on biometric technologies, not only in classic cases of ‘terrorist hunts,’ but just as much in situations where lawful citizens are the main protagonists. Think, for example, of Montreal’s 2012 bylaw forbidding citizens to cover their faces during public demonstrations, or the 1845 law resurrected by the NYPD to arrest protesters in the wake of the Occupy movement. When faceless, subjects protest the mechanisms of faciality, successfully evading the way faces are codified, monitored and categorized, even if temporarily. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari: “Dismantling the face is the same as breaking through the wall of the signifier and getting out of the black hole of subjectivity.”8 In sum, Blas and Johnson present the face as an overcoded bodily zone in need of being reorganized along radically different, more just parameters.
The critique of biometrics takes on an inverted form in the work of artists Mushon Zer-Aviv and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who both seek to make the face plainly visible and thereby subvert the basic purpose of those technologies. In the Turing Normalizing Machine (TNM), Zer-Aviv presents participants with a video lineup of four previously recorded participants and requires them to point out the most normal-looking of the four. The person selected is then analyzed by facial recognition software, while the participant’s video is added to the database. As the database grows, compiling the facial data into an algorithmically constructed image of normality, the TNM moves closer to Zer-Aviv’s research goal: “to once and for all decode the mystery of what society deems ‘normal’ and to automate the process for the advancement of science, commerce, security and society at large.”9 By breaking open the inner workings of facial recognition technologies and mocking their ambitions and promises, the Machine exposes the political matrix in which they operate. In fact, by depending on the active and public participation of citizens—and specifically on their biases and assumptions—the TNM also makes explicit how they themselves partake in the same normalization of identity that Blas and Johnson criticized.
A distinct twist of usage occurs in Lozano-Hemmer’s Level of Confidence (2015), in which biometric surveillance algorithms are programmed to systematically look for the faces of the 43 Mexican students who were kidnapped from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College on September 26, 2014. As visitors stand in front of the camera, the software uses algorithms to find the student’s facial features that look most like theirs. Interestingly enough, Lozano-Hemmer intentionally places these algorithms—generally used by military and police forces to look for suspicious individuals—in an environment where they will necessarily fail, because we know the students are likely dead. The best the software can do is measure a ‘level of confidence’ percentage on the accuracy of the pairing, which precisely serves to underscore the opposite uncertainty factor inherent to biometric technologies. What is more, if the work continuously fails, this is because the original function of the mechanism is turned upside down. Indeed, by emphasizing the search for the victims (or its terrible futility), Lozano-Hemmer transforms the piece into a memorial, mobilizing biometrics to commemorate the lost lives of these political activists.
Where do Zer-Aviv and Lozano-Hemmer leave us, and where do they rejoin Blas and Johnson? Certainly, the TNM and Level of Confidence open the door to a redeployment of biometric technologies and a deconstruction of their premises. What happens, they ask, when biometrics become an act of remembrance? What happens when we encounter our own biometered face? Ultimately, what Zer-Aviv and Lozano-Hemmer suggest, like Blas and Johnson in their own manner, is that we encounter the face—our own or that of others—in new, destabilizing, productive ways. They reimagine the visage, in other words, as a site of potentiality.
This, then, is where we come full circle and revisit the simple act of encountering a face. As Deleuze and Guattari rightly point out, the face is a locus of possible worlds, “[making] it possible for the signifying elements to become discernible, and for the subjective choices to be implemented… Choices are guided by faces.”10 Confronting a face or its absence—with all it communicates, signifies, imposes or represents—forces us to make choices, to renegotiate our approach to the world, just as it energizes the latter as a place of possible encounters, desires, thoughts and deceptions. (In fact, it is precisely this energy that biometrics, as an apparatus of biopower, attempts to cordon off.) These openings, to be sure, might not necessarily lead in the direction of ‘justice’ or ‘freedom,’ and in certain contexts might even reinforce biopolitical mechanisms. Choices, in other words, may well destruct. But what becomes clear is that mobilizing the face or the lack thereof equally bears the potential to inspire, or indeed to require, political action, which remains the most promising tool in the struggle to defend hopes for a better, more justly organized future. Ultimately, to borrow Blas’ words, one of our last yet unalienable options in the chaos of authoritarian surveillance and identity policing is, quite simply, to “make faces our weapons.”11
Daniel Black, “What Is a Face?” Body & Society, vol. 17, no. 4, 20.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 168.
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 178.
Btihaj Ajana, Governing Through Biometrics: The Biopolitics of Identity (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 3.
Zach Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite. www.zachblas.info/works/facial-weaponization-suite/,
accessed 23 May 2016.
See, for instance, Nicholas O. Rule et al., “Accuracy and Awareness in the Perception and Categorization of Male Sexual Orientation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no. 5 (2008), 1019–1028.
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 188.
Mushon Zer-Aviv, The Turing Normalizing Machine. www.mushon.com/tnm, accessed 23 May 2016.
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 179-180. My emphasis.
Blas, Facial Weaponization Suite
Vincent Marquis is an art historian, writer and law student based in Montreal. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Zentrum für Kunst and Urbanistik in Berlin. Until recently, he was the Development Coordinator at the new media arts centre Eastern Bloc, Project Coordinator at Evidence for Democracy, and Officer for South Sudan at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. His main field of research is contemporary visual and political culture, and in particular: the intersection of art and human rights; urban theory and the ‘right to the city’; the theory and practice of activism; and the functions and responsibilities of museums today.