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The Glut of Faciality

The focus of my research engages with embodiment, biometrics and the corporeal form. For the duration of this Master’s program, it is my intention to develop a critical writing and prototyping practice to investigate and disseminate the ways in which our bodies’ become commoditized, their function, profile or appearance negotiated through the various uses and implications of technological translation. Through explorations of biological identity, transformation and growth, I take up the digitized, technologized concept of “corporeal fetishism” set out by cultural theorists Donna Haraway and Judith Butler. I question a social and cultural acceptance of technology as a universal remedy through the lens of biometrics, as a means of identification, classification and categorization.

As a visual artist, my studio practice is informed by various modes of research including anthropological, observational, theoretical and process-based, engaging a phenomenological approach to corporeal awareness toward an evolving and adaptable investigation of bodily possibilities. Funded by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant, my 2012 Master’s thesis titled “Under and Beyond (the Skin): artistic process, trauma and embodiment in image-making” took up embodied knowledge as a means of visualizing difference and multiple interpretations of the body. This included a research assistantship that tested the possibility for SANDDE, an immersive, stereoscopic 3D hand-drawn animation tool, to become a full-body interactive device using Emily Carr’s motion tracking system.

By exploring contemporary uses of facial recognition and biometric software, as well as ideas of biology, race, and profiling, it is my intention to continue drawing focus to the body as a shifting, adaptable entity. My interest in technology stems from its ability to permeate, at times unnoticed, all aspects of contemporary life. Whether in the realm of genetics, molecular biology, or physical ‘fitness’, we have a general understanding of bodily capacities but have refused to accept limits and boundaries of what is bodily possible and impossible. At the intersection of poesis, technology and the body, corporeal representation uncovers the visceral body, necessitating a reanalysis of our bodily perceptions. This work has the potential to also engage issues of racial and social discrimination, gender identity, ever-expanding technological interfaces, and ways of seeing. Using biological measurements of the human body for the purpose of identification, biometrics combines communication, information and network processes to store bodies as codified information.[1]

Biometrics highlights a continuing desire to identify and categorize the subject within a social order. Communications and media scholars such as Shoshanna Magnet, Kelly Gates and Btihaj Ajana, note the problematic nature of biometrics that makes the body, broken into parts, reproducible and transmissible.[1,2,3] In this way, biometrics reifies the subject as a concrete entity, and promotes what Donna Haraway has termed a culture of corporeal fetishism.[4] Focusing on facial recognition software, I will explore the cultural phenomenon of biometrics and reactions to the technology, privileging artworks as examples. This research examines artworks that explore the ways in which the face is being coded for surveying, classifying and categorizing information about the private person, and that discover means of resisting or questioning biometric control.

As a result of the rising culture of surveillance, various sites of our bodies have become commoditized, embedding semiotic practices into objective forms of information gathering and denying multiplicity of meaning and dynamism[5, 6]. Taking up Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the abstract machine of faciality[7], the face can be understood as an overcoded bodily zone in need of being reorganized away from a binary understanding of self and other. Biometrics further codifies the face by applying algorithmic patterns and concrete nodes of reference.

Failures of facial recognition software draw attention to the face as a shifting, adaptable biological entity. Surgical or cosmetic alterations of the face[9, 10], or masking and covering the face can also hide or modify signs of identity[11], allowing for the presentation of a different or new self. Masking the face, for example, reorganizes and relocates the face as a physical surface added to the body. In this way, the outer layer (mask) informs public identity, while the inner layer constitutes the private experience. Is the mask an additional redundancy, or a deterritorialization? The concept of the Body without Organs (BwO)[8], when used in conjunction with faciality, calls for us to further shake up the coagulation of subjectivity, toward a multiplicity of assemblages and potentialities.

As an artist, I am interested in determining a connection between the cultural phenomenon of biometric facial recognition and contemporary art practices of representations of the face. Referencing artists such as Gillian Wearing, David Altmejd and Ursula Johnson, this study will draw connections between art practices that involve the everyday negotiation of human life and the face-as-object. Analysing these practices through the lens of biometrics, the aim is to locate changing contemporary concerns surrounding privacy and publicness[12], the fluidity of identity and the face as reproducible[13]. In this way, this research intends to navigate the oscillation of publicness and privacy at the site of the face, and the role masking/covering plays within the performance of identity.

My research method involves both aesthetic analysis of the works of art and cultural analysis of the influences and effects of biometrics through the lens of contemporary art practices. As an interdisciplinary method, cultural analysis examines adaptations and changes that takes place within a cultural moment affected by new technologies of surveillance in which we are products and producers [14]. In parallel, an aesthetic analysis of artworks that resist fixed representations the face and identity have the potential to generate creative and critical responses to our current socio-cultural moment.

The interdisciplinarity of Deleuze and Guattari, as proponents of a revision of identity, subjectivity and representation, align with my intention to draw parallels across various fields of study, to generate research that might push beyond current assumptions of self and identity. A genealogy of biometrics can be traced to eugenics, composite photography, phrenology and physiognomy. Surveillance and tools of facial recognition are not new innovations, but the persistence of biometrics and the algorithmic determination of the face highlights a continuing desire to locate truth, exercise power[15] and objectify processes of identification[1]. Other potential avenues of research include masking rituals and identity, performance of identity in public and private, photography and scientific analysis of the face.

By analysing the relationship of contemporary art practices to a socio-cultural engagement with surveillance, this research has the potential not only to understand but to creatively resist or repurpose the impact of biometrics on identity formation, representations of identity within contemporary art and the public/private performance of identity.

Works Cited

1 Magnet, Soshana A. When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

2 Gates, Kelly A. “Introduction: Experimenting with the Face.” Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance. New York: New York University Press, 2011. 1-61. Print.

3 Ajana, Btihaj. “Biometrics: The Remediation of Measure.” Governing Through Biometrics: the Biopolitics of Identity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 21-46. Print.

4 Haraway, Donna J. “Gene: Maps and Portraits of Life Itself.” Modest_Witness @Second_Millennium. FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge, 1997. 131-172. Print.

5 Black, Daniel. “What Is A Face?” Body & Society. 17.4 (2011): 1-25. Web. 17 Sept 2014.

6 Rushton, Richard. “What Can a Face Do?: On Deleuze and Faces.” Cultural Critique. 51 (2002): 219-237. Web. 9 Sept 2014.

7 Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “Year Zero: Faciality.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 167-191. Print.

8 Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “November 28, 1947: How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 167-191. Print.

9 Bolter, Jay and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. Print.

10 Wegenstein, Bernadette. “Getting Under the Skin, or, How Faces Have Become Obsolete.” Configurations. 10:2 (2002): 221-259. Web. 17 Sept 2014.

11 Pollock, Daniel. “Masks and the Semiotics of Identity.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 1.3 (1995): 581-597. Web. 9 Sept 2014.

12 Warner, Michael. “Public and Private.” Publics and Counterpublics. Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2002. 21-63. Print.

13 “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, 2nd Version.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938. Ed. Walter Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Vol. 3. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006. 101-133. Print.

14 McGuigan, Jim. “Introduction – Cultural Analysis.” Cultural Analysis. London: Sage Publications, 2010. 1-7. Print.

15 Andrejevic, Mark. “Intelligence Glut: Policing, Security and Predictive Analytics.” InfoGlut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know. New York: Routledge, 2013. 19-41. Print.