Current research within the digital humanities has difficulties coming up with strategies for dealing with the issues raised by biometric technologies. This paper pays particular attention to the biometric masks made by art activist Zach Blas. Drawing on Halberstams continuation on Foucault’s concept naïve knowledges, I argue that Blas contributes with knowledge of great value to the overall research field.1
Biometrics is a group of technologies that scan biological characteristics in order to verify the identity of a human being (Pugliese 8). This could be faces, as I will be focusing on here, but it could also be fingerprints, gait, brain activity etc. Face biometrics visualize either as a biometric template or as an altering of the face (e.g. cute doll eyes). I define this aesthetic expression a biometric mask, emphasizing the difference between biometric identities and their subjects.
Biometrics can be found at borders, in CCTV surveillance and airports, but many are in touch with biometrics on a daily basis through social media such as Instagram, Snapchat and Messenger. As we process our faces in these social media with seemingly innocent beauty effects, generating doll eyes or magically transforming our faces in Hollywood style, we often don’t think about the underlying apparatus we provide with intimate data. In this paper I crack open the biometric mask by using three tools: introducing a current example of how biometrics discriminate, digging into the history of the biometric mask and looking to a contemporary art-activist processing of biometrics.
A physiognomic renaissance: revealing the real face of biometric masks
Biometric masks are made of a somewhat obscure material. Since it has a digital infrastructure, the components and workings of the biometric mask are not perceivable to the human eye. As such the fabric, the thread and stitching of the mask is invisible, and so it is unclear how it is made and what it is made of. Still, it leaves visible marks on our culture. Take this biometric mask:
In January 2017 FaceApp was released. The app can alter your face in ways that make you look more feminine, masculine etc. During the spring a debate began evolving concerning the so called “Hot”-filter (Cresci; McGoogan). When applying this filter, the app brightened the skin and enlarged the eyes. I have chosen the example above because it seems like a glitch. Looking to other examples following the #faceapp on Twitter, the app would normally generate a biometric mask that blends into the original face. In this particular case though the glitch open a small crack in the surface of biometrics, through which a very telling biometric mask pops up. What pushes forward and covers the face of the user entirely is the inner operations of the biometric technology. The algorithms have momentarily manifested themselves, visualizing a highly normative body politics running through the threads of FaceApp’s biometric masks. A politics that apparently values white faces hot and others not.
This mask reveals the real face of biometrics. Biometric glitches and failures often occur, when subjects deferring from a normative white body ideal present themselves to the technology, rendering them unbiometrifiable (Magnet 5). As Magnet writes:
Given the long list of reasons why a biometric scanner might fail, it seems that these technologies work best for blue-eyed males with good eyesight and no disabilities, neither too young nor too old, a Goldilocks subject who is “jussstright” (31).
Being confronted with the invisible yet obviously white ideologies of the biometric mask as a non-white subject can be an extremely unpleasant experience in itself. Additionally, by rendering certain subjects “not there” biometrics can deprive the unbiometrifiables of their subject status and cause that they are temporarily retained in airports, at borders etc. It might even register certain subjects as “terrorist faces” (Gates; Lyon).
Because of this, getting a biometric mask can quickly turn into being a claustrophobic experience, which is visualized by Blas in his artwork fittingly titled Face Cages (2013-16):
Sticking to the face; attaching stereotypic value to it, overwriting it with normatively structured cultural meaning or simply effacing its value entirely, the biometric mask might both insult and deprive its subject of its freedom of movement. By transforming the obscure fabric of the mask into a more solid material: metal, Blas points towards the mask as a reductive representation of a human being. The physical reproduction of the mask is, as he states, “basically stabbing [his] eyeballs” (Zach Blas, “Informatic Opacity” 51:55-52:05). There is a clash between the face and the mask; the identity and the biometric identity. By pointing this out, Blas both gives attention to the problematic sociocultural inequalities produced by biometrics and to the problematic logics inherent to the technologies that enact these inequalities.
The biometric mask is made of algorithmic threads, running through and determining the figure of the mask according to logics that can be traced back to western colonialism (Ajana; Gates; Magnet; Pugliese). Thus, the biometric masks of today echo analogue and highly discriminatory biometric masks of the 18th and 19th centuries. Scientists, artists and philosophers have been trying to map the relation between body and identity since antiquity (Freeland 119; Pugliese 36). This exact phenomenon has been characterized in the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari as the tradition of faciality (197). But from 1775 to 1778 the tradition of faciality was systematized as an actual science named physiognomy by theologian Lavater (Pugliese 36). Lavater produced analogue biometric masks that established a so called scientific relation between outer and inner character. This analogue biometric mask from 1797, for example, claimed that people with similar faces were to be valued both ugly and stupid (Wegenstein 10):
What emerges from this, is a duality in the biometric mask between obscurity and transparency. The biometric mask promises transparency – it presents the face as a portal, facilitating a direct insight into the soul of a subject – while actually covering the face with normatively structured cultural meaning. The physiognomic logic cultivated by analogue biometrics not only propagated an ideology of taking the face at face value. It also established a hierarchy of faces:
This example by the anatomist Camper put the face of what he termed “the African” at the bottom of a hierarchy, comparing it with an ape, and a male Caucasian face at the top, indicating a higher status. According to Pugliese such biometric masks were later used by slavery apologetics in the U.S. (33). Later, the biometrics of criminologist Lombroso and eugenicist Galton allowed for representing certain subjects as having criminal tendencies (Pugliese 51).Because of this history both Ajana and Pugliese define biometrics as biopolitical technologies.
By stating that biometric failure is an undesired event, researchers like Ajana, Magnet, Pugliese and Lyon seem to propose that being biometrifiable is a privilege, though historically being biometrifiable has never been a desirable situation. With Facial Weaponization Suite (2011-14) – the counterpart to Face Cages – Blas creates an artistic expression that can open up an interesting perspective on being unbiometrifiable.
What can come from engaging with biometric counter-masks?
Contrary to the face cages it is not possible to detect any faces behind the masks in Facial Weaponization Suite:
Furthermore, they look more organic and soft. They are colorful and almost kind of humorous, playful. And although they probably don’t fit perfectly, there is something much more spacious and inclusive about their shape. They have the exact opposite function of the face cages; they obscure the face not by encoding it with normatively organized cultural meaning but by shielding it from that cultural meaning to manifest itself at all.
In an accompanying video manifest called Facial Weaponization Communiqué, Blas claims that the first mask – the glossy, pink bubbly, candy floss-like one – can be used as protection against biometric identification. Evoking a political tradition of the mask – Anonymous, Pussy Riot, the Zapatistas and Black Bloc (Blas, FWC 06:28-06:52) – Blas investigates the potential of being unbiometrifiable and uses the counter-masks to exploit biometric failures rather than trying to fix them. Wearing this mask, a biometric face recognition technology would continually slide along the smooth surface of the mask; its curves and depths, its dead ends. It would search in vain for a face in the pink, non-signifying landscape. A scene illustrates the counter-masks in action:
While a green, thin square indicates a biometric identification, the lack of squares around the faces of the mask-wearing subjects seems to indicate that the biometric technology does not notice them. Yet the pink masks make them even more visible than the biometrified woman. There is something disquieting about their slow-motion stroll through the streets. In which city or airport would you not be asked to take the masks off? And keeping in mind that biometrics are able to identify subjects from so many other biological traits, the strategy of wearing a Fag Face mask seems clumsy and impractical.
So, what are we to do with these seemingly useless masks? At first sight they seem almost too cute to arm a potential revolt. Pugliese has described the glorification of unbiometrifiability as naïve and privileged (75), Monahan has described Blas’ art as fashionable and “inviting a playful dance with [surveillance]” (171) and De Vries has pointed out that Blas’ art inserts a reductive dichotomy between humans and machines (81). I am not arguing here that there is not something naïve and aestheticizing about Blas’ masks. What I am interested in is the value of stepping outside of the academically well-founded map of biometrics and onto unknown grounds – even if they seem naïve. Turning to Halberstams continuation on Foucault’s concept of naïve or subjugated knowledges (Foucault 7-8), I want to propose that we investigate what kind of knowledge is produced by Blas’ counter-masks. As Halberstam writes:
Indeed terms like serious and rigorous tend to be code words […] they signal a form of training and learning that confirms what is already known according to approved methods of knowing […] Training of any kind, in fact, is a way of refusing a kind of Benjaminian relation to knowing, a stroll down uncharted streets in the “wrong” direction […] I propose that instead the goal is to lose one’s way (6).
What could come from strolling along with the mask-wearing subjects? When considering the rapid propagation of biometrics and the consequent physiognomic renaissance, aesthetic expressions that create spaces for alternative gazes seem much needed. We are looking at new forms of networked biopolitics that once again feed on normative and discriminatory valuations of the human. We are looking at long rejected concepts of identity haunting and changing not only our faces, but our culture as well. Much research focus on the sociocultural inequalities that biometrics bring along – and for good reason. But the tendency towards proposing adjustments to biometric technologies does not solve the more pressing and fundamental problems of biopolitical control facilitated by them. Conversely it risks refining and consolidating such control.
Following Halberstam new knowledge can come from lingering in the naïve and the fallible, and so I propose that we let ourselves loose our way in Blas’ worlds for a while. I propose to play and follow through to the dead ends, to let ourselves dream recklessly, insisting on getting out of the physiognomic logic of face value. Instead of looking for a practical potential in these masks, we could consider them as aesthetic objects opening up a new realm that cultivates different logics and ways of relating. In this new and unknown ground, there is no face to turn to. There is nothing to be taken at face value. The counter-masks devalue the face, disturbing the physiognomic identity logic produced by biometrics. A temporary interruption that makes room for new logics to enter the mind. This disturbance may be more of an aesthetic than practical strategy for dealing with biometrics, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be political. Why not counteract the aesthetics of biometrics with an aesthetics of counter-biometrics insisting on alternative logics; other ways of relating than through faces, surfaces? This is an early stage of proposing researching in such anti-biometric aesthetics which I find paramount to rolling back the renaissance of physiognomy.
1. The same could be said of at least four additional art activists working with biometrics: Adam Harvey, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Sterlin Crispin and Leo Selvaggio.
Ajana, Btihaj. Governing Through Biometrics: The Biopolitics of Identity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Blas, Zach. Face Cages. 2013-2016. http://www.zachblas.info/works/face-cages/. Accessed 12 December 2017.
— Facial Weaponization Communiqué (FWC). 2011-2014. http://www.zachblas.info/works/facial-weaponization-suite/. Accessed 12 December 2017.
— Facial Weaponization Suite. 2011-2014. http://www.zachblas.info/works/facial-weaponization-suite/. Accessed 12 December 2017.
— “Informatic Opacity.” Conditions are Now in Transition: The Local, The Border, 23 November 2015, Goldsmiths Art, Goldsmiths College, London. Lecture published on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2AYoOyiF3g. Accessed 1 September 2017.
Cresci, Elena. “FaceApp apologises for ‘racist’ filter that lightens users’ skintone.” The Guardian, 25 April 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/25/faceapp-apologises-for-racist-filter-which-lightens-users-skintone. Accessed 12 December 2017.
Crispin, Sterlin. Data Masks (Series). 2013-2015. http://www.sterlingcrispin.com/data-masks.html. Accessed 12 December 2017.
De Vries, Patricia. “Dazzles, Decoys, and Deities: The Janus Face of Anti-Facial Recognition Masks.” Journal of Media and Communication, Volume 8.1 (2017): 72-86.
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Dewey-Hagborg, Heather. Heather Dewey-Hagborg, 2009-2017, http://deweyhagborg.com. Accessed 12 December 2017.
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Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2011.
Harvey, Adam. ahprojects, 2004-2017, https://ahprojects.com/projects/. Accessed 12 December 2017.
Lyon, David. “Biometrics, Identification and Surveillance.” Bioethics, Volume 22.9 (2008): 499-508.
Magnet, Shoshana. When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity. Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2011.
McGoogan, Cara. “FaceApp: Viral selfie app in racism storm over ‘hot mode’ that lightens skin colour.” The Telegraph, 25 April 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2017/04/25/faceapp-viral-selfie-app-racism-storm-hot-mode-lightens-skin/. Accessed 12 December 2017.
Monahan, Torin. “The Right to Hide? Anti-Surveillance Camouflage and the Aesthetization of Resistance.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Volume 12.2 (2015): 159-178.
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Selvaggio, Leo. Leonardo Selvaggio: The URME Hack Me Kit, 2016, http://leoselvaggio.com. Accessed 12 December 2017.
Wegenstein, Bernadette. The Cosmetic Gaze: Body, Modifications and the Construction of Beauty. Cambridge, London: The MIT Press, 2012.