By Jody Graf
In case you’re feeling a little too exposed these days, Adam Harvey has a plan for you. In his recent project How to Hide From Machines the artist demonstrates how, with a few swipes of facepaint or snips to your bangs, you too can escape the gaze of increasingly ubiquitous face-recognition technologies. “Ideally,” he writes in the preface to his piece, ”your face would become the anti-face, or inverse.”
Harvey, along with twelve other artists, is currently featured in FACETIME, a group exhibition on view at On Stellar Rays in the Lower East Side. Curated by Toke Lykkeberg and Julie Rodrigues, the show manages to cohesively address the complications of face-to-face contact in a moment when it exists in increasingly elusive and mutated forms.
The immediacy with which the title of the show conjures up people’s obsessive relationships with their iPhones speaks to the relevance of this project. What does “facetime” really even mean, or not mean, when the face of the “Other” (yes, the press release refers to Levinas…) can be constituted effortlessly through a Google image search or an iPhone app, conveniently emerging at your beck and call on the very screen in front of you? When I googled “facetime” as I began writing this piece, the Apple homepage popped up to tell me that with Facetime “callers will see even more: you in eye-popping 720p clarity.” Perfectly ironic.
Not exactly shocking: in almost all the works, this idea of “facetime” tends to arise in the form of a void or erasure in which the face of the “other” is present, but not really there. Maiken Bent’s sculptures of neon-colored pseudo-dominatrix ropes and riding gear hint at their absent subject. The flash in Zev’s series of photographs (of photographs) of famous personalities has washed out their faces completely, leaving a hazy void that is intriguingly ineffective as a manner of erasing their identities. And Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen’s video piece shows the artist reading a melodramatic letter that had been submitted anonymously to a newspaper’s advice column.
Especially striking is Debo Eiler’s Screengrab 2009 (2010). A screenshot of the artist’s desktop–layered with the all-too-familiar mess of Google image searches and Facebook profiles – has been printed out, crumpled, and pierced by shards of transparent jutting plastic. The top right hand corner of the computer screen coyly reads “4:20.” Rendering the 2-D screen into a three-dimensional object, the piece hints that to try to translate the experience of “facetime” into an analogue context might be to fracture it. Like trying to create something static of out smoke. At the same time, Screengrab demonstrates that this form of social interaction–and the particular kind of “looking” at faces that accompanies it–has an aesthetic of its own that can be codified.
In contrast to works in the exhibition in which faces are fractured, invisible, or arise through a kind of tromp-l’oeil effect, Aleksandra Domanovic’s Portrait (2011) unmistakably depicts the iconic former Yugoslav autocrat Tito. Composed of found portraits that have been turned into a digital 3-D bust and manipulated to make the features slightly more “feminine,” the visually striking image speaks to the discrepancy between the weight of a history we might attach to a face, and our ability to easily re-create or distort it. Here, the face is turned into a nebulous digital topography, one whose literal and emotional contours can be manipulated and redrawn from afar—Photoshop as a way of rewriting history.
Perhaps most literal in its dialogue with the idea of “facetime,” Adam Harvey’s How to Hide from Machines, a web-piece designed for DIS Magazine and shown on a laptop in the gallery setting, outlines a technique called CV Dazzle that thwarts face-recognition technologies. Scrolling down through the piece, you’re confronted by an overwhelming display of overlapping faces whose features are muted and distorted through various means—makeup, hair, Photoshop, etc. It’s a tongue-in-cheek vision of the day when make-up is used to erase, rather than enhance, the face. Harvey draws out the pleasure that comes from this erasure—an erasure that leaves one’s semblance of self intact while negating its traditional visual markers. It shows the extent to which the face, which has traditionally been the locus of identity, romance, and a sense of “uniqueness” (the portrait comes to mind in this gallery setting), has been transformed into a battleground where the struggle for power over recognition and control is played out. Total clarity, he seems to suggest, might not—despite our obsession with HD—be the winning solution.
If the digital screen at one point mediated human contact, FACETIME seems to posit the possibility that the screen has superceded physical proximity, making any distinct binary between “reality” and “unreality” irrelevant. While a sense of nostalgia is palpable, most of the works explore the (potentially dangerous) possibilities for the face as a kind of digital fetish, the other as a collection of pixels or visual markers that come in and out of focus. The show impresses by demonstrating the ease with which this social transformation has not only snuck into the subject matter of contemporary art, but has influenced our own relationships to our bodies. The gallery is, after all, its own highly regimented moment of “facetime.”