'I’ve always been interested in Big Brother and the craziness around surveillance since the beginning of the very first cameras that were brought into play,' says Tony Oursler, referring to London’s early CCTV network, known as the Ring of Steel. 'As a media artist I was very interested in the poetics of that and the way it collapsed space and the way it shifted power so it was always on my radar.'
An avid reader of science journals, the New York-based artist began closely following the upswing in facial recognition technology across the economic and security apparatus, from the first mugshots to Facebook’s DeepFace, one of many commercial technologies that may one day be used to geo-locate people in order to advertise and sell things to them at a level of micro-triangulation that would make Orwell’s 1984 seem tame.
'It goes back to phrenology and even medieval times, when people were trying to codify the face and connect it to meaning in various ways, of course erroneously, but in my mind they all exist within this same impulse to index humanity and understand ourselves through portraiture,' he explains. Oursler is doing just that (while polemicising the very nature of such efforts) with 'PriV%te' – his latest multimedia extravaganza at Lehmann Maupin’s Hong Kong gallery.
The exhibition is comprised of six 4-ft-tall painted aluminium faces – and one 10-ft inkjet-printed wooden visage – that form 'primitive masks' articulated by a 'beautiful variety' of connected data points. These points are backlit by LED screens (with eyes and mouths that blink and talk) and sound elements (featuring the whispering voices of the watched uttering contemplative poems and doggerel about privacy, identity and personality) that combine to comment on the juxtaposition of the machine-made image and our natural composition as humans – and how the former can never wholly define the latter.
'There’s a paradox we have that these computer programs were designed for us, to serve us, but it could be argued that they’ve gone beyond our ability to comprehend or control what they’re doing,' says Oursler, who began looking at the schematic images of the facial recognition algorithms to tease out what points on the face the algorithms are reading. These cardinal points never move and include the corners of the eyes, corners of the mouth, the tip of the nose, cheekbones, and the perimeter of the face. By drawing connections between these points, Oursler is filtering surveillance data through the lens of portraiture to arrive at a series of haunting red, black, white, blue and gold-leafed faces — some amalgams, others fixed — that appear trapped behind this mapping matrix.
'They’re shuffling through all kinds of images and then they lock on to somebody and say this is the person, this is where they are, and I wanted to keep both of those aspects. We’re looking back at humanity through the parameters of this technology' explains Oursler, noting the titles (ur0; eXc; EUC%) are based on the ways that tech companies name their algorithms. 'I became obsessed with the history of hacking and the names they gave to their viruses were incredibly poetic neologisms – it’s just so much fun to see how these mathematical guys hack the language.'
For Oursler, the face is just the tip of the iceberg; he thinks the technology may offer new insights into what it means to be human. 'One day you’re going to have people’s bank accounts, education, travel, media preferences, porno preferences, their buying habits, medical reports,' he says. 'It brings up questions of privacy and if there’s no privacy for my kids, will there be a new marketing device which allows privacy to exist. I’m really thinking about that in my next work, the notion of selling privacy.'