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Sci-fi Visions Of Surveillance Tech Inform Tony Oursler's Spooky New Portraits

The renowned video artist's 'template/variant/friend/stranger' exhibition reflects ourselves through the technologies that surround us.

by Kevin Holmes
Feb 4 2015, 4:25pm

Installation view. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Walk into the Lisson Gallery off London's Edgware Road and you'll be greeted by rooms full of peering, uncanny masks, some of them recognizble as human faces, others distorted, reassembled abstractions with just an eye and mouth hanging there. Something's amiss.

These unusual portraits are part of American artist Tony Oursler's artist's first UK show in five years, template/variant/friend/stranger, that explores the human face as filtered through the aesthetics of surveillance. Using biometrics, and facial recognition to inform the works, the show looks at how our identities are being impacted by the vast collation of data by global security services.

The masks, or portraits, take different forms—one room is full of seven looming photographic faces, each etched with the geometric analysis of facial recognition software, with moving videos for their eyes and mouths.

Tony Oursler VAC, 2014 Wood, mounted photo print, monitors, media player and sound 266 x 199 x 58 cm © the artist; Courtesy, Lisson Gallery, London

"We created these machines to extend our desires," Oursler tells The Creators Project. "It seems like these days they're pulling away from us, aggregating enormous amounts of data, looking back at us and taking measure of their maker. So there we are, trapped in our own system again, humanity looking out of an algorithmic web."

As you walk around the gallery the portraits become more surreal. Metallic hoods with facial features cut out from stainless steel jar you with their artificiality. Downstairs, a frantic video projection of 150 algorithmically made eigenfaces—blurry, ghostly machine imaginings of the human face—which flash briskly on a head-shaped screen. 

"I stumbled across these creepy images on the internet and was intrigued by the notion of a sort of machine gaze," Oursler explains of the eigenfaces. "Constantly sifting, shuffling, combining features, viewing as indexical references within a database—eigenfaces seem to do that. My studio interfaced with Dr. Thomas Busey of the Department of Psychological and Brain Studies at Indiana University, and he and his students kindly rendered a group of images for us to use."

The Eigenfaces, Installation view. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

There's definitely a creepy element to the portraits, which Oursler says comes from our own apprehensiveness towards technologies—especially the biometric kind—and the encroachment on privacy they seem to demand in an increasingly paranoid world, a world that also asks us to be ready for new mixed-realities (virtual and non-virtual) wherein devices like Oculus and Microsoft's HoloLens will augment our lives and perceptions.

"The viewer is spooked by technology, I don't have to do that," explains Oursler. "There are many dark elements at work but simultaneously there are great creative and social leaps to be made. As we unlock those aspects I see a rosy future. But ask anyone who's been hacked or crashed out what it feels like. Catassing is a spooky state of mind." 

Tony Oursler SYC, 2014 Aluminium with ipads and sound 121.9 x 91.4 cm © the artist; Courtesy, Lisson Gallery, London

We're left trying to understand where these technologies are taking us and what kind of invasions we'll allow them. Artists and designers are already fighting back against surveillance tech with stealth fashions and Faraday cages for our phones, but how realistic is it to think that we'll actually adopt these countersurveillance measures into our lives? It all seems so sci-fi right now, too much like William Gibson novels. Could you see your mom rocking Adam Harvey's CV Dazzle look?

"As it turns out, science fiction is just as neurotic as we are," Oursler notes. "Phillip K Dick was correct about that: we are going to drag faults and human abstractions into the future. Perhaps these things are what makes us human and interesting to begin with. For the Lisson show, I made some video of camo-designs that are supposed to confuse facial recognition algorithms, people have been playing with this in clothing design and make up. It was projected with the eigenfaces as a kind of push back. One can imagine a whole industry built up around privacy and/or protecting these flaws. Maybe, subliminally, that's how all this technology is functioning right now." 

Tony Oursler ID, 2014 Aluminium with ipads, thermochromatic pigment and sound approx 101.6 x 76.2 cm © the artist; Courtesy, Lisson Gallery, London

Tony Oursler VIE, 2014 Wood, mounted photo print, monitors and media player 262 x 192 x 58 cm © the artist; Courtesy, Lisson Gallery, London

The artist dicusses facial recognition and identity in the modern age. Film by Laura Bushell.

Tony Oursler: template/variant/friend/stranger is on now through March 7, 2015, at Lisson Gallery in London.


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lisson gallery
Tony Oursler