Masks have become part of our daily lives since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the now-ubiquitous garments keep us safe from the virus, covering the face also tends to make human expression more difficult.
To address the urgency of expression in a period of oppression and violence, LA-based designer Behnaz Farahi created a "conscious" mask that moves, learns, and communicates with other masks using Morse code. The project imagines a future in which our clothing can sense and respond to those around us—and even offer novel strategies for resistance.
Farahi came up with the idea for the project last summer while visiting her family in Iran. She became intrigued by the neqāb, a traditional mask worn by Bandari women near the Persian Gulf.
“I wondered how their emotions could be expressed and whether their opinions could be expressed through non-verbal communication," Farahi told Motherboard, in Farsi. "It all started from there.”
Through microcontrollers and actuators, the AI system allows the 18 eyes of the mask to blink and learn from one another. Each mask also gathers biometric information by tracking the opening of the wearer’s eyelids in real-time. Using machine learning, it records, analyzes, and learns from the movement of the opposite mask. This information controls the speed of the blinking actuators, generating sentences in Morse code in a series of blinks. The next mask receives sentences and responds, creating a haunting landscape of unspoken words.
For centuries, women in Southern Iran have worn neqāb, which only reveal their eyes. The origins of the neqāb are unclear, but it is said that at one point during the Portuguese colonial rule, it protected the wearer from the leery eyes of slave masters. Farahi’s mask subverts the “wink” of the sexual predator into an unspoken language to protect women from the advances of perpetrators.
“They are the beginning of the development of non-verbal communication between the masks and the body of the wearers,” Farahi said. Part of this is inspired by a Facebook experiment in which two AI bots developed their own language and undermined the researchers’ ability to monitor their communication. The project also draws inspiration from the footage of an American soldier who blinked the word "TORTURE" using Morse code during his captivity in Vietnam, and the story of women who used code words to report domestic abuse during the coronavirus lockdown.
For nearly a decade, Farahi has used the lens of new technology to reimagine clothing, combining sensory technologies such as brain-computer interfaces with digital fabrication such as computational design and 3D printing. For this project, she says she is interested in addressing the emotions and expressions of mask wearers—at a time when much of the micro and macro-expressions are missing in daily communications.
Since they start learning from the same source text, Farahi says her masks are able to collaboratively develop a new language, and could eventually communicate anything. For now, they recite an excerpt from “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, an article written by the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak. The piece explores whether the colonized people (subaltern) can have a voice in the face of oppression.
Although most of her designs are fully functional, Farahi has no plans to mass-produce any of them at the moment. “I am interested in the critical speculation role of design which allows conversation and sparks imaginations,” Farahi said. This is timely as the same countries that have banned neqāb are now embracing masks, reigniting the debate about discrimination, oppression, and the intersectionality of feminism. “Much of the feminist discourse right now is informed by the Western thought, from the Eurocentric woman’s perspective,” Farahi added. “It should include People of Color, so the non-white, non-Western feminists can be heard.”
Farahi sees her work as a vehicle to address social and political issues, but she also believes the current pandemic has paved the way for wearable technologies—not as a luxury, but as a way to enhance physical, cognitive, and emotional intelligence.
“Imagine if you had a wristband that would take your temperature and analyze the behavior of your body to see if you have coronavirus,” she said. “Even the existence of this virus was once thought of something from a dystopian future. Now, it’s our reality.”