Tony Oursler has long offered moving-image installations that separate video from the flat screen to map projections onto sculptural forms. A new suite of work, produced for his exhibition “template/variant/friend/stranger,” complicates Oursler’s investigation of the immersive video environment by addressing some of the aesthetic repercussions of facial-recognition technology. He has moved from phantasmagoria to physiognomy. Four parallel studies occupied the gallery’s two floors: freestanding and wall-mounted sculptures were shown at street level, and a video projection alongside framed drawings in the basement (all works 2014). The works were united by a concern with how the face is constructed by technologies of surveillance, and how those in turn are rooted in histories of art.
Oursler has researched eigenfaces (the vector matrices used by computers to identify a human face) and the facial-recognition technologies employed by police to find criminals and by advertising companies to target ads. In a set of wall-hung aluminum sculptures, Oursler flattens the human face into lattices of eigen-coordinates with lines and dots. With names like MUG, SUS and ID, these cyborg visages have holes revealing iPad videos for mouths and eyes. Downstairs, 150 shimmering eigenfaces were sequentially projected onto GEN, a flat wooden head that loomed floor to ceiling.
In 1976 Rosalind Krauss argued that narcissism was inherent to video as a medium. If assumptions about this pathology of the screen have been difficult to shake, especially during the rise of the selfie, Oursler has offered a more interesting twist: the Narcissus of video is not us, but the eye of big data. A group of mounted photographs—VAC, VIE, NUM and so on—stand nearly nine feet tall, with exposed entrails of wood and monitors, expressing surveillance’s contamination of identity with power structures as represented in the face. Big Brother does not just watch us from afar but integrates himself into our self-image. The lattices overlaid on the portraits recall renderings of the golden mean, as if the eigenface algorithm were a clumsy replacement for the divine. Yet the works remain heavy and frank, reminding us that this is a battleground.
All of this could risk being abrasive—we know we’re being watched, but it’s hard to know what to do about it—were it not for the exhibition’s reconciliatory gesture: placing facial-recognition technology in a broader timeline of technologies of representation. The final room contained mixed-medium works that group drawings of ordinary people, old-time celebrities, animals and devils with eigen lattices. The delicate, practiced draftsmanship of these works reminds us that the activity of mapping and constructing the face is not new. The process has been carried out throughout history, under the dominant regimes and with the common tools of representation. These tools—whether the pencil or a facial-recognition program—operate the same truth: the viewer is always also the viewed.