About Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face
Zach Blas’s “collective masks” are created from the aggregated data of a group of people and then used in performances, public interventions, and video demonstrations such as Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face. The biometric data of several queer men generated the mask in this video, which the artist describes as “a response to scientific studies that link determining sexual orientation through rapid facial recognition techniques.” The work is part of the larger project Facial Weaponization Suite (2011–14), which protests the use of facial-recognition technology to disproportionately target certain sectors of society—particularly immigrants and racial, sexual, and religious minorities.
Male computer voice: Today, in our world of information capital and global empire, biometric control has emerged as a golden frontier for neoliberal governments. A multi-billion-dollar industry in security and marketing sectors, biometric companies produce devices like iris scans and facial recognition machines with the hopes of manufacturing the perfect automated identification tools that can successfully read a core identity off the body.
Biometric devices are becoming powerful weapons to control and police national borders and citizenship status, track and target a nation or company’s enemies and criminals, as well as to profile and parse various sectors of the public into potential risk categories, like activists. Biometrics also determine marketing strategies through standardized algorithmic processing of identification markers such as gender and race.
Female computer voice: Biometric technologies rely heavily on stable and normative conceptions of identity and thus, structural failures are encoded in biometrics that discriminate against race, class, gender, sex, and disability. For example, fingerprint devices often fail to scan the hands of Asian women and iris scans work poorly if an eye has cataracts. Biometric failure exposes the inequalities that emerge when normative categories are forced upon populations.
Male computer voice: Facial recognition technology has become a pervasive, popular device for biometric surveillance—a thriving, rapidly developing part of our new surveillance culture. Facial recognition techniques now range from algorithms that extract landmarks on faces, such as cheekbones, noses, eyes, and jaws, to 3-D programs that map the shape of a face, to various forms of skin texture analysis. Typically, faces are collected in databases to compare and search against for a variety of possible criminal activities. For example, in its 2000 presidential election, the Mexican government used facial recognition to prevent voter fraud. In 2001, Tampa Bay police used identific facial recognition software to search for criminals and terrorists during the Super Bowl, finding 19 people with pending arrest warrants.
Within the last year, Occupy activists and Afghan civilians have been the targets of massive biometric data gathering sweeps by US police and military forces. The ubiquity of facial recognition now spans from London’s massive CCTV network to the German Federal Criminal Police Office, Facebook’s facial recognition auto photo tagging, Apple’s iPhoto and iPhone, Google’s Picasa, US Homeland Security, and the US Department of State, which has the largest facial recognition system in the world at over 75 million photographs for visa processing. We also commonly experience facial recognition and detection now with our digital cameras that locate faces and even smiles.
Facial recognition has even ventured into the terrain of sexual orientation. The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology recently published a 2008 study conducted at Tufts University that tested people’s ability to identify homosexual men from photos of their faces. Ninety faces were shown to ninety participants against a white background. The faces were stripped of all markings and accessories, such as piercings and eyeglasses. Even hair was cropped, leaving participants with only the face.
Those tested proved remarkably accurate in their ability to recognize faces that had been classified as homosexual even when exposed to the face for only 50 milliseconds, which is not possible to process consciously. Even when a section of the face was shown, such as an eye or lips, participants still correctly identified the homosexual faces. A similar study recently emerged at the University of Washington in 2012.
What could be the benefits of proving it to the world that such a recognition apparatus exists? Does it not only further confirm and scientifically validate one of the processes of LGBTIQ stereotyping? Categories like fag face and gay face? It is easy enough to claim that these studies parse us into categories that will inevitably be used against us. It offers a visibility that will attempt to control, monitor, and police us.
In response to facial recognition technologies, we ask: What are the tactics and techniques for making our faces nonexistent? How do we flee this visibility into the fog of a queerness that refuses to be recognized?
Female computer voice: Today, there are numerous modulations of the queer politics centering around gaining visibility through recognition. Just think of current debates around same-sex marriage in the US. Such calls to visibility typically coincide with the desire for recognition from the state or a longing to be validated by our neoliberal order. But there is also another queer politics that could be said to be concerned with the non-recognizable. A politics that is anti-state and anti-recognition. Let’s call it a politics of escape. Escape not only expresses a desire to exit current regimes of control, but also to cultivate forms of living otherwise.
Male computer voice: We propose to start making faces our weapons. We can create and learn many faces and wear them interchangeably. A face is like being armed. Think of the female Algerian freedom fighters in the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. They break into occupied territory of the colonizers in part by wearing their oppressors’ faces. Or the Zapatistas who hide their faces so that they may be seen.
In response to these emerging studies that link successfully determining sexual orientation through rapid facial recognition techniques, we propose weaponizing the face through masks.
Female computer voice: In solidarity with Anonymous, Pussy Riot, and the Zapatistas, we embrace the power of the collective face. We make our faces common with a mask and become a faceless threat—the queer opaque. In the tradition of collective protest actions that evade individual recognition, like the black bloc, we have produced a collective Fag Face Mask that offers a mutated, alien face that cannot be read or parsed. Our Fag Face Mask, generated from the biometric facial data of many queer men’s faces, allows you to wear the faces of many with a single mask.
While facial detection claims that a homosexual, terrorist, criminal, undocumented immigrant, or activist can be recognized, simultaneously wearing the faces of many confuses the apparatus and makes you unrecognizable to it.
Male computer voice: Today, in our age of informatic capture, data-veillance, and recognition control, facelessness, escape, and becoming imperceptible are serious threats to the state and capitalism. Just consider the 1845 law that was resurrected by the NYPD in September 2011 against Occupy Wall Street that deemed two or more people wearing masks in public illegal unless a masquerade party was being thrown, or the mask legislation that is currently underway in Canada. The Fag Face Mask aims to make our faces nonexistent to any available algorithms.
This nonexistence produces its own autonomous visibilities and ways to find one another.
Female computer voice: Becoming nonexistent turns your face into a fog, and fog makes revolt possible.