Project for the Sao Paulo Bienal 31.
On my travels, I take pictures with my mobile phone, like we all do. I try to concentrate on places and buildings in my pictures, so the images are usually devoid of people, or so I thought. As soon as I plugged my phone into my computer, it automatically launched an application (iPhoto) that makes it easy to download and share these images on social media. The application also has a facial recognition software that allows one to tag people. When I was asked to tag the faces in my pictures, I was a bit surprised and curious to see what the application ‘meant’.
And there they were: dozens of people who have made it into my pictures, in spite of my precautions and my will to take images of empty cityscapes People I have never met, people I will never meet or see again, absolute strangers caught by the camera went about their daily lives, completely unaware of the lens that will hold them captive forever in a strange digital universe. Seeing them, watching their features, produced a deep feeling of alienation that took over me and that I couldn’t shake off. What aggravated this feeling was that sometimes the application will ‘miss’ someone – this happens quite often actually: two people walking side by side and I am asked to tag this one but not that one. Sometimes the facial recognition software would ‘mis-recognise’ a face, and I am asked to tag objects or strange parts of objects that the algorithms decided that they are faces of people, such as part of a car or a section of a facade with two windows; or sometimes, just ordinary-looking sections of a picture that are construed to be someone’s face. ‘Everything is face [visage] in a world of vision’, as Jean-François Lyotard pointed out.
These facial recognition algorithms are practically everywhere these days (in search engines for instance, or in more specialised security applications). As for the shortcomings I described above, one can very easily dismiss them as being caused by imperfections in the current software versions that we work with, and that in the future these bugs will be fixed, and we would have a perfect algorithm that can recognise a face, any face of anyone, anywhere and in any context. That might be true – however, and even though I am not a technical expert, I am certain that these ‘bugs’ are caused by the nature of the software itself, which means that it will probably not be possible to arrive at an algorithm that works seamlessly; I am certain that whenever we try to ‘translate’ something from our physical world – the world of quality sensory perceptions – to a hyper-technological world that is solely based on quantity, glitches like this are bound to happen. Glitches, abnormalities, singularities: caesuras in technology’s hyper-rational infinite and homogeneous space-time continuum, caesuras that precisely indicate the limits of what pretends to be limitless, and the irrationality imbedded in what is supposedly the most rational of all human constructs. In other times, mystics who would have sought to escape this flawed world they lived in, would have identified these moments as ‘moments of vision’, because they would create a rupture in the fabric of our world, giving one an insight into the ‘other’ world – a world that is not simply ‘beyond’ our world, but within it. ‘There is another world, and it is in this one’ as Paul Éluard put it.
Finally, the relationship between art, concepts and technology was never an easy one; it was never a set one either, especially considering that the terms of any possible equation between these three parameters keep on shifting and changing at different speeds all the time. What is frustrating, though, is the easiness with which certain debates about art arrive at very simple conclusions concerning its relationship to technology: that art can survive at a very low technological level and that advanced technology can only propagate kitsch mass-culture. I believe that recent events have proved how short-sighted these positions are – one example among many would be the Kafranbel banners and how they were propagated on social media, and the situations they created for the users of such media.