Scrutinising the Physiognomic Scrutiniser
This page looks at the 2008 interactive installation by Dutch artist Marnix de Nijs, the Physiognomic Scrutiniser. The first section investigates the interactive dimensions of the artwork, while the second attempts to place it within the context of contemporary installations that critique surveillance society. The final section reveals recent breakthroughs and concerns arising from the increasingly ubiquitous union of surveillance and biometric technologies.
The Physiognomic Scrutiniser, hereafter referred to as the ‘Scrutiniser’, was first exhibited at the 2008 Touch Me Festival in Zagreb, where visitors had to pass through the work to enter the exhibition space.
This immersive setup was no accident, as the Scrutiniser resembles a security gate in almost every sense. A barrier directs the visitor to a doorway beneath a mounted camera, which records the face and projects it onto an LCD monitor on the other side of the gate. Biometric face recognition software, developed by the Rotterdam V2_ Lab, detects the physiognomic features of the visitor’s face. But rather than correctly identify the user, the software makes a match from a database of 250 pre-selected persons – all infamous for committing controversial acts or social wrongs. The face of the ‘match’ is then broadcast beside the user’s face on the LCD monitor, while speakers on each side of the gate announce the morally defective actions of the database persona.
3 Dimensions of Interactivity
De Nijs’ Scrutiniser can be broken down using Dongyoung Sohn’s framework of the perceived experience of interactivity. Sohn’s model draws on the most notable dimensions of interactivity since the advent of computer-based interaction in the 90s. The first of these dimensions is sensory, referring to a work’s capacity to evoke a sense of place. As the Scrutiniser is immersive and the visitor must walk through the space to be recognised by the camera, their body becomes a part of the interface. In an interview with Ivana Hilj, de Nijs explains how this “raises awareness on the way our bodies are becoming increasingly transparent to surveillance and identification technologies”. Those who have already passed Scrutiniser security are able to both see the face match of the next user in line and hear all about their alleged misdemeanour, adding to their sensory experience.
The work also appoints the semantic dimension of interaction with individually tailored face ‘matches’. This is part of the spoof on security, as the match isn’t a personally relevant message so much as a loose physiognomic comparison. The interactivity isn’t acquired accidentally either, but through the mutual recognition of the medium and user – an important aspect of the semantic dimension. Since the artwork is reminiscent of security portals found in public spaces such as airports, shopping centres, sporting stadiums and tourist sites, the user has no trouble recognising the Scrutiniser medium.
Finally, the artwork has a regulated behavioural dimension. The behavioural dimension refers to the capacity of the user to ‘behaviourally engage’ with the work – it’s their level of control when communicating with the interactive medium. The balance of power is intentionally skewed here to make a statement. While the Scrutiniser is playful and somewhat humorous, the power of verdict rests with the machine rather than the man. The V2_ site explains, “even if the person is innocent, he is put in the position, whereby technology is passing judgement and we are all aware that technology has its own logic”. Apart from choosing to pass through the gate and pull a face, the user has no control over the outcome of the match and this can generate discomfort. The user is both physically and psychologically restricted by the barrier, gate and officious presence of the surveillance installation. Creating such “spatial traps for the body and mind, inside which both are forced to cope” is de Nijs’ trademark.
This stimulated experience of regulation is resonant with the increasingly controlled world in which we live. Google Earth, camera phones, reality television and security-obsessed states in a post 9/11 world are just a few factors which contribute to our “surveillance-saturated society” and make the Scrutiniser relevant to the here and now. Marnix de Nijs has said:
“As a contemporary artist I reflect on the world around me. The world we live in gets more and more defined by technology… (and) a good work of art for me is a work that represents aspects of this world in a critical manner”
What aspects of this world does the Scrutiniser represent? Olga Majcen, the curator of Kontejner at the Bureau of Contemporary Art Practice suggests that it is a reaction to the latest wave of the standardisation of society. She says,
“the world is too centralised and overregulated. Danger is eliminated in such a social system, security is maximised… (and) you pass so many check-ups, institutions and mechanisms of control that you actually become part of the social machine to the point where you even begin to exert the same control on others”.
Where did this ‘standardisation’ of society come from? The late 80s wave of globalisation following the demise of the Soviet Union did after all, allowed for freer flow of trade, finance and people across international borders. But in this increasingly border-free world, new rules and regulations are being imposed on what Ivana Hilj calls our “seemingly liberal, yet over-controlled society”. The past decade of politics has been dominated by terrorism discourse following the attacks of 9/11, which triggered US Congress to tighten border security with the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act in 2002. The Act called for machine-readable passports that store biometric data to be adopted internationally, and the International Civil Aviation Organisation to implemented these standards in 2004. Biometric passports are soon to be the norm, with current statistics predicting 90 percent of all passports will contain the chips within the next 5 years.
Transport authorities and shopping centres have also adopted similar biometric technologies to those used at airports. The RET, Rotterdam’s public transport authority, is already planning to test facial recognition technology on its trams. Cameras designed to recognise the faces of those banned from using the public transport system signal the driver when there is a match. “Soft” biometric video analysis systems are also currently being developed for Australian police. These would allow for individuals to be identified by their hair colour, estimated weight and skin tone from a database of video footage. While these technologies are developed in the name of reducing aggression in public spaces, the implications of surveillance on individual autonomy, privacy and identity are hotly debated.
The Art of Surveillance
Other interactive artists have taken up these concerns in recent years, exploring and critiquing the surveillance society through futuristic, experimental and humorous installations. They include but are not limited to: Christian Moeller, whose installation Mojo resembles a satellite that shines a spotlight on pedestrians walking through San Pedro, California; Camille Utterback, whose Abundance project tracks pedestrian movements and displays animated versions of the movements on the façade of a hall in San Jose; and Hasan Elahi, whose Orwell Project was conceived when the artist was black listed as a terrorist suspect on a flight home from Amsterdam. The online project tracks his whereabouts in real time by GPS and displays photos of his everyday activities on his website.
Marnix de Nijs’ Scrutiniser perhaps most closely resembles Steve Appleton’s 2007 interactive installation Facetime. The exhibition space Facetime also includes a camera, which records and projects the image of the viewer onto a mirror-like monitor. Face detection software simultaneously draws on a database of pre-selected images to display on other monitors around the room. This work is conceptually comparable to de Nijs’ 2009 Mirror Piece, which preserves the motif of surveillance that the Scrutiniser is renowned for, but also engages more deeply with the themes of self-reflection and identity. Mirror Piece has an updated version of the face recognition software used in Scrutiniser and projects the personas of contemporary celebrities instead of historically controversial figures. The 2011 installation 15 Minutes of Biometric Fame is the latest work in de Nijs’ line of biometric artworks. The camera is this time mounted on a dolly to add to the Hollywood theme of the work. The work also utilises a larger database, this time of 75,000 pre-selected personas and adds the image of the visitor to this database once they have been recorded.
The Future of Biometrics
These artists help us to visualise societies of the future. Their digital installations allow us to reimagine the relationship between man and machine as well as foresee potential glitches. These glitches include scenarios where biometrics are used for genetic profiling, data mining and privacy breaches. The combination of biometrics and data available from social networking sites adds to the privacy concerns. A 2011 Carnegie Mellon University study revealed that researchers were able to track down a person’s birth date, personal interests and their social security number just by using a photo of their face.
As the neoliberal techno-culture evolves and “individualised lifestyle choices are made from a never-ending array of possibilities offered by the market” , there is great potential for biometric technologies in the commercial sphere. A resort in Nevada is utilising face biometrics to customise advertising by detecting the age and sex of clients. Japan has already embraced face recognition technologies for advertising purposes, while brands like Kraft and Adidas are also looking into its use. While these emerging technologies offer great possibilities, they also carry with them ethical uncertainties. The Scrutiniser draws our attention to some of these by exploring both the control of society, and the way this control is increasingly mediated by technology. As we become accustomed to the collection of our fingerprints and retinal scans, the Scrutiniser reminds us to be wary of potential use and abuse of biometric data.
By Vedrana Music
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