By Xerxes Cook

Published in Purple Art, 2/9/15

Photography by Flo Kohl

TONY OURSLER‘s template/variant/friend/stranger exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in London explores his fascination with the evolution of facial recognition technology, and the ramifications of these tools’ increasing ubiquity in everyday life. Taking the form of an endlessly shifting projection of 150 algorithmically formed Eigen faces, an installation of seven large faces punctured by video screens of eyes and mouths in conversation with each other, and a series of paintings that defy facial recognition software, template/variant/friend/stranger invites the viewer “to glimpse themselves from another perspective, that of the machines we have recently created”. Here, XERXES COOK discusses with Oursler the hive mind, ALAN TURING‘s test for artificial intelligence, and visions of the singularity with the American artist. See Ourler’s new show template/variant/friend/stranger until March 7th at the Lisson Gallery, 27 Bell Street, London.

XERXES COOK – How much of this body of work is about how machines read human faces, or about how the audience read these renderings of how machines read human faces?

TONY OURSLER – Well that it’s in the end – we have created the machine. Those masks, those algorithmic designs are in a way constraining you and me, and we are looking out through them. So the sense is we’re being identified but by our own making. These [works] are kind of revealing an invisible mask, a new mask that we have made, which we are kind of peering out from and seeing ourselves basically.

XERXES COOK – And what kind of machines are we talking about here?

TONY OURSLER – These algorithms could be used in pretty much any machine with an optical interface, which could be anything from outdoor surveillance to something attached to a bank machine – I think there is kind of a shopping component and social component with people’s phones and their social media. So there is really no limit in where this could be used.

XERXES COOK – In the exhibition you’ve installed seven giant talking heads that take the form of Eigen faces with video screens for their eyes and mouths. They’re facing each other having a conversation, and to me it brought to mind a scenario of these computer generated identities living a half-life in the hive…

TONY OURSLER – I love that hive metaphor because they are also hybrids in the hive, amalgams of different people formed through the different ways the information about them has been sorted. That was part of the notion of these characters – that they [facial recognition databases] are sifting through miles of information, taking and scanning millions of facial features. So within the installation, some of the eyes are left blank, leaving a mirrored surface which reflects the viewer. In the sense it’s suggesting this notion of an identity being formed, so this sifting is almost like a metaphor for of what’s happening with information in general – it’s like being in real time described. Because we really don’t know what the ramifications of this are going to be – whether it’s going to end in schizophrenia or whether it’s just opening on to something new and idyllic. It’s probably something in between.

XERXES COOK – Do you see the body of work here relevant to the notion of singularity and if so do you have your own personal interpretation of it?

TONY OURSLER – Here’s my take on it, which comes from MASAHIRO MORI, the computer scientist from the 1960s with came up with the notion of The Uncanny ValleyThe Uncanny Vally is this notion of things that aren’t supposed to have animation being animated, and it was a big deal for FREUD because apparently this kind of rupture within material reality opens up on some other unconscious cascade of fears of other things which are separating what we see as reality. There’s a whole bunch of people at that time who think robotics are going to be replicas of humans, and they are going to look just like us and move around, and then they will replace us. Which is kind of a wonderful notion, it’s pretty paranoid too. At a certain point, we are going to be faced with a real replica of ourselves and this will be the real moment which has some connection to singularity.

XERXES COOK – How does this relate to ALAN TURING’s test for Artificial Intelligence, where the passmark is for a computer to convince a human it’s talking to another human?

TONY OURSLER – I’ve done a lot of research into ALAN TURING who believed you can take the brain and digitize it. He’s one of the first people to really say that as a mathematician. His idea came from a parlour game where you would ask someone behind a wall questions and you had to guess their gender. Which is kind of fantastic for TURING – he transcended gender. So then if you say that that kind of singularity has to do with the body and mind, then you have to reconfigure it for now, and really, it’s the Internet. Because what’s happened is that they are not rebuilding a person that’s going to be a robot. What they are really doing is making the hive or the meta mind and that’s what’s happening with the Internet. And as it gets more refined, that will be a reflection of us in that it recognise patterns of human behaviour in everything; indexes of images – so you have any kind of image that everybody ever wants to see. Every object anybody ever desired. Any sexual kink that anybody wants to have is indexed in there. So then you have this complete mirror.