On Chance and Face

By Tony Oursler
Published in ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum: Face to Face exhibition catalogue, Mar. 2, 2012


PAREIDOLIA The phenomenon of seeing faces and other images mistakenly is known as Pareidolia. Of Greek origin, the word is a combination of para, meaning alongside and in this context faulty or wrong, and eidos meaning image, form, shape. 

"You should look at certain walls stained with damp, or at stones of uneven colour. If you have to invent some backgrounds you will be able to see in these the likeness of divine landscapes, adorned with mountains, ruins, rocks, woods, great plains, hills and valleys in great variety; and then again you will see there battles and strange figures in violent action, expressions of faces and clothes and an infinity of things which you will be able to reduce to their complete and proper forms. In such walls the same thing happens as in the sound of bells, in whose stroke you may find every named word which you can imagine."
- Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting

The randomly positioned craters on the moon resolve into a face: the man in the moon. Mars too has a face in the Cydonia region. People tend to see faces in abstract, noisy, and grainy patterns such as stone, clouds, the more random the better. It is as if the brain tries to read the unreadable in the most familiar of ways. If one sees a face in the clouds it is an amusing occurrence but upon further inspection it is confusing and contradictory. First, you know it is a cloud but it is also an image of a face. To confuse things more the face has characteristics; it looks, for example, young, shy and slightly fearful. Of course it's just a cloud but why does it make me want to help and comfort it? Why is it upsetting to look at? This is not an acceptable mental state, perhaps it is tainted by contradictory shades of psychosis. To observe the personified cloud as it slowly distorts on the wind is to remain in that moment of confusion. Most of us would shut this thought pattern down quickly. Why did I see a face in the sky? I don't see people who are not there nor hear words that are unspoken. 

HOLLOW-MASK How did we arrive at the first mold of a face? Could it have been the result of a person falling face first into the muddy bank of a river? A cast of a face in positive is accurate to the detail, yet it seems moribund and lifeless. This could be because when we gaze upon a face we also gaze into it, the skin being radiant and reflective, slightly translucent. A face made from whatever material never seems to sit in space correctly. Perhaps ritual candles dripping on a corpse led to the production of death masks. Producing such a mask would be a two part process: first, casting a negative, and then filling the mold to get the positive. Eventually, during this process one discovers that looking at the negative form, the hollow-mask, can spark an optical illusion; the negative seems to jump into positive relief. Under test conditions, the hollow-mask cannot be distinguished from the positive face by most people. This is evidence of the bias of top-down perception. We are so conditioned to see a face as positive that when presented with negative visual elements the brain overrides actual optical clues and sees the hollow-mask inside out. Most people take the visual image and match it to a preconceived precept, with the exception of schizophrenics and people under the influence of drugs such as THC and LSD. The disorienting effects of these drugs, which can range from mild hallucinations to full Dali-like facial melting, somehow heightens the users' ability to break the hollow face illusion. It has been theorized that these conditions allow the brain to be flooded with extra information. We receive roughly 11 million bits of information from the world around us at any given time, yet we can only process approximately 200 bits at a time. The dilemma of the hollow-mask gives us a window into the possibility of other ways of our processing information. Which side of the mask are you on?

MICRO-EXPRESSION A face is only frozen when rendered in a sculpture, drawing or photograph. The strange rubbery-looking flesh mask known as the face is ever changing. Age and gravity pull and etch it over the long term. The face is a membrane forever mediating the flow of information in and out, controlling the environment as best it can, overtly and secretly. Do you trust that smile? Look again. Look carefully, your life may hang in the balance. Do the eyes match the expression of the mouth? Micro-expressions, easily detectable in slow motion replay, twitch across the visage in a fraction of a second. In 1966, in search of non-verbal communication, Haggard and Issacs studied slowed down film of patients in psychotherapy, and discovered micro-expressions lasting only 1/25 to 1/15 of a second. These expression are not easily perceived but can be used to decode true emotions and attempts at deceptions, blocks and masks happening subliminally. These fleeting expressions of impulse and control bubble uncontrollably to the surface of the face as though it is at war with its self.

In 1936 poet Antonin Artaud journeyed through Mexico on horseback. He repeatedly saw a man's head formed out of the cleft in a rock and pierced by rays of the sun. He became convinced that the rock formations in the landscape were full of images of the language, people, science and gods of the area. He saw these forms repeat time and again as he traveled on, convincing him that these were not the result of chance; he had discovered the mathematical secrets that governed the region.

...when the same pathetic forms appear, when the heads of familiar gods appear on the rocks, when the theme of death emanates from them, a death for which man obstinately bears the expense -- when the dismembered form of man is answered by the forms of gods that have always tortured him, become less obscure.
- Antonin Artaud, The Mountain of Signs

ADDICTED TO CHANGE We will never know what she would have looked like had she not have had the operation. She was sure that she did not want to have the same face anymore. She is happy to have abandoned that face and gained another. She wants to forget the old face and enjoy the new one. Her friends and relatives feel cast out of the order of time, they struggle to connect the old face and the memories associated with it to the new. They reject her, claiming she now looks monstrous.

CLOUDS Albertus Magnus charted images in stone and clouds. He believed that the creatures in clouds were perfect yet lifeless animal bodies. He believed they were connected in someway to the phenomenon of creatures and objects falling from the sky.

Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish; A vapor sometime like a bear or lion, A tower'd citadel, a pendent rock, a forked mountain, or blue promontory With tree upon't, that nod unto the world, And mock our eyes with air ...
- Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

Memory is collected in the cloud; it hangs over your head like a cartoon. Shuffle your feet and move this way and that but you can't escape the shower of digital information. You did not pay that bill on time, you have or have not had a communicable disease, a love of pop music, your last purchase was an electric cigarette. Your history follows you around although you would like to forget much of it and, worse, some of it is embarrassing. It makes you hyper-vigilant and resigned to the desires, patterns and limitations which constitute the person you see in the mirror. You are always on a stage performing for the government/ corporation. You long for the days when your memory was your own, your history shared with relevant persons and dispersed among associated locations. Your thoughts were once your own and now they are anticipated, deduced and rain down upon you.

SMILEY The smiley is a distinctly American pop culture icon originating from the mid 1900s. A graphic and stylized representation of a smiling human face, the happy face was utilized in various marketing schemes in the 1950s, but it wasn't until 1963 that commercial artist Harvey Ball created the iconic image most widely known today. Ball's version, a bright yellow circular face with dark, oval eyes and crease-ended smile, was originally created for a local State Mutual Life Assurance in Worcester, Massachusetts. Later the graphic was connected to the phrase "Have a nice day."

LIVING DEAD, DECEMBER 2008 Surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, USA, transplanted the face of a donor corpse to a live recipient. The secret operation was controversial because of the possibility of cosmetic abuses and the possibility of extreme distress to the patient if the procedure failed. Doctors justified this operation because the patient could not function in society, "She was called names. Children were afraid of her -- they were running away". The patient was never shown a photograph of the donor. Due to bone structure and surgery the new face will look like a blend of the face she was born with and the donor's.

EIGEN The machine is actually better at identifying a face than a human is. The machine can understand that you are unique. The machine has been taught to see you bit by bit and it knows the face fits within the schemata. It has quantified all possible feature combinations of the human face. It is making a mathematical tem- plate for all known variations of the human face. Eigen is a term used by David Hilbert meaning "own" or "peculiar to" to define a non-zero vector which, when a particular linear transformation is applied, may change in length but not direction. The eigenface developed by Sirovich and Kirby in 1987 became an important component of the early face identification systems; by turning the face into a two-dimensional gray scale of distinguishing features, then converting these images to assigned mathematical values and finally converting these to an eigenvector representing an eigenface. The face is no longer an image as we understand it but a visualized set of numbers. Once enrolled in this system each new eigenface is compared to templates. In this way we have an understanding of how the machine may see us, know us, find us. Early recognition systems could be easily tricked and confused. The face must be presented in ideal lighting conditions and straight ahead.

Facial Recognition Systems are ubiquitous and used at ATM machines and other public sites. Your face becomes a small bit of corporate and/or government property. Adam Harvey, designer and technologist with NYU's interactive Telecommunications Program, has begun reverse-engineering algorithms behind face detection to see if he could stop detection. He tested random patterns of high contrast makeup applied to faces which were then scanned by FRS machines. He found the above simple pat- terns caused the systems to fail; the painted face did not register as human.

I improvised a theory of automatic art: "Gentlemen, you recall the boy of the fairy tale who wanders into the forest and catches sight of the siren of the woods. She is as beautiful as the day, with emerald green hair, etc. As he draws near she turns her back, which resembles a tree trunk.

Clearly, the boy saw nothing but a tree trunk, and his lively imagination supplied the rest."

This has often happened to me.

- August Strindberg, New Directions in Art, or the Role of Chance in Artistic Creation

EYES SMILE The Greeks were known to have associated personal appearance and inner character. The most well-known work on the subject is a slim volume, Physiognomonics, ascribed to the school of Aristotle. Physiognomy, which means literally 'nature as interpreter', attempts to catalogue and ascribe meaning to various facial types. Gillaume Dechenne's On Localized Electrization and its Application to Pathology and Therapy, first published in 1855, showed photographic evidence of his use of electric shock to the muscles of the face to approximate expressions. He identified 13 primary emotions and believed the exploration of the link between outer emotions and inner states would help to decode the human soul. He discerned that a genuine smile not only used the muscles of the mouth but those surrounding the eyes as well. Such "true" smiles are known as Duchenne's smiles. Charles Darwin went on to consult Duchenne and use some of his photographs in his work, The Expression of the Emotions in Humans and Animals. Duchenne's student Charcot invited people to observe the mental patients at the Salpetriere Hospital, in a fusion of spectacle and science. Charcot's student at the time was Sigmund Freud.

OUT OF THE CORNER OF MY EYE By accident, Sean C. Murphy discovered that if normal photographs of faces, seen in peripheral vision, were flashed on a screen in a slow sequence, 'grotesque' distortion effect occurred. What is now referred to as the Flash Face Distortion Effect occurs when comparing a set of eye-aligned faces one after the other. According to Murphy, "relative encoding, or the peripheral comparison of one face to another", could explain the exaggeration of features. While taking the test, I noticed a collage-like effect, reminiscent of dada graphic, but more horrific. It is as if the brain sees the series of different stills faces as one moving face and is struggling to show changes of expression on that face. Due to the off-center positioning of the faces the brain has little information to interpret and in the process of filling in the details produces distortion. Or maybe the brain produces its own set of horrific caricatures to warn us of indeterminate activities that must be immediately attended too. Peripheral vision has long been the site of the uncanny. It's as if we find the limits of our perception coinciding with the perimeter of our fire light.

SCHIZOPHRENIC Now, here is what happened. When I became schizophrenic, sometime after, I can't remember exactly when I began seeing faces in things, like trees and clouds and in the matrial that the walls are made of. But it isn't a hallucination at all, given the time to show someone I could show them what I was seeing. Before I was schizophrenic this never happened. Now though, when I look at the clouds, either the entire thing or part of it makes the shape of a face, weird faces, and they are really there, once again not a hallucination, you could tell if it was. If you look closely enough at things, like trees in the dark of night in the street lights, there are faces in them, the shape of the trees, parts of them anyway form faces. Unfortunately, if my old self was visited by who I am today and my today self tried to show my old self these faces then I would've thought that I was crazy, I wouldn't have been able to see them. Something happened. And they are really there; it's just like those optical illusions where if you look at the white part of the picture it makes a completely different image than the black part which most people pay attention to at first. If you look at the clouds or whatever with the right mind, paying attention to the right portion of the cloud and paying attention to the right shades, just like the black and white optical illusions, they make faces a lot of the time. Now someone in their early stages of development will only see the black part of the picture so to speak, only see certain shades and only certain portions. It's a quite strange happening. Funny how the mind works isn't it? Somebody who is that way won't see them at all even though they are there, I used to be one of them so I know what it is like; you just don't see them. Go ahead, try it.
woops March 26, 2009, Schizophrenic Forum

THREE The patterns resolve into the three cardinal points of the face, the two eyes, level and equal in size, forming an inverted triangle with the mouth centered below. If the relationship between these points is modified more or less, in any direction, the face soon looses its faceness. In these new relationships the familiar features become alien. How did we evolve this particular configuration of organs near the fruit of consciousness? One can imagine alternatives: beautiful, humorous, monstrous.

CELEBRITY DOUBLE You can send a picture of yourself to this site and they will match you to your celebrity twin. This is an empowering activity and somehow shows that you are connected to good fortune. Movie stars are born in the right place at the right time with the correct facial ingredients. The star can be good looking, not too perfect, not so idealized that they alienate people. The perfect everyman or woman. And so the theories are spun in an attempt to define that special something in the winner of the fame lottery, the endlessly multiplied face on the silver screen. That could have been you if this or that had happened.

EMOTICONS An emoticon is a facial expression pictorially represented by a combination of punctuations, letters, and/or numbers, employed to accentuate or clarify interpretation of plain text. Emoticon is a portmanteau word of the English words "emotion" and "icon". Noted as far back as the mid 19th century, emoticons began simply as abbreviations; for instance, the use of the number 73 in Morse code to express "Love and kisses." However, contemporary understanding and usage of emoticons as expressions of emotion is traced back to Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University, when he posted to a computer science general board on September 19, 1982:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-) 
From: Scott E Fahlman

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: :-)

Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(

SHROUD Before 1353 the origins of the Shroud of Turin are foggy. Since that time the cloth has been worshipped, scorned, investigated, tested, photographed, etceteras. Acheiropoieta, image not made by man, this cloth bears an image of a man thought by many to be Jesus Christ. According to Didi-Huberman, "... calcinated shrouds in the end they display only the supposed---but exorbitant---privilege of having been touched by the divine. They are relics as much as icons. That is why a capacity to reveal has long been attributed to them, articles that generally present them- selves as simple cloths. That is why a capacity for apparition has been attributed to them, articles that offer an appearance that is literally as effaced as possible..."

MUG SHOT Alphonse Bertillon, director of photographic service of the Prefecture de Paris, developed the first scientific system for identifying criminals: Signaletic Anthropometrics. It suggested elaborate measurements of the body and face in conjunction with what would be known as the mug shot. Anthropometrics was adopted by police forces across the Western world, starting in 1888. The system was proved to be limited because the human error in measuring techniques resulted in confusing variations. Eventually, finger prints, blood type, DNA, would augment the mug shot in the apprehension of the criminal. False eyewitness identification accounts for most mistaken convictions. The face fleeting when preserved in the soft clay of memory. Fate is the only way to explain the falsely identified, arrested, prosecuted, and executed man.

UGLY! First we see an image of a burned man, mottled skin tones, approximated features, lacking in detail and covered with skin grafts from other parts of the body. Then we see a microcephalic gaping. Then an angry celebrity gesticulating. A few images so primitively retouched with Photoshop that they may fit into the category of caricature. A low-res JPEG of a man who is able to distort his face by extending his lips up over the lower half of his face. A man who has the strange cartoonish ability to push his eyes out of their sockets. A disorienting double exposure tattoo covering the entire face with satanic symbols. Looking at the pictures of these unfortunate men reflects upon the haphazard nature of beauty and ugliness.

ILLUSORY FACE A 2011 experiment at the University of California, San Diego, by Rieth, Lee, Liu, Tian and Huber, studied how the brain sees illusory faces and letters. It is the "first behavioral account of the visual template that observers likely used while experiencing illusory detection in these fMRI experiments." The fMRI is a machine which makes images of the brain working in real time. During the testing a person is asked to look at a random pattern of gray blobs and press a button when they see a face. By synchronizing the button and the random abstract images, coloration can be made between the images which were associated with the illusory faces. The team also studied illusory letters as well as faces. The conclusion drawn from the experiment was that faces can be seen across the entire visual field and that we see letters in the center of our vision. The illusory face triggers part of the brain that is used in pattern recognition - long thought to be important to the evolution of the species. Without it we would not learn from the stimuli around us. So keen is our ability to find patterns that it is more important to the species to make false positives than not.

Noise images for the experiment were created by combining dark blobs at random spatial positions. The randomly positioned blobs were two-dimensional Gaussian distributions with three different spatial standard deviations, resulting in three different blob sizes. Furthermore, the number of randomly positioned blobs varied inversely with their size. These three spatial scales were combined to create 480 different noise images that were 480 x 480 pixels in size. As viewed, these images subtended 14 deg. of visual angle horizontally and vertically. The same 480 noise images were used for all observers in all experiments except for the addition of an overlaid oval in Experiment 3. An additional 120 noise images were created for training.

PURE NOISE Random numbers can't be generated by a computer because all formulas for randomness executed by a machine are determinist, periodic and repeatable. These computer numbers are Pseudo-random numbers. True random number generators are based on a naturally occurring source such as the radioactive decay of an isotope or atmospheric noise interfaced with a computer. As far as science is capable of explaining these natural phenomena, at the moment of this writing, there is no discernible pattern in them. When scientists need a truly random set of numbers they rely on an interface with nature. Hardcore determinists dispute this arguing that everything is following a pattern since the Big Bang and humans have yet to figure out how to measure this behavior.

Budgen, L.M.; Live Coals; or, Faces from the Fire. L. Reeve & Co., London, 1967. 
Didi-Huberman, G.; Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art. The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 2005. 
Gombrich, E. H.; Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Prince- ton University Press, Princeton, 1960. 
Michell, J.; Simulacra: Faces and Figures in Nature. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1979.