How can we occupy digital space? Can an individual make their presence known in the virtual world?
These are questions that sparked my interests in the digital identity and an individuals presence online. I have explored themes of identity, introspectivity and important social issues in my non-digital artworks and thus it seemed natural to explore these themes digitally. Cyberfeminism, a movement that began in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s that discussed the techno-utopian potentials of the internet through artworks, manifestos, writings etc. Cyberfeminists like the collective ‘VNS Matrix’, wanted to provide a female presence online, but also allow the internet to be a genderless space free from the power structures of the non-digital world. “The Cyberfeminist Manifesto Generator” was my first digital artwork that was directly inspired by cyberfeminism, and allowed me to better familiarize myself with the movement and its relevance today. Since the 90’s there have been several different approaches to Cyberfeminism, each ‘wave’/collective focusing on an issue they deemed most important. Most recently, Laboria Cuboniks a Xenofeminist collective published the ‘Xenofeminist Manifesto’, which they coined as “the politics of alienation”.
Xenofeminism is an updated version cyberfeminism for the 21st Century. This movement focuses on identity liberation, where the rules of gender, race, and other power structures do not apply. I collaborated with Goldsmiths third year Design and Cultural Studies students Gwendolin Barnard and Ana Meisel, and together we established 3rd Space . We are a collective that responds to XF and on the 15th of April we had our first exhibition, showcasing the works of 5 artists. The exhibition rotated around the XF motto, “if nature is unjust, change nature.”
Fig. 1: 3rd Space Exhibition, Self-Portrait 3
This motto provides an extremely interesting concept, as many justify their beliefs and actions based on what is natural and given. XF encourages individuals to change what is understood as ‘natural’ or ‘given’. For this 3rd Space exhibition my work explored identity and how this can transform from IRL to URL. I programmed a processing sketch in which my face was transformed by the glitches in the code. This gave the illusion that little organisms were moving on my face, creating a new digital ecosystem. The noise in my code also created a terrain like effect on my skin, further emphasizing this new digital environment.
These ideas informed what I would exhibit and investigate for Symbiosis. My aim was to create a new digital environment that would allow the audience to reclaim or recreate their identity digitally. The user should feel that they can transcend their human existence and become a new species in the digital environment created by the program. My finalized idea was to create a program which would allow the audience to take an image of themselves and this image would be implanted into a shape. This shape would then alter their appearance slightly using sin waves and the shape would be seen in the digital space in the program.
The program allows for the user to create a digital self portrait. Portraiture and self-portraiture has existed throughout the history of human existence, from the Neolithic cave drawings, to regal portraits of the monarchies, and now in the 21st century Facebook profile pictures. Portraiture is a display of how an individual is perceived from an outside perspective. Similarly a self portrait is a depiction of how the individual perceives themselves or how they want to be perceived. Portraits and self portraiture remain an intrinsic part of the documentation of human existence. However, the way in which portraiture is being used in the 21st Century perhaps transcends our understanding of this art form.
Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are two London-based contemporary artists who have exhibited internationally. Their works have been displayed in well-known galleries such as the Tate, the MoMa, the V&A, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw and many more. (“Broomberg & Chanarin.”, Bio) In February 2016, they released their book “Spirit is a Bone”, which contains a collection of digital portraits. The digital portraits were taken of Moscow citizens (including Pussy Riot member Yekaterina) using a Russian facial recognition system. It was developed to take 3D portraits of individuals for security and border control surveillance purposes. The technology is a state of the art facial recognition software that was developed to take portraits of an individual without their consent. (“Broomberg & Chanarin.”, Spirit Is a Bone) The software allows cameras to take images of an individual’s face in crowded public areas, such as on public transport, stadiums, concert halls, etc. The software is comprised of four lenses that create a full frontal image of the face without the user needing to make eye contact with the cameras. The program is advanced enough to track the position of the eyes and therefore take a full frontal image. The subject can be completely unaware of this process, and due to this is passive. The faces are stripped bare of shadows, make-up, disguises and even poise. (“Broomberg & Chanarin.”, Spirit Is a Bone)
This method of taking portraits strips the subject and leaves them powerless to the technology. This type of facial recognition technology is something that we often interact with unknowingly on a daily basis. The portraits are taken without the consent of the subject, and create a digital life/death mask of the individual. The facial recognition is able to recognize a face based on the unique measurements of the eyes, nose and mouth, and the distances between all three. The facial measurements of an individual are completely unique to them and are universally recognized.
These measurements are not just used by surveillance systems, but also by us as humans. When looking at a face we are immediately able to recognize whether the individual is happy, sad, attractive, unattractive, feminine or masculine. These measurements make a significant difference to the structure and appearance of the face.
Facial recognition and other surveillance systems are not the only use of these digital portraits. They can also be used for entertainment purposes, like the Snapchat filters that temporarily allow you to alter your identity and aesthetics. Our understanding of facial morphology however can also allow us to permanently change our identity.
Fig. 3: Snapchat facial recognition
Facial surgeon Dr. Spiegel is an expert in the field of facial feminization surgery, which is often associated with transgender surgery. This revolutionary surgery allows him to change the measurements of an individuals face. These changes alter the way in which we perceive someone’s gender. In this interview he discusses our perceptions of gender and identity based on the structures of the face and light. Simple changes to the face can strongly alter whether we perceive an individual as masculine or feminine.
Fig. 4: ‘The Changing Face of Transgender Surgery”
Although facial recognition technology could be said to trap us as individuals, surgeries like this alter our perceptions of what is permanent or natural. Facial feminization surgery allows an individual to permanently alter the unique measurements of their face and in this way permanently change their identity. In turn this changes their digital identity, as their bone structure and unique facial measurements have changed. This can inform our understanding of gender, and transform our perceptions of the face.
This research into facial morphology and the importance of the measurements of the face strongly informed my understanding of identity in the 21st century. In my artwork it became extremely important that when the user interacted they would be able to present themselves however they would like to. To achieve this I added a small adjustable light that allows the user to change the way the light hits their face in the images, and thus change the way they are perceived in the program. The program would then take this image and manipulate it once implanted in the program. Please see the demo below.
Fig. 5: SP0RE: Early Stages Demo
This sin wave was very important because it allowed for a transformation. Without this sin wave and noise the individual identity would not be altered in the artwork. The sin wave continuously transforms the measurements of the face and therefore the identity of the user. In this way a new organism or species is created. The closer the user got to the webcam the more extreme the facial manipulation would be. This shows the dependency of the artwork on the audience interaction. See below for the end result.
Fig. 6: SP0RE, Isabella C. Maund (29th April, 2016)
This program felt ambitious. This is because processing is more of a graphics program than a functional one. It was a learning curve, to say the least. I used processing because it is the program/language I am most familiar with. Although the code appears simple, lots of time was spent adjusting it until it was functioning correctly. The program itself works well and it does what I intended it to do.
At first my focus was on creating a shape. Initially wanted to create a blob like shape that mimicked the shape of bacteria.I started from scratch, beginning with building a grid. The images taken by the webcam would then be texture mapped square by square into this shape. Once happy with the shape, I added a sin wave and noise. These effects skewed the shape and the image.
Fig. 7: Initial Shape Inspiration
Initially, the build went well. Things were coming together, and I had a program that would allow me to take an image and implant it into a shape. This however was only a fraction of what I need to achieve. The main challenge was allowing the user to take multiple images and that these images would then be texture mapped to new shapes. Many strange things were happening, for example the camera was capturing my entire window rather than just what the webcam was picking up. This was resolved using PGraphics. I also had an issue where the program was taking multiple images rather than one, this is because I was using the function keyPressed. This meant that when the user pressed a key longer than the duration of a frame it would take multiple images. To overcome this I used keyReleased and a boolean on and off switch. This meant that when the user pressed and released the specified key, only one image would be taken.
Fig. 8: Code Process
I had further issues with saving the images. The program was functioning properly to an extent, but it was running too quickly. This meant that the program was trying to grab images before they had been saved. This meant that at certain points shapes would appear blank on the screen and would cause errors in the program. To resolve this issue an if statement was used where only when the program had reached 30 frames the shapeImage function would run. This meant that it gave the program time to save the image, and then use it within the shape.
Fig. 9: Code Example
I also had an issue with the shapes moving on the screen. It was very difficult to have them move and bounce independently on the screen. This is because the shapes are an array, and wanted to ‘stick’ together. To resolve this I had to create a move function, which used velocity to randomly translate the individuals shape and allow it to bounce on the boundaries of the screen.
In terms of UX design, the program has some simple features that inform the audience. For example, I used the filter invert to create a flash effect once the image had been saved. This replicated the photobooth effect and also was very functional because it added extra light to the face when a photo was being taken. I also added simple text instructions, inviting the user to take part in the artwork : “Press the space bar to take a selfie.”. I purposely used the word ‘selfie’ rather than image because I believed it would make users feel more at ease with interacting with the artwork.
I also added sound to the piece by streaming space sound effects from spotify. I think this elevated the piece, because it drew people in. It also worked well in the dark room as it created an eerie, sci-fi atmosphere. Thomson and Craighead shared that they felt the music created an almost therapeautic atmosphere. Perhaps this is another reason as to why the audience was so keen to interact.
Overall I was very happy with the reactions that I received on the opening night of the exhibition. I had around 300 images taken in the program, all of which were very different. When there were so many different people interacting with the piece it thrived. With so many individual floating faces a new digital ecosystem really did exist. In the future I would like to investigate these themes further and improve my programming abilities. This project really strengthened my understanding of processing and I feel very inspired the reception the piece got. It was also a very strange experience having so many people interact with my personal laptop. Once the exhibition was over, it felt as though my laptop belonged to the artwork, and no longer to me. This intimate interaction between creator and audience was a unique one.
Fig. 10: Interactions with “SP0RE” on Symbiosis Opening Night (28th April, 2016)
I saved the images from the opening night and was able to look through them once the exhibition had ended. When browsing through these images I was able to see all the different interactions and reactions people had to the piece. I think that this amount of interaction shows that the artwork was successful and highlights the fun elements of this artwork.
Fig. 11: Examples of Images captured, Symbiosis Opening Night (28th April, 2016)
Fig. 7: http://www.openprocessing.org/sketch/127376
Sound was streamed from Spotify, the music belongs to Hot Ideas 2014.