[-empyre-] queer faces

Zach Blas zachblas at gmail.com
Fri Jun 8 08:32:00 EST 2012

Hi all--

I’m finally getting to issues of the faces and faciality, which is
something amanda and i are both interested in from queer media

for at least 7 years now, i’ve always wanted to do a project around
“fag face,” which is a phrase i heard quite a bit growing up in rural
town in west virginia. i was always struck by that comment--that
someone could look at your face and conclude that you’re gay. it was
always a phrase of harassment, never used as a way to forge a gay or
queer community.

within the last couple years, i’ve been really taken by research in
biometric facial recognition technologies. i knew there was some way
to think through fag face in relation to these biometric technologies.
and then i found an article in scientific american called “there’s
something queer about that face,” which outlined a study conducted at
tufts university where test subjects were shown cropped male faces
with no “distinguishing marks,” like piercings, tattoos, or
eyeglasses. the study concluded that test subjects were noticeably
successful in determining of a male face was gay or straight. studies
like this are continuing to emerge. a recent study at the university
of washington was just published in the new york times. these other
studies have also included women, and they have revealed that test
subjects have a much more difficult time determining if a female face
is gay or straight.

i am very curious about these test subjects. how can they separate
styles of the face--how faces express--from a biological deterministic
understanding of the face, that is, in these experiments, how do those
determining if a face is gay or straight parse cultural stereotypes,
instinct, and scientific observation.

these studies are striking to me in so many ways. initially, i wonder
what is the goal of such research? biometric facial recognition
technologies are developed around security, control, and
commercialization. the us military has recently gathered large amounts
of civilian data in afghanistan and other countries in the middle east
to aid in tracking potential terrorists. this biometric data is also
used to fill large databases to help locate suspected criminals in the
us and abroad. biometric facial technologies are also being used to
quantity expression and affect, to know whether a face is happy or
sad. such developments are spilling into dynamic and interactive

so where do these fag face / gaydar facial studies fit into this
biometric facial matrix?

many people laugh when i tell them about this research i’m doing. and
sure, it does sound ridiculous. but this drive to know the face, to
parse it and fully quantity it--be it sexual orientation or affective
expression--is part of a larger drive today that intersects with
militarization, neoliberalism, and globalization. kelly gates has
written an amazing book on this called “our biometric future.”

i have tentatively started working on a project roughly called fag
face / facial weaponization suite. right now, it’s put with my queer
technologies project but i think this work will eventually break off
from QT and become something else. i have a video and some articles on
the project available here:

video - http://www.queertechnologies.info/products/facial-weaponization-suite/
fag face - http://version.org/textuals/show/19
weapons for queer escape -
queer darkness (coming soon) - http://www.hbksaar.de/depletiondesign.html

currently, i am imagining a set of playful, performative, and artistic
devices to use to evade facial recognition detection. ultimately, once
these devices are configured, i’d like to collectively organize some
public inventions and performances--so if you’re interested, please
let me know and you can join me!

right now, i’ve settled on masks as an item in this facial
weaponization suite. i wanted to start with masks because they were
evocative to me in queer and feminist contexts. using the mask maybe
to hide but more to transform, to change, to become the other or
others. the mask as performative and celebratory. i’m thinking of
masks and faces in j18 protests, anonymous, and gloria anzaldua. i’m
starting with a fag face mask as a direct response to these recent gay
face studies. i’m taking biometric facial data from a set of
self-identified gay men. i’m bringing all that data together in 3d
modeling software and making a mask out of it. what you get is
something alien, abstract, and inhuman. (although, my current
prototype is a bit too alien ape.) the idea here is collectively
wearing the faces of many. if these studies claim to successfully
identify 1 gay male face, then by wearing 20 simultaneously you get
something unrecognizable.

i’m attracted to this idea of unrecognizability because i find it very
provocative and possibly controversial. i think these studies pose an
interesting question around the desire to become unrecognizable. and i
think this is somewhat of a queer desire. to mess with recognition, to
confuse it, to refuse identification from the state.

now, i’m really in the thick of this project, so i don’t have all the
answers or have it all figured out. i just going with a tendency here.
i see the connection between fag face, facial recognition, and
queerness. and i also see the connection between queerness and all the
work in political theory today around becoming imperceptible,
unrecognizable, etc.

amanda, in regards to deleuze and guattari, i think their idea of
fleeing the face is more about refusing recognition. for d&g, the face
is different from what they call head-matter. the face is someone
else’s interpretation of your head-matter. and they are resistant to
this because they want each face to maintain a singularity, an
irreducibility, which for them, maintains multiplicity (which they
prize over identity). perhaps in the wake of biometric facial
recognition and all that it implies, we might want to seriously think
about resisting certain readings of the face.

amanda, i don’t have a good answer for the racialized face, just as i
don’t have a good answer for fag face. i think part of the anonymous
dimension here is not forgetting or ignoring those aspects but reading
them differently, leaving them open, affirming their irreducibility
and embodied singularities. no doubt, this is a constant and
continuous struggle. and i’m not saying that by making masks we solve
the problem. but for me, mask-making can be a joyful collective
endeavor that politicizes us toward the next steps in resisting
neoliberal drives to calculate.

zach blas
artist & phd candidate
literature, information science + information studies, visual studies
duke university

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