Michael J. Lyons
If physiognomic art and science are to bridge further, and not only represent but refine knowledge about face, then today’s artists and audience must gaze back into the black box, and cast the light of Diogenes on how media inform how we think about what we feel.
With the algorithmic age of computable emotions, an increasing number of digital artists base the form of their Internet or sculptural installation on Automated Facial Expression Analysis (AFEA), and its functionality achieved via the photographic documentation in face databases. These contemporary artists make visible a digital habit of thought that objectivates the human face into a plastic grotesque of grimacing extremis, and the self inside out into the universal or utilitarian. Yet, most AFEA systems – a term little clarified and much confused with facial recognition or biometrics – are “black box” frameworks. Introduced by the technological industry and scientific experts, such proprietary closed source algorithms veil the majority of program functionality input from available data output, hiding how it works from immediate observation by artist and audience. By problematizing Julius von Bismarck’s Public Face (2008-14) and its intermedial genealogies, I probe the extent to which AFEA represents the face and its expression of emotion from a technostalgic view that reduces scientific complexity, while informing how we think about what we feel today.