Tony Oursler has long offered moving-image installations that separate video from the flat screen to map projections onto sculptural forms. A new suite of work, produced for his exhibition “template/variant/friend/stranger,” complicates Oursler’s investigation of the immersive video environment by addressing some of the aesthetic repercussions of facial-recognition technology. He has moved from phantasmagoria to physiognomy. Four parallel studies occupied the gallery’s two floors: freestanding and wall-mounted sculptures were shown at street level, and a video projection alongside framed drawings in the basement (all works 2014). The works were united by a concern with how the face is constructed by technologies of surveillance, and how those in turn are rooted in histories of art.
Oursler has researched eigenfaces (the vector matrices used by computers to identify a human face) and the facial-recognition technologies employed by police to find criminals and by advertising companies to target ads. In a set of wall-hung aluminum sculptures, Oursler flattens the human face into lattices of eigen-coordinates with lines and dots. With names like MUG, SUS and ID, these cyborg visages have holes revealing iPad videos for mouths and eyes. Downstairs, 150 shimmering eigenfaces were sequentially projected onto GEN, a flat wooden head that loomed floor to ceiling.
In 1976 Rosalind Krauss argued that narcissism was inherent to video as a medium. If assumptions about this pathology of the screen have been difficult to shake, especially during the rise of the selfie, Oursler has offered a more interesting twist: the Narcissus of video is not us, but the eye of big data. A group of mounted photographs—VAC, VIE, NUM and so on—stand nearly nine feet tall, with exposed entrails of wood and monitors, expressing surveillance’s contamination of identity with power structures as represented in the face. Big Brother does not just watch us from afar but integrates himself into our self-image. The lattices overlaid on the portraits recall renderings of the golden mean, as if the eigenface algorithm were a clumsy replacement for the divine. Yet the works remain heavy and frank, reminding us that this is a battleground.
All of this could risk being abrasive—we know we’re being watched, but it’s hard to know what to do about it—were it not for the exhibition’s reconciliatory gesture: placing facial-recognition technology in a broader timeline of technologies of representation. The final room contained mixed-medium works that group drawings of ordinary people, old-time celebrities, animals and devils with eigen lattices. The delicate, practiced draftsmanship of these works reminds us that the activity of mapping and constructing the face is not new. The process has been carried out throughout history, under the dominant regimes and with the common tools of representation. These tools—whether the pencil or a facial-recognition program—operate the same truth: the viewer is always also the viewed.
To Tony Oursler’s credit, he is not resting on his laurels but pushing at the boundaries of what he has accomplished so far with video projection. To judge from the 14 works (all 2009) in “Cell Phones Diagrams Cigarettes Searches and Scratch Cards,” the results are mixed. The show was unfocused and desultory, but for one engrossing work that strikes a thrillingly ominous, desperate note.
Marlboro, Camel, Winston, Parliament, Salem, Marlboro Light, American Spirit is a cluster of 10 PVC tubes, ranging from 4 to 7 feet high, with images of gigantic smoldering cigarettes projected onto them. (Some smaller, similar works occupied the same gallery.) The butts quickly burn to the filter amid toppling ashes, then reconstitute themselves as the video runs in reverse—exquisite torture for an ex-smoker. Funny, accessible and paper-thin, the work is accompanied by the amplified hiss of burning cigarettes.
Audio is more integral to three works featuring thumb-size figures projected onto model-like homes. The tiny structures are open on one side, like dollhouses, and the performers’ images roam around them as if on a stage set, or in prison. In Vacuum or All Things with Cave, a man and a woman bicker over their possessions and their relationship, what they want and what they need. Oursler is hampered by his tedious subject matter: the spiritual malaise of the materially overburdened. The script also contains hints that the man is a ghost and the woman an extraterrestrial. The video goes on for some 30 minutes, but in a gallery context it feels much longer.
Oursler plays with scale, suggesting the distortion of priorities in consumer culture. Near this miniaturized domestic dystopia was Bedazzled, Set for Life, Funky $5, Mother’s Day, Welcome to Las Vegas. Projected from above, on overlapping slabs of aqua resin arranged on the floor, is a disheveled array of huge New York State lottery cards. Hands enter the frame, methodically scratching away to reveal losing numbers.
Dominating the center room was the show’s strangest and most successful work. With a looped projection 24 minutes long, Federal Reserve Note Five Dollars is an 8-foot-long likeness of a $5 bill in which the gaunt, heavy-lidded portrait of Lincoln speaks. The spliced-in mouth, alternately tight-lipped and toothy as if in the throes of a painful demise, utters elliptical warnings and intimations of calamity. The sound fades in and out, with barely audible passages, but it is effective rather than annoying, heightening the sense that the speaker veers from lucidity to delirium and back. “On what spot,” he laboriously asks, “where, exactly, was the first drop of blood spilled?” From beyond the grave, Lincoln questions whether Edwin M. Stanton’s famous words were “Now he belongs to the ages” or “to the angels.” Any parallel the script might suggest between our era and the Civil War—or any contrast between our greatest president and the recently departed one—is left tantalizingly unclear.
Photo above: View of Tony Oursler’s installation Marlboro, Camel, Winston, Parliament, Salem, Marlboro Light, American Spirit, 2009, 10 PVC tubes and video projection, from 50 to 83 inches tall; at Metro Pictures.