The human face is endlessly fascinating and it is not surprising that portraiture is one of the oldest and most popular genres in the visual arts. The story of Narcissus, who falls in love with his own image reflected in a pool, is the archetypal myth symbolising the human love affair with our own image. Like Narcissus looking at his own image in a pool of water, the portrait acts as a mirror held up to the human face. In today’s media saturated environment the archetypal mirror image is only one of many technologically mediated images of the human face that are now available to us. In addition to painted portraits and drawings, over the last 150 years new imaging and media technologies such as photography, video and digital media have initiated many new ways of representing the human face as a visual image. These different media forms mirror the human face in different ways and affect in very profound ways how we see and understand ourselves. They also play an important role in creating our sense of self and self-image.
A painted portrait does not just reflect, it also creatively transforms the image of the subject. Although it could be argued that the more faithful and naturalistic the ‘likeness’, the more successful the painting is in evoking the human subject it depicts, the painted portrait has an extraordinary amount of flexibility as a representational form throughout history, ranging from the extreme realism of Hans Holbein to the expressive distorted portraits of Oskar Kokoschka, the fractured Cubist images of Pablo Picasso, the magic realism of Frida Kahlo, and the emotive portraits of Francis Bacon.
New media imaging technologies such as photography, film and video opened up the genre of portraiture to a much wider public, making it possible for everyone – and not just the rich and famous – to gain access to durable images of themselves and their loved ones. Like the painted portrait, the photographic image also holds up a mirror to the human face and captures a durable and lasting image of its subject. However, with this new media mirror the reflected portrait image contains an actual physical imprint of the human subject making it a far more literal mirror that its painted predecessor. The photograph combines the permanence of the painted portrait with the ‘objective’ imprint of reality that the mirror image provides. Early photographic images in the mid- to late-19th century were frequently compared with the mirror image and were described as a “permanent mirror” or a “mirror with a memory”1. New imaging technologies have had a significant impact on the genre of portraiture. The advent of photography from the mid-nineteenth century onwards added a new sense of immediacy and realism, making it possible to capture and preserve a literal ‘trace image’ of the human subject. The ‘reality effect’ of photography also meant it was quickly adopted by scientists, bureaucrats and criminologists to analyse, document and categorise human individuals and populations. In addition the moving images of film and, more recently, video enable us to see the human face and form in motion adding a new temporal dimension to the portrait image.
In the 21st century new digital media technologies have continued to change the way we think about portraiture, identity and faces. New digital imaging technologies have given artists new and more powerful tools to transform and manipulate images of the human face. New digital media and communication technologies have also opened up new arenas for audience engagement and interaction. Today portraits proliferate not just in galleries and photo albums but also on mobile phones, computers and the web. Popular image sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr are becoming the 21st century’s new public galleries where previously private images are now distributed on a global scale. In her influential
1986 article “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” American art critic Rosalind Krauss suggested that narcissism was a defining feature of early video art and video installations.2 This narcissistic mirroring and exhibitionistic display of video is intensified even further in the digitally-networked global arena of the internet with its powerful capacity for display, voyeurism and surveillance.
Some of the artworks in Face to Face explore and critique the narcissistic longing for celebrity and the perfect face and body that is so much a part of our contemporary culture. Beauty, fame and celebrity have become an increasingly important facet of popular culture in our contemporary media-saturated culture where valorised identities are endlessly circulated for us to fantasise over and emulate. The impossibility of living up to these perfect media images and identities
is poignantly and humorously captured in Rachel Scott’s digital video Hot Not where the artist videos her reflection in a glass window as she dances and mimes to the soundtrack of the Pussycat Doll’s hit song “Don’t Cha.” As Scott dances we see the uncomfortable ‘gap’ between fantasy and reality growing as her performance, initially confident, slowly becomes less and less convincing as she starts to measure her own reflected image against the MTV perfection of the Pussycat Dolls’ singer-dancers. As she mouths the chorus refrain “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me”, we see her dissatisfaction mounting as she peers at her face and critically examines the flesh of her belly, hips and thighs before giving up the ‘fantasy’ of the performance altogether.
A performative element is also apparent in Angelica Mesiti’s video Heroes, but here digital special effects have been used to digitally copy and double the image of a young woman so that she performs for us alongside her reflected digital image. The young woman and her digital double are seen against a black background illuminated by jewelled beams of stage lighting and the video portrait is accompanied by the lush sounds of David Bowie’s 1970s hit Heroes.
As the young woman and her twinned image are caught in the glare of stage lighting, a virtual camera moves around her and her mirror image showing the audience multiple views and perspectives of her silent and pensive performance.
The glamorous lighting and evocative music hint at a yearning for public acknowledgement and the celebrity associated with gaining one’s fifteen minutes of fame – “… we can be heroes just for one day”.
The desire to create an idealised media-friendly identity that improves on the reality of the physical self has been greatly facilitated by the seamless transformations made possible by digital imaging technologies where images can be tweaked and edited at will. In computer-mediated online spaces such as chat rooms, games and virtual worlds we are also seeing the emergence of a new form of digital identity – the avatar – a cartoon-like pictorial representation. The online avatar’s appearance can be freely constructed to create an idealised or fantasy identity that is not limited by the specificities of the offline physical body. As Neal Stephenson, author of the cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, puts it:
“Your avatar can look any way you want it to up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis …” 3
The narcissistic lure of these digital avatars can be very seductive. In popular online virtual worlds like Second Life4 you can be whoever you want to be, or at least look like them. Modifying the visual appearance of your digital avatar is much easier and cheaper than plastic surgery and if you don’t like your new look you can easily change it. These new digital screen images offer access to identities that are not limited by the specificities of the individual’s physical offline self. Individuals can also maintain multiple identities or a ‘wardrobe’ of different identities that they can use in different games, virtual worlds and other online contexts.
Emil Goh’s MyCy explores the world of fantasy avatar identities in South Korea’s hugely popular online community Cyworld where members create and customize their own cartoon-like avatars and online environments. Goh’s series of portraits highlights the commonalities and discrepancies between online and offline identities showing us the twinned images of individuals’ real world selves in their actual bedrooms alongside their CyWorld avatar selves.
However, even when the digital portrait image is more recognisably human and realistic that these clearly fictitious avatar identities we can still not be entirely sure that it is what it seems. Unlike the conventional analogue photograph where ‘seeing is believing’, with the digital image we can no longer necessarily believe what we see. Digital media technologies can create images that are indistinguishable from conventional analogue photographs, film and video, thus calling into question the reality status of the image. We can no longer be sure that ‘seeing is believing’. The digital image combines the transformational interpretive possibilities of the representational forms of drawing and painting with the visual ‘reality effect’ that we have become accustomed to with the indexical images of photographs, film and video. Digital images present images that look real without necessarily having any direct referent in the physical world. In the words of French theorist Jean Baudrillard, they are simulacra, “… models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal”.5 Whether the digital image is created out of nothing – ex nihilo – or is the result of digital manipulation, its status as a direct copy of reality can no longer be assumed.
In the digital age, the computer-mediated screen is fast becoming our most important new media mirror reflecting a variety of different new and transformed images of the self. Unlike the traditional mirror and its photographic, cinematic and video analogues, with their straightforward reflection of what is in front of them, the reflections provided by the computer can be ‘refracted’ or altered to create a myriad of radically transformative effects. Artist and theorist David Rokeby describes interactive computer systems as ‘transforming mirrors’. As Rokeby describes it:
“… an interactive technology is a medium through which we communicate with ourselves – a mirror. The medium not only reflects back, but also refracts what it is given; what is returned is ourselves, transformed and processed. To the degree that the technology reflects ourselves back recognizably, it provides us with a self-image, a sense of self. To the degree that the technology transforms our image in the act of reflection, it provides us with a sense of the relations between this self and the experienced world.”6
While many of the images we see reflected on computer screens remediate or simulate realistic images of the self such as photographic or video images, as we have seen, with the digital image this direct link of image and referent may no longer apply. In the digital age, images of the self can be manipulated, transformed and mutated just as easily as any other digital image. The digital mirror reveals the radically transformative nature of digital technologies and their ability to seamlessly blend recognisable visual elements of the viewer with computer-generated mutations and distortions. Dynamic graphical effects controlled by computer algorithms can be applied to the viewer’s image in real time to create strange new digital reflections.
The plasticity of the digital image with its ability to be endlessly manipulated and transformed is particularly suited to the exploration of contemporary postmodern notions of identity as fluid, fragmented and multiple. In David Rosetzky’s digital video Without You faces transform and swap identities using a digital overlay-collaging technique where sections of each face are digitally peeled away to reveal new faces beneath them. Identities are momentarily frozen before breaking down in sections and being progressively replaced by a new facial identity. Adam Nash and Mami Yamanaka’s interactive digital installation In3Face also reveals a series of transitions between different faces, in this case between those of a mother, father and son. Audience members can interact with and manipulate this mutable digital portrait by moving the cursor over the face so that chunky blocks of pixels randomly change and are replaced by those from one of the three faces. As the pixel blocks change, the face becomes more and more of a composite, the features mixing and merging as fragments of the three faces form new identity hybrids.
The merging of ideas of genetic inheritance and digital reproduction is also explored in Anna Munster and Michele Barker’s The Love Machine which was inspired by the artists’ experience with digital photographic booths in Asia in the
late 1990s. In these booths couples could create ‘baby’ images that combined the images of both ‘parents’ along with digital modifications chosen from a variety of different gender, racial and facial feature presets which allow the ‘parents’ to create images of their chosen ‘designer children’. The composite photos shown in The Love Machine highlight the playful yet disturbing possibilities of what could happen if genetic identity and biological reproduction could be manipulated and transformed as easily as we can now transform and reproduce digital images.
The ease with which the digital image can be transformed via computer algorithms can also be seen in the digital morph. The magical shape-shifting of the digital morph allows images to seamlessly transform from face to face. Morphing visually represents a process of change and becoming rather than fixed and stable identity. The everyday transformation of faces that occurs as a result of processes such as aging, cosmetic changes (makeup and hairstyle) and the more radical changes that have become possible through plastic surgery enter a new realm with the digital morph which shows impossible transformations between gender, race, age and even species. Digital composites show the averaging or merging of different images in one still image. Just as with the morph, difference is eerily elided and erased as an average ‘universal’ or composite image emerges. The uncanniness of the morph and the composite image derives from the tension between our knowledge that the transformation we are witnessing is ‘impossible’ even as we are visually and imaginatively convinced by its compellingly real appearance.
In Denis Beaubois’ video work Constant we see a photo-realistic video image of a human face which slowly and fluidly morphs into different faces, changing age and race as it does so. The morph is so slow that the facial changes are barely perceptible from moment to moment but reveal profound changes over longer time periods. A number of source faces were used in the construction of Constant but it is impossible to tell which of the faces that emerge through the digital morph correspond to the ‘real’ faces and which are the ‘virtual’ in-betweens. The morph produces an endless series of ‘in-between’ identities as the morph transitions between the key reference images. While the key reference images may have direct referents in the real world, these in-between identities are pure digital fictions. Self and other, different races and ages all liquefy, as different faces slowly emerge from and subside into the image flux of the morph:
“As our physical double, the morph interrogates the dominant philosophies and fantasies that fix our embodied human being and constitute our identities as discrete and thus reminds us of our true instability: our physical flux, our lack of self-coincidence, our subatomic as well as subcutaneous existence that is always in motion and ever changing.”7
In these digital images we can also see resonances with some of the very earliest experiments in photography such as the early photographic composites of Francis Galton and Arthur Batut where they blended the faces of different photographic portraits to create ghostly composite images. Other digital imaging techniques follow in the trajectory of Eadweard Muybridge’s and Étienne-Jules Marey’s protocinematic time and motion studies in the late-nineteenth century which showed multiple frozen frames of human and animal movement.
In time and motion study, John Tonkin incorporates images of audience members by using a camera to capture a series of still image frames that are then projected as a dynamic visual timeline creating animated audience self-portraits. These animated self portraits are stored by the work so that gallery visitors can scroll back in time through their own images as well as those of earlier visitors. Tonkin’s work has resonances not only with the proto-cinematic work of Muybridge and
Marey but also with Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” 1912, the dynamic painted images of the Futurists such as Balla’s “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash,” 1912, and early music videos such as Amii Stewart’s “Knock on Wood”
and the Jackson 5’s “Don’t Stop ‘til you get Enough”.
Daniel Crook’s series of digital portraits uses a technique of temporal and spatial ‘slicing’ and manipulation to reveal different spatio-temporal views of his portrait subjects in a still digital image. Reminiscent of both Cubist painting and photomontage, with their fractured and multi-perspectival aesthetic, Crook’s work digitally slices and samples his subjects to reveal multiple spatial and temporal perspectives within a single image frame. We see different temporal moments spatially represented as slices juxtaposed together.
Digital editing, animation and artificial intelligence have also created the possibility for new forms of animated talking portraits. Unlike conventional portrait images that just sit on the wall, these portraits can ‘talk back’ to the audience. Anna Davis and Jason Gee’s Biohead Actualized uses a digitally-generated persona to engage the audience in an unprovoked conversation. Using a mashup of digitally animated images of ventriloquist dolls along with ‘found’ snatches of self-help dialogue, the artists literally put words into the mouths of their digitised creations, manipulating and animating their facial expressions to create humorous and uncanny animated personas. As audience members approach, these uncanny talking heads reveal their personal problems and insist on giving gallery visitors an unending diatribe of unsolicited advice.
While the conversational remarks of the ventriloquist dolls in Biohead Actualized are one-sided (the dolls cannot hear or respond to audience comments), Stelarc’s Prosthetic Head takes the idea of an animated conversational portrait a step further to create a genuine two-sided interaction with the audience. The Prosthetic Head is a giant projection of a three-dimensional digitally rendered and animated self portrait of the artist. Using embodied conversational agent (ECA) software based on Richard Wallace’s alicebot software8 the head can communicate in real-time, drawing intelligently on its extensive database of responses to personalise its interactions with audience members. Stelarc’s Prosthetic Head operates as a digital alter ego or prosthetic identity and is programmed with the artist’s own autobiographical information including a range of his life experiences and philosophical ideas. In the gallery installation, the head is projected in a darkened space with a keyboard positioned on a plinth so that members of the audience can type their questions. The head’s voice is generated by a text-to-speech synthesiser, its inhuman inflections giving the giant head’s responses a somewhat alien and unsettling quality which is intensified by the uncanniness of many of its animated facial expressions.
As can be seen in the different artworks in the Face to Face exhibition, digital technologies have revolutionised the genre of portraiture enabling new forms of representation, distribution and interaction. From digital prints to single channel digital video and interactive installations the artists in Face to Face show us new ways of seeing and thinking about portraiture and the human face. These artworks hold up a mirror to contemporary culture and society showing us a portrait of ourselves in the 21st century. In these portraits we see our contemporary narcissistic obsession with celebrity, youth and beauty, the astounding fluidity of digital image manipulation and transformation, our fascination with the power of science and digital technologies to analyse and transform the human image, and an emerging predilection for the creation of digital alter egos and fantasy identities.
When we look into today’s new digital mirrors, the selves we see are frequently shaped and enhanced by digital technologies. These new digital portrait images constitute far more profoundly illusory and malleable identities than the images reflected by of our previous media mirrors. As Frank Biocca comments:
“In the twentieth century we have made a successful transition from the sooty iron surfaces of the industrial revolution to the liquid smooth surfaces of computer graphics. On our computer monitors we may be just beginning to see a reflective surface that looks increasingly like a mirror. In the virtual world that exists on the other side of the mirror’s surface we can just barely make out the form of a body that looks like us, like another self. Like Narcissus looking into the pond, we are captured by the experience of this reflection of our bodies. But that reflected body looks increasingly like a cyborg.”9
1. W. A. Ewing, Face: The New Photographic Portrait. (London and New York: Thames and
Hudson, 2006, p.10).
2. Rosalind Krauss, Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism. In J. Hanhardt (Ed.), Video Culture:
A Critical Investigation (Layton, Utah: G.M. Smith Peregrine Smith Books in association with
Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1986, pp. 179-191).
3. Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (London: Bantam Books, 1993, pp. 33-34).
5. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and simulation (University of Ann Arbor: Michigan Press, 1994).
6. David Rokeby, “Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media” in Simon
Penny (Ed.), Critical issues in electronic media. (Albany: State University of New York Press,
7. Vivian Sobchack, (Ed.) Meta-morphing: visual transformation and the culture of quick-change
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p. xii.).
8 The alicebot software (www.alicebot.org) uses natural language artificial intelligence to
communicate with human interlocutors.
9. Frank Biocca, The Cyborg’s Dilemma: Progressive Embodiment in Virtual Environments.
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(2), 1997.
© Kathy Cleland 2008