The face is nothing less than the basis for all of human morality, according to French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, cited by Toke Lykkeberg, Candice Madey and Julia Rodrigues, the curators of Facetime at On Stellar Rays (through February 19). Since Levinas's death in 1995 the face has become more malleable through digital copying just as face time is increasingly mediated through cameras and screens. The curators ask how these changes have affected our responses to faces while underlining certain constants—like how easily a pair of windows and a door on a building's façade become eyes and a mouth.
Such cutesy architectural anthropomorphism is the central motif in Rosalind Nashashibi's short 16mm film "Eyeballing" (2005), but its other main feature is footage of NYPD officers milling about the entrance to the First Precinct police station. The two components' connection remains ambiguous, but the police station clips underline the subject of surveillance, which recurs in several other artists' works. The most engaging of these appropriately takes the form of that medium we now most closely associate with faces: a website. In "How to Hide from Machines - The perilous glamour of life under surveillance" (2010), DIS Magazine and Adam Harvey offer makeup and hairstyling tips for fooling facial recognition software. Mostly this involves concealing distinctive parts of the face like the area around the bridge of your nose. Control of one's likeness in the digital arena pits sophisticated programs against absurdly camouflaged users.
The French street artist Zevs turns this impulse to make faces illegible to technology on its head in his Visual Violations series, printing on aluminum photographs of famous portraits taken with a flash. So an iconic portrait of Thomas Edison holding a lightbulb appears faded at its center, the glare from the camera's flash ironically concealing the photograph that remains recognizable due to its frequent reproduction. Much like the conspicuous facial recognition system-fooling fashions proposed by DIS and Harvey, Zevs' faceless photographs call attention to what's missing.
These slippages between digital and analogue faces are another popular strategy. Daniel Gordon's photograph of a sculpture made from pixelated printed photographs, "Blue Eye" (2011), evokes Cubist collage by way of DIY sculpture. Its visibly glued-together fragments of digital prints coalesce into a nearly abstract head. One of the exhibition's most confounding works also involves the conversion of digital images into three-dimensional objects. In Debo Eilers's mixed-media sculpture "Screengrab" (2009) thumbnail-sized images resembling video chat interlocutors appear in an image of a computer desktop that's been printed, torn in half, crumpled and suspended amidst a jumble of clear plastic tubes. This representation of a recent and widely practiced form of disembodied face time, like the art historical references in nearby works by Zevs and Odires Mlászho, reaffirms the ideas espoused by Levinas: that faces remain a fundamental component of human perception, no matter how technologically disfigured.
(Images courtesy Rosalind Nashashibi and Tulips & Roses, Brussels; On Stellar Rays, New York)