Gilt Cages

Image: Zach Blas’ Fag Face Mask, 2014

On Friday 22nd, I attended a talk by Lea Laura Michelsen, Aarhus University during which they outlined their current research, focussed on the aesthetic practice of Zach Blas. In this context, aesthetic practice can be understood as an artistic practice informed by research, and in turn, research methods informed by creative practice. Michelsen posits that by discussing Blas’ work as a strictly artistic practice, rather than acknowledge its epistemological and pedagogical elements, the political potential of Blas’ research and artistry is diminished. Michelsen argues that these practices are inextricably entangled.

Blas’ methods include epistemological research, fine art practice, collaborative workshops and discursive events. Arguably, his most well-known projects are embodied through a series of masks, which are exhibited in traditional gallery context as an art object, or through documentation of the masks being worn during performances and encounters. The masks serve dual purposes. The first being the obscuration the face, specifically to avoid the face being ‘seen’ and recorded as biometric data. The second is to encourage reflection of the politics of biometrics/metricisation, which are implicitly identified as problematic.

The series Face Cages uses the points created by biometric facial recognition software to create a grid-like mask. This is intended to make tangible the implicit racist, sexist and transphobic biases of these technologies. The masks are reminiscent of gilt cages, muzzles or scold’s bridle, a 16th century punitive device which binds the head and depresses the tongue to restrict speech. The series Facial Weaponization Suite creates homogenous masks for marginalized groups – for instance the ‘Fag Face Mask’ was made from the facial data of many queer faces in response to studies which link identifying sexual orientation with facial recognition techniques. Another mask explores the racisms of biometric technologies which cannot recognise dark skin tones. The masks subvert a reductionist classification of individuals to create a unity of resistance when worn during protest.

Critics of Blas criticise these series’ as aestheticizing resistance and protest and argue they reduce nuanced social issues without the alternative position being fully explored. Michelsen argues that this dismisses or ignores elements of his work which create an opening-up of conversations around ubiquitous technologies which otherwise may not take place, with humour and play. This combination of artistic, playful, collaborative practice and epistemological research in turn creates an opportunity for alternative futures and/or acts of resistance to be formulated.

This position raises a number of questions:

  • How much should an artist be expected to present a political, but also unbiased perspective.
  • To what extent can a researcher use creative methods, with the understanding that they cannot make curatorial or artistic licence.
  • Can artist-researchers be more accurately be described as aesthetic practice.
  • Are the political potentials increased/expanded when approached in such a way?
  • Is it possible to have such a practice without it being reduced to its constituent elements?

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