The Facelessness of Tomorrow Begins Today / Hyperallergic

Facial Weaponization Suite: Mask – May 31, 2013, San Diego, CA (all images courtesy the artist)

Facial Weaponization Suite: Mask – May 31, 2013, San Diego, CA (all images courtesy the artist)

CHICAGO — It is impossible to go back to a world without biometrics and facial recognition tools, but it is not too late for a political act against the idea of allowing our faces to be scanned for the purpose of surveillance or informatic capture. In an age of selfies, apps like Grindr and Brenda and social networks with facial recognition tools galore, the second to last images of ourselves on the internet that we’ll own, before those of our bodies, will be of our faces. And so it would make sense that the media attempts to convince us that masked people are the enemies of the state, the perpetrators of political turmoil and unrest — those who don plastic molds over their faces while attending protest rallies, or wear knit caps or hoods over their heads when doing something as mundane as walking to the convenience store.

This is exactly what artist  Zach Blas’s project Facial Weaponization Suite digs into. Through community-focused workshops, Blas engages people who similarly disagree with the way our government surveils us, without our permission, by putting the mask back on, and morphing it into something utterly unrecognizable by biometrics technology and facial recognition tools. Good guys wear masks. Or, rather, guys who are instead interested in reaching beyond the dichotomies of “good/evil” or “safe/unsafe,” instead transcending the binary completely. We got in touch with Zach via internets.

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Alicia Eler: I think this conversation has to begin with a discussion of the word “queer.” Today “queer” is thought of as a pretty fluid term, with anyone on the spectrum defining it as they see fitbut let us not forget the feminist beginnings of the term. That said, I am wondering how you differentiate between the idea of “queer,” a new queerness, post-queer and queer futurities for yourself and in relation to your work? 

Zach Blas: Today, queer is popularly used as just another descriptor for an LGBT identity category, but historically, it is a concept—a practice—that extends far beyond that to a radical, non-normative, anti-capitalist politics of transgression, desire, experimentation and collectivity. I’m thinking of ACT UP and Queer Nation, for instance. This said, I find queerness most productive when approached as an aesthetic and political practice—not an identity category—that is passionately invested in resisting and subverting forces of normativity, standardization, and various attempts at control and domination that aim to subjugate minoritarian persons. That said, this queerness absolutely continues to engage struggles centered on class, gender, sexuality, and race—but also expands to attack other normalizing forces that make minoritarian persons vulnerable or subject to violence. Here, I’m thinking of various technologies, like biometrics and data-mining applications. A “new queerness” would directly combat such forces of standardization and normalization that are operating at a global, technical scale, which requires queerness to engage materiality beyond the human. I’m not suggesting that queerness has never done this before, but queerness’ conception of power is (often rightly) human centric; if the technical and nonhuman are truly brought to bear on queerness—and it is my opinion that the technical, nonhuman realm is where some of the most pressing political concerns of the contemporary era are located—queer politics will undoubtedly mutate. I see this move as crucial and necessary. We need to reconsider what cyberfeminism began teaching us in the 1990s.

If there is a “new queerness” now—or a “post-queerness,” (I’m usually resistant to using “post”), one aspect that interests me and plays out in my work is tensions and drives towards visibility and invisibility, recognition and illegibility. Certainly, an older queer politics was concerned with creating a coherent presence, a visibility, that was crucial for survival and existence. Yet, today, in light of global surveillance/datavaillance and other surreptitous forms of recognition-control, there is a burgeoning political investment in opacity, imperceptibility, and escape. You can think of queer critiques of gay marriage here, as refusals of the neoliberal recognition and visibility offered by the state to legitimate homosexuality. Or take Dean Spade’s transgender theory and activism that articulates a critical trans resistance that strives for a transformative justice that does not aim for state-based forms of recognition but something more utopian, even “impossible.” In queer theory, recent conceptualizations like Nicholas de Villiers’ queer opacity, Jack Halberstam’s queer darkness, and José Muñoz’s queer escape all gesture toward the illegible and nonrecognizable.

I am exploring a queerness that invests and takes seriously such refusals of recognition and visibility; here, queerness is an illegibility or opacity, a refusal that remakes visibility and regimes of recognition outside of standardization through speculative and utopian experimentation and fantasy. And perhaps this brings us to queer futurity: I find much of the so-called “anti-social” queer theory a political dead-end. Sure, it’s an exhilarating theoretical read, but a new queerness needs—calls forth—alternatives in its refusals. This is not just theoretical negativity. As an artist, queerness is what conceptualizes both the political refusal and the utopian imaginaries in my artwork.

Read the full interview on Hyperallergic: