Masks for the Surveillance State

Leo Selvaggio "URME Surveillance," 2014.
Leo Selvaggio, “URME Surveillance” (2014) (all images courtesy the artist)

SAN FRANCISCO — It seems like everyone is making artistic reactions to our increasingly surveilled world. Chicago-based new media artist Leo Selvaggio has joined the likes of Zach Blas, Simone C. Niquille, and Adam Harvey in exploring tactics to counter facial recognition and pervasive surveillance. Intrigued, I reached out to Selvaggio over email to ask him some questions about his latest series, URME Surveillance.

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Ben Valentine: Considering there are many groups who have sought counter-surveillance measures through tactics of obfuscation, why did you chose to use your own face?

Leo Selvaggio: The majority of the strategies used by other artists and groups are primarily forms of hiding or obscuring one’s face, such as Adam Harvey’s “CV Dazzle,” or Zach Blas’ Facial Weaponization Suite. Even outside of the art world, the majority of methods used to combat surveillance involve ski-masks, sunglasses, and hoodies. The problem with this underlying strategy of hiding or obscuring is two fold. First, the hiding of one’s face is associated with criminality and suspicion. Take the case of Trayvon Martin, for example.

The second, and more central to my work, is that it fails to consider the social component of surveillance, by which I mean that surveillance typically occurs in crowded public space where not only cameras are watching us but other people are as well. The aesthetics of a project like “CV dazzle” are somewhat extreme and will most likely not be adopted by the majority of the public. Furthermore, wearing this kind of makeup, which I have to say is a brilliant idea for other reasons, will draw unwanted attention to the wearer.

My work instead substitutes the face of the wearer with my own in such a way that it thwarts facial recognition while allowing the wearer to pass inconspicuously through a crowd. Because we are talking about an automated system, the project needed a face that has actual data associated with it, otherwise it would be easily identified as a fraud or as a John Doe of sorts. Thus a fake face was not an option. Furthermore, I was ethically concerned that a made up face may actually look like a real person somewhere in the world, and I wasn’t comfortable with possibly appropriating another’s identity such as Conrad Zdzierak inadvertently did when he wore a latex mask when robbing six Ohio banks.

The natural follow up question to this would be, “well, if its only your face, then won’t that be easily identifiable at some point?” The answer of course is yes. However, the next step in the project is to ask the public to donate their faces to URME Surveillance, so that there are several options to chose from of every race, ethnicity, and gender. But for now, my identity is the only I am willing to put at risk.

There is also the fact that the first mask had to be a white man’s because there is nothing more invisible to surveillance than a white man in a suit. Surveillance practices are built upon prejudicial architecture. I am hoping that URME Surveillance can expose the blueprints of those structures by examining the role of identity in surveillance culture.

The "URME" mask being worn.
The “URME” mask worn

BV: Can you contrast your work, which seems much more activist-driven, with Adam Harvey’s work, which is still very much a luxury commodity.

LS: Adam Harvey, along with several artists (Ben Grosser, Zach Blas) has been a huge influence on my work. Harvey is exploring surveillance art in a very interdisciplinary way, examining its intersection with mediums like make up and fashion. That being said, when approaching how to make URME Surveillance, I found myself generating a very specific criteria that are simply not the strengths of Harvey’s work. The first criterion was to take into consideration both the social component of surveillance and the human element within the system. You just can’t wear CV Dazzle without looking conspicuous unless you only ever use it going out to a rave club somewhere. Not only are others going to look at you on the street, but it would be very easy for a human being watching a set of surveillance monitors to track you: just look for the face with triangles and squares on it. URME Surveillance differs by substituting the users face for my own, thus fooling the cameras while at the same time not drawing attention to the user because of its photorealistic qualities. Though upon close inspection the prosthetic is detectable, in a crowd most people wouldn’t look twice and at a glance it can be fairly convincing.

The second criteria I asked myself How does one make a practical anti-surveillance intervention for the public, that is not just passable (first criteria) but also fairly democratic. I think of Harvey’s project “Stealth Wear” which protects the wearer from thermal imaging, the primary form of “vision” used by drones, by erasing one’s heat signature. While “CV dazzle” is fairly democratic, as most people can afford some form of make up, The material required for “Stealth Wear” is extremely expensive. For example, the Burqa costs  2,500 dollars. Some of the garments also don’t cover the entire body, which makes me  question their effectiveness.

Lastly, and this is the biggest concern for me, is that due to the garments overwhelming price, its not a solution that is available to general public. This is further compounded by the fact that they are currently not available in the Middle East, which is where an intervention as thoughtful as this one is needed. While my own “URME Surveillance Identity Prosthetic” is costly at $200, it is far more reasonable a price. “URME” also offers a paper mask at $1. Furthermore, I am also not making a profit off of any of the URME Surveillance devices because I want them to be as affordable as possible.

I don’t see my work as being in reaction to, or somehow separate from, Harvey’s. Rather, I am trying to contribute to a discussion that he and other artists have already started. Its important for surveillance, tech, and new media artists to consider their work within a criteria of Social Practice if it is going to bring about change, and that is where my interest lies. I should also mention that URME Surveillance, like all projects has its fair share of problems as well, but it is a entry point for me to start treating surveillance as material to work with in my art practice.

"URME Surveillance" at Anish Kapoor's, "Cloud Gate," in downtown Chicago.
“URME Surveillance” at Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” in downtown Chicago

BV: You mention your interest in post-humanism, what do you see the future of identity, both online and off, looking like? How does “URME” play into or fight that?

LS: I can’t help but think of URME Surveillance in light of texts like Donna Harroway’s Cyborg Manifesto. In the text she calls for an elimination of binaries in exchange for celebrating and identifying as beings with a set of interests rather than prescribed anatomy. The future of identity is fluid. Like Cindy Sherman, we are at a precipice where we have the ability to perform identity in a very multifaceted way. Combine this with the curatorial powers of social media to edit ourselves, the future is going to be an ever changing landscape of personas.

Surveillance threatens this fluidity because it is built with rigid prejudicial architecture welded tightly by fear on the cracking foundation of freedom. By eventually asking the public to donate their faces, URME Surveillance hopes to create a public that actively and consciously chooses an identity(s) to wear and purport. I see a time when exchanging faces with each other is not only an active subversion of our surveillance systems through facial disinformation, but also engages with the core of what it means to be an individual. Rather than U R ME, I aspire to create a community under the guise of U R WE.

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