Does your face fit? Can you leer? Or glare? Can you look deadpan or dreamy, pained or pitying, without losing face?
If you’re a human, and have a face, you probably can. Physiognomy (from the Greek, physis meaning ‘nature’ and gnomon meaning ‘judge’) is the ability we all share to assess a person just by looking at their face. And since most faces are pretty similar in their contents and arrangement, that’s really clever.
Even at a few days old, humans can distinguish between known faces. After just a week or so they begin to recognise and interpret expressions. It’s an innate skill, as vital to our evolutionary success as a baby deer’s ability to get up and run almost as soon as it’s born.
To be fair, it’s not unique to us. Sheep can recognise others by facial features alone, other animals probably can too. But recently, we’ve been teaching physiognomy to computers, and they’re getting really good at it.
Facebook claims it can identify an individual by photos of their face with 98% accuracy, identifying you from one picture out of 800 million in less than five seconds.
Humans and computers both, we’re fascinated by faces because they contain so much information. They’ve been used to express ideas of beauty and nobility, to tell stories, arouse disgust or admiration and to communicate complicated social and political concepts. Faces in art are a theatre for the emotions and a laboratory for perception. From Rembrandt to Picasso to Chuck Close, artists have found them to be a bottomless well of inspiration. Most recently, Tony Oursler’s recent work shows the influence of ‘Face Rec Tech’ and the visual language of biometric patterns it employs.
Above and top: Installation view of Tony Oursler’s ‘Template/Variant/Friend/Stranger’ exhibition at Lisson Gallery in London
But most of all, artists have seen the face as the location of a person’s unique and individual identity. Our faces verify our identity: a physical username and password in one. That could be useful. Proving my identity online is a daily memory chore involving numbers, names and passwords, but we all have a biometric identity which is impossible to fake, of which our faces are just one small part. Surveys show that 42% of us would be willing to share our biometrics with our bank if it makes our identities easier to verify.
Yet the same technologies can be used to monitor crowds; looking for individuals whose faces don’t fit, watching us in a way George Orwell would have recognised immediately. Joseph Cannataci, the United Nation’s first privacy chief has called out the current situation in the UK where there is one CCTV camera to every 11 citizens: talking to the Guardian, Cannataci said it’s worse than 1984. “Because if you look at CCTV alone, at least Winston