Film Studies Association of Canada, Vancouver, June 2019
Abstract: The proliferation of governmental and corporate use of facial recognition software, veiled under its secretive surveilling nature, has created an increasingly urgent need to consider the particular kinds of “perception” and “spectatorship” the facial recognition-enabled (FRE) camera possesses and the properties of the cinema such a camera might generate. Superficially, the FRE camera appears to be marked by Manovich has called “the uniformity of machine vision” where the “mechanical eye [becomes] coupled with a mechanical heart: photography [meets] the motor.” Yet, a FRE camera does possess memory, even as “memory” is a word activated very differently when housed in a digital assemblage: it is reflexively watching its own footage, a meta-watching wherein, first, the camera receives footage; second, that footage is taken in as input and processed through its algorithm (which includes matching within its databases and a set of other potential interlocking algorithms and processes); lastly, that information is made visible as an image, or moving image, that is interchangeably combined with footage and data. Linking this to Wolfgang Ernst’s “working memory,” the circuits, the “working memory,” that the FRE camera loops through are not simple mechanical reactions: the output image or moving image would be a collage of the raw footage and the layers of data, from the database-memory as processed by the algorithm, overtop. Looking at this informational flow and working memory, we can see multiple versions of what Alexander Galloway would identify as an interface, which he defines as “the place where information moves from one entity to another, from one node to another within the system” or more simply “the name given to the way in which one glob of code can interact with another.” A good number of those interfaces enact their liminal nature “internally,” with the computational activity occurring so quickly that it appears instant; from these actions, the FRE camera’s output, the data-layered image/moving image, is exactly what Manovich is discussing when he crosses a new “info-aesthetics . . . the aesthetics of information access as well as the creation of new media objects that ‘aestheticize’ information processing.” However, activating Jacques Rancière’s notion of “aesthetic practices,” the FRE camera is just one example of potentially very problematic “forms of visibility that disclose artistic practices, the place they occupy, what they ‘do’ or ‘make’ from the standpoint of what is common to the community.” Importantly then, “aesthetics” extends artistic practices to the types of “visibility” that is recognized and valued (or unrecognized and undervalued), that Rancière ties directly to a society’s consensus, the hegemonic practices of a society, that is ultimately politically, not artistically, activated. The FRE camera’s cinema adopts the “common” digitalized strata of a contemporary information processing and image making and repurposes it into a form of unidirectional panoptic surveillance layered overtop an omni-directional space, enacting its power dynamics unevenly and invisibly.