Interview with Marnix de Nijs

The Rotterdam based artist Marnix de Nijs has collaborated with V2_Lab on several projects. The latest focuses on the implementation of face detection and recognition software for his new work, "Mirror Piece." During one of his visits to the lab, we asked him a few questions about this new installation.

Could you describe your new work, Mirror Piece? How does the installation work?

Marnix de Nijs: Developed as a mirror version of my previous work, the Physiognomic Scrutinizer (2009–2010), Mirror Piece detects and scrutinizes the faces of people as they look into a mirror that is equipped with face detection and recognition software. Rather than trying to identify the person, the software probes for facial features and characteristics that are similar to those of one of 250 preselected persons present in the database, all chosen for their controversial or infamous acts. Based on what the software detects, the person looking into the mirror is identified as one of the controversial characters in the database. While the mirror displays the match, an audio fragment, played for all to hear, accuses the visitor according to the disrepute of their match.

What are its similarities with your previous installation, the Physiognomic Scrutinizer?

MdN: Mirror Piece employs an upgraded version of the same face detection and recognition software used in the Physiognomic Scrutinizer installation, accompanied by a database of preselected famous and infamous celebrities and contributors to our contemporary culture. Nevertheless, Mirror Piece stands out as a work in its own right rather than being just an upgraded version of the Physiognomic Scrutinizer. It emphasizes the motif of self-reflection and self-observation that the previous work just touches upon.

Could you tell us more about the Physiognomic Scrutinizer? What’s the main difference between the two?

MdN: In the Physiognomic Scrutinizer installation, a barrier guides visitors towards a brightly lit entrance where a mounted camera records and projects each visitor’s image on an LCD monitor at the back of the gate. Two speakers on stands directly behind the gate act as security guards. Equipped with face detection and recognition software, the work detects and analyzes the faces of the people wishing to pass through the gate and enter the exhibition. The comparison process is displayed on the LCD monitor behind the gate and clearly viewable for the public looking at the work. The design of the Physiognomic Scrutinizer clearly recalls security gates you see at airports, shopping malls, football stadiums and other protected public spaces. The installation, in fact, mainly reflects on the role biometric technologies play in the contemporary surveillance society and aims to raise awareness of the way our bodies are becoming increasingly transparent to surveillance and identification technologies. These technologies are pushed in the market as means of identification, but they threaten the idea of individual autonomy.
In the Physiognomic Scrutinizer installation, three different layers of interaction are at work, with the visitor being the object of observation from three different perspectives. Both the machine and the rest of the audience observe the spectator passing through the gate; in addition, the visitor is confronted by a “reflection” of his or her own image displayed on the LCD screen. The design of Mirror Piece, rather than explicitly recalling the theme of surveillance and identification, takes up and further engages with the motif of self-reflection present in the previous work.

What made you decide to implement face recognition technology in a mirror?

MdN: The body and identity have always been prominent themes in art history, with the mirror being the central device in some of the greatest European paintings. The mirror that acts as the interface here becomes a technological device capable of translating the viewer’s image into a virtual space where a double reflection takes place. In addition to the moment of self-reflection, the visitor encounters and is confronted by the reflection of the “other,” the famous or infamous celebrity his or her image matches.

To use Christiane Paul’s words, “this encounter recalls the dichotomy of identification and difference […] that was epitomized by the classical myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and has inspired artistic creations for centuries”.

MdN: In Mirror Piece, that motif is almost reversed. While Narcissus was confronted with his striking beauty when he looked at his own reflection, Mirror Piece reflects “the dark side” of famous personalities known for controversies yet also for their contributions to contemporary culture. Mirror Piece places the visitor in front of a double reflection, in a humorous yet unsettling way.

We could say that  “interaction almost entails a distortion of the reflected image of the subject, controlled by the laws of the machine.”

MdN: Yes, this is indeed the case. Furthermore, the work confronts the spectator with the role played by celebrities in our seemingly liberal yet over-controlled contemporary society. Although we point the finger at celebrities’ radical and controversial behavior, they trigger the imaginary of a society in which little space has been left for true signs of radicalism and in which transgression has become a matter of aesthetics rather than radical behavior.

Interview: Ivana Hilj, V2_Lab, 2010

Concept and production Mirror_Piece: Marnix de Nijs

Biometric software implementation: V2_Lab, V2_Institute for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam

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