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  • Sheung Yiu

Inter(Faces)



Contrary to the common wisdom, human tends to 'judge a book by its cover.' Across Eastern and Western cultures, society has developed ways to predict a person's character through facial features. In East Asian cultures, the esoteric practice of face-reading promises the power to see into one's future through facial analysis. Though face reading remains largely a folk belief, many continue to seek the occult power of predictions from face readers. In the West, the forgotten pseudo-science of physiognomy, combined with statistics and machine learning, re-enters our modern lives as facial recognition algorithms, where societal biases and individual prejudices continue perpetuating.


In the project, I put my face through various processes of creating predictions, namely Western physiognomy, face reading, face recognition, facial phenotyping, facial generation, and synthetic facial data. Through researching and collecting materials from different facial measurement practices across cultures, I create a video essay revealing the similarities between two predictive regimes centered around the face: one remains folklore, while the other is extensively applied to almost every aspect of our daily life.


I mix the visual language of the occult in face reading with the 'scientific' in facial recognition in an attempt to blur the line between practices from the East and the West. The project challenges the automation bias of facial recognition (or what I call Western face reading). It unveils the deeper, often-unexamined meta-narratives underlying these practices. A face is more than just a face. It is an interface of predictions trapped between two analytical frameworks and cosmological views that are not as different as it originally seems.


‘What is a Face?’ is the question this video work explores. In the age of pervasive facial recognition algorithms and Tiktok filters, the question is anything but apolitical. The answer to this deceptively easy question is ultimately complicated and depends on the observer and the apparatus through which they observe. A child, with a crayon, sees a face as a solar head and draws a circle with two eyes, a nose and a mouth. A 19th-century French police officer, with a camera pointing towards suspects, might say facial features predict criminality. A writer, holding a picture of his deceased mother, might look deeply into the image, searching for her ‘truth’. A face reader, riffing off of literature of Chinese Physiognomy, might insist that the face is an indicator of personality traits and fortune. A Tiktok engineer working on face filters already decided people want their cheeks slimmer and their jawbones more pronounced. A facial recognition software, trained by machine learning, deconstructs the faces as pixel patterns of different shades and features. GANs researchers might answer that to the deep neural networks, a face, or rather the digital image of a face, is a high dimensional data point, the pattern used to generate other faces computationally. Countless answers all point towards a fact: a face is much more than what is physically there. Each answer is representative of a knowledge system. Especially when a face is seen through technology, whether analogue or digital, faces become an interface for predictions.


The video work begins with James Elkins’s short essay ‘What Is A Face?’ and explores facial predictive technologies. On the one hand, the video looks into GAN and other latest AI-powered technology surrounding facial recognition and generation. The expert interviews and archival footage investigates the process behind deconstructing faces into data for pattern recognition, whose application ranges from screening CV to mass surveillance. On the other hand, the video shows a first-person experience of going to a face reader in Hong Kong, looking back at pre-digital facial prediction technology, specifically Chinese Physiognomy — the folk science that claims to predict one’s fortune from their facial features. The video contemplates our obsession with faces as they oscillate between digital and analogue prediction systems, both promising foresight and knowledge. Both systems are obscure, and their results are increasingly incomprehensible even to their respective practitioners, yet one is hailed as a pivotal technological advancement. At the same time, the other remains a folk superstition among believers in Temple Street in Hong Kong. Are they living oracles, or are they dead predictions? The critical video essay takes the audience into a discourse about knowledge, power and visuality. Through countless faces, the video tells the story about image, predictive technology and epistemological power. Looking closely at two competing epistemological systems, the work confronts the automation bias and examines the ideological lens through which we look at faces.


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