Artist Statement

Interactive installation, 2016

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together
John Lennon, lyrics in The Beatles song “I am the Walrus”, 1967.

“Walrus” (2011 – 2016) is an interactive installation consisting of a computationally augmented mirror that only reflects the face of its users, while supplanting the interactor’s face with a previously recorded one in the same position and with a similar facial expression. This supplantation occurs in every frame, using a different person’s face each time. Walrus proposes a reflection on identity and self-perception, while also commenting on the current conversations on interaction, technology, and surveillance. Augmented mirrors–which are sometimes referred to as “magic mirrors” or “augmented reality mirrors”, among other names–have a long tradition with new media art. Moreover, mirrors have always played an important role in culture. With a history dating back 8000 years, not only they have always been present in art and in myths, but they can also be thought of as the first interactive artworks. Mirrors can be found in the drawings decorating in the Tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara (2300 BC), thus offering us one of the first examples of remediation: a medium turned into another triggering a fractalization of representation. It should not be surprising, then, that mirrors have also been present very early in video and digital technologies. In “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” (1976), Rosalind Krauss observed that using video’s innate ability of instant feedback, a huge number of artists adopted the human body as one of the main subjects. “The body is therefore as it were centered between two machines, that are like the opening and the closing of a parenthesis. The first of these is the camera; the second is the monitor, which reprojects the performer’s image with the immediacy of a mirror.”
Since their massive appearance in video-art, mirrors have always been present in new media art. From Krueger’s VIDEOPLACE (1974) until today, there has not been interactive technology that has not been used to create a new type of mirror. Mirrors continue to be remediated and continue to allow the insertion of the body into the artistic practice, and into the art object. With the recent popularisation of first webcams, and then depth cameras, new waves of mirrors have populated contemporary new media art.
With Walrus we attempt at leveraging this “design pattern” by creating a mirror that proposes a self-contradicting interaction: a mirror that infers a human essence, a common trait of all its interactors (amalgamating all its users into a continuous stream of visual feedback), while at the same time filing in its most basic behaviour. In Walrus, we are both able to see more and less of ourselves. Walrus reminds us that every mirror offers representation of reality (a new layer of perceptual abstraction), and questions our immediate assumption of perception as reality, and our naïve acceptance of mirrors as faithful vehicles.
Mirrors surveilling reality. Although, as we said, Walrus presents a self-contradicting mirror, this contradiction does not ontologically separate it from the mirror kind, for all mirrors entail a similar conflict. Mirrors, in Borges words, trouble the depths. They exist in the reflection of light, outside of the image, simultaneously expanding a scene and constituting its border, its limit. Mirrors are interactive, yet blind; however, Walrus’s manipulation of the image proposes a mirror that partially sees us, understands us, and explicitly constructs a representation of us. An idea of us. In the alternative construction of self-perception that Walrus allows, the installation inserts the dynamics of computational ubiquity and surveillance. Contradiction arises anew; we are all connected, our identity is constructed with others, yet, a different identity is possible: the identity of the surveilled, the objectification that arises in our contemporary relation with the politics of technology and society.
Spatial Augmented Reality (SAR) is the use of projected light to alter the appearance of physical objects. In the last twenty years, SAR has been explored in multiple form factors and uses. Even though we do not use projected light in Walrus (although previous incarnations did), the conceptual principle is the same, for augmenting implies granting new abilities. In Walrus the augmentation is double, firstly we turn a surface into a mirror, and secondly, we augment this mirror by allowing it to see. As it happens with every cultural artefact, this augmentation cannot help but to encode a worldview, a political understanding of the world.
However, we understand Walrus as a self-questioning proposal where the political significance is ambiguous and explicitly pushed towards the interactor’s interpretation. It is in this reflection where the installation proposes a dialogue. Not only the augmented reality’s assumption of the camera output being the reality needs to be questioned, but also the social role of these techniques has to be explicitly interpellated. In Flusser words, “the task of a philosophy of photography is to reflect upon this possibility of freedom and thus its significance in a world dominated by apparatuses” If -following Krueger- we search for the art of interaction, Walrus is to be found in the interactive augmentation. However, the installation evidences that there are no possible innocent augmentations, for each transformation codifies power. Each transformation becomes a statement.
Technical details. Walrus is composed of a Microsoft Kinect Sensor, a computer, a screen and an ovalshaped picture frame. We configure these components to maximize both the capturing accuracy (Kinect) and display quality. We utilise the sensor to track the interactor’s head, and Microsoft’s Face Tracker to locate the face and extract some gestural features: mouth openness, rising of eyebrows, mouth shape, etc.
The computer stores each new face and its associated data into a database, and returns an existing one from the database. We organize the database as a hash table, with similar faces stored under the same hash entries. We define the face similarity by an L[sm] norm of the head rotation, plus similar gestural features.
When a new face is entered, it is put into the entry of the hash entry with most similar poses. To avoid running out of storage, we cap a maximum size of each hash entry, and randomly kick out an existing entry when the limit is reached. We then randomly pick another face from the same hash entry. This can be considered as a cheap way of finding similar faces to the input through hashing.

This piece has its roots in works that the artist did with Dr. Qin Cai & Dr. Li-Yi Wei

  • Dr. TOMÁS CORONEL LAURENZO is Assistant Professor at the School of Creative Media of the City University of Hong Kong. laurenzo.net

Full Text and photo p.  171-174