The Physiognomic Scrutinizer

Quick one from STRP, the festival of art and technology which is taking place right now in Eindhoven, NL.

DSC_9013_strp.jpgImage courtesy Marnix de Nijs

One of the installations that made me keep coming back to it over and over again last night is the Physiognomic Scrutinizer by Marnix de Nijs who, as usual, is using humour to reflect on some of the key issues of our society. In this case, the role biometric systems play in present our public space.

The visitor is invited to walk through a brightly lit security gate similar to the ones you can find at airports, football stadiums and other protected public spaces. A camera takes a picture of their face and projects it on a LCD monitor behind the gate. A biometric video analyzing software scrutinizes the face but rather than try and identify the person, the software probes for facial features and characteristics that are similar to one of the 250 persons in the data base: each and everyone of them has gained fame for controversial or infamous acts (there are notorious transgender people, torturers, serial killers, pop stars addicted to drugs, etc.) Based on what the software detects, the visitor passing through the entry point will be accused according to the disrepute of their match and a stern, cold voice will enumerate their past deeds and misdeeds for everybody around to hear. The faces of the visitor and of the famous person are then displayed side by side on the LCD monitors behind the gate.


DSC_9030_strp.jpgImage courtesy Marnix de Nijs


The tile of the work refers to physiognomy, the skill of interpreting a person’s personality from looking at their external features and in particular the face. Ancient Greek philosophers recognized the validity of the study but it met with more disrepute in the Middle Ages and fell from favour over time. However, recent studies are now claiming that people’s faces can indicate such traits as trustworthiness, social dominance and aggression.

Face-recognition software is mainly developed for surveillance and security applications and commonly referred to as “biometric systems”. The person undergoing the recognition process usually feels uncomfortable, even if he or she is innocent.

Spectators of this security gate process never fail to have a good laugh to their friend who has just been paralleled with the world record gangbang holder or with Paris Hilton.

5phys0_317561aff4.jpgView of the installation at the Touch Me festival in Zagreb in 2008. Image courtesy Marnix de Nijs

The STRP festival is open until November 28, 2010 in Eindhoven, The Netherlands.