In all big cities of the world, commuter streams starting out in the mornings and evenings wash thousands of people to work and home again. The distance between the passengers is great despite their high rush hour density. Everybody seems to be absorbed in their own world, thinking of their work or their family, isolated from their surroundings by their smartphones and headphones. Commuters hardly take notice of each other even if their gazes wander and touch. It happens only very rarely that they look someone in the face directly and suddenly, and merely partly, recognize the human being in their vis-à-vis.
The performance Untitled (On an escalator . . . turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me . . .) realized by the Czech artist Jiří Kovanda (b. 1953) in 1977 shows how unusual and arousing making direct eye contact may be within this daily routine. As its title suggests, the work saw the artist suddenly turning around on an escalator—in a subway station, by the way—and looking squarely into the eyes of the person behind him. With this simple gesture, Kovanda broke through people’s anonymity and distance from each other and relentlessly confronted the ones opposite him with themselves as human beings and individuals—a powerful signal, particularly in a Socialist society like that of Prague in the 1970s.
In the meantime, we have come to live in an entirely different society, although “the ‘reading of faces’ still plays a crucial rule in social communication”(1) today. Faces tell stories, experiences inscribe themselves into them. This is something genuinely human and will always be so. However, algorithmicized facial recognition grids as used by social media networks and computer program producers have fundamentally transformed the status of the human face and the way in which it is read. Such face recognition programs are widespread today. Sitting at the computer at home, we may ascribe photographs to certain persons from our environment in this way. Airport control posts rely on such software, which also plays an important part in the military. Soon to be launched are smart glasses that, scanning the face of one’s vis-à-vis, are supposed to reveal everything—even the most private details—about the respective person in a matter of seconds thanks to such programs. Categorizing people according to their facial features in nothing new. For centuries, physiological specifics of the human body, particularly of the face, have been used to deduce the person’s character, disposition, and emotional qualities from them—always against a dubious ideological background.
Yves Netzhammer’s work Face Surveillance Snails for the Vienna subway station “Altes Landgut” reflects the history of physiognomics and anthropometry, linking it with current issues of surveillance and control. Subway stations are transit zones, which, with large crowds of people converging, are monitored correspondingly. Yet, they are also places where “you come upon thousands of unfamiliar faces,” as Yves Netzhammer writes.(2) This holds especially true for the subway station “Altes Landgut,” which is situated in a multicultural neighborhood. The artist’s sixty-three stylized portraits on the walls of the station playfully pay tribute to the diversity of these people. Taking his cue from the proportions and patterns of a facial recognition software, Yves Netzhammer has drawn a variety of physiognomies and assembled them to “a cabinet of curiosities from schematic faces between animal and man, female and male, old and young.”(3) The humorous representations abound with numerous loving details. A closer look reveals that the artist does not simply use points and lines for his drawings. Snails suddenly turn into eyebrows, a small herd of animals into a human set of teeth, a fir tree into bunny lines. The users of the subway station will definitely enjoy discovering these little subtleties in the course of time.
The relationship between man, animal, and nature as well as the continuous transformation of elements are both essential components of Yves Netzhammer’s production. His work Face Surveillance Snails continues the exploration of these issues, yet treads new paths in terms of its technique: The artist used foil templates and a special interference paint to transfer his drawings to metal plates. Flip-flop effect varnish provides a different color appearance depending on the viewing angle. Installed as fixed elements, Netzhammer’s “pictograms of everyday life,” as the artist calls his drawings, seem to change as you pass them on the escalator. This reinforces the notion of a large flip-flop image, of constant change.
Text: Mirjam Varadinis
(1) Yves Netzhammer in his submission to the competition, 5.
(2) Ibid., 1.
(3) Ibid., 5.
U1 subway station Altes Landgut, 1100 Vienna