Escaping the Face: Biometric Facial Recognition and the Facial Weaponization Suite

Zach Blas

PhD Candidate, Literature, Information Science + Information Studies, Visual Studies, Duke University

Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Mask, 2013, Zach Blas, vacuum formed plastic masks, ©Zach Blas. Photo credit Chris O’Leary. (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Mask, 2013, Zach Blas, vacuum formed plastic masks, ©Zach Blas. Photo credit Chris O’Leary. (Used with permission.)

In September 2011, as the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park swarmed with protesters in Guy Fawkes masks popularized by the hacktivist group Anonymous, the New York City Police Department resurrected an 1845 law that deemed two or more people wearing masks in public illegal, unless a masquerade party was being organized. As Occupy protesters were arrested for “loitering and wearing a mask,” some discovered that they could potentially be held in jail longer if they did not agree to submit to an iris scan, while others realized that their bail could be affected by whether or not they permitted the NYPD to perform the scan. [1] These police actions sparked criticism from lawyers, civil libertarians, and the public, not only because the NYPD used a legally optional iris scan to set bail and length of time in prison but also because the NYPD gathered biometric data on those who had not been charged or convicted of a crime. Why does the masked protestor pose such a great threat to the state, resulting in the police’s willingness to deploy a 168-year-old law originally designed to prevent Hudson Valley tenant farmers from dressing in disguise and rioting over debt and eviction? Why does facelessness fuel the state of New York to surreptitiously construct incentives for protestors to willingly agree to biometric scans?

The answer appears to reside in what could be called an explosively emerging “global face culture,” exemplified by biometrics and facial detection technologies, driven by ever obsessive and paranoid impulses to know, capture, calculate, categorize, and standardize human faces. Rooted in commercial, state, and military interests, recent forays into facial recognition include the adoption of biometrics as a security technology for border crossings and visas; the proliferation of invasive surveillance cameras in urban settings, such as London’s massive CCTV network; the growth of biometric marketing that automates personalized advertisements based on gender, race, and physical and behavioral traits; enormous biometric data gathering sweeps led by military forces; and the vast array of facial identification and verification platforms found in social media and consumer markets, from Facebook’s auto-face-tagging to the iPhone’s RecognizeMe application that uses face scanning to unlock phones. In such a climate, the very meaning of a face–what it is, does, and communicates–is continuously redefined. Romanticized notions of the face as primarily qualitative are eclipsed in favor of the face as a mode of governance, a quantitative code, template, and standardized form of measure and management.

At the intersection of biometrics, governmentalities of the face, and contemporary protest, a global political struggle has ensued over visibility, recognition, and representation. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Anonymous, black blocs, and Pussy Riot, collective masked protests continuously erupt. Time Magazine celebrated this in 2011 by naming their Person of the Year “The Protester,” depicting an obscured face on its cover whose eyes are barely visible. More recently, in December 2012, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation organized their largest demonstration since their 1994 uprising, with over 40,000 masked protestors marching throughout cities in Chiapas, Mexico. From such examples, one can claim that political desires abound in protest today that stress tactics of escaping forms of recognition-control by abandoning, devisualizing, and defacing the face, becoming faceless through masking actions that mutate the face into something else entirely. Importantly, while acts of defacement are about a certain kind of political refusal and imperceptibility, they are equally concerned with hypervisible collective transformation. Yet, as protestors resist political visibility with masking and defacing tactics, what are the ramifications for being non-visualizable to biometric technologies? One consequence is arrest, as anti-mask legislation coterminously emerges with such events: Canada’s Bill C-309, also known as the Concealment of Identity Act, took effect in October 2012, and makes punishable those who “wear a mask or other disguise to conceal one’s identity while taking part in a riot or an unlawful assembly” with up to ten years in prison. [2]

A number of feminist, transgender, critical race, and surveillance scholars establish that non-normative, othered, and minoritarian groups are most acutely and consistently made vulnerable to policing and discrimination by biometric authentication, often because such machines render them illegible. [3] Non-normative and minoritarian people engaged in political protest against the workings of neoliberalism find themselves caught in a paradox of recognition: they are exposed to the violence that results from failures to be biometrically visualized, and yet, their desires for a transformative politics exceed claims to legal recognition and gesture against the legacies of surveillance and control that biometrics propagates. Such a transformative politics does not ultimately strive for legal recognition because it validates the very target of resistance. Within these antimonies of visibility, queer defacings occur—both performatively and utopically–expressing ways to relate, be together, and live that no capitalist state or biometric can contribute to or foster.

As the face becomes a site of ever increasing control and governance, new ethical relations to the face are emerging that embrace defacement and escape, not necessarily mutual recognition but collective transformation that is both anarchic and commonizing. Today, the mask is the most popular implementation of defacement, a celebration of refusal and transformation. I suggest that such defacements, in their refusals of normative identificatory regimes and utopic expressions, are forms of queer illegibility, which I theorize as an aesthetic and political practice of anti-normativity and anti-standardization at a technical, global scale that resists the surveillance and identification standardization of emerging neoliberal technologies by creating amorphous, encrypted, incalculable, excessive and weird collective stylings of bodies and environments, with the goals of gaining autonomy and imagining into existence other worlds beyond measure.

Biometrics and Failure

Biometrics is a science used to identify and verify humans by standardized measurements of specific body parts or features, such as fingerprint, iris, face, voice, or gait recognition, with the goal of extracting a core identity, or truth, from the body. Currently, biometric facial recognition functions by generating 3D models of faces and maps of distinguishable landmarks, such as distance between eyes or width of nose, as well as analyzing skin texture. Kelly Gates explains that the dual aim of facial recognition technologies is to “automate the mediated process of connecting faces to identities, and to enable the distribution of those identities across computer networks” in order to enhance searchability of individuals in vast populations. [4] With this goal, biometric facial recognition technologies disembody and objectify as they circulate identity as data, producing what Simone Browne has aptly termed the “identity-industrial complex,” where identity becomes disembodied capital. [5] As such, biometrics changes what identity means to governing institutions and produces new identities and categorizations, including those that are forced to remain illegible because they are not recognized during biometric authentication.

As the drive to know faces is industrialized, Gates insists on giving careful consideration to the specific ways biometric technologies fail, so as to grasp their actual capacities and limitations; attention to biometric failure provides evidence that the future of biometrics is pliable and open to change. And biometric technologies do fail in numerous ways. It is Shoshana Amielle Magnet’s argument that biometric failure reveals a rigid classification system that works against minoritarian populations. Magnet explains that biometric systems, for instance, often fail to scan the hands of Asian women, eyes with cataracts, or determine age, gender, and race. Her examples indicate that the normative template for biometric functionality is white, heterosexual, and male. Taking an absolutist position, she concludes, “human bodies are not biometrifiable.” [6] a human identity cannot be captured and stabilized in a digital representation. Magnet calls for non-technical ways to discuss biometric failure and the violence it enacts; she suggests “complex sorrows” as a starting point. [7]

Magnet does not offer possible solutions to amend biometric failure, but she does advocate for “the formulation of technological policy based on principles of inclusiveness and which facilitate substantial claims to equality.” [8] Thus, while strongly critical of biometric visualization, Magnet seems to imply that the preferred solution to biometric failure is to be found within policy change. Just as Magnet opposes a technophilic language to describe biometric failure, what of contemporary protest movements, like Occupy, that are undoubtedly susceptible to biometric scrutiny and its failures, yet resist against solutions from the state (such as policy change) to solve their political problems? Magnet’s construction of biometric failure hinges on being illegible as a negative state of existence, so a requirement to become legible in some capacity permeates her argument. Therefore, biometric failure cannot account for the frustrations and disavowals of visibility in protest that are perhaps more radical, utopic, impractical, and impossible than policy change. So, what of those othered communities that are subject to biometric failure but embrace an illegible existence, even if they face threats to their mobility and freedom by attempting to fail to be visualizable to the state?

In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam articulates the other side of biometric failure. While Magnet approaches failure as a violent manifestation of technological oppression, Halberstam pursues modes of failure that shun normativity. “Failing,” Halberstam writes, “is something queers do and have done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style…or a way of life…” [9] Halberstam explains that queers have always failed heteronormativity, so failure can be turned into an opportunity to live otherwise. Queer failure emphasizes the impractical and impossible desires for resisting political visibility from the state by investing in anarchic and punk refusals to cohere. For example, an act of queer failure might reject gay marriage as a form of recognition-control. Queer failure engages political and social change differently than policy; attention is not given to legal reform but to styles of living as disorderly and uncompromising (anti-)aesthetics and (anti-)politics.

Biometric failure and queer failure are antimonies that accurately depict the paradox of recognition: violence can and will occur from failing to be identified by the state, biometrics, and other machines for surveilling and measuring; yet, queer desires thrive for the evasion of normative legibility, state recognition, and biometric visualization. Queer failure, as an escape from recognition-control and a transformative process that defies biometric measurement, is a sentiment of masked protest today. Queer biometric failures are utopian oppositions that do not cohere to state visualizations or representations; they evoke facelessness and defacement–queer illegibility–and make the face a nexus of refusal, collectivization, and potentiality.

Exposure and Defacement

In his text “The Face,” Giorgio Agamben states, “Exposition is the location of politics.” [10] While exposition refers to explanation, it is also a term for exposure. Themes of exposition and exposure tend to dominate ethical theories of the face, suggesting that it is only through exposure of and to the face that an ethical encounter is produced. [11] Yet, to offer a theory of the face that seals its political and ethical potentiality within a paradigm of exposure, nudity, and unhindered communication is now inadequate; is not pure communicability via exposure the purest pathway to co-optation and subjection? Such theories often fail to grasp mediations of the face; that is, how faces are seen and come to be seen through material devices and machines, like computers, as well as ignoring reconfigurations of the face-to-face encounter and moment of address, which include nonhuman, technical machines that are designed to look at faces, at distances close-up and far away. Due to these shortcomings, theories formulated primarily around exposure cannot account for the ways in which faces are controlled and instrumentalized, especially by biometric facial recognition technologies. While the face is more than ever a location for ethics, it is also a prized site for governance.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari offer an earlier theory of the face as a location of continuous recognition-control that one must attempt to escape. In A Thousand Plateaus, the two philosophers develop a theory of faciality that invests in flight and deterritorialization. Faciality is described as a machine of subjection that designs faces: “Concrete faces cannot be assumed to come ready-made. They are engendered by an abstract machine of faciality.” [12] The face is generated through its interfacing with others, that is, it comes into existence through the preferences and stereotypes one reads into a face. Parsing the face is a misinterpretation, an oppressive force, for such acts cannot grasp and categorize radical otherness. It is these explications of the face that create faciality, and this is why Deleuze and Guattari argue that the face is separate from the matter of the human body–it is a surface, a map, a vampire that constructs and defines the head and body. In lieu of an ethics of exposure, Deleuze and Guattari advocate escape and transformation:

to the point that if human beings have a destiny, it is rather to escape the face, to dismantle the face and facializations, to become imperceptible, to become clandestine…by strange true becomings that…make faciality traits themselves finally elude the organization of the face. [13]

Their politics of the face is a drive to overcome processes of reading, measuring, and calculating the face–what Deleuze and Guattari call overcoding–in order to transform into something not-yet-knowable or not-yet-understandable, something absolutely strange. To carry out such a practice, knowing the organizations of the face is crucial before dismantling: “Know them, know your faces; it is the only way you will be able to dismantle them and draw your lines of flight.” [14] An outline for the tactical use of faces is sketched: it is through experimentation with the ways faces are read, calculated, and produced that one might be able to escape the machine of faciality and recognition-control. For Deleuze and Guattari, escaping the face is not an isolating or individualistic disappearing act. One gains collective presence in the abandonment of the face; it is a process of becoming everyone and everything, of making worlds.

Deleuze and Guattari’s approach to escaping the face resonates with masked protest and resistance against biometric facial recognition, as escape evokes the desire to evade facial capture, forced visibility, and categorization but also calls forth a transformative collectivization of strangeness and otherness. Indeed, escaping the face could be a slogan for masking in biometric times.

Fag Face

Biometric facial recognition technologies have fostered the emergence of global drives to calculate and standardize faces, which multifariously spill into arenas of culture and scientific inquiry. For instance, since 2007, a series of scientific studies and experiments conducted in psychology departments at two American universities exclusively approach the face as a site to recognize sexual orientation.

In 2008, Nicholas O. Rule and Nalini Ambady published a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that claimed male sexual orientation is accurately calculable through quick exposures to static images of faces. [15] Initially, Rule and Ambady hired 90 participants, a mix of female and male Tufts University undergraduates, and flashed ninety faces of men–45 homosexual and 45 heterosexual–at various exposure times, between 33 and 10,000 milliseconds. When presented, faces were placed on a white background and free of any cultural markings, such as glasses, facial hair, jewelry, piercings, and tattoos. Rule and Ambady revealed that test subjects were able to establish at above-chance percentages whether a face was homosexual or heterosexual at all exposure times, including 50 milliseconds. [16]

While these researchers passingly flirt with the ethical and political implications of their findings, none address pre-existing forms of harassment and violence directed to the homosexually-appearing face, known as “gay face” and “fag face.” Such slurs insist that particular qualities are inscribed into the biology of the face that can identify a person as irresolutely homosexual. While Rule and Ambady attempt to avoid cultural interpretations by removing cultural markings and exposing the face rapidly, they ignore subjectively motivated drives to interpret faces. As such, they do not account for the violence that is implicit with certain readings of the face, and in turn, scientifically validate gay face and fag face.

This prompts the question: What are the queer tactics of defacement to refuse standardized measurements of sexuality?

The Facial Weaponization Suite

Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Mask, 2013, Zach Blas, vacuum formed plastic mask and protestor, © Zach Blas. Photo credit Chris O’Leary. (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Mask, 2013, Zach Blas, vacuum formed plastic mask and protestor, © Zach Blas. Photo credit Chris O’Leary. (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Suite is an artistic project that consists of masks made in community-based workshops for protesting against biometric facial recognition and governmentalities of the face. [17] Each mask is produced by aggregating the biometric facial data of participants in a given workshop, which results in an amorphous “collective mask” that allows participants to simultaneously wear the faces of many. Similar to collective protest tactics that evade or reconfigure individual recognition, like Anonymous, the black bloc, Pussy Riot, and the Zapatistas, wearing the faces of a collective makes participants unrecognizable. Masks in the Facial Weaponization Suite have practical and utopic components: while they can function to prevent biometric facial detection, they are also aesthetic, experimental tools for refusals of political visibility and representation as well as devices for collective transformations of the face that generate autonomous hypervisibilities. Its masks are weapons of defacement, modes of escaping the recognition-control of the face, a queer illegibility that disallows easy calculations and categorizations of the face.

Facial Weaponization Suite workshops are coordinated in art or community spaces and divided into two segments. During the initial session, a general discussion is organized around global and local politics of biometrics and face detection. Next, to develop a mask, all participants’ faces are scanned with a Kinect in order to obtain a 3D model of each face. After this task is finished, a single 3D model of a mask is generated from participants’ facial data. When this data is brought together in 3D modeling software and gathered into a composite that is not averaged, the result is a face that resembles an abstract surface and is biometrically unrecognizable. From the 3D model, a mask mold is produced, which is then used to vacuum form masks. In the second stage of the workshop, participants receive a mask and test wearing them. Finally, the group decides on a masked public intervention to perform that aims to highlight inequalities of biometric facial recognition, draw attention to local uses and deployments, and experiment with collectivizing and defacing the face.

Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face, 2012, Zach Blas, video still of facial composite morphing process, ©Zach Blas (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face, 2012, Zach Blas, video still of facial composite morphing process, ©Zach Blas (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face, 2012, Zach Blas, video still of facial composite morphing process, ©Zach Blas (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face, 2012, Zach Blas, video still of facial composite morphing process, ©Zach Blas (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face, 2012, Zach Blas, video still of facial composite morphing process, ©Zach Blas (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face, 2012, Zach Blas, video still of facial composite morphing process, ©Zach Blas (Used with permission.)

The first Facial Weaponization Suite mask, Fag Face Mask, is a response to gay face and fag face scientific studies that link the successful determination of sexual orientation through rapid facial recognition techniques. The mask is generated from the biometric facial data of many queer men’s faces, which was collected during a workshop in Los Angeles in fall 2012. Pink in color and blob-like in form, the Fag Face Mask refuses the scientific determinism of sexual orientation and opposingly invests in an opacity that conceals against such readability and signals an irreducibly othered presence. The mask is not a denial of sexuality nor a return to the closet; rather, it is a collective and autonomous self-determination of sexuality, a styling and imprinting of the face that evades identificatory regulation. In March 2013, the second mask of the Facial Weaponization Suite was produced at Reed College. There, a mask-making workshop was organized with students, and a paper mask was produced as a DIY alternative to plastic fabrication. [18]

Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Mask, 2012, Zach Blas, installation view, The H™lles 10: Risky Business, Feminist Festival of Media Arts + Digital Culture, Studio XX, Montreal, Canada, ©Zach Blas. (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Mask, 2012, Zach Blas, installation view, The H™lles 10: Risky Business, Feminist Festival of Media Arts + Digital Culture, Studio XX, Montreal, Canada, ©Zach Blas. (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Suite: Mask – 7 March 2013, Portland, Oregon, 2013, Zach Blas, 3D model of mask, ©Zach Blas. (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Suite: Mask – 7 March 2013, Portland, Oregon, 2013, Zach Blas, 3D model of mask, ©Zach Blas. (Used with permission.)

Facial Weaponization Suite is a node in the surging networks of defacement. Its masks straddle the paradox of recognition, between biometric failure and queer failure, attending to the face’s interfacings with power. As masks are produced, the push and pull of recognition must be particularly considered, as some persons are co-opted while others are fundamentally rejected. Facial Weaponization Suite invests in illegibility, against standardization and state-based forms of inclusion and exclusion, and fights for the desire to escape into something else beyond legal recognition and identification. Such is the queer practice of defacement, which occurs when one’s face is made amorphous, weird, eccentric, and otherworldly with a group. Defacement interfaces in other modalities that are not readable to those that aim to control but rather communicates to all those that strive to liberate.


1. Sean Gardiner and Jessica Firger, “Rare Charge Is Unmasked,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2011,™l?mod=wsj_share_email.
2. The House of Commons, “Bill C-309,” on Parliament of Canada website, accessed May 1, 2013,
3. See the work of Shoshana Amielle Magnet, Simone Browne, Toby Beauchamp, Dean Spade, and Vivian Namaste.
4. Kelly Gates, Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 15.
5. Simone Browne, “Digital Epidermalization: Race, Identity, and Biometrics,” Critical Sociology 36(1) (2010): 133.
6. Shoshana Amielle Magnet, When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 2.
7. Magnet, When Biometrics Fail, 151.
8. Magnet, When Biometrics Fail, 157.
9. Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 3.
10. Giorgio Agamben, “The Face,” in Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 93.
11. See the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Judith Butler.
12. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 168.
13. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 171.
14. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 188.
15. See Nicholas O. Rule and Nalini Ambady, “Brief exposures: Male sexual orientation is accurately perceived at 50 ms,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2008), 1100.
16. For further studies on the face and sexual orientation, see Joshua A. Tabak and Vivian Zayas, “The Roles of Featural and Configural Face Processing in Snap Judgements of Sexual Orientation,” PLOS One 7(5) (2012).
17. “Facial Weaponization Suite,” on Zach Blas’ official website, accessed on May 1, 2013,
18. “Reverie, Reed Arts Week 2013,” on the Reed Arts Week official website, accessed May 1, 2013,


Zach Blas is an artist-theorist working at the intersections of technology, queerness, and politics. He is the creator of the art group Queer Technologies, a founding member of The Public School Durham, and a PhD candidate in Literature, Information Science + Information Studies, and Visual Studies at Duke University. Zach’s recent exhibitions include Trans Technology, Rutgers University; the 2012 H™lles Feminist Festival of Media Arts + Digital Culture, Montreal; and Abandon Normal Devices Festival, Manchester. He has published writings in the “Five Videos” essay series, commissioned by and the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology for the 2012 Liverpool Biennial, and the Viral issue of Women Studies Quarterly. Zach holds a Master of Fine Art, Design Media Arts, University of California Los Angeles. Currently, he is an artist/researcher-in-residence at the b.a.n.g.lab and Performative Nanorobotics Lab, University of California San Diego.