Escaping the Face by Zach Blas

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.

Zach Blas
Artist, writer, curator and researcher whose work engages technology, queerness and politics

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

[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.