Artist Nancy Burson creates records of people who don’t exist, but she is confident about the impact of her fabricated faces on the real world. “I’ve been showing people what they can’t see or didn’t want to see,” she says.
In “Paradise Now,” a downtown group show at Exit Art through October 28, Burson shows New Yorkers her latest project: The Human Race Machine, which uses software with a database of about 50 photos to morph the images of gallery visitors into five different races. Just slide into place before the machine, which looks like a stripped-down arcade game, and watch your face on screen change into an African, Asian, Eastern Indian, European, and Latino one—giving you a chance to see how you’d look if you’d been born a different hue.
A billboard hanging over the intersection of Canal and Church streets shows off the software’s handiwork. The woman pictured on the billboard goes from light to dark to light again, remaining clearly recognizable. “I want sitting in front of the machine to be an experience in viewing beyond difference to sameness,” says Burson, who points out that humans share 99.9 percent of their genetic material.
Burson, owner of the tech company Face Software, also invented the Age Machine—which shows the way a face will change over time—in collaboration with computer scientists at MIT in the mid ’70s. Though computer experts at the time were familiar with the techniques of warping pictures, it took an artist to ask how a computer might project the way a person could appear in the future. Burson sold the rights to the Age Machine in 1987 to the FBI, which used it to find missing children. She also created the Anomaly Machine, which shows people how they’d look with various disabilities.
Burson’s explicit desire to show people they’re inextricably linked is paralleled by a more ominous implicit message: that looks can be erased or altered by technology, whether in the mists of cyberspace or the labs of bioengineers. That’s the darker aspect of morphing identities explored by other works in the “Paradise Now” show, such as art collaborative ®™ark’s Bio Taylorism (2000), a Microsoft Powerpoint presentation on the “benefits” of biotechnology, and by Burson’s own earlier celebrity composites, including First Beauty Composite (1982).
Social critics caution that morphing images could lead to a belief that racial and cultural differences don’t matter. “Does the Race Machine erase power differences by treating all black, white, Asian, or Latino people as the same technological transformation?” asks Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, an assistant professor of modern culture and media at Brown University.
But for Burson, these shades of gray pale next to deeper questions, such as where we come from and what we believe in, down to the most personal levels. “Before our kid was born my husband and I did a small composite of baby pictures of ourselves and I kept it,” she says. “Later, our child saw it and said, ‘That’s me.’ “