Visiting lecturer Lea Laura Michelsen on Zach Blas

Zach Blas lecture by PhD student Lea Laura Michelsen

Michelsen’s PhD is concerned with the abundance of contemporary art concerned with masking and camouflaging, and interrogates what there is to hide from. Zach Blas is one such prolific artist in her research, alongside others including Hito Steyerl, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, and Adam Harvey.

Blas has an aesthetic practice which, according to Michelsen, bridges between an artistic and a research practice. She claims that Blas’ aesthetics are a specially effective lens through which to examine the issues of modern biometrics/physiognomy. The aesthetic modes, she says, do not detract from the philosophical/ethical issues at hand but rather elevate them and make them visible. Michelsen specifically focuses on Blas' body of work called Facial Weaponization Suite in much of her writing. In these works, art 'artefacts' are produced in the form of a wearable mask that covers the whole head, re-topologising the head into an unrecognisable shape- crucially, unrecognisable and 'non-signifying' to face detection software. 

I myself was aware of Blas' work prior to Michelsen's presentation and have seen an installation of another project of his in person: I would suggest there is something about his work that does carry a lot of 'embodied knowledge' through in its depictions and constraints of the human figure. 

"In an accompanying video manifest called Facial Weaponization Communiqué, Blas claims that the first mask – the glossy, pink bubbly, candy floss-like one – can be used as protection against biometric identification. Evoking a political tradition of the mask – Anonymous, Pussy Riot, the Zapatistas and Black Bloc (Blas, FWC 06:28-06:52) – Blas investigates the potential of being unbiometrifiable and uses the counter-masks to exploit biometric failures rather than trying to fix them. Wearing this mask, a biometric face recognition technology would continually slide along the smooth surface of the mask; its curves and depths, its dead ends. It would search in vain for a face in the pink, non-signifying landscape."  

"I am not arguing here that there is not something naïve and aestheticizing about Blas’ masks. What I am interested in is the value of stepping outside of the academically well-founded map of biometrics and onto unknown grounds – even if they seem naïve." 


These works are a very valuable source to examine in regards to our own research-and-practice projects, the art-object being made in response to the research, and the mode of its creation replicating and subverting the method of face detection the artist seeks to critique.