“I had a face recognition system as a creative partner” – An interview with Dávid Biró
31 • 07 • 20Edit Barta
Do you accept cookies?, your solo exhibition at Trapéz Gallery, opened in early June. Why the title, and what has it got to do with your pictures?
The exhibition explores the technological environment in which the tech giants, among others, openly collect the personal data of their users. As trade in data has picked up, this information has become extremely valuable—you could say data is the new oil. However, the extent to which the users are aware of the process is open to question, considering how they skip over the terms of service, the privacy policies and cookie warnings without much thought. Not to mention that while we can refuse to be followed online, we cannot hide from the face-recognition systems that are installed in public spaces.
To what extent are you yourself a conscious user? Do you read every notification before accepting cookies?
I’ve stopped accepting cookies other than those absolutely necessary. And as for my phone, I take special care to know what permissions I give to an app. I used to okay everything automatically, but grew suspicious when I started reading privacy policies. At first sight, worrying about continuous data collection might seem a trivial concern, even paranoia, but massive data leaks have become far too commonplace, as has the illegal use of data. Obviously, no one would like their sensitive information and passwords fall into the wrong hands, but that’s only one side of the issue. The various smart devices and sensors can monitor users in more and more ways, even on a physiological level, and can consequently detect even their emotional state.
Sometimes a surprisingly great deal can be deduced about a user by analysing their activity alone, to which if you add heart rate data from a smart watch you can form a fairly accurate picture of their state at any one time. And if the algorithms can know so much about us, we will be easy to manipulate and influence: they may prompt us to buy a product or service when our defences are down, or recommend an article and influence a decision we need to take.
The main thing, I think, is to be aware of the essential principles, know reliable sources, and have appropriate information about alternatives. The rise of artificial intelligence should not be envisioned as some occupation by an army of robots, as in sci-fi flicks, but as an invisible system instead that surreptitiously makes its users addicted and vulnerable.
Your exhibition doesn’t simply have pictures on the walls, but presents them in an installation. How did you come up with the exhibition design?
The exhibition draws, on multiple levels, on digital visuals and the visual references of the algorithms. One of the most important elements is the group of Haar-like features that are painted on the walls; they are the building blocks of images that allow algorithms to identify objects or faces in photos. By learning about them I came to understand how face detection systems work, and how they can be tricked. So the pictures at this exhibition straddle the line between what humans and what machines still perceive as a human face.
When the photos were made I kept checking my camera and my phone to see when they recognized a face in the composition that was being arranged. It was a curious experiment because I had always constructed the images for my series in accordance with some plan, while in this case I had a face recognition system as a creative partner: a composition was complete when it okayed it.
What was it like not being able to keep everything under control? What did you find the most interesting in the process?
It’s irritating. Sometimes it was fairly easy to build a composition that could be detected, at other times it was particularly difficult. I needed to make an effort to think and construct in accordance with the logic of an algorithm. Of course, there were a few principles I had laid down, such as making sure an image should have an experimental feel, a look of being a stage of a work in progress, which underlined how the image was made—but what it would all turn out like would emerge during the shoot.
I kept introducing new methods to test the system, and there were scraps of paper in all shapes and sizes on the floor of the studio, which I added to or took away from the image on a trial-and-error basis. This resulted in a large number of trials, but I often wasn’t satisfied with the result visually. In any case, it’s safe to say I still don’t fully understand what the algorithm is searching for, so there’s still room for testing.
I needed to make an effort to think and construct in accordance with the logic of an algorithm.
Some of the frames at the exhibition are painted green. What was your point?
Only some of the photos are in green frames, which is to indicate the system detected a face when the picture was taken. The rest of the works have plain wooden frames, which distinguishes human perception from the digital one. In turn, some of the images focus on the work process and the parts that make a face. Strangely enough, when I reveal this during a guided tour, most people test their phones as if to get some reassurance the human capacity is still at an advantage.
Front End, your previous exhibition, touched on similar subjects. As a visual artist, why do you consider it important to explore these subjects or issues?
Front End concerned itself with a far more general subject, including how digitization effects our visual perception, whereas this material concentrates on a more particular issue. Specifically and openly, this exhibition looks into political and ethical issues, and presents a critique of the tech firms.
It is important that we consider what needs, interests and conditions instigate the rise of the different technologies. Our devices are artifacts of our time, and reveal how far we have gone in terms of economy, society and thinking. For the same reason they will be an interesting starting point for any study of trends out there.
What are your plans for the future? Where can we see your works after September?
Unfortunately the pandemic makes planning difficult in most cases. But I do want to go on with this series, enter it into a competition and see what it’s worth, because it has a great many aspects that are worth digging into.