Marnix de Nijs, Mirror Piece, (NL, 2010)
The Mirror Piece
An interview with Marnix de Nijs about his latest work, the ‘Mirror_Piece’ (NL, 2010), developed in collaboration with V2_Lab, Rotterdam. Marnix de Nijs has collaborated with V2_Lab on several projects: the latest collaboration focused on the implementation of face-detection and face-recognition software for his new work ‘The Mirror_Piece’. During one of his visits to the lab, we took the chance to interview him and ask a few questions on the new installation.

Could you describe your new work ‘the Mirror_Piece’? How does the installation work?
Developed as a mirror version of my previous work, the 'Physiognomic Scrutinizer' (2009 – 2010), the Mirror_Piece detects and scrutinizes the faces of the people looking into a mirror, equipped with facedetection and recognition software. Rather than trying to identify the person, the software probes for facial features and characteristics that are similar to one of the 250 pre-selected persons present in the database, all chosen for their controversial or infamous acts. Based on what the software detects, the person looking
into the mirror is identified as one of the controversial characters present in the database. While the mirror displays the match, an audio fragment, played for all to hear, accuses the visitor according to the disrepute of their match.

What are the similarities with the previous work, the Physiognomic Scrutinizer?
The Mirror_Piece employs an upgraded version of the same face-detection and recognition software used in the installation the Physiognomic Scrutinizer, accompanied by a database of pre-selected (in)famous celebrities and contributors to our contemporary culture. Nevertheless, the Mirror_Piece stands out as a work per se, rather then being an upgraded version of the Physiognomic Scrutinizer, further emphasizing the motif of reflection and self-observation that the previous work touches upon.

Could you tell us more about the Physiognomic Scrutinizer? Which is the main difference between this installation and the new work that originates from it?
The new installation features a brand new design, and takes the shape of a mirror. This new form infuses the work with new meaning. In the installation the Physiognomic Scrutinizer, a barrier guides visitors towards an entrance where a mounted camera records and projects the visitor’s image on a LCD monitor at the back of the gate. Two speakers on stands, located directly after the gate, symbolize and act as security guards. Equipped with face-detection and recognition software, the work detects and analyzes the faces of the people wishing to pass through the gate and enter the exhibition. The comparison process is then displayed on the LCD monitor behind the gate, clearly viewable to the public looking at the work. This specific design explicitly recalls security gates seen at airports, shopping malls, football stadiums and other protected public spaces: the installation, in fact, aims to reflect on the role played by biometric technologies in the contemporary society of surveillance, and to raise awareness on the way our bodies are becoming increasingly transparent to surveillance and identification technologies. Pushed in the market as means of identification, these technologies threaten the idea of individual autonomy.
In the installation Physiognomic Scrutinizer three different layers of interaction are at work, with the visitor being the object of observation from three different perspectives. Both the machine and the rest of the audience are observing the spectator passing through the gate; in addition, the visitor is confronted by a ‘reflection’ of his/her own image, displayed on the LCD screen. The design of the Mirror_Piece does not explicitly recall the theme of surveillance and identification, but takes up – and further engages with – this motif of reflection and self-observation, present in the previous work.

Is that the main reason why you decided to implement the face-recognition technology in a mirror?
The body, identity and reflection of one’s own image have always been prominent themes in art history, with the mirror being the central device in some of the greatest European paintings. In my work the mirror that acts as the interface becomes a technological device capable of translating the viewer’s image into a virtual space, in which a double reflection takes place. In addition to the moment of reflection, mirroring, the visitor encounters and is confronted by the reflection of an ‘other’: the (in)famous celebrity that his/her image

To put it with Christiane Paul’s words, this encounter recalls ‘the dichotomy of identification and difference that was epitomized by the Greek myth of Narcissus’. Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water, has inspired artistic creations for centuries.

In the Mirror_Piece this motif is almost reversed. While Narcissus was confronted with his striking beauty by looking at his own reflection, the Mirror_Piece reflects back at us ‘the dark side’ of a famous personality known for his/her controversy, yet also for contributing to contemporary culture. The Mirror_Piece places the visitor in front of this double reflection, in a humorous yet unsettling way. We could say that interaction almost entails a distortion of the reflected image of the subject, controlled by the laws of the machine 2…
Furthermore, the work confronts the spectator with the role played by celebrities in our contemporary, seemingly liberal yet over-controlled society. While we point the finger at the radical and controversial behavior of celebrities, they trigger the imaginary of a society where little space has been left for true signs of radicalism, and in which transgression has become a matter of aesthetics rather then radical behavior.

Interview by Ivana Hilj
Concept, production: Marnix de Nijs
Biometric software implementation: V2_lab, V2_Institute for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam

Marnix de Nijs © 2015