ERROR – The Art of Imperfection is the 2018 theme of the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria and also the theme of the show they curated in Berlin. I was happy to receive an invitation to present The Normalizing Machine in this exhibition and used this opportunity to advance the piece to its new version. A lot of new research went into it and after a preview at the Print Screen festival, the work was launched in Berlin.
The Normalizing Machine is an interactive installation presented as an experimental research in machine-learning. It aims to identify and analyze the image of social normalcy. Each participant is asked to point out who looks most normal from a line up of previously recorded participants. The machine analyzes the participant decisions and adds them to its’ aggregated algorithmic image of normalcy.
Two scientists whose fingerprints are plastered all over contemporary culture inform the work. In the late 1800s the French forensics pioneer Alphonse Bertillon, the father of the mugshot, developed “Le Portrait Parle” (the speaking portrait) a system for standardizing, indexing and categorizing the human face. His statistical system was never meant to criminalize the face but it was later widely adopted by both the Eugenics movement and by the Nazis to do exactly that.
Half a century later, British Mathematician, Alan Turing laid the foundation to computing and artificial intelligence. Turing was concerned about the fate of a child-machine, singled out among the other normal children. Despite being one of the unsung heroes of WW2 who cracked the Nazi Enigma code, in the early 50’s he was convicted of homosexuality, was chemically castrated and later took his own life. Turing hoped AI would transcend the kind of systemic bias that criminalized his own deviation from the norms.
The installation visualizes how machine learning automates and amplifies Bertillon’s speaking portraits. As today’s systematic discrimination is aggregated and conveniently hidden behind a seemingly objective black box.