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Zach Blas

Zach Blas

American, born 1981

In a practice that spans moving images, computation, and performance, Zach Blas (he/him/his) draws out the philosophies and imaginaries lurking behind digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and biometric recognition. Most recently, his work has been featured in the touring exhibition British Art Show 9 (2021–22) and the group show Positions #6: Bodywork at Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands (2020–21). Blas is an Assistant Professor of Visual Studies at the University of Toronto.

See more of Blas's work at his website: zachblas.info.

In my work, I try to look at all these different elements, how technology is used as a way to control, punish, and police people, but also how technology can be wielded to imagine different types of political alternatives.

Zach Blas

Installation view of Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art (Albright-Knox Northland, October 16, 2021–January 16, 2022). Art © Zach Blas. Photo: Brenda Bieger for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.  

Installation view of Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art (Albright-Knox Northland, October 16, 2021–January 16, 2022). Art © Morehshin Allahyari (left), Zach Blas (right). Photo: Tina Rivers Ryan for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Installation view of Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art (Albright-Knox Northland, October 16, 2021–January 16, 2022). Art © Zach Blas. Photo: Tina Rivers Ryan for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Installation view of Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art (Albright-Knox Northland, October 16, 2021–January 16, 2022). Art © Zach Blas. Photo: Tina Rivers Ryan for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Members’ and Neighbors’ Celebration for Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art (October 16, 2021–January 16, 2022), October 16, 2021.  Art © Zach Blas. Photo: Jeff Mace for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Installation view of Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art (Albright-Knox Northland, October 16, 2021–January 16, 2022). Art © Zach Blas (left), Hasan Elahi (right). Photo: Tina Rivers Ryan for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Facial Weaponization Suite, 2012–14

Four painted vacuum-formed recycled polyester masks; digital video (color, sound) displayed on monitor; and four inkjet prints 
Running time: 8 minutes, 10 seconds, looped 
Courtesy of the artist

"I don't think the work is just simply about creating masks to hide oneself. It’s also thinking about the failures of political representation, when it is rooted in fixed identities that exclude broad ranges of the population. What does it mean to achieve political recognition? And is it a good or a bad thing? Or some messy mix of the two?"
—Zach Blas

Surveillance is often justified as a public safety measure, but it can also expose people, especially marginalized communities, to harm and even danger. In 2012, Zach Blas (he/him/his) organized four public workshops in cities across North America to discuss how biometric surveillance erodes privacy and creates new opportunities for discrimination against gay men, women, and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people.

At each workshop, Blas used a Microsoft Kinect gaming console to scan the faces of the participants. He then digitally combined these scans to make each group their own color-coded “masks,” which make their wearers undetectable by facial recognition software. On a more philosophical level, by giving each group their own shared “identity,” Blas proposes that categories such as “gay” or “Black” are more like “masks” given to us by society than essential facts emerging from our own bodies, suggesting the limits of any politics based on those identities. For example, demands for increased “diversity” in our politics or culture can marginalize individuals who don’t fit within narrow social categories.

The video is freely available for you to experience by visiting zachblas.info/works/facial-weaponization-suite/.

Facial Weaponization Communiqué, 2012

Zach Blas

One mask generated from the biometric facial data of many queer men’s faces, is a response to scientific studies that link determining sexual orientation through rapid facial recognition techniques.

Watch Blas's Communiqué here.

My excitement around queer faces led me down numerous research pathways, and I eventually came upon studies of biometric facial recognition. I immediately viewed it as a queer problem...

Zach Blas to Julia Kaganskiy

“Capturing” a Face

Zach Blas interviewed by Julia Kaganskiy

This illustrated reader, Mirror with a Memory, examines the history and present of biometric, aerial, and behavioral surveillance, and the artists who have reacted against it, including an interview with Blas on the creation of his Facial Weaponization Suite

Learn more here.

In September 2011, as the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park swarmed with protesters in Guy Fawkes masks popularized by the hacktivist group Anonymous, the New York City Police Department resurrected an 1845 law that deemed two or more people wearing masks in public illegal, unless a masquerade party was being organized.

Zach Blas, "Escaping the Face"

Escaping the Face: Biometric Facial Recognition and the Facial Weaponization Suite

Zach Blas

Zach Blas looks to masked protest to inspire methods of concretely subverting biometric recognition that perform a queer illegibility.

—micha cárdenas, Introduction to "New Directions in Queer Theory and Art: Computation and the Non-human," College Art Association Conference Edition of Media-N, 2013

Read here.

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