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Fooling around with evolution:

John Tonkin's Personal Eugenics

Liquid identity is the ultimate promise of the internet. Experience what it is like to be never-living, half-alive, purely animal or totally fictional. Create an avatar which allows you to re-territorialise, to see the world, and be seen, through a radically altered perspective. If you're receptive to the cyberscreech, net interaction signals the final meltdown of identity politics. In tandem with increasingly cheap and accessible modes of cosmetic surgery, and the obsession of much biological research to render genes better, more effective, more efficient, the internet has bloomed at a time when 'personal development' has come to mean something very different to night class and Sunday hobbies.

Yet the confluence of new media and corporeal technologies harbours some fundamental tensions, not the least being about the role of the body, and about the relationship between reality and representation. With genetics and cosmetics, personal development becomes increasingly material, the emphasis on transforming not the soul, through greater awareness and insight, but on changing our very molecular structure, on sculpting the body in the most literal sense. The internet offers us the opportunity to recreate ourselves through representation; our bodies remain at the terminal, but our identity transmogrifies online. While the net's potential might be for no more than 'identity tourism', to use Lisa Nakamura's phrase, arguably the fictional avatars through which we experience virtual environments may become increasingly identified with our sense of self, so that gradually this image-body with its own adventures begins to remap our physical body.

But can we control how the world perceives us? And does changing our outward face fundamentally alter who we are and our reception by others? The ease of personal transformation and improvement promised by the convergence of new media technologies and biological research comes in for some serious lampooning by John Tonkin in his series of interactive web-works, Meniscus. In Personal Eugenics, the latest installment, Tonkin invites us to instantly evolve ourselves, to acquire the physiognomic characteristics that attain to our desires: to be sexier, more intelligent, more outrageous. By following some simple instructions, we can choose from a set of progressively altered images of our face, which Tonkin has programmed to change using genetic algorithms, until we finally decide on the face which embodies the characteristics we desire. Alternatively, we can download any number of portraits and play havoc with the faces of others. All the time, we are seduced into investing this little image with the special power to teleport our transformed essence into the world.

The interface is highly accessible; we get results, and fast. (Tonkin is keen to grant the viewer/user passage to the whole experience; unlike many interactive works, what you see is what you get, with no hidden depths to uncover.) What's more, we even produce an object which records the interactive process, a tangible keepsake which takes the work from the genre of the purely temporal, to that of photography. The printed images are a radical spin on the before and after shots issued by plastic surgeons to advertise their life-changing technology. Tonkin encourages those visiting his work in the gallery to pin up their evolutionary records on the wall, so that soon a strange community portrait materialises, mapping desires and tomfoolery in equal measure. Together, the ease of the process, the materiality of results, and the inherently playful and humorous attitude which the work engenders, go to archly question the hype about liquid identity (let alone the quack 'science' of eugenics).

Significantly, Personal Eugenics foregrounds that the face is generally taken as the equivalent of the self: to change your face is to change your being. As the 16th century Italian physiognomist della Porta explained, 'all of man is in his face, as therein lies the seat of reason'. The privileging of the face as a site for gleaning clues about the truth of the self has been a long- running concern of Tonkin's, as most evident in his Elective Physiognomies, a prior interactive work. Physiognomics, the meaning we ascribe to physical attributes, is a form of daily knowledge. Yet its complex operation, whereby a whole symbolic framework is produced upon seeing a face, is so internalised that we remain largely unaware of its deep, and highly problematic, resonances. As Patrizia Magli writes, 'physiognomics continues to rely on an inductive method that attempts to reduce the infinite variety of individuals and of facial configurations to a standardised state through drastic schematisation and abstraction processes'.

Tonkin tweaks at our reliance on dubious standards of physiognomic perception, well-aware both of the guilt we feel at normalised bigotry, at the snap judgements we make on the basis of a first glance, and of their apparent inevitability. Perhaps his project hints at a future when images are so unreliable, when even our incarnated beings are so unhinged from any claim to the truth of our existence, that these perceptions finally fracture into meaningless shards. In the meantime, however, Tonkin invites us to have fun playing with some of the profound issues at the juncture between new media technologies and ingrained modes of human interaction and perception.


Jacqueline Millner
February 2000


References

Patrizia Magli, The Face and the Soul, in Michel Feher (ed.), Fragments for a History of the Human Body Part 2, New York: Zone, 1989

Lisa Nakamura, Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet (Internet)

meniscus / about