Membership Spotlight: Leo Selvaggio

Leo Selvaggio, born 11/06/1984, is an Interdisciplinary Artist and Designer whose work examines the entanglement of identity with technology within the context of civic action. He has exhibited in France, Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and broadly in the US. Selvaggio’s work has been featured in Businessweek, Hyperallergic, Techcrunch, The Washington Post, CNET, The Verge, and others. His work is included in various collections including the Spy Museum and the Wende Museum in the US. Selvaggio’s writing can be found in several publications, including the “International Journal for Performance Arts” and the recent book, “The Evolution of the Image: Political Action and the Digital Self”. He holds a BFA from Rutgers University and an MFA from Columbia College’s Interdisciplinary Arts program. He currently serves as an Instructional Media Technologist for the Multimedia Labs at Brown University.

An Interview with Leo Selvaggio by Constanza Salazar, Interim Chair of Communications Committee

1) What prompted you to begin your work on URME Surveillance? What was your inspiration and what were the steps into creating this project?

Oddly enough Google was my inspiration, Ha! In 2013, thanks to the arduous work of my amazing mentor, the fabulous Annette Barbier, I had the opportunity to produce a projection piece in a commercial storefront in the Chicago Loop. On the day I had set aside to do a site walkthrough of the area, it was pouring rain, so I instead decided to do a google walk, using street view, around the area to get an idea of the foot traffic, architecture, etc. 

As I “walked” I was taken aback by these haunting images all these blurred out, faceless, bodies, an artifact of Google anonymity algorithm designed to appease the public concerned about the blatant surveillance in their remapping of the world via “street view”. I started to question this intervention by Google thinking, “who decided this was ok?” “what permissions did google acquire to do this?” “how does the algorithm work? Is it applied in post? If so, where are the original, un-blurred images and who controls them?” 

I started to record these google “walks” and as I stared more and more at these zombies on the street, recorded and stripped of their identity without consent, I felt an overwhelming urge to fill these faces with something. So I decided to digitally plaster my face onto these bodies as a kind of identity-based surrogacy. It was playful instinct on my part to replace what was once there with something else, and I had spent the last several years thinking about my identity as material that could be used by others. So in terms of my art practice, it was only natural. At the time, I didn’t realize that this visceral response would become the basis for my future work, URME Surveillance.

2) Artists like Adam Harvey and Zach Blas, among others, have also manufactured ways of challenging surveillance, in particular, facial recognition or facial detection, using the face as the site of resistance. Why do you think you and so many artists have recently begun to challenge these technologies?

There are so many reasons. From the perspective of artistic work reflecting the human condition, I think it is because the face, as a site, is so intersectional. It is both public as it is what others see, and private as it belongs to us and, usually, us alone. Its often the first subject of object permanence that relates to a sense of self, a baby looking in the mirror and recognizing the face they see is their own. The face is often the locus of beauty in many cultures, certainly western ones: Helen of Troy, a face to launch a thousand ships. Our faces are so deeply personal and uniquely tied to our sense of identity that the use facial recognition to categorize, however presumably yet falsely objective, is an affront and quite literally a personal attack. Because of this, there is so much to unpack, so many different takes and perspectives to consider, which is what makes artists uniquely qualified to evaluate the cultural shifts created by abrupt advents in technology. 

3) Your URME surveillance project can also be analyzed from the point of view of performance studies. Like the Guy Fawkes mask used by Anonymous, individuals in URME can perform as a unit or mass directed to a particular activist goal. The work doesn’t just reside in the creation of the mask but of how resistance is enacted. How does URME use and depart from this tactic?

URME is, at its core, a critique of cis-gendered, heteronormative, white male privilege. Through and through, there is no identity (other than perhaps tacking on “rich” as an additional adjective) more protected in the US or invisible to the systems of power behind the institutions of surveillance. You want to be safe, be a white man in a suit. What URME does, for better or for worse, is propose that if our society will not relinquish systemic privilege, then perhaps such privilege could be distributed to others via a prosthetic and performance as a form of imperfect protection. 

What makes URME different than an anonymous mask, is that there is a real identity attached to the prosthesis. This allows URME to disrupt systems in ways that a mask can not. When a guy fawkes mask is detected by a surveillance system, no match is found, because it is not a real face, and thus the facial recognition process simply stops, effective protection for the user, but ultimately the system is unchanged, alive, and well. When URME users perform my identity in public spaces, facial recognition systems attribute their actions as well as any other data collected to my identity profile. When there are conflicts in that data, it creates disinformation that subverts the authority of the system itself. For example, what if the system shows 3 Leos popping up in the same city? Each at a different intersection? Each with different physical attributes: short, tall, in a wheel chair, fat, skinny, muscular, red long hair, short brown hair, bald, etc. Then who or what is “Leo exactly? This lack of consensus in the data calls into question the ability of Facial Recognition systems to correctly identify individuals. 

4) The face mask is of your own face which can be worn by anyone seeking to hide from face recognition cameras. What are some of the challenges that this poses when this means that different ethnicities, racial groups, and genders can “pass” as you, undetected by these technologies?

There are so many difficulties, especially when the strength of the project comes from the very things that are challenging. Based on the answer to your last question, I hope it’s clear why URME wouldn’t be a very successful framework if the users were all of similar demographics, gender expressions, or ethnicities. It is variety, not similarity, that causes subversion within the system. Yet at the same time, it is highly problematic, colonial, and potentially damaging to ask anyone whose identity is not that which the prosthetic expresses, to perform white male privilege in order to “pass”, which is fucked up, and why I see URME as a critique rather than a solution. As such, at its conceptual pinnacle, URME is a communal project of resistance in which I am asking for others to risk with me. 

Even for myself, URME is an externalization of my own ability to pass. As a proud Colombian American, who presents as white and male, I have been afforded a privilege other members of my naturalized family do not share. I have lived an outwardly white experience despite my queer and Hispanic identity. I have literally seen people’s faces go blank when I pick up the phone and answer my mom’s call in Spanish. So, in a manner of speaking, URME is an experiment in weaponizing a privileged identity that was gifted to me by mistake, solely due to my appearance, and asserting it as a technology distributable to others.

5) A series of difficult questions: Is resistance futile? Is there an outside to the power and resistance dynamic? How do we go beyond resistance and see and implement change to power structures that especially target and discriminate against minority groups?

I have spent the last hour writing, rewriting, and ultimately deleting my answer to your first 2 questions because, in point of fact, I don’t know how to answer them. My gut tells me that resistance is essential, but I couldn’t tell you why other than I need to sleep at night. As to an outside….the only thing I can muster is that the answer is in the question. One would have to be outside of that equation to not be inside of it: a complete abandoning of modern society as we know it. That’s not a solution, just a decision to stop working on the problem, which while valid, doesn’t sit well with me. 

What I can say is that as an artist, considering the role technology plays in the equity of the human condition, is that its continued development within a capitalist and governmental framework will only serve to oppress and control large groups of humans for the benefit of a few.

To that, the only suggestion I have is that we all seriously start to adopt open-source technology for its culture and methodology of distribution and communal development. That we commit to breaking down the barriers to technological fluency and agency within our communities, and that we make sure every child knows how to code. 

These responses are disappointingly insufficient.

6) Because I follow your work on social media, it is amazing to see how your projects develop often in response to social unrest and activist protests such as with BLM. Can you tell me about your process on the new works you are developing? What does the future look like for you?

I have two newer projects: one that is ongoing and another that is more of a one-off but may lead to a new line of inquiry for me. The first came as a natural development of URME. I was researching how facial recognition is used in the US court system as judiciary evidence and came to realize that one of our greatest disadvantages as citizens against governmental power structures is the overwhelmingly unbalanced use of image collection practices for use as evidence: surveillance, traffic cameras, facial recognition, etc. So I began working on Who Will Watch the Watchers in early 2020 and it is an ongoing collection of speculative yet pragmatic and reproducible technologies intended to leverage democratic image-based tools and processes to defend, empower, and mobilize civic action in public space. 

The WWWW Project attempts to shift that scale back in the people’s favor by sharing open-source DIY designs that will transform ordinary smartphones into a streaming, hands-free, body camera. I have been able to test many of the design in real-world situations, specifically protests and other civic actions I have attended. Because I recommend that users stream video while at actions, even if their device is illegally confiscated or destroyed, their videos will be backed up on their social media accounts and can be downloaded for future use. 

The second project launched in January 2021, right at the height of the Presidential Election in the United States. My most recent exploration of AR technology involves digital performance, specifically on social media platforms like Snapchat and Tik Tok which inspired me to create Apologize to America. Through performative smartphone video recordings, the “A2A lens filter” will allow the participant to issue an apology while having the 45th President of the United States’ image mapped and overlaid onto their face. The technology implemented here is intentionally not a deep fake. Part tactical media project, a’la the Yes Men, part cathartic wish-fulfillment, the goal is not to convincingly produce expressions of regret on his behalf, but rather to imagine and produce a fantastical future in which 45 is held accountable. While this project will likely not have a long life, seeing the submissions the project has received, albeit limited, has opened me up to pursuing this line of inquiry into digital performance and embodiment further. 

In terms of the future, who is to say. I am currently exploring and open to all sorts of opportunities. I have been lucky to have a career in makerspaces that sustains my day-to-day and has been really rewarding, but sometimes I fantasize about teaching or becoming the director of an art center, or perhaps pursuing PhD research, or maybe just quitting it all, haha.