CFP – Biometrics: Mediating Bodies

Special issue #60 of PUBLIC: Art/Culture/Ideas
Publication Fall 2019

Biometrics refers to the way that bodies are measured and identified. It uses the logic of calculation to reduce the identity of a body to a set of data. In her work on facial recognition, Kelly Gates (2011) reminds us that biometric identification is a way of addressing the “problem of ‘disembodied identities,’ or the existence of visual and textual representations of individuals that circulate independent of their physical bodies,” a situation that has been particularly exacerbated with the rise of media technologies since the nineteenth century. This issue of PUBLIC works to understand the many ways that biometrics reinserts the body into mediated communication.

Signatures are one pre-digital example of the ways that we have extracted something produced by the body as a form of authoritative representation. Today, features of the body itself—such as the face, heartbeat, gait, fingerprint, DNA, voice—are used not only by humans to recognize each other, but also as a way to program computers, machines and electronic systems to read bodies and identify them, and thus to integrate the biometric body into digital networks of processing. This externalization of the body into information and data is part of the larger story of identification and verification protocols (Caplan & Torpey 2001; Robertson 2009), situating biometrics within practices of the security and surveillance apparatus that reduce identity to a set of “facts” that are assessed and processed “objectively.” Unable to escape our body and its biometric signature, we are on the one hand controlled by our inability to conceal ourselves and powerless in the face of this empirical self, all the while also falling for convenient applications that use our bodies, and extract its data along the way (e.g., Apple’s Face ID).

Biometrics are also part of the systems being developed to produce seamless and “natural” human-computer connections and interactions, and are especially articulated in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), human-centered computing or programmed environments. The resulting responsive experiences, touted as improving everything from efficiency to safety to entertainment, have taken a central place in the imaginary of the technological future, but for some they are also examples of a dehumanizing form of communication. As is the case in the history of emerging technologies, reactions diverge between the enthusiastically uncritical and the cautious or even fearful. But what are some other ways that we can think biometrics? What kinds of speculations or possibilities are afforded by systems that can read and respond to individual bodies? In the realm of the media arts, for example, biometrics provides new ways to produce works that create empathetic or affective interactions between humans and computers. The surveilled body becomes the complicit body, offering a future in which the divisions between human and machine are increasingly blurred. Here systems that “recognize us” are working towards the dream of seamless connectivity, of natural connection with machines that see and know every body.

While the biometric body is a way to assess and distinguish individuals, the ability to measure is also an ability to standardize. Computer-generated humanoid bodies produced for games or cinema are one example of the way that digital representations may circulate as models and templates for what then become normalized and legitimated bodies. But where is the line between modelling work and classification projects, such as those that motivated Bertillon’s activities or more recent attempts to associate certain physical attributes with personality traits or even sexual orientation (Kosinki & Wang 2017)?

Biometrics: Mediating Bodies work across these diverse approaches to the body and its data by thinking about biometrics through diverse fields of use and application. We seek critical speculations, scholarly essays and creative projects that engage with the history, politics and practices of the machine-readable body. Topics can include, but are not limited to:

— Case studies of specific technologies or their applications
— Cultural and technical histories of the biometric body
— Theorizations of biometrics
— Representations and visualizations of the biometric body
— Creative and critical approaches to biometrics
— Biometrics in media art
— The biometric in human-computer interactions and responsive systems
— The biometric body in movement and circulation
— Identifying, surveilling and securing the biometric body
— The politics of biometrics
— Night vision, drone vision, facial recognition technologies and other vision machines
— Data gathering and processing as applied to bodies, including algorithmic methods
— Concealment, failure and the subversion of biometric assessment

Abstracts 350 words: 5 September 2018
Invitation to submit full papers: 1 October 2018
Text and project deadline (3-6,000 words): 1 February 2019
Please send abstracts and brief bio to:

PUBLIC: Art/Culture/Ideas is a peer-reviewed journal that explores the intersection of visual culture and critical studies. Since 1988, it has served as an intellectual and creative forum that focuses on the intersections of aesthetic, theoretical and critical issues. In each themed issue, PUBLIC encourages a broad range of dialogue by bringing together artists, theorists, curators, philosophers, creative writers and historians. For further information, visit

Editors for issue #60 are Aleksandra Kaminska (Assistant Professor, Université de Montréal) and David Grondin (Associate Professor, Université de Montréal).

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