Who's the fairest of them all?

What if a mirror told you that you belonged to a different race? Seeing yourself in the Other is the magic in the machine.

Object Lesson


The cubicle looked like an old-fashioned photo booth without the curtain. Sharon Mayes, an artist from northern California, stepped inside. Following the posted directions, she took a seat in front of a mirror, gazed at the reflection of her own face, and began maneuvering a computer track-ball with her right hand.

"I've never seen myself this way before," she said, clicking on six different spots around the image to center her face within a neon-green oval. "This is illuminating."

What the blond-haired Mayes had never observed was her own face as it might appear if she were a member of a different race. The decidedly blond, Caucasian sculptor had just started her session inside the Human Race Machine, a 650-pound interactive installation in the new Race, Class and Gender Do Not Equal Character exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum.

The machine, the invention of New York photographer and computer artist Nancy Burson, sifts scores of stored images of Asian, Indian, black, white, Hispanic and Middle Eastern faces, grafting composite characteristics of those races onto the image of the visitor.

What ends up staring back is a face that is at once strange and eerily familiar.

"Look at that," Mayes marveled as she selected "Asian," "Middle Eastern" and "Hispanic," generating images of, among other things, narrowing eyes, darkening hair and a nose of varying widths.

"Indian -- ooh, perfect!" she said. "Fascinating."

Inventor-artist Burson says the Human Race Machine is "my prayer for racial equality." A pioneer in the photographic technique known as computer morphing, she calls the device "an opportunity to move beyond our differences and arrive at sameness. The more we see ourselves in others, the easier it is to connect to the human race."

That thought is in keeping with the new AVAM exhibition, one theme of which is that individual character matters more than the demographic markers we often use to identify each other. Still, to lurk outside the machine -- one of two on display -- is to see how fascinated visitors are with racial distinctions. Robyn Chadwick, a painting instructor at Maryland Institute College of Art, was surprised at how little her face changed as she chose first one race, then another. "That's the message," she said with a contented smile. "There really isn't much real difference [between the races]."

Ken Tisa, a MICA multimedia professor who was with her, scrutinized several versions of his stylishly hairless head.

Wherever he travels, he said, people think he has a bit of their ethnicity.

"A thousand years from now," an onlooker joked, "we'll all look like you."

"Be careful what you wish for," said Tisa. "Want us all to be bald?"

Some users, according to press reports, have wondered whether the machine's composite images themselves perpetuate racial stereotypes. Burson says that's all part of the dialogue. Such questions did not seem to trouble Mayes, a one-time novelist who had traveled from New York specifically for the exhibit.

She'd always had a feeling there was "black blood" in her family, she said, though none of her relatives ever believed her. When she saw an African-American version of herself staring back, she felt vindicated.

Her sense of recognition was eerie, but it didn't totally surprise her.

"Start scratching the surface of things," she said, her blue eyes fixed to her image in the looking glass, "and you're going to find something really interesting."



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