Portrait of Tony Oursler, © the artist
Portrait of Tony Oursler, © the artist

Tony Oursler interview: 'Art for me is about getting out of myself and exploring'

We caught up with the American artist to talk about his latest work, which includes freestanding composite ‘portrait’ sculptures informed in part by biometric data


Tony Oursler has been creating disconcerting talking heads for decades – you may have seen his work without realising it in the video for David Bowie’s ‘Where Are We Now?’ in 2013. We caught up with the American artist at his first London show in five years to talk about how facial recognition technology has inspired his latest work.

How did you start working with facial recognition technology?
‘I’ve always been fascinated with how technology extends our psychological space. So when I discovered this kind of facial recognition, realising the machines we made are “reading” us, it just seemed a natural progression.’

Is this the same technology used by the authorities to keep an eye on us?
‘All the works represent various algorithmic interpretations of the face, which started with the police but now filters into advertising and sales. Of course London is no stranger to this, it had the first camera surveillance system, way ahead of other places.’

The work incorporates various media, including video. Do all the sculptures talk?
‘Some talk, some are silent, some have holes where eyes or mouths should be and some do not. So they are a mixed bag.’

They feel like individual characters. Are you trying to give personality to a mass analysing system?
‘Absolutely, each one could be a different personality or a different mindset. I was surprised about the way the characters developed. I thought originally they would be much more like science fiction.’

The sculptures are very theatrical.
‘I wanted to have a bit of a maze feeling and I decided to keep the gallery bright, so it’s not as spooky as it could have been.’

But I thought you liked spooky?
‘Oh yeah, but these are definitely spooky enough.’

Where does your fascination with the magical and mysterious stem from?
‘I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, how I got that gothic bent. My grandfather was a magician and a writer. He wrote detective stuff: he was a big Edgar Alan Poe fan. He was involved with debunking mediums. The history of that stayed in the family. My parents had a lot of material around the house. I remember my sister and I used to do ghost shows in the basement.’

Do you feature in the work?
‘Yeah I’m actually in one of these. Art for me is about getting out of myself and exploring. I used to be in a lot more of my things, but I’m getting into an acting phase. I’m revving up.’

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