If the world starts looking like a scene from "Matrix 3" where everyone has Agent Smith's face, you can thank Leo Selvaggio.
His rubber mask aimed at foiling surveillance cameras features his visage, and if he has his way, plenty of people will be sporting the Personal Surveillance Identity Prosthetic in public. It's one of three products made by the Chicago-based artist's URME Surveillance, a venture dedicated to "protecting the public from surveillance and creating a safe space to explore our digital identities."
"Our world is becoming increasingly surveilled. For example, Chicago has over 25,000 cameras networked to a single facial recognition hub," reads the URME (pronounced U R Me) site. "We don't believe you should be tracked just because you want to walk outside and you shouldn't have to hide either. Instead, use one of our products to present an alternative identity when in public."
The 3D-printed resin mask, made from a 3D scan of Selvaggio's face and manufactured by ThatsMyFace.com, renders his features and skin tone with surprising realism, though the eyes peeping out from the eye holes do lend a certain creepiness to the look.
Creepiness is, of course, part of the point here, as the interdisciplinary artist takes a his-face-in-everyone's-face approach to exploring the impact of an increasingly networked world on personal identity.
"When you wear these devices the cameras will track me instead of you and your actions in public space will be attributed as mine because it will be me the cameras see," the artist, who's working toward his MFA at Chicago's Columbia College, says on a recently launched Indiegogo page for the products. "All URME devices have been tested for facial recognition and each properly identifies the wearer of me on Facebook, which has some of the most sophisticated facial recognition software around."
It turns out some states have anti-mask laws. And Selvaggio -- whose earlier project You Are Me let others use his social-media profiles -- says he's considered the possibility that anyone wearing his face in public could engage in illegal activity.
"I would of course like to believe that others will use these devices responsibly and I can't be clearer that I do not condone criminal activity," he told Crave. "However it is possible, and I have weighed out the possibility that a crime may become associated with me. That being said, I have come to the conclusion that it is worth the risk if it creates public discourse around surveillance practices and how it affects us all."
URME's Indiegogo campaign has so far raised a little over $500 of its $1,000 goal, with 36 days left. Products include a $1 paper mask for those unable to afford the $200 prosthetic, as well as community development hacktivist kits of 12-24 paper masks meant to be worn by groups, presumably of protesters (or anyone into clone armies).
Open-source facial-encryption software that replaces faces in video with Selvaggio's is currently in the prototype stage and will most likely go through several iterations, Selvaggio says, before eventually becoming available as a free download from the URME website.
URME insists all products will be sold at cost, with no profit made and all proceeds going to sustain URME's efforts to keep surveillance in the public discourse.
"To be clear, I am not anti-surveillance," the artist told Crave. "What I am pushing for is increasing the amount of public discourse about surveillance and how it affects our behavior in public space. When we are watched we are fundamentally changed. We perform rather than be."