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Algorithmic readings of Bertillon's portrait parlé

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by Guillaume Slizewicz, Junior Design Researcher, LUCA School of Art

When searching through the archive of the Mundaneum, the text code télégraphique du portrait parlé jumped at me. I found this text very significant and wanted to work with it for several reasons:

- First it is an algorithm in itself, it is a compression algorithm, or the presentation of a compression algorithm from last century. It tries to reduce the information in smaller pieces while keeping it legible for the person who has the code. In this regard it is very much linked to the way we create technology, our pursuit for more efficiency, quicker results, cheaper methods. It represents our appetite for putting numbers on the entire world, to measure the smallest things, to label the tiniest differences.This text embodied in itself the ambition of the mundaneum.

- Second it is about the reasons for and the application of technologies. It is almost ironic that this text was in the selected archives presented to us in a time when face recognition and data surveillance is so much in the news. This text bears bears the same characteristics than some of todays’ technology: motivated by social control, classifying people, laying the basis for a surveillance society. Facial features are in the middle of the controversy on the new applications of technologies: mugshot were standardised by Bertillon, now they are used to train neural network to predict criminals from law abiding citizens, facial recognition systems are used to arrest people via CCTV and some assert that facial features can predict sexual orientation.

- The last point is about how it represent the evolution of mankind’s tecnostructure. What our tools allow us to do, what they forbid, what they hinder, what they make us remember and what they make us forget. This document allows a classification between people, and a certain vision of what normality is. It breaks the continuum into pieces thus allowing stigmatisation/discrimination. On the other hand this document also feels obsolete today, because our tecnostructure does not need such detailed written descriptions about fugitive, criminals or citizen. We can now find fingerprints or iris scans or DNA info of people in large datasets and compare them directly, sometimes the technological systems do not need human supervisions and recognise themselves the identity of a person via its facial features. Computer do not use intricate written language to describe a face, but arrays of integers. Hence all the words used to describe face features in this documents seem dated. Did we forgot what some of them they mean? Did photography made us forget how to describe faces? Will voice assistant software teach us again?