Nancy Burson: Making Faces
Contemporanea, January 1991

"Want to try the Age Machine?" Nancy Burson inquires a few minutes after I arrive at her Soho studio. I am quickly face-to-face with a computer that asks my sex, my present age, and at what age I want to see myself depicted. Responding to that data and to my bone structure, the computer adjusts one of its templates and thirty seconds later, a twenty-years-older me appears on the video monitor. "Not bad," I observe brightly. But inside I feel like Dorian Gray.

The Age Machine, the creation of Burson and technical collaborator David Kramlich, works because the effects of aging on people's faces are predictable: skin wrinkles and muscle sags. The interactive computer station was developed for Johnson & Johnson to market a new line of sun screens, but corporate execs feared that consumers might be offended by their aged images. Given our culture's obsession with youth and the unnerving quality of these images, their fears seem entirely warranted.

The Age Machine also enables Burson to create composite portraits merging the structure and features of two (or more) faces. These hybrids, along with the aged images, have brought Burson the attention of both the art world and the popular press. It is easy to dismiss her work as computer-generated gimmickry, as some photography commentators have. (Non-art audiences rarely worry about such matters.) In fact, Burson is not really even a photographer. She is a conceptual artist who never seriously employed a camera until 1986 and who--like any good conceptualist--uses whatever tool it takes to realize an idea. First exhibited in 1989, the Age Machines has been in Burson's thoughts since 1968. The idea inspired not just a single artwork, but a strikingly provocative and poetic body of artworks.

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In 1968, Burson was a twenty-year-old painter who had recently left Colorado Women's College in Denver for New York. She describes herself then as a "rebel" and her paintings as "abstract with a conceptual twist." That twist was encouraged by exposure to the products of the art-and-technology movement of the late 1960s, especially as embodied in Pontus Hulten's 1968 MoMA exhibition, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. "I was intrigued by the participatory works in the show," Burson notes. "Nam June Paik's pieces, Edward Kienholz's Friendly Gray Computer, that sort of stuff." She believes that the sixties' fascination with youth and her own childhood attraction to carnivals also help account for the genesis of the Age Machine idea.

Her determination to produce an interactive aging machine led her to Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), the organization founded in 1966 to link artists and scientists. She was paired with computer graphics pioneer Carl Machover, who informed her that his fledgling field was incapable of the computer-image interface she had in mind. Thanks to technological advances of the mid-seventies--including the manipulation of still images by computers and the conversion of video imagery into digital data--Burson's project began to look feasible.

It was finally taken on by MIT's Architecture Machine Group in 1976, and in 1981 a patent for The Method and Apparatus for Producing an Image of a Person's Face at a Different Age was issued to Burson. That same year, she began working with David Kramlich and Richard Carling, two Cambridge-area computer scientists who refined the system by increasing its speed, adapting it for the personal computer, and making it interactive.

Two projects of these germinal years foretold both Burson's future conceptual approach and the complex relationships she would have with diverse audience. The Atypical Works exhibition that she curated for Julian Pretto Gallery in 1978 comprises unusual works by celebrated artists. What makes them atypical was their distance from the artists' commercial signature styles, or rather, the fact that the constraints that rendered these works invisible to the public were imposed by the market rather by the artist. "I wanted to show how vulnerable artists are, that they can do much more than the system allows them to," explains Burson. This concern for human-kinds' psychological or spiritual condition, as expressed through images of its (ostensible) material condition would come to inform all of her work.

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The second project appeared on the pages of People magazine in 1982. Burson's aged images made their debut in a three-page spread featuring now-and-then versions of celebrities including Princess Diana, Brooke Shields, Timothy Hutton, and John Travolta. The numerous articles and national television appearances they generated would be the first indicator of the peculiarly symbiotic relationship emerging between Burson and the mass media.

Non-art audiences are captivated by Burson's visionary imagery. (Scholastic Productions recently--and unsuccessfully--tried to market a composites-centered television quiz show.) Her techniques have also been adapted to non-art purposes that have garnered massive publicity. In 1983 the family of Dee Scofield, who had mysteriously disappeared at the age of twelve in 1976, approached Burson to produce an updated picture of the child. Burson agreed. But the plasticity of children's facial structures forced her to invent a new procedure based on the manipulation of images of the family member mostly closely resembling Dee when he or she was nineteen, rather than simply utilizing visual data of Dee as a child.

The Scofield image eventually prompted an FBI request for a composite of Etan Patz, a New York City child who had disappeared in 1979. (The Patz update appeared on page one of the New York Post in 1985, and the unresolved case--as well as Burson's image--periodically reemerges.) Although neither of these children has been found, Burson's images have led to the successful resolution of the cases of Chris Fulmer, Sean Miller and Jessica Watts; both the FBI and the National Center for Missing Children have acquired the composite software.

The official validation and the increasing renown of Burson's work have been accompanied by ethical problems often associated with new technology. "Do I want to age children who are known to be dead? To make powerful art at someone else's expense? Or to help convicted felons get their kids back?" Burson asks rhetorically. "You'd be shocked at the number of calls I get."

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1982 was a key year in Burson's development--not just for the spread in People but also for her move into composite imagery. She had already aged subjects; now she would transform them by hybridizing their structures or features with those of other subjects. She merged her own features with a fluffy white angora cat. Suddenly the links with newly controversial genetic engineering resonated, replacing those of Burson's divine (or devilish) ability to age subjects at will.

Burson is far from the first to produce composites. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and the founder of eugenics, invented the technique in 1877. A quintessential Victorian classifier and a precursor of August Sander, he hoped to produce pictures of the typical criminal or mental patient, and to stimulate ethnological research about racial difference. He began by using drawings but quickly moved on to photographic superimpositions of up to eight different faces. Galton's basic approach was picked up by twentieth-century photo-artists including Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Philippe Halsman, Les Levine, and William Wegman.

Burson brought composite portraiture into the electronic age. Her work at MIT provided the newly coupled computer and video camera with something to scan--(digitized) images of the human face. Businessman (1982), her first composite artowork, is derived from black-and-white mug shots of ten male investment bankers from Goldman, Sachs. Burson shows them alongside the composite image, which is shocking for its attractiveness: ten no-better-than-average-looking guys have been transformed into one handsome visage. Galton, too, noticed this ennobling phenomenon; the gods seem to favor the Platonic idealism of the composite over the individual "deviants" from which it was constructed.

The factual, low-key presentation of Businessman also recalls photo-duo Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel's 1976 Evidence. For this classic exhibition of photo-conceptualism, the Sultan-Mandel team gathered intriguingly incomprehensible police-file photographs and asked, "evidence of what?" Unlike them, Burson is less interested in the nature of photographic meaning than in the nature of big business itself. Businessman interrogates the corporate team-player ethos as embodied in what we take to be the representative selection of ten, white, virtually interchangeable bankers.

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Burson's social critique quickly grew bolder. Warhead I-IV (1982-85) joins the faces of the "Nuclear Club" heads of state (the United States, USSR, Britain, France, and China) in proportion to the number of nuclear warheads deployed by each country. Warhead I (1982) consists of fifty-five percent Reagan, forty-five percent Brezhnev, less than one percent Mitterrand, Thatcher, and Deng, and tartly suggests their merged commonality. Big Brother (1983) brings us the unholy alliance of Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Hitler and Khomeini. Mankind (1983-85) offers a composite of an Asian, a Caucasian and an African weighted according to world population figures.

The consciousness of appearances that we call "style" also fascinates Burson. Her 1950s and 1980s Beauty composites compare movie stars from each decade. In both male and female versions, the 1980s image is far less compelling than its earlier counterpart. Burson also completed a series of painting composites hybridizing the styles of Frank Stella, Joseph Albers, and Ellsworth Kelly, for instance, or Cezanne and Van Gogh, to witty effect. Burson the conceptualist describes all of these composites simply as attempts to respond to "unanswered questions," to imagine what cannot be perceived. "Haven't you ever wondered what the missing link looked like?" she asks. Evolution II is her answer.

Many of these composites appeared in Burson's first major exhibition, at the Holly Solomon Gallery in 1984. This was the beginning of the American art world's infatuation with "simulationism." or the notion of the simulacrum, and less than a year after Jean Baudrillard had told an interviewer that what was at issue in contemporary culture "was no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication...[but] of substituting signs of the real for the real itself." Signs of that time included Ronald Reagan's vacuously telegenic presidency, ruminations about American culture by Umberto Eco, and theory-suffused artwork like Peter Halley's, in which Baudrillard's ideas were obscurely encoded, according to the artist. Burson's electronically produced simulations ranked right up there beside Epcot Center as the ultimate emblem of eighties' unreality. But unlike Disney's enterprise, Burson's contains its own critique.

Burson herself is less interested in theory than in psychology. She attibutes her sensibility to an "upbringing by one good partent and one bad parent; it's an attempt to bring both sides together."

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Burson is keenly attuned to family bonds. Her mother's death from lung cancer in 1984 inspired two pictures: the juxtaposition of microscopic images of cancerous and healthy lung tissue as an object of visualization; and The Dead (1984), a composite portrait of the death masks of Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, Oliver Cromwell, and an unknown female suicide who was recovered from the Seine. These images serve as telling artifacts of her mourning.

In 1988, Burson created an AIDS visualization piece that she hopes to present in billboard format. The paired images depict healthy lung tissue and PCP-damaged tissue from a person with AIDS. She is currently working on an updated AIDS visualization employing images of normal and HIV-infected T-cells obtained through new advances in electron microscopy. Her attraction to seeing what has not been seen before is a constant: she recently submitted a proposal to the Air Force to collaborate on a series of portraits of individuals to be shot from reconnaissance cameras in spy planes hovering miles above the earth.

Despite such constants, Burson shifted course toward the end of the eighties. She is no longer answering unanswerable questions or manipulating images of celebrities, although her Composite Machine, an interactive installation that blends viewers' faces with the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev's or Oprah Winfrey's, stole the show at the Whitney Museum of American Art's 1989 Image World exhibition. Instead, she is intuitively exploring the visual perceptions of normality and abnormality.

Her 1988-89 series of large (twenty by twenty-four inches) Polaroids on this extremely risky theme made their debut in 1990 at the Jayne H. Baum Gallery in New York. Eyeing us like apparitions from a police blotter or Dr. Frankenstein's lab, these life-sized head shots of children surrounded the viewer. It took a moment to notice that something was amiss: certain eyes were too big and glassy for a particular head; others were too Eurasian to be coupled with a Caucasian mouth. (One image mates the glass eyes of a doll with a human face, another pairs human eyes and a mannequin's head.) Plenty of gallery-goers (and some reviewers) mistook these unsettling composities for images of the physically or mentally ill.

The exhibition prompted this viewer to ponder the tradition of the grotesque in art and photography. Images of concentration-camp victims would not have looked out of place here. It also demanded that we consider the nature of our looking. When is the art viewer's gaze voyeurism? And just what is it that makes the out-of-the-ordinary so riveting--be it the legless pandhandler on the street, or the partygoer with the enormous butterfly-shaped mole on the neck? Burson's work induces sensations usually relegated to the unconscious worlds of dreams or hypnosis.

Burson's says that this body of work, is "really about maternity." Conceived and produced before and during her recent pregnancy, it seems dedicated to her infant son and the world he will inherit. "Don't we have to respond to people who don't seem 'normal' to us?" she wonders. "Will my child grow up able to accept that not everyone looks the same?" It is as if Burson has remade the epochal Family of Man exhibition for the electronic generation.

© 2002