Public Narcissism




The installation "Public Narcissism" is concerned with the representation of the exhibition visitor and his narcissistic relationship with his own image. In doing so, the project "Public Narcissism" merges two classical themes: the motif of Narcissus who falls in love with his own reflection encounters the enchanted mirror in Sleeping Beauty, the fairytale in which a mirror classifies and pronounces judgment on the person facing it. "Public Narcissism" is an installation designed for experimental image processing. Face finding/tracing programs extract facial cutouts of exhibition visitors from the stream of images generated by six video cameras. These portraits are being presented to the visitor via large displays. On a second and third level of processing these portraits are classified by the installation's 'long-term-memory'. Faces grouped into the same category are blended into one image and projected onto a large projection screen.

The Portrait is a traditional discipline in visual arts. The very elaborate human ability to recognize and classify faces always had strong impact on painting, photography and sculpture. It appears to be an intrinsic desire of artists to figure faces, to portray. Equally, it appears to be the desire and the pleasure of the viewer to perceive himself as well as others in the artist's work.
The fascination our own mirror image holds over us has an elementary bearing on what we call self-consciousness. This explicit knowledge we have of ourselves which is derived from recognizing our own mirror image is found only among human beings and some few varieties of mammals.
The magnetism exerted by one’s own reflection appears to be an archetypal factor in the attainment of self-consciousness. Even small children - long before they learn to deal with the abstract symbols, say, of language- can be observed dwelling over reflective surfaces to be entertained by their likeness. Then, in the passage to adulthood, however, this pleasure is spoilt for us, for among adults the "mirror monkey" is looked down on. It is only with the advent of the new media such as video that this form of selfgratification has returned to being socially accepted. Just think of the effect a combined video camera and monitor mounted in a shop window has on passers-by: they are arrested by their video image and seduced into playing with themselves. We readily exploit the increased distance created by a camera image on the monitor, as compared to a simple mirrored reflection, for our own amusement.
The human face is asymmetrical. The features of the two half-faces are often very different. Due to this fact it makes a severe difference whether we see our image mediated by painting, photo, video etc. or in the mirror. It is part of our daily rhythm to regard the own portrait in the mirror at least a few times. But the mirror shows the image inversely. With the actual picture of us (as others see us) we are less often confronted. This is the reason, why our real, mediated face appears to us somewhat unknown or foreign. "Public Narcissism" avoids this visual alienation by simply mirror-inverting the facial image for display.
"Public Narcissism“ attempts to detect human beings and to create a succession of, in the system's sense, idealized portraits. These portraits serve to seduce the visitor into further communication with the system. Portraits are displayed at a maximum rate of approximately ten frames per second so in order to start an interaction all the user has to do is to be present in the camera’s angle of view for a short moment. The average user approaches the system very naturally. As expected, visitors start exploring the system’s reactions instinctively after being portrayed once.
"Public Narcissism" is an interactive computer installation (see fig.1,2), that enables visitors to interface with their own image. During their ride on the big escalator (length 26 meter) in the Konzernforum in Wolfsburg's Autostadt (see fig.3) and while staying on the building's second floor (see fig.4), their image is picked up by six video cameras. These images are captured and processed by several computers. By the time the face-finding software (based upon [Ko, Sc, Ca]) running on this first group of computers is certain enough about having detected a human face, this particular part of the digitized image is magnified and visualized on a large split-screen display located next to the camera the image was taken from.
These selected visitor portraits are also transferred to a second group of computers. This group of PCs constitutes processing level 2 and level 3 of "Public Narcissism" where the installation filters, distributes, classifies and fractional stores the received faces in artificial neural networks (based upon [Ko, Sc]). A wide-screen projection canvas (14m x 4.5m), stretched and suspended from the ceiling, serves as a screen to five data projectors that visualize the currently activated nodes in level 2 and level 3 neural networks (the installation’s long-term memory).
Over a long period (months, years) the computers compare the portraits of the visitors and combine equally classified human figures to a joint portrait (see fig.5). Five Kohonen networks classify the pictures gathered in the course of face recognition. For each of the approximately 300 classification categories the system creates idealized images composed of all the faces which are grouped in this category (see fig.6). Thus in one learning cycle (the longest cycle so far was approx. 8 months, over ½ Mio. visitors) about 300 images are generated, theoretically containing fragments of each visitor’s individual portrait.
The system actually disposes of no prior knowledge. All criteria for classifying the faces are generated directly from the facial traits of the people visiting the installation.
Not unlike the enchanted mirror in Sleeping Beauty, "Public Narcissism" comments on those to appear on its reflective surfaces by offering its internal likeness that was associated with the person facing the installation. While the mirror in the fairy tale makes its interpretation verbally, "Public Narcissism" does so visually.
The visitor and "Public Narcissism" appear to form a symbiotic relationship where the computer system is interested in receiving the images of human faces and in turn delivers dynamic portraits that the visitor joyfully consumes, driven by an essential motor of the human mind: the search for self-consciousness.
Observations showed that many visitors, after playful evaluation of the systems functionality seek assistance in gaining a theoretical understanding of the mechanisms inside "Public Narcissism". An illustrated brochure explaining the details of the project was printed and is handed out by the Autostadt personnel upon request.

Image (Painting) production

For twelve hours a day the installation is in operation. The long-term memory is modified every time a facial image has been collected by one of the face recognition programs and has successfully passed filtering for erroneously recognized objects (filtering occurs on processing level 2). Every evening the synaptic weights of the Kohonen networks in processing level 3 are saved to disk, overwriting previous versions. Examples of theses weight files were collected and converted to image files. So far, a series of postcards, which shows both single long-term-nodes and groups of such nodes taken from the Kohonen networks, was printed and published.
Preparations are in progress to run four succeeding training cycles. Each training cycle will span one quarter of a year. The idea is to let the system generate four allegoric paintings that are intended to represent one season (spring, summer...) each. Detailed information about the particular season will be present in each of the four paintings. Not only will seasonal changes in daylight have a strong influence on the images. Also seasonal differences in visitor clothing and behavior will be represented by the four tableaux. Many other, unpredictable peculiarities of "The four seasons of Public Narcissism" will hopefully condense too in the four allegories and become accessible once the images are printed on large canvases for exhibition.

Pre Public Narcissism

"Public Narcissism" is an advancement of an earlier project: "Narcissism Enterprise". This preceding installation (developed in the years 1996-1999) operates two cameras and three projectors. The long-term memory has only one processing level contrary to the five levels of "Public Narcissism". The installation presents itself as two separate spaces. 1. The interactive user-space. A triptych of projection screens creates a room where two cameras pick up the user’s image. 2. An exhibition space where selected nodes of the long-term memory (see fig.5) are on display as hardcopys on stretched canvas. The neural networks that created these paintings were trained in different cities in preceding exhibition cycles of the installation "Narcissism Enterprise". The installation was previously shown in five cities: Rotterdam, Chicago, Budapest, Hamburg and Venlo. Reactions to the piece were manifestly different in each location. Furthermore, in each country the various classifying facial categories turned out to possess entirely different sets of traits (such as, in the American tableaux, the incidence of categories of people with black skin). The aim of presenting this work over the coming years in various countries and cultures is to assemble a comprehensive collection of facial tableaux.
Going further back in the history of the Narcissism cycle one meets the "Elizabeth Gardner" robot project, a machine, four meter in height and very much inspired by the human vocal apparatus. This robot perceives the museum visitors via a video camera and a microphone and it reacts upon visitor presence with guttural sound expressions. The origin of the software of "Narcissism Enterprise" and "Public Narcissism" lies in the visitor tracking program of this museum-robot build in 1993.

Post Public Narcissism

Also within the field of robotics lies the planning for the next project belonging to the Narcissism cycle. In the near future a miniaturized version of "Public Narcissism" will be developed to help the minirobot "Quasi N" (see fig.7) with orientation. "Quasi Narcissism" is an interactive installation centered around the small robot named "Quasi N". In its habitat, the robot will walk on two legs using its body as a third, supporting leg. It will carry a video camera and transmit the images to a computer installation for analysis and display. This setup will enable the audience to see themselves through the eye of a robot looking for them. The Narcissism Cycle Code in the installation will assist the robot in finding visitors gazing into its habitat.


[Ko] Tuevo Kohonen: "Self-organization and Associative Memory", Springer, Berlin Heidelb. (1984)
[Sc] E.D.Schmitter: "Neuronale Netze - Einführung - praktische Anwendungen".
Hofacker Verlag. ISBN 3-88963-312-9 (1991)
[Ca] Maureen Caudill: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Neural Network Special Report 93.