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The Human Mirror
Gaze Into Nancy Burson's 'Race Machine' and See the Similarities in Diversity

By Eileen Rivers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 3, 2005

BALTIMORE

Miles Hawthorne scoots forward on a small stool and moves his face side to side before he snaps his picture. At the black console on the second floor of the American Visionary Art Museum, he tries to align his face with a grid that stares back at him from behind the glass-enclosed front of the machine, which looks like a minimalist version of a mall photo booth.

He clicks a mouse and a screen shows a grainy black-and-white picture of the 30-year-old student, who has olive skin, a long, rounded nose, large eyes and a full mouth.

Within seconds, the machine morphs his image, projecting color photos of how Hawthorne, who considers himself white, would look if he were Asian, black, Hispanic, East Indian and Middle Eastern. Hawthorne, a fine-arts major at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., says he sees a bit of himself in each picture.

That's exactly what SoHo artist Nancy Burson was going for.

"The Human Race Machine," created by Burson in 2000 for London's Millennium Dome, is at the museum through September as part of an exhibit titled "Gender, Race and Class Do Not Equal Character," which features works by local and national artists that explore perceptions of race, gender and class and their effects on social behavior.

The exhibit, which opened in October, has been popular, said Pete Hilsee, the museum's director of communications. And Burson's work has been one of its biggest draws.

The machine, the artist said, is based on one philosophy: that the similarities between people of various races far outweigh the differences. To Burson, who is white, there aren't different races, just one -- the human race, she said. The best way to show that, she thought, would be to give people the chance to manipulate their ethnicity and see themselves differently, even if only momentarily.

"It's really interesting to step into somebody else's shoes," said Burson, 57. "It really gives you the experience, even if for a few seconds, to see who you could have been.

"Somebody [recently] said to me, 'There's no gene for race.' And I said: 'What? Why don't we know that? Why isn't this information out there?' I thought the information was so huge and I still do, and I don't think people understand that."

Hawthorne -- who said he has a varied ethnic background that "often confuses people who try to categorize me by race" -- said he had been waiting to glimpse the piece since he read about it two years ago.

"I thought it would give people, maybe especially of mixed race in their background, insight about other possibilities," he said. "There's a lot of people who fall in like an in-between category, what [might] be considered racial androgyny. I think people have a difficult time with that. What exactly are the rules that make up race? In the end, they don't really mean anything."

On a recent weekday, more than 50 ninth- through 12th-graders from Century High School in Carroll County, which is predominantly white, lined up to use the machine during a field trip.

Nicole Diem, an art history, ceramics and drawing teacher at the school, said she believes the machine helped her students broaden their cultural and racial perspectives.

"I think that it gave them a much better understanding of a variety of cultures and how they can see themselves within that culture," Diem said. "We live in rural Carroll County. There's not a whole lot of variety."

Marwa Morsi, a 16-year-old junior in the school's Arts, Humanities and Communications Academy, was taken by the machine's promotion of unity. The deeper message of the race machine, said Morsi, who is of Middle Eastern descent, was that "everyone's the same on the inside. It's the outside that's different."

Burson was commissioned to create the work by directors of the Millennium Dome, a series of interactive and mixed-media exhibits presented through 2000 in Greenwich, England, to celebrate the new millennium.

When they approached her in 1998, Burson was thrilled to be a part of the exhibit, but she did not know what she was going to present, she said.

Together, Burson and Zaha Hadid, a London-based architect and one of the program's directors, brainstormed and came up with the race machine.

The machine's mechanics are almost as complex as the philosophy behind it.

A digital camera takes a picture of your face. You then plot specific points -- your eyes, nose and mouth -- on a grid and then select a "race" (the machine categorizes the options as black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Middle Eastern or white). The machine blends your picture with a composite photograph of whatever ethnicity you have chosen.

The artistic process, Burson said, was sometimes a struggle.

When she started the project, she hired students from New York University, where Burson was an art professor from 1988 to 1994, to photograph people of various ethnicities.

Then Burson chose the "most representative photographs of each race" to develop composites, she said, adding that this process was the most difficult. She felt as if it went against the principles of nonjudgment and racial unity the machine was meant to represent, she said.

"I struggled with . . . 'You know, everybody is beautiful to me. Now I have to decide what's going to look better. What's going to blend better. What composite can I arrive at that's going to blend with everybody's faces,' " Burson recalled. "I felt like I was judging people on their appearance."

Her then-husband, David Kramlich, developed the computer software for the project. It took a year to pull it all together.

Burson's race machines (several are in circulation) have toured museums, colleges and universities throughout the country. One machine is on permanent exhibit at the New York Hall of Science. The machine was featured in the PBS documentary "Race: The Power of an Illusion," said Diane Thompson, office administrator of Wolfman Productions, the company that represents Burson's project. The machine also appeared on an episode of the network's "Egg, the Arts Show."

Over the past five years, the machine also has met with scrutiny.

One critic, Burson said, called it a throwback to 19th-century geneticist Sir Francis Galton's theory of eugenics -- which purports that intellectual ability and talent are passed down through race-related DNA.

The Galton comparison might have sprung from the fact that the geneticist, like Burson, used composite pictures of human beings in his work.

But Burson said her motivation for creating composites was vastly different from Galton's. Her goal is not to promote racial superiority, she said.

"When I first came to the art world and thought about what I wanted to do as an artist, there were three areas I was interested in," Burson said. "How we perceive ourselves, how we perceive each other and how we perceive ourselves in the universe."

She started exploring that artistic philosophy in 1968, when she came up with the idea for "The Age Machine" -- a computer-generated device for showing people their projected appearance as they age. Burson's age machine -- a model for her race machine -- was ahead of its time in 1968.

Her first attempt at creating it was unsuccessful. She went to Experiments in Art and Technology -- a New York group founded by arts innovator Robert Rauschenberg -- and was told to come back in a few years when the technology needed to create such a machine might exist, Burson said.

"I'm not a scientist," Burson said by phone from her Manhattan apartment. "I'm an artist and I come up with these ideas."

That idea -- and the warping technology that Burson used and patented in 1981 -- eventually garnered interest from the FBI, which bought the technology from Burson in the early 1980s to create "age-progressed" snapshots of missing children.

Burson continues to focus on ideas of perception in her latest works.

She has created a series of "Mankind" photographs -- composite pictures based on world populations.

The works (each is of either a man or a woman) hang on opposite ends of a public atrium on Wall Street. Much like her race-machine composites, the 12-foot-high "Mankind" composites are made of dozens of photos of people from various races. But this composite "has more of an Asian look" because Asian ethnic groups dominate the world's population, Burson said.

The idea for "Mankind" came from Ursula K. Le Guin's novel "The Lathe of Heaven." In the story, a man dreams about a world in which everyone is the same race.

After discovering that story, she explored the possibility of creating a piece that would illustrate how mankind would look if all races were blended into one.

"When you look inside of us, we're all the same," Burson said. "We're all one."

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