Changing faces

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 April, 2005, 12:00am

It has to be said that given the pressures of life here, New York is a pretty tolerant place. But whether it is white police officers shooting black suspects or black students picking on Asian students at a high school, the tensions do sometimes boil over.

In two recent examples, black DJs on a radio station offended Asians with a parody of the Asian tsunami, while a white school administrator ordered Haitian immigrant fourth-grade pupils to sit on the floor of the school's cafeteria and eat with their hands. 'In Haiti, they treat you like animals, and I will treat you the same way here,' she allegedly said.

Getting people to respect each other's differences and similarities enough to avoid all this is one of the targets of New York-based artist Nancy Burson. She created a computerised device called the human race machine in 1999, which transforms the image of a viewer's face into different races. After taking it on a tour across Europe and the United States, she has now brought it back to New York and has set up an exhibit on Wall Street. Alongside the machine, Burson is showing a piece called The Human Face, which consists of a male and a female face that are composites of the many thousands of people who have been photographed by the machine. They are both oval with yellow-brown skin and every attribute in apparently perfect harmony: eyes, not too large, not too small; nose - not too squat, not too pointed, and so on.

'The whole thing is about moving us through our differences to sameness,' Burson said. 'There is only one race in the world. That's the human race.'

On its opening day last week, the exhibit - which is featured in a public atrium owned by Deutsche Bank - attracted plenty of people wanting to change their race, at least for a few seconds. A black girl sat in the machine, a chamber the size of a telephone booth, and pressed a button. The screen caught the image of her young face impeccably. But the girl did not know what she should do next.

'Click the left button,' an Asian woman waiting behind her suggested. The screen now listed six race options. The girl automatically chose Asian. In about a second, her face with yellow skin, slightly smaller eyes and nose, and thinner lips appeared on the screen.

'Wow!' the crowd erupted. The girl asked excitedly: 'Is this how I would look if I was born as Asian?' 'Did you find that you two actually look similar,' someone in the crowd shouted. 'Maybe we are sisters,' the Asian woman said. People all laughed - for once Wall Street seemed like a place where not everyone eats raw meat for breakfast.