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John Tonkin: identity tourism

Linda Carroli

Linda Carroli is a Brisbane-based writer and Australian editor of Fine Art Forum

John Tonkin, Personal Eugenics, Queensland Art Gallery 2001	John Tonkin, Personal Eugenics, Queensland Art Gallery 2001
photo Ric Aqui
To take something at face value is to take it as it comes or as it appears, without prejudice and expectation. How possible is it to take something ‘as it comes’, especially our faces, when they are so coded, inscribed and readable? Of the abstract machinery of faciality and facialisation, Deleuze and Guattari write, “the face is a surface: facial traits, lines, wrinkles; long face, square face, triangular face; the face is a map, even when it is applied to and wraps around a volume, even when it surrounds and borders cavities that are now no more than holes” (A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

So, our faces are subjectified, signs and signifiers: currency in various exchanges, caught between the value and virtue of beauty, residual eugenics and the sexual selection of Mr Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Artist John Tonkin explained that eugenics is a close relative of evolution, having been developed by none other than Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, in the late 19th century. Tonkin, speaking at an Artist’s Talk at the Queensland Art Gallery about his life as an artist, described eugenics as an enlightenment project that developed a “real obsession with working out the interior of things from the exterior.”

For Tonkin, there are sinister comparisons between the ‘sciences’ of eugenics and physiognomy and the Human Genome Project. “It seemed to me that there were parallels with what was happening a couple of hundred years ago and what was happening now…Today’s science is tomorrow’s bad science.” Since 1992, Tonkin has appropriated these sciences for a body of work comprising elective physiognomies, elective masculinities and personal eugenics. As he speaks, he quotes from various texts: about “traits of industry, integrity and genuine piety” and how “physiognomy takes cognisance of races and nations as well as of individuals.”

When Tonkin appropriates the tropes of eugenics and the Human Genome Project in his programmed and installation-based interactives, he makes it all about YOU—your imperfections, your survival, your readings, your prejudices. Entering into a game of portraiture with the user, there’s a give and take of data which the artist collects for ongoing analysis. The data is averaged to create a “public consensus” of sorts. Tonkin’s practice tests the assumptions (and practices) of science, subjectivity and technoculture. In this era of an emergent ‘posthuman’, eugenics is something we do to ourselves, caught up in the rush of ‘self-help’ and ‘self-improvement’, to become something else or to invest ourselves with other qualities.

In personal eugenics, exhibited at the QAG as part of A Centenary of Faces, users manipulate images of their faces to become someone else. It’s as easy and as fast as changing an online nickname. Each user has their photo taken and decides how they want to “evolve” (eg become more considerate). Then the work produces several variations and the user decides which of those s/he wants to evolve. “When you choose one of those you choose which one survives to the next generation…You can actually do as many generations as you like—there’s nothing stopping you going to a total extreme.” As in eugenics, behavioural qualities are translated into physical traits. The user receives 2 hard copies of the result: one goes onto the wall of the ‘kiosk’ and the other is for the user, a souvenir of their foray into ‘identity tourism.’

Similarly, with elastic masculinities users can construct a body, manipulating a digital image to develop a picture of a ‘sensual’ or ‘vulnerable’ body. “With this piece I was also interested in how fluid our sense of our own body is…How day to day your sense of shape changes with your state of mind.” In a survey, you put your perceptions to the test for elective physiognomies. In accordance with a list of qualities such as ‘trustworthiness’, the user categorises 5 manipulations of the artist’s face.

During his 2 year Australia Council New Media Arts Fellowship, Tonkin commenced work on a grand unified theory of self, focused on the correlation and collection of ‘data.’ Again driven by user interaction, this work will let users correlate their own behaviours (eg how much coffee they drink) with global activities such as share performance on the stock market. Engaging chaos theory to a degree, individuals can monitor how their actions and habits are impacting on the world. Tonkin’s works occupy the juncture of the subjective and the scientific, poking fun at some persistent ideas about determinism, reductivism, empiricism and perceptual systems.


John Tonkin: Artist’s Talk, Queensland Art Gallery, March 23; personal eugenics, part of A Centenary of Faces: Celebrating the Centenary of Federation, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, March 29-June 3

Linda Carroli is a Brisbane-based writer and Australian editor of Fine Art Forum

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 22

© Linda Carroli; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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