An Interview with Yara Flores
The New York-based artist Yara Flores makes work that engages questions of technology, spirituality, identity, and history. Her 2016 exhibition at Raygun, Greebles, extends a project first presented in 2015 as part of Asad Raza’s Home Show. We had this exchange with Yara as the show went up.
Raygun: How did you come to be interested/engage with Greebles?
Yara Flores: I first encountered the little Weeble-Wobble critters called “Greebles” in 2009, in the course of a series of conversations with neuroscientists and experimental psychologists working at Columbia University—a number of whom were associated with the Humanities and Neuroscience Project. I read a few of the early papers that made use of these image/object/forms, and I was struck by them in several ways.
Raygun: By their sculptural qualities?
Yara Flores: Yes, for sure. They are charismatic figurines—humanoid, pudgy and, even though a few of them can look bizarrely menacing (with their horns and outlandish, erect, faceted little robot-cocks), they all seem to register visually in that liminal range of the affective spectrum we designate by the nebulas term “cute.” But there were other things too. I have always been intrigued by questions of taxonomy—by problems of sorting and organization. So the genus/species set structure of the Greebles made an immediate impression. In fact, of course, it is perhaps more correct in the case of the Greebles to say that the basic architecture is more family/gender. But immediately one is left a host of questions: Why does the language of gender seem to make sense here? Why did the scientists who developed the Greebles conjure these forms and this formal configuration of the set? What kind of fantasy life of the laboratory found expression in these virtual stimuli—since that is what they were originally intended to be, visual stimuli in a bunch of experiments on human perception.
Raygun: What do you know about these experiments?
Yara Flores: I’m not an expert, but I have a basic understanding of the kind of research for which the Greebles were developed. The Greebles were originally designed by Isabel Gauthier and Scott Yu in 1996/1997 when the former was a graduate student at Yale University. Gauthier was working in a large and well-established field of research that spans psychology and neuroscience: facial recognition. It turns out that human beings (like a number of other animals) demonstrate some pretty specific capacities when it comes time to make sense of the faces of members of our own species. This would make sense from an adaptive perspective. Being able quickly and accurately to identify individuals is a super important element of successful social existence. One good example of what seems to make our face recognition abilities special is that we seem to see faces “holistically” in a special way—meaning, we have a lot more trouble recognizing faces when they are turned upside-down than we do recognizing other patterns or scenes when they are inverted. Gauthier wanted to look closely at this kind of result. To do so, she and her colleagues wanted to develop a group of non-face visual stimuli that while not faces, had enough structural similarity to a face (meaning they would present adequately parallel visual information—e.g., component parts that vary by size and shape, general symmetry, some possibility of being sorted by type as well as being recognized on an “individual” basis) that they could serve as a consistent and illuminating “control” in further investigations. The ideal stimulus they were looking for needed to be comparable to a face, but not a face. The set of objects we know as “Greebles” were the result.
Raygun: So Greebles are “not faces”?
Yara Flores: Exactly. Greebles are non-faces. In fact, one of the things that made them so interesting to me is that they are, effectively anti-faces. In a strange way I think this shows. When you look at a Greeble, it reads as “faceless.” But they are definitely more than just faceless. They are, you might say, the opposite of a face. And there have been hundreds of papers that deal with Greebles in this way. At the same time, they are so incredibly humanoid, that it is probably crazy to suggest that they are the “opposite” of a face—after all, they look like little people-things!
Raygun: In the experimental work you are describing, were the Greebles presented in physical form?
Yara Flores: No. As a rule, no. The vast majority of the research done on Greebles makes use of their original form—as 3D graphical forms, rendered for display to an experimental subject on a monitor of some sort. They were essentially virtual.
Raygun: You couldn’t hold them in your hand.
Yara Flores: Right. Exactly. And I wanted to “materialize” them. And that was the first step in this project. Making the Greebles into physical forms.
Raygun: Why did you want to do that?
Yara Flores: Hard to say, really. Maybe the best way to put it would be this: much of the work in neuroscience goes into understanding how the world “takes form” in the mind. Greebles can perhaps be thought of as reversing that vector. I worked for a time with a neuroscientists and a sculptor friend of mine on a project that then reversed the reversal: we taught the sculptor to recognize the Greebles by touch alone, and then did some FMRI work with him to look at the inner dynamics of his brain as he “saw” (in his mind) the Greeble-form he was touching. Or this was the idea, anyway.
Raygun: What came of all of that?
Yara Flores: We ran out of money, basically. But the work reflected my interest in these iterative moves between the virtual and the material—sort of like a game of whisper-down-the- lane between the mind and the body; cyclical transductions, with all the information loss and error-amplification that such cycles imply. Except in this domain, it is hard to parse losses from gains, insights from oversights.
Raygun: When we first started working with you, we were under the impression that we were going to be working with D. Graham Burnett. He passed us on to you, suggesting your work was more relevant than his. We subsequently looked around online, and elsewhere, and got the sense that you and he might actually be the same person (Burnett lists work by you under a section of his work that he calls “Apocrypha, Pseudonymities, Experiments”). What is going on with that?
Yara Flores: Burnett and I have collaborated over the years, and we certainly have overlapping interests, and a good deal of shared experience. There’s definitely a backstory on our respective identities, and their zones of convergence, the virtual and the real, taxonomy and systematics. There is no bad blood. But there is certainly some pain. Neither of us talks about it much. We are still working it out. When I work, I have him in mind. When he works, he has me in mind. Sometimes we actually work together. But mostly not. Not sure it matters here. But perhaps it does. Maybe ask him?
Raygun: Thank you for your time.