Object 31

IN HUMAN

2029, National Portrait Gallery, England

This object is the artwork IN HUMAN, which you've surely seen before — but rather than explain its significance myself, let's see how Jieun Cho described the piece when it won the prestigious Waveguide Portrait Award in 2029.

Thirty years ago, I visited the National Portrait Gallery for the first time. By all accounts, I was a difficult and obnoxious child, prone to running around the galleries as if I were playing Grand Theft Auto, one of the gaming classics of the time.

The only thing I remember from that visit was wondering out loud why we were looking at paintings of people when photographs or 3D models were much better, and how any of these quite literally dead and boring people managed to sit still for so long.

Fortunately, a kindly attendant — no doubt a volunteer whose passion had not yet been crushed by legions of indifferent children and tourists — took the time to explain to me how portraits are more than just snapshots in time; how artists seek to capture the essence and personality of an individual. He told me that sitters don’t just sit on a chair for hours; there is often good conversation and entertainment going on with the artist 'out of shot'.

I was impressed — clearly these old people weren't quite as stupid as I'd thought. I eventually embarked on a period of intensive study over the next couple of decades that both edified and enriched my understanding of art, and also made me profoundly unemployable.

Thirty years on, portraiture remains as relevant to the world as it was then, which is to say: not very. Yet not everything that is important is relevant. A portrait can provide a deep insight into the human condition that’s different from any other form, and as long as a few still believe that, the practice will continue.

More than a million people have viewed the works on display at the Waveguide Portrait Award in London this year, which is certainly more than just 'a few'. This is mainly thanks to the rule changes in 2022 which dramatically broadened the range of works eligible for the award beyond the traditional, along with the very welcome change in sponsorship compared to the two preceding reprobates.

Quite predictably, the first year under the new rules saw a rash of entries concerning data visualisations, 3D recreations, soundscapes, and a lot of other complete nonsense. The judges, who thought that total immersion glasses were utter magic, were initially dazzled by the new digital possibilities, but within a couple of years the art world's trademark cynicism kicked into gear. More recently, we've seen a return to normal service with the finalists all still mostly working with traditional physical materials.

I imagine the judges in 2022 thought that perhaps one day someone would figure out how to translate the spirit of portraiture into digital form and would thus be eligible for the grand prize — but they also thought that was many years away. Until then, digital artists would have to bide their time by adding a bit of pizazz to proceedings.

This year's winning artist, Mark Bruesselbach, has arrived considerably earlier than expected.

Bruesselbach is an extreme self-quantifier. Since he was a teenager, he has recorded practically every single second of his life through necklaces, glasses, and medical devices. From this data, he's created a thousand vignettes — audio, video, maps, interactive 3D models and animations — of his conscious and unconscious reactions to external stimuli, summed and averaged over the last three years of his life: how he thumbs his nose after walking up a flight of stairs; how he consistently frowns lopsidedly at a three degree counterclockwise angle after receiving a troubling email; all displayed in a mixture of 3D projection and virtual reality.

Some of these reactions happen instantly, but others only reveal themselves after months or years. Adverts, for example, alter his buying patterns gradually but inexorably, based on repeated exposure; news articles shape his opinions in the same way. His drinking habits and eating habits change like clockwork according to his friends and newsfeeds; the games he plays, the books he reads, the food he eats, are all predictable. It's very impressive, from a technical point of view, and it’s these data that form the core of his self-portrait, IN HUMAN.

My first reaction to IN HUMAN was one of deep scepticism; it seemed like a facile inversion of the usual idea of a portrait. Instead of seeing the essential likeness of a subject, here we see the portrait of a robot, as easily replicated by a mimic script as anything else. After seeing him tell the same joke 14 times in response to meeting a person of the opposite sex higher in the social hierarchy, one begins to wonder if anyone is inside.

Yet there are idiosyncrasies. He may sign-off from an SMS chat in the same six ways every single time, but the sign-offs are very much unique to him. He'll walk through the park with the same gait, smile the same way when he sees a photo of a dog, unconsciously smooth back his thinning hair whenever he spies himself in a mirror, but the totality of those responses can't be found in any other human.

What’s more, nowhere in the thousand summed vignettes of his self-portrait are significant moments from his relationships. Nowhere is the moment he lost his sister in a climbing accident. Nowhere is the night where he contemplated suicide. I don't believe that Bruesselbach has simply removed them — there are more than enough embarrassing moments in this portrait already. The reason why they are missing is because there is no pattern to them.

What makes us human? Bruesselbach's self-portrait leaves the answer open to the viewer. Perhaps his soul lies in the unpredictable gaps that pattern-matchers can't trace back to stimuli, a random roll of dice in the sealed black boxes of our brains. Or perhaps it lies in the very responses that we have developed — the ones that our partners and lovers would recognise and regret if they were lost. Robots we may be, but at least we are one-of-a-kind.

Has Bruesselbach stripped away his identity and agency in this portrait, or has he bared its essence? I see a soul in there, a person who cannot be reduced to a pattern, no matter how complex. But I can guarantee that you won't respond to IN HUMAN in the same way I did.