Returning the Gaze is an cyber-physical robotic installation by Iranian-American artist Behnaz Farahi for the ANNAKIKI show at Milan Fashion Week, Spring 2022. The project includes a spacesuit-looking helmet with cameras facing the wearer’s eyes, which are then projected, supersized, on 4 widescreen displays each VESA-mounted to UR10e robotic arms (only €35,500 each). The idea is the model can stare back at onlookers, resisting the heterosexual objectification.
“Models are always walking on stage, with viewers looking at the models. The notion of gaze and staring are so dominant in this process,” says Farahi. “I wanted this project to address and challenge the logic of a runway show.”
“You already have this logic of the gaze, inviting it in when you’re a model walking on the catwalk. Having said that, we hear a lot of stories in the fashion world of how women are constantly victims of unwanted sexual attention backstage, during it, or after the shows. [I] don’t necessarily want everyone to feel absolutely uncomfortable and not look, but to start having conversations about the notion of the gaze. Historically, people are not aware how they look [at someone else]. Sometimes, gaze can be obtrusive, and sometimes it can be more inviting.”
While a runway show by definition requires onlookers to look at the models, I appreciate how Farahi created this installation as a one-off opportunity for viewers to contemplate their gaze, sometimes for the first time. The magnified camera feeds say a lot on their own, but if stationary, might provide yet more surface area for onlookers to stare at. By adding the interaction of tracking the subtle movements of the model & magnifying them with the robotic arms, the movement trumps the visual of the eyes themselves, reversing the feeling of looking. The software running includes Unity (C#), Rhino (Grasshopper) for the arm movements, and OBS Studio for managing the video feeds.
While adding complexity to the design, physical installation, safety considerations, and more, this project could be more powerful if the robotic arms were on wheels, following the model like a small army around the room. As the onlookers gawk, she could not only stare back, but advance, making the crowd retreat. Keeping the model stationary keeps her in a zoo-animal/display-case archetype that works against the idea of the installation, even if it remains effective.