A woman is having her eyelids painted: one electric turquoise and the other orange, with a crisp, curving outline. Bright pink blush is swept over her cheek, and lip liner exaggerates her smile, with the first sweep of the pencil creating a bowed mark like a graffiti mustache. At one point, she turns to the camera with a grin that starts to feel discomfiting as the shot lingers on her. “[Paul] Gaugin said you had to use a green that’s greener than nature intended,” the narrator intones. “He called this ‘truth in falsehood.’”
This very unusual makeup tutorial, starring designer Tracy Ma, is part of a video by the artist Sara Cwynar and Cierra Sherwin, the director of Color Product Development at Glossier, which they co-produced for the digital arts organization Rhizome’s tenth iteration of art-tech conference 7×7 (pronounced Seven on Seven) last Saturday. Each year, the event pairs seven artists with seven technologists, who meet, develop ideas, and, at the end of a few weeks, present their cooperative project before an audience the New Museum. Previous editions of the conference featured an artificial intelligence tasked with fashioning conservative memes from Blingee GIFs and a narrated slideshow Miranda July and Paul Ford put together by culling intimate details from the event’s attendees’ social media profiles.
This year, about half of the presentations required a rudimentary understanding of blockchain technology, with Cwynar and Sherwin’s a notable and appreciated exception. Instead, they presented a critical survey of beauty in collaboration with makeup artist Shayna Gold, splicing together clips from a variety of sources, including instruction from 1980s makeup artist Barbara Daly (the genius responsible for Princess Diana’s wedding makeup!) with contemporary YouTube videos to address the ambivalent politics of makeup tutorials in general. Their video cites Judith L. Goldstein’s 1993 academic essay “The Female Aesthetic Community”: “The aim of the makeover tapes is a double transformation: first a transformation of faces from less ideal to more ideal…and second, a transformation of the gaze of the viewer. The gaze must be transformed from innocent (or uninformed/unformed) vision to critical judgment.” Clearly, this is a work aware of its own lineage: “[Ma] poses so ironically,” Cwynar said. “She poses with the history of the ways women have been represented in mind, which is essential for this video that is a bit of a parody.”
From her work at Glossier, Sherwin knows firsthand the granular technical considerations that go into producing beauty products, but said that the collaboration provided a new way to see her industry. “I’m really inspired by Sara’s work,” she said. “It forced me to take a more macro lens on what I do, and the influence that the products we create have on women and on society.”
For Cwynar’s part, she had been researching makeup production for a new work and found that, like the latest and greatest in digital technology, details are kept opaque by companies that have invested in its development and want to protect trade secrets. “[Makeup] is such a labor-intensive process,” she noted. “I was thinking about how photography used to be considered a lowbrow art, and so did makeup application.” It’s true that beauty doesn’t fit neatly into a discourse on technology or art, but perhaps that’s because the parameters of such have historically been defined by those unconcerned with or unburdened by high standards for personal appearance.