Sonic Physiognomy

Minette Mangahas

A series of scores for music based on the topography of the human face and the unique patterns of the iris, Sonic Physiognomy uses facial scanning and iris identification technology to release rather than encumber our identities from data.

Sonic Physiognomy is my response to the politicization of the human face, drawing a relationship between the historical practices of physiognomy or face reading and the technologies of facial recognition and iris identification used for tracking and surveillance.

It is comprised of two projects.

The first is a form of live sonic portraiture, and comprises an installation wherein participants volunteer to have their face “scanned” and translated into sound. Each song is recorded and made available for download to be used as unique sonic signatures in other applications, such as ringtones on cell phones.

The second uses the unique patterns of the iris in the human eye as notation for music. The scores are performed by musicians and recorded into an album called “Songs to be Seen”.

More info at

(Included in the Personal Statement.)

Most people will be able to interact with the project.

User Scenario
For the Sonic Portraiture installation, a user will approach the kiosk for registration and to get a "reading". I will act as the supervising "nurse" who will take their identification and assign them a number corresponding to a data file that they can then download later. They will receive a card with a url for downloading their sonic portrait later.

I will then usher them onto a pneumatic chair that will lift their head into the scanning pod. Inside the pod, a white light will enable a camera to capture their silhouette from a screen. This will then be read by me on a computer on the outside, where I will play their silhouette into sound that will play in the internal speaker of the pod. While this sonic portrait is playing, a series of bright red scan lines are projected unto their face from a mirror that faces the subject. Once the portait has looped 3 times, a message will appear that will thank the user and direct them to exit.

The Sonic Portrait installation consists of a "scan pod" that is made of over 340 layers of corrugated cardboard in the shape of two interlocking spirals suspended from the ceiling by cable about 5 feet from the floor. Inside the pod is a mirror, LED, plexiglass screen, a pico projector, a portable speaker, and a webcam. The pod is open to allow people to put their heads inside. Beneath the pod is a steel and fiberglass pneumatic chair.

To the side is a station with a computer, screen, mouse, and keyboard. (At the moment I am planning on using my own computer and most of my own components). Next to the computer will be a book for registering users and a stack of registration cards directing users to a web location where they can revisit and download their sonic portraits. (The web component is an element which is still being considered.)

The piece will be constructed the weekend of April 30-May 1. It will be lowered for class presentation and raised in between to allow the space in the lounge to be used by students.