Some Thoughts on the FACE OFF Symposium

Last week, the POP team had the pleasure of attending the Face Off: The Provocations and Possibilities of Masks and Head Coverings online symposium hosted by the Manchester Fashion Institute at Manchester Metropolitan UniversityFor two days, academics, artists and fashion practitioners from the US, UK, Canada, Germany and Russia, to name just some of the countries represented, explored face masks and head coverings from different cultures and for different purposes in the context of practice and theory. Even more exciting: Kat and Katja got to present some of our new research on face coverings, patents and citizenship! 

With the current Covid-19 pandemic, masks (or in some cases the absence of them) have gained unprecedented notoriety not only in professional contexts but also in everyday life. They are not simply a wearable technology fulfilling a particular purpose, that is preventing transmission of Coronavirus, but a political issue in and of themselves. Indeed, in some countries, for example the US, wearing or not wearing a mask in public almost functions as a marker of party allegiance as Therèsa M. Winge from Michigan State University outlined in her keynote. As Republican president Donald Trump and many of his party members and supporters refused to wear mask months into the pandemic, his Democratic opponent Joe Biden was regularly seen wearing one and he is a strong advocate of the practice. 

When Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, masks again became once again a focus for discussion, Winge showed. Many protestors outside the Capitol wore gas masks and similarly protective face coverings to protect their eyes from tear gas or to disguise their identity. However, many of the people breaking into the Capitol kept their faces uncovered, thus, making it easy for authorities to identify them and also demonstrating their continued rejection of public health advice for mask wearing.

Photo credit: @alexiby for Unsplash

Masks (or in some cases the absence of them) have gained unprecedented notoriety not only in professional contexts but also in everyday life.

In her paper “Who is the Sick One Here? Mask refusal and ambivalent social identity in COVID America”, Elizabeth Kealy-Morris likewise engaged with this phenomenon pointing out a connection between masking and masculinity. For some, wearing a mask in the context of Covid-19 could be seen as an effeminate act and thus at odds with core principals of (American) masculinity. 

For the rioters to openly show their face appears important to their self-presentation as those attempting to violently stop the formal appointment of Joe Biden as new President of the United States. Alison Matthews David and Myriam Couturier from Ryerson University in Canada also looked into the connection between masks, criminals past and present and toxic masculinity and shared some interesting archival finds from trial transcripts from the Old Bailey. 

Photo Credit: @tomrdesigns for Unsplash

While Covid-masks and the dress of the Capitol rioters are clearly areas of specific concern at the moment, the symposium did an excellent job at highlighting the diversity and multiplicity of face coverings and headdresses and the various roles they have played – sometimes very explicitly and at other times more subtly – in different social and cultural contexts.

From astronaut helmets, flu veils, hybrid heads, criminals’ balaclavas, and Haitian carnival masks to a specially designed hijab – speakers covered an array of fascinating objects and topics.

In a special artist talk, internationally celebrated German artist Volker Hermes, in conversation with organiser Benjamin Wild, provided compelling insight into his creative process for his ‘Hidden Portraits’ project. Using photoshop, Hermes modifies portraits by painters from the Renaissance to the nineteenth-century to mask or hide the model’s face, ultimately creating a new and stunning composition.

Masks and head coverings can be valuable items for criminals to conceal their identity. However, as Luisina Silver Blanc, an independent academic based in the US, showed in her engrossing presentation on women’s dress in colonial Lima, Peru, disguising one’s face can also be a powerful liberatory practice particularly in societies that openly discriminate women based on race, class, and gender.

Dressed in a long skirt and shawl that covered the head and face many women in nineteenth-century Lima conveniently used this outfit to carve out freedoms for themselves in a society which was governed by strict social norms as well as government regulations about women’s bodies and dress.

Focusing on seventeenth-century France, Jonathan Spangler from Manchester Metropolitan University, likewise showed how masks and hats for men along with etiquette, enhancement and effacement structured life at court and beyond.

Photo credit: @Carolynchristine for Unsplash

Disguising one’s face can be a powerful liberatory practice especially in societies that openly discriminate against women based on race, class, and gender.

Our POP talk was titled “From the Plague Proboscis to Pandemic PPE: Unmasking the inventive socio-histories of face coverings” and provided some insight into 200 years of face coverings in the POP patent archive. Many of the masks in the archive have been designed by men for professional men like firemen, welders, miners or dentists and surgeons.

We argued that this focus on the male body as the blueprint for these items has led, as Kat discussed in a previous blog post, to inadequate provisions for other types of bodies. However, our extensive search in the patent archive over the last few months has also unearthed other types of bodies whose faces get covered and for a variety of reasons.

These included ingenious nineteenth-century waterproof headcovers for the walking woman who might be caught in a storm or downpour. There are many veils specifically for women automobilists that have been invented by women. We’ve also come across privacy screens for the twenty-first-century traveller as well as masks designed to protect people from the transmission of STDs during oral sex or kissing.

And while we’re really only at the beginning in our process of excavating more of these treasures and their histories and the stories of their inventors, they already expand the possibilities of practice, meaning and identity as the needs of a diverse range of people are rendered visible in the archive.

A selection of the patents we mentioned during our presentation.

We very much enjoyed the symposium’s range of talks and the engaged discussion and appreciate all the hard work organisers and speakers have put into the event.

A ‘book of abstracts‘ for all the presentations is available online.