Eyes are considered the windows to the soul, as unique identifiers. Every iris is as singular as one’s own being; they cannot be duplicated. Or can they? In the following essay, first published by Pearl/Ominira, writer and musician Gunnar Wendel explores the human iris as an object. The eye’s surface can be scanned and turned into data that can be stored and used—making it a transactional medium. Wendel further analyzes the implications for its artificial rendering: simulating eyes means simulating history; mimicking perception means deciding on what the eyes can see and what stories they tell. Modeled eyes are never whole, so how can we make them look real? By looking at the iris, Wendel discusses the fading of the real—eyes that disappear into the realm of rendering and technology.
The film opens with an extreme close-up of an iris. It belongs to Michael Fassbender, here appearing as David, an artificial human being. What do we see? An enhanced digital shot of a human iris that is supposed to be read as an artificial iris or, more in tune with the grandeur of the Alien reboot, an artificial soul that we glimpse for a few seconds. I became obsessed with the idea of finding another shot to compare it with, another image of Fassbender’s iris, to check for differences, clues to the production methods and effects, etc., and so I started watching random films starring Fassbender in search of this one image, only to find myself disappointed time and again. I watched hours of the man gazing thoughtfully into space, bleeding, masturbating, getting his head ripped off, and lashing people with his belt. No close-ups, just passing glances and intent stares from a distance.
Whether I actually ever saw Fassbender’s iris, I cannot tell. The original image that sparked my interest may well have been a fabrication from the very beginning: less the picture of one actor’s iris as the rendering of a long shadow cast by his gaze, looking out from the screen, but only ever catching his own reflection in a lens. What I saw was already a reversed process, light projected outward from the eye. An image of Baudelaire reading his own words: shadows themselves are pictures in which there live, darting from my eyes by the thousand, vanished entities with familiar faces.
The conventional meaning of the iris describes it in terms of fibrovascular and epithelial layers, an inner organ that controls the amount of light reaching the retina. As part of the eye it influences our perception of the environment, the light and information we receive from the world around us. The intricate structure of the iris is unique in every individual: it is stable, it does not change over time. Its details are particularly apparent in near-infrared images, and iris images recorded at this wavelength are widely used in security applications that exploit the unique characteristics of the human iris.
The iris is less a shadow, less a soul, than an object, a token used by people in transactions yet never exchanged. They go to the cashier, who takes the information from their eyes. In 2016 the United Nations World Food Program rolled out an iris scan payment system in the refugee camps it managed in Jordan. The shops in the camps became testing grounds for a novel technology, an experiment enacted in real time in a joint effort of the UNHCR; IrisGuard, a tech start-up from the UK; Jordan Ahli Bank; and the Syrian refugees that inhabited the camps.
The technology allows the refugees to purchase food from local shops using a scan of their eye instead of cash. The scans are matched with the UN Refugee Agency’s biometric registration data, described by UNHCR as an effort to become more efficient and enhance accountability. “Know them from their eyes.” The refugees provide knowledge; in turn they become more efficient and enhance their accountability. Simple exchanges: for the refugee, the iris grants income; for the start-up, the collection and handling of iris data generates income.
This is all you have: a scan of your iris entered into a database, with your consent – whatever that means in a refugee camp – and you may purchase what your iris affords. A poor person’s iris can be known and catalogued. The irises of billionaires remain unknown, they will never be found in the databases. If they were, you could print them out, paste them onto a contact lens and your financial worries would be over. People have done this, albeit with irides of lesser value. What might be the value of Fassbender’s, or indeed David’s, iris? What could it afford?
Know them from their eyes. The iris isn’t real. It is used as an exploit to offer a service. The iris as a unique identifier, stable and unchanging like its scan in the database. An item that cues up expanded stats: age, name, date of birth, credit, and so forth; another trade item in a set of data. Authentication is reversed. The real object gains legitimacy by being compared to its image. It is the image that defines a true state or, more precisely, the technical process of comparison: the reflection of the scanner on your eyes. But if the image holds the power to validate real objects, what happens when you compare the image to other images? Is this transaction validated as well? For the workings of the system it makes no difference whether the iris is real or rendered, an image of an artificial eye compared to another image of an artificial eye.
A line: from the eye point through the viewing plane (a layer of pixels), bouncing from one object to another until it reaches back to the light. These eyes don’t see anything, they do not reflect anything. No light reaches them. Rendered eyes are never whole. To be complete they need something outside them: a calm lake, a gravel pit, the rise of a distant sun, a startled animal that returns their gaze, a room with a window frame casting a shadow. The objects and images themselves are irrelevant and exchangeable; what matters is their reflection on the outer surface of the eye. The reflection itself becomes a trace of the real. The crude appeal of early examples of rendered eyes can be attributed to their blankness, their lack of reflection. Windows often appear in these eyes—as if these eyes only became visible in confined spaces.
Window frames are a pronounced structure and their reflection provides an easily visible trace even at low resolution: a shadow across these eyes that refers back to an enclosed space, as well as a larger world beyond it. Although this world can remain vague and indistinct, overexposed into a radiant glow. The rendered eyes could belong to imaginary doppelgängers of the people working the streets below Joyce Baronio’s 42nd Street Studio, where the photographer created a series of portraits that are also a homage to the confined space of her studio. Each of the portraits is marked by signature shadows and corners, as if the room itself, and the light from the city outside, was superimposed on the images. The space expands; it becomes larger, more expressive, leaving a trace on the skin of the models. Much like a scene that only exists to grant realism to an imaginary object, to reflect on the rendered iris, a room that gazes into the void.
The things we see in the world around us are illuminated by light sources that emit rays, or streams of photons, traveling on the same path until their progress is interrupted by a surface. When an object blocks the light, it creates shadows. The light can be reflected from one object to another, such as when we see the images of one object reflected in the surface of another. When light changes as it passes through transparent or semi-transparent objects, like glass or water, it is refracted. As the light continues to travel in other directions, the process is repeated once the rays hit other surfaces. The results of these effects are changes in color intensity and hue. Ray tracing assumes these values as pixel color and illumination levels. The final rendered pixel color is affected by the color and lighting information of all the objects a ray travels through or bounces off in a scene. The applied mathematics of visual representation: the area of light simulation equals the number of visible shadow rays divided by the number of all shadow rays. This is how you make realistic eyes.
To render images, the ray tracing process does something remarkable: it reverses the direction of the light. The scene is imagined from the vantage point of the eye. The rays travel back to the light source. “Whether the light emanates from outside us before it is interiorised by the eye … or whether the light emanates from inside and projects the entity, as in hallucination or in certain dreams, makes little difference in this context,” wrote Paul de Man on Baudelaire’s “Obsession.” In ray tracing the eye no longer sees something outside itself, but observes a scene of its own making, an image projected outward from the iris. The process demands the existence of an imaginary eye object, the result is a photorealistic world built of shadow rays with no existence beyond its relation to the eye. In the real world, due to the time it takes the photons to reach our eye, everything we see is already a thing of the past. To make the artificial eye believable, it takes a rendered scene from a fictional past to be reflected in the eye. But this fictional past is only a past by implication, in the sense that it mimics our perception. The reversal of direction in ray tracing is instantaneous. The simulated past exists at the same time as the simulated present. There is no time difference here, computational time flattens the temporal scope of the image. History, personal experience, real-life events: they can lead you to a refugee camp, to the city streets or into a closed room, but all these trajectories are meaningless here. Nothing ever led up to this point.
There are other possibilities. The iris object can be multiplied by the thousand. An expanding set of unique identifiers exposed to our methods. We can create ray traced images of an eye which reflects another rendered eye observing a third artificial eye. The layers accumulate, the rays travel back to improbable sources. What makes an eye appear as real is a further reflection, the reflection of a world in another eye. A different sphere. In the late 1970s, while Joyce Baronio portrayed the sex workers that mingled in the streets below her studio, the ray tracing technique evolved through experiments with shading processors that used spheres as test objects. Looking at such an image is like looking at grains of sand on a rendered beach, gazing into a myriad of crystal spheres, searching for a light source that can never be found.
Where does the light that a rendered iris processes come from? You can build and render eyes with dedicated software. You shape the sphere and sculpt the iris. You activate Radial Symmetry. You draw fibers, you spray lines. You smooth them out. You add fibrous color variation. After that you turn to the Cornea, the outer eye. This is the shape where the reflections happen. In the software you need to choose material properties for the inner and outer eye to render the textures. You set the inner eye to plastic and the outer eye to glass. This is to enable refraction: the movement of light through transparent things. The human cornea has a refraction index of about 1.376. You enter properties in the material dialogue window and then you see an image of the world, real or artificial, reflected in the model of the eye. A quarry at sunset maybe. Pink and pastel marbles, unmoving, reflecting.