Harris Kornstein

Rapid Response Fellow 2020 - 2020

Harris is an artist, researcher, and drag queen examining digital culture and queer politics. Their art has been exhibited at festivals like ISEA, MIX, and Piksel, and they recently co-curated SYSTEM FAILURE, an exhibition on failure and new media, for Apex Art (with Cara Rose DeFabio). As drag alter-ego Lil Miss Hot Mess, she has performed at venues ranging from San Francisco’s legendary bar The Stud to SFMOMA and Saturday Night Live. She also co-founded the #MyNameIs campaign that challenged Facebook’s so-called “real names” policy, and is a leader in Drag Queen Story Hour. Lil Miss Hot Mess’s children’s book The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish was published in May 2020 by Running Press Kids. Harris’s writing has appeared in Wired, The Guardian, them., and Salon; their research in Surveillance & Society and a forthcoming anthology on Queer Data; and their art and activism has been covered in the New Yorker and Al Jazeera. Harris holds an MFA in Digital Arts & New Media (UC Santa Cruz), and is pursuing a PhD in Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU.

What do you plan to do during Phase 1 of Rapid Response?

My project Screen Queen Face Fail explores drag makeup as a tactic to confuse facial recognition algorithms by reconfiguring facial features through contouring and embellishment. This project draws on numerous examples of drag queens often being mis-tagged as one another on Facebook, as well as my academic research on the intersections of queerness and surveillance. For this photo project, I am creating an “anti-dataset” of drag queen portraits, with a number of models each photographed in three looks: 1) non-drag, 2) a typical drag look for that performer, and 3) a consistent look inspired by the drag icon Divine that each performer recreates. I upload portraits to Facebook and other platforms to test their efficacy and whether specific techniques generate false matches or fail to identify models. The goal is certainly not to produce more effective surveillance systems, but instead to unpack their current black-boxed algorithms and develop new ways of countering their harms by producing tactics that individuals and communities can accessibly engage—while also highlighting for the public many of the present dangers so that we can push for more collective justice.

How does your work relate to the theme of the open call?

By design, technology often obfuscates its own functions, ideologies, and harms. My work seeks to make these workings more apparent—technically, socially, and politically—by using digital tools in unanticipated ways, with unexpected users, and for unusual purposes. By working in diverse queer/trans contexts, my projects aim to not only envision or build more inclusive and community-driven digital technologies, but also to consider the strategic advantages of being unrecognizable, of exerting our own agency, or strategically failing in the games that were already stacked against us. And it does so in ways that considers the accessibility of such approaches — trying to locate them within queer/trans practices, vernaculars, and organizing. In order to build a better digital futures, I believe we need to rethink not only the bugs of current technology, but also its features, structures, and logics.

What does the future look like to you?

In contrast to the dystopian, authoritarian, and neoliberal future that often feels on the horizon right now, I am hoping to work toward a future that is rooted in care, vulnerability, dependency, and interconnection as principles of justice.

What is your grounding ethos?

Critical engagement with a touch of camp.