Virtual Missing Children

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Mailbox Values (previously ADVO) has been sending out virtual images of missing children to suburban residences about once a week for a decade.
Mike Mosher

Issue #38, May 1998

Have you seen me? No, because you don't exist. A child is missing from where it's supposed to be, and now you're the closest thing.

Mailbox Values (previously ADVO) has been sending out virtual images of missing children to suburban residences about once a week for a decade. Printed in blue ink, oftentimes using a child's "age progression" -- a computer artist's rendition of how the child might now look, several years after an abduction -- these images have been sponsored by Jiffy-Lube International. Each one boasts "Over 85 children featured here have been recovered" and now includes a web site ( On the back is an advertisement or promotional coupons, for auto repair franchises or carpet cleaning. Does this public service allow it to be mailed at a more favorable rate? Or merely to add importance so the small paper isn't immediately discarded?

In the 1970s the New York photographer Nancy Burson approached technologically-experimental artists and friends at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hoping for access to a computer that could age people in real time, before your very eyes. Told she would have to wait for such a process to exist, she set about developing its software with collaborators Tom Schneider, David Kramlich and Richard Carling.

Many of the synthesized artworks she exhibited in the 1980s were consciously political. The leaders of nuclear weaponry-possessing states were blended in her piece"Warhead" in proportion to their military capability (and all ended up looking like Ronald Reagan). The races of the world were blended in proportion to their population, resulting in a very Asian face. Feminine and masculine standards of beauty were explored by merging the faces of Hollywood stars. These appear in her 1986 book COMPOSITES: Computer Generated Portraits.

Then she was approached by the families and the FBI to create images to help publicize searches for missing children Dee Scofield, Kurt Newton and Etan Patz, and blended the last known photographs of each child with those of older family members for a hypothetically "aged" image of the missing child after several years. Burson later told San Francisco Bay Guardian writer Chuck Stephens, "If you see a computer-enhanced photo of a kid on a milk carton, it's one of ours."

It must be difficult for parents to feel they're protecting their children in a socially dynamic, privatized and community-fragmenting era, but is it any more difficult now than in the past? The phenomenon of child abduction must be seen as political as well as criminological.

v-kids1 A high-profile case is that of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas, abducted from her home in Sonoma, California, whose father Marc Klaas continues to publicize the issue nearly five years later. Polly's convicted abductor Richard Allen Davis barked out at the end of his trial -- if only to squirm out of child-abuser stigma in the unmerciful prison -- that he didn't rape her because she pleaded "Just don't do me like my dad." Psychologist Jeffrey Masson claimed the Freud Archives of which he briefly, stormily, served as Director contains papers that reveal that Sigmund Freud shied away from acknowledging the prevalence of sexually-abused children. The JonBenet Ramsay killing has showed the general public the weird realm of children made up as sexy adults. For Halloween 1997, some California communities proactively enforced "Megan's Law" by distributing maps to trick-or-treaters marking streets that housed convicted sex offenders "within one mile". Yet the maps don't distinguish between offenders convicted of molestation of children and those arrested for consenting adult homosexual acts in the 1950s or 1960s, or between statutory rape charges and consensual sex as between teenage boys and girls their own age.

Despite the way in which the specter of abduction by strangers has been used by "Victims' Rights" groups to initiate laws reducing the rights of prisoners, statistics show that the vast majority of abductions are by one or another parent in domestic disputes. "Angela Brummond, last seen with Sharon Lee Brummond" makes me want to say, "It's OK, she's with her mom." Then I realize that's where the courts have determined little Angela should not be. I can imagine disputes between a police computer artist and the aggrieved parent: "Don't mix my pretty child's picture with the face of that scum bag my ex, use my favorite uncle Ralph instead," until acquiescing in the name of science. The haunting, dubiously-extant faces are schoolyard simulacrae, like the imaginary child of the alcoholic, unhappy, unfaithful academic couple George and Martha in Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. However understandable, what is wanted more fetishistically by the parent than their wrenched-away child?

Real-time "morphing" between moving video images became mainstream in 1991 both with the movie T2 and the Michael Jackson video "Black and White." The video ended with a multiracial sequence of diversely attractive twenty-something types blending into each other as they swayed and mimed to the music. Both resulted in a short-lived glut of morphing in television commercials. Jackson's cheerily democratic message soon disappeared in allegations of his abuse of the young son of someone pressuring him to buy a screenplay. About the same time morphing software like Valis' MetaFlo became available to desktop computer users. In the tradition of Nancy Burson we could all now unnaturally merge both the lion and the lamb.

Artists besides Nancy Burson have synthesized notable images using children, adults, and other material. Inez van Lamsweerde, who also works as a fashion photographer, has created a series of menacing young female children, each wearing the mouth of a twenty-four-year-old man. The visages are strangely cognizant, self-conscious and knowing, empowered and almost leering. Tim Binkley exhibited the installation "Books of Change: Meditations on Metamorphosis" at the 1993 SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in which he and his School of Visual Arts students transmogrified into both wild animals (leopard, frog, ape, eagle, wolf) and into commodities (Volkswagen Bug, box of Crayolas, 1930s Atwater-Kent radio, mainframe or Macintosh computers). The team thus developed metamorphosized metaphors of the untamed and the tamed sides of their New York existence, both the raw and the microwaveably pre-cooked.

v-kids2 A hundred years ago, when society painter John Singer Sargent said "a portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth" he was talking about clients' demands, not van Lamsweerde's new strain of syntheti-child. In the mid-nineteenth century physiognomic studies were considered valid science for purposes of criminology, often abused in racist ways as unscientifically spurious as The Bell Curve.

I've collected many weird little ADVO artworks, these miniature Wanted posters sent in vast quantity to disturb the comfort of other, more complacent households, and press them like flowers between the pages of Burson's book. As artifacts they resemble archeological or other forensic reconstructions where virtual cartilage, muscle and flesh are wrapped convincingly around dry skulls. Like the dinosaurs reconstructed from amber-encased blood DNA in Jurassic Park, enough facts are piled at the front end to be plausible in ADVO's physiognomic science fiction. Biotechnology's patented gene-splicing (tomatoes containing pig genes are one evocative instance) rely heavily on digital imaging and modeling, which may further give computer approximations of missing children such credibility.

Examine how Christopher Milton Dansby goes from two to a contemplative five. Robert Maple Baskin is imagined at a dignified twelve. Jacinta Downer blossoms from toddler to lively teenager. One lost four-year-old progresses to twenty-nine. Scott Allen Kleeschulte may have punker hair if he's thirteen. Megan Ginevicz, last seen at two, is pictured self-possessed at fifteen. Some children -- perhaps cyber-caressed by hands less skillful than Burson's -- look uncomfortable in their skin, with the strange space-case expressions of aged actresses gone a face lift too far.

Nancy Burson went on to photograph seriously physically-challenged children with a primitive plastic Diana camera, the camera providing its own distortions and blurry ambiguity. Between the ages of fifteen and twenty I myself had drawn self-portraits as a fetus, at age 100 and as a flayed corpse. I realize how many of my little gallery of Have You Seen Me? children have -- hopefully -- grown up. Maybe they'll turn up as my own computer media students. Yet their young-adult status is as virtual, distant and uncheckable as the Japanese entertainment firm Hori-Pro's computer-generated slim eighteen-year-old pop singer Kyoko Date. ADVO kids are images of wish-fulfillment, facial maps of a process all too rare, each a safe, healthy, well-fed child who fulfilled hereditary destiny, survived family turmoil and grew up, predictably.

Mike Mosher has taught digital imaging and design in San Francisco State University's Art Department, Inter-Arts Center and Multimedia Studies Program.

Copyright © 1998 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

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