Book: Topor, Chris Kraus

Torpor (2006) was first published following I Love Dick (1997) but unlike the earlier book which was named after the man who she relentlessly pursued, Kraus has changed the names of her protagonists (in her case she takes on a version of real-life ex-husband’s name – Sylvie rather than Sylvere), which one is prompted to assume are thinly veiled versions of real people. However, this isn’t an autobiography. Kraus appears to be exploring through process and meta-narrative simulacrum and simulation, as she creates a novelised version of her life. She begins by describing a popular simulation of our lives on TV (Thirtysomething) which many of us  in turn model our lives on, and writes in a way which separates action from reality through text by stating that “it would” have been such and such a thing (future tense when describing the past)…  and later explains what she is doing by describing a character’s academic theory…”…how the cinematic gaze can be deployed to separate reality from the actual”. She uses tense and various disrupted writing conventions to do the same thing.

The book is set in 1991 “the dawning of a new order” just as the internet begins to grow and a decade before the Bubble crash. Kraus quotes Deleuze who says, “We are the last generation to whom things really matter” (199) – when you look at some of the banal online content nowadays it might feel difficult to argue with that sentiment. Kraus compares her life in New York to the lives of the people whose cities she passes through in the Eastern Bloc and those of the people who were murdered in or perhaps survived, with deep wounds, WW2, highlighting and comparing the nihilistic emptiness of her American/French circle and the art world. There and perhaps in the wider European world ‘identity’ is ‘fixed and “…you could sleepwalk through your life, with the right pedigree”; “who you were mattered more than what you did”. This mentality obviously chimes with me, an uneducated nobody who grew up in ‘the colonies’ just as Kraus herself did, and I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with “the fact that millions outside the (white, European make) tradition [who] were now clamouring to be heard did not in these terms constitute a ‘thought’. More like an aggravation.” (196/7)

The book is incredibly rich with references related to all the above throughout  – it is well worth reading, and in terms of my own work helps me to think about how those voices clamouring to be heard today are in fact making an impact – and triggering a deeply entrenched reaction from the establishment. (Establishment is so very boring – there I said it!) There is plenty which is troubling about the way people engage with each other on social media three decades later but things are shifting regardless and society is finding it very painful. It makes me wonder how the ‘the end of civilisation’ narratives out there are being informed by some of these shifts as well as the growth of the extreme right-wing, which itself seems like a reaction against the shifts.

Chapters often begin with a description of Sylvie’s photographs in Arad, the town she visits with her husband and then nearly a decade later on her own. As throughout the rest of the book, these descriptions are a mixture of narrative and critical theory, and so useful for photography students for that reason alone. However, it is also a trope favoured by Kraus who experiments with both forms blurring the two as she asks the underlying question which seems to trigger all the work I know of hers; who gets to speak and why? 

I love Chris Kraus’ work. I think she is an incredibly important writer who voices a seismic shift in cultural discourse. And I suspect she may become more and more important as we venture further away from the old order.

Kraus, C. 2015 Torpor, Penguin, London (Originally published in USA, 2006 by Semiotext(e))


Artist: Bieke Depoorter, As it May Be

This book discussed in the link below by Bieke Depoorter, As it May Be, is a great example of involving the subject in the project – far more than just making people sit and stare at or away from the camera. Depoorter repeatedly returns to the area and has spent several years working towards the book. The images are covered in the written words of the people within them. Seeing the writing on the images exalts the work in some way, somehow helps it to be richer than photographs on their own often are.

From the article: “The square is being evacuated. Two young soldiers are dragging a young woman’s body along the ground. Her long black abaya comes loose, her abdomen exposed. She is wearing blue jeans and a blue bra. She seems to be unconscious. A third soldier stomps on her, the sole of his army-issued boots hitting her bared torso. The camera cannot register the sound of her breastbone cracking.” I wonder if the camera can ever register truly how awful somewhere is. All it can attempt to do is show you what the photographer was able to see, and capture. And then you will only be affected by it if you are interested. And the sheer volume of images placed before our eyes on a daily basis seems to render images more and more meaningless, not to mention the manipulation, the ambition of some photographers triggering dubious behaviour, and the fact that we seem to have become more and more cynical and less and less empathetic (as a society).

“Dialogue and interaction are important but Bieke remains a visitor from the West, a woman, a photographer.” This is a problem I, in my more limited experience in Calais, can identify with for several reasons. However, being female comes with pros and cons. What doesn’t is being a westerner intruding on people’s lives… and for what?

If making marks is a way of making the interior exterior, then the privileged position of the subjects’ written words suggests Depoorter is perhaps doing all she can to make this work a joint expression and one where here subjects get the final say. They have written on the photos and then they get to write on the book.

However, even with all of that, and I truly think Depoorter is one of the most virtuous examples of a photographer trying to tell a story about people who are suffering, even with all of that there is a fetishised otherness in the images that simply cannot be avoided.

Today in the media there was an article about the fact that Cheddar man was dark skinned. Why this should come as a surprise is the question, and although I do appreciate some of the media felt they were questioning/prodding people who have a problem with skin colour, it, in fact, revealed a barely latent attitude of the sort that prompted  to write “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race”. Her reasons, it could be argued, were abundantly clear in the headlines… which I found quite extraordinary as they were so blatant. “Cheddar Man, the first modern human in Britain, had blue eyes… and black skin” The three little dots … in The Times headline were like a drumroll as if to suggest something remarkable and extraordinary. …”these people” in the I love Fucking Science headline on Facebook. Inverted commas in The Independent and The Guardian headlines around dark to black skin. Yes, they were quoting from the research but the heightened marks reveal a sense of frisson at best and something far more troubling at worse.

This deeply embedded and unacknowledged form of racism which exists in our culture makes it difficult to make any work when it’s a white person intruding on a non-white culture. I say all of this at the same time, more or less, as editing a set of images from my latest trip to Dunkirk where I, a white woman, take photographs of people without anything, the vast majority of whom are non-white – or rather, non-western and underprivileged in the most basic way possible – no home, no warmth, no belongings.

Does the writing, the collaboration make this work less ‘otherised’ or more? Does it make it less exploitative than other work in this area? Something for me to consider. I like the work very much but I wonder more and more about it and all the other work that risks fetishising people.

Photobook: Belongs to Joe, Book of Comfort for a Nymphomaniac, Casper Sejersen

Belongs to Joe came about after Sejersen was employed as the publicity photographer for Lars Von Triers’ film Nymphomaniac (2014). After being sent the script, Sejersen asked if he could make the work, separate from the publicity for which he was paid, as a personal response to the film. He was given permission. The book contains the same actors and props and in just a few cases, some images. Sejersen has included references from the film such as the game Canasta, Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu XI, Isaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, Fibonacci numbers, Bach’s principles of composition, as well as the central character’s relationship with trees and nature vs. urban living, which she absorbed from her father. The text in the book comes from the script or else is provided by Cecilie Høgsbro, who receives equal credit on the © information page but not the cover.

After reading a positive review of Belongs to Joe I decided to buy it because I was interested in the way a photographer used someone else’s script to create a body of work. (I have, perhaps since TAOP, been thinking about the possibility of doing this in some way, either making work based on all the characters I played or using a single script.)

I had not seen the film although am familiar with Von Triers’ work, in particular Breaking the Waves. However, it seemed imperative to do so, because despite Sejersen’s insistence the book was made to stand on its own, I found it hard to make any sense of. Here I will summarise the film and discuss some of the most relevant (for me) themes, as well as referring to the book as I go.

 Nymphomaniac – the film

 The film is broken up into two parts, and each of those into several chapters which are titled by the narrator Joe, who tells the story of her life to Seligman in his spare bedroom/study after he finds her injured, beaten in an alley outside his apartment. Joe has been addicted to sex since her teenage years, and during each of the chapters she relates, we hear how she has lived a life, which according to her has made her an extremely bad person. She has cheated on everyone, abandoned her son, earned money by hurting others, and by her own account thoroughly deserves the awful situation Seligman found her in. As mentioned above there are numerous references to cultural, philosophical/theoretical objects and texts from our collective history, which have contributed to the way in which stories are told today.

Seligman invariably likens a scenario he’s heard about from Joe to topics he is interested in, such as The Compleat Angler or Proust, and Joe takes the reference and uses it to create a heading and form a subsequent narrative container. For instance, after mentioning the wrangler book, Joe begins with Chapter One and titles it the same name. Thereafter, metaphors from fishing are used to describe how Joe caught men, such as linking a small beginner’s fly called a nymph, which Seligman has pinned to his wall, to her narrative. And so each chapter emerges in this way from their conversation. Constructing the narrative like this is helped along by episodic editing conventions allowing Joe to travel back and forth in time as parts of the story unfold. And it also makes for a tightly woven set of interlinked conceptual containers into which Von Triers pours a plethora of ideas.

The book relies on Von Triers symbolic references (although I notice it does not include the beautiful images of the angling flies) but until you have seen the film, it is hard to understand how all these elements, such as canasta, dead insects, trees, sexuality, sex, a cat-o-nine tails, a car exploding, a young girl fit together.

How reliable is Joe the narrator?

The story unfolds, however, in such a way as to leave some viewers wondering how much of it is true, in the world of the fiction that is, and how much Joe is making up, or at least re-telling through her own lens, or through the filter of an unreliable memory (as it is with all memory). At times, one wonders, would the title Pathological Liar be more appropriate because some scenarios are extremely difficult to trust – perhaps it is not unreasonable to imagine viewers feeling compelled to try and work out whether it is the character who is unreliable or the writer who might be writing from a warped perspective. The first of these very difficult-to believe-tales is about Joe and her childhood friend who are on a train competing to see how many men they can each have sex with during the journey. Not only are the numbers unbelievable, but the split second, unspoken agreements that lead in most cases to sex in compartment toilets, demand a high level of ‘suspended belief’ in order to swallow. I didn’t completely trust my own response, which was “this has to be male fantasy, and possibly a homo-erotic one” and talked about my thoughts with several other women, one of whom has a history of addiction, having been through two separate addictive episodes in her life, as well as having supported people with addiction in her work, and who I shall refer to here as Emily since some of what she told me is sensitive. Emily, who spoke candidly to me about managing multiple relationships as well as selling sex for money, felt that the number of men Joe was supposedly meant to have slept with was not always believable, and the train scenario might have been plausible had it not been for the way in which sex was negotiated. She didn’t think it was impossible but said, even during her most active moments, she could not have imagined sleeping as many men as Joe. Her own addiction took over her life to the point where she was not feeding her children properly and was only focused on maintaining contact with the men she was seeing at the time. Over a period of 18 months, Emily had sex with nearly 40 men and was sleeping with up to four a week at the peak of her addiction. At no point did she sleep with more than two in one 24-hour period, not even when selling sex some years ago. Joe, on the other hand, talks about seeing several men each night, opening her door to a new visitor still naked because there is no time to get dressed shortly after another had left. I found Emily’s thoughts about addiction useful to think about in relation to the film and most of our conversation ended up being about that. We also discussed feminine sexuality as a commodity, how women are sometimes bought up to believe it is the most valuable thing about them, something or the only thing to rely on in order to survive. And of course, what that does to a female psyche.


I have not read any of Proust and so had to do a bit of research as it is heavily referenced in the film. Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu XI is an important aspect; so much so, some critics have suggested the film is, in fact, a reworking of the book. It is well known for being exceptionally long and is presented in several books, perhaps a bit like Joe’s story which is conveyed in chapters and the film split into two parts. The central character in the book is apparently extremely similar to Proust, both in action and temperament, and Proust was an early and key example of working this way, relying on one’s own life for material, which has become so much more familiar to readers of texts today: “Proust shifted the light a little to alter the slant; or used a basket of characteristics drawn from various friends and acquaintances to create a new fictional person; or matched a steeple from here to an apse from there in order to build a church, set in a landscape elsewhere.” (Barton,1999). The book is also an example of 19th century literature, which demonstrates an understanding of the world using similar concepts found in Freudian analysis, another cultural object in the film.

As I listened to the scenes included in a BBC documentary on YouTube (1990), I was struck by the cadence of the narrator, which sounded remarkably like Joe’s.

Additionally, Proust is known for writing with exceptional clarity about nature, trees, leaves, and the landscape. All of which match up with a main theme in the film; nature, both literally and figuratively, i.e. how we manage our own nature in a constructed world which we witness as a shared interest, and therefore link, between Joe and her father, and alter Joe’s protégé.

Once again, because of Proust’s influence in the film, a viewer might be prompted to ask herself how much blurring of self and other has occurred in the making? And are we in fact meant to be asking ourselves this question as we watch? And if so, why?

A comparative text: The Deep Blue Sea, Terrence Rattigan, c1955

It might be useful to briefly compare the film with Terence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea, another text which looks at the conflict between human nature and contemporary social norms. The play, written in the 50s just before social mores changed so dramatically during the subsequent decade, is viewed by many as old-fashioned and staid, albeit included in a list of the best-written plays from the 20th century (Rebelatto, 1999). Unlike the episodic Nymphomaniac, it is written in three strict Aristotelian acts so subsequently feels more formal, but it is also about a woman whose actions and choices are out of step with social convention, and begins with her failed suicide attempt. Here too, a male writer created the female role of Hester, reportedly based on one of Rattigan’s male lovers who had ‘successfully’ committed suicide a few years earlier. He denied this link. The play asks audiences to question the way it might judge Hester’s attempted suicide and is rich with subtle and not so subtle references to the restrictive atmosphere in 50s Britain, along with examining the structural apparatus which serve to maintain social order. The play includes characters that represent frailty, passion, various examples from the British class system, church, and the law. These all circle the protagonist, Hester, as she navigates her depression, along with a passionless but loving husband (in the 2011 film version – characterised as most probably gay, albeit suppressed) whom she has deserted and the irresponsible Freddie, who will undoubtedly desert her in turn. It is hard not to interpret both her relationships as emotionally masochistic, arrived at via a deeply repressed society which threatens to punish, delegitimise, and criminalise even the most private aspects of humanity, from sex to depression, to making choices about the time of one’s death. Rattigan is arguably suggesting the repressive nature of the society he is exploring, whoever it pertains to, male or female, gay or straight, in fact, creates a world where one’s life might feel utterly without value. It is interesting to note that Peggy Ashcroft who was the first person to play Hester had very little sympathy for her, interpreting her suicide attempt, and abandonment of a husband who could not love her as she’d hoped to be loved, as selfish rather than the result of depression, anxiety, repression – and a woman in need of treatment. Rattigan’s actors may not have been as forgiving as he, not as modern – thinking as his story. (Perhaps something about this analysis links to Ferdinand Hodler & Valentine Godé-Darel)

Nymphomaniac might at first glance seem a million miles from the play. It is deliberately shocking, uses porn actors as stand-ins for all the sex scenes because they are so gratuitous*, and the play, from our point of view, might appear like the era it was written in, overly uptight, restrictive and formal. However, both texts are exploring similar themes, masochism, the way we define or don’t define mental illness and judge behaviour. Both were written by people who may or may not be drawing heavily on their own lives for material, subject matter, and characters.

Nymphomaniac – the word

There is something odd about the use of the title word. The advertising poster, which Sejersen would been employed to shoot, looks a little like ‘click-bait’ as it shows all the actors in the midst of orgasmic ecstasy. This is incredibly misleading; in actual fact, we see very few of those characters having sex in the film, let alone yelling out in ecstasy, and the focus is very much on Joe not enjoying sex but instead using it as a weapon against herself. The look on her face usually tells a story of bewilderment, pain, misery, and dissatisfaction. Of course, one cannot say for sure where the concept for the poster came from but perhaps it is a sign of the strange relationship between the book, Belongs to Joe, and the film. There are several recent art projects that show women and men mid-orgasm, but the poster lacks the non-commoditised quality of some of these, such as work by Linda Troeller and Marion Schneider. It also contrasts with a scene in Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight (2013) where a late 30 something housewife/mum character (Rachel played by Katherine Hahn) invites a stripper/prostitute (McKenner played by Juno Temple) into her family and eventually visits a client with her, only to feel repelled by the stranger as he ejaculates. Soloway exposes the reality of the situation and we get the impression there is a significant contrast between it, and any fantasies Rachel may have harboured.

The film, unlike the poster, is gritty and dirty. The acting is not always highly polished. At times it is astonishingly believable, at others it is fragmented and alienating. The mis-en-scene gives an impression of dirtiness, sordidness; there is a clinical distance from beauty, and certainly from any ideal or romantic notion. And perhaps this disconnect is one of the issues with Sejersen’s book. It is shot in the style of a highly polished commercial. It is exceptionally beautiful but without the tight-layered structure that exists in the film, and none of the underlying pain Joe is evidently living with.

Academic, Carol Groneman (nd) writes in the Journal of Women and Culture in Society, Vol.19, “In the nineteenth century…[ ]…nymphomania was believed to be a specific organic disease, classifiable, with an assumed set of symptoms, causes, and treatments. Like alcoholism, kleptomania, and pyromania – diseases that were identified in the mid-nineteenth century – a diagnosis of nymphomania was based on exhibited behaviour. “Excessive” female sexual desire is, however, a much more ambiguous concept than habitual drunkenness, shoplifting, or setting fires. Consider the following cases of nymphomania diagnosed in the second half of the nineteenth century….” Groneman goes on to describe women who merely liked sex, simply wanted to have sex with their husbands occasionally, or were indeed suffering from forms of schizophrenia (itself a word that may one day lose its value as doctors find more accurate ways to describe mental illnesses).

At one point in the film, Joe insists to members of a therapy group, she is not a sex addict, she is a nymphomaniac and proud to own the word. I just can’t work out what Von Triers’ is saying in this scene or with his chosen title. Why is he using a word that is out-dated, was constructed by men to imply female sexuality is an illness and used ultimately referring to any woman who engaged in more sex than was seemingly the correct amount for the societies in which it has been used?

The film is complex and engaging and asks some valid questions of society and humanity, but one is left at the end with a vision of a battered, bruised and diseased vagina that overrides everything else. It is really difficult not to assign an armchair analysis to Von Triers, and perhaps his view of society, and his relationship to the origin of (wo)man.

Belongs to Joe

The book is stunningly pretty. The photography is expertly shot, the aesthetic choices superbly beautiful, everything about it is sublime although for anyone not expecting extremely graphic images perhaps quite shocking. They do make sex seem remarkably clean and shiny, however. I hope to be influenced by some aspects, namely putting together a very lovely object. A review on Gup by Daniel Meads gives a clear overview: “Rich with symbolism, the book begins with an image of a stack of cards from a game of solitaire, a game connected with loneliness, isolation and Joes mother. It also doubles as an index to the rest of her life story. The loneliness connected with her mother is counterpointed by Joe’s love of her father, as shown through the inclusion of a photographic herbarium, a possession that he gave to her. The herbarium takes a symbolic break from the aesthetic of the rest of the book as though it is separate object inserted into the book’s narrative. This makes this moment of connection and love feel odd and alien to the rest of her story. Joes’ is an emotional story, which Sejersen’s images balance with their lack of visual emotion, though the book is not without a sense of humour, especially when viewed in the context of having seen the films. (Who can forget the humour of the silent duck?) A few light points ease up what is otherwise a dark descent into degradation, violence, and destruction.” (Meads, 2017)

Nevertheless, it seems that the photographer’s obvious link to some aspects of fashion photography heavily influences the work. I don’t think fashion should be looked down on as it seems to be in some quarters. Viviane Sassen is one example who seems to do a decent job of creating images for both, and bridging any divide one imagines exists. But in Belongs to Joe the actors don’t look even remotely real, they look like models. In the film, we see their vulnerability, flaws, ugliness. In the book, they are flawless and so impossible to forgive or empathise with. Young Joe (Stacy Martin) looks absolutely nothing like the gangly, uncomfortable character she plays in the film but rather more like a film star paid to entice viewers in a designer perfume commercial. In one particular image she looks out at us, perhaps narcissistically, aware of us looking back, apparently mid-coitus; the broken fourth wall does indeed add another layer to the original text, but given the make-up, lighting, and commoditised styling, I’m simply not sure it’s a layer worth adding. And so, I wonder if these images will last the course, like Horst’s of the male form. Perhaps they will, as Sejersen has received plenty of positive validation about the work. The darkness, degradation, the questions we are forced to ask even though we may receive no answers in the film are part of what saves it from being merely a pornographic fantasy. Sejersen seems to have stripped the narrative of much of that and turned the forms into empty vessels that look somewhat like products.  Art which succeeds in allowing the real to poke through is the kind of art I want to look at and maybe even one day make. I didn’t see it in Belongs to Joe but I have spent a lot of time thinking about the book anyway. I believe there are potentially moments in the film, particularly in the last scene where we are confronted with it. Looking at these two texts has been an interesting exercise for me as I think about the differences between photography and moving image formats.

*Additional notes

“Though the current, shorter edit (the two volumes come in at about 4 hours, though the director’s cut reportedly runs 5.5 hours) contains only a few explicit sex scenes, these were all performed by porn doubles. “They’ve done a lot of post-production,” the actress explains. “In the 5.5 hours version, anyway, everything is mixed, with the porn actors having actual sex but with our faces, it’s very well done. But we didn’t do any of it. SPOILER — In the S&M scenes with Jamie Bell it’s not a fake bum, it’s a real woman who was willing to be hit, not with a real whip but still… END SPOILER.””(Hoeij, 2014)

References – accessed 5 December 2017

Rebellato, D. 1999 Introduction to Deep Blue Sea (in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea 1953)

Book: 7 Lessons of Physics

This may be important for A3 and possibly A5 if I go the direction I wish to. After finishing Rovelli’s book, I have been reading another of his, 7 Lessons of Physics, having chatted about it with an artist on Instagram (who also feels the world of physics will have an impact on her work).

To reiterate after my previous post: “Quantum mechanics and experiments with particles have taught us the world is a continuous, restless swarming of things; a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities.” (31)

And regarding quanta

“Where are these quanta of space? Nowhere. They are not in a space because they are themselves space. Space is created by the linking of these individual quanta of gravity. Once again the world seems to be less about objects than about interactive relationships”. (41)

There was one thing I didn’t mention in my previous summary because I could not get my head around it at all, and am still trying, to be honest, but it is looked at in this other book and is starting to seem like a concept that might one day be something I might grasp. And that is the matter of time. In quantum gravity, there is no time as a discrete thing in and of itself.

“The passage of time is internal to the world, is borne in the world itself in the relationship between quantum events that comprise the world and are themselves the source of time”. (42)

“There is no longer ‘space’ which contains the world, and there is no longer ‘time’ in which events occur” (42)

All of this goes back for me to the idea of ‘self’ being an illusion, which therefore suggests other is too. When we look at (and photograph) others we are merely capturing a moment in this illusion, and in effect when capturing whatever the ‘I’ sees, we are capturing the ‘I’ itself. I recall there was something along these lines in the Lacanian theory we looked at in UVC which was very hard to get one’s head around and I will need to find it and bring it back here.

Rovelli, C. 2016 7 Lessons of Physics Penguin, London (previously published in Italian in 2014 by Adelphi Edizioni)

Book: Reality is Not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli

I am including my thoughts about Reality is Not What Seems on this blog rather than the supporting Sketchbook blog because it informs the way we carve up our world in order to make sense of it, and that underpins what I have been exploring in my photography. I  certainly discuss this in UVC A5 in terms of language (see opening section re Genesis and semiotics), and my A1 work was an attempt to start asking questions about the way we define and differentiate ourselves when the real, as theorised by Rovelli and others, suggests our definitions are an illusion. This might all seem very confusing to take on board (it is!) especially if anyone reading this has not been thinking about these questions for a good while, as I have been, but hopefully, I will be able to clarify a little here. (However, I must add that even quantum scientists admit they don’t understand this stuff, so what hope does anyone else have?!)


The theory of quantum gravity, which Rovelli outlines completely destabilises an older and perhaps less helpful way (in my mind) of thinking about life, where moral value is given to a few, where a tiny minority are privileged in favour of the majority,  including humans over the rest of existence. It is joyful to read and Rovelli’s passion is utterly infectious. It is a truly exhilarating book written with so much energy, as Rovelli takes what is an incredibly difficult and complex subject and makes it, or at least some of it, accessible to someone like me who stopped doing maths at the age of 14*. My son asked me this morning what it was about a science book that felt so important. The question underlines a critical relationship between science and art, and how the fields, while seemingly miles apart are in fact exploring the same thing – what does it mean to exist? I should add, when I attended a talk about MAs at the UAL, I noted there was a Sceince/Art MA on offer, which was apparently becoming more and more popular. Trevor Paglin is an artist who immediately springs to mind, whose work obviously crosses those boundaries. Rovelli discusses our relatively modern habit compartmentalising subjects in this way and refers to ancient philosophers/scientists/artists who did not, and therefore were able to make connections across disciplines.  So, despite my shockingly poor grasp of maths at school, it would be a mistake to assume I do not have an interest in science. In fact, I would say my interests are deeply scientific although my medium might at first appear not to be, which in relation to the photographic object, I may discuss further another time.

The key point (I think) about Rovelli’s work is that the universe is made of fields – which he refers to as covariant gravitational fields. This means that discrete objects are not isolated and separate and perhaps don’t really exist in terms we are accustomed to. In other words, planets and galaxies don’t exist within a vessel called the universe. Instead, everything simply is the universe. It might feel awkward to change one’s mindset to think this way, but perhaps only because we have existed with our older mindest for several thousands of centuries. “It (the universe) is a variable flux”. (224) What we think of as empty space is not empty. It is made up of quanta, just like everything else we can see and observe with plain sight. The boundaries we understand through language are constructed. “Limits are arbitrary….” and “help us to orientate ourselves within the complexity of reality”. (224/225) Rovelli’s book is worth reading if one wants to get to grips with my perhaps incomprehensible summary, but when I explained it to my 9-year-old son in answer to his question, he said, ‘because of atoms’. So, someone I told gets it!

Language and perception

What does this mean? In terms ‘of being’ and for me as an artist? If everything we know is constructed in these arbitrary terms that means we can reconstruct our reality. Reality is in any case constantly being redefined. One of the most amazing things to have learned in this supremely fascinating book is how prior to the wave of Christian Fundamentalism which swept the ‘known’ world at the time of the Roman empire, thinkers were aware of atom theory and that the world was a sphere. They didn’t know it for sure but they calculated the extremely high probability.  Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo, we are told, explains the shape of the earth correctly (228). Democritus and Leucippus conceive of atom theory circa 500BC. (8) Rovelli tells us how the “The  Milesians understand that by shrewdly using observation and reason, rather than searching for answers in fantasy, ancient myths or religion – above all, by using critical thought in a discriminating way – it is possible to correct our worldview, and to discover new aspects of reality which are hidden to the common view”. (4/5) And yet, throughout the middle ages, much of the population were convinced that faeries and changelings were responsible for the trials and tribulations of life. Or in another instance, up until the 50s (and even in certain parts of the world today), medicine gave credence to Fridge Mother theory. And still, despite many who challenge these views, women are thought of as inferior, as are people with more melanin in their skin than others. Ect, etc, etc. And so as an artist, I am interested in exploiting the flaws in our language and its structural definitions and suggesting there is another way to perceive reality, and to challenge what we think we know. So, in S&O A1, I rejected the idea of separate selves and others which is the foundation of so much rancour between groups, and also constantly reinforced in the coursework as well as critical theory beyond. I also explored ways of perceiving correlations, the overlapping edges of our constructed barriers, the inter-relational concept of who and what we are. (This last sentence might not make any sense until reading the next paragraph.) I aim to continue to do this. (Incidentally, this image by Michele Pauty explores something of these ideas, but I find it too literal –

Information – correlation 

Also relevant to my inquiry about the boundaries between self and other is Information. Information is the number of possible alternatives available. Correlation is the possibility of matching information in different systems. This is the really tricky aspect, ok, one of many really tricky aspects, which I can’t quite get to grips with. But Rovelli returns to Democritus’ atoms and tells us it is not enough that the universe is made of atoms, i.e. quantifiable bits – now quanta. It is the combinations that are possible between each of them. For any of this ‘reality material’ to exist, to combine into recognisable form, it must communicate, and unless information matches up with information, it can’t. Infomation here must match and recognise information there. If information in a system lacks certain possibilities that another holds, it can never correlate. “The world isn’t, then, just a network of colliding atoms: it is also a network of correlations between sets of atoms, a network of real reciprocal information between physical systems.” (213)

I was struck by an account of how communication between people using words, which I read elsewhere this weekend, illustrates this idea. In fact, Rovelli uses his book being read by someone as an example to suggest how correlation should be thought of. “…; you dear reader, when reading these lines receive information about what I am thinking while writing them, that is to say, about what is happening in my mind at the moment in which I write the text. What occurs in the atoms in your brain is not any more independent from what is happening in the atoms in mine. We communicate”. (213)

Author, Ursula K. Le Guin, seems to be saying something very similar as quoted on the Brainpickings blog here: “Live, face-to-face human communication is intersubjective. Intersubjectivity involves a great deal more than the machine-mediated type of stimulus-response currently called “interactive.” It is not stimulus-response at all, not a mechanical alternation of precoded sending and receiving. Intersubjectivity is mutual. It is a continuous interchange between two consciousnesses.”


“Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in — become part of the action.


When you can and do entrain, you are synchronising with the people you’re talking with, physically getting in time and tune with them. No wonder speech is so strong a bond, so powerful in forming community.” (Brainpickings, 2015)

The full posting is worth reading, and the book The Wave in the Mind, which this passage comes from looks like one to add to my list.

However, Le Guin appears to be praising live connectedness between people in the flesh, as opposed to being separated by distance. I would suggest that physical proximity is certainly NOT a precondition for atoms in different systems becoming entrained in this way. Parents of children often report ‘sensing something’ when a child is hurt, even when they are nowhere near them. This phenomenon seems to go far beyond the theory of mirror neurons, i.e. physically feeling the hurt of others when we watch them fall; most parents can describe the experience of physical sensations themselves when they witness their toddlers stumbling. I don’t understand it but I have wondered if this sort of ‘spooky entrainment’ that humans often report is more than fantasy and whether it is something to do with the way consciousness works which might be explained at a quantum level. I know there are arguments, far beyond my comprehension, about the nature of consciousness and quantum theory and I keep an eye out for more news about it.


This book, much like The Ego Trick by Julain Baggini, is going to be an important one for me and will certainly inform an evolving way of seeing and understanding. And as such will have an impact on the work I do here and elsewhere.

It should be said, Rovelli is a loop quantum theorist as opposed to a string theorist and the two tend to argue quite a lot about who is closer to the ‘truth’, as indicated in the following clips, one of which includes Rovelli. (Do skip the advert!)

*The South-African system is different to the UK’s and you must pass all 6 subjects to matriculate, and so rarely, but if deemed necessary, they will allow someone to drop maths if it appears to be excessively challenging to them.

Image (c)SJField 2017

References: All accessed 27 November 2017

Rovelli, C. (2016). Reality is Not What it Seems – English Edition. 2nd ed. London: Penguin.

Reflection: Ferdinand Hodler & Valentine Godé-Darel

I am reading a book from the S&O reading list called Over Her Dead Body by Elisabeth Bronfen.

Chapter 2 looks at work by Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) who painted his lover Valentine Godé-Darel as she coped with and died from cancer. The work was exhibited in 1976 some years after the fact – the paintings are dated 1908-1915 and Hodler died three years after Godé-Darel. Bronfen analyses each aspect of the work, from the making to the showing of it, and explores an introduction written by Jura Brüschweiler in the exhibition catalogue. She refers to Brüschweiler’s ‘fictionalisation’ (48) of a real death, and critiques the elevation of the painter, rather than the dying woman, into the subject. She suggests there is ample material about Hodler in the historicalising but hardly any about Godé-Darel, and my searches online are a testament to that. They effectively made the work together yet it is he who is rendered the ‘hero’, even though it is her death that plays such an important part in the source material. I say ‘part’ because their relationship is also critical and I’m not sure Bronfen explores that quite as much as one might. (I might be wrong – her text is dense with references that are difficult to penetrate, but I do find myself wanting to look out for how her own discussion risks ‘decomposing’ Godé-Darel a further time by denying the value of the connection in the couple’s relationship which is evident in the paintings. She suggests the catalogue discussion decomposes Godé-Darel a second time by denying her signification. (49) I would have to read the chapter again very carefully before knowing for certain how I felt about this, but after coming to the end of the chapter I was aware of the following.

The images did not make me feel the way Bronfen suggested they might, horrified by the violence of death, the violence of the images, appalled by the voyeuristic imposition into the death of Godé-Darel. She describes a female photographer who found the images ‘horrible’ and ‘pitied the poor woman’. I felt none of that. Nor did I find them beautiful as a young male historian Bronfen spoke with did, who ‘denied that death in its threatening aspect was represented in these images’.  I started to worry if there was something wrong with me.

I looked the images up on the internet and saw them in a very different light.

The images are actually in colour whereas, in the analytical textbook, they are black and white and look like pencil sketches because of it. The colours and apparent texture (visible in the online coloured versions) are really important. The images reproduced in the textbook are transformed and a great deal is nullified by their production making it extremely hard to relate to them, or what is being said of them via highly academic prose. They are reduced to academic exemplars. I was reminded of how a gorilla in an experiment I saw (irritatingly on quite a lightweight film, about a facility whose research reportedly is lacking in empirical rigour, but nevertheless…) where symbolic representation allowed the great ape to distance herself from her emotions and gave her access to a modicum of patience and reason. However, it seems that once something crosses a boundary and is more of a symbol, or even indexical, rather than literal (iconic), then perhaps in some cases we become too distanced from the real. Twitter and much of social media seem to operate in this way since it is only unreliable and flimsy nonverbal language (photographs, GIFs, emoticons) or none at all within the communication, leaving just symbols. This makes it easier to be as rude as one dares to people they have never before met.

While reading the text I struggled to access any part of the real through the black and white images, the largest of which is 4″x3.5″, distanced further by the language. Yet, when I looked at them in colour on my screen I was suddenly able to recognise something distinctly human, and also crucially, I think, non-academic. In particular, I was immediately struck by something desperately sad and painful in the expression of Godé-Darel’s face in this image which is not included in the book.  For me at any rate (and subjectivity does seem to be my topic here), this painting captures the relationship and is the least ‘objectified’ of all the images I have seen in colour or mono. When I look at this painting, I see her and I see him. It’s a portrait of the two of them. I do not mean to romanticise it. She looks annoyed as hell with him, in her pain, but it’s very real and powerful, and therefore touching, perhaps because of her look. Is it unfair of me to wonder if a (perhaps unconscious) reason for its absence is that the painting doesn’t fit with the narrative of Godé-Darel being victimised in some way, either at the time of painting or afterward? Yes, she is a victim of cancer, but she seems to me, at any rate, a full and valid human being, powerfully represented by her lover who expresses their anguish and her pain without flinching from it.



Ferdinand Hodler, Portrait of Valentine Godé-Darel sick, 1914, 32×38.5cm


None of this is a criticism of Bronfer’s analysis at this time, more a recognition for me about how powerfully the context can affect one’s reading as well as a continued questioning of supposedly objective academic writing, which I find more and more troubling. I am always interested in how academic prose communicates ideas, removing emotion, taking real subjects and making them dry. And how that in itself, when discussing pain, risks absenting any relation to the real. Bronfen asks us later in the chapter, ” Do we ask ourselves are these paintings skillfully done? Or do we ask ourselves, does the woman suffer? Do we see the woman’s pain? Do we see the real, while denying the representation, or do we see the representation, thus putting the real under erasure?” (51) As an actor I would always be impressed by acting that was so skilled, you forgot about the skill at all. As such, when I look at the above painting, I ask myself about the unit, the couple, and their suffering? I don’t at first ask myself about the skill. And why I wonder does Bronfen not ask us about each of them – because it is their relationship which is so evident in the look Godé-Darel gives? Or how creating this work may have connected the couple and allowed the two of them to remain together during what one imagines and reads as a deeply traumatising event? The event that Hodler is recording is between the two of them – it’s theirs. It has little to do with us, until that is, we make it so, when we look at the work, changing the event for our own means. Later, some decades later, once both are long dead, feed off the event according to our needs.  Brüschweiler’s introduction represents a social view, where the male hero artist is exalted. He transforms the initial event, which was a relationship between two people, into a narrative that supports a patriarchal viewpoint because he cannot ‘see’ it any other way. Bronfer, in turn, employs the initial event, and the transformed event that was the exhibition and catologue,  to argue her case against patriarchy, so has also fed off the initial trauma of two people she never met. In doing so she can’t help but reduce both subject to academic examples, distancing them from the real. She seems to dismiss Hodler’s need to process his lover’s death using the language he knows best.

I would hazard a guess that many, many people have ‘fed off’ that initial event too, thanks to the fact that Hodler was a painter and his mistress allowed him to paint her as she was dying. I do not know what their relationship was like, I can’t say if he bullied her into being painted or not, but I am certain that people thereafter will have found these paintings enriching for a number of reasons. To confront the idea of death, sickness, loss consciously or not, which as Bronfen quotes, in our culture ‘is the worse violence that the human being is subjected to’ (44), allows us to ask questions of ourselves. These paintings enable others to touch base with that fear and the reality.  I am extremely wary of moralising about this work – although I do see how subsequent conversations about it diminish the actual people involved, including Bronfen’s. There is a great deal of censorious moralising over how images are made and used in our society, not necessarily by Bronfen but everywhere, all of the time. We may question and deconstruct the patriarchal habit of negating the female and elevating the male, and of course, oppose the way in which any group of people is represented unfairly or not at all. But I think it behoves us to look at what was going on when the images were made from a human and empathetic point of view. There is no denying that the way images are sometimes made and used is unhelpful, downright wrong, and horrific. In this case however, it is painful not to consider, at the forefront of any conversation, the couple involved dealing with their trauma – both people, and to avoid turning Hodler into a heroic artist as well as negating Godé-Darel’s humanity and making her merely a symbol of death. Bronfer is perhaps more interested in the way in which discussions about women represented in art are typically violent, disregarding the female person, as the feminine figure becomes objectified while the male painter is exalted in some way. It is hard to disagree with that trend, and my UVC A4 looks at that pattern in some way. But there is something about this work that makes me question why either party should not be considered equally here, when it’s such an obvious blurring of self and other, and it’s the relationship between the two which involves her dreadful death and her pain, his loss, her loss, their togetherness, that is the real subject.

I am trying to access a paper which is written from a medical/therapeutic point of view as I think that has to be crucial in this discussion and may return to it later.


Bronfern, E. (1992). Over Her Head Body, Death Femininity and the Aesthetic. 1st ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.x.



Book: I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

After watching Jill Soloway’s first three series’ of Transparent (2014-2017), I learned she was making I Love Dick (2017) when I stumbled across the pilot. I had not read or even heard of the book, written I would later learn, by Chris Kraus (1997). A friend, Mandy Thatcher, who I have been photographing periodically was writing her thesis at the time which explored the written female voice. (She sent me a Youtube video of a talk by Jill Soloway who discusses the female gaze in cinema and TV, and which I referred to in some of my UVC notes – it’s worth watching). She received a 1st for her work which deconstructs traditional academic writing practice and proposes different strategies, including an acceptance and inclusion of the subjective, which seems somewhat apt, given the nature of I Love Dick, a hybrid between a fictionalised narrative and criticism.

A few days ago I downloaded the book and have devoured all of it relatively quickly because it was written in such a way one can’t help but be drawn in. Published in 1997, it received lukewarm reviews, however, since has gained a cult following amongst artists, and now a wider audience thanks to Soloway’s adaptation. Or as Kraus herself described, quoted in The New Yorker by journalist Leslie Jamison, her fan base is made up of “Asperger’s boys, girls who’d been hospitalized for mental illness, assistant professors who would not be receiving their tenure, lap dancers, cutters, and whores.” The message: people with wounds and frustrated dreams.” Jamison goes on to suggest all Kraus’ books are “versions of one central drama: a female consciousness struggling to live a meaningful life.” (2017) The italics are mine. The story, in a very small nutshell follows the obsession of a woman, Chris Kraus, as she falls in love with Dick, and writes over 200 letters to him. She co-opts her husband, (or in fact does her husband instigate the whole project?) into her letter writing which grows into an art project. Her love is unrequited.

The book might be seen as a manifesto for anyone trying and often failing to be a ‘good feminist’, and Kraus refers to her own deeply flawed existence as an example of such. Brit Marling, a film maker, in relation to the Harvey Weinstein saga, described a man she had heard explaining, somewhat clumsily perhaps, why their gender should refrain from taking advantage of structurally implied power to gain sexual favour; “He was trying to help other young men understand why it can sometimes be hard for any woman to find and voice “no” within a culture that has taught her to mistrust herself, or to value herself through male approval” (2017). Being a feminist in world that looks askance at the movement, teaches women to undermine themselves in favour of patriarchy, to see themselves as objects instead of subjects, to value beauty over substance and absence in relation to male presence leads to deeply embedded conflicting internal tension individually and culturally.  I Love Dick is in many ways a thesis about all the above written for anyone who is flawed, and that would most likely include everyone, ‘good’ and ‘bad feminists’ aside.

In 1997 when the book was published, culture apparently didn’t know what to make of this sort of expression. Regardless of the form, society has long been liable to label women who speak up as ‘mad’ and not to be trusted. (See modern interpretations of the Greek Myth about Cassandra). It is also a hybrid of art theory, criticism and a ‘fiction’ based on reality, one which resulted in well-known art critic Dick Hebdige almost suing Kraus for invasion of privacy. Joan Hawkins, a professor and writer, suggests in the Afterword included at the end of the edition I read, the work is a “new kind of literary form…[]…something between cultural criticism and fiction.” Looking beyond the feminist aspect for one moment (athough never forgetting in this instance it is the feminine which drives a desire to find a new form for writing), the hybrid nature of the book perhaps seems revolutionary and was indeed ahead of its time. Hawkins picks up on passages in Kraus’ book that references  Baudrillard’s hyperreality and simulacrum, which in turn leads the reader to “Delueze and Guattarie’s notion of intensification”(p253) (See her references to Kraus’ on p28). The book was published in 1997, three years ahead of the first series of Big Brother in 2000. Wifeswap first aired in 2003, Supernanny in 2004, and perhaps marginally less populist, The Trip in 2010.  This final version of a hybrid between fictionalised but real people, entertainment and criticism (of food in this case) is a continuation of The Cock and Bull Story (2005) in which the two actors play hyperreal versions of themselves; “I like playing with the fact that it might be me, to give it a bit more edge. So some of the conversations with Rob are funny, but some of them are very uncomfortable. They’re sort of genuine arguments. It’s a sort of an exaggeration of real life.”[1]  (Wikipedia) Take a look at a TV schedule in 2017 and a huge proportion are based on the reality TV format. Kraus is therefore, it would appear, somewhat early with her project,  one which deconstructs our culture, including, literary criticism, the politics of art and gender, the feminist movement, and crucially as well, our post-modern ailment of being unable to distinguish between what is real and what is fabricated in Deborg’s grand spectacle-making machine. She asks who is responsible for this and who gets devoured within such a construct. Indeed, as the book indicates, our lives are now fully integrated with and inside the spectacle. The fact we are faced with constantly asking ourselves, how much of Dick is Dick Hebdige is a testament to living within this confused state.  In the book Kraus suggests she is merely doing what Dick the character has encouraged in his critical writing, i.e. making dangerous post-modern real-life performance-art. In Episode 6 of the TV adaptation, questions are asked within the narrative about why it might be OK to manipulate and exploit less advantaged people for the sake of art or popular culture, and implicit in this conversation is the query – and not OK to cop-opt more privileged members of society? In one of Dick’s very few utterances in the book, he states he does not believe his “right to privacy should be sacrificed for the sake of that [Chris’] talent” (p244) Kraus refers to the reality of poverty on page 204 and in doing so allows us to see the different levels of privilege, the way her own life, for all it’s pain and distress, is removed from the reality of many citizens in western culture, which art supposedly represents. And at its heart, we are reminded, this book looks at the way in which our political, economic and social structures operate. Name it capitalism, patriarchy, modern life, or 2000 years of western culture and history, the book is a criticism of hypocrisy, violence and (white male) privilege.

In addition, I Love Dick explores the subject of schizophrenia and relates it to her obsession, to art theory and our modern existence. “Capitalism’s ethics are completely schizophrenic …[]…Psychiatry tries its hardest to conceal this, tracing all disturbances back to the Holy Triangle of Mommy-Daddy-Me (See the last line, a quote from my own writing, in an earlier post, written before I read I Love Dick)” and just a moment later she tells us schizophrenia “consists of placing ‘therefore’ between two non-sequiturs..[]… when your head is exploding with ideas you have to find a reason. Therefore, scholarship and research are forms of schizophrenia” (p209) Elisabeth Bronfen in Over her Dead Body, a critical book which deconstructs western art’s habit of representing beautiful dead women, states “symptom[s] articulate something that is so dangerous to the health of the psyche that it must be repressed and yet so strong in its desire for articulation it can’t be”. Symptoms are “repressions that fail” (x, 1992). Kraus’ book could be seen as an exploration of symptoms at length and unpacks a good number of repressions society, literary and art theory and popular culture maintain. Nevertheless, as Hawkins tells us, ‘although theory pays such a key role in Kraus’ book, theoretical discussion is often erased from reviews of her HER work”. The crucial message in the book is less about unrequited love; rather it asks with some degree of energy and fury, “Who gets to speak and why…”(191). Hawkins adds “Who gets to speak about what and why?” (247)

Twenty years later, we live in a time when the existence of social media might lead us to believe anyone can speak and may speak about anything. However, we should be wary of buying into such an illusion. Twitter, for example is a cacophony of voices speaking, or rather yelling into the abyss; or else cannibalising each other with insults and put downs. But this kind of ‘discourse’ should be viewed in varying degrees as fragmented and unformed, reactive and unconsidered, advertorial rather than genuinely critical. In order to speak and to speak with any sense of calm authority, as opposed to being authoritarian, patronising or supercilious, a level of education, empathy and careful thought is in most cases required at the very least. Education for all is no longer an ideal for those in power. In fact, one might argue education is not trusted to maintain the status quo by any measure. We are manipulated into responding with carefully designed technology aimed at fragmenting us further. Those with the loudest voices might be heard, but this does not automatically lead to us those speaking the most sense. Social media is as much a part of the spectacle as any visual aspect ever was.

In this write-up I looked specifically at reality and simulacrum. I have not focused on the feminist element as much as one might, nor the unrequited love narrative, where it is  used to unveil how women, in Hawkin’s words, “in the classic Girgadian triangle function as a conduit for a homosexual relationship between men.” (152). (See Soloways’ comments on pornography in the quoted link, first paragraph of this post)  I have not discussed how informed and informative the art theory is. Anyone studying art would do well to read Kraus’ thoughts on Hannah Wilkes for instance. I have not looked at letter writing as a novel, which Hawkins compares to Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (248) (Merteuil, a most inappropriate female character for an 18-year-old drama student, was one my favourites when doing Lamda exams…) Nor have I looked at the way writing itself is accessed by Kraus to develop as the female subject, or at her reference to Luce Irigaray who says there is no space for the female subject within a patriarchal structure.  The book is absolutely jam-packed with analysis, both of culture and social mores and existence. And finally, as the women I photograph, Mandy, explored in her thesis, Kraus does this in way that defies academic convention. There is no desire to fix the feminine in this book. It is as it is, flawed, honest, capable of being exceedingly clever, and most of all ‘the subject’ in its own right, the ‘I’ which Kraus tells us was so difficult to reach.

The conversation currently taking place in relation to Weinstein and others like him could not have happened without all that has come before in terms of feminist informed analysis of our culture. I Love Dick is an immensely important contribution.

Hawkins’ Afterward can be read in full here.

References in order of appearance (all accessed on 25/10/2017)

Kraus, C. (1997). I Love Dick, Kindle Edition. 2nd ed. US: Tuskar Rock,.

Soloway, J, 2016. The Female Gaze

Thatcher, M. (2016). How do I find my voice? Moving from powerlessness to power through the lens of gender. MA. AMSR (tbc).

Marling, B. 2017. Harvey Weinstein aand the Economics of Consent

Jamison, L. 2015. This Female Consiousness: On Chris Kraus

Wikipedia, The Trip

  1. “Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan: ‘We’re not the big buddies people think we are'”. The Guardian. 2010-10-26. Retrieved 2010-12-07.

Bronfern, E. (1992). Over Her Head Body, Death Femininity and the Aesthetic. 1st ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.x.

Field, SJ. 2016 UVC post

Hawkins, J. 2001. Smart Art and Theoretical Fictions