Background notes for Assignment – Self & Other A1
Create a short series (6-10) of environmental portraits of people in places that provide the context for us to understand them. Pose and details are important. Look again at examples from the history of photography as well as the contemporary practitioners listed (in the course document). Think carefully about whether you want to photograph people close to you or subjects who are distinctly other to you.
These are background notes that support the work I have been doing. I will write a 500-word statement and bullet point list of steps taken during the process to accompany the actual work, which will be in the assignment post.
- English/UK class focus vs. universal themes (power structures in cultures), others
Hannah Hoch reportedly said “… the purpose of art is not to ‘decorate’ or to replicate reality through ‘naturalistic little flowers, a still life or a nude, but to act as a document of the ‘spirit’ and the changing value of a generation.”(Hudson, 2014) The S&O course has so far felt incredibly restrictive and deeply focused in one relatively narrow direction – UK class structure. It has felt frustrating because the terms ‘self & other’ are universal, and I have had to constantly question what I am doing, and am plagued with feelings of uncertainty. Nevertheless, I have explored a collaborative working process, which has been a deliberate attempt to look at the structural way in which we understand the binary distinction between a self and an other. In an article titled, “The Only Solace We Get Is From Each Other”: Ellen Mara De Wachter on How Collaborative Artists Show the Way to a Better Society” by Lony Abrams for Artspace, we are told that working collaboratively is a way of deconstructing old systems of power. And attempting to forge a world that might be less glued to the Hegelian master/slave paradigm. De Watcher is quoted: “I would cite Guerrilla Girls as the oldest collective in the book that is still practicing. They’re so strident about that ([exploring a] declarative way to go against the system that values the individual genius?) and that’s their whole mission. Their agenda is anti-patriarchal. It’s a strong, feminist agenda. It’s anti-hierarchical. It’s really a democratic kind of group in which everybody has a voice. They use anonymity to facilitate that, and they hide behind masks. They paraphrase Oscar Wilde in saying that you’d be surprised by what comes out of people’s mouths when you give them a mask. That’s a liberating tool for them. I think they’re very much anti-systemic in that sense, and also very critical of the dominant trends in the art world, the market values, and so on.” (2017) (I refer to masks further down)
Working this way has at times been extremely rewarding, but it has also been annoying and awkward. Finding people to collaborate with is not easy or simple. Finding the right people to work with is also tricky. I have been lucky in the main and I am grateful to all the people who were involved including the anonymous responders to the initial survey and the artists who agreed to join me on this mini experiment. Perhaps, as with most study, we should be careful of implying moral judgement and merely note the cost/benefit ratios in various scenarios.
I believe I wrote to one co-partcipant, Stefan Schaffeld, that the reason I was exploring working this way because I wanted to look at the nebulous distinction between self and other. (I am also deeply interested in how the younger generation and many in my own are seemingly irritated by the increasingly apparent rejection of fixed signs.) Is there really a nebulous distinction? Victims of acute mental abuse might be able to explain how personalities can become enmeshed. In fact, it is probably fair to say that any in long standing relationship each party has significant influence and impact on the other, and boundaries between selves become blurred.
It is also probably accurate to suggest that when relationships break down this is usually down (in part) to a realisation that significant others have little to do with a fantasy we each construct in our minds about whom they might be. Once the fantasy shatters, we are left with a true other and must either accept, forgive and move on together or reject the reality and separate.
- Masks handed to individual’s by society manifested through language
It may be that all relationships and understandings of others work in this way to a greater or lesser extent. We pick up on signs that are imbued with meaning, reached collectively by our community (macro and micro) and then construct a variety of masks which society hands to individuals. Growing up with these, we must find a way to make ourselves fit or risk being accused of deviancy or madness. At times this might seem unreasonable, such as when ethnic groups or a particular gender are placed in restrictive positions. At other times, a distrust of certain deviancy seems obvious and absolute by society. In some instances, behaviours outside of the norm are less worrying to society (such as vegetarianism in Victorian times for instance). More impactful, attitudes towards same gender sexual relationships have changed over time (although there is still room for a great deal more acceptance and an extremely worrying backward stepping trend in some quarters). Additionally, there are some individuals who exist on the very fringes of normative behaviour who take no heed of collective morality and make up their own, believing they have every right to do so. Here, it is worth exploring, what role has society had in this construction? And does it deal with the consequences appropriately or effectively.
I did not set out to work with masks. Initially, I was simply incensed by the suggestion that we should identify others and also groups of people we might feel an affinity towards. This way of looking at the world has caused me a great deal of distress in my lifetime. Although we are wired to identify our group and our social status within the group, we should always try to override this imperative, rather than pander to it. I hate it when people make up their minds about me based on the sound of my voice, where I come from, or that fact I happen to be divorced for instance. And although I am human and cannot help but jump to conclusions about people at times, I think it behoves us to do our utmost to look beyond the masks society constructs, to look beyond the words that spring to mind when we come across people in person or online – words such as old, fat, black, white, student, Brexiteer/Remoaner (what a couple of absolutely awful words!) rich, poor, on benefits, disabled, child etc. These words all help us to situate someone but when we stop at the very first sign and don’t look beyond we are preventing ourselves from potential experience and richness. Often non-verbal, unspoken language tells us a great deal too and as a society we seem to have a complex relationship with that aspect of communication in terms of the lack of it online.
- The internet adds a new layer to the way we construct others and ourselves
The survey, which started this exercise, was only accessed online. I deliberately used an online community because this modern somewhat haphazard but highly curated expression of self and interaction of other has added a whole new layer of constructed persona and communication skills to deal with. The way we communicate online is fraught with contradiction. We might interact minus any of the filters we have evolved over millions of years, and it is not unusual to see even highly accomplished and clever people reducing themselves to the level of 7 year olds arguing in the playground. Recently an article claimed trolls were likely to be sadistic and/or psychopaths (Sest, 2017). This is hardly surprising but in fact the trend goes right across the spectrum of social media users to greater or lesser extent. Either we’re all sadists and psychopaths or that kind of behaviour is filtering through society and sadists are unduly influencing us, as argued in Will Black’s book, Psychopathic Cultures. (2015) Additionally, we have no way of knowing who is telling the truth about themselves online and must trust or not that we are dealing with real people when we interact online. There are plenty of stories about frauds and scams. The Internet has been described as the wild west of today. We now communicate without the benefit of non-verbal language – emoticons are used in an attempt to circumvent that absence, however they are effective in a limited way.
- Brecht – representation, reporting rather than emoting
Finally, I have found that emotive acting in photography is not effective, although I can imagine that documenting acting the activity would be interesting. I have essentially asked all the participants to report rather than act.
Earlier notes I made along the way, some of which may seem random …..
Oneiric is dreamlike and allows us to access a different reality – despite referring to Wilson throughout the section, I had not realised I was looking at pre-language, pre-conscious realities
This reality is just as important as the external one according to Jung
These images aim to give a disrupt the illusions of a stable reality
- Sensitivity and responsibility to subjects
One of the things about reality TV which I find utterly unacceptable is how children are exposed to the public perhaps due to society’s skewed relationship with celebrity and the way in which such icons are so highly valued. This work as been all about finding ways to tell stories and represent ideas and people without resorting to scooping out anyone’s entrails and putting them on show for others to view. The writer of the course does as much with success and sensitivity as he photographs the banal but telling objects in his subject’s lives in Relative Poverty. It was certainly what I attempted to when I photographed objects and fragments of space in Calais and Dunkirk.
- Questioning the photographic image
I have been wondering what my work is really about. On one level I have resisted taking images of people that look would like so many other images of people we see. I wanted to explore different ways of doing things, ways that I had not explored before. And I have done that. On another level I am beginning to wonder if what is coming through work is a criticism of photography itself, of the terrible trust we people have in images, in portraits. Portraits convince us that we are looking at a whole real person, but we never can be, since it is only ever a moment, a fragment, a tiny slither of time and the same person can look entirely different from moment to moment, frame to frame. And a whole real person is argubaly an illusion anyway.
“Self and other give birth to each-other” (Conley, 1984: 32) Language solidifies these distinctions, and so do photographs. The ‘hard question’, asked by philosophers and neuroscientists, “what is consciousness”, i.e. what makes a self seems fraught with all sort of arguments from various quarters. Philosophers and scientists tell us the self in an illusion and spiritualists and religious people tell us the self is a soul, a little bit of spiritual essence, which links us to a celestial being/world. Despite these positions seeming irreconcilable human beings form groups and Edward O Wilson likens human groups to super-brains, operating as a single entity. He also explores how Group A might work to protect itself and guard against Group B impinging on its space. However, individuals within each group are often faced with a conflict of interest, to serve the group or self the self. Wilson says, “Much of culture, including especially the content of the creative arts, has arisen from the inevitable clash of individual selection and group selection.” (2012, Kindle 17%)
Wilson’s words together with the Lacanian view that a cohesive self is an illusion perhaps leads to many feeling threatened in the world today as old structures are dismantled.
I notice the use of masks in the first shoot links to Greek Tragedy and perhaps therefore speaks of something deeply human and reaches back into very early ritual behaviour. If you’ve ever worked with masks you will know of the profound and magical transformation they can affect. Actors who might be shy and awkward suddenly find they can perform in a way that is unfathomable without the mask. In the chapter titled Masking the Subject in Family Frames, Mariane Hirsh describes Lacan’s mirror stage, when she relays, “the subject first apprehends him- or herself as a coherent image, a misrecognition which disguises the profound incongruities and disjunctions on which identity is necessarily based” The sense of a cohesive self which an infant begins to internalise is a welcome relief, says Hirsh as the mirror self is ideal (Hirsh, 2012:101) She then asserts that looking is a complicated process, and introduces the camera as metaphorical or mechanical looking. Again, she refers to Lacan. She quotes, “In the scopic field the gaze is outside. I am looked at, that is to say, I am a picture […] what determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside”. Having worked with masks, I can say based on experience that it is profoundly interesting how one you completely transform when wearing one.
When we look into an individual’s personal tragedy what are we doing and how does it serve anyone? Other that being voyeuristic? If we are going to feed off someone’s pain perhaps there must be some benefit to that person or society in order to make the trade-off viable. Or else we are simply wild animals vying for meat. Even in nature there is a trade off to the ecosystem when vultures peck the dead flesh from an animal. By doing so they clean up potential bacterial hotspots that could go on to infest rivers and streams. If we aren’t contributing to the ecosystem in some way then it behoves us to find a different way to express our interest and explore pain. See William Kentridge, See Roger Ballan, See Sontag On the Pain….
Abrams, L. (2017) “The Only Solace We Get Is From Each Other”: Ellen Mara De Wachter on How Collaborative Artists Show the Way to a Better Society, Artspace. Available at: http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/qa/ellen-mara-de-watcher-on-collaboration-54876 [Accessed 8 July 2017]
Black, W. (2015). Psychopathic cultures and toxic empires. 1st ed. London: Frontline Noir.
Conley VA, 1984, Helene Cisoux, Writing the Feminine, Uni. Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London
Hirsch, M. (1997). Family frames. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p.103.
Hudson, M. (2014). Hannah-Hoch-The-woman-that-art-history-forgot. The Telegraph. [online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/10545071/Hannah-Hoch-The-woman-that- art-history-forgot.html [Accessed 9 Feb. 2017].
Sest, N. (2017) Constructing the cyber-troll: Psychopathy, sadism, and empathy. Science Direct. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886917304270 [Accessed 8 Juley 2017]
The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O. Wilson, Liveright Publishing Corporation, Publish April 9 2012, Kindle Edition, 17%