Final Major Project – push gesture water experimentation

Following my reflection, I wanted to explore the push gesture in water. I feel that I may be preparing for a performance at the moat at Berkhamsted Castle, but I want to develop my idea further before doing so. I chose to investigate the water butt in my garden, since being so deep it offered the same darkness/contrast in reflected light that the moat itself has. This limited the extent of the gesture I could adopt here, but it was interesting to explore the ripple effect and methods in video editing in Premiere Pro, since the uni have now had the Adobe suite made accessible from our home computers.

I chose to accentuate the effects on the water by slowing down the movement. The accompanying audio becomes quite mesmerising, and the shifting water creates some very interesting warped abstractions. Here are two videos I made of the footage, one in black and white, and the other in colour, zoomed in so that the edges of the water butt are no longer visible.

I especially like this decontextualised view of the water, further abstracting the reflected imagery. The light dances.

It would be interesting to repeat this on a larger scale – perhaps in the moat itself, though I am unsure if this would be possible within the current lockdown (or if it might break any rules more generally on site).

Water itself has some intriguing connotations – life-giving and preserving, cleansing, and appears in various rituals (washing of feet, baptism, blessing etc.) and routine behaviours primarily associated as women’s work, such as laundry, cleaning/scrubbing, washing up. There is also a sexualisation of water when applied to the body – think of wet t-shirt competitions and the car wash.

It too reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais, depicting the tragic character from the play Hamlet. She falls into the water but continues to sing, unaware or uncaring of the danger to herself, before drowning herself. The painting is rich and verdant, the figure appears floating and as one with nature, but it is eery too – her face pale and close to death, her palms upraised in surrender, mid-song.

Ophelia 1851-2 Sir John Everett Millais, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01506

Researching this briefly, I came across an article about the significance of water in this Shakespeare play, which too looks to where else this symbolism is seen (excerpts below).

Water has long been a powerful symbol in literature: rains denote cleansing, the equality of mortality, and the rebirth of Spring. Baptisms also denote rebirth, while rivers and oceans connect people, denote the unknown, potentialities, and broadly speaking, the unconscious. But here we have an eroding kind of water, the sort that might carve a canyon, or a body.

Repetition and action–perhaps in a trade–are ways of lasting, and of keeping out the water, during life and even after death. The great antidote to the will-eroding current of introspective consciousness and the paralysis, stagnation, putrefaction, and death which follows, is action. 

A river separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, in both Greek mythology and in the oldest story we have, the epic of Gilgamesh, wherein the protagonist’s contemplation of death drives him to the ends of the earth in an unsuccessful pursuit for immortality. The myth of Narcissus and the pool depicts the same danger of excessive introspection in a more direct and literal manner: Narcissus, enraptured with his own beautiful appearance in the pool, leans in too far and drowns.

Water is both a powerful danger to be feared as well as a necessary agent of changing ourselves. We don’t want to stagnate and rot like a corpse, after all.

It seems then that water is a very apt element for me to be exploring as part of my theme of self-expression, being a tool of introspection and something we both seek out and shun through action. It’s interesting this too should harken to the flaw of narcissism in considering the self too much.

Final Major Project – Reflection on pushing gesture

Following my experimentation with pouring paint/gesture, it took several days for the paint to dry. The colour darkened during this, and below the final result. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not sure this fully expresses, since I was concerned with the pour of the paint, and so a more vigorous gestural work in this vein might be worth doing. It also could have done with some sort of background? Though I quite like the stark simplicity of this.

I like the near symmetry of this piece, and that the marks suggest a pattern or symbol of some form. It reminds me somewhat of rorschach ink blots in this way. But too the fluidity of the paint and the arching imply a spring or fountain of water for me. I was interested too by the concept of bodies of water in themselves as an action, having visited my local castle ruin in Berkhamsted on one of my daily walks.

I was reflecting on the concept of a moat in relation to the practice now of social distancing and self-isolation that we are mandated to perform during this coronavirus pandemic. The word isolation itself deriving from the Latin word insulatus, meaning to make an island. The manmade moat of this castle is in a literal sense constructing an island (whereby the castle is the island, isolated from its surroundings), and making manifest then this idea of social distancing.

Moats for me though imply a sense of stagnation, of anxiety and fear, and protection. I took several photos on my visit as I reflected on this, but found it difficult to capture just one that fully encapsulated that this was in fact a moat, and not some other body of water, such as a river. The closest to communicating that is the first below, where we can see the path across, a piece of the castle walls, and the two fortification mounds, but to gain this perspective little of the moat itself is visible. I think use of a drone camera (or at least, a much higher angle) would best work to capture the full sense of the moat.

I think this sense of distancing/isolating ourselves is also reflected in this pushing gesture I have been exploring. Pushing others away, rejecting our former habits and behaviours, creating physical distance/space for ourselves, all for me can be implied by this action of extending the limbs forwards and outwards.

When thought of in the context of water – pushing against water perhaps – it is also reminiscent of swimming, i.e. the breast stroke. A means of propelling ourselves, harnessing the resistance of the water. In thinking about water I became interested too in this resistance – the forces that act back upon us when we act on the world, as in Newton’s third law – the effects of our actions, repercussions and consequences (foreseen or not).

This is particularly topical at the moment, as we are made aware of the consequences of our individual behaviour on others – the possibility of spreading the virus by unnecessary contact with others. This has been made apparent by the study of the spread of the virus in South Korea, where just one infected person accounted for the majority of cases – patient #31.

Many images/animations have been circulating online using this matches illustration for the importance of social distancing to prevent the virus spreading to others

Final Major Project – research/context in Pecha Kucha

In order to kickstart my final major project, clarify my aims and plan for the weeks to come, and contextualise around it, we were tasked with drafting our project proposal and action plan, and creating a Pecha Kucha presentation to share our initial research. A Pecha Kucha (aka a 20×20) is one primarily composed of images, spanning 20 slides, each of which is shown for just 20 seconds, meaning that the full presentation lasts just over 6 minutes. Below I summarise the contents of my presentation, and so the research I conducted in the first two weeks of my project.

Reflection on past work

First I reflected on some of the commonalities/themes I have previously explored in my work that have driven my interest in the topic of my FMP: expression. This related to the work in Futures project, where my future self-portrait and the navigating space/grid cell/instruction work has commonalities of i) an interest in perceptions of self/observation by others. ii) Behaviour and body language. iii) Psychology, consciousness and identity. iv) Manipulation, instruction and expectation. v) interaction. Thus something around behavioural expressions/externalisations of our inner psychology and how this is expected/observed by others would be a natural continuation.

Also too that in previous Unit 2 work I was interested in gestural and expressive mark-making, and the notion of automatic drawing or writing. I have not yet taken this into the action itself as a performance, as opposed to a work produced from it, so would be interested to explore this in my FMP.

Context

I was keen to contextualise the notion of my performance of expression within what might be interpreted from it – and the problematic biases of my being a woman artist. I saw this being across multiple facets. One being narcissim/vanity. Autobiographical work by women is interpreted as superficial or vain, self-obsessed, while autobiographical work of men can access universal themes and move beyond the personal. I linked this to the works of Helene Schjerfbeck who I went to see back in 2019.

Too, it is a paradox for women artists that in portraying their subjective reality/perception of themselves they are colluding in their own objectification. I related this to the Ways of Seeing I researched previously, as well as Tracey Emin’s self-portraits which evoke her subjective sexuality, but at the same time could be objectifying and eroticising herself.

I was conscious too that in externalising my emotions, I could be pervading the prejudice that women are ruled by their emotions, and the problematic connotations of this in relation to hysteria. I discovered that hysteria (back when it was treated as a psychological disorder), was specifically seen as the height of female sexual expression in a world of repression and strict social behavioural restrictions.

This photo of a woman demonstrating a ‘hysterical episode’, characterised by the arched back, was distributed for voyeuristic purposes in 1880

The surrealists were particularly interested in this – as an expression of the subconscious sexuality of women. This brought me onto another problematic context for the performance of women – that women’s performance takes place within the asymmetric power relationship between men and women. The surrealists choreographed/instructed a performance (below) by the dancer Helene Vanel to simulate hysteria – sexualising and objectifying her.

Helene Vanel (1938) at Exposition Internationale de Surrealisme in Paris

Another such problematic performance, which explored the body and gesture in performance art, was Yves Klein’s Anthropometries.

Here naked female models were instructed to cover their bodies in Yves Klein’s blue paint, and place themselves against surfaces in ways instructed/choreographed by the artist. He clearly objectified them here, calling them ‘living brushes’, though later the models have claimed they were collaborators in his work.

In considering female performance art, it is also important to contextualise this within the gender theory of philosopher Judith Butler – that gender itself is performative and we identify someone’s gender from the repetitive behavioural characteristics that we attribute to certain genders. This is evidenced in the performance of drag – whereby someone identifying in one gender performs the characteristics of the other as an illusion/subversion of such gendering. It’s easiest to see the skill involved in this, and thus the nuances of behaviours we interpret as gendered, by comparing an experienced drag performer with a novice who has had a makeover, in the makeover challenge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race (below)

Experienced drag performers (left) and novices (right) demonstrate the nuance of stance/posture for gender performance

Art Research

So one theme I explored was resistance and women’s rage. I discovered that just as long as women have been resisting, they have been using their bodies to do so.

A jiu-jitsu how-to guide for the Suffragettes, Mary Evans c.1910

Here I also referred back to my research around Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, and how these women pioneered the freedom of expression for women’s bodies.

I also looked at how other artists have sought to express through suggestion or absence of the body, but where the works themselves have been created with the body or with interaction with the body in mind.

I also looked at artists who have used performance as the work itself, or in the creation of works, where abstract gestural mark-making has been utilised.

And works where the gesture itself is fully expressed in the mark/performance, and repeated.

The taking on of gestures/expressions of others as a suppression of self/ventrioloquist expression.

This is by no means an exhaustive line of research, and indeed since compiling this I have already found more lines that are of interest and relevant to this work!

Unit 2: Future of the Mind – Telepathy context / research / my work

One of the things that captivated me following the initial group ideation session we had around Futures, was the notion that technology could progress such that not only human-computer mental interfacing was possible, but human-human, i.e. telepathy (the communication of ideas/thoughts by means other than the senses).

The idea of telepathy first caught on in western culture in the 19th century, following on from the spread of spiritualism (communing with the spirit realm/the dead) and animal magnetism/mesmerism (whereby healing can occur via induced trances and hypnotism). These pseudosciences caught on in response to the fantastical advances in science that were making the world at once more understood and more mysterious. Why should we only trust our senses if there are microscopic cells (with cell theory – that we are made up of cells – only being formulated in 1839), and if time can be relative (theory of relativity in 1905).

Hilma af Klint was interested in spiritualism, and can also be credited with the first abstract art – exploring automatic drawing in attempts to visualise this non-visible reality. I encountered some of her sketches in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and enjoyed how naive and free they seemed, some of which are below. The nesting and interaction of colourful organic forms, and looping, swooping lines also appeal.

Magicians then, using biological cues, performed ‘thought reading’ stunts, which still continue to this day. Indeed, much of the trends seen in the 19th century reared their heads again during the New Age in the 1970s, e.g. the idea of ‘channelling’ spirits or the collective unconscious via trances to gain new information. This took a strange turn as documented in the book and film adaptation of The Men Who Stare at Goats, with the American military hoping to harness the power of psychic agents for intelligence-gathering (and also, bizarrely, attempting to harm or kill psychically)

This idea of psychic ability being used as a weapon or military advantage is also explored in fiction, e.g. in Star Trek with the Vulcan mind meld appearing in it’s first season, and then later too with empaths such as Betazoids and the hive mind of the Borg. The notion of ‘hacking’ or mind control of another by means of such interfacing is a central theme of fiction such as Ghost in the Shell. This relies too on the notion of interconnected technological knowledge and AI systems within a ‘cyberspace’ – a concept conceived before the internet by William Gibson in his Neuromancer novel, but now a term used to refer to it.

But for me, I am interested in the consequences of such technology. If we were able to communicate telepathically, would this make language redundant? Would we lose language, particularly in our more intimate relationships? This could be a means in which telepathy could be a force for good, and answering a central human desire to be understood – enabling us to fully intimately understand and know our romantic partners and significant others. But what might be lost from our current relationships, and would this be a destructive or positive change?

There is a unique mode of communication already in existence between romantic partners, a secret language you only use within that context – formed of in-jokes, pet names, and particular phrases or patterns of speech that you build together. In a world where you could communicate without language, this would be defunct. I explored some ideas for how we could record these future dead languages, to house in future museums.

Below is a work I encountered in an exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery, curated to explore a post-language society (here conceived as a post-apocalyptic eventuality). The work below explores communication through a personal visual language, which are curious, but I’m unsure if they truly communicate (though perhaps they are recognisable to a native spanish speaker!) – it’s intriguing to see here again colourful, somewhat organic forms appearing.

Returning to my idea… The thought that these languages would be shared, which previously have been intimate and private between two people, is intriguing but one which made me feel unsure I could in good conscience ask people to share with me openly. This is interesting in itself, that I would hesitate to do so. That making open and shareable something entirely private is similar to this notion of sharing our inner most thoughts with others via telepathy. It is certainly an uneasy future being imagined.

What then could be more private than our own sense of self, our inner eye. What might it mean for our perceptions of self, if we can be fully aware of how others perceive us, and view ourselves through their eyes? Would this exacerbate or destroy the current situation of ‘selfie culture’ – whereby we feel pressured to curate our online image to the extent that our bodies, our lives appear perfectly manicured (whether doctored through photoshop or filters or not), and the comparison of ourselves to the online image of others is damaging to our mental health. The obsession with picturing ourselves in any and all situations can be seen as narcissistic and superficial, but it reveals our humanity too. Our desire to understand ourselves, to fit in and be understood by others. To mark our place in the world, and confirm yes I do exist. But this conflict between our inner world and how we appear externally is hard to process – and body dysmorphia and eating disorders are on the rise.

Experiment with a selfie feedback loop using the webcam on my computer and my phone

I very rarely take selfies of myself. My profile picture for several years on Facebook has me in sunglasses that obscure much of my face. This is not out of a particular desire to be unknown, or undocumented. I admittedly do see flaws in my appearance, and suffer that horror when you accidentally have the camera facing the wrong way when you turn it on on your phone. So I never spontaneously feel the urge to do so – to take a selfie feels contrived for me, though I understand it can be different for others! I was interested then to explore this possibility, of the complete knowledge of my appearance to others, and engage in a process that exposed me more than I would usually be comfortable. To invade my own privacy.

To do so, I recorded my appearance in a typical evening at home with my fiance. By attaching a head-mounted GoPro to him, I hoped to approximate his point of view and gain this notion of the self-image through someone else’s eyes. Below, I edited together only those moments when I was in frame. It provides a disjointed account of the time spent making dinner, and the conversation appears surreal.

The camera angle feels like I am floating above myself – as though in an outer-body-experience – which I suppose this is! It is disorienting how it jerks around according to his head movements.

Future Self-Portrait

It is uncomfortable seeing so much of myself in a video, to see less than flattering angles and lighting. Much like the confusion when hearing your voice on a recording (how it never sounds quite as you hear it in your own head), it seemed strange to see my idiosyncrasies – mannerisms and facial expressions – played out in front of me. I feel vulnerable in particular when seeing how my eyes remain closed sometimes when talking – something I am unaware of doing in the moment. Also – I seem so short! In all I think this was a successful experiment.

Unit 2 – Futures – Context & WIP Group Critique

I have found it difficult so far to fully grasp the context of this brief – Future being so broad and conceptual, and Mind equally so! For both concepts, they can reasonably be argued not to exist by certain schools of Philosophy (e.g. presentism states that only present time exists and the future does not in the same real sense).

It was interesting sitting as a group and piecing apart all the various elements of Future that we could use as starting points. For many of us possible futures represent a point of anxiety of where the world might lead (in dystopian imaginings) whether through further increasing technological advancements, or from apocalyptic consequences of existential threats such as climate change. What the life of a human might be like in the future is also hard to imagine, and the very basic norms we take for granted such as speech for communicating is by no means certain. It seems impossible for us to predict with much certainty what we might expect.

It was interesting too to think about different artistic visualisations of the future, notably within fantasy and scifi fiction, but too in works that imagine a utopian future that might solve a particular problem we face in our current day (e.g. feminist utopia of Tai Shani). Also intriguing the imagining of future societies looking back at our own, or at things that will be extinct or defunct (e.g. Ginsberg and Elizabeth Price).

It is interesting to look back at this initial group discussion, having just now completed a group critique of our work in progress. We took it in turns to present our work to the group, explaining our approach to the brief, the context of our work, and our ideas for a final outcome, whilst providing visuals to support and evidence this from our sketchbooks etc. Then each person in the group would feedback to the presenter. Some had specific questions to answer (which alternated between presentations) such as ‘If this was your project what might you do differently’, or ‘What are the strengths’. I found this exercise really stimulating and enjoyed engaging with others’ projects in a deeper way than had been possible in previous critiques. I also enjoyed exploring my own project in this way, and found the comments of the others to be insightful and stimulating. It has encouraged me to focus my attentions somewhat, having explored many different avenues so far!

Group critique feedback on my work and areas to explore or focus on further
Feedback post-its for another participant in the group critique (my comments on the yellow post-it note on the right hand page titled ‘gen. feedback’)
Me in the process of presenting to the group (laptop on hand to play my future self portrait video)

Unit 2: Future of the Mind – the problem

Descartes famously concluded that ‘I think therefore I am’, taking the conscious experience as the one certainty that could prove existence against the reduction of scepticism. So if we can know anything, it is that we have a consciousness. But the hard problem of consciousness remains, in understanding how it is that our consciousness arises from the reality that we perceive. How is the conscious mind related to the brain, and brain activity? Importantly, how might they be causally related, such that the actions I take have been consciously intended, or not (do I have free will and can I be held responsible for my actions)?

Some argue that the physical world can be fully explained in terms of cause and effect without recourse to this conscious intention, and that in this way all future actions have been determined by events that have already happened and continue to happen. There is even a study that is seen to prove this out, whereby we can observe the brain preparing to act in a certain way prior to the person themselves being conscious of making that decision. In this way, it could be argued that my consciousness is merely a resultant effect or a post-rationalisation of what is occurring due to this causal chain, and that our consciousness is more like an observer than a director of events.

Alternatively, it could be argued that in fact, while we can be sure of our consciousness existing, we cannot be certain of much else. The existence of physical reality as we perceive it is dubious, since our senses are fallible (and indeed can be manipulated), and can be subject to delusion and hallucination, but we have no means of experiencing the world without them.

I recently came upon this interview with a cognitive neuroscientist which convincingly discusses this problem, and how we can best describe our ‘visualisation’ of the world by use of the metaphor of a simplified computer interface (i.e. that the icons and actions as perceived by us bear little relation to the actual complex mechanics of what is occurring within the computer system) which has been advantageous to our survival and so ‘designed’ through the process of evolution. I have not before heard someone so succinctly define the problem in assuming our understanding of space and time is fundamental to the world itself, and not merely fundamental to our own interpretation of it.

For me, this highlights a key problem for the individual, that considering the constraints of our perception, we cannot fully understand ourselves or other agents in the world, let alone the world outside. It speaks to an innate paradox within us, that a fundamental desire is for us to be truly known and understood by others, but we cannot even truly know or understand ourselves. That the ‘individual’ is in fact made up of countless consciousnesses that somehow combine to create our singular experience, is fascinating. Reality seems more surreal than ever!

Hoffman argues we should still take seriously our perceptions of the world, since they have evolved for a reason to enable our survival, but not necessarily take them literally, is I think where we can find the place for art and creativity. By utilising an unconventional way of thinking and problem solving, and by using and abusing the visual language and metaphors of convention, to provoke others to think and see things differently, art might have a unique ability to help us break out of the constraints of perception, at least for an instant. Though cynically we could say that it is just as constrained as anything else. It could be interesting to explore sensory deprivation, or more around automatic art to try and access the consciousness outside perceptions of the external world.

In future, is it possible that we might fully understand the connection between our physical reality and consciousness? If so, this for me implies that we would be able to break out of our current constraints of knowability, and for instance be able to communicate directly between consciousnesses – i.e. something like telepathy. This could be a very different future, one which might be ‘post-language’, and where many of the conventions we use now to try and approximate communicating our inner experience would become defunct (e.g. facial expression, gesture).

Unit 2: Dérive context

In conducting formative assessments this week within my tutor group, I became aware that I had neglected to fully contextualise my projects thus far in unit 2, and so I am keen to rectify this! Rather than something we complete as a first step and move on, we’ve been encouraged to begin there and return to recontextualise as we progress. I believe I have recontextualised as I went along, reflecting on the direction(s) my work took, but that the broader initial context has gone unseen, so I shall focus on that.

Dérive was one of the strategies created by French Letterist art movement, which was later subsumed by the Situationist International group (and more recently adopted by artists such as Wrights & Sites). A strictly urban endeavour, the notion was to ‘drift’ while walking, subverting the usual way in which humans behave in the urban environment, in order to better reveal the ‘psychogeography’ of the urban landscape. This refers to the precise effects of the built environment on the emotions and behaviour of the people within it, and by studying this the Situationists hoped to better envisage and be prepared for their ideal city.

This notion is interesting to me as I have come across before how building design can have a direct impact on people's wellbeing - e.g. whether you have a window and what you can see out of it can have a measurable effect in length of hospital stays.

These art movements were anti-capitalist and anarchist, building on the teachings of Marxism, and sought to reawaken the consumer to authentic experience (so that they might not continue to merely be passive receivers of mass media/commodity). A direct result of their interventions (so called situations), was the Paris uprisings in 1968.

Something that I found to be relevant to some of my ongoing research for the upcoming Future project (i.e. a future where work may mostly be done by machine/AI and the human worker is obsolete) is that the Situationists thought work in advanced capitalist society would become increasingly absurd. As technology progresses, and work becomes more efficient, the work itself will by nature become more trivial. 
In researching this context, I found myself tunneling through wikipedia through link after link of related pages that sounded of interest to me. This reminded me of a game I had played at university around 2007, where you had to get to a destination wikipedia subject page from another (unrelated) subject faster than someone else, e.g. from polar bear to ice cream truck. Very good for long library essay writing sessions... The parallel here with the dérive strategy is quite marked, and I was intrigued that there should now be a dérive app to help you navigate out in the real world, but not a dérive equivalent for the now hugely extensive online world.

It could be fair to say that the Situationists politicised an act that had first been popular in French society in the 1800s and particularly espoused by Baudelaire – flaneur. Though the flaneur too walked aimlessly in an urban environment, they were perhaps more attentive to the other people they encountered, hoping to be an observer of society.

Strangely, I came across this term – flaneur – in a book I am reading, On Photography by Susan Sontag:

Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism, the ubiquitous photographer operates as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal. In fact, photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle class flaneur…The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoiteuring… the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes… The flaneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, its neglected populations – an unofficial reality behind the facade of bourgeois life that the photographer ‘apprehends’, as a detective apprehends a criminal.

It’s interesting that this class tourism rooted in the notion of the flaneur would find it’s expression later in the works of the anti-establishment Situationists. But then this aimlessness for them served a purpose (unlike the flaneur for whom it was more like a hobby).