Unit 2: Future – Future self-portrait further research/context

I felt my experiment in the future self-portrait (capturing the view of self when we are able to see through the eyes of others in a telepathic future) was successful, but I wanted to think more around this notion of self-image and how we are concerned and influenced by how others perceive us. This had me think back to previous research of mine around the male gaze and female depictions of themselves . This seems to be a recurring concern of mine!

I was aware of a new BBC series presented by Mary Beard around the nude in Western art, and was particularly interested to take a look as I knew that as part of this she had explored being the subject of a life drawing study. She was driven to do this from the sense that ‘I am still looking for a naked portrait of an older woman who looks like I feel.’, and from using an example from Rodin that typical mainstream western art uses the naked form of an older woman as a symbol of what has been lost (the beauty of youth), and not depicted in a sympathetic way as we do see with nude depictions of older men.

She who was the Helmet maker’s once-beautiful wife (1887), Auguste Rodin

She wanted too to put herself in the position of the people she has been studying throughout the two programme series (the nude models). There is a self-consciousness though to this and it’s interesting to hear the feelings she had around this situation and her own perceptions of self in this scenario. She simultaneously casts herself as old (in her physical appearance) and adolescent (in her psychology).

I do feel a bit apprehensive about this – I think oh, I hope I don’t look too fat you know it’s a terrible kind of, well, adolescent vanity really.

She asks Catherine Goodman, who has agreed to draw her nude, if this is a common apprehension in her models. The artist answers that actually many of her models enjoy the gaze of another, the opportunity to just ‘be themselves’ for a short while. This is intriguing I suppose. It’s a unique sort of situation in the modern world, to be looked upon naked without judgment or sexualisation. This is perhaps the draw of nudism. But I am less interested in the impulse to be seen naked as the desire to understand how others perceive us per se.

Mary is still aware that some viewers are going to think ‘Did she have to?’ about her being a nude model – implying again that she feels herself an undesirable sight, “whereas I feel quite sort of, slightly brave about doing this”. It is literally bearing all in front of national television after all! Something I think many people would outright refuse to do. But it is interesting she is surrendering to this vulnerability and displaying that most private view of herself. Having sat for Catherine twice, on her third visit Mary allowed the cameras in, and admitted to being nervous.

It’s funny not having seen anything that you’ve done… of me I mean. It’s funny because I’ve never looked at how somebody else sees me. Which is really what it is, isn’t it.

This is a curious phrase I will return to below, but particularly since Mary Beard is a familiar face on our television screens now, presenting many documentaries and now regularly appearing as a presenter on Front Row Late. Indeed, her first documentary series caused a stir from some quarters, as trolls and commentators such as A.A.Gill felt her unapologetic aged appearance should have no place on our screens. So she must be aware of how some view her, but perhaps the intimacy of life drawing is affording for her a glimpse of the view of someone with a deeper (and more human) understanding of her. We then see Mary’s nudes and hear her first reactions to them, alongside Catherine.

Oh wow! I thought I’d be a bit horrified of them. And I’m not remotely horrified by them and I think that, you know, the fleshy over-60s bits kind of work fine. I look at myself and I don’t think ‘Oh god she should lose a bit of weight’, I think ‘that’s me‘. And you know to some extent, I feel happy with it.

I notice I wasn’t much looking at you. You know, we were chatting quite a lot but I wasn’t looking and well I saw you looking at me and thought you are actually trying to work out how to do my tits.

So she was happy with the result, and seems she came out of the situation feeling good about the depiction of herself by another. What most interests me though is what she said prior to seeing these drawings. “I’ve never looked at how somebody else sees me.”

This is intriguing to me, because the role of the artist here can only approximate or mimic how someone might view us in real life. In this modelling scenario, they are manufacturing an intimacy that would not otherwise exist, and therefore the view of the model is not a real one from their own lives. Yes, the artist can and often does seek to establish an understanding, a relationship with the model to more accurately capture their perception of that person, but the perception itself is not natural, it is not quite the same kind of perception that the people in our lives will have of us (beside the fact that each person in our lives probably has a unique one). This I suppose has parallels in the research problem, and the observation effect. It is impossible for us to observe or research naturalistic behaviour because the very fact that we are observing them warps the results.

There is a deeper problem however, to do with whether someone could accurately depict how they view another person. So imagining that a person in our lives was an artist, could they draw how they see us? This is the problem of validity in self-reporting – if we were to ask someone exactly how they viewed a person, even if they were fully compliant and adopting a ‘no-holds-barred’ response (throwing social convention bias to the wind), we would not get an accurate response, because this is something they are making conscious and rationalised which would otherwise not be. We simply cannot escape the cognitive biases that oversee our rationalisations to give a pure answer (though one question to consider is if we in fact do want to know how people see us through this cognitive lens)

This can be considered with allusion to identity theory accounts of how self-reporting of individuals around their own behaviour can be inaccurate. An oft used method is to ask people (through a self-administered survey) how much exercise they perform, and then compare this to direct observation of their exercise (unknown to the respondent) – for instance we might see someone over-report how much they exercise in a week. Answers usually reflect not only the actual self that we observe ourselves, but also the self that we wish to be (ideal self – reflecting the people we aspire to be), or the self we feel we ought to be (ought self – reflecting the internalised norms we have identified from the behaviours valued in our society). It can therefore make sense for someone to pep up the account of their exercise routine to paint a picture of themselves that is more flattering to their idealised or normative perceptions of self.

So wouldn’t these idealised and normative notions of identity also play a part in how someone consciously describes another person? If we are incapable of reporting our selves devoid of such influence, it is dubious we could do so for reporting of another. The act of portraiture in this sense is a projection of the values of the artist. We can better understand under such terms the male gaze in art, though perhaps not excuse it. The male has internalised norms around the female – what is valued (sexual appeal, physical beauty, submission, virtue, etc.), and so depicts or judges models based on this – hence how Rodin’s elderly woman is seen in terms of the loss of such qualities, rather than a more sympathetic depiction.

This reminds me of the famous destruction by Winston Churchill of the portrait Graham Sutherland created of him in his later life, now dramatised in the series The Crown. He reportedly said that it made him ‘look like a down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand.’ and fought against it being publicly presented to the House of Commons for being unsuitable. It is therefore not always to our benefit to be shown how others see us, as it might well conflict with our self-perception in a way most unnerving.

It too has echoes in the early Dove real beauty campaign adverts – where the comparison was drawn in the forensic sketches drawn based on the physical descriptions of individuals and a stranger who had met them. The point drawn here was that we have less flattering self-images than a stranger would and should be more accepting and less judgmental of our appearance.

It’s interesting how none of the sketches actually bear much resemblance to the models though! A little like the exercise we had back in unit 1, describing an object to another person. Translating what we visualise in our minds into words so that another can visualise it accurately is very challenging! It is challenging enough to translate our mental visualisation into a visual representation on paper.

So all this means I come to some key questions. Is it ok that when we see a portrait/self-portrait we are not seeing an exactly true representation of how someone is immediately perceived, but something filtered through the artist’s own values (shaped and influenced by the time and place they are in). In fact are we seeing that person at all or is this a depiction of what they signify based on the artist/society? Or is that actually how we see the world – would an ‘exactly true representation of immediate perception’ actually not relate to the human experience at all, and this signifying and valuing actually be closer to the truth? When we want to understand how others see us, do we instead mean how do they place us within the world we live in based on these values and signifiers, or do we mean how are they immediately perceiving me? I think it might in fact be the former – we want to understand what we mean to people, not solely what we look like. Am I beautiful on a deeper level to you, not only superficially?

And this is where it becomes so emotionally charged – we find it tangled with the ideas we have ourselves of our actual, ought and ideal selves. Will you flatter me by reassuring me that I do conform to some of the characteristics I hold in the idea of the ought and ideal? Is my perception of my actual self accurate to how you view me? Or worst of all, do you reject all these views of myself and see me as something utterly different to my self-perception?

I suppose in my ‘future self-portrait’, under this identity theory, the ability to view ourselves through the eyes of others, and fully grasp their perceptions (not only immediately but alongside the value judgments and signifiers they see) might distort all sides of our self perception – the actual, ideal and ought. We might find these perceptions merge with that of another, or contrastingly experience a visceral disconnection when observing ourselves through their eyes – an ultimate outer body experience. That we do not naturally consider these 3 separate elements of self perception as distinct in our minds makes me think that this process too might be unconscious and hard for us to fully comprehend.

It could be interesting to ask various people in my life (from different social groups) to provide their perception of me, in either drawing or description. Of course, this self-reporting would be highly flawed, but perhaps as I have just discussed, we are more interested in this flawed lens than the pure view. That it would be moderated by social conventions, and likely a sense of not wanting to insult or embarrass, could be interesting to explore. It could also help to combine my instructional work with this other avenue of exploration which I have continued to be interested in.

Unit 2: Futures – Instructions for navigating the unknown further research

I am keen to work further on the instructions I created, to help navigating the unknown. In my assessment yesterday, one of my tutors mentioned that it could be interesting too if people are able to take just one instruction in isolation and whether they might interpret this differently without the context of the others, or if this instruction in isolation might be interesting.

This had me recall the work of Brecht, where he had a box or card system of instructions that you could take from. This reminds me of board games, such as Cranium or Pictionary, where the player is given instructions and often other players have to guess what was on the card. It also reminds me of notices placed on notice boards, where there are tear off contact details at the bottom, or of ticket machines at deli counters etc, where the piece of paper you have taken affects the result for the next person (by removing the previous number in the case of tickets, or reducing the number of people who can take the contact details from the notice). Or even fortune cookies, whereby a ‘personal’ script is found inside each one. It could be interesting to explore these different modes of presentation for my work.

Water Yam (1963), George Brecht

In looking up the above image, I came across an excerpt from a book mentioning this work, called Critical Play: Radical Game Design by Mary Flanagan, see below:

This chapter in particular made mention of an artist I have found very interesting to read about – Gabriel Orozco. There is a fascinating interview with the artist found here. That he combines two interests of mine – a playfulness and also philosophy, is fascinating! Games turn up as a theme here, not only in his process, and he confounds the rules of some conventional games such as ping pong, billiards, football and chess by transforming them in some way. He speaks very well about his thinking behind these transformational acts, and I have included some quotes below that I found particularly interesting.

That is the space that I’m interested in, the in-between space. Even in photographs, I think what is interesting is in between the photographer and the space, which is the same as the in-between of the photograph and the spectator. To activate that space—to activate means to fill it with meaning and connections, so that we can think about it. We can connect with it and make it happen as a space and time in between things.

I think every game is a universe, in a way, or every game is an expression of how the universe works for different cultures… Every game has a connection to how we conceive nature and landscape, how we order and we structure reality.

Probably they are more like philosophical games. I believe that philosophy has to be a practice: practical philosophy. It’s like the way the Greeks used to solve philosophical and mathematical problems—by walking. Not sitting. It’s easier to solve problems moving—when you walk and you talk—probably because you have better irrigation in the brain or just because you are breathing better. Because you are moving, you have better chances to solve complex problems. And also I think, in a way, it’s an action thing. So, I think philosophy is an action; it should be. And to play the games are part of it.

I concentrate on reality in terms of what is happening to me, and I try to revolutionize that and try to rethink it and transform it. I try to transform reality with its own rules, with the things I found there. 

I am interested to learn more about him and have reserved some resources from the library to look into!

Another work I have come across in my initial research is his photo series called Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe (1995). Here he drove around Berlin on a Schwalbe motorbike, and photographed it next to a second whenever he came across another one. The final work in the series of 40 includes a third bike, as he had sent invitations to all the Schwalbe owners in Berlin to meet him for a get-together (and only 2 turned up). I love this level of unpredictability in his series (providing an instruction that may or may not be followed by other persons), but also too this repetition and persistence. The photography itself had a kind of rule to it, without other persons, closely framed, bikes in close proximity, etc. making it a game in itself. It’s interesting that games should require rules to be set, almost paradoxical in a way.

Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe 1995 Gabriel Orozco born 1962 Presented by George and Angie Loudon 1999 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07506

Typography: my work

In this workshop, we were introduced to the Adobe InDesign app, taught several basic functions within the app, completing various exercises to put these to practice, and then finally asked to create several typographical representations of a word given to us from a hat.

I found this brief especially interesting to read and so think I would like to explore typography in greater depth.

We were instructed to use Helvetica as a neutral font type, and asked to choose a letter to experiment with. I chose a capital R as I thought it had an interesting variety of form to play round with (straight, curved and wiggly).

First we experimented with duplicating and transforming the letter in dimension and orientation. Then too with opacity and layering. What’s interesting here (which I have only just noticed) is that unintentionally I arranged the page in the shape of the R I was using..!

Then, we experimented with colour fills, as well as gradients, and outlines with varying thickness and pattern.

Here, by masking certain elements of the letter by drawing a shape over it, we experimented with deconstructing the letters and marrying them to create new letters or abstractions. I enjoyed this especially, and testing how far the letter could be pushed and still recognised.

I was given the word ‘error’ to portray through type. This word for me has connotations of machinery and computing, as it’s synonymous with ‘error messaging’ in applications and computer systems. As such I knew I wanted my typograms to play on this.

I began by writing this as one word, and sought to experiment with one of the outlining functions which makes the edges angular/squared – to increase it’s artificiality. I arbitrarily drastically increased the size of this outline and it created an unforeseen interesting result, whereby it was obliterating the word itself. I liked the effect it gives, a bit like someone has viciously markered a piece of paper. Over the top of this, I included a small ‘error’ in a typeface that evokes typewriter or mechanical writing as a footnote of sorts. I chose a contrasting yellow to have this stand out, but also give a sense of alarm. Interestingly, when printed the strength of the black ink behind this yellow note means the type is almost imperceptible.

For my next page, I wanted to experiment instead with each letter in isolation. I chose to continue with the yellow/black palette for this piece as well. I knew I wanted to mix up the sizing, typeface and capitalisation of the letters to disrupt the reading of the word. I deconstructed my capital E which I find interesting since it remains identifiable despite the middle and bottom horizontal lines being disjointed.

The fact I had three rs in my word was interesting, since I had been working with this earlier. I chose to still have one capital R here but I enjoyed exploring the lower case r in this instance – particularly when duplicating and varying the opacity and making this overlap. This reminded me of an error that used to happen with Windows OS and that was featured in the opening credits of the IT Crowd tv show (which again reinforced this connotation of error).

For the O, I wanted to again play with the outlining feature, and again using an oversized one, I achieved an interesting effect which effectively multiplied the letter itself. By scaling this up and tilting it I realised it looked a little like the iconic Vertigo poster, and I liked the additional meaning this could convey, alongside the repeating r, of you falling into an endless error. I backgrounded this to highlight that sense of falling into it. [Here again, the vortex is appearing as a motif!]

I further subverted this work by ‘accidentally’ leaving one of the InDesign function windows on top of the design and screengrabbing it to create a further page – in a postmodern sort of way.

I also enjoyed seeing this message at the bottom of the application window and thought it could in itself ironically imply a paradox of both being and not being an error.

I enjoyed this 1/2 day workshop greatly, and would like to work to extend it as suggested at the end of the brief.