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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).