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: 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.