Notes on Ways of Seeing

14.02.18

This a response to the video Ways of Seeing by John Berger, which is itself inspired by the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by philosopher Walter Benjamin.

 

Artwork – images and objects tied to place and general context.  As a familiar smell, feeling or sound might signal and signify a particular context, (original) works are the signifiers of the context out of which they are born.  Copies are also signifiers of their own context, but this is mostly hidden from view, as copies are often presented in the same light as originals – when an artwork is set up to be copied the context is omitted; we don’t want to see the oil painting under bright lights in a studio, we just want to see the painting, or as much of it as possible, which means as little as possible evidence of context, as little as possible evidence that it is in fact a copy, and not an original itself.

This veiling of original context is aided by technology while simultaneously leaving its own footprint – typewriters, printing presses and computers all remove evidence of the hand of the creator.  On the face of it, such copies could come from anywhere and from any time, because the word (or image) in its homogenised form bears no resemblance to the mark of the author, and instead displays evidence of the machine or technique that produced it.  Instead of strictly referencing the author, any text published in the Times New Roman font also becomes a reference to Stanley Morison and Victor Lardent; the creators of that typeface.

As an artwork passes from original to copy status, the shift in context leaves its mark.

Graffiti on canvas, although it may be original, is really just an example of transplanting an idea into an alien context.  The form has remained the same – it is still spray-painted letters in a particular style, but it is no longer tied to the immobile and illegal world of the outdoor, on-the-run artist.  By severing the link between the context and the artwork, or as in this case, by attempting to graft the whole genre onto a new context, the origins and meaning are lost in translation.

Everything becomes bastardised in some way by experiencing it in your own preferred and habitual context, which is often at home and on your computer.  This is domestication in brief: rounding up untamed elements and bringing them into the home for the pleasure of convenient experiences. The desire to make art that fits inside gallery walls, music studios and television channels, only serves to benefit those particular structures and the people hiding behind their favourite and most profitable contexts.  Instead of a bio-diverse art community, we have work that is invested in and created simply to fit into the moulds that may accommodate them with open wallets.  Instead of artists that produce work that is true to its own, and to their own specific context, we have work whose origins are hidden, whose would-be destiny is the featureless and naked gallery wall, the tv, cinema or computer screen.  Artists are willingly giving up identity and context to the demands of technology and consumerism.

Each musical style is embedded not just in time but place as well, despite music being a non-physical medium.  There is something uniquely bizarre about listening to hip hop at home in your bedroom when you live in Finland.  This couldn’t have happened without the physical act of mechanically copying music onto disks, and without the removal of a whole culture from its context.  The role of technology in creating convenience in its many forms is at the heart of the worldwide spread of ideas, art and imagery.  If everything had to be experienced in its rightful place; in its birthplace, then it would severely limit what would be shared, and by whom.  In a sense, experience itself is the unshareable artwork: we can only gaze upon the aftermath through art-produce and its reproductions.

If you believe that everything can, and should be shared for reasons of equality, then you consequently endorse the continuation and spread of domestication, because to make everything equally available ultimately means to make it effortless and contextless, and thus meaningless.  By turning Mount Everest into a guided tour, it stops becoming the feat it once was; it is de-feated.  Accessibility for all, while on the surface appears like a noble ideal, is actually counterproductive, and seems to spring from the philosophy that all hard work should be replaced by convenience at our earliest convenience.

I experience other people’s art as if I don’t understand it, i.e. as alien and as incomprehensible as it really is.  My reactions are mostly gut reactions and a projection of my own ideas: I cannot ultimately see the world without my own biases or perspective, and so instead of understanding we must satisfy ourselves with the feeling of having understood, or at the very least, the idea that we tried.  The work exists as it is, but there is no perspective-less perspective from which to view it.  Restoring context goes some way to remedying this problem, but cannot overcome it completely.

Misunderstanding is the basis for many a creation, and could be seen as a form of memetic mutation.  By failing to re-create the original meaning or context we veer off in a new direction, using religious icons as placemats, and wartime propaganda as wall hangings.

Just as objects signify contexts, images themselves become symbols of particular ideas and associated, inferred contexts and characteristics.  It is these implicit associations that advertising uses to hijack our experiences.  Products themselves come to signify desirable contexts and experiences as they are consistently shown to us in unison, and certain colours, shapes or fonts come to signify brand markings.

If reproduction destroys original meaning and gives rise to multiple interpretations, then we could say that copying processes delete objectivity and replace it with infinite subjectivity.  But if context is also time-specific, then by virtue of them being old, we can never experience the true meaning of an artwork, even if it hangs in its right place.  It’s not that reproduction in the mechanical sense destroys meaning, but it is reproduction from one mind to another where meaning is lost, irrespective of spacial and temporal context.  Mechanical reproduction simply aided this realisation.  This becomes immediately evident when you publicly display your work.  No amount of showing it in the context of your studio, or wherever else you created it will help change the fact that the meaning people derive from the work is a product of the work itself and their own minds.  Since there cannot be an experience without one or the other it becomes the destiny of any idea or artwork to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and remixed, both purposefully and accidentally.

Meaning, if any is present in an artwork, is only ever loosely attached, in the experiential sense – there is no universal, transmittable meaning (no universally convincing arguments).

Harmony

04.02.18

Either I take photographs to see how they look relative to the reality they are derived from, in which case harmony is achieved through accepting the process and the surprising outcomes, or I take photographs because I have a relatively clear (in comparison to my own hazy imagination) idea of how I want a photograph or series to look, in which case harmony in a more obvious way, is about matching the intention with the end results.

Whether our intentions are explicit or not, our sense of satisfaction or dissonance arises from whether or not our actions and their results meet our expectations.  Having an implicit or subconscious expectation can sometimes be the root cause of a problem; a meta-problem that must first be solved before the real work can begin.  If I am unaware of my reasons for doing anything, harmony and dissonance can seem to be fleeting and unexplainable, or else, we attribute them to factors other than our intentions.  In such a case, a creative practice may serve as an exercise in enlightenment, that is, in illuminating our drives, values and desires, elevating them to a conscious level.  But unconscious trial and error is a painstaking way of going about realising what our dreams are, and it runs the risk of returning a result way too late to be of any practical use.  Better late than never, sooner rather than later.  It is much simpler to sit down and take a moment to define our initial goals and values so that they may guide us in advance, instead of simply notifying us when we make a wrong turn.

So from a creative perspective, we ultimately seek to achieve harmony in various ways: with our environment, with our tools and materials, with our ideas, our creations and ourselves.  In the same way we might consider an un-retouched photograph or perhaps even a photo-realistic painting to be “true”, in the sense that the lines, shapes, light, tone, texture and colours are sufficiently matched or appropriate, there is also truth in artistic creation when we consider this alternative concept of harmony.

Truth is also about our personal interests and perspectives, so that if we find ourselves engaged in activities that we are not really interested in or find inspiring, it doesn’t resonate with us, or “ring true”.  In this case there is dissonance between our desires or direction, and what we are doing or where we are going.  Even from an emotional perspective we experience these different kinds of truth in the same way, i.e on an instinctual, gut-feeling level. Does an idea make you want to jump out of your seat, stop whatever you are doing and get to work, or does it make you want to stay in bed on a Monday morning, and worse still, make you feel worthless?

Most of us don’t consider ourselves to be artists, but if we think of art as being a deliberate, creative endeavour based on truth (harmony) and beauty, then in carving out the lives we want to live we become artists, and we develop a sensitivity to what is true and what is not.  The title is not simply a label for the sake of labelling, but it is rather a reminder of our responsibility to ourselves and of our role in taking deliberate steps to actively achieve what it is we have previously and explicitly stated that we wish to achieve.  In this sense, a job title is a call to action, and a personal mission statement, rather than simply a description of some task you regularly carry out for financial reward.

Study

 

14.11.17

Study means to examine closely. Therefore to study from a book is an oxymoron because the words are simply not the thing. The study should reveal more about the book and the recording and presentation process than about the subject itself .

Studying from a book is really the study of the subject through the intermediary of both the book (the physical medium) and the author (the subjective experience).  In this way, words, images and videos etc, all represent barriers to study, as these artefacts are often mistaken for the truth, and play an important role in shaping our opinions of the subject.

If we accept that each mode of representation has its own inherent characteristics and biases, then it follows that regardless of the author’s intentions and perspective, our subjective experience will always be altered by whatever medium our subject is presented in.

While each medium is a metaphorical barrier it is also a physical one: a book is a solid screen that blocks our vision and engages our metaphorical eyesight: the imagination.  It prevents us from seeing that which we intend to study, by presenting us with a pre-filtered copy and set of conclusions.

In effect, in order to study something as best as we can, we need to have an unobstructed view as possible, otherwise our perception and ideas can become tainted by the filters.  This implies at least two things: experiencing the subject first-hand, and becoming aware of one’s own biases.

First-hand experience is always limited, but in the past was even more limited by technological constraints.  Now that we can travel more easily and cheaply than ever before, we have the possibility to meet others and have experiences that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamt of.  The invention of high-fidelity modes of information sharing such as the printed word, no doubt played a role in inspiring readers to seek out new experiences, however, they simultaneously blinded people by convincing them that the words in the book, and the subject to which they referred were one and the same.  Thus, personal study was usurped by the official printed version.

First-hand experience is also limited by time as well as space, because we cannot have experience of time periods before or after our own.

In contrast to (direct) experience, indirect experience is a misleading term, and often refers to “experience of someone else’s account of something”.  A video for example, would constitute an account of an experience, while remaining a completely different experience in itself.

“Being there” is a necessary part of experience, therefore the different mediums for communication represent tools for inducing vicarious experience of things that are not there.

[we react to old, documentary footage of soldiers being killed as if it were happening right before our eyes, despite the fact that even if those soldiers had not been killed in battle, they would have died of old age long before the point in time when we choose to view their recorded deaths.  This idea became even clearer to me upon watching on old film in which a small bird was caught using a metal hook – the bird had long ago died, and would have done so irrespective.  The recording and repetition of its pain and suffering was just an echo, albeit a powerful one. {This unintentionally answers the question “if a tree falls in the woods” in a novel way: if there is no recording of the event there can be no echo.}]

The problem is that metaphorically speaking, we refer to the imagination as if it were a place, a space or container somewhere in our heads or minds (another metaphor), so that anything that happens “in our imagination” appears to us as if it were right before our eyes, and so, experiences that are first-hand to our imagination feel as if they were external, first-hand experiences.  This abstract concept can be easily understood by going to the cinema to watch a film.  Although we know and accept the unreal nature of the events projected onto the screen, we can’t help but react to them as if they were real.  If this were not true, cinema would have little or no reason to be so successful.  We end up feeling hatred, compassion, and all other possible emotions towards the characters the actors are pretending to be!  If you spend your time thinking rationally about what is going on onscreen, you won’t enjoy the movie!

This concept explains why athletes who imagine performing their sport, experience some of the benefits of actual exercise, but more importantly it explains why zebras don’t get ulcers.  [It is also my own just-so story about why cats dream: the dream state is a low-cost means of not only staying alert, but also maintaining physical fitness and reactivity.  This assumes though, that cat dreams are similar to cat lives – running, jumping and hunting etc, and that unconscious (sleeping) imagination has a similar, or the same effect as the waking imagination.]

How we relate to the world around us is determined by how we view and experience it.  Microscopes and telescopes both afford us unique vantage points that the naked eye alone does not.  If we constantly experience life through a microscope we risk damaging our eyesight: there are no angry atoms, only angry people.  That is to say, we must maintain an awareness of human experience on a level of the naked eye, regardless of what goes on under the surface.  Anthropology is not the same as biology etc.

Beyond being interesting or entertaining, I think that viewing a subject through different lenses simultaneously shows you some truth about that subject through that which remains the same, while also highlighting the characteristics of each lens through those features that change.  In this way I believe that using a number of different filters to examine a subject has a similar effect to running multiple tests and then cross-referencing the results, i.e increasing the sample size.  If a drug is effective for example, this should be shown by each test, although not necessarily to the same degree: this is the constant, while any differences in the results could be explained by varying methodologies and so on.  Anyone familiar with the scientific method should be aware that the results of the study can be down to poor design, rather than the element being tested.  This important fact seems little acknowledged outside of the scientific domain, but has been summed up famously as:

“the medium is the message”.

So if coming closer to a state of objectivity is arrived at by both de-filtering and cross-referencing information, we can conclude that much of what we consider truth, in the sense that it shapes our impressions and actions, lies somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Our experiences and ideas are not really our own, they are concepts passed down to us through a long, complex and ongoing filtering system that includes time itself.  The information we receive prior to our first-hand experiences goes a long way to biasing them, so that in effect, books and other reference points become important factors in preventing us from having our own untainted, and in-the-moment experiences.

We are largely to blame for this state of affairs though, as we often like to research and plan things to death before taking action, for the sake of apparent control and peace of mind.  It’s as if we only wish to move forward if we can not only be sure of the destination, that it really exists and in the form we currently desire, but also that we will actually make it there without fail.

In a sense it’s safer to get someone else’s opinion before launching ourselves into oblivion for the first time, both physically and metaphorically.  In evolutionary terms it makes sense that not only having correct beliefs led to greater chances of survival, but sharing them too was also beneficial for successful co-operation.  Trust could be built on accurate advice and data, and in some ways civilisation itself was also built by these same materials.  But technology has exponentially and reliably enabled us to circumvent and derail our biology, so that characteristics and circumstances that would have previously led to the extinction of a particular individual no longer have that effect.  We are able to support life that cannot even support itself, so much so that for the most part “survival of the fittest” no longer implies life-or-death struggle it once did, leaving the phrase an empty shell.  And in the same way that changes to our environment have led to us becoming less reliant on ancient practices for survival, we are no longer so dependent on the sharing and receiving of information that has a high probability of correlating to our immediate surroundings or even the world at large.  Truth is going the way of the dodo.

There are a number of things to first consider: our environment is orders of magnitude richer in information than that of our evolutionary ancestors, and although this is true, the amount of relevant information has probably not changed all that much.  These two points leave us with the conclusion that we are currently swamped with superfluous information for which there was no evolutionary advantage.  Information itself has broken free from its ancestral constraints.

Let me now bring your attention to the condom; an item that prevents the one thing we have evolved to do: procreate.  We should take care not to conflate evolution’s results with our own goals, but in a sense this should be obvious, as it appears natural for humans to rebel against their own biology in every single way possible, and currently impossible.  The existence and widespread use of contraceptives is abhorrent from a survival standpoint, as is suicide, abortion and sterilisation, which strangely enough, quite accurately maps to what certain religions also find objectionable.  The condom therefore, serves as a banal example of the normality of the strange.

In the same way that we are unable to emotionally create a distinction between things imagined and the things themselves, we also tend to treat information on a is-captivating-therefore-is-important basis, as if the latest viral videos were really information on where to harvest some ripe fruit or warnings of imminent death-by-tiger.  We also share this strange relationship to certain foods and other superstimuli, one where we are unable to untangle our emotional responses from our sense of good or bad.  We find it difficult to instinctively comprehend the idea of something having ultimately negative consequences for us, yet on the surface appears enticing and pleasant when we consume it.  But this is the crux of the issue with how human psychology operates and fails to operate effectively in our man-made environment – we are falling into our own concrete pitfalls, having spent so much effort on paving over the natural ones.

This historical anomaly we call the news, is an attempt at study from a distance, or study without study.  In order for the multitude of things reported on by the news to be of personal relevance to me, they would for the most part, have to take place in my local vicinity, so in order for me to study (experience) the effects of an earthquake in Tokyo I would have to be there in person.  This leaves me in a strange position: either I travel to every place on the news in order to experience things first-hand and in order for them to be relevant, and for me to have a greater power of affecting them, or I concede that the images before me that elicit such natural, healthy emotional responses, are merely entertainment like the actors on the cinema screen.

The news, through its study-from-home technique, emotionally transports us all across the globe, and takes us from fear, anger, astonishment, grief, joy and all the way back to fear again without us ever changing position, while constantly changing the plot and the protagonists.  For this reason the news is perhaps the strongest example of media as a teleportation device, but what goes unreported is not the trivial and meaningless occurrences that would otherwise pass by unannounced, but the collective emotional impact that such an experience of information has on the population.  We are as enthralled as we are divided: torn and divided as the range of messages, emotions and locations from which, and to where it is all broadcast.  Paying attention to the news is to self-inflict schizophrenia in small, regular doses.  The cost is sanity, as we lose our minds from having them constantly elsewhere, jolted back and forth, disturbed, uprooted, transplanted and replanted.  The end result is that we are never here.  We are never now.  Always then, in somebody else’s past, a fly on someone else’s wall, trying desperately to make sense of the events, fumbling to arrange them all in alphabetical order in an impossibly large filing cabinet that juts off heavenwards into infinity like a towering tombstone.

We don’t see the filter, only the pieces that pass through.  So when we view life through the privileged vantage points of the media, with our easily emotionally captured attention, we don’t ask ourselves why we are being presented with such information, instead we move directly on to responding to the propositions as they stand.  It’s as if when the television says “jump” we don’t say “how high?”, but proceed to jump automatically, when we should really be asking “why jump at all?”

By virtue of the focusing power that the news has over millions of people, simply showing something, anything at all, creates the illusion and feeling of primordial importance.

Terrorism became important in the minds of people, not because it was suddenly more relevant to our everyday lives, but because it was widely reported on and repeated, and re-repeated and reported.  Statistically speaking, you’re probably more likely to die by committing suicide than being killed in a terrorist attack, which if anything, means you should be worried about your own state of mind and should probably sleep with one eye open in case you’re watching.  This didn’t, and doesn’t stop anyone from feeling uneasy about walking around European cities, especially at certain times of year.  That information cannot be un-broadcast, to paraphrase a catchphrase.

Information should largely be opt-in only, which would put limits on advertising in public space, and make it the sole responsibility of the individual to manage their consumption of information.  There’s a reason it’s called a news feed.  Instead of using the heuristic interesting=good, we should be more wary of not only wasting our time, but of the possible short and long-term negative effects of having such an unrestricted diet.