Visual culture

Through photographs at the void deck: A lover’s perspective

We once walked past a void deck with a fan-shaped hole in the wall. It had sunny yellow paint as its border. Some void decks from older HDB flats have ‘hole in the wall’ features in different shapes and colours. These shapes were said to jazz up plain-looking housing estates.

Her eyes lit up with fascination. “Look at this shape!” She exclaimed excitedly, pointing at it and rushing toward it. “I remember some photographer taking a whole series of them.”

She was really into architecture and geometrical patterns while I knew nothing about urban landscapes or design. All I knew was that her presence lit up the spaces she inhabited.

Almost instinctively, I pulled out my phone and started snapping photographs of her exploring the shape in the wall. It was a personal habit of mine to take photos of my girlfriend. Through a series of pixels as my medium of choice, I could immortalise her different facets.

Every photograph captured a different mood:

1.

I adored her because she had a mind brimming with curiosity and wonder – She wanted to find out more about everything that piqued her interest.

At that moment, this shape was her object of fancy.

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She climbed into the hole in the wall and stood in it awkwardly. She struck a few poses and pretended she was a model. The absurdity of the whole thing tickled her and she tilted her head back in laughter. I did too – She looked so silly.

She moved nimbly between the spaces, but the fluidity of her motion could never be fully captured using still images. With all the images that illustrated different degrees of breakage and continuity from each other,  I was reminded of the passage of time.

A single photograph is a single time-slice. It captures only one instance within a universe in constant flux. How do we grasp hold of anything when everything moves so quickly?

2.

Perhaps we should not be grasping at all.

I watched as her hair fluttered lightly in the breeze. It tickled her nose.

This picture captured her at her most content – free from the careless restlessness that plagued mankind – the hunger that could never be satiated.

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In the next moment, she brushed the strand of hair aside.

I observed how absentmindedly we attend to something as insignificant like a single hair. The desire to scratch is subconscious, but we raise our hand to our face almost instantaneously in response.

We give in instinctively to this and that all the time, sometimes without even realizing it. Eternal contentment lasts forever only in photographs, when it should reside within us.

3.

I once snapped a photo when her back was toward me.

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“This looks like a pensive photo,” I said.

She said,

“How strange it is that photographs seem to have a pensive mood just because a subject has his or her back faced to the camera. Because there is no way to see their facial expression, there is so much about the subject’s mood that remains concealed. You cannot tell if the person is smiling or crying. You imagine and fill in the mood of the subject based on your own. It is your own pensiveness that bleeds into the image, colouring it with a contemplative quality.”

What she forgets is that this is also the image we see when somebody walks away from us.

Backs turned, facial expression concealed.

What could be more pensive and melancholic, than the image of someone leaving?

 

***

 

 

 

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The art of looking at Instagram

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Recently, I attended a film screening at STPI on John Berger’s The Art Of Looking. It is part of their current installation featuring Kim Beom and how artists interrogate perspectives. Watching the screening rekindled my interest in Berger’s works and I spent the weekend watching all four episodes of Ways of Seeing (stills from this post are taken from the videos). Berger was a curious observer with a keen sense for insightful perspectives. His inquiry into how visuality functions as a language reveals certain surprising conclusions.

In Episode 1, Berger brings in the significance of photography and the camera with respect to traditional art. It allows for reproduction of art, making it available in different places and for different purposes. A single artwork can be framed differently by different agents, with emphases placed on different aspects. A picture of Mona Lisa on a postcard would have a different meaning from when it is placed in an art history textbook, accompanied by descriptions and commentary. When incorporated into a video, different movements and music can be used to invoke different feelings and hence, skew interpretation and meaning of the artwork. This allows for fragmented meanings different from the original.

Unlike the original nature of oil painting which can only be viewed when an eye’s visual field comes into contact with it, photography expands the possibilities for ‘seeing’. I pondered further on this, and thought about social media feeds. What might Berger have to say about Instagram? It seems to me that his points can also be applied to the use of Instagram. Instagram pictures are a subjective expression of the individual. Two people at the same scene might take very different pictures –they might frame it in certain ways (by cropping certain things out or focusing on different aspects), apply different filters to evoke different feelings, and post different captions that would alter the meaning of each image.

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Berger also argues that the tradition of European oil painting was a medium which celebrated private possessions. It depicted the tangibility of objects representing affluence and power (e.g. land, gold, feasts, portraits etc.). He then looks at the modern context of publicity and advertisement. According to Berger, the oil painting symbolises the wealth of the owner. The person commissions an artist to immortalise his/her possessions within that frame. The publicity image on the other hand, shows not what we have, but what we might buy. In Berger words, the city of advertisements is “papered with dreams which invite us to enter them.” It represents not who we already are and what we already have, but who we can be with ownership of said objects. His conclusion is that the tradition of European oil painting and modern publicity images are both about ownership and status, but function in slightly different ways.

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Like oil paintings, many Instagram images document what we have done and the objects we are proud of – e.g. Flatlays of shopping hauls, shots of fancy cars and houses etc. Instagram images can also function as a publicity image when people use Instagram to advertise certain products. Suppose we thought of publicity images and traditional oil painting to be two different ends of the ownership and power imagery spectrum (image representing and surrounding what you [the owner] have –> representing what the people surrounding the image don’t have, but could).  Instagram embodies both poles of the spectrum, but cannot be reduced to either.

Hidden beneath the curated collection of images on an Instagram feed is a subtle art of visual communication. This is not just in terms of material possessions but also experiences (e.g. parties, exotic holidays, exclusive events) and social networks. Like the ubiquity of advertisements (and unlike the nature of traditional oil paintings before photography), the nature of Instagram is such that images are widely and heavily diffused. It is a marketplace not only in commercial dealings as an advertisement platform, but also a marketplace for social dealings. Likes are traded, followers represent network reach, and images communicate social status.

Like the publicity image, Instagram images portray objects of envy that exclude the viewer. Ownership and status of the owner as communicated through an Instagram image is always in relation to other Instagram users –the multiplicity of eyes that take in this image. It involves a discourse on human desire – It suggests what you are not, but can and want to be.

Every image on the feed is disembodied. It has no relation to the previous or the next. In the endless visual stream, it is a single fragment, juxtaposed against all other fragments. It also has a voice that competes to not get drowned out by other sounds. Yet, each image does not hold equal power. Some have louder voices that yell: “Look at me, I am what you are not.” They tempt and seduce us into buying things we do not need, pursuing experience after experience in the chase for a distant dream that is never truly within our grasp.

I acknowledge that with everything, it is nearly impossible to have an absolute position. Certainly not all Instagram images work at the same level of seduction.There will always be exceptions, anomalies and empirical cases that do not quite fit.  I am not suggesting that all Instagram does is to trap us in our desires and deceitfully play on our inadequacies. I am also not arguing that there is anything inherently insidious about how Instagram might be used. What this post does is to point out the dangers of the constant stream of images, and the subconscious work it does to manipulate our desires and actions. It (hopefully!) provokes one to think about how we use Instagram and how it influences us.

Ways of Seeing Episode 1
Ways of Seeing Episode 2
Ways of Seeing Episode 3
Ways of Seeing Episode 4

Bourdieu’s ‘On Television’ and its relevance to Singapore in 2017

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Image credit: Culture on the edge

[This essay is based off my interpretations of Priscilla Ferguson’s translations of Bourdieu’s lectures on journalism and television. I have spent a few days studying the text to the best of my ability but apologise in advance for any potential misinterpretations I may have made.]

This short essay will reference Pierre Bourdieu’s (1998) On Television, involving his lectures on journalism and specifically, television. I will summarise some of his points before offering my thoughts on it. In response, I will pose some general questions and further thoughts on the text. I will also question if his ideas are still relevant today in 2017, and situate it in the Singapore context – Does it support what he’s saying? How relevant are his ideas?

On Television suggests that the role of journalism (and television) imposes lower levels of social and political discourse on the citizen. He reveals the irony of democratic legitimacy derived from audience ratings (i.e. media for the people, defending their interests and functioning as a watchdog of power) by illuminating the structural constraints embedded in the world of journalism.

TV hides by showing – it can show something else, or show something in a particular way. The news has become a banal stream of images, and events are reduced to mere anecdote or spectacle –sex, blood and scandal. As a stream of unrelated images on separate issues, events become depoliticised. They seem detached from the individual – constructing the perception that politics is inaccessible. Bourdieu chooses to focus on TV because of its huge role in news dissemination but I believe that his points can be generalised to journalism as a whole.

Bourdieu’s concern is with the structural constraints and pressures: Journalism is situated in structures of competition (between agencies), market forces and market share over information dissemination. These are interrelated factors. Who is saying what they’re saying and how they’re saying it is influenced by what others are reporting (‘the circular circulation of information’) and their individual context in the world of journalism. As such, reports have nothing to do with an enlightened mass opinion or public rationality. What drives and constrains are these structures, and such is the irony of democratic legitimacy of the Fourth Estate. Where do The People reside in this picture?

When a broadcast agency circulates its information on topics that interest ‘everybody’, they get the views and boost their audience ratings. As Bourdieu pointed out, the news is reduced to political rituals, descriptions and things that the viewer already knows. It is constructed in accordance with the same mental categories of the receiver – It does not disrupt, inspire, nor raise problems. He cautions us that simplistic analyses that upset nothing result in lenses that see the world divided up in simplistic categories e.g. xenophobia, ethnic tension or religious divides. This is precisely because the news fails to unravel mental categories, properly educate the democratic citizen and inspire action. In his words, it inspires “vague humanitarian interest at best”.

What Bourdieu suggests as a remedy (but does not get into at length) is a form of collaborative journalism. It is a kind of journalism that does away with ratings and sensational-isations to work towards productive discourse. For instance, he gives the example of collaboration instead of a race for the scoop, and contesting the ratings system in the name of democracy. Therefore, what is emphasised is the importance for fighting for optimum conditions of diffusion where individuals can be educated. He is aware that this is utopian, but claims that morality works insofar as its structures support it and there are mechanisms which give people interest in that particular kind of morality. He then tells us that awareness of the mechanisms at work provides a measure of freedom to those manipulated by mechanisms (either journalist or viewer). One can be mindful of social demands and actively contest structural pressures.

Firstly, Bourdieu tells us that the news is reduced to simplistic criticisms that offer no analysis. How much analysis and nuance can we realistically have in the coverage of every event? Or rather, a more pertinent question is: How much is enough? Enough to educate the citizen? Often, people reject the unfamiliar and different. In that case, how do we go about educating an uninformed viewer who has no interest in ‘undoing’ their mental categories? More importantly to the journalistic body, how are they supposed to reconcile the need to satisfy these (market?) demands with these loftier goals of democratic or even moral education? Perhaps I am giving Bourdieu insufficient credit and we can attribute the vagueness of his solutions to the fact that it was outside of his purview to discuss them in detail. However, if Bourdieu is right, these questions are still important ones.

Bourdieu briefly discusses the banality and frivolity of news as spectacle. We may examine this point with other forms of journalism, including citizen journalism in the twenty first century. One might respond to this objection by saying: If no one heard you say it, did you really say it at all? Hence, one must first capture market share by attracting a wide audience first and get heard. Once they have a voice and presence, they can work to contest the system. The point is one needs to first understand and play the game before one can change its rules. This operates on the premise that there is great difficulty in contesting the journalistic milieu from the outside. This premise is a defensible one, but leads us back to the question of how we can reconcile market pressures with contesting the ratings system and aspiring toward education.

Back to the case of Singapore in 2017 – television and journalism is always inextricably tied to government control and censorship. While various online news sources have proliferated (and are fast gaining traction), SPH and Mediacorp still has a monopoly over information dissemination. In Singapore, the press is a means for the government to communicate certain kinds of information and perspectives. Whether or not this degree of control and censorship is desirable is not what I am concerned with in this essay. More importantly, news agencies in Singapore do not purport to espouse democratic values or legitimacy unlike in Western countries. Bourdieu reveals the irony of ‘free press’ not really being free. ‘Free press’ depends on your definition – what are you free from? There are degrees of freedom from government interests, but more importantly, Bourdieu’s lectures point out structural constraints (e.g. market forces and advertisements, internal pressures etc.)

On that note, the Singapore case is completely different from the context that Bourdieu himself was situated in. Singapore, unlike France, is not a liberal democracy and has never been steeped in a liberal tradition. Hence, news agencies in Singapore cannot and does not claim democratic legitimacy. Bourdieu’s lecture shows the irony of the press’s democratic legitimacy in France, but this irony is not relevant to Singapore. However, I would argue that the Singapore case is still subject to structural pressures. They face pragmatic concerns such as pressures from audience ratings and market forces.

Bourdieu writes that the news should contribute to educating a citizen of his/her rights and how one may flourish in a democratic society. Looking at the Singapore case, how else might we justify the importance of education of citizens without invoking any notion of democratic legitimacy? What would be the role of the media for Singapore? Perhaps we may find our answer in some kind of morality and value system, but that is a subject for another essay.

In conclusion, I have attempted to draw links between Bourdieu’s arguments and the Singapore context. Bourdieu’s diagnosis and of the problem (banality and depoliticisation of the news) is very real in Singapore, but his arguments are illuminating insofar as we consider market forces as structural pressures rather than the irony of the press’s democratic legitimacy. His lecture also opens up more difficult questions about what should be done and how media should be used more responsibly to play an active role in education.

 

References:
Pierre Bourdieu. On Television. Translated by Priscilla Ferguson. New York: New Press. 1998.

What Marina Abramovic’s ‘Rhythm 0’ has in common with Black Mirror’s ‘Men Against Fire’

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Image credit: The John Doppler Effect

Known for her work as a performance artist, Marina Abramovic has produced many different artworks involving the engagement of both artist and audience. One of her most controversial pieces, Rhythm 0, took this engagement to a whole new level.

Rhythm 0 involved a table with 72 objects laid out on it. The list of items included flowers, a brush, a sheet of white paper, a box of razor blades, a polaroid camera and a gun, etc. The description read “I am the object,” and, “During this period I take full responsibility.” For six hours, Abramovic would be a passive object, and the audience were free to move her and use the objects on her as they pleased. Some of the objects on the table were harmless or even pleasant. Others had the potential to seriously hurt her.

Rhythm 0 reflected performance art as a way to transform both artist and audience. The audience was invited to direct the action and collaborate in art-making. They were no longer mere observers. The art-space was shared by both artist and audience, and entailed objects and agents. However, the twist lay in the inverted relationship between artist and audience: Instead of art being produced by the artist as the agent, the audience has become the agent and has transformed into, to some extent, the artist.

Initially, members of the public were tentative and timid. They started off with repositioning her arms, placing objects on her and taking photographs. As the hours drew on, they became increasingly aggressive:

“They poured oil on her head. They pricked her with the thorns of the rose. They cut her clothing. They cut her. One participant actually licked her blood. They carried her around the room half-naked, then put her on a wooden table and stabbed a knife into the table between her legs. One participant put a bullet in the gun and pointed it at her head, and held it there, finger on the trigger, until another audience member eventually pushed the gun away.”[1]

At the end of the six hours, she stood up – bleeding and in tears, and walked towards her audience. She no longer existed as a ‘thing’ in a particular state of passivity. It was a reminder to the audience that she was very much ‘alive’, just like them. Knowing that Abramovic (as a person with a ‘self’) had been subject to their abuses for the past few hours, the audience scattered immediately. This reaction exposed a fear of facing up to the aftermath of their wretched humanity.

Abramovic believed that confronting physical pain and exhaustion was important in making a person completely present and aware of his or her self. [2] However, Rhythm 0 pushed the boundaries of morality and its relationship with personhood. To what extent do we treat a person as a ‘person’ (i.e. relational recognition of their ‘self’ with respect to our own) when they are thing-ified? How is morality affected? Abramovic challenges the possibilities of action taken against another person in the face of two things: 1) Absolving the responsibility of the agents, and 2) Her passivity, transforming herself into a mere object.

Responsibility is an important driver in directing people’s actions. However, even if they could not be held responsible, surely they would have felt it against their conscience? I suggest that Abramovic’s passivity was key in emboldening the audience. As far as possible, she turned herself into an object, just like the 72 others laid on the table, and the audience had no qualms inflicting violence on ‘things’.

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Image credit: Movie pilot

Rhythm 0 took place in 1974, and the latest season of Black Mirror was released in 2016. However, despite the years between them, there were eerie parallels that can be drawn between Abramovic’s performance art and Black Mirror’s Men Against Fire (S03E06). If you have not already watched the episode, this is a spoiler alert. Black Mirror provides an interesting spin to notions of ‘conscience’ and ‘responsibility’ using technology. The episode is about how soldiers are issued implants, changing their sense of smell and vision. They do not see the goriness or smell the blood upon massacring the ‘enemy’. More importantly, the ‘enemy’ appears to them as subhuman monsters. The plot twist is that these ‘monsters’ are really just humans like the soldiers, and the soldiers are all part of a political ploy to eradicate certain groups of people. They are merely a vehicle for politics through the means of warfare.

Firstly, the dehumanisation of the ‘enemy’ is reminiscent of the ‘thingification’ that goes on in Rhythm 0. When you strip a person of their personhood and objectify them, violence and aggression is easily inflicted. It does not go against conscience because there is no tension to begin with. Secondly, the soldiers have the memory of receiving the implant erased. They do not have to bear the burden of knowing that their conscience has been tampered, making the killing a lot easier.

Both Abramovic’s performance art and Black Mirror invokes important and disturbing questions on humanity and agency. Men Against Fire’s dark themes are speculative fiction, but not without some degree of truth. Rhythm 0 is testament to this. When a person relates to another not as a human of equal standing but as an ‘other’ or an ‘object’, this potentially alters the nature of the relationship. Rhythm 0’s bold foray into these sinister themes is controversial because it is a real-life incident that has revealed the dark possibilities of human action when parameters of responsibility and conscience are tweaked.

[1] John Doppler Effect: http://johndopp.com/reality-0-marina-abramovic/

[2]The Art Story: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-abramovic-marina-artworks.htm