The following set of short essays regards the content, form and possible meaning of my self-directed research. I’ve been trying to figure out what am I concerned about or interested in by using different tools and developing different concepts. The text is structured in four chapters, each one of them regarding a single work or set of experiments. The line of connection between them is not defined yet and a single essay about it would be premature. It is possible though to introduce the themes around which all of them appear to be gravitating: self-perception, individual empowerment, surveillance and vision.
01 - BODY AWARENESS
Prototypes for live size installations, scale 1:50
The two installations (A and B, below) are about the sensorial boundaries of our spatial perception: space is not a visual commodity, it touches our skin. I would like to drag the visitor’s attention to this symbiosis between space and body. Both installations are corridors, a minimal distance necessary to experience space in movement, in this case four and a half meters long. One of them is a ‘hole’ in the shape of a human body. The visitor is invited to fit his body through this ‘human template’ and move along it in the best way possible. The second installation is a corridor covered in a soft material. The space left in between the walls is not enough to go through it without touching the soft surface. The visitor has to push his/her body through it. The effect of this subtle rubbing is recorded by surface microphones located along the corridor and played live significantly amplified. The passing through would be then very noisy and disturbing, contradicting the delicate look of the installation.
A - The human template corridor is a literal application of a body mould for a pathway. It grew out of a research on the loss of materiality in the design and experiencing of architecture and it ended up on a template that embraces oppressively the user's body. The installation calls on the conflict between a metrical/functional ideal and a physical or emotional misfit.
B - The three boxes (original plan regards three boxes, not one) have different soft materials and a visitor has to rub his/her body against it in order to go through. Surface microphones installed along it record and play live, substantially amplified, the sound produced by this contact. Once again it is about bringing the boundaries of space to a tactile level and make the user aware of the consequences produced by his/her own presence within it (...)
02 – SURVEILLANCE IN DISPLAY
A - Magritte Revisited. A camera installed on the back wall records the visitor from behind and plays it live in front of him on an HD screen. The image displayed should be as sharp as possible (...) The drive behind this installation is related with the bias 'I' and 'other' properly explored by the media as two autonomous spheres, splitting individual and collectivity. Isn't this fundamental for the progressive loss of political awareness? (...)
B - Social Surveillance and Individual Power: Gallery space: one of the display stations gives full control over the camera set in the middle of the room, allowing the user to have a global visual access, with different levels of detail (zoom) to all works in display and other visitor’s whereabouts (...) In other room the footage from the surveillance camera would be displayed next to the footage made from the user manipulating it (hidden camera next to the station). The screens are next to each other. The visitors in this room can follow live the voyeuristic drive from the user at the surveillance station (…)
03 – IMAGES OF ESTRANGEMENT
Images that are supposed to awaken our empathy for others are usually useful to turn certain events, people or groups into commodities. Instead of empathy we feel empowered. We feel this because we are the ones in the position ‘to look at’ or simply because there are particular details in the images that prevent us from feeling identified with its content?
I would like to research in the power of pictures to generate both feeling of power and vulnerability and read photojournalism through it. What is this power about? Is it the simple act of accessing visual information on others? How can this ‘other’ be portrayed in order to appear vulnerable to our perception?
My concern around this issue has to do with political manipulation. The process of getting depoliticized might be related with the extreme access to information. And it is not that we get confused or unable to process all what we see. I guess it might have to do with this kick of power that it all gives to us. We can have access to virtually everything nowadays and we can easily look into the depth of the ‘other’. Is there any stronger feeling of power than this? Isn’t this ideology of individual power the simplest way of keeping people under control? We can’t possibly believe that we are being controlled when we can control so much our selves.
04 – CRAFTS AND THE IDEOLOGY OF SELF-EMPOWERMENT
The “The Ideology of Self-Empowerment” took the form of an Installation at V2, part of the exhibition on “Politics of Craft”. I had the chance to reframe some of the issues I was concerned about. The vague restlessness I felt around humanist pictures and their lack of capacity to generate empathy, took here a very specific shape. It appears to be easier to steer people in certain directions by making them feel powerful in some way. This kind of self-empowerment can be subtle in the case of reportages on poverty or war or very direct, when it is about pointing out economical alternatives in this time of crisis.
(Below: essay provided at the exhibition)
Rooted in personal skill and creative capacity, craft is deeply related to the notion of manual pleasure and authenticity. It is therefore ideologically associated with the fight for individual identity and freedom. Paradoxically though, the nature of craftsmanship is historically and in its essence collective. Craftsmanship gathers different forms of expertise at the service of a group, based on need, functionality and Excellency of standards. Which meaning does any mention of crafts have nowadays without this socioeconomic purpose? What is the meaning of crafts in a global market and individualist logic?
This piece approaches do-it-yourself ideology as a governmental tool to control public unrest. The relation between this ideology and cycles of political and financial crisis has been evident throughout history (Arts & Crafts, Situationist International, Fluxus, punk movement), but today we find it embedded in mainstream culture. The idea of individual choice, ultimate freedom and self-sufficiency now serves a shift of responsibilities, away from public government to people’s own hands.
Social services are being dramatically cut down in most Western countries. A whole media apparatus introduces the ideological framework for it. We feel greatly empowered despite the increasing loss of security regarding work conditions, education, healthcare and cultural resources. It might be this sense of individual power that is greatly undermining our political criticism. What we used to consider tools of insurrection, freedom and self-expression in several radical movements since William Morris is turning into meaningless commodities.
Reality shows and documentaries on the decay of the welfare state like 'Tokkies' in the Netherlands and 'Benefits Street' in UK negatively depict the user of a social system, preparing the ground needed for political disruption and slashing of social rights. Stereotyping and blame are used to destroy empathy among individuals, rendering people apolitical and therefore vulnerable. When William Morris, in News from Nowhere, chapter XVII, explains how the Industrial Age was overcome in a new Utopia, this partly reads like a description of a welfare state:
"Therefore, though they knew that the only reasonable aim for those who would better the world was a condition of equality, in their impatience and despair they managed to convince themselves that if they could by hook or by crook get the machinery of production and the management of property so altered that the ‘lower classes’ (so the horrible word ran) might have their slavery somewhat ameliorated, they would be ready to fit into this machinery, and would use it for bettering their condition still more and still more, until at last the result would be a practical equality (they were very fond of using the word ‘practical’), because ‘the rich’ would be forced to pay so much for keeping ‘the poor’ in a tolerable condition that the condition of riches would become no longer valuable and would gradually die out. Do you follow me?” (...) “Well, since you follow me, you will see that as a theory this was not altogether unreasonable, but ‘practically,’ it turned out a failure.” One of the videos is about urban crops in Lisbon. Urban farming is widely discussed in Portugal and it is perceived as a very positive tendency. However, most of the farmers cultivate ground they do not own and property legislation is very unlikely to change in favor of them. They will be soon expelled from the land, and nobody will hear about them anymore on TV. Yet the propaganda message went through: There are alternative ways of living in the midst of political and financial corruption.
Most businesses based on self-made products seem to have this ideological purpose. Hardly anyone manages to get something financially meaningful out of it. Taxes and market regulations increase by the day. It is a paradox, but our self-empowerment appears to grow reciprocally to our loss of capacity to strive independently.
Traces of a pure-democratic dream can be found everywhere around us though, in community construction of playgrounds, group action for green areas, neighborhood discussions on urban transformation, opinion platforms. The bottom-up principle, community interests and integrity of action are here to substitute the decaying welfare state. People are stimulated to embrace entrepreneurship, flexibility of work, schedule and income, to look after each other and prepare their own future. Everyone is supposed to try to do what they are best at whilst adapting to market needs and finding their own personal way within it - exactly what William Morris had dreamed of. Whenever people don’t really want this, they are told that it is what they do want anyway. Eventually they will believe it.
“(…) the classical welfare state is slowly but surely evolving into a participation society. Everyone who is able will be asked to take responsibility for their own lives and immediate surroundings. When people shape their own futures, they add value not only to their own lives but to society as a whole.”
(Speech from the Throne, 17 September 2013, NL. Source: www.koninklijkhuis.nl)
ARENDT, Hannah, “Compreensão Política e Outros Ensaios”, Editora Relógio d’ Água, 2001
BARNEY, Matthew, “Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail”, Schaulager-Hefte, 2010
CORBUSIER, Le, “The Modulor”, Faber Paper Covered Editions, 1973
FOUCAULT, Michel, “Discipline and Punish”, Penguin, 1991
FOUCAULT, Michel, “Madness & Civilization”, Vintage Books, 1988
FLUSSER, Vilém: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFTaY2u4NvI: "television image and political space in the light of the Romanian revolution", 1990
FROMM, Erich, “The Fear of Freedom”, Routledge Classics, 2001
GRAHAM, Dan, “Dan Graham: works 1965-2000”, Richter Verlag, 2001
HALL, Edward T., “A Dimensão Oculta”, Editora Relógio d’ Água, 1986
MACHIAVELLI, Nicolò, “O Príncipe”, Guimarães Editores, 2009
PALLASMAA, Juhani, “the Eyes of the Skin”, Wiley-Academy, 2005
SONTAG, Susan, “On Photography”, Penguin, 1984
SONTAG, Susan, “Regarding the Pain of Others”, Penguin, 2004
STEMMRICH, Gregor, “Dan Graham’s homes for America (1966): The Artist as Photojournalist and The Discovery of the Suburbs” in “Daidalos – architecture art culture” issue 66, December 1997
STILES, BIESENBACH, ILES, “Marina Abramovic”, Phaidon, 2010