Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Gaze

Two days ago I installed the exhibition of Portraits of Glastonbury Tor at the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury. Last evening we held the preview and the response to the work was enthusiastic and delighted. People’s comments were that the large screen presentation enhanced the quality of colour and that the subjects were life sized - obviously a size that was relatable to. Importantly, people loved the stillness of the work with the wind blowing elements of clothing or hair but the subjects holding their poses perfectly still. One person didn’t realise that these were moving images until with a start at around twenty seconds, they noticed a white dot, a person, moving on the Tor. Another person commented that the representation of the Tor from ‘Paradise Field’ exemplified what they thought was the essence of the landmark.

These are simple observations about the effect of the screening on a local community. The community itself, like all communities can be expected to be delighted by being represented in this way, as did the people of Cannaregio 5 days before in Venice. Venice had a much smaller screen, about one fifth of the size, but I did exhibit Portraits of the Tor the to equal delight, as I exhibited Portraits of Cannaregio at the Somerset screening. An exchange of images to challenge Baudrillard’s presumptions about the eradication of meaning and significance within the ubiquitous flow of images

The iconography of the image, the exploration of a place seen many times seems to be in tact, but it was not the particular function of the work to challenge this element, yet I did feel the image was made afresh. It is clear to me that I must continue this strand of work to gather together different communities in one space as a response to the globalisation of the world. In a combined traveling exhibition of communities from around the world with each soul being represented individually, yet together with others, the specialness of the individual self can be maintained against the flow of images which washes across the individual experience. At the moment the development of the self at the beginning of the 21st century is conflicted: on one level it is further individualised (as compared to that of an Egyptian slave for instance, the 21st century self is less likely to submit its self-hood to the overall community) but the self has taken to representing itself through an avatar, both telematically - myspace and face-book require a description of self as a collection of likes and dislikes and commodity choices which say ‘I am this’ because I have these brand loyalties' and also via a status representation in real life through actual purchase of cultural elements that have 'value' amongst peers. The outer self pervades the inner self. If we transmit our self image and avatar telematically from London to Beijing via the internet, then simultaneously we transmit the outside world in terms of choices and allegiances equally as far inside - to an inner Beijing.

The image that I asked each person to transmit to a viewing audience was one whose gaze was unfaltering, one who understood the act which I was at pains to convey before each subject took their portrait moment. Each person nobly stepped up to the mark and unfalteringly gazed at the camera lens - and each audience member did the same and met the gaze at the plane of the screen which was also of course, the surface of the lens. This is a clear transmission, a clear broadcasting of self unfettered by conceptions of the avatar, of a need to say I have this intellectual property so see me as such. As a matter of information I ask people to look into the lens, past the surface - this is a techniques derived from singing into a mike. Every singer knows to sing into the stem of the mike rather than it's surface. the light sensor in the camera is where the audience resides.

With my original conception for the piece I thought of early photography and its need to have the subject be still for a period of time for technical reasons and I wondered what that might do as an act to the way the person might be portrayed yet I didn’t realize it would demand a performative stance from the person themselves - literally. Sometimes I am astounded by my own naivety at not realising this before. With reference to 18th century portraiture and the need to show something of a person via props or locale I asked people to bring an element of their experience as reference to what was happening in their life.

These props say: I have these signifiers around me and I bring signifiers to show you something about me, but these are partial, I am more than this and I stand here, clear about my self-hood - this is of course an avatar of me but the energy with which I am engaging my gaze is the same as the energy that you are engaging your gaze and we may meet at the surface where both gazes meet - and in the act of engaging my gaze I also remove my self.

Despite the high technical demands of 4k cameras of which there are very few around the world and extremely few people who can operate them and I pride myself in being within a small group of people who have taken the time to understand these processes to the point that we shot on a wednesday and a thursday and presented on a friday with only a laptop to create an innovative workflow, when shooting on the Tor or in Cannaregio the main issue was to try to make art work that explored the issue of resolution and what it means at this point in time and why it means what it means.

After a year of my enquiry I am beginning to know some things, but these come to me in dreams for later articulation and are therefore enigmatic, but later will become clear and deciphered. At the moment I can only render them here as aphorisms (and Patanjali made himself fairly clear with aphorisms, so that for the time being, is fine with me:

Resolution equals time

Attention is energy

Increased frequency of sound equals more resolution

Engagement of Self is within the gaze

During engagement time ceases

When self-aware, then image aware

or, Velocity = position (as Heisenberg understood)

When self is engaged, self is forgotten

There is a self-fulfilling prophecy of decay

as there is a self-fulfilling prophesy of desire

The gaze is resolution and is also time, as time equals resolution

Loosely, what I’m trying to get at here are some simple truths - or one simple truth - but it’s taken a year of research to frame and articulate what I am beginning to understand. The way that I know that these are truths is that they are simple and when you tell them to someone they do not blink because the truth of the thought is obvious - it just needed saying for the first time.

The key to all of this is that when you increase the resolution of a displayed image, then the more resolution of detail within the image then simply, there is more for the gaze to scrutinise. One has to bare in mind that the gaze is an expenditure of energy which rises or falls to meet its challenge - in that sense it is similar to wavelet transforms which are the apogee of the digital paradigm (albeit invented in 1807) in that they intelligently examine the data they are to deal with and then appropriately deal with them. Also there’s the modular transfer function which basically states that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link: you may have an extremely high resolution camera, but if computational equipment or your display projector is lower in resolution, then that is the determining factor of the representation of data.

So, in expending energy in concentrating, discriminating, ratiocinating and utilising all the separate factors that usually constitute self as an intellectualising entity, in the act of the gazing the self is momentarily forgotten and effectively parked whilst one’s energy is focussed upon an ‘image’.

Three issues here: a) there is the use of language in describing the actions of concentration which is currently derived from photography: ‘to focus’ and from that the idea, the larger idea with a nod to Chomsky, that throughout history and the development of the self the language of our most recent technology is utilised to describe the actions of consciousness (to ‘gather’ ones attention as perhaps deriving from peasant culture and the simple act of finding foodstuffs and medicines in the woods, or perhaps Plato’s notion of apprehension which derived from the idea tat the world presented itself through signs portents and therefore divination was possible - where the world gave signs of what might come - therefore his proposition that things were already known, one simply had to apprehend their truth which was ‘universal’).

b) The second issue is the notion of the image. Just what is an image after you strip away what we all collectively agree the image is? Notionally it is some form of pictorial inscription in a medium. Charcoal on paper, oil on canvas, media on media, etc. But there are images in the mind - pictures - and also less 'material' ideas of images - concepts. Duchamp championed the notion of the value of the concept above its material manifestation. Strip away the material and all that is left is immaterial - just like the digital realm. The Hindus say that there are two fundamental levels of mind: the first deals with specifics, 'this specific cup, that tree over there, this hand which is mine'; the second level of mind is causal mind, the mind of concepts: 'the general idea of a cup, the idea of a tree, the idea of a hand, the idea of mind'. They would also say that as you read that sentence you gave energy to 'thinking'. I shall have to come back to this issue at a later date as I intuitively feel there is substance here that relates to resolution that needs investigating.

c) The third issue is whether or not it is worth thinking of performativity in this act - the response of self to the engagement with greater detail is a worthy level to analyse the act. Of course performativity happens - but how important is it when compared to the play of energy of mind across an image, whether two or three dimensional. I should say here that for me a theatrical presentation or sculpture has similar qualities to a two dimensional image, at least it shares more similarities than differences.

So I’m enquiring about the use of energy in terms of engagement and therefore it seems to me that more detail offers more engagement equals more expenditure of energy.

As a note to the above I have to consider the idea of dependent origination so beloved by Buddhist philosophers which on one level conflicts with Hindu propositions. Bill Viola, as a sometimes Buddhist artist (I hope he doesn't mind that description) occasionally acts within that notion - for instance in the 'Reflecting Pool' of 1979, Viola considers what is that is mind and what is it that mind reflects. Also in 'I Do Not Know What It Is That I Am Like' of 1986, Viola looks into the eyes and existences of animals - and of course himself - all of which are dependently originated. We come into being together, as we go out of being together. The gaze of the viewer, the viewed and the act of viewing are all one arising together, dependent on each other. It is this connectivity that I am exploring in terms of resolution.

I note the recent pseudo scientific approach to what entertains a person by analising eye movements or watching skin resistance as bio feedback, but for me it seems that any art or entertainment that is produced with this sort of thing in mind will be adhering to a prior paradigm for the production of art and entertainment, that is by utilising notions of commodification we simply refer back to mercantile capitalism, by looking at things as objects tat can be bought and sold. Of course it’s possible to think of a scheme to sell air and water, but this diminishes living to a marketplace - and there are plenty of other places to go besides than with a heavy purse by one’s side.

In all of this I have to fictionalise these elements so that I may form an articulation of a terrain so that it might be discussed and thought about and reflected upon. In this tale I have developed the simile that there is a surface or interface where image meets gaze and gaze meets image - as if there was an exchange to be had between both. There is, but it is displaced by time. The act of shooting is at one time and the act of displaying is at another. Each can be enriching for the participants, but for a true exchange one would need immediate high definition broadcasting (of the highest order). There are forms like ultagrid that promise HD live exchange, but it is severely compressed and compression, put simply, is a blurring of detail. I have some projects that require direct telematic transmission between various parties but that shall have to wait until I have fully identified the issues in the act of high resolution imaging first.

So, in terms of the art and the exhibition, Portraits of Glastonbury Tor and Portraits of Cannaregio worked for the audiences that saw them - admittedly audiences with a vested interest, that of appreciating being appreciated - but in terms of the acts involved, imagining, creating, shooting, post-producing, inviting an audience, exhibiting, creating an engagement with performative elements and then collating the response I believe these two pieces are working at a reasonably high level. As I always say at this point, you have to see the work yourself.