With & Out of Trace

Monday, 12 June 2017

It’s been a while. The blog has enjoyed its rest, whilst the writer had spent her academic jail time. Though she has been successfully bailed out, her work still has its academic imprints- just like a lingering jail stamp mark. But it would be an absolute crime to not admit that she did not seek comfort in the screen-printing room, the cocoon-like study pods and listening to the keypad aggression by agitated students. Unlike the verbose essays, her project did not go through some sharp critique before submissions, but it did have a ‘face-off' experience.

What’s the Idea?
As opposed to the buoyant light that suffused through the wide glass ceiling of the library, my eyes welcomed so little, for I squinted. Not everything is meant to be viewed eyes wide open; scrutiny is at its best with slit-like eyes. I carefully pressed the photograph against the board, the craft knife was merciless; it just cut through the photograph. Running along the lines of Annie’s visage, in no time she became faceless. The portrait suddenly seemed anonymous and contradictorily unambiguous. The craft knife was as delicate as a scalpel, reminded me of my friend, who was practising to be a surgeon. With his eyes of impeccable scrutiny, he had once said, what’s unveiled by an incision always fascinated him. Ever since I knew I always wanted to be a surgeon, I wanted to know what lay beyond the surface.  The only question is, why am I holding on to a craft knife and not a scalpel?

For a student who abruptly dropped her plans to study medicine, I was always in a predicament to pursue the arts. As stereotypical as it sounds, I always imagined it as a profession of tawdry clothes, confinement to a room, and being overpowered by a huge easel. But then art has a conceptual side to explore as well. Riveted by Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, especially the Son of Man by Magritte and the film Un Chien Andalou, I always wanted to know an artist’s phantasms. Many times I wondered if they created art to show the viewers a hidden side or awaken a beholder’s illusory likeness. Magritte once said, “ Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” That’s what always struck me, what’s revealed within us when we see art? More importantly, do others think like us and are we in line with the artist? In that case, did it even matter, at one point isn’t this how we all co-exist in this world? Frankly, surgery never intrigued me this much.

My project Traces started from the most basic thing, a conversation. I was at an exhibition looking intently at a piece. Over my shoulders, I could hear a few murmurs, a talk about the painting as well, but a totally different perspective, which eventually led to a stimulating conversation. It also became a meeting point where I met most of the participants and now my friends for this project.

I’ve been teased for believing that everything we see and perceive is based on the accretion of experiences. While Haverkalmp, a German and American professor of literature, carries on to say that our minds are filled with the metaphor of images. This fascinated me to explore how one views something, is there something that strikes them. If I were to rove in their minds what metaphor was pulled out from their jukebox of memories?

I’ve always felt that when you view an art piece there’s an illusory flashback effect that empowers you. Something that's striking and a poetic fragment that resonates with what you see. Like in the film Citizen Kane, where everyone tries to figure what Rosebud is, there’s a ‘rosebud’ within everyone.  And sometimes it strongly hits you when you a view a photograph. This led me to explore the famous concept of punctum and studium by Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida. The punctum is the piercing element that resonates strongly with the viewer, while the “studium refers to the range of meanings available and obvious to everyone.”Which led me to this art piece, that helped me explore six different people’s striking points in their vast landscape of thoughts.

Concrete Ideas

Rene Magritte’s work was often paradoxical, yet it had a good sense of clarity too. His ingenious interplay between words and images left the viewer open to creative interpretation but still had an iota of rationality. Inspired by the use of text to lurk into one’s mind, I wanted Traces to be composed of both images and text.

In his paintings, The Happy Donor, a Future of Statues, and A Friend of Order, Magritte never showcased a face, it was always masked by the background. Michael Fried, the renowned art critic, quoted, "What mattered, in other words, was the beholder’s experience of the work or rather of the total situation in which the work was encountered." I then wanted to create a piece that changes the whole perception on how one reads a person. Rather, how a person’s thought has a powerful way of revealing oneself. Which lead to my experimentations with a craft knife and soon faceless portraits.

Each portrait revealed the part of the photograph that caught the participant's punctum

How do you look at someone in a photograph? The many times I’ve talked to people, it may the romantic notion of twinkling eyes, the effervescent smiles, or even how a spectacle rests on the nose. While some just have the skill by assuming what a person may be like just via looks. But in Traces, everyone had a cut-out face, that revealed layers of their thinking. From a linear sketch of how each one had a customised way of perceiving photograph to non-edited monologue of what they felt while observing a photograph. After designing the portrait, I thought it wouldn’t be enough just to give a glimpse of the layers, thus below the portraiture are the unattached layers: the eye map of how they saw a photograph, the photograph of an element that caught their attention the most and finally their monologue.

Clockwise: The sketch journal, the participant's dossier, the eye trace movement, the individual punctum, the monologue and in the center it's the faceless portrait.

The idea to record whatever that came in their mind was inspired by Andre Breton’s stream of consciousness; it was also a way to showcase ‘the beholder's concept’. At first, the goal was to use a technical eye- tracking machine in the psychology laboratory, but it seemed too scientific and totally erased the concept the artistic angle. The greatest part of the exhibition was interpreting each participant's fecund imagination and picking up the symbolic cues. It was in line with Berger’s concept on how people see with words in theirs mind. Thus it became very vital in listening in to my friends’ monologues, due to their variation of tones, pauses, repetition of words and a certain way they stressed on memories, it honestly helped me draw their line of thought which helped me interpret the stadium and also their punctum. 

Printed on acetate sheets, the translucent sheets could be placed over the photograph
so one could see how a person viewed the different elements

Inspired by Keith Coventry's art pieces, East Street Estate and Heygate Estate, I placed the tracing sheets on top of the photograph, observed the way their hands glided over the photos. I noted the pauses and things that they mentioned were emphasised with the thicker strokes. The most number of lines indicated what struck them first, and the last single line showed what finally caught their attention the most and even the least. This linear design carried the coherent element from the art piece's packaging to each participants' dossier.   Each tracing pattern became a unique imprint, showing how everyone has a different way of seeing. Instead of presenting the monologue as a chunk of text, I presented it in the free verse format and intentionally did not punctuate it, since they spoke very freely and also in fragments.

Although I stressed so much about how paintings influenced me, I thought that exploring the concept would only be fair if I stayed loyal to how Barthes studied the concept of punctum and studium- with reference to photographs. Henri- Cartier Bresson was my preference, especially because he was a pioneer of candid photography, and with his photographs, there was always an element of surprise, unlike photographs that seem to be very staged these days.

The concept of a genuine punctum reflects in a candid photograph, purely because of the impeccable timing of the photographer. In an interview in New York Times, Bresson said, “There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place. It is a beautiful lens at times when needed by what you see.” I ended up selecting his famous photograph, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare because there were many elements and a great chance to discover a different set of ‘punctums’.

Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare  photographed by Cartier Bresson

Making It 
Thought the project had an academic undertone, working on the project never seemed so imposing. I intentionally involved myself in the process to recreate that same feeling I had at the exhibition. I collaborated with Annie Huang who photographed the participants. But my favourite part was hearing everyone’s monologue. From some introspection to the unfurling of some fictional stories, the world is never a small place when it comes to imagination. I would love it if you would also take a look at the photograph, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, before you read everyone’s story. You’ll be surprised how similar or differently you interpret it from Manuel, Sarima, Jad, Ektha, Annie and I.

Here’s their line of thought, the way they saw and interpreted their stories, an imprint of them beyond a photograph. Are you in line with them?

Manuel Vargas
Modern European Philosophy MA

Railowsky, Railowsky, Railowsky?
I think it’s a rainy day; perhaps the rain has passed then
Is it Russia?
It looks cold and not that cold, for if it were Russia it would have been frozen
Unless it’s September
There’s a circus, I see a poster of a ballet dancer
Certainly Russia or a country not too far away from it
It looks grim
But also funny when there’s a man who jumps off the ladder
I like the reflection
He’s suspended in the air and it seems light
But there’s a tension and ripples
He’s caught in the air and the photograph is far from static
Curiously someone watches
What a scene the man has created
He wondered if he’s jumping and running away from work
The spectator looks at the other man
He has a nice pair of shoes and a hat.
He wishes his life were on the other side, he wishes as well to the leap onto the other side.
That moment just disrupted his everyday life
I always think of Bresson in relation to time.

Sarima Proveyer

Filmmaking MA

I know this photograph
It isn’t my favourite
I have the lovers kiss
Sidewalk Café, Boulevard Diderot
on my study table
But the reflection caught my attention
It’s seducing, blurred and not well defined
Beauty lies in the background, there’s a mystery in the greyness and the city landscape come of life, takes me to Parisian days
Reminds me of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning
There’s nothing beautiful about the water, rather its dirtiness, perhaps running all the way from factories
Just like the man jumped off the ladder, Bresson had a strong impulse
There’s continuity
I can imagine the man before and where he is going
Everything that Bresson did has it uniqueness of sensation
After all, it’s not impossible to take a shot of a man jumping but that moment seems irreversible
The light is soft, but the reflection on the water is sharp
I like the contrast.
Between fog and water
Escaping everyone but staying lonely
There’s brevity yet continuity
Movement in a moment

Annie Huang
Curating Contemporary Design MA

I’m curious, did it not rain or not?
Is he a man or a boy?
It takes me back to my days, when the rain finally settled I used to go out to play just to see the reflection.
I was a kid then
And seeing this now reminds me when I walked through the foggy mist at Tate Modern
There’s something about mist
Through the mist, you just see outlines of buildings, just see architecture
Feels like Paris for a moment
It feels so serious
The factories looked like it survived war, and though the picture seems to be very grey, the buildings look intact
I look back to the ladder, the jump again
The black and white photos have an old-fashioned touch
But the jump reminds me of something comical
Something Banksy-like
From photographs come graffiti?
The photograph was split into two halves with the reflection

Water divides and mist confuses

Ektha Yernool Prasood
Child Psychology MA

It’s about to rain; the man’s running away. I see a circus poster, there's must have been some natural disaster
I think the photographer has an obsession for water.
It flows
Just like how many people go around
People move on
Disaster or not, people move on
It’s like it's set in the early 1900s
There are abandoned buildings
I feel it was lively once; there was celebration, look at the posters on the wall.
The place looks like it survived a war
There’s a sack of cement in which the soldiers may have taken refuge.
One guy is just looking, so many reflections
the ruins, the carts, ladders
People should tackle the situation and another may embrace it
Disasters never stop
People do what they have to do

Walking through rubbish and living life no matter what they have to see.

Jad Jbara
Media and Communication MA

I see a man, running away from reality
Or maybe he’s jumping towards his imagination
He’s stuck in an area, a place that looks destroyed
It’s messy
Why not be somewhere else
There’s a man stuck behind the wall
He cannot get out
Can’t save a life for himself
As ruined as the buildings itself

I myself wonder if that is a state of all of us as well.

Atheena Wilson
Art and Design History MA

Bresson Bresson, the ballerina broke into a jeté and if you believe in the opposites of life, here’s a man breaking into a jump.
Life’s symmetrical or poles apart.
Many times, I think you want to capture how things mirror in life
I see some ruins, reminds me of worn out bicycles and the spokes have been removed, maybe all stolen for the factories behind.
Steal steel.
There’s a man, who I can’t figure is imprisoned by the rails
He envies the fact that man can get away in a tearing hurry, but all the worse is how there’s a bicycle next to him, he still can’t get away. Isn’t similar to Rolling Stones situation, “You can’t get what you want.”
I am not sure if I am supposed to feel happy with this photo, there’s something fleeting yet frozen
His feet does not touch the puddle yet, reminds me of the ballerina, why does everyone not want to be grounded? Bresson, why is the photo misty? Is beauty, vagueness?
I sometimes think you made us like this photo because
Just like that man near the fence, you just sat and waited to for him to jump
heard the count in your head, and suffered from a painful squat when you clicked the button
I can only think, how long did you wait or why did you stumble across this street?
When the man ran away was that the solitary man the last person you lay your gaze upon?
Was he more that just a prop in your composition?

“ I never spotted the clock, “ Annie said. While Ektha saw the poster but it was just a poster to her, the bags of cement to her seemed so hazy to me. We all looked at this one photograph but we all had different stories. It was like Magritte talked about how one wants to see the hidden. In the beginning I mentioned, I wanted something that looked beyond the surface. Traces gave a particular insight, and to me, I had to save it all in a box. It was a trove to keep and also discover someone beyond looking at their face. May be anonymous and oddly not ambiguous.

 I personally would like to thank my course director Dr. Chris Horrocks for making us look beyond just academic papers to interrogate art and design. Love to Jad, Manuel, Sarima, Ektha and Annie for letting their faces be cut out. Annie Huang, the silent talented one for collaborating with me for this project. Michelle Wang for helping me with the last minute touches.

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