LESSONS IN A LOST ART OF SEEING
AN IN DEPTH LOOK AT THE ONTOLOGY OF IMAGE MAKING
by MICHAEL GRAF from GRAF STUDIOS
In honour of Beyond Photography's upcoming exhibition ALCHEMY - THE ELIXIR OF IMAGE MAKING, the coming week will be dedicated to obtaining a better understanding of the the ontology of IMAGE MAKING and everything the movement from traditional Photography to Image Making may entail. Image Making uses the language of photography to create something new, something reality does not convey. As our digital surroundings, and visual communications, are at its transformative height, one may question how our 'ways of seeing' have modified (and what this means for our understanding of the creation of art). We invited Michael Graf, founder of Graf Studios, to write an online essay about the coming of Image Making and the way we decode and read the visuals we capture. A long but amazingly interesting read ahead. We cannot thank him enough for the groundbreaking research he has done for the proliferation of this new medium we like to refer to as Image Making.
I’ve often been asked about the purpose of my work, and more often than not, the answer has less to do with art than with language and its evolving nature — a perspective that the Germans might call a ‘weltanschauung’ or a worldview. I’ve always been more interested in exploring image as a part of our cultural evolutions, rather than as luxuries, documents, utilities, or simply personal preferences. And with the proliferation of image-making tools into almost every pocket on the planet, it’s due for a revival in meanings and values. The ways we decode and read the visuals we capture — from body gestures, to colours, facial features, class status, beauty, and age — take place at a great many levels that the majority of us remain entirely unaware of. So with the promise of sudden and spectacular transformation that our communications hold, do we still understand how to read what they mean? The idea of approaching languages and reading may seem daunting at first, but as with all forms of reading, the skills to master them are innate parts of our human nature — a nature that we are all capable of cultivating to one degree or another.
This approach to seeing and thinking about image is not only beneficial to the arts, this shift can produce lasting impacts on our overall literacies, and more importantly, on our models of thought and deliberation. It might best be described as a transformation from ‘seeing’ mere impressions guided solely by intuitions or ‘gut reactions’, to reflecting on the unseen evolutions and web of interactions creating them. Our literacies depend on interpreting the underpinnings of what we see, and that means being able to read contexts, cultural influences, visual patterns, structures and syntaxes to form larger meanings about our perceptions and our other natures. But the instincts to immediately define images based on only personal beliefs can often lead to deep seated biases and rapid-fire associations that care very little for thought or larger perspectives. And with a cascade of visual information enveloping our perceptions, emotions are increasingly driving our decisions about how we see in more and more impulsive ways. As consequence, we’re in need of caring for them in more thoughtful and bi-literate ways — or something called Other. In a similar manner, the world of food has witnessed a renaissance about the ideas of eating and sustainability, progressing from mere sensations and conveniences to exploring the hidden histories and environments producing them.
"So with the promise of sudden and spectacular transformation that our communications hold, do we still understand how to read what they mean?"
So as image and aesthetics proliferate through ‘auto-tuning’ technologies, it’s equally due for a similar type of rebirth in thinking. Although there is no foolproof approach to doing this, both the sciences and arts have shown that we can get better at this tactic by reimagining familiar ideas through unfamiliar vantages — which has been coined here as Other. And it’s not something to be feared or dismissed, but to be used as a tool to acquire a better grasp of the differing worlds and methods encircling us. We may not always relish what we hear or see, but the idea is to venture into them nonetheless in search of deeper understandings.
In learning to see image as a part of language, it’s important to note that we often overlook certain aspects of how it functions — namely that languages are inherently duplicitous, or two-faced. At the risk of over-simplifying it all, realizing the ‘two-faces’ can be among the most potent forms of thinking. As countless philosophers, artists and thinkers have argued, language by its nature is shaped by differing, or conflicting perspectives — things like feelings versus facts, reactions versus reasons, selves versus groups, viewers versus the viewed, or simply one versus other. However we choose to deal with these conflicting sides, both are essential to navigating a deeper understanding of the worlds we inhabit. The very basic foundations of language are built from these notions of alternates — or translating one thing in terms of another (better known as metaphor). And we use them in a fantastic number of ways to make sense of the experiences around us. But this is also a territory where our languages and criticisms can become one-sided forms of antagonism, manipulation, or intentions to control. Increasingly it’s becoming an attempt to govern the behaviours and perceptions of others — "My way, or no way!" or alternately “You should be ashamed!” When trying to manipulate only one face of language, most of us direct it toward those we wish to dominate and control, and especially those we can’t directly impose on — political figures or other groups. In these situations, messages choose to control rather than dissect the issues we are better trying to understand. Although not every instance fits neatly into this description, if you pay close attention to the messages in media, politics and public discourse, there are more and more polarized perspectives flourishing among us. This is where the arts can become powerful tools of cultural reflection to expand on both the inconsistencies and the harmonies behind our languages and inferences.
"We may not always relish what we hear or see, but the idea is to venture into them nonetheless in search of deeper understandings."
But the fact of the matter remains that with the onslaught of more and more images, the ways that we read and understand them have not kept pace with the ways that we consume them. More urgently, our understandings of alternate and opposing vantages remain somewhat underappreciated. When faced with immediate perceptions of instant likes or ‘skim’ reading across favourite gestures, deliberation is not something that is largely encouraged. But it’s not solely the interfaces around us that are to blame for our lack of attention — it’s our tendency to ignore their innovations and disruptions as they unfold. With this looming concern, the 12 degrees were developed to explore common categories or archetypes of image from alternating perspectives (including Spot, Time, Look, Face, Walk, Skin, Promise, Taste, Sleep, Tribe, Prayer, Grace). The goal is to challenge these mutual perspectives with more care, while weighing their differences with greater nuance. This is the arena where the unique gift of human literacy gets developed for both viewers and the viewed. This literacy fosters not just a fluency in one’s own opinions or preferences, but an ability to connect symbols, images, unseen techniques and hidden influences to gain knowledge in new ways. Understanding how we capture and render images of our experiences can expand our abilities for analysis, synthesis, and eventually inference. When used in storytelling, this ‘two-faced’ nature of language can harmlessly help to challenge our developmental and moral abilities in ways that real-life cannot. For example, following the story of a murder mystery does not presuppose an endorsement of murder, but can simply test our capacities for detailed observations about plot and intention that we seldom test in our day-to-day routines. We need to be able to discuss and analyze the circumstances without venturing into the shaky territory of ‘my’ virtues over ‘your’ vices. On the other hand, deceptions accepted as convenient and familiar truths about reality can become dangerous to our civic wellbeing if we don’t carefully weigh and consider the underlying values shaping them. Simply believing in fiction as fact, or fact as fiction can have a crippling effect on visualizations and critical thinking while destroying a capacity for creativity. Either way, the point of reading is to decipher how language is used, and how it can help or hinder us through either of these approaches. In short, it fosters an ability to decode the intentions and effects of others with more accuracy. To explore this, art and image can be powerful tools to test our resolve as both creators and consumers. Rather than espousing the idea of ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’, which has often been distorted to ‘it’s just what I like’, the 12 Degrees set out to explore the roots of visual language and the sometimes wondrous and sometimes deceptive ways we define ourselves through it. As we become authors of our own realities, this can become another powerful tool to reflect on how we, and the technologies we use go about interpreting the world. We know that our reading faculties are things that are developed through the mediums we use, and if these mediums promote ever more fleeting impressions, our capacities for analysis, comparison, alternate vantages and inference all follow.
"But the fact of the matter remains that with the onslaught of more and more images, the ways that we read and understand them have not kept pace with the ways that we consume them."
Both volumes of work here render material common to us all using the same duplicitous manners inherent in language and our human nature — using wonder and skepticism, reason and instinct, self and groups, or one and other. Volume One renders a more ‘rational’ approach to common categories of image, borrowing material from discarded commercial scripts and public performances. On the other hand, Volume Two explores the unseen mechanics of the image making process, re-rendering the ‘emotions’ and the stagecraft, as well as the unseen mechanics that are characteristics in their choreography (including location surveys, castings, printing procedures, displays and the basic tricolor ways of capturing image). Put simply, Other uses the principles of duplicity (two-faces) to test the tools and the roles of both viewers and the viewed with each playing their hand simultaneously. Using over 350,000 discarded scripts and performances from our media landscape, the 12 degrees were distilled from discarded Home Depot ads, Vice exposes, skin care auditions, Internet modeling portfolios, and countless discarded advertising performances. Together the Two Volumes act as a sort of bridge, reminding us that one mode of thinking and seeing without the other can impair our grasp of meanings and truths. It’s also a stark reminder of how little of the world we actually see (the world of light around us remains more than 99% unseen to the human eye), yet our often profoundly cavalier perceptions can define them as the defacto standards of all reality, and it’s a type of thinking that crosses into all levels of human endeavour.
As a whole, the two volumes and 12 Degrees present a ‘wunderkammer’ of visual archetypes at work, covering everything from age, to the deceptions of advertising, to the ideals of beauty and tribe, and the many biases in-between (often seen as virtuous biases, but biases nonetheless). So with the rise of our ‘Attention Economy’, the ‘deep seeing’ practices to make sense of our prejudices may be under threat as we move to more ephemeral modes of reading and decision-making. To get a better handle on this, there are three questions about human perceptions that have become central to my practice, and to our perceptions as a whole. In no way do they espouse simple rights or wrongs, but an approach to thinking and seeing that often gets subverted through immediate impressions. As a guide to navigating this, the following questions kept surfacing for me, and they’re similar to what the sciences use in their own pursuits of learning…
How does language work?
Since we use it in almost every aspect of our lives, from time to time we should ask ourselves how it might operate. This is an approach that gets tested regularly in the arts and sciences. In short, language translates one idea through the form of another, or something that becomes story and allegory. It’s the base fuel of all thought and understanding, and we use them everyday of our lives to explain the phenomena among us. But as ‘image’ engrains itself deeper into our everyday fabric, and as every pocket holds a signature camera eye, the impulse to capture, broadcast and react to moments around us is becoming a ubiquitous part of our lives. As a result, something else is happening simultaneously, something similar to what the modernist movement started at the beginning of the 20th century. Artists of all stripes are playing with the medium of image, photography and capture in similar ways that artists like Picasso and Rothko did in their times. For these two giants of their artistic movements, their paintings conveyed a kind of duplicitous human nature that was often subverted in the progress of modern life. For Picasso it was about the “modern primitive”, and his work reflected on a society that struggled to grasp itself in its own progressions. Rothko was not much different, painting what he called the foundations of our emotions and inner lives — ones that were often subverted through the stagecraft of modern cameras.
"In other words, the camera turns back on itself and its principles of capture."
This concept of interpreting one through other has echoed across time, finding another powerful voice in the renaissance painter Michelangelo Caravaggio. Centuries ago, he reinterpreted the majestic ideals of his culture using the life and death struggles of the working poor. Rather than the idyllic versions of gods and heroes, he used the well-worn, everyday characters from his surrounding city to populate his theatrical tableaus. The list is long of artists who reminded us of parts of our nature we often dismiss — including Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, and Gustav Klimt’s byzantine style mosaics. The 12 Degrees were inspired to look at our own grand ideals in a similar manner, restaging the aspirations and stagecraft of a consumer culture with the audiences and the technologies they set out to embrace. In other words, the camera turns back on itself and its principles of capture. This approach can illuminate the hidden structures of our languages by giving form to the biases, tools and frictions that shape them. Much of my own practice uses many of the tools common to us all, from printers and ink cavities, to displays, to the algorithms used in reproduction, the optics of cameras, the surveys and evaluations used to build images, and even the basic tri-chromatic ways that we see, with the goal being to reimagine how we use visuals in parts of our cultural fabric. But as ‘image’ is slowly and silently being improved by algorithms, and as every capture gets autocorrected and optimised, perhaps the beauty lies in uncovering these silent forces and reinventing them in similar ways that the artists of our past did with their cultures. For the works here, the effort is to show the hidden tools, techniques, and above all, the duplicitous faces of language that we all quietly use to read and interpret the world, yet seldom take the time to realise.
Today, the deeply prejudiced nature of our beliefs are no longer very obvious, but almost subliminal, leaving us (often unknowingly) to participate with only clicks, likes, and approvals shaped further by hidden algorithms. And as language continues to be auto-tuned, it leaves a need to explore the unseen possibilities lurking within them.
How does it help or hinder our wellbeing?
This too is much simpler than it may seem. Without some insight into how our technologies and languages shape us, our abilities to think metaphorically, or to assume unfamiliar positions is somewhat limited. We’re left to prove our own idyllic beliefs guided by little more than intuition. If we explore them further, this is where art, image and their inherent dialects can give us a sharper focus on human behaviour. But when reading behaviours through only immediate reactions — which is becoming a growing norm — our sense of civic and critical understanding can become equally impaired. Today only a fraction of our decisions consider alternate options, forgetting to actively contemplate more than one way of seeing. Using only one dogged interpretation (often based on a virtuous but still biased belief) turns out to be a bad strategy, driving many of our decisions wayward. The idea of understanding language with a duplicitous, or Other nature, helps us to move past the dangers of narrow reading (whether we believe it to be virtuous or not). With some sense of reflection and larger contexts, our most important intellectual and perceptual processes like critical thinking, analogical reasoning, empathy, and perspective taking can flourish over time. This has lasting repercussions on our models of thought, our civic thinking, and our general well being.
This is the hardest question that the arts and sciences have to ask, but it’s critically important to how and what we create. As we sit on the precipice of information overload, the new normal is to ‘glance read’ and simply react to the world of sharing around us. This impulse is nothing new, but our willingness to engage with only one intuition can be corrosive to deep thought. Part of our need to create and react comes from our evolutionary biology — we were born to express, and to make sense of the disorder around us. But to innovate and connect in new ways is difficult and requires mental effort that we are often prone to neglect in favour of immediate biases. And yet, I still believe that when we take the time to connect issues, no matter how difficult, there is no greater reward than awakening the familiar vantage through the unfamiliar guise. Whether as documents to a reality, or insights into our inner minds, art and image provide us with checkpoints to our conflicting nature. It functions as an attempt to make sense of the chaos that our intelligences uncover in everyday life. More than just reflexes or personal preferences, the language of the arts are an evocative reflection of the environments that shape us, and at their best, they are measured by how well they can reinterpret those influences. Never intended to simply appeal to base likes or dislikes, the function of the 12 Degrees are to explore the conflicting sides of our observations. They are in many ways like a connective thread that give form to our inner and outer worlds, our deepest roots and our deceptive tendencies. To understand ourselves through the logic of waking dreams, or as parts of imagined mini-worlds, we can become ‘other’ in order to discover our own selves in more significant ways. In experiencing lived expressions that on the surface seem nothing like us, the hope is to better learn the depths of who we really are, and there is no single dimension or easy answer to get us there —‘other’ simply fosters a path toward trying.
With enough patience and experience, the mastery of our languages can become interchangeable with intuitions, giving us the nerve to question and explore our shared but fallible human nature in different ways.
One of the main reasons that the question of why remains so crucial to me is that it asks us to challenge, abstract, and expand the boundaries of the ordinary in extraordinary ways. The manner in which the arts and sciences reinterpret the everyday can offer a deeper awareness to how it operates, and more importantly, to awaken us from what we so willingly take for granted. The ambition is to develop our abilities to make sense of the disorders around us, and ultimately toward our own self-understandings among them. With enough patience and experience, the mastery of our languages can become interchangeable with intuitions, giving us the nerve to question and explore our shared but fallible human nature in different ways.