2013 September: Phrasing a Practice

I have interests in pop culture, gender studies, sexuality, ecology, sci-fi, digital technology and our virtual existence in the 21st century. I draw and write, and have in recent years taken an interest to video as I am greatly influenced by film. A more general interest in narrative has encouraged me to combine text with drawing, and attempt to “direct scenes” in drawings. It has also compelled me to imitate and analyse the formulaic characteristics of cliches in interviews, documentaries and films through video.

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Ideas in the Making

Comic Books (Dead Animals)

A couple of weeks before the start of the course, I moved to London (from Norway). Of art materials, I had with me some calligraphy brushes (with cartridges), a bottle of black ink and a nib. I had for years played around with pens of various sorts, and have always loved the consistency and solid opacity of ink. I then tried the metal nib and found charm in the action of dipping the it into the ink every now and again. I spent a lot of time doodling with the ink and nib, and produced at first quite abstract patterns, from which various textures started to emerge. To me the drawings looked like organic beings, though it was ambiguous what kind of level of complexity I was looking at. Was it some cellular tissue, was it the hustle-bustle of microorganisms, was it some rotting skin or degrading fur? Was it an ecosystem? I like the thought that there is an organic pattern or characteristic that applies to all these levels. One of my abstract doodles looked to me like the head of a fox rotting on a forest floor.

The thought that when an animal dies, it becomes an ecosystem, came to mind. But of course a body is an ecosystem when alive as well (there is more alien DNA inside me than my own).

I applied the same gestural mannerisms from my abstract drawings into figurative depictions, such as the androgynous astronaut below. I imagine the astronaut trekking through space in slow motion forced by the surrounding alien gravity. Even their reaction time is caught in slow motion, as they look on calmly at some kind of cosmic bullets exploding into their arm. (There is also a bird plummeting into an exploding space-flower). If this were a movie scene or a music video, I could hear David Bowie’s Space Oddity accompanying it.

There’s something lonely about being in space “floating around my tin can, far above the moon”, and I think the drawing attempts to convey such a psychology. Looking more closely at their legs, I can remember how I was thinking of them as tree trunks. I have made drawings where the landscape takes on characteristics of the body, and vice versa before, for instance this little comic strip scene entitled “Leg Valley” – 2011.

When I realised I was interested in the subject of dead, rotting animals and the convergence of multiple levels of organisation in that process of decay, I studied some photographs of dead animals found on the internet in pencil.

The objective changes that the various skin and fur and bone tissue undergoes in decay fascinated me, but I was also taken aback by the emotional aspects of these images. Most of the photographs of dead animals I found were sad in the sense that they seemed to lack spirit; they were vacant (see study of deer below). The photograph above was an uncommon exception, where, perhaps by chance, the creature’s posture/expression supposes emotions such devastation or agony. The cow seems to be continuing to experience its death in its decomposition. Below is another study of a dead animal, incorporating the mannerisms from previous ink drawings. Note the lack of soul and emotion in the original photograph, suggesting the creature as a thing of the past, rather than something suffering and insisting on existing in the present.

Yet the ambiguity of the textures in the drawings themselves (such as the fur on the deer drawing, which to me also looks like thousands of scurrying parasites) is inspired by a tradition of comic books.

The economy of the comic book style; the prompt mechanism of drawing, editing, publishing and printing in the 20th century, encouraged a development of suggestive rather than explicit depiction. Concerning narration, comic books resemble hieroglyphics or European gothic art closely. The figurative elements are often exaggerated for the purpose of telling a story in a single scene. Comic strips would economise this process with fleeting gestural drawings that seem to take no time to create. Take this Calvin and Hobbes strip by Bill Waterson.

The sketched trees act to simply situate the characters by saying “Here we are in a forest, now let’s get on with the story”. This technical and practical necessity to economise the style of drawing gives a charm to the medium, and offers alternate tools to an artist or writer who wants to tell a story. It is this very suggestive nature of comic books drawings that seems to have informed my own organic project. Comic books have taught me ways that mere black and white lines can effectively refer to a seemingly infinite range of real and fantastical textures and materials. The following image is a frame from Little Nemo, a comic strip by Winsor McCay that ran in the beginning of the 20th century.

The following is David Polonsky’s L’Elixir D’amour, a fantastically interesting poetic succession of drawing and text, from a scene depicting the ultimate Narcissist.

And a frame from Art Spiegelman’s Maus:

I am not particularly partial to superhero comic books as far as narrative goes, but there are some interesting features in everything from Batman to Watchmen. As English professor from Dartmouth University Michael Chaney mentions in his 2011 TED presentation on “How to Read a Graphic Novel”, the character Rorschach from Watchmen is a good example of how a reader is prompted to read a graphic novel. Rorschach is a villainous protagonist that wears an animate mask on which a Rorschach inkblot test constantly unfolds and warps, and yet resembles and serves as a face for the vigilante. Its animate qualities are shown by both its liquid-like inky depiction, and more importantly by how the symmetrical pattern on the mask is different in every frame.

As Michael Chaney argues in his presentation, this is much more striking than the explicitly shown animated ink in Watchmen, the 2009 film. The suggestive nature of the inkblot face relies on a reader filling in the gap during which the face changed, retracing the possibilities of the eerie movement of the ink. More precisely, the graphics rely on you to interpret them, and imprint your own (feared) suppositions on them. Just as a random symmetric pattern on a cloth relies on being interpreted by a viewer, in order to become a reflection of one’s psychological condition. Something partly fabricated by your own imagination becomes personal, and remains with you perhaps more insistently.

Another artist I like that seems to me to be influenced by the world of comic books is Kerstin Kartscher. Her work has been described by the Tate Modern website to be portraying “new fantasy worlds for contemporary women”. I like that idea. I think as an artist I often use artistic media as a portal to fantasies, and I like the idea of drawing a fantastical world for myself, a girl. Traditionally, girls do not reign over worlds, not even mental worlds. I imagine that Kartscher’s drawings are like maps of female minds in which women sit at their leisure in a peaceful kingdom that only they know, and so the works give me a sense of mental freedom.

And I like this one by Julie Mehretu below, although I am not terribly interested in her work on the whole. People often mention her when discussing my work with me, but I think we are opposites. She is detached from the process somehow, a designer, an architect. I am fully immersed in the drawing process to the extent that I see the drawings as manifestations of my own intent.

So technical, emotional and narrative qualities I find pertaining to graphic novels have been a fascination in my recent work. I continued to improvise ink drawings of dead animals (that seem to be dying as they decay), with careful consideration as to the anatomy of the creatures I was drawing, in order to make sure they seemed plausible. I take time to respect their bodies and appreciate the fact that they “once functioned”. Below is my drawing of a dead mammoth/worm.

I like looking at this drawing because it has those emotional characteristics that captivated me in the cow photograph above. This creature seems so miserable to me, but with a degree of humour. It then seemed appropriate to me, that should this project ever be shown as a series of drawings, that I would call them simply “Comic Books”, as a nod to the medium that informed me in my process and an appreciation of the vernacular and pulp fictional nature associated to them before the word “graphic novel” appeared and works like Maus raised the prestige of the graphic-textual narrative format. The term “comic” in my opinion also reinforces the whimsical state of these pathetic, romantic and melancholy creatures. I think of each drawing as “a comic book”, it is poetic, and lost in its lack of context, but the creatures insist that they somehow got this way; that there was a before and that there is a loooong, slow, present, and that there will be an after as well. “So stay there and look at me for a while longer!”, the mammoth-worm would implore.

I was aware that I had always made drawings in one sitting, and that they tended to be very small, and not larger than A5-A4. So I decided I would apply the same mannerism, with the same premeditation on the aforementioned creatures and this convergence with thoughts on the grand range of layers to an organism – but that this time I would make a larger drawing, and spend more time on it. I don’t always feel like drawing in such a way, and decided to return to the drawing only when I was feeling “particular”. This way I would allow myself to follow this tangent and give it a good go at further developing (into something I could not foresee). The drawing developed in the following manner.

It is interesting to see the changes in the character of the lines mapped out across the drawing.

Numerous tutors and fellow students commented on the laboriousness of the works in this series. Although the strokes are dense, the act of drawing these lines is exploratory, improvisational and chaotic, rather than laborious and meticulous. I would find such a repetitive technique as cross hatching or dotting a laborious task, and I don’t like repetition that has a means to an end. I am constantly trying to feel out the textures of the various layers of the creature’s existence, and in the process am repeatedly reinventing the manner with which I draw it. It is also important that when I don’t feel like working in this way, I go and work on something else. Labour is precisely what I avoid in pretty much everything I do.

Somewhere along the line of making these drawings, I realised they seemed to link to some work I did about two years ago which hit a dead end, entitled The Railway Rocket Dog. At the time, this work (a short story with an illustrative diagram: see the first image in the post) seemed to me to call for further works and a development into a larger project. I made some drawings and poems relating to The Railway Rocket Dog, but all in all I started doing largely other things, such as video works.

The Railway Rocket Dog is a fictional historical account of an apocalypse, told in a vaguely biblical manner. It touches on relationships between people and animals and nature, and butterfly effects in ecological systems. It criticises the naivety of the human race but also hails its tendency to form and pursue passions of science and culture. Read the full work here and see an early version published in HESA Inprint here.

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Reportage with a Bad Emoticon

Something that has baffled me for a long time is the combination of seeing a still, professional portrait of a news correspondent and hearing them report live from distant lands. When a correspondent finds themselves in a god-forsaken corner of the world, struck with political instability and poverty, telling deplorable news, a live video feed is not always possible and is sometimes replaced by a portrait photo of the person speaking. Oftentimes this is a photo taken in a completely contrasting situation: a calm white background, a groomed appearance, and a professional, confident smile. I find it so disturbing to look at such a photo and attribute this appearance to a person delivering such distressing news. I keep thinking about these photos like bad emoticons, or inappropriate body language. Similar photos are used when a person is reported dead or missing.

During my two years in the International Baccalaureate program in Bergen, Norway, I was expected to spend about a year researching a topic of interest and then write an essay about it. My essay was about body language used in online settings where our bodies are absent and our senses partially blind. I called this language “bodiless body language”. Here is the abstract:

The focus of this research is to examine the ways in which instant messengers communicate nonverbally in the physically and sensory constrained environment of text messaging, chatting or status-updating via social media. Nonverbal communication occurring face-to-face consists of a complex intertwining of paralanguage, body language and chronemic cues that together affect to a significant degree the interpretation of a verbal message. This essay looks at how deeply ingrained non verbal face-to-face conventions may have translated into the digital world, supplementing the written messages there. It also explores how this may be achieved despite users being deprived of the physical bodies that traditionally carry out these communicative functions.

Excerpts are drawn from status-updates, chat conversations and comments on Facebook in order to analyze the frequency and significance of nonverbal language online, such as emoticons, a new kind of punctuation, various codes, gifs, reaction faces and capitalization.

Issues concerning the body versus the avatar, the constraints of various media versus the expressive opportunities they provide, and the superiority of face-to-face communication are implicated and therefore also questioned. Drawing from previous research done on mediation and sociolinguistics, in addition to my analyses of Facebook messages, I will reach the conclusion that nonverbal language online is evidence of the constant evolution of language and its very dependency on media constraints.

Read the full paper as a pdf here: Bodiless Body Language 

This project got me thinking about media, senses and communication. Every medium seemed to me like a world with different laws. Different media varied by the sensory dimensions existing in their worlds. Different media offered different time scales through which to communicate. Throughout the research project I began to understand my very existence as a compilation of communications, of constant banter between infinite levels of interfaces. So different media offered me different ways to exist. I guess my philosophy accords with the idea that we are “everything else”; a unique crossroads of all other things that exist, a reflective channel.

Then I also thought about dualism, and ideas of the “body and the mind”, where the body acts as a kind of avatar for the mind. Gamers who engage in massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) find that they are granted an avatar that represents them in this interface, this medium of being. Emoticons seem to substitute our facial expressions in online chat where our physical bodies are absent, and more importantly gain connotation through usage, ultimately becoming an entirely unique sign. No longer merely a substitution, an emoticon is your face (in this medium, where the rules are different to a face-to-face experience). It is not only personalised game characters or emoticons that give our online ghost a face, but also online posts, pictures that we upload, profiles that we create, videos that we like or share – and indeed any content we transmit, reproduce, distribute or receive on the web. I mention in my essay the notion of the distributed person (see Art and Agency: An Anthropology of Art, Alfred Gell, 1998), that is, a person that is not contained in a body, but rather a channel through which waves of content pour in and out and rebound forever .

When I started thinking of these online avatars as a real objects within the realms of their own media, I began to lose the feeling that face-to-face existence in which all our traditional senses are active, is more “real” than existing through other media, such as over the telephone or online chat.

So when I see the disparity between what the news correspondent is telling (and how she is telling it) and the photograph, the purpose of which is essentially to serve as her avatar, it is no wonder that I am disturbed. My brain desperately fumbles through the vocabulary of media such as telephone conversation, film language, news reading culture, and sees an inconsistency. If I were listening to the audio without the photograph, I could imagine the appropriate setting, appearance and expression of the news reporter. If there were an accompanying live video feed of the situation, it would presumably also make sense. Instead the avatar seems to be behaving incorrectly, and to me it is as real as pulling a face at a funeral; bizarre.

This prompted me to experiment with portrait photos and voiceovers. I once had a sore throat and found myself talking to myself in an Italian accent by manipulating my hoarser than usual voice. So I then searched “Italian woman” on Google Images. I did find a photo of a pretty but slightly hysterically happy looking woman, who I only later found out was a celebrity Chef named Giada De Laurentiis. She is smiling widely on the photo, taken from a magazine, and I decided to imagine being her (to watch, click here).

I improvised some speech, and my character turned out to be a rather hysterical life coach advocating to insecure women that “true beauty” comes from the inside. I remember feeling it was dangerous to do such a thing as it might come across as ridiculing or parodying. As I was speaking and acting, I found myself critiquing, but also embracing the humanity in such a character. I took it as seriously as I could and imagined how important it would be for this character to reach out to her audience and deliver this message. At the same time, she is somewhat of a cliche, and her hysteria suggests even a trace of hypocrisy. I also found a Facebook-esque photo of a young blonde woman, and the shape of her mouth seemed to suggest to me that she spoke with an American accent.

I tried voicing her as if she were being interviewed about her life story on the radio or in a podcast. I talked into my mobile phone so there was a sense of an intimate relationship with the microphone and a quiet studio and an attentive interviewer. She turned out to be a girl from a small predominantly Christian town in the USA with strict customs, and her story was that at 16 she took a risk and moved into the big city to “find herself”. Her spiritual awakening led her to become the apprentice of an alternative healer and spiritual medium. I think it is clear that in my own view, I have a somewhat sarcastic and critical relationship to alternative medicine… at the same time this medium allows me to approach characters that advocate beliefs opposite to mine, in a sincere manner. I try to use a logic that I would normally contend inconsistent, to justify beliefs I don’t agree with. (It is the ultimate UN conference exercise). I have done a similar thing with videos where I interview a character (played by myself), perhaps in a way reminiscent of Cindy Sherman portrait photographs.

I would however like to return to that disparity between photo and image. Perhaps I could take the role of a correspondent, or a civilian/guest reporter, and tell a story that is slightly off what the photograph communicates. I say slightly because I feel reporting something so dramatic as a war situation can be overly ambitious and too easily appear false. I would rather tell a slightly “off” story that makes the photograph just that little bit uneasy in the context.

Photographs of missing people show disparity between distressing text and treasured photos

Also see the project which initially got me thinking about this phenomenon, entitled “Natalia Talks About The Village” (click here to watch). an improvisational performance of an interview with an anonymous Slavic girl who was kidnapped from her home village (video still below). There are references to human trafficking in the story, but her attitude to the kidnapping is ambiguous. Slavic characters interest me because of my Serbian heritage and they are often inspired by family members, actors and interviews with East Europeans.

 

Red Carpet Interview

This is a spin-off idea from the interviews I did with the “Unnamed Slavic Fashion Celebrity”. It would be a short video where I assume the role of a fashionista caught on the red carpet for a quick interview. She would be intoxicated with the glamorous atmosphere and her whole being would echo the fashion world she thrives in. This idea opens the possibility for me to work entirely alone, and create my character’s own massive event, her own imaginary party, where she can indulge in all the hedonism and luxury in the world. This is possible because a red carpet interview is often filmed from a slight bird’s eye perspective, in order to focus on the interviewee, and thus captures little of her actual setting (image below is a screenshot of a Youtube video; and interview with Emmanuelle Chriqui).

All we see on these 30 second interviews, is the reflections of the party atmosphere in the way the interviewee is excited, the way her eyes dart about distractedly greeting her elite friends, the way she is dressed and the way she is careful to communicate modesty with her words: expressing gratitude for having the opportunity “to meet all these fabulous people tonight”. The atmosphere is also reflected in the way the interviewee has to raise her voice above the sound of the mingling crowd in order to answer, and the interludes of flash photography in the footage. I would like to create the illusion of all this in a video. Much like Cindy Sherman, I’d be staging a superficial scene, empathetically playing supposedly superficial characters.

I would love to borrow the Observatory Room at the college and set up the scene there. So far I imagine creating the project thusly: making audio recordings of the music of crowds and playing them from multiple speakers, loud enough so that I have to raise my voice a little bit to be heard in the recording. I imagine setting up a few cameras on tripods pointed in different directions and (if possible) setting them to take photos every so often to create the illusion of the chaotic flashing of paparazzi photography. Then I would need a certain length of red carpet to fit into the static shot, and position the camera slightly higher than me so that there is a downward perspective on me. I would probably have a simple white screen behind me, and a stand of some sort, holding a microphone before me so that it peeps slightly into the camera’s field of vision (and my character would lean in slightly, to ensure her answer is captured). Then of course I need to wear an appropriate outfit like some crazy dress with a fur coat and jewelry, topped off with fake eyelashes, lipstick and hair-sprayed hair… It’s all about ceremony, much ado about nothing, staging, superficiality, exhibitionsim, self indulgence, hysterical pleasure; but I have a feeling there’s something deeply human about doing that, especially when the reality is that I am all alone in a room making my own party. I need to experiment a bit with the technicalities because the conditions are so specific. I will probably do a rudimentary test in my bedroom with some crowd noise on my laptop!

 

Credits

As usual, I begin with a story.

One day I was walking to college. I have a little tradition of listening to those cheesy 70s/80s “golden oldies” radio stations on my journey to college; I find it strangely befitting.

Anyhow! A song came on as the sun was shining and I walked across Dundonald park; it was “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over The World)” by The Carpenters. It struck me that it seemed like I was in the intro of a (rather typical) 70s movie about “one girl’s journey” through a both psychological and metaphorical, environmental transformation. A little research on IMDB revealed however that this song has never been used in a feature film, although many others by The Carpenters have. It seems to me that the opening credits at such a time as the 60s, 70s and 80s served as a moment for the director flaunt her love of her city, as with New York City in “You’ve Got Mail”. More specifically to this era, I think that opening credits involving a female main character emanate a sense of the contemporary feminist movement, such as in “Working Girl” (1988). The woman is portrayed as independent, treading her city with purpose. All her struggles in the movie will be about getting what she wants and standing on her own two feet without the help of a man. Moments where she is clumsy or in some way “flawed” will turn to her favour. They represent her struggles to become a modern woman, breaking away from the female tradition of being neat, quiet and obedient, and coming out triumphant in some way by the end of the film. She causes a ruckus and controversy in her world by being outspoken (and thus vulgar), clumsy (and thus inelegant), passionate (and thus untame), and in this way perhaps represents the contemporary feminist ideal of the woman. I think such opening scenes of many a chick flick or romantic comedy, express romantic ideas on multiple levels; the notion of loving your city for all its dysfunctionality, the female perspective of the ideal female, modernity, and adventure.

I want to make the opening credits of my own fantasy cliche movie, and be its protagonist. I will be able to take such a magnificent city as London and learn to make it my own, by framing it into a narrative in which I grant my character some mystery meaning. The star of the film will be the bridges, the streets, the markets and the parks that allow me to inhabit them in such an indulgent way. The credits therefore, will be crediting the circumstances, landscape and other objects that permit me to stage such a romantic relationship with them. I plan to imitate the font and syntax typical of opening credits in the 70s such as white block capitals with alternating sizes such as:

Of course, there would be no actors or directors or screenwriters credited in my film. The film is marvelling at the cliche, at the power of a narrative to make selections from the environment and the positioning of objects within the frame, and communicate new relationships out of what naturally exists in the world always.

Stills from my unfinished Credits film

 

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