Three Questions For Us All
I’m often asked about the purpose of my work, and the answer usually has less to do with art than language. I’ve always been more interested in exploring image within the context of our cultural evolutions, rather than as luxuries, documents, utilities, or personal preferences. 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, colours, facial features, class, status, beauty or 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 image as a deeper language may seem daunting at first, but as with all forms of reading, the skills to master them are innate parts of our nature — a nature that we are all capable of cultivating and strengthening.
This approach to seeing and thinking about 'image' is not only beneficial to the arts, but this shift can also produce lasting impacts on our overall literacies, and 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 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 that form them. The instincts to immediately define images based on only personal beliefs can be tempting and are often promoted in our visual lifestyles. Yet these beliefs can lead to deep-seated seated biases and rapid-fire associations that care very little for thought or broader perspectives. Moreover, with a cascade of visual information enveloping our perceptions, impulsive reactions are increasingly driving our decisions about what we see. As a consequence, we need to care for them in more thoughtful and bi-literate ways — or something called Other. Similarly, 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 what we eat.
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 enveloping us. We may not always relish what we hear or see, but the idea is to venture into them nonetheless in search of more profound understandings.
"So with the promise of sudden and spectacular transformation that our communications hold, do we still understand how to read their deeper meanings?"
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 translating the other. However we choose to deal with these opposing sides, both are essential to navigating a deeper understanding of the worlds we inhabit. The necessary 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. However, this is also a territory where our languages and criticisms can become one-sided forms of antagonism, manipulation, or intentions to control. Increasingly we 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 distort 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 offer powerful tools of cultural reflection, expanding on both the inconsistencies and harmonies behind our languages and imaginations.
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.
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 appealing gestures, deliberation is not something that is largely encouraged. And 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 of 'image' from alternating perspectives (including Spot, Time, Look, Face, Walk, Skin, Promise, Taste, Sleep, Tribe, Prayer, Grace). The goal is to challenge mutual perspectives with more care and creativity 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. When used in storytelling, this ‘two-faced’ nature of language can harmlessly help to challenge and develop or problem-solving skills in ways that real-life cannot. For example, following the story of a murder mystery does not presuppose an endorsement of murder, but can test our capacities for detailed observations about plot and intention that we seldom use 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, believing in fiction as fact can have an equally crippling effect on critical thinking. There always remains a counter-point to decipher how language is used. And it can help our engagements and understandings of the world. In short, it fosters an ability to decode the intentions and effects of others with more accuracy. Art and image can be powerful tools to test our resolve in these exercises 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 all become authors of our realities, this can become another powerful tool to reflect on how we, and the technologies we use go about affecting the world. We know that our literacies are things that get developed through the mediums we use, and if these mediums promote more fleeting impressions, our capacities for analysis, comparison, alternate vantages, and inference all follow.
"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."
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). To get a better grasp of our modes of ‘seeing’, there are three questions about our perceptions that have become central to my practice. 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 three questions kept surfacing for me, and they’re similar to what the arts and sciences use in their pursuits of learning.
1) 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. In short, language translates one idea through the form of another or something that becomes 'story', allegory, or a predictive nature. This is an approach that gets tested regularly in the arts and sciences. And it’s the base fuel of all thought and understanding. We use it every day of our lives to explain the phenomena among us. But as ‘image’ engrains itself deeper into our everyday fabric, 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 side of a duplicitous human nature that was often subverted by the progress of modern life. For Picasso, it revolved around the “modern primitive”, and his work reflected on a society that struggled to grasp its progressions and identity. 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 influential voice in the renaissance painter Michelangelo Caravaggio. Centuries ago, he reinterpreted the noble 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, to the more recent works of Anselm Kiefer.
2) How does it help or hinder our wellbeing?
This question 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 instinct and convenience. If we explore them further, this is where art, image and their native dialects can give us a sharper focus on human behaviour. However, when reading these behaviours through only immediate reactions — which is becoming a growing norm — our sense of civic and self-understanding can become equally impaired. Today only a fraction of our decisions consider alternate options, forgetting to 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 on broader contexts, our most important intellectual and perceptual processes like critical thinking, analogical reasoning, empathy, and perspective-taking can flourish over time. The results can have lasting repercussions on our models of thought, civic and self-understanding, and our general well being.
'Why' may be the hardest question the arts and sciences ask, yet it remains critical to 'how' and 'what' we create. As we sit on the precipice of information overload, the new normal is to ‘glance read’ and react to the world of sharing around us. This impulse is nothing new, but our willingness to engage with only intuition can be corrosive to 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 immediacies. 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 to the familiar vantage in an unfamiliar guise. Whether as documents of reality, or insights into our inner minds, art and image can provide us with checkpoints to our conflicting nature. They 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 only appeal to base likes or dislikes, the function of thoughtful works are to explore the conflicting sides of a given time and nature. 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 more significant selves. In experiencing lived expressions that on the surface seem nothing like us, the hope is to learn the depths of who we are. There is no single dimension or easy answer to get us there —‘other’ is the why that fosters a path toward it.
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.
With enough patience and experience, the mastery of our languages and their faces can become interchangeable with intuitions, giving us the nerve to question and explore our shared but fallible human nature in different ways.
— michael graf