in Search of a lost art of seeing
The first in a Series Exploring visual language, Literacy, and a lost Art of 'seeing' — works and words by Michael Graf.
Directly below is a link to 'printer friendly' versions of the completed book (please email here for password access). Listed further down is the Synopsis for the 12°.
Synopsis of the 12° of Other
In the postwar 1950’s, French author Vercors might have summed up the spirit of his times best when he argued, “All of man’s troubles have arisen from the fact that we do not know what we are, and we do not agree on what we want to be.” More than a half century later through the rise of our current ‘Attention Economy’, his thoughts still echo through to ask — how well do we understand our own perceptions anymore? Something is changing in the rhythms of how we see. It’s not that our eyes perceive different meanings from the same material, but that we no longer share the same foundations to understand them from. Wrapped in layers of like-minded beliefs, feeds, and fandoms, attention and diversity are becoming scarce commodities, and reclaiming them can be a difficult exercise. Yet at its core is a surprisingly simple philosophy — one that Harvard Psychologist Helen Langer calls a type of Mindfulness, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman refers to it as our Slow System of thought, while modernist artist Mark Rothko explores it as a type of visual, human foundation. However one approaches it or phrases it, the idea of ‘other’ thinking is not simply an opposing category, an unwanted perspective, but is at the heart of how we see, process and learn about familiar beliefs. We may disagree with other notions of Other Tribe, or the expressions of Other Look, or a sense of Other Grace, or simply laugh at the theatres of Other Promise, but a deeply biased approach to these ideas is often difficult to resist, especially when so much of our understandings take place automatically beneath the surfaces of what we see. Inundated with gut-feelings, pseudo-logic or our own ‘Theatres of Reason’, this collection was born out of a looming concern that the need to confront the unfamiliar face, question the uncommon thought, or tackle the uncomfortable approach was growing increasingly obscure. Exploring the influences and involuntary reactions that guide these perceptions requires some patience to grasp what shapes them, and more importantly to consciously steal back a lost span of attention.
Using a collection of images, artworks, media scripts and behaviours, the 12° of Other explore these issues using one of our most deep seated senses — our sight. Distilled from a vast library of over 350,000 performances collected from our media driven landscape and choreographed over 15 years using a cast and crew numbering in the hundreds (over 500), the photo based works are set across two mirrored volumes that each render the same material through different cycles of our image making rituals. Complementing them are varied anecdotes from countless philosophers, thinkers and artists, that each grapple with the duplicitous nature of language and human perceptions. ‘Other’ revolves around a core philosophy of alternating vantages and the ability to see and read through conflicting modes of thought — whether it be through fact or feeling, truth or meaning, reason or instinct, science or art, or simply one and other. Developed as anything but a conventional art tome, the 12 Degrees adopt a different approach to seeing than the notion of art for art’s sake, or a western ideal that’s often misinterpreted as ‘it’s just what I like’. Instead the idea of Other uses the modern media image as a form of contemporary myth-making to question the ways we shape our perceptions and deceptions alike. Using discarded scripts from National Geographic assignments, Vice exposés, Home depot ads, skin care auditions, commercial media narratives, social identities and political agendas, the scripts are distilled using the same gauzy aesthetics of good vs bad realities, fashion trends, and the choreographed lifestyles that fill our many public and private recitals. Across an attention-based marketplace, ‘image’ increasingly increasingly trades on this stagecraft to stir fandoms, desired lifestyles, or romanticized perceptions of kin and clan. Though these messages can foster a necessary sense of belonging, extremes can emerge from them when we no longer realize the purpose of our devotions towards them. It can often lead to a kind of anomie that declares, “democracies are broken”, or lifestyles are “out of reach”, while peer pressure exerts new forms of “political correctness”. The rallying cry is ‘power back to the people’ — but only through the guise of chosen prisms. As a result, these types of folk psychologies appear as remedies to our everyday lives, from things as benign as the shame of dish spots, to the theatre of political rhetoric, to ‘group think’ and the rise of influence and reverie. So often, this is where ‘hyperbeliefs’ favour fantasy and wishful thinking over deeper deliberation. This collection was fuelled by a concern that immediate impressions were ascribing more and more influence in everyday perceptions, making it more difficult to discover deeper models of thought and deliberation. Because of this, the choreography of works do not advocate for ever-more immediate reactions, but attempt to visualize how image gets conceived, executed, and implemented across our human fabric. This idea is simpler than it may seem, and it runs parallel to one of Einstein’s greatest observations —the theory of relativity. At first glance, relativity may appear to offer little practically in solving everyday problems, but on closer inspection, it provides a powerful model to help re-frame our observations. Einstein’s use of a ‘light train’ to illustrate how two different positions in time and space can perceive the same phenomena differently, can also become a potent model to how our sensory perceptions can distort meanings and conclusions from different perspectives. This idea fosters an awareness to the fact that the world is not simply relative to one’s perceptions of it, but we and our are perceptions are also relative to the world. For the works here, this idea surfaces in a surprisingly simple way — when presented with the guise of another, what other ideals or perspectives might it be relative to and why? The foundations of this theory have been translated here as ‘other’ — and it’s an especially poignant tool used in art and science to illuminate the conditions of life from shifting positions. But among the tragedies of our recent ‘Attention Economy’ is a belief that all perceptions or vantages should become so democratized as to serve ‘us’, and only ‘us’ — sometimes translated as something similar to ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’. Although well intentioned, this sermon of instinct and freedom never interrogates the difficult questions of what, how and why we see the ways we do. Yet it’s in this quest for a deeper understanding that art (as well as science) comes to life as an indispensable tool to better grasp our developmental struggles.
Arranged as mosaics, the 12 degrees of images along with essays exploring ways of seeing, and the monologue jingles interspersed throughout the book (similar to George Saunders or Nick Cave’s lyrics), capture something of the colourful voices, misfits, and misplaced manifestos that followed the 15 years of production (and sadly mine were no exception to this). To establish the nature of Other, Volume One uses ‘reason’ as a model of thought, which translates the construction of common visual archetypes through prayer, beauty, tribe, age, promise or identity. Distilled from a vast library of hundreds of thousands of scripts and images collected from our media landscape, this approach initiates us into our shared roles as both viewers of ideas and the viewed. Conversely, the second, mirrored works of Volume Two engage with ‘emotional’ models of thought and their tendency to filter meanings through sensation only. Volume Two uses the same images and concepts to explore the hidden processes that build our visual rituals — including location surveys and audition images, as well as dismantling the ink cavities of printers, lenses, and the physics of how we see and reproduce image. In many ways it captures the sensation of technology disconnecting (sometimes wondrously, sometimes deceptively) our human perceptions. Together the two volumes capture a cross section of the duplicitous models of seeing that form the origins of language itself. In that vein, the 12 degrees encourage a more patient and curious approach to seeing and cross-pollinating perspectives relative to us and others. And this is a game that is well worth playing. The payoff is a sharper image of human behaviour and an awareness of culture being translated through it. It becomes like a magical spring where the more you gather from it, the more it offers back. Together the two volumes create a sense of beauty not from reading their immediate surfaces, but from understanding the balances that go into connecting their evolutions. The effect is of being shown around a Wunderkammer, where what matters most is not rapid fire associations, but the various visual and intellectual treasures that emerge between the tapestry of our degrees.
In the fall of 1977, the launch of the Voyager spacecraft mixed together a treasure trove of human contexts and motivations that resemble the parts of a Wunderkammer, similar to the arrangement of 12 degrees here. Sent into space in search of the unknown, Voyager seemed less likely to contact other life than to function as a kind of beacon for our own humanity. Encased on the craft was a gold disc with images of oceans, a breastfeeding child, traffic arteries, musical scores and the representations of light (among many other things) that together, gave a sense of the diversity of being on our ‘pale blue dot’. Assembled by the late Carl Sagan, Voyager’s imagery held a secondary and perhaps more important function as it traveled into interstellar space for the first time — it reflected back onto us a humbling sense of scale and awe about what we really are. The immensity and expanse of the universe can often be too difficult for us to fully fathom, especially while we struggle to realize our tiny selves within it all. Yet the idea of a recorded humanity traveling into it reminds us of just how distinct our life within this cosmos really is. The feat stands as an astounding reminder of how much we dismiss from the vast ocean of meanings, values, and truths surrounding us — often choosing convenient individualisms or simplistic universalisms. With an eye on what exists beyond convenient impressions, the two volumes of work dedicate themselves to reflecting back a similarly wondrous and sometimes foolish sense of how we see and define our other selves.
Combined, the 12 visual narratives explore titles coined Spot, Time, Look, Face, Walk, Skin, Promise, Taste, Sleep, Tribe, Prayer, and Grace, to compose a cross section of symbols that can each stir either strong opinions or indifference. Their goal is to reimagine our basic human dilemmas in revealing new ways, and to realize that the guides to seeing them reside not in stale formulas about ourselves, but in a need to connect to perspectives that lie beyond the zones of the familiar and ideal. This quest has been the stuff of culture, philosophy and theology for centuries. In the 12 Degrees, these longstanding subjects find a timely visual interpretation. Rather than mimicking narratives that appease one’s virtues over the other’s vices (Team Good vs Team Evil), the collection forms a tapestry of visual living that shocks, blunts, and cajoles us to see as Strangers to Ourselves. Across this varied tapestry the works make no attempt to build bridges for you, rather they provide an opportunity to build and explore them for yourself. Their wandering paths serve as a notice to the challenges and difficulties in approaching our perceptions this way. But as Einstein once suggested about the nature of wonder — there must something deeply hidden behind all things, and discovering what connects them remains our task, and ours only.
Audience, Marketing, and Comparable Projects
As we all become authors and consumers of our own realities, the collection is designed for a general audience in mind, but is particularly suited for those of us who care to see from the insides of our other skins in ways few sources can manage. The core appeal is for readers and viewers interested in visual thinking — a rapidly growing demographic that includes art, music, literature, social studies and design, and comprises a demographic of well over 200,000,000. (The book defies simple categories but can be filed in Art, Photography, Image and Cultural Affairs— all apply). Part memoir, part fantasy, part elegy and hymnal for visual reading itself, the multiple voices are arranged across double page spreads where one page intertwines with its other, and through a unique ‘dos-à-dos’ binding process where one volume mirrors and intertwines with its other. The collection is complete at 50,000 words, spread across a series of essays, dialogue jingles, and images that together mimic the categories of our contemporary media feeds. In that light, the book is intended to be read in parts, or reread in full. A full website of support material and learning, and an immense large format art installation accompanies the book. If your interested in the studio, its processes, some info on binding, you are welcome to look at the website for more background. For more information on the ‘dos-à-dos’ binding take a look here.
These interlocking volumes sit in a unique place, and create a rare and unique book in the genre of art and culture, leaving as much for the eyes to feast on as it does for the mind. Unlike books that address other artists as in Simon Schama’s exceptional ‘The Power of Art’, theories about art in Alain De button’s ‘Art as Therapy’, or John Berger’s classic ‘Ways of Seeing’, the volumes here present writings and images created by a practitioner — with feet on the ground — inspired by several decades of work, thought and experience struggling with a visual language that we all isolate and obscure to one degree or another. Created for an audience that sometimes struggles with the ideas of art on both emotional and practical levels, the collection sets a task of learning to read not just the works, but the tools and processes of our own recorded lives among them. Using a ‘dos-à-dos’ binding format the two books uniquely mimic the philosophy of Other.
Comparable Projects — Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland (#1 Amazon Bestseller); two time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience (National Bestseller); Oliver Sacks’ ‘sometimes challenging, always rewarding’ Rivers of Consciousness (millions sold from ‘The Poet Laureate of Medicine’); John Berger’s celebrated classic Ways of Seeing; Maira Kalman’s critically acclaimed The Principles of Uncertainty; George Saunders colourful voices and fragmented rhythms in Lincoln in the Bardo (Bestseller and Man Booker Winner); Nick Cave’s admired musical lyrics, and BBC’s monumental study into the history of language and art — Civilizations. The 12 degrees weave together these models of thinking to show us the unique tools of visual language, and a deeper understanding of their cultural significance. Using essay and image, the collection blurs the lines between author, subject and audience, to form what Geoff Dyer calls in his New York Times column, “a uniquely intimate relationship.”
Marketing Options — the 12 degrees are also realized through a large scale art instillation and by various open media tours through the studio, where the works were created. The environment provides an inspiring backdrop for the ideas writ large and is something well worth exploring. In addition to the large format pieces, a thorough background on the production of the images and a guided philosophy behind the work accompanies them. A series of video productions are also scheduled to promote the work, projecting the ideas back onto the environments that inspired them. This moving cascade of images scroll and build across locations that include, subway stops, underpasses, church halls, the facades of houses, painted billboards and forests. The buildup of images across these locations invites the audience into an animated history of the images themselves, breathing life into the environments that inspired them. Completing the works is wealth of background information, philosophies on seeing, and ongoing studies presented in a fully designed and maintained website, along with a growing social media platform. The market for arts, image and culture is ever increasing, estimating an audience of over 200 million. A short market test of the material (reaching over 500,000 viewers) consistently measured the engagement levels 2-4x higher than standard levels on social media (averaging 2.5%-8% in German, Italian, Canadian, American, and French markets – standard levels on Facebook measure 0.7% and on Instagram 1.4%). In addition, a series of brief video snippets or ‘talking heads’ will be used to help further introduce the philosophy of the work and its ways of seeing.
Biography/Background — I followed a strange path in building my practice. After failing to complete two different college programs, and with little money in hand, I worked in a hospital kitchen collecting food waste — or something that we called ‘slop’ — for local pig farmers. That work afforded me a second-hand Mamiya RZ67 camera, which eventually lead to jobs in discount printing houses, a postcard factory, custom colour laboratories and eventually onto the sets of commercial enterprises as a technical artist to finance this visual machinery— it was never a cheap vocation. Assembling each of these degrees over the course of more than a year — over 15 years — has been a difficult labour of love, self-financed with thousands of hours of work and using casts and crews numbering in hundreds. Countless people (over 500) were commissioned along the way, while countless more images and attempts were discarded in its wake. In a landscape that has become immersed in image, my hope is to offer a deeper literacy into the roots and efforts that shape how we see. The goal is not to produce an ever-greater volume of work, but to consider the ongoing steps in them with a greater lucidity. In his epic Essays written centuries ago, Michel de Montaigne used a similar approach to contemplate deeply about 'how to live'. The mental maps and mirrors presented here simply wonder on 'how to see' ourselves within them.
Along the way, my works have been commissioned internationally and have garnered some distinctions, among them, Lürzer’s Top 200 Photographers Worldwide, American Photography Awards, New York Art Directors Awards, London Art Director Awards, Applied Arts Awards, International Polaroid Awards, PDN, American Photography Awards, recognition as a Hasselblad Master, and were included in the permanent collection of the Musée de Publicité, Le Louvre, France.
On the pages that follow are a sample chapter, a link to the work in reader spreads (although not final, the layout is an integral part of the philosophy), a table of contents for both volumes, as well as a link to download more of the completed book if you wish. The collection is also available in full upon request, as well as an open invitation to the studio where the works were created.
In ascending order, a quick overview of the 12 degrees follow.
The series of 01°—Other Spot reassembles images from extensive skin care auditions, illustrating an innate and vulnerable facial heuristic — the inability to undo the parts of a whole, in search of the perfect whole. Try as we might, it requires patience and careful attention to undo the strips of a face and study the individual parts. It illustrates how misleading our instinctual perceptions can be, and how unaware we can become of our ‘Darwinian’ pursuits to redefine beauty. Many commercial images are augmented in a similar manner, and volume two illustrates just how vulnerable our eyes can be to these features.
Shifting back to commercial and editorial assignments, 02°—Other Look is perhaps one of our greatest perceptual failings, and one not many of us care to admit — I certainly don’t like to. Psychologists call it a facial heuristic that judges and evaluates faces in a mere flash. Competency, charm, warmth and connection can all be determined in mere fractions of a second. The choreography of the pieces work to capture some of the unbridled and misleading judgments that arise from this process. The stagecraft and markings on the images are borrowed from casting libraries of hundreds of thousands of auditions, scripted performances, notes and shorthand evaluations of them.
While travelling to community centres and working with seniors, the series 03°—Other Time looks at the forgotten faces of age, and perhaps some of the misgivings in understanding how we navigate them. Photographed under a blue spectrum of light, the black white film enhances the histories, blemishes and maps of skin. These images grapple with the difficult issues of ageism, and how we age, and especially how we value aging. In the end, as dedicated and dogged as these faces once were to rearing and raising others, we don’t seem to look after their needs with the same care as they did ours.
Covering commodified beauty standards , 04°—Other Face explores the endless search for the price-tag of ‘real beauty’. This series of anonymous fashion models pits characters who might command six figure sitting fees beside those who work for free. Neither are visible or distinguishable, becoming a reflection on our sometimes foolish ‘borgesian’ quests to unlock the true value of ‘beauty’.
The 05°—Other Walk borrows on the massive appeal to participate in media images and to be ‘seen’ by them. A group of 125 film extras were asked to randomly preform in a ‘film set’ reverie. Subjects followed a film crew around to several private and public locations, where the groups and individuals were simply asked to lie down — from town halls, to forests, rooftops, to schools and street-scapes. The images themselves were then re-photographed dozens of times in a cycle between analogue projections, film captures and digital conversions to create an odd fantasy signal, from a fantasy noise.
Changing to another phase in our lives, 06°—Other Skin looks at younger subjects dealing with the freedoms and allure of a burgeoning ‘self-image’ market. The models are sourced from online modelling forums, filled with ambitious (if sometimes misguided) characters waiting to see and be seen – a quality we all posses to some degree or another. The images are self-styled by the models themselves and are choreographed around their own performances and amateur portfolios. In some ways, these forums recalibrate the boundaries of our cultural freedoms, sexualities, and the expectations we might have of them.
The series coined 07°—Other Promise borrows the characters and scripts from mass marketing campaigns and transposes them onto smaller commercial venues. Characters from actual advertising scripts (including alcohol, automotive, banking, and beauty campaigns) are re-contextualized into everyday commercial settings. The stagecraft, headlines, branding exercises and performances are all stripped to leave us with the wonder and folly behind our ‘brand’ performances.
The 08°—Other Taste re-enacts the choreography found in mobile phone, confectionery and commodity driven marketing campaigns, using an alternate (and fantastically insincere) gesture — the kiss. To illustrate their behaviours and intentions, the choreography looks at the at the deep seated fantasy cloaked in many of our public recitals. Consider the ‘kiss’ as potent a gesture as the handshake.
With the rise of a post-war Japanese culture, 09°—Other Sleep explores an alternate take on take on the choreography and promises that also echo through the rise of western media and advertising. In these scenes, the camera guides itself into alternate version of escape and lifestyle that modernity often promises to bestow. Set across the many Love Hotels of Tokyo and Osaka, the scenes restage these reveries and promises — with the promises themselves remaining somewhat incomplete. The public and private versions of idyllic love collide in these scenes.
The series coined 10°—Other Tribe colourizes images captured from the heart of American gun culture using discharged brass shell casings as a guiding palette. The images are ‘edited’ and reassembled, reflecting the meanings and inherit biases that follow and distort them along the way. The tribal nature of a gun culture is reflected as an almost ‘make-believe’, infantalized ceremony that we are all vulnerable to, but seldom admit to practicing.
11°—Other Prayer is a study in one of our most profound cultural evolutions — religion. Observing Egungun funeral trances with Voodoo elders of West Africa, the series looks at one the oldest and maligned faiths in the world. The social orders of Voodoo are captured across Togo, Benin and parts of Ghana and Nigeria. The memories of ancestors celebrated through the polytheistic practices of one of the oldest faiths known. As a kind of animism (attributing a soul to things, animals, and phenomena) it can offer — like any faith might —its own comforts and abuses.
Finally, the series, 12°—Other Grace explores food, livestock farming and slaughter using the same technology and equipment found in commercial studios that specialize in packaged food photography. Often polarizing, the result is an interpretation of an otherwise forgotten aspect of our food chain, and more importantly the dichotomies in how we address our food chains themselves, or the difficult idea of 'life begetting life'.
Sample Reader Spreads Vol 01
Mirrors of Volume 02