12°of Other — Strangers to Ourselves
The first in a Series Exploring visual language, Literacy, and a lost Art of 'seeing' — works and words by Michael Graf.
In 1952, 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, within 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 our perceptions. It’s not that our eyes see 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 followers, attention and diversity are becoming scarce commodities, and reclaiming them can be a demanding 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. We may disagree with other notions of Tribe, or the expressions of Look, or a sense of Grace, or simply laugh at the theatres of Promise, but a 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’, the need to confront the unfamiliar face, question the uncommon thought, or tackle the uncomfortable approach is growing increasingly obscure. To explore the influences of our involuntary reactions requires some patience to grasp what shapes them, and more importantly, to consciously steal back a lost span of attention.
Using a collection of ideas, artworks, motivations and behaviours, the 12° of Other touch upon these issues using one of the most inherent powers of our body — our sight. Built over 15 years with a cast and crew numbering in the hundreds (over 500), the photo based works are set across two mirrored volumes each render the same material through different cycles of our image making rituals. Complementing them through countless philosophers, thinkers and artists, the essays and writings push deeper into these thoughts by grappling with the duplicitous human nature that shapes our varied cultural expressions. 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, (a western ideal that’s often misinterpreted as ‘it’s just what I like’). Instead — through a model of Other — the degrees use the modern media image as a form of contemporary myth-making to search for the reasons, emotions, and models of seeing that shape our perceptions and deceptions alike. Using discarded 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 often call for conflicting equalities, diversities, or freedoms. Together, they elicit one of our deepest human failings — our propensity towards tribalisms and the evolutions of “groupishness”. Across our attention-based marketplace, ‘image’ increasingly stirs these kinds of instincts through fandoms, desired lifestyles, or romanticized perceptions of kin and clan. Though their messages can foster a necessary sense of belonging, extremes can emerge when we no longer realize the purpose of our devotions towards them. It can often result in cynical declarations, “democracies are broken”, lifestyles are “out of reach”, while peer pressure and protest exert new “political correctness”. The rallying cry is ‘power back to the people’ — but only through the guise of ‘chosen’ prisms. From messages about dish spots, to sunglasses, to cereal bars, to ‘group think’ and the rise of influencers— these prisms can stir deep seated devotions toward ‘My’ chosen beliefs. Losing a ‘self’ to these beliefs can open new and uneasy freedoms — freedoms to shame, blame or dismiss without thought or concern. So often, this is where ‘hyperbeliefs’ favour fantasy and wishful thinking to guide our intentions and decisions. Eric Hoffer may have described it best when shortly after World War II he declared, “It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.” Unfortunately, many of us take great licence with the ‘right to see and believe’ often averting any responsibilities to it. This voluntary abstinence is commonly defended by declaring, ‘I have a right to see and believe what I want'. But when our intent is to exclude dialogue, to shame challenges, or to dismiss evolutions, the mind's eye is no longer open to learning. This might be faith in ‘one belief’, but not in a belief for how truths or meanings function. This collection was born out of a looming concern that we were loosing a sense of the evolutions, histories, and warranted attentions that shape the ways we process our perceptions. The great risk is that we will no longer be willing to trace the choreography, influences and evolutions that unfold from our shifting human nature. And as our visual vocabularies strain under a current flood of image, how can we ever hope to learn about them when we know so little about what shapes them? Exploring our ways of seeing requires an ability to inquire, acquire, sustain, and also relinquish beliefs as they alternately unfold. Pushing further into the roots of language itself, each mirrored volume here serves as an Other, or an alternate way of seeing either facts or feelings, reasons or instincts, one or many, or simply groups and wholes. The overarching goal of the collection is not to present ever-more isolated ideals, but to slowly capture the flow of our perceptions emerging ‘otherwise’. Above all else, the works illuminate parts of our common behaviours, how we use those behaviours in image, and how they merge and shape with our cultural and social evolutions.
Arranged here as mosaics, the 12 degrees are designed to sample parts of our media centric lives. Each of the degrees capture categories of image, behaviour, and stagecraft that are common to us all, yet are seldom considered in ourselves, and less so in the lives of others. The monologue jingles that are interspersed throughout the spreads (similar to George Saunders or Nick Cave’s lyrics), capture something of the colourful voices, misfits, and righteous logics that followed the 15 years of production (and sadly mine were no exception to this). To establish the images and different ways of seeing them, Volume One uses ‘reasoned’ perceptions as a model of thought, which translates common visual archetypes of prayer, beauty, tribe, age, promise or identity. Distilled from a vast library of over 350,000 scripts and images collected from our media landscape, this approach reveals that through reading and better understanding image, we transcend the roles of both viewers and the viewed — a role we equally share. On the other hand, the 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 disastrously) our human perceptions. Together the two volumes capture a cross section of the involuntary models (emotions vs reasoning) we use to form the origins of language itself.
But despite feeling above involuntary influences, we are all vulnerable to patterns of automatic thought that can steer our definitions into what psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman call heuristics (or mental shortcuts). After all, we are human — as Francis Bacon once argued — and our deeply biased ‘truths’ are not cultural mishaps, but are part of the general nature of our minds. We use mental shortcuts in a fantastic variety of flavours to help us navigate and categorize issues at a glance. Sometimes helpful (especially on the plains of the Serengeti while foraging among hidden predators) but more often destructive in modern visual language, these techniques are used in our public theatres of advertising, political rhetoric or social dialogue to jump-start conclusions of conformity, spirituality, sympathy, or balance while often using unproven foundations to base them on. Becoming dependent on mental shortcuts as reading tools can quickly erode the capacities for larger, more nuanced possibilities. What other thinking proposes is a pause in these routines — no matter how beholden we are to them — to cross into a terrain of what psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls perspective diversity. This process is often referred to in language as allegory or metaphor, which translates into seeing one’s meaning carried over through others. The concept is similar to what Einstein coined combinatory play, or the idea of seeing and combining the familiar through unfamiliar positions. His model of thinking promotes a type of play that synthesizes ideas to find new perspectives to address them from. But you’ll also notice another recurring theme here that psychologists might call a theory of mind, and it highlights the ability to ascribe motivations, performances, beliefs, perspectives to both a self, and to others. It’s acknowledging one’s own line of thinking, as well as influences that remain unseen in others. In many ways, to conceive of this requires language and interaction. It can shape us, delude us, inspire us, or lead us astray, and bias can be a factor in how we perceive and translate visual behaviours in a time when immediate impressions and emotional appeals hold an impenetrable sway over us. Among the tragedies of our recent ‘Attention Economy’ is a belief that all perceptions should become so democratized as to serve ‘us’, and only ‘us’ — sometimes translated as ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’. Although well intentioned, these sermons of instinct and freedom never interrogate 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 navigate the human condition and our developmental struggles within it.
To get deeper into it, this model of thinking might require a more collaborative effort, borrowing thoughts from philosophers, poets, artists, physicists or cultural leaders past and present, to help better understand our human nature. They all, in different ways, foster a certain kind of courage to not look away in hurried indifference, but to face the deeper questions shaping our existence. Many biologists argue that the success of our species was built on forms of eusociality, which suggests an ability to understand both individual and collective levels of thought. Realizing long term influences and integrating them with broader perspectives is where this idea can find measures of success. Much of the work here was moved by the inevitable clash that takes place between individual, group, and other group thinking when we slowly dismiss them as simply ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’. Philosophers have long deliberated over the nature of our decision making abilities on these levels, arguing that we can’t solve problems from the levels of thinking that created the problems in the first place. In that vein, the 12 degrees encourage a more patient and curious approach to seeing and cross-pollinating perspectives in different ways. One the most poignant philosophies that lingers throughout this collection is also borrowed from one of Einstein’s greatest theories — that world is not relative to us as observers, but we and our are perceptions are relative to the world. Hence his thoughts became known as Einstein’s relativity. For the works here, this idea of relativity surfaces in a surprisingly simple way — when presented with the guise of another, what ideal might it be relative to? 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. And this can become 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. But as we grow increasingly polarized into more righteous, fragmented and immovable tribes, what often gets lost are the efforts to discover and trace the many intelligences, histories and perspectives that bind our human condition. With a kind of historical, or anthropological approach, we can begin to weave the degrees of our own isolated beliefs into the Wunderkammer of a larger whole — advocating a flexibility, acceptance, and evolution of understandings.
In the fall of 1977, the launch of the Voyager spacecraft created a similar Wunderkammer by mixing together a treasure trove of human contexts and conditions that resemble parts of the 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, give a sense of the diversity of being on our ‘pale blue dot’. With this imagery, Voyager held a secondary and perhaps more important function as it traveled for the first time into interstellar space — it reflected back onto humanity a humbling sense of scale and awe about what we really are. The scale of the universe can often be too difficult for us to fully fathom, yet the idea of a recorded humanity traveling into it reminds us of just how distinct our life within this cosmos really is. The scope and immensity of this feat seems, at times, too magnificent to fully grasp, especially while we struggle to fathom our tiny selves within it all. 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 ourselves.
Built using a vast library of over 350,000 discarded media scripts and images, 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 each stir strong beliefs, or conversely, doubts. Their goal is to reimagine basic human dilemmas in revealing new degrees, and to realize that the guides to seeing them reside not in stale formulas about ourselves, but in a need for agency and deep connection to the behaviours beyond us. 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 values over the other’s moralities (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. But make no mistake, the works make no attempt to build their bridges for you, rather they are 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. As Einstein once suggested about the nature of wonder — there must something deeply hidden behind all things. Connecting them remains our task, and ours only. Presented in a polyphonic style, the 12 Degrees provide a way of wandering among different aspects of our human condition — a condition that is increasingly difficult to grasp in a media saturated environment. Each of the degrees illustrate how groupisms, altruism, sex, faith, and identity are used in public theatres, and how they emerge as cultural evolutions.
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 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.
Complementing each of the 12 degrees is an ‘Other’ alternate version of seeing and processing. Both are created with the same ‘genetics’, yet both alter how our visual categories — common to us all — are rendered. Together, the two versions explore the origins of language itself, or the idea of one meaning carried over through other’s. The 104 mirror images in the second volume of work complete the thinking behind the project. A quick preview of both volumes follows below.
As a whole, the collection is designed for a general audience in mind, but as we become authors and consumers of our own realities, it is particularly designed for all of us who wish to see from the insides of our ‘other skins’ in ways few sources can manage. (The book defies simple categories but can be filed in Art, Cultural Affairs and Psychology of Seeing— 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-a-dos’ binding process where one volume mirrors and intertwines with its other. The collection is complete at 50,000 words, set across a series of 12 essays that each probe our varied ways of seeing, the philosophies of others, as well as the two volumes of 104 reproductions themselves. Mimicking parts of our contemporary media feeds, the book intends to be read in parts, or reread in full. The collection itself is in part an homage to art of bookmaking, image and the origins of language itself — our self-understandings. A full website of support material and learning, and an immense large format art installation accompanies them. If your interested in the studio, its processes, some info on binding, you are welcome to look at the website for more background.
These interlocking volumes sit in a unique place, and create a rare and unique book in the genre of art and culture. Unlike books that address other artists like 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. Michel de Montaigne once characterized this pursuit as “how to live”. The mental maps and mirrors presented here pursue a notion of “how to see” within them.
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 (‘The Poet Laureate of Medicine’ - The New York Times); 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 much-admired musical lyrics, and BBC’s monumental study into the history of language and art — Civilizations. The 12 degrees weave together many of models of the authors and artists listed above to show us a unique and invaluable perspective on art as tool of language, literacy and deep understanding of our own cultural evolutions.
Marketing — the 12 degrees are also realized through a large scale art instillation and various ‘open house’ media tours through the studio, where the works were created. It provides a backdrop and an inspiring walk through the ideas writ large. In addition to the large format prints, and a thorough background on the production of the images, 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 (using fades, pixel builds, and bursts of light) across locations that include, subway stops, underpasses, church halls, the facades of houses, painted billboards and forests. The buildup of images moving across these environments directly invites, or challenges, the audience with an animated history of the images themselves, breathing life into the backdrops, faces and landscapes ubiquitous to us all. The worlds we take for granted come to life with new purpose and history. Accompanying the works are the voices and ideas that inspired their moments of infinite hopes, wayward desires and unseen deceptions along the way. Completing the work is wealth of background information, the philosophies of seeing, and an ongoing series of studies presented in a fully designed and maintained website.
Biography/Background — I am a multidisciplinary author/artist who works with photography, words, lyrics and essays to study ‘image’ and our seeing ways. In navigating this world, my practice has lead me to explore Egungun funeral trances with West African Voodoo elders, the rise of modernity in Japanese Love Hotels, the heart of American gun culture in Kentucky, the routines of Peruvian livestock farming and slaughter, while simultaneously weaving them into the choreography of western advertising, fashion and media routines. This interlacing practice between our image making rituals forms the roots what of Other explores. 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, recognition as a Hasselblad Master, and are part of the collection of the Musée de Publicité, Le Louvre, France.
On the pages that follow, is a quick preview of the work in reader spreads (the layout is an integral part of its philosophy), a table of contents for both volumes, as well as a link to download more of the completed book if you wish (www.ofother.com/download-books) Please email for password access email@example.com. The collection is also available in full upon request, as well as an open invitation to the studio where the works were created. I always enjoy the company to wander through them!
Thank you for your time, and hope to talk soon.
Michael J Graf
Directly below is a link to 'printer friendly' versions of the completed book (please email here for password access). Listed further down are samples of the two mirrored volumes in reader spreads.