Refections on the project â€œOur Own Other: an Archive for the Futureâ€?
Tutors: Anke Bangma and Jeroen Boomgaard Tropen museum Universiteit van Amsterdam, Artistic Research MA Amsterdam, August, 2011 Paula Salas Student number: 6246699
Table of contents
Introduction............................................................................................................... 3 Chapter 1: The Plan.................................................................................................. 4 Chapter 2: What happened...................................................................................... 5 Chapter 3: The Roles............................................................................................... 7 Mediator................................................................................................. 7 Museum.................................................................................................. 9 Visitor-participant..................................................................................10 Chapter 4: The Outcomes....................................................................................... 12 Chapter 5: What I learned...................................................................................... 14 Fluidity.................................................................................................... 14 Portraiture.............................................................................................. 15 An overview of my practice................................................................... 17 Conclusion................................................................................................................ 18 Bibliography............................................................................................................. 19 Images....................................................................................................... (Attached fle)
Introduction “The Tropenmuseum wants to use these stories (of the objects) to help people understand and appreciate the richness of other cultures” Tropenmuseum Visitor’s Guide
One of the frst places that I visited when I arrived to Amsterdam was the Tropen museum. I felt shocked but also captivated by their exuberant collection. Soon I found out that my attraction was not so much to the objects themselves, but to what they were doing: portraying others, like me. From this fascination and curiosity emerged the idea of working in the museum. The resulting project that was carried out from February until June of the year 2011. “Our Own Other: an Archive for the Future” consisted of a collaborative work with the visitors of the museum in which they portrayed themselves and other people using video, photography, and drawing. This text is a summary of the project, including my afterthoughts and takeaways. It groups together a variety of ideas, some of which may not be logically connected. Therefore, the reader will not fnd a defnitive hypothesis, but rather a map of a route outlining the facts and refections that shaped this project. The objectives of this paper are two. First, capture and organize the ideas and feelings motivated by the project. And secondly, communicate my experience in an academic language. To accomplish those aims I divided the text in fve chapters. In order to make the understanding of the work easier I will start by telling the story of the project. Then, the main factors of its development will be analyzed, and fnally, I will explain what I learned through this process. Also, images will be used all through the text to clarify and give examples of what is being said. In the initial chapter, the story of how the project came to exist will be told. This will work as a background to explain later how things really happened and the way my expectations changed. The second part will provide a brief account of the project's development, beginning by the preparation phase then, the bonding of a relationship between me and the museum, the design of the activities for the visitors and the communication strategies, ending with describing how the interaction with the public turned out. Chapter three consists on a detailed explanation of the three kinds of actors in this project. The roles of mediator, museum and visitor-participant will be described here, as well as their functions. The frst one, was played by me and included the job of organizer, researcher and archivist. Meanwhile, the museum provided the stage and stimuli for the visitor-participant, who in turn created representations of visitors' and others'1 behaviors. The next section will be dedicated to reporting the results of the interaction with the visitors and the museum. The focus will be on the images produced during the activities, trying to clarify their status and function. The last chapter addresses the key insight gained from this process. The frst concept will be 1 Other meaning people from cultures alien to the visitor.
Fluidity, which contains two ideas: exploring one's feelings and beliefs towards others is possible through bodily experience; and the second idea is that both, image and identity are subjective and fuid elements. Next, I will explain the realization of the fctional nature of portraiture (artistic and anthropological). And to conclude I will reveal how this experience gave me an overview of my practice, discovering that artistic research was an old vocation.
1- The Plan When I started with this project, I had some ideas and concerns that defned its development. Some of those intentions were present during the whole process while others just changed into something else. At the point where I am now I believe revisiting those issues and setting them against what really happened will help me to understand what this project was. As well, I will use this quick review as an introduction to explain my afterthoughts. My primary concern from the very beginning of this project (and long before that) was the representation of the other: how we create an image for another person or culture. Following this preoccupation and fnding myself in an unknown cultural context I decided to develop a project that would engage me with local people as well as allow me to research my old subject. I was curious about how people here in The Netherlands depicted themselves and others (like me). At that moment, I was beginning my studies of Artistic Research at the University of Amsterdam, and the program encouraged students to undertake creation-based projects in collaboration with recognized cultural institutions of the country. I saw this as an opportunity to develop an artistic project where I could apply the concepts that I was learning in the program. I chose the Tropen Museum because everything there is orientated to give an image to the other. It was not only a collection of portraits, but, more than that, a system of cultural representation. Back then I saw in the museum a remarkable opportunity to study the roles in the representational system (portraitist, portrayed and spectator). I also noticed that many questions were not being asked in there (for example, why is Europe not represented, who is the portraitist, who can speak for whom and why). Thus, revealing the hidden pieces of the system became another motivation to work there. The idea of this project also emerged from my enduring involvement in visual portraiture. Visiting the museum made me realize that, as a portraitist, I will always fnd myself in the position of the onlooker: grasping, analyzing and defning visually other people. In this occasion my aim was to explore the roles played in portraiture from a broader perspective, including the function of the model, spectator and author. Finally, I wanted to engage other people in the project; not as models or sitters, but this time as co-creators. My idea was to give the participants and myself an opportunity to look at ourselves from a distance -to get a different image of our image and behavior. From all these intentions arose the idea of creating, in collaboration with the visitors, a 4
Dutch section for the Tropen museum. The plan consisted in having a small mobile stand that was to function as a working and exhibition space. The objective was to provide a place in the museum where the visitors could observe and analyze themselves instead of others (or as others). This primitive plan, hoever, was very soon modifed.
2- What happened In order to refect on the project I offer here a brief description of what really happened during the past months in the museum. The following is a recollection of what I see now were the main factors in the development of this project. Beginning with a very vague plan and a strong desire to work with the museum I approached my professor of Artistic Research. For the next couple of months Jeroen Boomgaard from the University of Amsterdam and Paul Faber from the museum helped me by polishing the project so that it could be accepted by the heads of the institution. Finally, by January 2011, the project was admitted as an internship and several meetings were held with people in charge of the different departments of the museum. Anke Bangma, leader of the new contemporary art area, assumed the role of my tutor for this project. This frst phase was extremely important for the future unfolding of the project because it widened my perception of what could be done with such a plan. I was afraid that the museum would restrict my action feld, forcing me to eliminate all those things that could question the institution or trouble the visitors. Rather, it turned out to be the opposite way. All the conversations gave me the feeling that working with the museum could open for me many doors. For example, from everyone I talked to I learned new ways to complement my ideas which expanded and enriched the project. Some of those valuable suggestions included creating a website for the project, handing an informational leafet (fyer) to the participants and inviting booked groups to take part on the work. To summarize this point, this preparatory stage was essential, not only because the project acquired its fnal shape then, but also because the support from the museum gave me the confdence to radicalize my plan. Soon after deciding the different strategies of communication and organization the activities with the visitors began, surprising me and the museum with their results. Later, the visitors' contributions will be analyzed, but something that their images revealed was the multiplicity of ways in which they related and experienced the museum. I think this was especially interesting for the staff of the Tropen, who saw in my project a window to observe and connect with their public. Only after making public a video that compiled what the visitors have made for me 2, did I start feeling some pressure from the institution. I believe some people expected the project to be some kind of 2 The video was made for an artistic event at Trouw Amsterdam on May 13, and later was screened for all the personnel of the museum at one general meeting the 18th of May. (To see the video go to http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=VDbbEg7UfAk&feature=player_embedded)
bridge between the museum and its public, or they thought it could provide some useful information about visitor behavior, or that it would deliver certain didactic knowledge to the participants. However I never felt this pressure as a weight on my shoulders and at the end, these expectations led me to evaluate more deeply the function of the project. In relation to the participants I worked with two kind of visitors: one were individuals who went to the museum on their own, and the other were booked groups from an institution, generally schools or universities. In both cases people of different nationality, age, occupation, physical and mental conditions participated voluntarily in the project. The way they were invited differed depending if they were a group or regular visitors. For groups I sent an email or made aphone call informing them about the project and asking them to be part of it. This procedure gave me the opportunity to prepare more complex activities for them. With individual visitors, the situation was more challenging for me, because it was necessary to approach them at any time of their visit and convince them to participate with just a few words. In these cases the participants did not get much information in advance so they were forced to improvise, which became an visible factor in their contribution. In both cases every participant received an informational leafet where the webpage address was indicated. There were three activities that the participants could do. One was to make images of themselves as visitors; the second was to represent the cultures exhibited at the museum; and the last one was to classify the people in the museum. In the frst one the participants made videos and photos of themselves in the role of museum visitors. I called it “Reenacting the visitor” (See images 1 and 2). The second one also consisted in the collaborators making videos and photos of themselves, but this time reenacting the others, the people represented by the museum (Arabs, Indians, Latin Americans, etc). This activity was named “Reenacting the other” (See images 3, 4 and 5). For the last one I asked each participant to separate the people they have seen at the museum in different types and represent their classifcation in drawing. This last activity was made only by booked groups and it took place only in three opportunities. Therefore the material is more scarce but not less interesting (See images 6, 7 and 8). Finally, other essential factors in the development of the project were the communication tools. There were four ways of reaching the public: the blog of the project and webpage of the museum3, the email of the project4, the leafet (see image 9) and fnally personal conversations between me and the participants. From these four, two were an extraordinary value for me: the blog and the conversations. At the beginning the blog was a bulletin board where I posted dates and a few images, but in the course of the process it became a sort of note book of my refections. Unfortunately, due to the great amount of time that the activities at the museum took me it was not possible to update the blog very often; nevertheless it was a very valuable tool. Similarly, the talks with the participants helped me to understand how they experienced the project and, through them, 3 Blog of the project: http://ourownother.blogspot.com/ Webpage of the museum: http://www.tropenmuseum.nl/-/MUS/61630/Tropenmuseum/Activiteiten/kunstproject 4 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I discovered other meanings for portraiture.
3- Roles If interacting with the museum people and the visitors was the frst step, the next one was to step aside and refect on what was going on in the project. One of the frst things that I could observe was a division of roles among the participants. During the process three kinds of actors appeared in the stage: visitor-participant, mediator and museum. This became an important subject, because many of the relationships and behaviors that appeared in the process can be described, compared, and analyzed through these roles. Mediator Let me begin by explaining my own paper. As mediator I was moving between the public and the museum. To the visitors I would appear as a kind of authority acting on behalf of the institution; for the museum I enjoyed a favored closeness with their public. This position was certainly privileged but also very compromising because both parties, institution and visitors, trusted in me, allowing us to do unusual things. My role could be read as a dual one. On the one hand I could give the participants space and freedom to represent whatever they wanted, and as intern I had a direct communication with the museum. On the other hand, as an outsider to the Tropen museum, I could relate with the public horizontally and conduct the project with very few institutional limitations. Further, there was another feature that defned my performance as mediator: the artistic essence of the project. I think this label infuenced the reactions I got from both, the museum and the visitors. In the frst case, the institution did not assign me a job like regular a intern, and I sensed it was not expecting something specifc from this project, which gave me a great deal of independence. In relation to the public I felt that approaching them as an artist instead of researcher or university student, for example, was less threatening, especially since I invited them to collaborate as co-creators and not as objects of study. This non-hierarchical relationship may have given them confdence to express openly their feelings and ideas. Following with this idea, mediating between museum and visitors also carried certain missions in the project. As artist-researcher I performed a dialectical function: experiencing the relationship with visitors and interpreting it, getting involved with them and then stepping back (to leave them space to perform and, for me, space to refect). I found a clarifying vision of this movement from interior to exterior and back in ethnography, especially in the role of participantobservant. James Clifford, in his book “ The Predicament of Culture” describes this function as a “...shorthand for a continuous tacking between the “inside” and the “outside” of events: on the one hand grasping the sense of specifc occurrences and gestures empathetically, on the other stepping back to situate these meanings in wider contexts.” (Clifford, 1988, page 34) 7
In my view, this would mean that as researcher, one engages personally with the people or/and subject that is being studied, and tries to get conclusions from that involvement. In other words, ideas and images are drawn from the subjective experience of the investigator. Seen in this way, the concept of participant observer not only describes my relationship with the participants, it also represents in a broader sense what I see as the job of an artist, or at least of an artist researcher: transform her/his experience into something sayable/visible, something that can be shared with others, something that can become knowledge. Regarding my own project, I have to say that the participant observation procedure has not yet been completed because the process of interpreting the experience and making something material out of it is ongoing now (especially while I write this paper). I felt that in this particular project, experiencing and interpreting, were not only different actions but also they happened in different moments. The time when the activities with the visitors and the meetings at the museum occurred, was so intense that refection, was postponed until quieter times 5. Actually, this insight led me to decide to have a separated process dedicated exclusively to work with the material 6. Also, there is another related notion in ethnography that helped me to understand my role. The participation of the observer in the action becomes a condition, not only for the research, but also for the situation to take place. In other words, the participant observer infuences or even provokes the action that they will study. Clifford describing Grille's practice stated, “His research was manifestly an intrusion; he made no pretense that it was otherwise. Thus, to an important degree the truth he recorded was a truth provoked by ethnography. One is temped to speak of an ethnographie vérité analogous to the cinéma vérité pioneered by Griaule's later associate Jean Rouch -not a reality objectively recorded by the camera but one provoked by its active presence.” (Clifford, 1988, page 77). The tone of the passage seems to suggest that it is not fully acceptable for the author that the investigator creates the situation that want to analyze, however he makes very clear that even if an action is induced from outside, it is equally real and true. In the project on spot, almost all the resulting images responded to a alien stimuli. This means that behaviors and actions captured in the pictures speak about the players and also about the game they were playing. In this point my role in this project differs from the one of the traditional ethnographer who tries to reveal the subjects' natural behaviors. The participants were pushed to do things they probably would not do in a normal visit to the museum. By inviting them to make certain activities, they were provoked to react in particular ways. Basically, I challenged them to portray themselves and others. So, my role in relation to the public was similar to a participant observer concerning the engagement with the participants, but instead of focusing on their spontaneous actions, I gave them a framework so that I could study what they did within it. Finally, there was one more function that I needed to accomplish: archive. Many images 5 Of course, since the very beginning of the project, there has been a lot thinking involved. But only in the last month or so, I could really make sense of what I observed, felt and thought before. 6 This will be my next tutorship, this time at the SMBA, under the guidance of Jelle Bouwhuis.
were produced in every activity with the visitors, and so early in the process it became necessary to classify and fle them, in a coherent manner. Unexpectedly, the action of archiving became a way of making sense of the experience, of refecting on the images. However, it was not an easy task, as once the activities with the visitors started I did not know what to expect and the results were so abundant and diverse, that I froze. It took a couple of weeks of going through the same images over and over again to start fnding links between them that lead me to a basic classifcation system. This scheme consisted of four categories: reenacting the visitor, reenacting the other, fragments of museum and isolation. I do not want to elaborate extensively on these categories because I believe that system of classifcation needs to be rethought and complemented 7. I will just say that fragments of the museum grouped together pictures that depict the diversity and disconnection of the pieces at the museum, while isolation gathered images representing the museum strategies to separate their object and public from the outside world. Building an archive became not only a practical function for the project, it was the counterpart of the experience with the visitors. In other words, archiving and interpreting were two interdependent actions. If we come back for a moment to the researcher duality interior-exterior, archiving means being outside. In my case, to organize the images I needed to observe them in their context, and to see that context it was imperative to be away from it. Through this physical distance, coupled with temporal distance now that some time has passed and I have not been in the museum I can see some meanings of the project. Museum As expected, mediation is required when two or more parties are trying to relate with each other. In this case, one of those parties was the public and the other the museum. The lattere had basically two functions in the project: on the one hand, it provided the physical space where the project was carried out, and on the other, it was a stimulus for its development. First of all, the Tropen museum was the place of encounter for me and the participants, but it was much more than that. If we visualize the project as a theater play, the visitors were the actors and the museum was the stage and scenery. However, this was a special play, one without script, therefore the actors behavior was infuenced largely by their surroundings as well as the task I entrusted to them. In this sense the institution had a great part in the project as spark of their actions. As explained in the frst chapter, the idea of this project came from a visit to the museum. Many of the activities for the visitors were born as reinterpretations of objects or exhibits that I saw then. In other words, the museum functioned as a trigger for ideas and actions from both me and the participants. Of course the role of the institution in this project can not be separated from its nature as anthropological museum. As I see it, the Tropen museum is devoted to the production of knowledge 7 This is some of the thing I would like to develop further in my next tutorship.
by portraying people and cultures, along with the teaching of that knowledge. Their visual and symbolic strategies of representation were sparks and sources of inspiration for my conduction of the project as well as the participants creations. For example, the activity consisting in classifying people was based on the former techniques of entomology, botany and physical anthropology exhibited at the Netherlands East Indies section (see images 10 and 11, and compare it with images 6, 7 and 8). Though I tried to show that the museum was a generous supplier of motivation, it was a confictive one too. One could point out, for instance, that some cultural representations there are reductionist, outdated or even biased, but disagreement or rejection can also be an impulse to act, and maybe even a stronger one. It would be fair to say then that the museum can also refect the participants vision of the others, triggering images that were already there. In any case, the museum in this project played the role of a laboratory where visual people's visual identity could be reenacted, reaffrmed and challenged. Besides these two main functions the institution had another role in relation to me as author: it was a counterpart in a dialogue. As I stated before, during the past months there was a fuid and constant conversation with various people at the museum. All of them had their opinions and doubts about the project which helped to shape it and enriched my personal understanding of the work. In this concern, my tutor from the museum, Anke Bangma deserves special reference. Although she represented the institution, her role in this process went far beyond that, not limiting her guidance to protect the interests of the museum. Her involvement in this project was profound and generous, and I always considered her as an accomplice, rather than a judge. Visitor-participant Looked at from the angle of the museum and the mediator, the role of the participants consisted in just responding to both fgures. In fact, their performance was much more complex. Can we, by looking at the images they produced, grasp their motives and thoughts? Can we recognize their feelings and thoughts before and after their participation? Did they learn something in this project? I do not think it is possible to understand what happened in the mind of each participant, neither do I think that would be recommendable, as this was an artistic project and not an educational one that can judged by its effectiveness in transmitting knowledge. Therefore, the role of the collaborators will be described based only in their acts and outcomes. As explained before, the participants reacted to provocations posed by the mediator, and the museum. Their task for the project was basically to record their reaction in images (video, photos or drawings), but reaction, in this case, means more than a body refex. The camera creates awareness, meaning that behaving naturally is no longer possible when one is being recorded. Also, as we saw before, my own involvement with them determined their actions. The participants transformed from museum visitors into performers. If the project was a theater play and the museum was the stage, then they were the actors, they represented a role. But what were they staging? Well, their 10
performance went from just exaggerating a bit their own behavior to representing complex theatrical dramas. Taking both extremes into account, one could say that they were creating fctions. What can be said about the staged fctions? First, that they were very diverse and a good portion of them are not comprehensible to me now. Second, I observed that linked with the inventive element there was a strong playfulness. What I mean is that most of the activities seemed to be enjoyable for the participants, and having fun was apparently one of their incentives to choose certain parts of the museum and certain roles to perform. I do not have enough information to analyze in depth how the motivation to play drove visitors' actions, but one of the things I heard commonly from the participants, is how much pleasure they had doing the task I recommended. So, let me just say playing and performing were mingled behaviors in this case, and together they defned the role of the visitor-participant. Also, another idea can be added about what the collaborators made. Fiction, in this case, is not synonymous with lie. On the contrary, through those inventions their real beliefs and feeling appeared. Clifford reminds us: â€œIt is fction -fction, not falsehood, that lies at the very heart of successful anthropological feld research; and, because it is never completely convincing for any of the participants, it renders such research, considered as a form of conduct, continuously ironic.â€? (Clifford, 1988, page 80). Truth emerges through fction, so even when one is playing or representing somebody else, it is oneself who is portrayed, though, partially disguised. For example, in the image 12 we distinguish a man surrounded by costumes pretending to be scared or frightening, but it is clear that he fnds something disturbing about them, so at the end he is exposing his own feelings at that image8. (Also, see image 13, how the woman at the end reveals her dislike about that role) The case of the drawings is slightly different because performance was not a factor here. Nevertheless, creating personal anthropological classifcations is also a way of inventing fctions. Moreover, in order to create this system, participants must use both their imagination and their previous knowledge. This can be said about all the activities. In this sense the participant's role has one part of disguise and one part of unveiling themselves. Regarding the participation of the visitors in the project, there is one more observation that I would like to bring up. While analyzing the images I began to see a pattern that puzzled me. Most of the visitor-participants related to the museum in a very direct way, meaning that they touched and played freely with the objects there (see image 14 and 15). They did not maintaineded the conventional distance from the museum (museum visitors don't touch, don't laugh, don't run, don't talk too loud, etc). Rather, they became physically connected with the institution (dancing, singing, laughing, touching). I interpret this behavior as a repositioning of the visitors in relation with the museum. They situated themselves not in opposition to the institution, but beside it, next to its representations. 8 Although something from the visitors is revealed in the images they made, it does not mean that general conclusions about the participants can be draw from them. The meaning of the images will be discussed in the coming chapter.
They dared to improvise behaviors which do not ft the well established role of the museum visitor 9. Whatever the reason was, by acting this way they produced a symbolic overlap: institution and public got closer; so close that sometimes the boundaries started to dissolve (see images 16, 17 and 18). The result, in my opinion, is a temporal weakening of the hierarchical relationship between museum and visitor, where the frst one traditionally imposes the knowledge that the visitors must learn. A consequence of that horizontal interaction is the undermining of the museum's authority. How so? Because the visitors dared, not only to interact physically with the museum, but also to imitate and exaggerate the institutional representations, banalizing its medias and the knowledge it embodies. I am not saying that the visitors were rebelling against the museum, but the taste of parody in their images, speaks to me about a critical approach. Let me give an example, in the videos 18 and 19, the participants reproduce stereotypical gestures and accents associated with indigenous and arabs. Lastly, along with questioning the museum status, I think the participants' role brought on an examination of their own beliefs about themselves and others. I can not affrm that this was the case with all of them, but according to my experience and the images they produced, self examination was one of the responses to the project. A great example is the video 20, which shows a group of people discussing very openly their beliefs and opinions in relation with colored people and Roy Villevoye's sculpture.
4- The Outcomes It is time now to take a look on the outcomes of the interaction between these three actors. Given the artistic nature of this project, to quantify and judge its results in objective terms is not feasible nor it is convenient. This was a subjective research in which the main outcome is not material and not sayable. In spite of that conviction, I will try to explain what I see as the two great products of this project. The frst one is the process of development, the experience of making it happen. I think and hope that this challenging process delivered something to all who participated, although the substance of that learning is one of the non-material and non-conceptual results. Especially enriching for me were the dialogues maintained with visitors, and people from the museum, but next chapter I will elaborate more on the new insight gained in this process. The other kind of outcome are the images; photographs, videos and drawings made by the participants. There are a couple of things to clarify about what these images are before stepping into their conceptual connotations. 9 In my opinion, this can be related with their participation project, since the visitors who took part of it, may have felt allowed to act in unconventional ways.
Let me begin by saying that they are not a work of art in themselves. This material was produced in the context of an artistic project, but that does not mean they can stand by their own as art pieces. The opposite is the case since these images acquire the meanings we discuss in this text only when they are observed within the project. The question that arises is what are they? How can we defne them? The answer to that is an archive. Or, said in other words, they are raw material, unprocessed substances that can become a fnished work, but is not cooked yet. Another question that has being repeatedly asked during this process concerns the psychological status of this images: Are they representative of visitors' behavior in the Tropen museum? Can they be used to analyze how the public engages with the various museum displays? It is important to clarify that the material produced by the participants is not a documentary, nor a scientifc tool. Earlier in this text I mentioned the fctional element in the visitors performance. I explained that people collaborating in this project were not behaving naturally and that my involvement together with the mission I proposed to them had a great impact in their actions. Consequently, it is not possible to draw general conclusions about visitors' preferences or conducts from these images10. This is an artistic project, not a psychological study, so its subjective and experimental nature should not be forget when analyzing its outcomes. Recently I have been thinking about this project in terms of portraiture, especially keeping in mind my earlier paintings. I wondered if these images will be portraits, what kind of them will they be? They are clearly very different from traditional depictions, but I think in their own way they also express the identity of the subjects. These images are fuid representations: spontaneous, unforeseen, irregular, unclosed descriptions of individuals. The kodak moment is gone and all what is left are traces of moving subjects. We still fnd signs in these images, clues of the model's personality, feelings and beliefs, but here they are not encoded in symbols. Compared with old representative portraits, like the painting of the Arnolfni couple by Jan van Eyck 11, the material produced by the visitors lacks the iconic weight -the symbolism. Each of these videos and pictures is a fragment of a representation whose boundaries are as unstable as the individuals being portrayed. I see these images as pieces of puzzles that lost their reference pictures. This fragmentary and fuid condition demands a new way of looking at them, as tentative micro-portraits whose signifcance emerges when one can see them in the whole constellation. So, how should I deal with this unconventional portraits in my own plastic work? Next chapter I will talk about my interpretations of the images and what I learned from them. Besides the theory, the manners in which I can apply this knowledge in my practice will be explored in my future projects.
10 For example, many of the videos were shoot at the anthropological reconstructions in the museum. But this should not be understood as a proof that those parts are chosen over others normally by the public. Actually, many times I suggested the participant to go to that section because it was more suitable to make the activity â€œReenacting the otherâ€?. 11 The Arnolfini Portrait, oil painting, 1434 by Jan van Eyck.
5- What I learned I will start this section declaring that is not possible to summarize here all the things that I am taking with me from this experience. Much of that knowledge is either non-conceptual or is not crystallized in my mind yet, so this will be just a brief account of the ideas I can articulate so far. I want to start by describing the notions the participants taught me. I grouped these ideas under the notion of fuidity, because I came to see my learning process as an increasing acknowledgment of the fuid nature of relationships and concepts in this project. Fluidity In the third chapter, when we discussed the role of the participants, we described the particular bodily relationship that they established with the museum. I realized that instead of learning directly from the museum (reading their explanations or watching their videos for example), many of them they were learning from their own experience in the museum. In other words, they were choosing action over contemplation, fun over reason, body over mind. Therefore, I came with the idea that they were engaged in a bodily learning process, different from a rational one in which one incorporates heard or read information. In this case, awareness is achieved by the personal experience of relating physically with others and a context. In my opinion, the participants bodily commitment is closely linked with the playfulness element that we discussed also in chapter three. Many of my collaborators took their participation in the project as a game, letting enjoyment be their guide through the museum. What is really interesting for me is that through this playful and bodily performance they were capable to explore their own feelings and beliefs in relation to the other. Moreover, in a large number of the collaborations, the participants managed to represent their intimate processes in images, which is why we can refect on them now. I learned from them that non-rational experience can be incredibly effective at generating ideas and creating awareness. This project was for me a proof that several types of knowledge exist, not all of them conceptual, and that art is a privileged feld to let them fow. Another enlightening phenomenon in the participant's performance was the multiplicity of roles. For instance, when an individual or group was reenacting the visitor, a common reaction was changing the visitor's personality all the time, and very often even the fgure of the visitor was abandoned to represent other characters. (See for example the images 12, 14, 21, 22 and 23, all made by the same family). I came to see this intricacy when I tried to label each image. In a set of images coming from the same people, I found they performed many different behaviors, and very often in one single picture or video they represented more than one character. I realized that it was very easy and natural for them to move from one role to other, and furthermore, the limits between one character and another were not important nor visible in their representations. This fuidity made think that being one coherent individual and performing a consistent set of roles was not something 14
that mattered to the participants. Such observation pushed me to examine my notion of identity. The playfulness of their approach to their own and other's identity, led me to see that the way one defnes her/himself may change according to what we represent at each time. If we perform ourselves and others in diverse and diverging ways that may be a sign that our own identity is fragmentary and fuid. With these ideas roaming in my mind I started reading some books that could help me clarify my thoughts. I learned from Wintle's compilation that image and identity are closely related since images can build character, creating identity. He says, referring to the book Image into Identity: â€œIn these essays identity is always socially mediated and, therefore, relativistic, provisional and performative. That is to say, identity is wholly or partially the precipitate of social discourses that the critical process is trying to render conscious and, to that extent, to liberate us from... we should stop employing images to invest it with a permanency and authenticity it cannot sustainâ€? (Wintle, 2006, page 16). Wintle's ideas made me think that in this project, when the participants produced images, they were actually creating identity for themselves and others. When they were pretending to be someone else they were playing with their identity. If we could recognize that playful and fuid element of their performance in the construction of identity in general, maybe we could avoid regarding cultural expressions as real signs of an immutable essence, as Wintle suggests. One fnal comment in relation to the notions of fuidity and identity. When I describe here my discoveries, in no way am I suggesting that these are new ideas. I am well aware that most of my conclusions existed in books and other medias, long before I started with this project. However, those theories were not meaningful to me in the way they are now. I needed to experience these ideas for myself. Concepts like otherness and portraiture changed their signifcance after my involvement in this work. In summary, in making this project I developed a sense of the fugitive nature of both image and identity, but to fully understand these concepts, I need much more research, both theoretical and artistic. Portraiture If fuidity is a fundamental condition of identity and image, what does this mean for portraiture? First of all it means that portraiture is a complex feld, where depictions of people carry deep questions about selfness and alterity. Next, some of those inquires will be examined in the light of the observations made in the project. I will begin recalling the issue of the fctional quality of the participants' performances. We said that although they were imaginary constructions of characters, something real about the author always leaks through them. What I understood later is that fctions not only refect their creator, they are strategies to defne oneself and others in our own terms. Since we need to know who we have in front of us to be able to relate with them, we defne an image-identity for them. That construct, as we saw in the previous chapter, is a product of our imagination, and therefore, a 15
fction. One could say then, that we create fctions to absorb the other, to make them ours, (making them comprehensible for us)12. I also discovered that I was using the same strategy when painting my portraits. Going even further with this idea, one could ask, if it is possible that the underlying motivation to portray is to defne one-self rather that the other (sitter). Johannes Fabian, in his conclusions about otherness, reveals that one of his motivations to work with that concept “...was the realization that we (the West, whoever wants to be included... or belong to that “we”) seem to require alterity for sustenance in our efforts to assert or understand ourselves.” (Fabian, 2007, page 29). Of course, this idea does not imply that other motivations, such as curiosity and empathy could induce the exploration of others. However, I agree with the author that understanding ourselves is a great factor in our engagement with others. Furthermore, I can add to this argument my own observations of the representations made by the visitors. As mentioned before, most of the images they produced, including the ones reenacting the other, explored their own beliefs and feeling toward the subject, contributing to clarify their own cultural position. To say it in one sentence, portraiture in western culture is a research in the own identity through the exploration of the relationship with a counterpart (the other).13 From the perspective of the procedure, we could add one more claim to this last idea. A portrait is always a subjective invention that owes more to the author's imagination than to the subject's identity. In other words, any artistic creation is a product of the author's ideas, skills and feelings. Its frst relationship with the world is always mediated by the artist. My belief is that this is also true about anthropological representations. After my experience in the Tropen museum, I think they are also subjective portraits which embodied the ideas and feelings of the anthropologist towards the subjects14. However, I think it will be a huge mistake to dismiss anthropological images all together. Conversely, they are valuable tools to learn about the people who made them, as well as their historical and cultural context. What I suggest, is the same that Wintle recommends 15, we should not use them as evidence of the other's identity. In my opinion, visitors' and museums' portraits are very similar in this respect, both are subjective, fragmented and biased representations of the other. Their value in certainly not there. 16 In general, I feel that now I am beginning to grasp the complexity of portraiture. This project 12 When the Spanish conquerors went to Chile, the indigenous there had never seen men riding horses before, so, some of them created the fiction that men and horse was only one beast with supernatural powers. This image was spread among the local community, so that they will know how to deal with the foreigners (stay away from them and fight them only if necessary). 13 Although the title, “Our own other”, was assigned to the project very intuitively, it acquires now a new significance in relation with this idea. The other is function and a creation of one self (portraitist) 14 In the case of anthropological portraits, such as large part of the exhibits at the Tropen museum, the claim of objective representation of the subjects is particularly serious, since very often there is a power relationship between portraitist and model, which makes their relationship vertical, influencing the author's view of the other. Michael Wintle says: “In a world that distributes power unequally, cultural transmission is not free, but may represent colonial appropriation, gender oppression, Orientalist distortion of the Other, or a refusal to knowledge difference.” (Wintle, 2006, page 17) 15 “...we should stop employing images to invest it with a permanency and authenticity it cannot sustain” (Wintle, 2006, page 16) 16 Many times I have had discussions about traditional portraiture with people who believe that its worth is directly linked
made me examine my practice with new eyes, especially taking into consideration the contemporary and local context. I learned that roles can shift, that other and self are fuid fgures, and identity very often is a mirage. Now, things seems to be much more fexible, uncertain and confusing than what used to believe, which is a great motivation to insist investigating the feld. An overview of my practice Since the beginning of this project I have been struggling with myself to fnd a line in my artistic practice, a pattern that could link my earlier work with this project. I was trying to fnd that connection in my procedures, or the visual aesthetic of my works, but nothing seemed to make sense. If my practice was defned by a technique, like painting, my work was always reduced to uncomfortable categories, so I stopped looking there. Then, after many talks and refections, I came to realize that all of my works explored the same subject (this was much more easy to recognize for others than for myself). That enduring concern is how image constructs identity in a post-colonial context. Looked at from the perspective of this subject, I began to understand my practice as a search in which every project was a specifc exploration. Surprisingly enough, artistic research, the notion that I felt so remote, appeared in the very heart of my practice. I saw, then, that my artistic work for the past four years has been a persistent investigation in one direction, therefore it made sense to describe it as an artistic research. Trying to take some distance, I could say that the project “Our own Other: an archive for the future”, as well as my portrait series and videos I have made, all of them examine different ways in which visual representation creates selfness (individual and cultural). While I was in Chile my work focused on how in the country and in general, in all the former Spanish colonies in South America, a new imagery was created to defne the “new people” of the colonized communities. Later, when I came to Amsterdam and engaged in this project at the Tropen museum, the focus of my research shifted to a more individual level. The question of the the production of image and identity, was not longer asked in a historical and cultural scope, but with a narrow perspective centered on the individual. This recent project not only gave an insight on how other people deal with the questions I asked, I also achieved a deeper understanding of my own artistic practice, and through it, I gained a broader comprehension of my work as a whole. I believe this new vision and the experience of this project in general are a great contribution in my development as an artist because now I feel more confdent in my work.
to the level of physical resemblance with the sitter. My argument is that a good portrait is one that constitutes a wholeness in itself, where each element is coherent with the others and the totality. If a picture depicts or not reality as we see it, is not a decisive factor in my evaluation. If we would judge portraits by their closeness with the physical world, Art History will be something like a ranking, and we will miss the richness of the subjectivity.
6- Conclusions It is diffcult to conclude a text of this type, as it is hard to close a refective process that keeps going. Also, this is not an standard academic ending since this text is a compilation of ideas and not an argumentation guided by a single hypothesis. Therefore, I will use this section to reiterate the main concepts that came up throughout this refection. First I described the birth of the project and the motivations to undertake it. I could not begin discussing my experience without explaining my concerns and the changes that the work underwent during these months. I revealed that my main incentive was to explore the relationship between image and identity, especially focusing on the representation of others at the Tropen Museum. I admitted that the work along with my expectations changed a great deal when I began the activities at the museum. It became a real collaborative work in which not only the visitors played an essential role, but also the people from the museum helped very much to enrich and polish the program. From this chronicle we moved into the afterthoughts, beginning by analyze the roles that defned the development of the project: mediator, museum and visitors-participants. Then, the visitor's fctions were interpreted as inventions that represent a subjective reality: the beliefs and feeling of the authors. We went on to say that these images were portraits of a special kind, one that depict, in an spontaneous and not symbolic way, the unstable identity of models and portraitists. In the last section of the text I explained what I gained in this process. I learned that portraiture as identity are fexible and I also take away an overview of my practice as an artistic research. This text is a sort of map of the project, where I draw the routes and peaks we visited. Many visited places are missing in this map, however I think it is a fair summary of my experience during these past months. Also, I have the feeling that in every chapter, and especially in the last one, the reader would have to realize the tremendous importance that this project had for me in a professional and personal level. I believe a collaborative and self-refective work like this one, for sure must deliver something valuable for the participants, even if is just a nice time. I believe this work will lead me to create more projects, and hopefully the knowledge I gained now will contribute to opening up spaces where we could examine ourselves in fruitful ways. Now that I understand better what my practice is I will be able to enrich it with new tools, such as writing and collaborations with other people and institutions. I am convinced that the lessons and the confdence I gained in this project will lead me to strengthen my search generating more and more profound works.
Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press Fabian, Johannes. 2007. Memory against Culture. Durham and London: Duke University Press Edited by Wintle, Michael. 2006. Image into Identity: Constructing and Assigning Identity in a Culture of Modernity. Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi
Images and Videos
Image 1:Reenacting the visitor
Image 2:Reenacting the visitor
Image 3:Reenacting the other
Image 4:Reenacting the other
Image 5: Reenacting the other
Image 6:Classifying people at the museum
Image 7: Classifying people at the museum
Image 8: Classifying people at the museum
Image 9: Leafet Project
Image 10: Netherlands East Indies section of Tropen museum
Image 11: Netherlands East Indies section of Tropen museum
Image 12: Reenacting the other
Image 13: Reenacting the other
Image 14: Reenacting the visitor
Image 15: Reenacting the visitor
Image 16: Reenacting the visitor
Image 17: Reenacting the visitor
Image 18: Reenacting the visitor
Image 21: Reenacting the visitor
Image 22: Reenacting the other
Image 23: Reenacting the other