September 8, 2011

Augmented Identity

  1. Jean Arp's Self-Portrait

    Rob Giampietro

    Everything about the image of Jean Arp from c.1922 feels so contemporary. This handsome young man, in a simple black tie, plain white shirt, and shawl-collared sweater. Here is an image of Modernism taking hold. Where one eye is literal, the other is an abstraction. Where one is dimensional, the other is flat. Where one eye is human, the other is a prosthetic. Where one meets your gaze, the other is blocked. Arp does not hold his eye with his hand but grips it with his brow like a monocle, maybe even painfully so. The image, then, is something of a performance, and it’s tempting to repeat it. Many have. By blocking one eye, Arp has made himself into a cyclops, a classic metaphor for the camera. As we see him through the photograph, he looks back, composing a photo of us through his own viewfinder. The longer you stare at the image, the more Arp’s own portrait dissolves. Three points come forward: Arp’s own eye, the viewfinder, and that single button of his shawl-collared sweater. Three points of a triangle—like the lapels of his sweater, the collar of his shirt, the peak of his hair, the knot of his tie, the crests of his lips.

  2. Self-Portraits of David and Manet

    Frank Chimero

    It’s interesting when one puts this self-portrait next to the portraits of Arp’s artistic predecessors. David and Manet present themselves as a painters. The artist carries their palette, they hold their brush, they sit composed, their stares intense and unobscured. Looking was important, because the job of the artist was to present what they saw using their skill.

    But these are portraits from different times, by men with different aim. Arp’s work could be seen to usurp the idea that the role of an artist is to describe what they see (cameras could do that), but instead to describe how they see. The artist changed from a capable set of hands able to express what is seen into a lens able to capture what is perceived through their own point of view. And even now, a large part of how we access the quality of the art of others (whether pop music, painting, design, or writing) could be said to be an assessment of the artist’s individual way of seeing the world. (Even if it does involve covering one eye to flatten everything.)

  3. Blue Marble photo from Apollo 17 mission.
    anthropomorphization, baby talk, containers, dreams, etiquette, future, gift-giving, hairstyles, insults, jokes, logical notions, magic, narrative, onomatopoeia, play, rhythm, stinginess (disapproval of), thumb-sucking, visiting, weather control (attempts to)

    Rob Giampietro

    Of course, the assessment you're talking about is an assessment that’s made collectively, by all of us. And these great portraits of individuals made by the individuals themselves naturally make me think about if it's possible to render a collective portrait of ourselves. To borrow Sherry Turkle's phrase, “Who am we?” In our age of analytics, data can do this in a way. And of course there is NASA’s famous “blue marble” image of earth—this photo graces the screens of brand-new iPhones, which connect us to one another, though perhaps differently than back in 1966 when Stewart Brand asked (via his famous buttons) why we hadn't seen an image of the whole earth yet. But a recent favorite of mine has been anthropologist Donald Brown’s list of 200 human universals, a set of traits and behaviors, tools and tastes that's shared by every human civilization on the planet. Here's 20 of them in alphabetical order.

  4. Daniel Bejar posing as Daniel Bejar, lead singer of Destroyer

    Frank Chimero

    I agree. The idea of a collective portrait is an appealing one, because it is the largest self-portrait we can muster. In making this portrait, we must construct an identity by finding commonalities and overlaps. But are the overlaps always desirable?

    I keep coming back to names, how they affect how we see ourselves, and how others see us. Not all portraits are self-portraits, so what happens when someone thinks we are someone we are not? Sharing a name with someone creates all sorts of confusion, so how much does that confusion snowball when dealing with digital identities, where the person on the other end of an email address is less clear?

    We get a googlegänger. My favorite example is Daniel Bejar, who shares a name with the musician of the band Destroyer. Bejar started receiving fan email intended for the musician, so he decided to stage a Google intervention to reclaim a bit of his name.

    His plan has been to recreate portraits of the musician and upload them to be indexed by Google. By doing so, his own face can sit beside the musicians’. The best way for him to reclaim his own individual identity online is by aping the other man’s portrait and making it his own.

  5. Still from North by Northwest Monogrammed matchbook from North by Northwest

    Rob Giampietro

    There’s a longstanding human anxiety about the doppelganger, the sinister double, the evil twin. Abraham Lincoln had a reoccurring vision of his own second self, appearing before him in a mirror multiple times, one face more ashen in color than the other. Just as enduring are cases of mistaken identity like Daniel Bejar’s, in which one person is mistaken for another. While “Daniel Bejar” is a fine name for these two men on their own, in a more networked world confusion results. Their friends may not know both Daniel Bejars, but Google knows (or attempts to know) all. Will the real Daniel Bejar please stand up? Replication alone suggests one is more more likely what we mean when we say “Daniel Bejar,” yet there is something so human about the other asserting himself in this way, claiming some cultural capital for himself while critiquing the self of another identically-named Daniel Bejar.

    The whole situation reminds me a little of the rollicking criss-cross that kickstarts Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, when Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill is mistaken for a man named George Kaplan. Having been so called, some thugs assume Thornhill is Kaplan, and off we go. Few in the movie are who they seem, including Thornhill, whose initials can be spotted on a matchbook shown midway through the film: R-O-T, a word which is itself a decay into nothingness. (There's that O again; Arp would be so pleased.) The “O”, Thornhill explains, “stands for nothing,” it's a kind of staging, a fine flourish, an augmented identity—a bit like Grant’s own name, which wasn’t Cary Grant at all, but Archibald Alexander Leach.

  6. Michael K. Williams as Omar Little in The Wire Michael K. Williams as Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire

    Frank Chimero

    Identity gets all kind of weird and meta in North by Northwest. Archibald Alexander Leach changes to Cary Grant, who plays Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken for George Kaplan, who then goes into disguise to investigate his false presumed identity by camouflaging himself in various ways to not seem like someone he is not, donning a disguise of a disguise. Woah. It’s like a set of babushka dolls, but with identities.

    I get the same kind of weird sheathing effect when I see typecast actors perform new roles. Michael K. Williams played Omar Little in The Wire, and each time he is cast in a new series, I always think to myself, “What’s Omar doing there? Why is Omar in The Road? What’s he doing on Alias?” It doesn't even matter if the offending role came before The Wire.

    The most recent one is “Why is Omar in Boardwalk Empire?” I get really upset by this for some reason. It’s as if Williams’ identity is so wound up in that of Omar’s in my mind that any of his future roles will never be his own, but instead filtered first through Little. In my weird construction, Williams is playing Omar, who is playing Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire. Maybe we can just blame this instance of augmented identity on HBO’s recycling program. Oh, indeed.

  7. Stuart Brand's diagram of a build's layers.

    Rob Giampietro

    Williams has a memorable face, it’s true—etched in our minds from a truly memorable performance. Certain actors have this quality, like Jack Nicholson, who, whatever his character, is also recognizably Jack Nicholson. Stanley Kubrick plays with this a bit in The Shining, where Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance writing stories about how “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” and ordering the occasional glass of Jack Daniels. Critic Fredric Jameson draws a distinction between an actor like Nicholson and an actor like William Hurt who, while a famous celebrity, performs with “something of the anonymity of character acting.”

    Where does the identifiable part of an identity reside? Maybe it’s related to the nesting dolls you’ve mentioned and this “sheathing effect.” Returning to Stuart Brand, he describes the identity of a building along similar lines with his notion of “shearing layers.” Brand notes that just as people grow and change, buildings grow and change—they are not static or fixed. In fact buildings experience six different rates of change: site, skin, structure, services, space plan, and stuff. In the BBC series, Brand shows the highly identifiable Liberty department store whose site is relatively new, London's Regent Street. As Liberty grew, it spread down the block from its more humble beginnings, changing its site even further. Eventually its founder added a faux Tudor skin to the main entrance, creating its well-known façade. Structure, services, space plan, and stuff change regularly. Brand reminds us that the word façade implies the "face" of the building—but is this really where Liberty’s true identity resides?

  8. Simpsons deconstruction into layers

    Frank Chimero

    It’s interesting to think that identity could be dispersed among all of those areas, isn’t it? Liberty’s constantly changing their selection of stuff, which contributes to its identity just as much as its façade. Ideally, there is a uniqueness to each of the levels that Brand has labelled, so that when they’re separated, the identity is still able to be picked out. Each piece is a crucial part of formulating the identity, and they come together in symphony to make what's so memorable.

    Brand’s layers can be applied to things other than architecture. Cartoons make a good example, because their elements are easily separated from one another and each piece has been purposefully constructed. The invented backdrops and sets can become the site of the show. The pink-walled living room, orange sofa, and askew sailboat painting should be easy to identify for anyone who has watched television in the past 25 years. The structure could be the silhouette of the characters themselves, which requires a tremendous amount of consideration by the animator. It's said that a successful character design has a highly recognizable silhouette: able to feel of the same family as the outlines of other characters, but contrasting enough so that each character contains their own identity and integrity in form. The color choices, here simplified to three blocks, create the skin of the characters, giving an individual identity through costuming and greater visual distinction.

    Each of the examples could be used individually to identify The Simpsons, but it by being applied together it forms one of the most recognizable shows on television: half a glance while flipping through channels is enough.

  9. Duchamp's Fountain

    Rob Giampietro

    I had so many different reactions to this observation, but ultimately I was left with two ideas to resolve: comedy and dispersion. Fortunately, they both come together in the figure of Marcel Duchamp and his famous Fountain, made just a few years before Arp’s photo above.

    In “Concrete Comedy: A Primer”, David Robbins uses the structure of comedic acts to understand Duchamp’s work as an artist. Robbins writes that that Duchamp was the first “to thematize the question of the artist's sincerity. He consistently cast doubt on whether or not he was to be taken seriously. […] In this he was truly a groundbreaking comedian.” In Duchamp’s hands, writes Robbins, the context of an art exhibition itself is used like a material to be sculpted and manipulated. Like a good joke, Fountain is hilarious because it is unexpected.

    Seth Price extends this idea further in his essay “Dispersion”, writing that Duchamp’s Fountain not only raises “epistemological questions about the nature of art, but [it also] enacts the dispersion of objects into discourse.” So, also like a good joke, Fountain gets repeated, riffed on, and retold. Price writes, “The power of the readymade is that no one needs to make the pilgrimage to see Fountain. As with [Dan] Graham’s magazine pieces, few people saw the original Fountain in 1917. Never exhibited, and lost or destroyed almost immediately […] In Fountain’s elegant model, the artwork does not occupy a single position in space and time; rather, it is a palimpsest of gestures, presentations, and positions.”

  10. Frank Chimero

    You know, I always found it so curious how Duchamp anonymized himself by signing the piece R. Mutt. It adds to the humor of it, but the pseudonym also acts as a costume that reduces the prominence of the creator. It’s setting up a system that makes reproductions more likely. By looking at Duchamp’s work as comedy, we could say that good pieces are made to be remade, and good jokes told to be retold. Similarly so, I think good songs are made to be resung.

    Jim Henson performed as Kermit the Frog for decades, but unlike a traditional actor, puppeteers perform through their puppets, adding a layer of anonymity not unlike Duchamp’s R. Mutt. None have been able to embody Kermit with the same spirit as Henson since his death in 1990, but the Muppets venture still continues. While the new Kermits may disagree with my and other’s preferences, it’s wonderful that the anonymizing quality of a puppet allows us all the chance to dress up as Kermit. I’ve attached a few videos of fans singing their covers of Rainbow Connection in their best Kermit voices. They may not be spot on, but they are all touching in their own way. I’m reminded that so much of our identities lie in the ability to participate in and contribute to the things that are important to us. It seems wise to remember that when we make things for others.

Frank Chimero
Frank Chimero is a designer, writer, and teacher in Portland. He is writing a book called The Shape of Design.
Rob Giampietro
Rob Giampietro is a designer, writer, and teacher in New York. He is a principal of Project Projects.
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