Colin Hambrook gives an overview of the Living Portraits exhibition shown at the Brighton Media Centre from 14th-19th October 2014 as part of the Photo Fringe Festival.
Dao has been supporting the Living Portraits blog since last March, giving visual artist Lynn Weddle and sound artist Anya Ustaszewski an opportunity to reflect on the project as it built towards the exhibition.
What has been clear through the process has been the desire of the artists to work sensitively with their participants - a group of young carers - to create an artistic statement that gives a snapshot of their lives. As Lynn put it early on: “For our proposed subjects, it is our understanding that their lives are so often not their own.”
In setting up Living Portraits, Lynn and Anya set themselves a number of questions about the process. The idea was to produce a thoughtful investigation into the lives and personalities of four young people. First and foremost it was important that it be good Art, but not at the expense of the sensibilities of the participants.
The first thing that struck me on seeing the exhibition is how the process works as a validation of the caring aspect of the young peoples lives. As disabled artists both Lynn and Anya were clearly aware of the care that needed to be taken in representing the four young women who participated in the project. As such Living Portraits exemplified something of a role reversal in giving time and space for the needs of the participants. Young carers are typically as invisible within society as the disabled family members they support and are often given large amounts of unacknowledged responsibility.
As a result what shines through the installation: a series of four full-length static portraits - is how much energy has gone into developing the trust of the subjects. As a viewer you are immediately faced with the question of how you might feel in the young women’s position, exposed, watching a camera that is watching you. It takes nerve, knowing that it’s just you and the elements. The young women were given the decision of choosing how and where they were to be filmed for the project. And much is revealed through what is an outwardly a simple yet evocative process. There is a vulnerability. How am I being seen? Who is watching me? Does it matter?
The personalities of the four young women shine through the portraits through subtle changes in facial expression and body movement. It’s fascinating how the eyes and the hands of an individual tell so much about how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
Hayley wears a leather jacket and has her hands firmly planted in her pockets. She stands in front of the sea her hair blowing in the wind. Emily stands swaying slightly in front of a field of long grasses. Her movement mirrors the movement of the tall grass. Chloe stands in front of a school building. She poses with one elbow held out, while she encircles her body with her other arm. Brogan stands in front of a set of stone steps in a garden, her hands clasped in front of her.
Anya’s soundscape pulls all four portraits together into a cohesive whole. Through blending a reflective electronic soundtrack with subtle sounds from each location: the sea, the wind, birds, crickets, a passing car - elements from each location are melded into an immersive installation.
In thinking about the legacy Living Portraits will have it occurred to me how much the process borrows from some of the earliest experiments in film in the late 19th century. It’s that sense you get when you watch the early work of people like the Lumiere Brothers or George A Smith that you are watching a moment frozen in time that will in years to come provide a significant sociological document of how life was lived and the attitudes that were present at a particular moment in time.
It will interesting to see where Living Portraits takes Lynn and Anya from here?
Sarah Pickthall reflects on working with Lynn and Anya as a mentor to the Living Portraits project
Both artists are about the business and bread and butter of working as facilitators and advocates with a diversity of clients, particularly young people and they do this with wisdom, dexterity and commitment. Quite often this means, and they'd be the first to admit this, that not enough attention is given to their own respective practices.
So how to convert these deft exponents of participatory arts into a position where they could be truly selfish, opinionated beyond their natural inclinations as facilitators to make artwork collaboratively? The collision of their work had huge potential. My role to remind, suggest and above all question their intentions continually. The questions and natural inclinations and default positions if you tap into the pre-ceding DAO blogs, came thick and fast.
My question as to the subject matter was interesting. Clarity around the aim that the process was important. My first question; Why Young Carers? After deliberation it became clear, when framed as an artistic enquiry more than a facilitatory enquiry, Living Portraits would give participants space and time to control in a chosen environment for as long as they chose to be observed.
As carers, the supposition was that they more often than not would have very little time to themselves to shape and control. Ultimately however, the final say was with the artists who became clearer how they wanted the work to be shaped, flavoured and ultimately experienced. Living Portraits was also about giving breathing space to their artforms as they met and mingled.
The resulting work was breathtaking, literally, metaphorically for any and all who witnessed the work as part of Brighton Photo Fringe at the Media Centre Gallery. The soundscape - a mixture of found sounds during the filming and Ustaszewski's own voice woven through was particularly haunting and the portraits that quivered and shimmered in their magnitude was full bodied, provocative and beautifully rendered by Weddle. The process itself was available to listen to and read about within the installation. So how the artists developed rapport with their young subjects to achieve such impactful artwork became abundantly clear.
My final question to them both and all of us. Can great art that 'subjects' people exist without the human qualities that facilitation expertise brings to the process? I don't think this great art work would exist in quite the way it does without this undercurrent. Living Portrait has a resonant quality that I for one will be building and buying into my own practices and projects.
Lynn and Anya are inviting you to become part of our project by posing for your own Living portrait.
There are two ways you can be involved. Firstly is to come along to our ‘Experience the Process’ session on Sunday 12th October 1-3pm at Vantage Point (New England Road, Brighton, Brighton BN1 4GW), the BPF hub to meet the artists and pose for the moving image portrait and work with Anya to consider and collect sounds.
You can also make your own Living Portrait at your leisure at a location of your choice, using your mobile phone or any other digital device. Turn the video camera on yourself and pose for as long as you feel comfortable, closing your eyes to mark start and end of your piece.
Upload to your YouTube channel as a response to one of the videos on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCP5J1kObdYkETCSvQEL3ysg
Tell us what you think about making your own Living Portrait: how does it feel to look at a camera for an extended period of time? How does it feel to watch it back? What does it reveal to you? Share your thoughts via our Facebook or twitter.
Happy Living Portrait making...
So we’re very aware you haven’t heard much of the sound yet. So here goes, the silent partner Anya speaks.
I am so interested in what other people hear and the sounds that by some are deemed irrelevant. As someone who has very different sound filters, I hear pretty much everything that’s there to be heard.
I am always intrigued by what other people’s brains are filtering out and in this instance what our young people are hearing when they take their set of moments, the space they decide they need to have their portrait taken.
In talking to them I’ve been surprised by what they are hearing and what I hear and as an artist I’m conflicted by putting forward what I hear and what they hear.
Is it to be their perception of sound or mine? And or do I apply sounds and add those in response to what they have shared with Lynn and I and what I think will add to the portrait.
I’m very conscious not to pollute their sound world, altering too much. Again there is the need to compromise here and stay true to myself as an artist in this respect.
I'm busy applying the sounds as we speak to create the final pieces and thinking how the sound will sit around the room will be interesting and what's happening with sound at any point in the room at any time. We'll be bringing you some interesting footage of our experiments in sound as we instal in a few weeks time.
What were you thinking in preparation for your portrait today?
I was a bit nervous, as I didn’t know what would come out of it. So I was practicing in the mirror to see if I noticed what I would be doing. I noticed that I lick my lips quite a few times, itched my eyebrow and played with my hands a lot.
What was it like practicing in the mirror? How did it feel?
I don’t know. I guess I got a bit more excited as I was nervous about doing it. So when I got a bit more comfortable with doing it I became more excited. Its something different, you don’t really do it much.
So when we arrived and we were trying different positions of the camera out and when you are stand there and you are making the portrait, do you thoughts go anywhere? What happens?
I usually just listen. To try and focus on one thing, because I may fidget a lot. So I was focusing on the sound of the crickets and then I could hear the people talking in the distance. Then I sometimes get a bit self-conscious and think about what I am doing.
Do you find yourself thinking about what you are doing whilst you are standing there?
Yes. I notice it as it's not something I usually do. I don’t just stand neutral any of the time. So I realised what little movements I make.
How does it feel to have come to discover those movements?
It’s quite cool because you wouldn’t think you would do it because you don’t really take much notice of yourself when you are just doing your normal, everyday things. So to just stand thinking about doing your one little thing is interesting.
How does it feel to just simply be there in this place?
Well because I live in the city I don’t see the countryside a lot. So it's nice to just be stood and it’s a nice day as well. It’s just something different.
What is it like to watch yourself back?
It’s quite weird. I don’t like doing that. It's quite strange because it is just you stood there, there is no one else. Whatever is going on around you, there is just 'you' in the middle.
What do you think it will be like coming to the exhibition and seeing yourself?
I think it will be quite cool, because I have never done everything like this before. So, I will know how it feels to be the star of the show.
We were delighted to be able to work for a day with Alex May - an artist who works with video projection, projection mapping, software programming, interaction, performance, and robotics to explore the boundaries between human perception and digital technologies. A perfect skills match for the new technical challenges presenting themselves.
The key questions we had for Alex were which way up and how to ensure a seamless audience engagement that didn't foul up the artwork? Having decided our portraits would be full body, the dilemma of projecting them and the projector purchase, safety and sustainability was keeping us both awake at night.
Additionally where would the audience view the work in relation to the projectors, doing what they do best to desired effect ie, would they need to be high up and out of the way or built into the fabric of the room rooted to the floor? With all these considerations, finance, financial viability was of critical concern. To buy our projectors or not was to dice with the idea that Living Portraiture would and could have a lifespan?
Technical issues are fascinating and with this project were they a help or a hindrance? We asked ourselves the question, If money was no object , would we do it differently or was and is financial constraint healthy and good for us. The learning is that we need to think technically-creatively aswell artistically-creatively. Problem solving IS part of the process and we'll plan for this accordingly in future budgeting.
As our critical friend and coach for the project, Sarah Pickthall said 'Perhaps employ bouncers to get people to stand appropriately in the space and a nice bank person to give us a little flex!' Good advice
‘How are you going to choose? Will it be the best looking…..?’ Hayley, Young Carer in selection workshops
Telling the young people they had been successfully selected felt brilliant.
We were both surprised that they got back to us straight away. Why were they so enthusiastic we wondered? In short, they were flattered having gone through selection process – that adeptly involved them, met their lives in a contemporary, playful, playing on selfie way. One participant asked ‘How are you going to choose? Will it be the best looking…?
It was a good question. In short it was all about How the five would feel together as well as a value judgment on how the five understood and responded to the process also how we felt they would take to the visual and the sound elements.
We together explored the footage to ask ourselves as artists whether they were drawing us in, inviting our enquiry. We want the portraits to be utterly beguiling and beautiful for their breathing in and out, their gaze, their tics, fidgits, whims, fleeting fancies.
We’ve now started to work with our 5. The first takes have been wonderful. A shift to us realizing the portraits as full body has been a revelation but will also present real challenges in installation. That said we are both feeling proud already. Everything feels right in the art itself.
Coming out of participatory mode is sort of healthy selfish. We reckon we are so much more than participatory people and that making new artwork in this way will inform a more interesting way for us to be able to engage with subjects in the future.
So with two lots of taster sessions delivered, it has felt mighty peculiar to stipulate that only five subjects will be chosen from our young pool of enthusiasts. So that equates up to ¾ of those young carers taking part would not be asked to join the project. Usually we would adapt and have a place or space for everyone. We had to select. It was hard but we were careful and clear.
This isn’t how we normally work but this selection was dicated by our ambition for the exhibition and its complexity. Honesty as artists about what we want to do. An interesting learning curve - yes. This element of discomfort is the ‘price we pay’ for pursuing our artistic journey together.
Coming out of participatory mode is sort of healthy selfish. We reckon we are so much more than participatory people and that making new artwork in this way will inform a more interesting way for us to be able to engage with people in the future.
We’re both exploring what it means for us to be artists to ultimately have and take the time, to be indulgent with all its implications.
It continues to be really challenging for us both to break out of what we know and do best. That’s not to say that we don’t know (and love) our respective practices.
It is however a while since we’ve had our own showcase, exhibitions. We’re both exploring what it means for us to be artists to ultimately have and take the time, to be indulgent with all its implications.
What is heartening in our early engagement trialing the techniques with willing subjects, we still have to use our expertise in building a rapport – to real depths, employing our respective skills in sensitivity in order that we can ultimately make the best art possible.
We hit a place where one of our subjects found the process deeply disturbing with the thought that footage taken would be out of her control. Our first reaction to this would be to follow this subject’s desire, yet many aspects of this first foray delighted us. A dilemma. What happens if our young subjects are not happy with the artwork made? And we are?
We are daily questioning how our art forms will sit in situ with each other in portraiture, how they will live, breathe, react and invoke/ evoke.
We are currently questioning what moving from a participatory to an artistic approach means for us as individuals? There is a real tension.
As experts in participatory practice we are keen to ensure that we bring to the project good facilitation, comfort and safety: fine tuned skills developed over the years and something that really matters to us both.
We've been trialing the process with ourselves and people we know and trust before we take it to our subject group, with interesting results.
One person found the process of being filmed interesting, but the depiction difficult to watch… an uncomfortable, moving 'selfie'. Yet a selfie is something you can delete, that you have control over.
As a trial this is okay, we can comply, but what if a young person finds the outcome too revealing, painful, yet as an art piece it works beautifully? Our nature as participatory artists is to make that better, but as artists, this isn't so clear.
Next time we'll be opening up the process to you all to give it a go and you can post your own living portrait to our YouTube channel, for now follow us on twitter @Living_Portrait
Through our artistic collaboration we wanted to give our participants a moment to be, to not do anything in particular, to be present and for us, not them, to make artwork informed by that.
We were, with support, perfectly placed and supported to hone and press the right buttons and of course shape the project we really wanted to do. Living Portraits is about art however, with the focus on the two of us making artwork, exploring a moment in time for and with young carers.
For our proposed subjects, it is our understanding that their lives are so often not their own. Through our artistic collaboration, we wanted to give them a moment to be, to not do anything in particular, to be present and for us, not them, to make artwork informed by that.
In these first few days as we shape our proposed delivery plan we are wrestling with what comes naturally – to facilitate a certain indignance that having artistic control necessitates. It’s going to be our decision ultimately. Voicing this, in itself goes against the grain yet today I was very clear in my sense that we had a formula that worked but I was getting bored of it. I was no longer giving my best.
Our Grants for Arts grant was made possible with assistance from Michelle Chorley through the ACE SE G4A fund that supports artists who may find the application process difficult to access by virtue of their impairments.
This blog is all about what happens when a photographer and a sound artist come together to make new artwork.
Driven to work collaboratively to find a new way of working in good company; a meeting of minds and a desire to take our respective practices to a new level together, beyond self contained practice of the artist working in solitude.
Moving away from a photo in a frame in a wall. Moving away from sound for the sake of sound. A sensory experience like no other.
It’s fair to say that we have a collective wisdom and particular expertise in participatory practice. Living Portraits focuses on all that it is to be an artist and the art we make, rather than the facilitation of others, though this will undoubtedly play a part. Working collaboratively with another and the subjects we choose to engage with and the wrestle of creative and artistic control.