When we look in the mirror, who owns our other self, our reflection? Is it our primary self, the one being reflected or does the owner of the mirror own the reflection? It might be assumed that we have the agency to control and influence what is being presented for reflection, but do we own the reflection? It is an absurd idea to suggest we do not have that ownership but French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that ‘it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there’ (Foucault, 1984). Could it then be argued that whoever owns this virtual point owns whatever is beyond it?
How does this argument translate to photographic images? Is a reflection not the same as photograph? Yes, the reflection is ephemeral and the photograph, a split second captured. But both are a two-dimensional representation of something positioned relative to the capturing device. Yet not many would argue with the photographer that they did not own the photograph. And video? For the sake of this argument let’s assume the video is live. When a performer performs for the camera, who owns the resulting representation - the performer, the owner of the camera or the owner of the presentation medium?
How does all this situate itself when relocated online, for example to Google Photos or Facebook’s Moments app? Who owns what and what can and can’t be done or presented? Both of these apps offer a facial recognition service to help you identify and be identified by your friends. This service was flagged back in 2015 as being ‘a creepy moment for privacy’ (Svantesson, 2015), arguing that this was yet another step towards a ‘face-to-data’ system that documents who was with whom and where they were. We may not yet understand the implication of this data collection and organisations such as Google and Facebook might not know what to do with the information at this point in time, but what is clear is that the information is being collected and stockpiled for the future.
As we walk through a public space; we move with the understanding that certain civil rights protect our privacy. Although we are probably not overly concerned about the possibility of our image being captured, if this was to happen expectantly and beyond our control, how would we respond? Acting as part photo booth - part surveillance, could a device rob you of your own image?
This research project started in 2016 as part of a Master of Art: Art in Public Space at RMIT. The first opportunity to conceive, make and present an artwork came as part of a public art incentive between RMIT and Port Phillip Council, titled The Urban Lab. To this, seven artists travelled to Carlisle St. Balaclava, and were challenged with conceiving an artwork that was both site specific and capable of being realised – end of brief. After spending a couple of afternoons walking and observing Carlisle St. it was a news item that caught my attention – Ford would be ceasing production in its two Victorian plants, Geelong and Broadmeadows, causing the loss of 600 jobs (Jacobs, 2016). I had worked on numerous projects at both plants over my 20+ years in engineering - installing welding robots and assembly fixtures, programing production machine tools and refurbishing machinery. I was saddened by this news. There was something about this situation that rang true in Carlisle St. It was unlikely that anyone in the area would be directly affected but there was feeling in the area that reminded me of my childhood experiences of selling newspapers in Albert Park. In the Albert Park of old, before the gentrification, when the pubs were full of hard working men and the women were, typically behind the bar. There was a sense of a hard life, perhaps on the docks or perhaps just inherited. I was a nine-year-old boy selling newspapers in the pubs, the Windsor Hotel, Bleak House Hotel and the Victoria Hotel, and had been privy to a life now all but gone, certainly from Albert Park. Yet, here I was 35 years later, standing in the bar of the Balaclava Hotel and experiencing a similar situation, surrounded by 7 men and a female bartender, all with a hard life ingrained in their faces. Past experiences at both of the Ford plants suggested to me that the pending closures would fill the pubs of Broadmeadows and Geelong with a lot more similar faces. In this situation I was the observer, the flâneur, and I wanted to acknowledge how some parts of society existed. More importantly, the work needed to make a connection between the actions of one sector and the lived experiences of another. I had personally installed automation equipment at Ford that had, no doubt, caused some level of worker redundancy and although I didn’t feel any guilt about the closures, I did want to acknowledge my role in the changing world of manufacturing.
What I proposed, as an artwork, was to bring some automation to the hard life sector of society. Automation is almost exclusively used to increase production and profits, at the expense of the working classes. This work would automate the working classes, not their jobs; critiquing the nature of mass automation and the future of the labour market. Director Kibwe Tavares’ short film Robots of Brixton (Tavares, 2011) is a great re-imagining of how the robot or humanoid might evolve, or in this case, devolve to return to a more human state of existence. Opposing the common expectation that a lone male figure, slumped at the side of the footpath was begging for money; I wanted to reverse this expectation and make him a philanthropic automaton. Recalling an old news story for the 90’s where, on two separate occasions, large sums of money were found under the Balaclava railway station (Evans, 2005), I developed a fictional story of how this character was one of the parties who had found the money but it had never brought him any happiness and now he simply wanted to give it away, dollar by dollar. Equipped with a mechanical arm, a homemade coin feeder, and poised as the swagman from Down on His Luck (McCubbin, 1889), the work Down by His Luck was a contemporary reimagining of Frederick McCubbin’s famous painting. The male figure was named Louis after the model that sat for McCubbin’s original work.
Down on His Luck, 1889, Frederick McCubbin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Concept Image- Down by His Luck, 2016
The site for the work was on the inside edge on the footpath, road-side, facing the Balaclava branch of the Commonwealth Bank. The work played on people’s paranoia when using an ATM and although Louis offered no threat, his presence was enough to observe people feeling a little uncomfortable. Yet, there was something not quite right about Louis, he shoulders were a bit square, he was very still, and he never looked up or acknowledged his surroundings. Some noticed something was amiss and did a double take; but most just walked on by, accepting him as just another man on the street, begging. In the end the only person to take a dollar coin was my daughter – under instruction – and she was met with the glare of a passerby, who incorrectly thought she was stealing from him. To add to the confusion, people actually gave him money, $16 in total and food from the nearby bakery. The only time I had to step and explain the situation was when a male stopped and engaged Louis in conversation for a short while and then proceeded to give him a sleeping bag.
Down by His Luck certainly confounded the street for several hours but it also gave me a richer sense of how people respond to art in a public space, in particular, when that art does not fit into their perception of what public art is.
Down by His Luck, 2016, Locations Various
Later that year, I spent a lot of time in the laneways in and around RMIT’s city campus and was saddened by the development that was engulfing the area. The laneways, as I knew them, were becoming a very temporary thing, soon to be cleaned and gentrified or simply removed, and I wanted to pay homage to the functional space as it was. To this end, I conceived of visually extending the lane (off Orr St. Carton) with a reflection of itself. The lane in question runs west and then turns 90 degrees to the north and continues through to Earl St. Carton. Using a large mirror, 4.8m x 2.4m positioned at 45 degrees in the corner of the lane, each straight section of the lane would be reflected around the corner, utilising a space that was there to introduce and relocate a space that was not there. The painting Not to Be Reproduced (Magritte, 1937), depicts a man standing in front of a mirror yet looking at the back of his own head, optically impossible (with a single mirror) yet generating an interesting question for what I was proposing. How would the viewer see themselves when they were standing in the laneway? Quite simply; they wouldn’t. I believe that Magritte was questioning self-awareness and identity but what I was proposing was a critique of the sense of location and reality.
Not to be Reflected, 2016
The viewer would see the reflection of the perpendicular lane and anyone standing in it, and vice-versa for the viewed looking at the viewer, thereby adding to the illusion. In a discussion of Natasha John-Messenger’s installation,ThreeFold (Johns-Messenger, 2015), which consisted of a series of passageways, purpose built in a gallery space, with interconnecting mirrors at each intersection that allow someone at the beginning of the passage-way to see completely through to the other end, her work is described as ‘a momentary encounter designed to actively orient the viewer within a world of appearances and to disrupt the way space is traditionally perceived’ (Amore, 2015). The work I proposed for the lane, titled The Unnamed Laneway, also played on ideas of illusion and appearances but unlike John-Messenger, who purpose built the passageways in-situ and was interested in the viewers' perception of their environment, I wanted to appropriate the laneway and use it within itself to suggest that it had been reworked, reshaped and extended. In doing so, this would disorientate the passing public (who possibly only knew the space subconsciously) into acknowledging the space existed.
The Unnamed Laneway, 2016, Orr St. Carlton
What resulted, once the project was realised, was far removed from producing any illusions that the lane had been extended. What resulted was a reflection in the form of an abstract representation of the lane. Areas of the reflection were drawn, spiraling, into circular pools, other details were simply removed. As the protective film was removed from the mirrors it become clear that the idea had failed and that all I had produced was a colourful mess. The illusion of the laneway extending was only apparent when you stood approximately 2-3 metres away from the mirror, any further and the reflection started to get lost within itself and eventually become completely unrecognisable. The mirrors I had used were acrylic sheets and not fully supported; any deviation away from the flat resulted is a visual distortion. All was not lost though; as I stood there, staring in disbelief, I noticed that the reflection of the public walking past the end of the lane, on Orr St. Carton, was being caught and manipulated, the public were walking around these circles of light, appearing out of and disappearing into them in some sort of random manner. The reflection was a real-time re-imagining of the laneway and all those that passed by or through it. It was as though time and space were being absorbed and expulsed, ignoring the fundamental rules of physics. Hito Steyerl, a German film maker and writer, argues that ‘linear perspective is calculable, navigable, and predictable. It allows the calculation of future risk’ (Steyerl, 2012). I would argue that I had removed the linear perspective, introducing something that was un-calculable, un-navigable and un-predictable. The Unnamed Laneway offered the viewer a manipulated reflection, but the manipulation was the very absence of the viewer to themselves. Unable to calculate the risks, the viewer must question how they fit into the situation, how they might view themselves in the public space and what is the worth of their own image in an era when the image is so recorded yet so disposable.
In 1981, the French artist Sophie Calle hired a private detective to follow her as she went about her daily routine (Calle and Auster, 1999). To the private detective it was just another job, he had no knowledge that his subject was also his client. This exercise was one of many projects that Calle undertook as part of a series of observational artworks. Would the outcome of the project have been any different if the detective had known the relationship between subject and client was one and the same? Could she not have simply hired a photographer to follow her from afar and document her movements? What strikes me here is the power of the unknowing. We all ‘act’ as it were, for the situation at hand, even if it is unintentional. If the detective knew the situation he would have taken photographs and notes based on what he thought Calle would be interested in, perhaps more flattering or framed images. By not knowing, he was just documenting what he saw.
Both Down by his Luck and The Unnamed Laneway play to the idea of the audience’s expectation and how they might behave based on those expectations. In same way that Calle wanted to produce an authentic result, authentic in sense that some of the participants were naïve to the details of the situation, I also wanted a keep the audience naïve and present a confounding situation.
In 2016, as part of a collaboration with Cameron Bishop, working as Bishop & Reis, we exhibited The Zero Monument (or the Human Stain Remover) (Bishop and Reis, 2016) as part of the Morbis Artis exhibition at the RMIT Gallery, Melbourne. This installation was a machine tool type object, designed to rid the world of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (Malevich, 1915) and repurpose them as green canvases, that when hung as a series on the wall, built a larger green screen backdrop. Malevich is reported to have argued that this painting ‘destroyed the old order of painting and inaugurated the new; it was a 'zero of form'—an end and a beginning’ (Crowther and Wünsche, 2012). Bishop & Reis were arguing that just as Black Square defined a turning point for painting, the green screen defined a turning point for humanity, where the human effort is no longer required and the digital can realise everything. In the same way that that Malevich’s work represented nothing and everything simultaneously, the green screen represents itself as nothing but, in turn, is the foundation of everything digital.
The Zero Monument (or the Human Stain Remover), 2016, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne
In order to watch the video footage that was playing against the green screen (a continuous loop of the workers descending in an elevator– a scene taken from Metropolis (Lang, 1927)), the audience had to stand in front of the screen. By forcing the audience into this situation, they were immediately appropriated into the elevator with the workers. What became interesting in this participatory event was the manner in which the pubic behaved. In front of them was a small television screen (very small by modern television standards) that was: part live broadcast from a webcam sitting atop the television, part software merging into the elevator scene. For some it was just an opportunity stare in disbelief (or perhaps disdain?) but for a vast majority it was an opportunity to perform; to perform to an audience of themselves. There is a brief moment we all experience when we find ourselves unexpectedly viewing a real-time representation of self, that initial moment of disconnect and then the process of realigning yourself in space and time; that is to make a gesture and watch the result on the screen.
Screen Capture Series - Green Screen, The Zero Monument (or the Human Stain Remover), 2016
According to Hito Steyerl, one of the seven lessons to make something invisible in plain sight is to ‘take a picture’ (Steyerl, 2013), beyond the obvious fact that the Steyerl’s smart phone made her unrecognizable during this lesson, is it also a critique of the image taken with the smartphone, an essentially disposable action that will be lost in the abyss of images generated this way, therefore making it invisible? Capturing yourself on that small television was the most prevalent activity anyone undertook when interacting with The Zero Monument (or the Human Stain Remover). The idea was to engage the public as workers, loading the stained canvases into the machine and then unloading the cleansed canvases at the end of the cycle. Yet, rather than an experience, most people only got a selfie of themselves holding a camera taking a photo of themselves. To revisit Calle, let us imagine that she had hired herself to follow her around and document her as she went about her daily routine. How authentic would that documentation have been, when the subject and client are one and the same? How do we act (or not act) when, not only are we performing, but producing, directing and marketing the result?
On the 11th September 2017, the Melbourne branch of The Mission to the Seafarer celebrated its centenary. The Mission is a worldwide charity collective providing a support network to visiting seafarers; allowing them some respite and access to essential on-shore facilities. As part of these centenary celebrations, Bishop & Reis, along with six other artists, were asked to install site responsive artworks. Bishop & Reis choose to focus on the seafarers’ place in Melbourne (or lack thereof, given they are alien and passing through). I wanted to interact with the audience in a playful manner and given the success of The Zero Monument(or Human Stain Remover) earlier in the year, proposed a green screen environment; Bishop was to explore ideas around the digital consumption by the seafarer and developed a re-imagination of On the Beach (Kramer, 1959). Together, we were interested in the seafarer’s perception of the ocean and the beach, how they might perceive it in comparison to our own privileged perception; from this an idea was developed using the green screen environment to superimpose the viewers/ seafarers onto the local beach. I think understanding the audience/ participant here was important; the seafarer isn’t in the position of power that most art participants are in, they have a language, geographical and cultural barrier when they enter the mission and may or may not be willing to participate. I did not want to intrude on what is a very short time ashore, so I opted out of the more traditional green screen environment that uses the audiences upper body and face and decided that feet were about as anonymous and innocuous as body parts go. We invited the audience to join a lone pair of bare feet enjoying the ocean and with sand between their toes, taking the seafarer away from their location and situation for a moment, and perhaps triggering thoughts of home or a more innocent time.
On the Beach, 2016, The Mission to Seafarers, Melbourne
Screenshot from On the Beach, 2016, The Mission to Seafarers, Melbourne
The structure that housed both the video work and green screen was designed to be an extension of the existing bar, modelled on similar aesthetics, materials and finishes, the intention was to integrate the work into the bar, disguising it from being identified as an art object and instead, the idea was to have it discovered as a disorientating item that blended in without fitting in.
On the Beach, 2016, The Mission to Seafarers, Melbourne
What the underlying conceptual thinking is in this research project is that of appropriation of artworks and historical narratives, white cubed galleries and public spaces, industrial and domestic technologies and the individuals and publics that occupy, encounter and engage with the works. But what is meant by the term appropriation? The Tate Gallery define appropriation as ‘the practice of artists using pre-existing objects or images in their art with little transformation of the original’ (Tate), but the ambiguous element here is the use of the word ‘little’. How can one define what is (or isn’t) meant by little transformation? Rex Butler suggested he might have an answer when he wrote the book What is Appropriation? (Butler, 1996), but in his introduction he states ‘this book does not so much attempt to answer the question “what is appropriation?” but to leave it as a question, something that in principle cannot be answered’.
So where does my understanding of appropriation fit into the equation? Bishop has undoubtedly been a great influence and teacher of these ideas of appropriation, through his own practice of appropriating the Australian Impressionists, in painting such as On the Wannabe Track (Bishop, 2009); to what he has brought to our collaboration as Bishop & Reis. Working in this close relationship has helped me define what I consider appropriation in art, more precisely, define the ambiguity in the Tate definition, with little transformation. I beg to differ on the term little, instead I suggest we invert the meaning and rephrase the definition to indicate that something can be transformed as long as a little of the original remains. Whatever has been appropriated must be still identifiable as the original, even if that is only partial. However, at the other end of the scale I would argue that there must be some level of transformation to take ownership of the object or image. To use a contemporary example, if John Messenger’s audience look at themselves in one of her mirrors in ThreeFold (Johns-Messenger, 2015), is she appropriating them? I would argue not. I do not believe that is the context in which she wants the audience to experience her work, she is appropriating the audience for the other members of the audience. It is not the reflection of the individual alone but the reflection of the individual when placed in the context of the corridors, that is her intention. Unlike John Messenger, my intention is to appropriate the audience for their own experience, using their own representation, transformed and returned it back to its host.