I have been constantly on the go in Australia over the last couple of weeks, flying into the continent (island?) immediately after the “Visions of Humanity” conference in Oxford (see Jim’s excellent review below) and only getting to mental terra firma – and consistent internet access – today.
My first mission in Oz was the “Imaging Identity: Media, Memory and Visions of Humanity in the Digital Present” conference, 15-17 July 2010 at the National Portrait Gallery and co-hosted by Australian National University. Too jet-lagged to do much on the first day other than collapse and try to feel human again, I did, however, manage to catch WJT Mitchell’s (University of Chicago) keynote paper in the evening, titled “Migration, Law, and the Image: Beyond the veil of ignorance”. Preceding his talk with an apology for Arizona’s recent anti-immigration laws, Prof Mitchell proceeded to discuss a wide range of images in relation to (im)migration, starting from Dorothy Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph to a close reading of Neil Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9 (also shown in the recently-ended HUMlab 2010 Science Fiction series!), in the process weaving an impressive analysis of law, migration and iconology across the usual stories of migration – conquest, expulsion, exploitation – appealing for imagery not just of the body, but also the places of migration: demilitarised zones, boundaries, orders, detention camps.
In a conference containing almost consistently of extremely interesting and fascinating papers, a few in particular made an impression on me (invariably by resonating with my own research interests): the first was Kathy Cleland’s (University of Sydney) “Face to Face: Portraiture in a digital age”, in which she proposes a taxonomy of the portrait in 4 contexts: Web 2.0 (participatory media); Web 3.0 (real-time media and interaction); Image 2.0 (the composite); and Human 2.0 (the “human facsimile”). Among the many interesting ideas Kathy talks about is “the myth of the total portrait”, in which she discusses the drive towards human simulation (including Stelarc’s Talking Head), to be countered by the ever-present uncanny valley notion. Talking to Kathy later over coffee, I learnt that the digital portrait was from an older project; her current research is on augmented realities, so I am certainly going to keep a good lookout for her work.
Another interesting paper was Helen Mitchell’s (Massey University) “Archiving the tattoo”, in which she discusses the relationship between body inking and identity construction, adoption and appropriation. In the same panel was Indonesian photographer Refi Mascot from Bautanah street gallery, which he established in the heart of Jakarta to exhibit his and other photographers’ work: “The gallery is located at the bustling Cikini train station and has been home to exhibitions of post-tsunami Aceh, indigenous forest communities, and a celebration of Jakarta in its heyday.” As he spoke, a slideshow of Mascot’s photographs was screened behind him, all of them absolutely stunning in their beauty, colour and composition: images of old, wizened faces, riots of colour from festivals, unguarded moments of startled glances and flitting passers-by.
On the morning of the last conference day, Mammad Aidani (University of Melbourne) discussed the terrible images of Neda Agha-Soltan, in particular analysing the effect of the video “as a rallying point” for millions of Iranians in terms of the collective solidarity and struggle against oppression in Iran, and the potency of the symbolism in the image of Neda. I suggested during Q&A that this is a means to an end, mindful of Andre Bazin’s “Death Every Afternoon” essay, in which Bazin declares the need to take an ethical stance in watching a real death on screen – the temporality of the moving image, in its carrying of duration, records the passing of one condition to another, and what can be more extreme than passing from life to death? Aidani agrees, but continues to argue for the galvanizing effect of the images.
The conference ended with the proverbial bang in the form of Didier Maleuvre’s (University of California, Santa Barbara) keynote paper which closed to the conference – “Rembrandt, or the portrait as encounter”. I met Prof Maleuvre when we were shooed off for cocktails by gallery staff who were going to close off the quiet corner of couches to which we had both – sans coordination – retreated to catch up on respective work (mine was to continue my preparations for a seminar on machinima which I would be giving the following week in Melbourne); seeing the machinima book on my lap, he subsequently introduced himself to me as “the old fogey who will be talking about Rembrandt tomorrow” (!!). Running through a selective series of portrait paintings (Rembrandt, Titian, Vermeer, Sargent), Maleuvre argues for the painted portrait as the quintessential encounter: the now (not the temporal now, as he corrects me during Q&A, which belongs to the punctum of photographic time, but the present now, “the human now”), the presence, the aura, the personal resonance of portraiture, the hypnotic face-to-face: “you are with a person who wants something to do with you”. Maleuvre’s ultimate argument is for an almost compassionate humanism in the encounter with the portrait, to go beyond the likeness to imagine the person behind the portrait, to delve into the personality behind the depicted, to mine into the being of the human being: “the self is a private fiefdom”. Laced into this discussion is the role of the social gaze which informs the premise of our very existence: we are only by each other’s attention; we hang by the thread of others’ gazes; I am only because of you. And that brings to my mind all kinds of ideas of inter-connectedness, to what can bring us together in terms of a shared identity. Roberto Mangabeira Unger in Passion writes of how we are “beaten” out of the vision that we are the solipsistic beings of our individual universes, that our unfinished desires, needs, circumstances and beliefs do not make up the sum of our fundamental human identity. But I digress: Maleuvre’s concern in his paper was solely with the human-ness of our encounter with the portrait. Substantively, I disagree with him on a few points, particularly in terms of how he portrays the coldness and “un-human-ness” of the photographic camera, but this by no means detracts anything from Prof Maleuvre’s frankly marvellous paper: compassionate, honest, brilliant, intense, inspiring, lyrical and, above all, simply and beautifully written. I had no idea academic writing could be like this, and in that regard Prof Maleuvre’s keynote was like that lightning clap in the sky – I did say it was a bang – not only in its revelation but also its sudden illumination of possibilities and alternatives. The extended applause says it all, I think.
All in all, I had a good time and, as always, met a lot of interesting people. It was a very well-run conference, with Pamella Clelland Gray from the Gallery taking on necessary shepherding duties. The budget of the National Portrait Gallery is clearly of a different league from academic ones, as the conference opened each day with a steaming coffee stand in the sunlit terrace, with staff handing out hot cups of espresso, latte etc. The first morning coffee break would also offer muffins and croissants, while the afternoon tea break had cookies and cake. Lunch was very elegant wraps, stuffed full with salads, meats, tuna or vegetarian, accompanied by fruit, washed down with water or orange juice in tall glasses and coffee or tea to follow. I received great comments and feedback (with thanks to John Conomos, Kathy Cleland and Justin Clemens) on my own paper, titled “Crossing space-time-action: Self and performance in motion capture imagery”, which has given me a lot of ideas and encouragement. The gallery was also showing an impressive exhibition of portraiture (still on!) titled “Present Tense: an imagined grammar of portraiture in the digital age” which made for an immensely interesting sojourn away from the conference. I also managed to meet with Paul Arthur at the conference – ex-HUMlab postdoc fellow who is now the Deputy Director of the National Centre of Biography at ANU – whom I last saw in February when I was freezing in the Swedish winter (and now freezing once more in the Australian winter!), and it was good to catch up.
After the whirlwind, jet-lag and freezing temperatures of Canberra, I flew to Melbourne on Sunday, where I was at least no longer jet-lagged. But still whirlwind, still cold……. (to be continued)