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Stephanie Brunia, Artistic Manifesto, 5/7/2012

A Work in Progress & a Manifesto of Sorts

Stephanie Brunia
Discovery & Innovation: Spring 2012

(Tenet #1.) Make visible the intangible (photograph what isn't there).

(Tenet #2.) In making visible the intangible, I shall do so through embodiment and not description.

(#1.) Dance with the edge.
(#2.) Beauty is in the attempt-keep moving.
(#3.) Leave some mystery.
(#4.) Ambiguity > vague.
(#5.) Ugly is not more sincere.
(#6.) Make work that fails.--
(#7.) Personal is relevant.
(#8.) Remember Giacometti's glass.

Can a journey be a product? Perhaps not. My objective for the semester was to attempt a documented personal journey in which I would begin to order the mess of thoughts that my current studies have bred. Such a journey becomes difficult to fully document and share in the context of a course like Discovery and Innovation. That said, I am grateful that I stuck with my journey because I feel it has helped me to define personal fundamental truths that I hope to carry forward. More than anything this course has given me permission to go focus on self-development in the context of a university course. My core belief is that this is a fundamental tenet of higher-education that is often buried in different teaching approaches.

My hope is that this approach will become a model for my future endeavors, especially in terms of teaching. My new goal is to implement this approach in my Visualizing Ideas course this fall. I am excited to ask this journey of my students-I currently do not know what expectations to hold for the process. Perhaps it would be too much to hope that they will engage with the project on the level that I attempted this semester. Nevertheless, I hope to get my students to engage in the creative process in a new way-one that is equal parts objective and subjective. Have I begun a teaching model? Perhaps.

The thing I grapple with the most is that I should have undergone this journey prior to this course, but I never gave myself the permission to do so. Too often I have neglected focusing on personal growth out of a fear that it wouldn't benefit my immediate studies. Making that claim makes me cringe because logically if asked, I would argue the opposite of that statement. However, the reality is that I have failed to make the opportunity happen and I have made excuses instead of delivering a manifesto. Upon reflection I can guess at many different reasons why I make excuses but the most predominant reason is fear.

I have let myself be ruled by fear. What a humbling statement to say aloud! Have I let pride and ego stand in the way of personal development? I would hope that I have matured beyond the stage of pride, but evidence points to the contrary. That said, I have found this journey to be immensely productive. There is a sense of accomplishment in the pursuit of a personal aim (even if it stems from what feels like selfish means). When you know what you stand for, it becomes easier to stand for it and to not lose focus.

In dealing with journaling, it was initially difficult to focus my efforts. I have 3 different tangents that have drawn my attention: basic ramblings about my notions of art, justifications for my most recent body of work and ideas for teaching. I did not initially expect my writing to fall into these categories, though in hindsight they make sense. I flailed a bit at the beginning of the semester because I felt guilty when my journaling would tangentially jump from writing artistic guidelines (which felt closest to the goal of a manifesto) to thoughts about my current work. I initially felt the scope had to go beyond the immediate-that I would instantly speak in universal truths that would withstand for years. I do not claim that these guidelines are anything profound-most fail to pierce the heart of artistic truth. But they are a start and I feel that in my ruminations I have narrowed my focus into a pair of personal goals/tenets that I back with a list of eight rules to help guide me in the pursuit of my main tenets.

Tenet #1: Make visible the intangible.
(in other words, photograph what isn't there)

It has taken me many projects/bodies of work to come to this tenet. Photography is a medium of immediacy. To photograph is to capture an image of a subject that has been placed before the lens of a camera. I respect this time-honored approach to the photographic medium, however, I find this to be a limited view of the medium. I am more interested in the invisible narratives that surround personal photographs-why did someone take this photo? When was it taken? Who are the people in the image? What do those people look like now? Why was it discarded or preserved? I wonder about the phenomenon of memory and how photographs from my childhood have become proxies for memories. I wonder how well I would know the faces of loved ones if it weren't for photographs, because all too often when I attempt to recall a face, I see it as a still image--a residue of a photograph.

These photographic qualities are hidden, yet maddeningly present in every photograph. Roland Barthes, the French semiotician, attempted to talk about the hidden and subjective language of photographs in his final piece of writing, Camera Lucida. Barthes coined the term ‘punctum' to describe the mysterious effect that photographs have over their audience when an unintentional detail strikes the viewer as familiar. For Barthes, this moment is akin to a small wound, as though the photograph's presence is able to reach out and pierce/cut/bruise the viewer. The punctum is an unexpected moment of recognition. In his essay, Barthes describes a gold chain necklace that he spies in the portrait of a stranger. For Barthes, the necklace in the photograph was identical to a necklace that his aunt wore.

The punctum is far more interesting-it becomes the hidden poetic structure of the medium of photography. One cannot strive to create punctum in photographs because it is entirely dependent upon a subjective reading of the photograph. I am interested in creating photographs that hold a semblance of punctum, at least for myself, in hopes that such imagery will translate for an audience.

Aside from punctum, I feel the objective of my work is to make a photograph either of something that is no longer (a past event, a portrait of someone who lives in a different state, etc.) or of an emotion. In reclaiming the past, I can make work that speaks to a longing. Longing is the ultimate function of a photograph: it is nostalgia. Nostalgia perpetuates the medium, offering us ways of holding onto our past through small 2-dimensional prints. Nostalgia does not exist in the image of the photograph, but merely in our approach to each photograph. Nostalgia relies on an emotional attachment to the past-whether it is our own past or a general notion of a past (sepia prints of strangers). Therefore, photography becomes the ideal medium with which to speak about the personal.

Tenet #2: In making visible the intangible,
I shall do so through embodiment and not description.

Didactic work is the least interesting art. Above all else, I want to avoid creating work that is trite, obvious, or explicit. This second tenet is a companion to the first tenet in that it strives to keep my work and thoughts from becoming too illustrative. Art requires poetry-its own specific visual language as written by the artist-speaking at an audience alienates art. Work that falls on the side of being too descriptive or illustrative fails to converse with a viewer. To avoid one-sided art, I seek to make work that embodies an idea.

To use the words 'embodiment' versus 'description' sounds clean-as though the two could exist in a binary. In practice, however, the line between these two descriptors becomes muddied and indistinct. In an effort to better define my meanings, I would use Rachel Whiteread's sculptural work as examples of work that embodies an idea. By casting the rooms of a Victorian home, Whiteread elegantly transformed negative space into a positive tangible form. The art becomes the translation of the act, a reshaping of the viewer's understanding of the spatial relationships within a home. The art is the idea and the idea is the art. The concept, execution, product and presentation should be in conversation with not only one another but also the viewer.

As a photographer, I make art with a tool that is best known as an object that reciprocally translates the world. Can this tool be used to surpass a mere descriptive translation and allow its photographic product to be the idea, or does it merely describe a subject that once stood before the lens? Can I make a photograph that engages the viewer in an experience akin to approaching a sculpture? Perhaps photography is inherently a descriptive medium, one that is too removed to truly reach the embodiment that I am seeking. That is a challenge that I am willing to accept.

(#1.) Dance with the edge.

Make a new statement, embrace uncertainty and failure-learn to work through discomfort.
Find my boundaries and push against them-never play it safe.

LA Times art critic, David Pagel, in a recent lecture at the UNM Art Museum stated, "If you are making work that is like someone else's work, stop. This is because most likely they are doing a better version of it than you can." Finding one's own voice can be difficult. The best tip I have for avoiding this dilemma is to attempt to make work that steers clear of being gimmicky, trite, safe or expected. Just as Tenet #2 pushes me to steer clear of didactic work, this rule encourages me to never be satisfied. If I continually push at my own boundaries, I will become better informed with the personal language of my own artistic voice. I do not want to use someone else's vocabulary, I am not here to make someone else's work. Yet the notion of a boundary is important. I need a box-my curated vocabulary with which to speak. Experimentation pushes the edge and allows me new ways of speaking, but ultimately I must have a core from which to express myself and a set of ideas that perpetuate the work (photograph the invisible, define the in-between, the personal is relevant).

(#2.) Beauty is in the attempt-keep moving.

Perfectionism halts momentum-don't let it take over.

The act of representation is the subject-let the process speak.

I have long suffered the negative effects of perfectionism: paralysis, procrastination, self-deprecation, feelings of worthlessness. Perfectionism is a disease and one that festers and spreads quickly. Fighting perfectionism and its subsequent litany of ill effects and anxieties is a continual battle. Like most things in life, perfectionism is a double-edged sword-it pushes me to never be satisfied and to continually improve while also flooding my mind with thoughts of doubt. The only way to master perfectionism is to continually produce work even in the face of personal internal opposition. Make work in quantity and judge its quality only after there is a decent amount of work to assess. To angst over individual images, ideas, or even projects will trap them in an eternal state of becoming and therefore never reaching a conclusive satisfying end. Finish work, reflect, and then move on.

(#3.) Leave some mystery.

Successful work will read as greater than the sum of its parts-it defies a formulaic approach.

Mystery exists in the inexplicable moments of a piece-let it hold you.

There is something lovely about work that is a stranger to its maker. Like a child, the work should function separately of its parent as both stranger and self. Make work that defies your expectations. I am suspect of work that I understand completely. Granted there is a sense of mastery in creating something that appears as one envisioned, yet that is the skill of mimicry-of translating that which my mind can conceive. I want work that surprises me and consequently holds my curiosity. The aim is to create work that I can live with and that still speaks to me many months after my consciousness has become familiar with its presence.

(#4.) Ambiguity > vague.

Ambiguity breeds intrigue and mystery

whereas vagueness leads to frustration and apathy.

It was the American photographer Sally Mann who stated, "If it doesn't have ambiguity, don't bother". When used correctly, ambiguity is the life-force of intrigue. Ambiguity avoids absolutes. Ambiguity lingers and beckons. It is a question without an answer. Vagueness lacks focus. Vagueness defies specificity or even the structure of a sentence. Vague cannot speak or communicate-it is a dense veil-a bit of code without a key-a nonsensical riddle without an answer. Only a madman would be interested in having a one-sided conversation-avoid creating work that falls into this category. Do find a way to create work that begs a question of the viewer-specificity counts when asking the right question.

(#5.) Ugly is not more sincere.

Beauty and ugliness are often mistaken as the binaries of fact and fiction.

Both are subjective troupes and manipulations.

Recognize them but do not value one above the other.

Beauty is seductive and consequently a powerfully manipulative tool. In reaction to feeling manipulated, there is an institutionalized skepticism of beauty that results in a blind embrace of the banal, the plain and the "ugly". It must be stated that the banal is as much a troupe and method of manipulation as beauty. Do not apologize for making beautiful work-make what you want to live with and if that means something beautiful, then go for it. There is benefit in learning to work with aesthetics that push your comfort level-there are many avenues to beauty and ugliness-find the ones that speak to you (remember to dance with the edge).

(#6.) Make work that fails.

This is not a statement of self-deprecation-there is beauty in failure.

Make failure the conceptual aim and see what results.

There is a societal stigma against the idea of failure. Don't buy into it. There is so much potential in work in knowingly pursuing an impossible project (i.e.-photographing the intangible). Failure is a legitimate outcome. Aim for the impossible just to see what happens. Failure does not mean that you have failed to make an interesting statement. It is okay to make your audience uncomfortable. Pursuing the impossible is a strong foundation for an innovative path and life long ambition.

Additionally, failure, if unintentional is proof that you are dancing with the edge and taking risks. Do not play it safe. Failures build character and a backbone. Be proud of failing.

(#7.) Personal is relevant.

Don't apologize for finding inspiration in your personal experiences.

Speak from the place of humility and humanity.

Despite its lofty aims, Academic art all too often relies on merely a clever statement of institutional critique. I have heard fellow academics claim that they only make art for other artists. Do not fall prey to such an insular view! Distilling personal experiences into profound statements is the work of truly innovative minds. The personal must speak in the universal in order to reach a level of relevance. Again, do not make work that is too vague-the question behind the work must be universal or it will fall prey to narrow specificity and consequently a cryptic tone.

(#8.) Remember Giacometti's glass.

"It might be supposed that realism consists in copying a glass as it is on the table. In fact, one never copies anything but the vision that remains of it at each moment, the image that becomes conscious. You never copy the glass on the table, you copy the residue of a vision.Each time I look at the glass, it has an air of remaking itself. That's to say, its reality becomes uncertain, because its projection in my head is uncertain or partial. One sees it as if it were disappearing, coming into view again, disappearing, coming into view again-that's to say, it really always is between being and not being. And it's this that one wants to copy."
--Alberto Giacometti

As a photographer is it easy to learn the technical skills to make an aesthetically engaging representation of a subject. But is this art? Do not fall prey to trying to making work that is merely about a tangible subject (the glass)-make work about the experience of the glass. This will force you to speak in terms of essence and embodiment as opposed to didactic description. The truest subject in art is not the depicted subject, but rather the artist's attempt to make visible a subject-the act of representation is the subject.

As I have been defining these principles, I have been folding them into my current artistic practice. It will take me a long time to master the list of principles that I have laid out for myself. I do not claim that I am wielding them successfully in my current work. Yet attempting to understand, define and master these principles has the benefit of pushing my work and consequently my artistic voice.

I am currently working on a body of photographs in which I attempt to define the metaphorical space of the in-between (Tenet #1-Make visible the intangible). The in-between is the space of transition. It is the distance from here to there, from then to now, from him to me. It is a space of tension and unresolve. This is a space that frightens me. As an anxious person, I do not know how to reside in uncertainty. I am comfortable in black and whites, in defined structures and in rules (this manifesto is certainly proof of that)-what happens when I learn to embrace something that is predominately grey? Through this work I am learning to embrace fragility and precariousness.

I have approached this work using myself as subject-I perform for the camera in an attempt to create an image that speaks about the in-between. It is important that I place myself as subject in this work. By performing before the camera, the work begins to read as a personal exploration of discomfort and an attempt to understand the state of the in-between. My acts have ranged from attempting to hold my balance and photographing the moment that I fall or stumble to holding my breath before the camera and taking the photograph at the moment when my body can no longer maintain that state. Each act relies on a moment of anticipation-the act of suspending the body between a before and an after. Such states place the body in tension-the moment when the body can no longer hold its course. Those are the moments of these images. I am making physical (making visible) an emotional state (the invisible).

Take one image as an example, "Holding my Breath Attempt #9". In this image we see the neck and collarbone of a subject who has turned her face from the camera. The tendons in the neck stand out, clearly under a state of tension and strain. The collarbone appears to stand out, as though it is cleaving itself from the body-hollowing out the figure. There is a small crease of flesh at the base of the collarbone that indicates the fold of the body in on itself. Here the body becomes the sculpture-the product of the state of transition.

It is not immediately apparent to a viewer that this figure is holding her breath. That reading is only made clear by the title. The point is not that the viewer immediately understand what is happening within the photographed subject, but rather that the viewer recognize the tension in this body. The moment of tension has been frozen for closer scrutiny. This is a vulnerable photograph. The subject has been caught in a moment of unresolve-the antithesis of a photographic pose.

Is this work groundbreakingly innovative? Perhaps not, but it is my first attempt to make work using a system to focus my efforts. I am interested in this work because it is born of the efforts of defining myself and in many ways the work talks about the space of the undefined. My hope is that in working this way, I will begin to carve out a specific path for my artistic endeavors. It becomes a way of defining my approach of understanding my creative process. I now have a model to work from-a loose structure. Although I will continue to use this in my studio practice, my main interest now lies in how to pass on this approach.

Perhaps it is arrogant to state that I don't need people to buy into my tenets. Such a statement is not intended to alienate an audience, rather to stress that this process is fundamentally a personal journey. The end product is a personal understanding of one's interests. I do hope that people can understand the validity of pursuing this course. Hence why I have decided to build my Visualizing Ideas in Photography syllabus around this approach. I plan to use my manifesto as a model that will help students to define their art.

My focus in Visualizing Ideas will be to push students to speak with their art. It is vitally important that students learn to stand for something. That they learn to engage their creative minds with the challenge of conveying complex thoughts in a visual rhetoric. The beauty of fine art studio courses is that there is never a specified "correct" way to approach an artistic task. Rather each student must come to his/her own ideas, conclusions and projects. I have seen students freeze at the prospect of this task. It can be an uncomfortable space. So how do we push through it to become independent creative thinkers?

Throughout the semester I will engage students to discuss their notions of art. What makes art? Why might someone become dissatisfied with work that simply aims to "artfully" recreate Giacometti's glass as it sits on a table? How do we learn to see the glass as it appears and recedes from our vision? How do we then make work about that experience?

I will begin these discussions with trying to define the essence of a photograph. We will begin by brainstorming the qualities of a photograph (light based, lens based, created using silver, a medium of mimicry, a medium of documentation or proof, etc). From there I will ask students to make a cameraless photograph to bring to class the following week. Potential cameraless photographs could include: a desk lamp that casts a shadow upon a wall/floor and the image created by the light is the photograph, a yardstick (an arbitrary form of measurement or documentation), a Civil war re-enactor, a colored tablecloth with vibrant spots that indicate where objects sat and light from a window faded the rest of the cloth. All of these things rely on a trace or a mimic or the use of light to create an image.

The exercise is an attempt to see beyond the camera and thus potentially beyond the subject before a camera. It will allow the students to understand the fundamental principles of the photographic medium. The hope is that a student will learn to use photographic language to speak about the essence of a photograph without relying on creating a familiar product. The identification of the process becomes the artistic motivation. The next step is to discuss how we begin to read each of these photographic acts/actions. Do they speak about loss? Do they speak of time? Impermenance? Duplication? From here, the students will be asked to address this photographic baggage in their next project.

The next project will be based on failure. The students will be asked to conceive of a project that aims to fail. The point will not be to make work that fails, but rather to talk about failure in an evocative manner. Can we learn to be comfortable with letting go? I will discuss Janine Antoni's tightrope work. Antoni built a tightrope and spent months practicing how to walk on a tightrope. In a performance, Antoni publically walked to the middle of a tightrope and attempted to balance. She hovered fighting to maintain her balance but inevitable succumbed to gravity and fell. The point of the piece was that Antoni would try to balance even though it was a futile attempt. Failure was inevitable. Is this a legitimate way of constructing an idea?

Throughout the course, students will be asked to give themselves guidelines for their projects. They will be asked to define three rules to follow before they attempt to start conceptualizing a project. My aim is to push students to consciously choose their language before they set about making their work. As a class we will discuss the students' rules in relation to their projects. We will discuss whether or not the rules are aiding the student's thought process or if they feel like superficial hoops. If the students feel the latter is true, we will discuss why certain rules feel more superficial than others. What rules really push students? Why are some rules more engaging and successful than others?

All of these projects and discussions are the result of my semester in Discovery and Innovation. It is true that I do not have a distinct product to offer as my final project. But I have a new outlook and a desire to share this perspective. I view the Discovery and Innovation course as having a trickle-down effect. Creativity and innovation begin with inspired individuals. By inspiring a class, albeit only 20 students, the effect has every chance to grow and trickle down to more and more students. It only takes a few to enact change. We may not be able to reform the education system any time soon, but we can at least try to inspire students to seek their own education outside of mere factual knowledge. We can give students the permission to grow and be independent thinkers-is that not the most empowering thought?