Elective unit sharing task

Mark Cousins at Sheffield Doc Fest (2018)

Anna (Rhodes) posed two questions in our shared Google doc – I found this an interesting question:

How should we teach art and design history and context in this post digital era of content overload and digital creative outlets on social media?

I might be able to respond in part, after seeing Mark Cousins give a presentation at Sheffield DocFest. It was a kind of performance lecture. It was in the dark which gave primacy to the screen and created a black space around it, and his voice provided context- he had a radio mic on and had a laser pointer – it was called ’30 Images in the Dark’. Most images he projected were single frames, against the dark space – so their presentation was clear of distraction, they were to be regarded one by one, or at most, compared to one other image. And because they were regarded this way we had time to think about each. So masses of images can’t be read or responded to in the same way without time or context.

It’s interesting to note that Anna’s  instagram referencebank presents its image in the same way, – they have a (white) border, and mostly some discussion in text with each one, and responses from people to each (which ’30 Images in the Dark’ didn’t feature). Yet to regard them singly, they don’t fill the frame, they hover above the grid of other images – they are always there, more images.

There are side effects of seeing too many images – discussed in this article by Rebecca MacMillan, a researcher and teacher in Texas revealed her students to be “feeling overrun by photographs and addicted to posting images” and quotes experts on the effects including: “heightened anxiety to memory impairment”, “the idea that photographing may discourage remembering”, “fragmented focus” – but then she notes that in further research there’s an indication that:

“However, a second study found that if a student took the time to zoom in on an object, their memory was not impaired – an indication that increased attention and cognitive engagement can counteract this effect.”

http://theconversation.com/exposed-to-a-deluge-of-digital-photos-were-feeling-the-psychological-effects-of-image-overload-52562

 However, the deleterious effects of the pressures of using images in social media to construct a public persona in a  competition for attention, and addiction to media is a huge subject – which I can only acknowledge and refer to now.

But if as the second study suggests, taking time and ‘zooming in’ – that is, concentrating and observing,  improves memory, then active looking must go a way toward being the antidote.

‘Join the acclaimed filmmaker for an intimate lecture exploring the aesthetics and emotion of ‘looking’. Using 30 key cultural images, Mark will examine how our ‘looking selves’ develop and how our social and cultural surroundings shape what we see.’

‘….and acclaimed Edinburgh-based filmmaker, author and critic Mark Cousins will examine how our ‘looking selves’ develop over the course of a lifetime, the ways that looking has changed through the centuries and explore how our social and cultural surroundings shape what we see.’

https://sheffdocfest.com/articles/562-northern-based-talent-announced-as-headline-speakers-at-sheffield-doc-fest-25th-edition

Cousins opened the talk by saying that that day he’d seen a middle aged woman clutching a teddy bear in the street – and that he’d never seen that before.  It shows he interrogates his own internal database of images in his mind, (or references to them) on a regular basis, as he knows he’s never seen this scene before. And it shows that he can remember images and scenes.

Furthermore, he broke down the elements of looking (for a screen based medium) into areas listed below – and gave pertinent, new and sometimes unexpected examples to illustrate these, eg in ‘form’ he juxtaposed a Henry Moore sculpture and the mask of Darth Vader. We can all potentially make those connections, if we are active ‘lookers’ because of the wealth of images that surround us, but because of his age, I know that it’s highly likely that the original images of those two images he saw first, was in the analogue era.  Perhaps because my sense of looking (rather than seeing) was also formed in the analogue era, I have a strong sense that my personal database of images that I have seen, informs everything I see, sometimes consciously but mostly sub-consciously. I’ve probably had more time to really look at something than is now difficult to do, in the Western digital age, unless one has a rigorous conscious reason and related action not to engage with the flow of images that surrounds us through our screens.

Neurologically, I (subjectively) believe that we record everything we see, and that memory is only a faulty retriever from a lifetime’s perfect database of vision, and I should corroborate this in science I know, – but truly, how is it possible to believe otherwise? There are those few who have a neurological singularity – Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM),  and remember everything, from very early on in life. I don’t know how they can live – the burden of total recall must be enormously tiring. Thank evolution for the ability to forget the vast majority of the visual flow of the world before us and to be able to discriminate and focus on selected events. If memory is in good working order.

I believe that this is the crux of Cousins’ thinking: that even in the deluge of imagery we can see things we’ve never seen before. And if we can see it in the real world, we can photograph it through a lens, or create it on a screen. So in considering teaching of images perhaps we have to add axes of volume and time to an active and conscious act of looking. And add also the sense of a kind of visual pollution, and device addiction, that are now parts of looking we didn’t have before the digital age, and yet the thirst for narrative and images is still driving us as it ever did, but faster, toward – what? A crash? Blindness? An inability to concentrate? A blurring between the real and the created world (particularly in immersive gaming or VR / AR / 360 imagery?)

Though as David Hockney noted (among many others) whoever controls the media controls us, but photographic images – which are inherently unreliable – are only one way of seeing the world.

“Photography, with its claim to truth, is a discipline, he thinks, and he’s glad digital technology is ending the rule of the one-eyed monster that never lied. “I suppose I never thought the world looked like photographs, really. A lot of people think it does but it’s just one little way of seeing it. All religions are about social control. The church, when it had social control, commissioned paintings, which were made using lenses” – as Hockney has argued in his book Secret Knowledge – “and when it stopped commissioning images, its power declined, slowly. Social control today is in the media – and based on photography. The continuum is the mirrors and lenses.”

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/mar/04/photography

Perhaps there might arise a group of visual refuseniks who will resist the volume of digital images and look at things one by one, in their own time, until they’ve had enough, until they’re part of their memories.

Anyway, back to Mark Cousins’ elements of looking. There were more but I’ve forgotten them. (Yes I’m resisting a ‘smiley’ because I live in the digital era I now think of emoji as necessary to convey a joke, as I never did before.)

– ‘eyes’ ie directing the gaze over different parts of the screen

– movement

– colour

– distance

– focus

– discovery

– eyeline

– form

– time

Mark Cousins is about to publish a book The Story of Looking (4 Oct 2018) which will definitely be worth a read.