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Technical terminology

by Michael Desmond, 1 June 2010

Michael Desmond introduces some of the ideas behind the exhibition Present Tense: An imagined grammar of portraiture in the digital age.

Lucy, 2001
Lucy, 2001

There can be no doubt that we are entering an exceptional time for portraiture as the art world embraces the digital age. Traditional portraiture is responding to the application of new technologies and this imaging process is reshaping our interpretation and reading of the face.

The use of the computer and the internet at the most basic level to source or digitalise images is pervasive. Artists are using digital technologies as alternatives to traditional media and offering the possibility of a new aesthetic. The ease of manipulating an image is a prime aspect of portraiture in the digital age and equally important is the ease of distribution. Artists seek out images on the internet and send out or ‘post’ their own, setting up their own virtual galleries using social media such as Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Tumblr.

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition Present Tense: An imagined grammar of portraiture in the digital age considers the alliance between portraiture and technology and investigates how different ways of imaging reflect how the individual is perceived as well as how the various mechanisms of imaging that are used to manipulate that perception.

Present Tense includes examples of the informal and immediate digital snapshots made with mobile phones; images recorded with sonograms that reveal faces that cannot be seen by the unaided eye; 2d and 3d portraits generated exclusively from binary code; and the more expected videos and manipulated photographs. A number of artists in the exhibition ignore the rising tide of digital imaging processes to favour old technology and create powerful images with the archaic daguerreotype technique or cruder still, old-fashioned stencil.

Video is still the dominant filmic medium. It is a difficult medium for portraiture as the narrative is the signifying factor of this temporal medium. Artist Petrina Hicks tackles this directly in her video portraits. In Ghost in the shell 2008 there are no props to convey identity in a conventional sense; the video is a slow pan of objectivity across the visage of a girl, unimpeded by good manners or fear. The camera records every detail, as her head pivots though 360 degrees and we are able to study and scrutinise the face and enjoy the sheer beauty of youth. The scanning view and the model’s perfect features conjure up the notion of a computer-aided design program that displays the object created by a 3d graphic application. Exhaled smoke emerges from the girl’s mouth in Art Nouveau curls and undulating arabesques. The combination of stilled, unemotional beauty makes the mobile, insubstantial smoke a metaphor for the soul. This is the ghost of the title but also a portrait of the inner self that inhabits all of us. Hicks makes a poetic contrast between the mapped surface and the unseen interior.

Zombies, vampires and plagues that decimate humankind to a few survivors haunt the movie and television screens of this decade. They represent the uncomfortable intimacy and connectedness of contemporary society – the six degrees of separation. While Jonathan Nichols’ portraits Lucy 2001, Nina 2002, and Smiling 2003 are hardly ghoulish the aura of uneasiness that surrounds them derives from the sense of being connected. Using social networks we can connect with fame and celebrity and we are also able to broadcast ourselves. The biggest and most varied galleries of portraits today are websites such as Facebook. These portrait galleries are more likely to display the girl next door rather than the glamorous magazine cover girls. Exhibitionism and voyeurism are implicit in posting portraits online. The aesthetic is bland and gives away little. They are image of self that are safe to broadcast. Nichols uses images taken from the internet to test the ‘look’ of such portraits. There is the hint of smiles to break the passport photo impassiveness, neutrality with a touch of erotic potential, enough personality to separate these anonymous faces from the crowd, and perhaps the comfort of looking at a face and knowing we all are connected.

Ghostpatrol & Miso are street artists who work together creating an extended portrait of a place, the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. Their portrait layers the views and experiences of inner city living as a sensual rather than documentary composite. Fitzroy 2010 is an homage to the streets of Fitzroy that Ghostpatrol & Miso have explored, stencilled, pasted and postered. Fitzroy is their platform for communication and the multiple images in this work are a response to the streets and the urban network of windows, houses and streets. Fitzroy is a self portrait, illustrating the artists’ perspective and their story in the city.

James Dodd, like Ghostpatrol & Miso, makes the streets his gallery. His posters from Occupied territory 2003 return to an established way of broadcasting and connecting, not by phone or internet, but by placing his portrait posters in the natural nodes and pathways where people travel and congregate. His faces in the streets – George W Bush, Saddam Hussein, Elizabeth II, Osama Bin Laden, John Howard – are powerful individuals who literally occupy the territory as they do the media. Advertisement, wanted poster or propaganda, Dodd employs the hand-made look of stencil to equalise differences between world leaders and as a means to counter the ubiquitous urbane and subjective portraits presented by mainstream new media with a fresh alternative.

The idea of creating accurate threedimensional portraits has always fascinated humanity. Here are portraits that are inseparable from the technology that created it. Robert Lazzarini sculpts forms with the computer. In making Skull 2000 he had little or no contact with traditional art materials. Lazzarini uses materials as close as possible to the original – in this case the skull is bone, though reconstituted with a resin binder. Anamorphic forms like this are measured against an ideal or archetype. The distorted form plays on our ability to recognise common forms such as a face or death’s head and reconstruct them in the mind.

So, having considered Lazzarini’s computer created sculpture, is it Karin Sander or the machine that created Hervé Blechy 1:5 2008? The artist herself didn’t touch any art materials or intervene in the process which involves the subject being photographed from all angles by multiple cameras; the images sent to a computer application that creates 3d models from photos and the resultant model is then sent to a rapid prototyping machine which generates the model in white plastic. This, in turn, is painted by an assistant. In 1967 Sol LeWitt declared that ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.’ Sander’s mini-monuments, which she refers to as ‘assisted self portraits’ are classic examples of conceptual art, but with the neat twist that if an idea is as ephemeral as data, then here, data takes on materiality.

Portraiture with its strict focus on the recognisable image of the individual face is resistant to change despite the many movements and styles in the twentieth century and adoption of new digital technologies in the last decade. And although more choices of media available to the artist who is now able to make portraits using digital photography, digital video or installation the effect of the digital age is probably less on form and more on society. The use of digital media is near ubiquitous in part of the portrait process today. Photography, once considered an objective record of a sitter, as digital photography has gained the persuasive power of painting to subtly alter features and flatter beyond candid or objective description. There is greater spread and distribution with the increasing emphasis on the photographic but this may be only temporary as other forms and hybrids come online with 2d and 3d computer applications.

There is an increasing separation from old materials that slop, mess, spill in favour of keyboards and mice and the artist’s studio is starting to look like an executive’s work space. Research is done online and sketches are made on the camera rather than drawn from life and art is accordingly mediated from the start. Medium is less important than media, and in fact the term ‘medium’ is already starting to be an art historical term. Today, technology is not merely the means of transmission, it is the medium of so much contemporary art. While technology changes, the human face is a constant, mediated by fashion, politics and technological change. It is rewarding to look at portraits in terms of the technology that made it.