Roland Barthes|Mythologies

It has been really tough to get to this blog of late for a number of reasons. In terms of my project, I recently spoke to Laura about the impact of the work I have been making in a personal sense. When preparing a sequence of images to present at the meeting, I spoke of the feeling of being nauseous and having butterflies in my stomach from seeing the work together. Portraits that probably represent the reasons I chose to do an MA however the powerful emotions I felt weren’t anticipated.

The choice to conduct recorded interviews with the encounters serves to reinforce the personal impact although at present this may not be experienced by audiences as I’ve not presented this part of the project as yet. However the experience of editing listening to the audio after the encounter has been immersive and powerful. Obrist, H (2015: p55) speaks of the process of conducting interviews as ‘somehow bringing him closer to his art’ an idea that certainly aligns with my own experience of the last few weeks in making work. I had also wondered about my approach to making this work, raising questions relating to the equipment. Currently using an iPhone voice recorder application I’ve often thought if I should be formalising this process by using a better recorder or even possibly filming my encounters as a way of archiving or adding value. Obrist, H (2015) advocates an informal approach stating that such scenarios offer a more interesting, in what context he means by this, I am unsure but from my own experience I have found that the use of everyday technology appears less threatening. The iPhone is an object that I would have had in my pocket whether making work or not. And in this I feel that I am able to make encounters less formal, making participants feel more comfortable than if an alien object intruded their space such as a voice recorder.

In terms of the current development of my project the next destination is to explore avenues to open the work further in addition to pursuing the portrait and interview approach. As stated earlier the impact of hearing personal stories about suicide attempts and severe mental health issues, stories about people I know that I had no idea about. Served to reinforce the superficial nature of surface depth, this led to pontificating the idea of surface depth, and it is in this consideration which increasingly leads to the subject of gender and more importantly the masculinities that I might be challenging with some success. Having been encouraged to explore this avenue in a portfolio review with Clare Bottomley, Butler (1990) suggests:

‘when we say that gender is performed, we usually mean that we’ve taken on a role; we’re acting in some way…. To say that gender is performative is a little different… For something to be performative means that it produces a series of effects. We act and walk and speak and talk that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman… we act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or simply something that is true about us. Actually, it is a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time’.

Thinking about the role that interviewees have taken when collaborating, encounters are usually met with suspicion and intrigue. When I explain my intention, the suspicion lessens. As conversations unfold, I am becoming increasingly aware that male participants become increasingly confident in explaining their thoughts, experiences and emotions and in doing this I feel that participants voluntarily lead in the dismantling some of the performative tropes highlighted by Butler. The way people speak about their experiences, talk about their vulnerabilities and as an interviewer, I sense the lessening of the performative element. In doing this, I agree with Butlers conclusion to some extent when she argues that gender is a ‘phenomenon that is produced and reproduced all the time.’ In the context of my project I feel that the idea of ‘production, and reproduction’ may reach beyond masculinities and be applicable within the context of social position, class and ethnicity.

Moving back towards the mechanics of my work, one of the overarching quandaries I have been in pursuit of, is the relationship between the photographic, and the poetic. As a starting point for reflecting on such ideas Soth in Franklin (2016: pp 167) suggests

“I see poetry as the medium most similar to photography… Or at least the photography I pursue. Like poetry, photography, is rarely successful with narrative. What is essential is the ‘voice’ (or eye) and the way this voice pieces together fragments to make something tenuously whole and beautiful” 

Although Soth’s ideas are helpful, I still struggle to see beyond this statement and decipher between narrative and poetry. Aware of Barthes ideas about connotation and the suggestion of meaning as a microcosm in a photograph. Now considering ideas on a much broader level through the bigger form of a monograph, and the thought of what my FMP might look like when it’s finished. My recent reading has been directed towards Barthes (1958) book ‘Mythologies’. In a sense I feel frustrated that I hadn’t discovered this book earlier but at the same time I’m happy that at this point in my creative education, I am probably mature enough to read such a book and feel ideally placed to be able to take maximum meaning from the text. My initial assessment leads to the enjoyment of reading but on a more intellectual level, I think the book is a successful examination of symbolism and the explanation of the potential of an object or practice to be representative of something else in relation to social activity and value. Upon reading his essay ‘Steak and Chips’ I was able to decode the idea of the meal as a metaphor of nationalism, masculinity, loyalty and status. In the many relevant passages I am most drawn:

Steak is adorned with a supplementary virtue of elegance, for among the apparent complexity of exotic cooking, it is a food which unites, one feels succulence and simplicity. Being part of a nation, it follows the index of patriotic values: it helps them rise in wartime, it is the very flesh of the French soldier, the inalienable property which cannot go over to the enemy except by treason’.

Without unpicking the metaphorical value of this statement I would rather apply the idea of objects taking on meaning beyond their own vernacular to my own project with the inclusion of daffodils within my own work. In an aesthetic sense, my work has been described as dark and cinematic. The use of flash to create contrast which adds to this idea in addition to a sense of continuity. However I feel that my work is slightly one dimensional in terms of its masculine vernacular. The presence of objects such as bottles of beer, trainers and tracksuits add to appearances which may have further connotations of class and status amongst working class males, possible low education and modest means. However, in reducing people to few recognisable tropes such as these I am failing to account for the emotional intelligence I have encountered in the collaboration in the form of interviews.

Burr (2003) comments regarding discourses ‘It refers to a particular picture that is painted of an event, person or class of persons, a particular way of representing it in a certain light. If we accept the view… That a multitude of alternative versions of events are potentially available through language, this means that, surrounding any one object, event, person etc. There may be a variety of different discourses, each with a different story to tell about the object in question, a different way of representing it to the world’. 

Both Burr and Barthes support the idea of a multitude of discourses, representations and meanings within a text and in relation to my context. The inclusion of floral objects assists in the construction of meanings of fragility, combined with the typically male environment, I am keen to continue to develop the sense of humility and vulnerability within my work. I am aware that in a theoretical sense this seems a comprehensible direction however I’m not currently happy with the methodology of this work. At present I have been photographing flowers in their natural environment, looking for the floral in the urban landscape but a future direction may rely on the further construction of work in order to turn up the volume of my work.

Barthes, R. (1958) Mythologies. Vantage, London

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Abingdon: Routledge.

Burr, V. (2003) Social Constructionism, Second Edition. Routledge, London.

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse, Phaidon, New York.

Obrist, H (2015) Ways of Curating Hans Ulrich Obrist. Penguin, London

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