I want to be a bad camera

by Yule Heibel on November 2, 2005

The current (Fall 2005) Art Journal (LXIV, 3) includes a terrific interview conducted by Ana Finel Honigman with the artist Ellen Harvey. It’s not online, but I can’t reproduce the whole thing without running the risk of infringing on their copyrights, so I’ll try to quote / comment just around the bits that struck me as having an affinity with blogging and the blurring of professional / avocational lines (there’s way more in the interview than matters that resonate with how blogging blurs lines — or is a narcissistic endeavour — but in lieu of reproducing the whole thing, I’ll try to include enough links to give interested readers enough to pursue via online articles). Harvey’s first career was as a lawyer, and Finel Honigman asks whether Harvey’s training in law influenced her career as an artist. Harvey answers that she finds increasingly “similar concerns” motivating both fields:

I’m interested in questions that are fundamental to both fields, such as: who is allowed to do what, who owns what, and how do we structure our society. I think these apparently legal questions have a lot to do with art because the answers to them determine who is allowed or able to express themselves within our society.

When Finel Honigman probes further and asks whether the relationship between art & law is obscured — and that the former is perceived as fluid, shifting, ephemeral, and most of all flexible and perhaps ad hoc (anyone can decide to “become” an artist, while “becoming” a lawyer requires lots of credentialing), whereas the latter is seen as bounded, precise, and possibly inflexible, Harvey answers that common law in fact has always been “a flexible, evolving dialogue with its own history. Unlike civil law where everything is codified, common law is built on precedent. I think art functions quite similarly.”

The conversation gets very interesting when Harvey discusses how art has rules about who gets to join the “conversations” — there’s no getting away from that word these days, is there? There are what she calls “barriers to entry,” and much of her work explores those barriers in a clever, playful way. She elaborates on authority — if you’re an A-lister artist, it’s much easier to confer “status” on objects that other people would consider junk: there’s Jim Shaw, for example, who collects thrift store “paintings” which he then re-conceptualises (re-exhibits, essentially) as art, after which they suddenly are art, vs being thrift store kitsch. Harvey herself has explored this issue of “authority” in New York Beautification Project, where she painted small, traditional-looking oils onto streetscape objects that had been “tagged” by graffiti. When the graffiti artists painted those objects, it was “illegal” and unwanted; when Harvey re-tagged their graffiti with her paintings, her work was accepted by passers-by because on the one hand it looked “cute,” and on the other, she was “an artist,” and therefore producing art.

Another project, called I Am a Bad Camera, was based on 100 Free Portraits, in which Harvey posed as a street-portrait artist. She sketched people’s portraits for free, on condition that she could scan the portrait and also ask the sitter how he or she felt about the likeness. She notes, “Interestingly enough, almost no one asked me why I was doing it — it was as though I was invisible. Once they knew I was an artist, my motivation was a priori irrelevant. For the sitters, it was all about them.” In I Am a Bad Camera, we (the viewers) see a video projection onto a pad of paper of a portrait drawing. In the audio, we hear the voice-over of the sitter responding to the final drawing. Harvey notes:

This piece is sort of the evil artist’s revenge on the sitter — people clamor to have their portraits drawn, yet once they see the results, they’re never satisfied. They want longer eyelashes, they want to be thinner, essentially they want to look like themselves, only better, and yet oddly enough, the criticism is always couched in terms of verisimilitude. People complain that the artist is a bad camera, but ultimately they don’t want a camera at all. (…)

…people do secretly and not so secretly hope that you can show the “real” them — that you can show those intangibles that make them who they are. Of course most people also hope that this “real” image will be a bit better looking than reality. There’s also an element of fear. After all, a portrait is a rare opportunity to see how another person sees you. (…)

I think there was the assumption that I would be able to portray them better once I knew who they were. They almost all talked. One Egyptian man was getting engaged to a woman he had never met, and he wanted a portrait to send to her. He thought it would be romantic but also less distracting than a photograph since she was taking her exams.

I think people’s attitdues also had a lot to do with the fact that I was doing it for free. After people got over their initial skepticism about whether or not the service really was for free, they acted as if I was their servant, like a masseur or something. It was an intimate service but always about them. Nobody asked me a single question about myself. They all just sat down and started telling me their life stories. Maybe it says something about how starved for attention people are.

And now I’m wondering about bloggers: are we like that “bad camera,” or like those “bad sitters” who narcissistically took advantage? I aim to be a “bad” camera, but maybe I’m just another bad sitter…

{ 1 comment }

maria November 3, 2005 at 11:12 am

Fascinating — as usual!

Like you, my aim is to a bad camera … but much too often, it seems, I end up taking self-protraits (how’s that for the ne plus ultra in narcissism?)

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