Empowering the Powerless
In the winter of 1980 we were looking for "older men with strong facial features and no facial hair" and Tina told us that we may find her friend Bill Rice at The Bar on 2nd Avenue; and right away we could see Bill - we had no idea what he would look like but the man stooped on the bar with drunk red eyes and his face fixed in an expression of worldly pain had to be him. He was an artist but worked sometimes as an actor in the New York underground film scene of the late 1970s. We had promised him something that we could not quite deliver - a "head shot". The next day he showed up in our place dressed in a light green suite, a white shirt and a stripped tie, we had him seat in a make shift studio we set up and he sat there embracing his right knee, looking a little bewildered as we took just one picture, our first. This was a time of intense politicization in the United States. When Ronald Reagan came to power in a landslide victory, many artists felt the need to resist, to get involved. The art world was becoming much bigger than any other time before; the art market became an industry. In as much as these changes signalled positive developments in the sense of integrating art into the popular culture, this was also a time of co-option, of a return to an escapist and anti-intellectual art. For a number of years a state of suspension, of an imminent change was in the air - a generation of artists lay in waiting for the counter attack. The new art would be a development and a critique of the legacy of conceptual art, addressing the politics of identity and concrete issues like government and AIDS - to talk truth to power, the power of corporations who increasingly controlled the cultural sphere. The dilemma we faced at the time was how to take advantage of the new visibility and cultural reach that the market mandated and at the same time find a way to smuggle in a critical voice, to manipulate and not be manipulated. Almost by chance we had found a picture of an IBM executive group - the kind of image that could be featured in an annual report. We understood that annual report, and in particular annual report portraiture is one of the few instances that the corporation presents itself to the public - this was a crack in the corporate armour - a place where the conglomerate attempts to put on a smiling human face on the monster. Annual reports have a way of suggesting that there is no conflict between the public good and the corporate greed. The analysis of this photographic model yielded surprising results - the gestures the executives used, the dress code, the relations between superiors and subordinates all related directly to conventions that were set in Dutch portraiture of the seventeenth century. This made perfect sense - the birth of capitalism, entrepreneurship and spectacle of social mobility were all to be found there. We started to develop the model which we were to follow for a number of photographic portraits which would function as a hybrid between the two forms - in content related to the corporate annual report photography and in presentation and context to art. A model that would allow us to function inside and out of the art world.
Interrogating a Portrait
As a framework we used the narrative of commissioned portraits since commissioned-looking images by their definition deal with the issues of control. They dramatize a fictitious scenario that provides a simple scheme of the field of forces involved in the portraitdrama, an allegory of how meaning is controlled. Those people (visible inside the frame) commission the artist (invisible and outside of the frame) to represent them in a way that will conform to certain contemporary standards that were fixed by historical conventions (no new postures were invented in the twentieth century). Essentially we use the commissioned narrative as an intentionally misleading device which gives the work a recognizable "look", one we are superficially familiar with; but in fact it is a pretext to bring up questions of control, of conflicts of interests, of who imposes the meaning of the pieces. Accordingly, if we consider the implicit ability of the art world to coerce the results that would be suitable to itself, we could generalize this scheme - the portraits are fictionalized documents of power representing itself. We could make the mechanism transparent; expose the way power is worn nakedly, without shame. Nobody knows exactly how meaning is controlled but everybody feel compelled to guess, to invent a narrative that supports his own theory, related to what he sees. Generally speaking, the portraits we have done over the years represent participants, members of the art world - they are collectors, dealers, critics and artists (with whom we extended collaborations). All pose in conformity with an executive dress code that seemingly relates to an external class, the body of the corporate soul, they are participants in a drama in which they themselves play a central role: they are the culture executives. Internally, we can say, the portrait is about the relationship between the invisible artist and the visible commissioner. Externally, the artwork itself is controlled by critics, curators and museum directors who make selections and map out hierarchies. But artists and cultural executives alike have a reason to conceal this situation: the artists because they want to believe in creativity and self-assertion, the art executives because they try to hide the surplus-oppression which they exert. Early on we only used actors, they were people we knew or were related, but since we did not know many older people we had advertises in actors casting magazines and sometimes worked with professional actors. After a few years, as the fiction of the commission was established we started accepting actual commissions; but they would be done on our own terms. The persons commissioning their image were in fact asking to be represented in the same manner as the actors acted out their part. They would play themselves in a circular void of identity. From the outset it was clear that we were not interested in a person's so called "psychology"; we felt that the claim of photography to "discover", to reflect a depth is greatly exaggerated if not completely false. The visual content of people's faces is a field we feel free to manipulate as part of the social history of face types - we don't believe in Physiognomy.
The Life of a Portrait
The initial contact with persons who wanted to be portrayed by us would be made through our dealer (who would juggle waiting lists and other inducing hard-to-get devices); we would ask about their age and gender but never wanted to look at their images and then an appointment would be made. Based on the initial information we had we would have a pre-conceived idea of the composition we would like to make, often related to an art work or a photograph we had seen. First we hang the background we have brought, look for accessories and chairs; then pose subjects according to the composition we have planned; while they stand or seat in position we arrange their hands in a slightly violent manner, which never fails to surprise them. We look in their closets for accessories, jewellery and ties. We ask them not to smile, remove their glasses, stay very still and hold their place. The lights we use are very bright and very hot - which makes looking forward difficult; the sitters begin to feel uncomfortable, even vulnerable as their control of the set is limited when we assert our "artistic" authority. They blink and sweat and look like they don't fully accept our photographic proposal. The photographic backgrounds in front of which the portraits are taken don't come from the sitters' personal environments. The same backgrounds are used over and over again, they are assigned to a person by type, and often our sitters recognize them and see how they are embedded in a scene. The backgrounds move to the fore and break the unity of space in their obvious artificiality; one can see the seams, the pushpins in the wall, and the edge of the make-believe. Every photographic session becomes an experiment in which we control certain variables and observe the rest of them. We control the backdrops, lights, postures and accessories but have limited control over facial expression and the not insubstantial radiation of what can be transmitted by the presence of the sitter - a struggle of self-assertion ensues, of domination over the image. There are certain barriers that one would not cross - to part with one's glasses, to wear a tie; when an impasse of this sort is reached we record the refusal in the title of the image (The Man without a Tie). The controversial point about commissions is that we wanted to be able to do two things at the same time; to have real power relations with our subjects, and at the same time to simulate power relations. To have the fiction and the truth collapsed into one another in the same image without each disturbing the other. We realized the portraits can have a double life - they can function within the art world and at the same time have a "real life" impact - and can create small controversies, aggravate the sitters, they can be torn apart by couples who separate (that is why we started portray couples in two panels as companion pieces). We re-direct the attention from the sitter to ourselves: the portraits are not about their individuality or subjectivity, the sitters are acting as stand-in figures for people like themselves, they become generic bearers of power and the distinction between generic and commissioned images is blurred. This distinction between commissioned and generic portrait is a central one: commissioned images function as a code of acquiring a social status or an affirmation of one, it is a celebratory sign of having the means of acquiring your own representation, of being a subject - a person of distinction. It is a fulfilment of the wish to be represented (to be present, alive) to own and control one's own representation. While in generic representations the sitters becomes a social type, lacking individuality; therefore typically generic images are small and have titles indicating an activity, a kind rather than a name. We have chosen to give generic titles to our commissioned images in order to articulate this distinction. The viewers were polarized between those who could afford a representation and those who depended on others for their representation. We used to think about our art project as a utopian promise of a state when the difference between the two will be dissolved. Typically, the distinction between commissioned and generic can be seen as a dramatization of the power relations between the artist and his subject - that is, the artist being dominated by his commissioner or standing in a dominant, almost patronizing relation to his subject in generic images. We have tried to invert this model by the overt control we exert over the photographic session, by reserving the right to decide who will be in or out of the portrait, how they will be represented and by never sharing the photographic proofs or results with our sitters - allowing them to see only the finished, framed artwork a few months later.
Sometimes the result of this procedure is a refusal - a rejected commission. We do not get paid, the commissioners return the artwork with the understanding that we are free to exhibit it and use their image in other pieces. We are happy to get the rejections, they release the works from the closed circle between the artist and the commissioner and open them to the public. There is also a sense of satisfaction in the fact that the work is not digested, that it is not pleasant but rather disturbing and, occasionally, downright ugly. We offer a kind of controlled idealization that revolves around power rather than beauty. Not out of malice but perhaps with a slight vindictiveness we have collected the rejected portraits, we have separated families and exhibited groups of rejected children, rejected women and rejected men as images that, again, revolve around the narrative of power and around the reason for the rejection.
About the "Political-Physiognomic Fragments"
We try not to photograph people who have a media image, who are recognizable to the public - this creates a process of compare and contrast and shifts the subject to the personality or at best to an analysis of our interpretation of the subject. When we photographed the German government and the photograph was moved from the original exhibition site in Winterthur to Berlin, we were in a curious position - of knowing less about our sitters than the viewers did. We hoped, in this case, that the work would be liberated from the original circumstances of its production and become more generalized, that it would stand by itself, disconnected from its use value (which in this case was minimal). This was not a commission by the German government but rather by a Swiss museum. We had shown a collection of single portraits side by side with the very same portraits collaged together to form a large group. As far as we were concerned, the subject of the show was the relation between single and group portraits: a study of the process through which single portraits are transformed when put together in a group; the action of constructing a narrative of power, of finding an internal body language between the figures. In the next exhibition we used the same elements with the addition of six photographic "vitrines" in which the expressive facial features were presented, detached from their owners, as though they had run away to form independent groups - the eyes of power, the mouths, the noses, the hands, etc. The body parts were fixed on a board with pushpins as collection of specimens. At present we doubt whether art could function as a critical tool directed at a public of consumers. This doubt calls for the suspense of any assumption about the public; it defines the public in negative terms. As a result, when interpreted as a continuation of the tradition of conceptual art, this work attempts to analyse the conditions of production and reception of meaning under the pressure of privatized experience. We feel a necessity to shift from a preoccupation with content - art as a critique - to experimentation with new modes of communication and reception. While we have continued to elaborate our portrait/photographic-based work since the 1990s, we have developed art forms that attempted to address directly, to engage and even re-articulate the public in our outdoor, public projects and cognitive exercises - a body of work that nevertheless we define in terms of Portraiture.