It is difficult to describe the impact something has had on your life when it’s been in your life for so long you don’t remember life before it. This is the case for my relationship with the Harry Potter series, both the books and films. My older sister led me into the fandom, being older she read all the books before me and was old enough to watch the first films as they came out when I wasn’t – I have a distinct memory of being about 7 years old and being banned from watching Philosopher’s Stone after catching one scene and having nightmares about three-headed dogs for days afterwards. She read me parts of the book though – without our parents’ knowledge – and my childhood was marked with imaginary games about wizards and Hogwarts School. I was always Ron, as my sister would always claim Hermione; that revolutionary female character who we all wanted to be (I realise reading the books now that I am very much a Ron, that this is the result of my early imitations of his character I doubt but it is an enjoyable coincidence). As I grew up Harry Potter remained important to who I was, a port in the storm through teenage troubles. However, other fandoms crept in. During the turbulent years after losing my father, music came to the forefront. Metal and punk-rock lyrics were uncompromising in their expression of feeling and that outpouring of emotion resonated with my confused high school years. The band members felt like friends who understood, who put into words what I couldn’t, and joining their followings made me feel part of a community which I connected with online. When I met my girlfriend things changed again. I was in a position where I no longer needed the understanding lyrics and online community as there was someone in my life who I could always count on to listen. Both fans of Harry Potter, this was a link of understanding between us and this interest became more pronounced. Being in a relationship validated a sexuality I had struggled with throughout my teenage years, and as a result I threw myself into the LGBT community online, with interests relating to media in which I could see LGBT representation which I enjoyed analysing with others on social networks like Tumblr. One particular show I was interested in was Sherlock, and I was convinced at the time that this show would become a trailblazer in representation when Sherlock and John admitted they were in love with each other; the fourth series did not deliver this and so again I defaulted to my love of Harry Potter. Rediscovering the story through audio books, I saw as an adult what I’d missed in the stories as a child. Harry Potter is an important part of my family life still, having been to the Studio Tour, stage play, exhibitions and the new Fantastic Beasts film with my mum and sister. My student house has a Harry Potter cardboard cutout in the living room and a Fantastic Beasts billboard in the hall. For my birthday my girlfriend and I will be seeing the Chamber of Secrets accompanied by live orchestra. The stories have always been there for me when I needed them, the most reliable friend I could have.
In my opinion, isolating female work in an exhibition usually comes across as patronising, and calling that exhibition “Poster Girls” doesn’t suggest respect for female practitioners. Male curation also sets a bad tone for an exhibition celebrating the equal talents of women. For this reason, I was very wary going into this new exhibition at the London Transport Museum, showing transport poster designs by women from the last 100 years. Exhibitions such as this often increase the divide between the work of those of different genders, when it is rarely a visible dividing factor in the pieces on display. However, the exhibition itself I found very inspiring and surprisingly handled the issue of gender equality in the niche of transport poster design well. The annotations discussed the work of the women with mature and sensible terms, describing their educational background and style, and key figures had longer biographies about their careers and showed their work outside the field of poster design. Dora Batty, for example, had her ceramic and textile work on display so visitors can appreciate the breadth of her work, and her biography highlights that although her work was often reviewed in magazines of the time, it was never given the status of her male colleagues’. The exhibition also highlighted the fluctuating approach to transport authorities’ commissioning of female artists and designers and critiqued them for this. Praise was given to Frank Pick, who was in charge of London Transport’s branding and marketing, for commissioning a whole range of female artists for poster designs, and for not just giving them traditionally feminine pieces to design as was common in the 1920’s and 30’s. Commissions for sporting event posters like the poster for rugby at Twickenham by Laura Knight from 1921 show a clear talent for appealing to sports fans from a female designer. Another consequence of females in the design field pointed out by the exhibition is the portrayal of women in posters – female designers showed them out alone, rather than showing women only in relation to children or their husbands. The exhibition has gone beyond surface research of women in this field, and have looked at the complex issue of their work being undervalued because of their gender, discussing the benefits bringing women into the poster design field but balancing this with a rationality that their designs are on par with their male counterparts, but perhaps painted with a different worldview in mind. The exhibition was designed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote and this exhibition does show the ways in which historically women have been held back and celebrates the advances that have been made, but luckily it is primarily about good poster design. The highlight of my visit was overhearing a grandmother bringing her grandchildren to see a relative of theirs in the more recent end of the exhibition. It was clearly the first time the work had been shown in a major exhibition and their pride in seeing her work there cemented the importance of this work being on display. Rather than the patronising tone I expected, it had the intention of levelling the playing field by bringing to light names that history shouldn’t’ve forgotten. If only it had been called something more sensible, I would’ve described it as successful in doing this.
The power of looking back against the subjugation it can give a subject fascinated me last session. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger discusses women in traditional nude paintings who are painted for man’s pleasure, in poses to please the viewer instead of engaged in the picture’s scene. These women look out, to hold the gaze of the man onlooker, to pull him into the frame and make him a part of the scene. The woman must look out, defenceless and weak, for the man to be able to look in and feel he can conquer the scene. Even in sexual acts, the male part is usually a cupid or other figure of lesser strength. The man has the power in these paintings without actually being painted in them. Looking back here becomes an act of weakness and helplessness from the objectified subject of the gaze.
In contrast, in class we discussed the concept of looking back as a show of strength from the subject, a refusal to be objectified. A more modern tool, looking back in defiance is used by minority groups, like black women, as Bell Hooks discusses in The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators. She first speaks of the impact of a stare to make others feel uncomfortable, discussing being told not to stare at people as a child. This sort of intense gaze makes people feel as if there is something unusual or wrong about them to cause the stare, which makes them question their appearance or behaviour. The stare can also be used as a weapon, then; using a stare to consciously make someone question themselves brings power to the person using it and places them above the other in confidence. Used in imagery, this stare reverses the objectification of the subject and gives them an equal status.
Looking back as a pose even in modern media is usually reserved for white men – those in a position of power. Recently though, it has been used as a tool to equalise minority figures and show their power. An example which enlightened a lot of people to the issue of how women as photographed was Taylor Swift’s Time Magazine cover from 2014. Instead of having a full body photo as most women have for magazine cover photos, her photo was a straight on shot of her face, her eyes looking directly at the viewer. Observers were placed on an equal level with her, and the stance was powerful. Omitting the body from the photograph made it difficult to objectify her, as did the unblinking stare she faces the viewer with.
The difference between the stare of passive consent and the defiant stare of power I believe lies in two variables: the presentation of the body and the ability to choose the pose. The stare loses its power when the gaze disperses over a body it begins to objectify, but the pure presence of the stare makes is impossible to avoid. The ability to choose the pose and composition of the image represents more power – it’s the difference between a minority represented by the majority and a minority telling their own story. If you compose your own song, you can sing it with more power than any other singer. I think the same is true of images. It’s much more of a challenge to objectify an image’s subject without the help of the image’s creator.
Discussing the concept of ‘the gaze’ with different members of the class was a fascinating exercise as the views were so disparate and diverse. An underlying theme in a lot of conversations was the dominant force of social media in today’s society and the way it impacts how we see others and how we ourselves are seen. The ability to curate your own appearance creates some incredible illusions for those who are adept with the tools social media provides; in a recent talk, designer Gordon Reid confessed he owed a lot of his success to the illusion his well maintained blog created for him. Clients would contact him asking to discuss ideas in his studio, and at this point he had to confess he was still working from a bedroom in his mother’s house. Similarly, Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections (2014) depicted a more literally fictional life through a faked series of Instagram posts, curated to an extreme to show the kind of ideals many using the website aim for in their own lives. The images she posts are both familiar and distant – we know that these images are the standard we are expected to live up to, yet it is strange to see them so perfect, with no slip ups in the narrative.
Social media has both increased and decreased the presence of counter cultures and unpopular opinions, in that those of an alternative scene can interact and feel less isolated in their difference but in doing so it can make the culture mainstream and removes elements of individuality from it. Any thought becomes a force joining others of the same voice, or has the force of others used against it. Attention is often wanted, but is also given to extremes that could never be wanted. We discussed in the class the case of Hetty Douglas, an artist who posted on her Instagram story derogatory statements about builders’ intelligence. There was a conflict of opinion on this case, though all agreed the post was distasteful and shouldn’t have been posted, because of the reaction it caused. She received so much social media attention from it, including personal abuse and attacks to her own character. Some felt this was justice for her crimes, others argued it was out of proportion and extreme. I personally struggled with my position on this issue. I can’t say I think using social media as a people’s court is a strong base for society, yet for shaming others on social media the punishment did seem to fit the crime. The issue with social media is all posts are intended to put attention on the poster, and in doing so they make themselves open to the public gaze, and therefore public scrutiny. The way society will react to a post once shared is up to others, and whether the attention is wanted or unwanted, the poster makes themselves subject to public judgement through this platform. This is as an amplified form of how we are viewed in the physical world; we are seen, and we are judged on what the onlookers take from what they see.
A two hour session on research techniques is not how most students wish to spend a Monday morning, however this session on the databases UAL students have access to will surely be useful if not the most exciting. As well as teaching us about UAL’s resources, it gave rise to several thoughts concerning the internet and the availability of information.
Google dominates our use of the internet. It’s the biggest search engine out there, it owns the biggest video sharing platform, and it even frames our online activity through its browser. Most students – me included – take the google-first approach to research, looking through the first few results and concluding that if there’s nothing there, it’s not worth finding. I feel that my technologically literate generation know there’s more out there – the internet must surely contain all information known to mankind in some form or another. Accessibility is the key issue here I feel. A paywall is very off-putting; there is a mentality that everything online should be free, no matter the amount of work put in by the creator(s). For example, why would people buy a digital download of a TV show when there are all kinds of entertainment videos on platforms like YouTube free of charge? This mentality transfers to information – we are very comfortable with the likes of Wikipedia providing free information when we are casually searching for information for personal research. Libraries spoil us too in a way, all those books, free to use. I don’t think it’s wrong to seek payment for content that has taken time and effort to make, but I also consider that access to information a basic human right. I am pleased UAL have chosen to invest in these databases that students can use, but I think the government should fund these for the public so that those not fortunate enough to go to university still have access to educational resources, and won’t be merely scraping the surface of the knowledge available online.
The idea of being a flâneur is that you immerse yourself in a culture or environment to observe and record. You look and engage, but you keep your artistic distance. It’s an artistic ideal which I admire, as someone who enjoys wandering aimlessly just to see what’s in a place. One could do this close to home or in a completely alien culture, and it would have interesting and varied results. However, as a concept, I find it inherently flawed. The idea that you could visit a place, observe it, but remain at a clinical, observational distance, to me, seems like an impossible dream. Human brains aren’t conditioned this way – we are affected by our surroundings and our place in them.
Looking back to the origins of flâneurism, we see it was started by French gentlemen in the 18th Century, noting down what they saw on their idle walks through the city. They provide observation of the society and state of the area, an invaluable artistic resource. At this time, however, women wouldn’t have been allowed to walk alone in such a way, and lower classes wouldn’t have idle time, as they would have to work to earn a living. As such, flâneurism gives across privileged view of the world: the people at the top looking down to record the struggles of regular people, in a way. Although present society is different, I still feel that were I to take an idle stroll and record what I saw, I would be displaying a lot of privilege – many still don’t have the time for artistic adventure in busy lives, and some people face a greater threat just being out in public than me, more so in other countries but still here in the UK.
I feel flâneurism is a great way to record the world as you, a creative, see it, but it is unrealistic to believe that anyone could achieve a state of unbiased surveillance, especially from a position of privilege, through which the world looks very different.
Language and image have no real association with each other. This concept is one which took me a while to get my head around – from such a young age has society told me that a sound or a collection of letters links with an object or image, that I never even questioned the idea. Today’s lecture discussed the topic of structuralism, and how without an association placed on things by cultures, words are merely placeholders and have no meaning at all. Language is a collective agreement that certain words relate to certain things. An example given was the poetry of E.E. Cummings, which features the line “he sang his didn’t he danced his did.” (anyone lived in a pretty how town – 1940). The words in the poem grammatically make no sense, and to a reader it is an unexpected w=twist in the sentence. However, in our own way, we still understand. René Magritte is an artist who looks at similar ideas; The Treachery of Images is a famous piece which shows an image of a pipe, and captions it not a pipe. We would, though, on seeing the image believe it to be a pipe, but the caption shows us that the painting of the object is not the object itself.
This idea can be exploited in art and design fields because understanding people’s interpretations of images can demonstrate to us how to create an association in a piece of work. Naming or captioning a piece to secure a certain interpretation is known as anchorage, and this prevents spectral “ghost” interpretations of work. A key example is Picasso’s Bull’s head, which is made of bike parts but due to the title, a different association is given. Having knowledge about structuralism and semiotics, we can therefore use text in the form of titles, captions, or anything else to alter the viewer’s perception your work, and to read new meanings into it that they may not otherwise have seen.