A to Z of the Human Condition: I is for Individuality

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Alli Burness takes a look at our collective reflection as she explores the (in)famous selfie, illustrated by your photos.

Selfies receive a lot of bad press. For some, they’re the manifestation of a self-obsessed, narcissistic society. We’re impelled to step back from significant or sombre moments in our lives to share selfies online. These images taken in front of the Mona Lisa, at funerals or even at Auschwitz visualise uncaring, thoughtless moments. But I think there is more to selfies than meets the eye.

Today, the sharing of lived experience is part of our daily lives and, within that process, we have the ability to present ourselves and see our bodies as never before. Selfies are a contemporary tool for managing our sense of self, a highly personal process which requires viewers to remain aware of context and directorial control as important to their meaning.

There are generally two schools of thought about the nature of human identity and you can recognise one or the other as being at the root of many statements about the selfie (try to identify them in the video at the end of this post).

One school of thought holds to the concept of an authentic, essential sense of self that sits within us, like a traditional notion of a soul. This frequently manifests in a fraught relationship with social media. The presentation of self in the online world is posited as a negative influence in our lives, as artificial posturing with vain tendencies, empty and without substance. Taking selfies, in this light, disrupts ‘real’ moments in our lives by encouraging us to capture and share ourselves self-consciously to online audiences.

The second understands identity as something we construct and constantly recreate in an ongoing process throughout our lives, a fluid performance from one moment to the next. In this way, the online self is a continuation of behaviours we already conduct in meat-space, from presenting ourselves on a resume, to choosing the clothes we wear and the mannerisms used in face-to-face interactions. The online space amplifies the self-conscious nature of these day-to-day methods of navigating our world. The ‘performance of self in everyday life’ (a 1959 theory authored by Erving Goffman) is now explicit and communally acknowledged with the use of tools such as selfies.

So what is a selfie? Is it an expression of our authentic inner self or a tool we use in an ongoing, evolving performance of ourselves? What is the effect of social media as a lens through which our selfies are refracted to the world?

Our body is our blind spot and yet it is critical to our sense of identity. Or, as Nick Crossley puts it, “the ‘I’ does not see itself any more than the eye sees itself and we are therefore reliant upon others to reflect back information about ourselves.”1 Photography allows us to see ourselves by standing outside of and objectifying our bodies. It has profoundly shaped not only the human sense of self but our awareness of how others perceive us, thereby impacting how we behave. Amplifying the reflective role of photography, selfies inserted into social networks are tools which allow us to direct how images of our bodies are presented to others while also highlighting the information reflected back in the form of likes or comments.

“Photography has been the most widespread means of visual communication of the past century and a half, and has done more than any other medium to shape our notions of the body in modern times.”

John Pultz2

When we take a selfie, we often play to the moment. We act “a little bit larger than life, to spotlight the meanings that are hard to see in the flow of routine life. They feature the same kind of intensification that museums convey upon objects.”3 Within the spotlight of the selfie, the roles of photographer, subject and viewer are conflated. The photographer-subject enacts directorial control over not only the photo-taking process but also how the selfie is inserted into social media spaces. This act implicitly grants permission for us to look at their selfie. These images shared in online spaces create a consensual awareness of us all communally looking at each other, causing the ‘self’ in selfie to become a collective ‘we.’4

Whether we like them or not, the selfie has changed the way we do identity work and created a new way to look at ourselves and others. They are now an everyday tool of self-expression, no matter if we see that as expressing an essential inner character or as an ever-changing, on-going performance of identity. Which do you see them as?

Alli Burness is a museum writer working on digital engagement at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. She is the author of the museum blog Museum in a Bottle.

See all the #HumanReflection photographs submitted by the public.


Further Reading

1 Nick Crossley, ‘The Networked Body and the Question of Reflexivity’, in Waskul, Dennis and Phillip Vannini (ed.s), Body/embodiment: symbolic interaction and the sociology of the body, England: Ashgate, 2006, 27.

2 John Pultz, The Body and the Lens: Photography 1839 to the Present, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995, 7.

3 Jay Rounds, ‘Doing Identity Work in Museums’, Curator, Volume 49, Issue 2, April 2006, 133 – 150.

4 Sarah Hromack, ‘The Museum Selfie’, Whitney Museum: Shared Spaces Symposium, online video, viewed May 2014.

A to Z of the Human Condition: U is for Urban Living

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Andrew Matheson looks at how more and more people live in an urban environment, illustrated by your photos.

For the first time in human history more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas. Between 2000 and 2050 developing countries could add 3.2 billion new urban residents: larger than the global population in 1950 (Thinking Spatially, RTPI 2014). Yet planning as a recognised profession– the attempt to manage this rapid and accelerating urbanisation – has just celebrated its centenary. The story of the last century can be seen through a kaleidoscope of efforts to manage a massive move to urban living against a background of powerful social, economic and environmental factors.

For many, New York City is the epitome of urban living. Its seemingly perpetual reach-for-the-skies is based upon order brought about by one of the most regular street-pattern grids of any big city. But whilst New York appears to crave density, this comes at a heavy price: it is not placed in the top 20 cities of the Economist Intelligence Unit‘s (EIU) “Liveability Ranking”.

Yet there seems no single blueprint for loveable, liveable places. Cities that consistently rank highly on liveability rankings – such as Copenhagen, Melbourne and Vienna – are very different. Copenhagen has virtually all residents living within 350 metres of public transport and it also has ambitions to have 50% of commuting residents use a bicycle by 2015. In contrast, Melbourne sprawls but it makes the most of its ability to intersperse high and low densities. Vienna it seems has managed successfully to meld old & new. Each city has challenged the potential for dislocation from growth and change in its own way.

Jane Jacobs in her hugely influential book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ (1961) criticised the notion that you can bring control and order to cities; she noted the contrast with what they are in reality, complex organic systems. It is that complexity that is both the benefit and challenge of living in cities. Opportunities abound but every dislocation has a myriad of consequences, many difficult to foresee with any clarity, and so we build knowledge from past experience.

Perhaps urban living is an attractive proposition precisely because of the range of experiences they can encompass.  Ebenezer Howard who published ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’ in 1896 knew this and his vision was of places free of slums and enjoying the benefits of both town (such as opportunity, amusement and high wages) and country (such as beauty, fresh air and low rents). Howard’s vision still inspires today with The Wolfson Economics Prize 2014 building on this legacy by seeking viable ideas for 21st Century Garden Cities; proposals here have suggested up to 40 new ‘cities’ with populations ranging from 25,000 to 400,000 ‘city’ populations.

On the world scale we clearly have very modest ambitions. The new Prime Minister of India has said his country will create 100 new cities, “equipped with world class amenities”. This commitment is said to have taken a lead from China where a whole array of planned eco-cities are being created (Guardian 14.04.14). Like Howard’s theory, the Chinese have the goal of building exemplar cities from the ground up rather than letting them develop organically. But as the commentator notes: “You can want to design your urban landscape, but in reality, on a fundamental level, that’s impossible. We have to acknowledge that it’s extremely hard to build a regular city from scratch.”

Some will see planners as the dead hand of bureaucracy stifling ambition and ordering the energetic chaos that brings excitement to cities. Others will see planners as the ushers of unwanted and dislocating change that has too little respect for tradition. As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. After the next 100years we will certainly know better!

Andrew Matheson is a Chartered Town Planner for the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), as a Policy & Networks Manager.

See all the #HumanSardines photographs submitted by the public.

Time and motion

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Our new event series, Rhythm is a Dancer explores the psychology and physiology of dance, and its impact on the body and our minds. Accompanying the series, fine art photographer Atton Conrad has created a series of portraits that track the algorithms of each dancer’s movements through light, capturing the essence of their dance form. Individual portraits will be revealed as the series progresses. Here he explains how he began capturing the motion of the human body.

It’s a rare admittance but I have to be honest, all my photographs are lacking. Missing a certain something, deficient of it entirely: motion, movement & time. They are not present. Now this lack, apparent in all photographs, is also their greatest strength, allowing the eye to linger on the wonderful complexity of a frozen moment that would pass too quickly to be perceived otherwise. Yet trying to convey a sense of movement in a still image has always required skillful manipulation of inferences such as posture and motion blur.

Light painting is entirely a creation of movement. A light source is drawn across the scene while the camera is open and so a single point creates a flowing line. A memorable example is in pictures of moving cars at night, where the head and tail lights trace out lines of white and red.

The process used in the creation of the dancers’ and performers’ portraits combined these two concepts to track the movement of the performers over time. Lights attached to the performers’ bodies trace out the motion of their movement in a pitch dark environment while a final high speed flash freezes their final position. The nuances of their action are present in the trail, visual representation of motion and movement over time in a still image. Quite literally graphic data.

Science has always been of interest to me. I always enjoyed the process of twisting my mind into unusual intellectual shapes to understand concepts in both science and art equally, along with the following awe at the beauty of both and the minds of those that formed the ideas.

Creativity is not only the preserve of an artist. Science is perhaps the ultimate creator. I use exactly those same conceptual processes in image creation, as do all artists. The same equation, just differing inputs.

To quote Einstein is a cliche, but relevant. “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious—the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

It was the work of scientist Alexei Gastev that was the catalyst for the shoot. During the 1905 Russian revolution he was a specialist in ‘time and motion’ studies. His aim was to increase the efficiency of Russian workers creating ‘cyclograms’ as they were known, to understand the movement of those workers.

Although never intended as art they retain an inherent utilitarian beauty all of there own and I hope I have done at least some justice to the original works.

Tickets for the first event, ‘Can You Kick It’ are available from today. Visit our website to book online and  watch a short film created for the event. Find out more about Atton Conrad’s work at attonconrad.com.

Picture Us

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Today is Picture a Museum Day. Across the world, museums are sharing pictures of what goes on behind the scenes, and people are taking their own pictures from museums and also sharing them.

We’re taking part by sharing a set of pictures showing the installation of materials from the Wellcome Library in our new Dirt exhibition which opens next week. You can see a selection of the photos in the gallery above, and the full set on Flickr.

Meanwhile, during the day, our Visitor Services Assistants will be taking pictures of a day in the life of Wellcome Collection, and we’ll post those at the end of the day.

If you’re visiting us today, we’d be delighted if you take pictures yourself (but please leave the flash off) showing us what you find interesting, and what the objects in Wellcome Collection mean to you. You can add them to the #MuseumPics Flickr pool. You can add your pictures to the Wellcome Collection Flickr pool today and any day of the year – we always love to see your pictures, especially of our events.

If you’re on Twitter, you can tweet the pics – use the hashtag #MuseumPics (and drop us a mention at @ExploreWellcome so we can retweet the best).

We look forward to seeing your pictures!

Drop into the pool

Glass bottle. Joseph Morningstar

Glass bottle. Joseph Morningstar

Taken any pictures at Wellcome Collection recently? Whether they are of exhibits, events, or even just a nice cake in the café, we’d like to see them in our new Flickr pool for Wellcome Collection.

Photos already in the pool that we particularly like include this vanitas by astropop, David Muir‘s Jelly Babies and this astute take on our word soup by Heather. This photo of spyderfyngers and her friends taking advantage of the free moustaches on offer to young explorers also made us laugh.

Medical London Flickr pool

Angiogram. flickr.com/dhedwards

Angiogram. Angiogram. flickr.com/dhedwards

Do you take pictures of hospitals? Are you a healthcare worker? Ever photographed your own operation? You might be interested in our Medical London Flickr group. The pool is an extension of our Medical London project, a book and website charting the history of disease and treatment in London, with a gazetteer and guided walks.

All you need to join is a Flickr account (it’s free, and if you already have a Yahoo! Account, you can use that). Add your pictures to the pool geotagging them if you can, to add to the map,  join in the discussion and help us build a composite picture of contemporary and historical medicine in London.