Sunday, February 19, 2017

Posturing Intimacy

Late in 2016, I had reason to dress up a bit (if only a bit) and I got a fresh short haircut to top it off. I even put gel in my hair, which I hate. I took a picture of myself on the bus to see how I looked.

As I expected, I looked like I was playing a character in a play. I felt like I'd left the theater still in costume after a performance. There was little in the picture that I recognized as "me." Yes, of course, the face is mine, but being trained as an actor, I know when I'm playing make believe. I know, for the most part, when I'm "me" and when I'm in character.

This is not what I look like.
The dress shirt and jacket (I hadn't yet bothered with the tie) was a costume. Being out in public as I was, I felt conspicuous. I may as well have been wearing a feathered headdress from La Cage Au Folles.

As a joke---I thought it was funny---I posted the picture to Facebook with the status, "This is not what I look like." I thought most of my friends would get the joke, since I tend to dress much more casually, a lot less "put-together."

What I got instead was a thread of compliments. From the usual "you clean up nicely" to the simple "handsome," with some variations, I was complimented even as I responded with things like "It's just a character I can play." And because I'm weird and have issues, I grew more and more annoyed with my friends. All my attempts to redirect to the joke I was making didn't work. My friends simply wouldn't play along.

And as I pouted about all the nice things being said to me, I had a number of thoughts ricocheting in my skull.

Do any of these people know who I am?

There are people in the world who would die for compliments like this.

Do I resist looking like this all the time?

Why do I feel like such a fake in this picture?

What's at stake here? 

I felt like most of these questions circled around a question of identity.


When I did my first iteration of Intimacy With The World in 2011, I'd stated it was a response to loneliness, aging, and loss. Not stated up front was the feeling of invisibility I had. I was in a place where I was very visible, but in many ways unknown. The year 2010 included the death of friend, an unrequited love, and the loss of employment. I felt like most people didn't see it, or that I wasn't expressing it in a way for it to be seen. I wanted people to see me in a vulnerable moment. Taking pictures of myself first thing in the morning felt like a reasonable response. It made me visible in a particular way. As that first iteration progressed, I came to understand it as a document of a performance of loneliness, a performance that had no live audience present. How lonely is that?

2015 wasn't nearly as hard as 2010, and yet there were difficulties. I felt stuck. I felt like I forgot how to make things happen (a few events I tried to organize all fell apart). Then there was someone I found interesting (a rare circumstance in itself), and while he moved away before I could find out if he was another unrequited love, it was a situation (why do the men I find interesting end up moving to another state?) that put me in a bit of a funk. The 2011 version of IWTW felt like a start of a productive couple of years. It probably looks a lot like superstition, but I thought maybe a repeat would jump start another such period.

Now, any good postmodernist will tell you that the repetition isn't about the same thing happening again in exactly the same way, but about the ways that the repetition is different. A single note struck repeatedly on a piano won't have the exact same volume. It may not be repeated with the exact same time-intervals between strikes. If there is anything interesting in that sort of repetition, it's in the these dynamics. (Years ago, in my acting classes, I was taught that a repeated line needed to be repeated with some difference---emotion, speed, volume---to create interest. It's the same idea here.)


 So, what was different? Let's start with some superficial differences.

In 2011, I used one quarter sheet of standard 8-1/2" x 11" paper. In 2015, I used one eighth of a sheet. (Economical!)

Five years ago, I took the pictures in a couple of different spots in my apartment, preferring natural morning light when I could use it. This year, I took them all in the bathroom, in the same light everyday. The exceptions, of course, were the four mornings in 2016 that I didn't wake up in my apartment.

In 2011, I used the same camera all year and it was slightly inferior to the one I used at the start of 2016. Then, late in spring, my camera broke and I started using my smart phone to take the pictures. This was really a huge difference. The phone, of course, has a selfie mode. I knew immediately this would affect my performances. The uncertainty of framing was gone and the temptation to smile or otherwise try to be more attractive was great. In fact, some mornings, I would make faces at myself before taking the picture.

I think that covers the surface differences.


The deeper differences feel more subtle. 

Let's start with the least deep of these differences. I got bored early and pretty well throughout this iteration. In 2011, I recall wanting to stop a few times but 2016 found me wanting to stop regularly. Had this project required any more effort than it did, I most certainly would have stopped. 

In fact, I did start out 2016 with posting the photos daily, but I eventually found that too tedious and returned to the 2011 practice of weekly postings. Even those became less urgent. There are a few posts that didn't make it to the web on Saturday (my intention) and at least one week where I posted two weeks at once. This can be due to lack of accountability. In 2011, I posted the weekly blogs to my Facebook page and otherwise promoted it. In 2016, I told maybe 3 people. If I'd stopped altogether, I'm doubtful anyone would have noticed. (Each post has a handful of hits, so maybe someone out there checked regularly, but I'm more likely to chalk those up to random Blogger browsers.) 

Lat in the year, I was rereading a portion of a grad school text book (The Object of Performance by Henry M. Sayre). It had a chapter on photography that got me thinking about Intimacy With the World, particularly in regard to the photo I referenced at the start of this essay. Most photos, certainly portraits, are posed and therefore a performance. Some performances were are more authentic than others, but a pose---a posture, a position---is a performance, a presentation of self for how you want the photo to represent you. 

Obviously, holding a slip of paper with a date scrawled on it is not a candid photo of an unguarded moment. I may have intended it as a record of a vulnerable moment, but it's the record of a performance of a vulnerable moment. It's not a theatrical performance with rehearsal and costumes and makeup and all the technical bells and whistles, but these 366 bad self-portraits were a performance all the same. 

And here's where I come around to identity. While I can admit the artificiality of both the "first thing in the morning" photos and that "clean up nicely" photo, the first category feels the most authentic to me. The ungroomed, bleary, barely conscious photos of me are more who I am than that guy in the dress shirt, jacket, and hair gel. 

I started this project in 2011 because the pose/performance felt intimate. No one ever sees me first thing in the morning (the exceptions are at things like church retreats or visits to friends out of town). I live a lot of my life invisible to other human eyes. 

Now, six years later, I find that I want the world to see me first thing in the morning because that's how I see myself. I don't see myself as put together, coordinated, "cleaned up." 

This feels like something worth finding out about myself. And any more to be said about it might be taken up with close friends or perhaps a licensed professional. 


Intimacy With the World has been a work of conceptual art. Conceptual art is, perhaps, the most easily mocked and lampooned form of art in all art history. I recognize this even as I engage in it. I'm rather indifferent to the mockery and given the right mood, I might join in.

I also recognize that conceptual art is often more meaningful to the artist than to the audience seeing it. I care some about this, but not even all that much.

What I want to say about this, to help those unaccustomed to looking at conceptual works, is to look at it questioningly. I don't mean questions about me, although that may be inevitable, but about yourself. How lonely are you? What is invisible about your life and how do you feel about that? What representation of you best represents you? What is your authentic pose to the world?

How intimate with the world do you want to be? 

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