A project by Cristina Nuñez
Curator: Carolina Lio
Web design: Diana Thorimbert
Interviews: Katharina Barbosa Blad
Ingvild Nordengen Tjessem
The invited artists
Katharina Barbosa Blad
The prison interns
SELF-PORTRAIT IN PRISON
text by Carolina Valentina Lio
Thus when I come to shape here at this table between my hands the story of my life and set it before you as a complete thing, I have to recall things gone far, gone deep, sunk into this life or that and become part of it; dreams, too, things surrounding me, and the inmates, those old half articulate ghosts who keep up their hauntings by day and night.
- Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Even if the idea of a responsibility of the artist towards his/her social context had been already anticipated in 1975, in Joseph Kosuth’s essay The artist as anthropologist wishing for the abandon of the constraining objectivity to conversely adopt a genuine engagements with one’s own living context, art practices in terms of participation and how this is constructed in public space is a debate that has been raised not before the late ‘80s.
Specifically, one debate organised in New York at the Dia Art Foundation in 1988 and titled Cultural Participation, wondered how artists can involve citizens or building participatory spaces of shared interest. In this occasion, David Avalos raised the need to understand the public space not as a place of passage, but as a place to congregate, to create spaces for discussion, socialisation and visibility: <We must insist on creating spaces in society for discussion, for ideas in which we are interested, and in this sense working for the possibility of a democratic society.>
In the same period, Hal Foster theorised about what has been called Political Art. He stated that political art has nothing to do with ideological propaganda, but rather with the settlement of an active relationship with the audience. Political art, he said, is transgressive while pursuing transformation, resisting the established system of production and circulation, and intervening in the cultural and social space, that is
being proactively involved in strategies that force changes in the social structure.
A certain number of years now of research on these concerns have enabled the existence of a number of hybrid art practices in which commitment, responsibility and mutual service may dissolve the figure of the artist in shared practices. Still, some questions are far to be cleared up, such as: what is the role that art acquires in a complex social context? How can collaborative and participatory practices be inserted in the established art system? In what way institutions can facilitate the exchange between specific social areas and specific cultural aspects? In what way this may become an actual benefit?
One of the first studies in art theory to examine in detail participative and intersubjective relationships within contemporary art is Nicolas Bourriaud's 1998 book Relational Aesthetics. He refers in particular to artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Douglas Gordon, and Carsten Höller who engage with what Bourriaud describes as the <interhuman sphere relationships between people, communities, individuals, groups, social networks, interactivity, and so on>. Tiravanija, for instance, arranged grand feasts of ethnic gastronomy inside ordinary gallery spaces in order to facilitate unpredictable social connections between members of the audience who casually perform as collaborators.
In Nicolas Bourriaud’s opinion, capitalism has firstly imposed the division of labour and the ultra specialisation in the name of the mechanisation and law of profitability, then it has turned human relations into a standardised artefact, separating the relational channels as the final stage in the transformation to the society of spectacle. Vice versa, he claims, <art is the place that produces a specific sociability… It creates free areas and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life, and it encourages an inter-human commerce that differs from the communication zones that are imposed upon us>. As a consequence, aesthetic theory consists in judging artworks on the basis of the number and quality of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt.
In other words, relational art works seek to establish intersubjective encounters in which meaning is elaborated collectively rather than in the privatised space of individual consumption. Going further, it can be even defined as a micropolitical form of resistance to the reification and alienation evident in capitalist corporate culture.
Another important feature of relational artworks is that they insist upon use, involvement, and participation rather than mere contemplation. In effect, Bourriaud suggests that, in front of any aesthetic product, we ask the following questions: <Does this work permit me to enter into dialogue? Could I exist, and how, in the space it defines?> He refers to these questions as ‘criteria of co-existence’ which define the social model that the piece produces.
WE EXIST is a project that can be analysed and valued in the framework of the Relational Aesthetics and is shaped by the collaboration between Spanish artist Cristina Nuñez and a group of students of the Oslo Fotokunstskole working in participation with groups of male and female inmates of three Norwegian prisons: Bredtveit, Ila and Ullersmo.
In WE EXIST Cristina Nuñez trained a group of photography students to use her method The Self-Portrait Experience® through a series of self-portrait workshops aimed to stimulate their creative process. Through training and experimentation, they had been invited to develop and expose their personal self-portrait projects as a tool to explore their own inner self, to express their existence and to use the power of their feelings as a therapeutic strategy.
Students have also being taught how to apply the very same method on others, and put it into practice in the three Norwegian prisons with the objective of helping inmates to improve their public image by sharing their vulnerabilities and strengths. Indeed, the core of The Self-Portrait Experience® is the fact that when people vulnerability is revealed to each other, it can foster an improved sense of mutual understanding, which leads to better interpersonal skills and relationships and feelings of connectedness.
During their training, the young photographers gained an important human experience and learned one way to use photography as a tool for social activism and social change in a shared space of engagement. What most mattered in the whole process was indeed the social and personal interactivity applied, consistently with the relational aesthetic conception of the artist as a social worker and the art object more as a documentation of the work rather than an endpoint in itself.
The project gave voice to the prisoners and involved the public in a creative dialogue through several outputs, in order to help to deconstruct and dispel the stigma surrounding the labels and stereotypes often associated with offenders.
The Self-Portrait Experience® method has been used to produce both individual and group self-portraits.
Individual self-portraits focus on the expression of difficult feelings such as rage, despair or fear. Each participant is alone in the professional photo studio to take a series of self-portraits following a set of instructions given by Nuñez. Once finished, Nuñez and the workshops’ participants have a one-to-one session about the perception of these images, in order to reach a better understanding of themselves and see their discomforts under a completely different point of view.
In the group self-portraits, instead, each inmate decides how to photograph him/herself within a group chosen among the other inmates and/or the facilitators (OFKS students and Cristina Nuñez). Working together and mixing the two groups, the workshops deconstruct stigmas and stereotypes as they join different people in a mutual sense of identification rather than disassociation.
In particular, prison inmates were guided to discover the creative power of their emotions and pain. By means of expressing their most inner feelings, they produced intense images that can communicate alternative perspectives on themselves to the world. On release, ex-prisoners will be able to use the method to work through their difficult emotions, in order to increase their self-knowledge and better support social reintegration.
Revealing one's own self
Inmates’ voices constitute one of the four overlapping choirs that compose the project WE EXIST.
The original voice is actually Cristina Nuñez’s who, besides an artistic method, developed also as an autobiographic tool for therapy. She began taking photographic self-portraits in 1988 to overwhelm self-esteem problems also connected to drug addiction. The autobiographical creative practice helped her to know in deep her own emotions and to develop an uncompromising gaze at herself. Because of that, later she started teaching the method to other artists, social workers, normal people of the audience, inmates, students, and other social groups. One of this group is, of course, the voice of the OFKS students invited to similarly share their own private experiences, especially those connected with taboo topics like mental disorders, addictions and abuse.
While the last voice it’s the one of some external artists invited to contribute to the project after having been in close contact with Nuñez’s method or even being formed as facilitators of The Self-Portrait Experience®, in which the first step is always the honest confession of the most intimate pains and torment, especially the one still unresolved, that become a catalyst for new social forms.
It’s a shame that, In spite of Bourriaud’s success to produce an inspiring analysis of recent art practices in relation to their social function and collaborative potential, he failed to address explicitly autobiographical or confessional genres which, nowadays, have become extremely common in forms as autobiographical novels, artworks, and pop-phenomena as selfies, maybe because in a world where individuals are subjugated by the global system, self-representation spotlights the value of the single person's life.
Moreover, many researchers have explored the psycho-social dimensions of autobiographical forms of creativity, that has also been referred to as a discourse that enacts a broader sense of community.
Although John Berger wrote that <autobiography begins with the sense of being alone> and that <it is an orphan form>, autobiographical expressions can also be originated by the sense of being with others. In effect, the desire for relational forms of communication in contemporary art exists because someone is, or soon will be, watching in a dynamic in which the lens of another serves as the mirror of the knowing self in a reciprocal relationship which is hardly narcissism, but rather a symbiosis informing themselves about each other’s.
It has been said above that capitalism turned human relations into a standardised artefact.
However, The Self-Portrait Experience® and other similar approaches are, of course, unmasking those views that treat the self as a construction, an image that must be maintained, and that society is afraid that it might collapse.
Even if social pressures prevent us from showing who we really are, what we really think and feel, the reluctance to reveal one's self can be fough by art practices that still produce subjectivity and genuine sociability.