MAS 965 : Social Visualizations
Tripti Gore Chandorkar

Assignment 7 - Portraiture


A portrait involves a subject, an artist, and an audience. What is the relationship among these three? How does the artist's role change depending on his or her relationship to the subject and the audience? Loops and This Voice Anywhere are non-facial portraits: Loops is a portrait of Merce Cunningham through his hand movements and This Voice Anywhere is a portrait of the viewer through voice. Do they function as portraits? WHy or why not? Can you think of other ways of representing the data - i.e. would it be more expressive if less abstracted?

Portraiture, as termed in Richard Brilliant's article, is a complex genre. It is complex as there exists a complex relationship between the artist, subject and audience/viewer. The artist's representation of his subject is affected by any or all of these factors - the subject's aspirations, artist's personal biases, the artist's perceptions of what the audience would like to see and the relevance of the times. For the subject, it is crucial to assert or manifest what it is that he/she wants to convey to the viewers through the portrait. The viewer could look at it as a symbol of the times, could strive to find likeness to the real person or depending on the viewer's background knowledge about the portriat and readiness to analyse, the viewer could read the artist's intentions behind the portrayal.

The representation of a subject's character or personality in the portrait depends on the artist's perception of the subject and his/her personal biases and hence will always remain a subjective element in traditional media portraiture(for example, the late medieval and renaissance portraits). In the case of the hi-tech interactive pieces of ID/Entity, the element of subjectivity is eleminated by coding a common algorithm driving the interaction between viewers and installations(Van Eyke's Mirror, Portrait of Cati, This Voice Anywhere). On account of computing different responses to different conditions, this common algorithm creates a different experience for each viewer. Even though each interaction is customized for the viewers by computers and sensors, the final portrait is devoid of human subjectivity. Although a point to note here is that both the genres of portraiture are not free from the subjectivity of their time of creation. Even the portriats of the 21st century have a temporality attached to them as newer technologies get invented and reinvented.

Portraits of the rennaisance period (for example, Portrait of Jean - Baptiste Belley) were representations of the real individual's 'traits' (physical or psychological) that 'could not be described by words'. With the help of advanced technologies, the portraits in ID/Entity create representations of people by creative use of words (not spoken but projected) and other media like voice (This Voice Anywhere) and motion-sensing (Loops). The 'This Voice Anywhere' and 'Loops' art pieces interactively represent invisible qualitative traits of individuals, traits that are not expressed by face or bodies alone. It is difficult for me to classify these two examples as 'portraits' in the traditional sense where the portrait is expected to resemble the actual person in appearance. I could call these two projects as 'selective or partial portraitures' as they only represent one unillustratable trait of the individual. If I observe the 'Loops' project, the loops on the screen in isolation without any knowledge of the context, I would find the representation only as an interesting animation. I will be unable to identify it as a representation of an individual's hand movements. To understand it as a portrait (partial or not) of a human being, I would have to be given a reference. The representation could be more self-expressive as portraiture if the data was less abstracted by introducing a symbolic human- element to it, for example, a publicly recognizable facial feature/ characteristic of a famous individual being portrayed (as an example I can think of the symbolic one line facial profile of bespectacled Mahatma Gandhi, so well known to everyone in India).

'The Voice Anywhere' project is less abstracted as it portrays the person by his/her tonal quality, quite distinctive and symbolic of a real person. There is an interesting difference between the two interactive pieces. The 'Loops' portrait is a result of the interaction between the subject and the artist (installation) while the 'The Voice Anywhere' portrait is a result of the interaction between the viewer / subject and the artist (installation).

The Goldberg family self portraits and The Brown Sisters (links above) are time series photos. What does the addition of this dimension add? How could this be incorporated in a data portrait?

The time series portraits, provided they are continuously updated, are free from the limitation of viewing portraits in the context of a particular time period. This dynamic genre takes the form of a story but it is still subjective in relation to the qualities being portrayed by the artist and the subject. Apart from portraying the physical and psychological aspects of the individual, it also portrays the element of change in these characteristics over time and gives a deeper understanding of the subject to the viewer. If the traits represented in data portriats are recorded as a function of time and not just in an instant of time, they could also become effective time series portraits depicting interesting patterns over time.

A time series is multiple images of the same person or people over time. Other portrait series bring together portrayals of numerous different people in a way that highlights the similarities and differences between them. This can include collections of works by a single artist published in a book or displayed sequentially. How does this add (or detract) from the impression each portrait makes? This voice anywhere created numerous sound portraits; how might they be displayed to function as a series?

Portraiture being a socio-culturally situated representational art form can bring about interesting comparisons for the viewer in the series of portraits (collection or sequential) created by one artist. Depending on the artist's perceptions and opinions of his subjects, he/she will depict differences in character and personality through the series of portraits. Depending on the theme of the portraiture, the artist could depict a rate of intensity of a particular trait in the subjects through a sequential ordering of the portraits or as a unique representation of each on a different page of a book.

Similarly, in the 'The Voice Anywhere' project, different portraits could be sequenced according to each individual voice's tonal quality or pitch or frequency on a certain scale. The audience could hear one piece after another in a sequence. The other way to exhibit the voice portraits would be to play unique voice portraits distinguished by the individual speech accents.