The Purposes of Images

Sometimes a picture just shows too much. Not just pictures, but any presentation.

Sometimes we can be too explicit. Not so much that we are too straightforward, or too forthcoming; but that we often tend to say – or show, actually – more than we mean.

Not just more than we intend, at least I think that’s right. It’s that we end up so contained by our imagery that we lose the space needed for an insight to breathe, to find its own life beyond what we saw in it, what we attempt to hold it to in our desire to control an outcome, or even simply to steer a course.

This might be where my fundamental distaste with movements comes from, why no amount of lobbying for just the right way to go about it, will somehow ever win me over. If anyone really thought it worth their effort!

Overreach. It’s easy to speak of the titanic forms of overreach, the way great forces pull us along beyond where we think we’d go if left to our own judgements. But these cases are obvious. They are ubiquitous and have enormous effects on us, but they don’t shape us the way the many little examples of overreach we are complicit in from day to day do. Not even the big ones here; eating agribusiness’ “food-products,” using petroleum-based transport, all the ways we are tied into systems we know are destructive, but that hold us in intricate webs of dependency.

There are other smaller forms. As with any attempt to counter a force, the earlier in its trajectory we intervene the greater our effect with the least exertion. At the extreme end of this continuum are catalytic processes in which tiny interventions have disproportionate results. I keep looking for these intersections. The futility, of waiting to be run over by immense forces while showing courage by resisting what is beyond overcoming, has been beaten into me by everything that’s happened in the last few hundred years. I’m looking for these quiet subtle intersections, where we there is some actual chance of having an effect beyond adding our names to the list of “heroes and villains” who destroyed themselves without altering anything.

This is where we need to be aware of the way we “oversell” whenever we push and allow ourselves to be overdetermined by our imagery. It locks us in both by mesmerizing us and whoever is listening or watching. These don’t happen in sync. The ways we see the stress of over-determination will most likely be very different from the way others see it. This disconnect only adds to the friction and noise, to the confusion, precisely at the point where we think we’ve made contact.

These images don’t have to be visual. They’re not limited to single images, whether verbal or visual. There is a point at which our imagery coalesces into a Persona, and it is here, when a Persona develops that is too insistent, for us or for “them,” that we get into a condition of discordant feedback loops. We enter an echo-chamber.

Images, Persona, are not only useful, but inevitable. This is how we organize perception on the surface. If we are working to carve out new ways, or in any way challenging the general course of events, we need to hone our awareness of the limits and extent of our imagery and to recognize when less may be more.

It’s more than just a tick that moments of insight flicker on the edge of clarity. Even when they may reach a moment of supreme clarity, they only reach that point after our having suspended the many opportunities to short-circuit the process and arc-to-ground before it has truly developed. After a moment of clarity also, unless our insight is light enough to fade back into – let’s call it mystery – then it becomes an obsession. It blocks our avenues of continued perception and leaves us blinded. In this way seeing too much is the same as not seeing at all. Except that our lack is hidden from us by the appearance of fullness. Unable to continue our engagement with Being we hold that which interferes with our doing so in its place ourselves, caught up in too vivid an image, too charismatic a Persona.

We are hungry for completion. I still don’t know if this is an underlying condition of all humanity or if it is just an artifact of our conditioning in these circumstances. These moments when we are caught by our images, our Persona, feed that desire and are supported by it. This is another aspect of their corrosive nature. Developing patience and a willingness to remain within a palpable uncertainty is a trait we need to foster. Our too successful projections block this.

So what is a useful purpose for images? How should we relate to them?

Besides resisting our urges to fix them, to generate and then venerate icons – Oh! How that has profited the manipulators all along!

If we turn a lighter touch upon them, both in our expectations and in our execution, we can leave them room to breathe. This is a shift in our habits both as creators and as receptors. It is a chosen divergence from all the habits and customs of profession. We are accustomed to reserving our attention for those who send out signals of professional competence. The trouble is that increasingly we are then frustrated by their inability to hold our trust. Their traits, so avidly developed and so ardently pursued, are increasingly signs of their irrelevance, and not trustworthiness or even competence. We expect the only other choice is to look to amateurs. All our conditioning leads us to distrust them, and the blurring of amateur with dilettante has not made this choice any clearer.

There is something wrong with falling either side of this duality, as with all the rest. If we look beyond, or perhaps beneath these categories, are there any other ways to judge?

This is where our looking at the purposes of images, and our relationship to their making, and their reading may be of use.

There appears to me to be another approach to images that signals an attitude towards any doing or making that does not simply fall into all the old traps. For myself, I find that I neither strive after a result nor do I exert an effort to do anything more than clear a way for what arrives to show itself. These images, written or painted in my case, speak to me of their independence from my agency as much as from anything else. They have differing moods, and levels of what might be called accomplishment, but that is never the scale on which I weigh them. What I find when they have had the good fortune of maturing and I have had the clarity of looking beyond expectation to see what is there, is that these cases show a different approach to what might be best termed character.

There is a depth. Not always easy to fathom, but one that comes across in waves and gains fullness over time. Intention falls away from having any say in my response. To ask if they accomplished what I set out to do is like a non sequitor, an irrelevant question, a total misunderstanding. There is an individuation that occurs. It is more like confronting a being than a thing. In this way it is almost an extension of the way we turn to another not in judgement but eager to engage, to find a way to understand.

It is difficult to do this with each other. The strains of navigating between all the old expectations of how we might interact, what I’ve been calling the realm of negotiation, makes it hard to establish the connections and the trust to do this with each other, at least with any regularity and assurance. I find that this is one of the ways in which the creating and relating to my own images and constructions is a form of practice in this regard. The desk or the studio are in this way laboratories of a sort, though this simile may be too caught-up in how we look at science and analytic research. It is a practice-field where-in I may exert the muscles and sinews needed for empathetic connections. It also has the result that the products of this practice can then act as calling-cards to others pointing out what I am about. This begins to outline another form of intention, an intention that what we do be in the form of what we are looking for. This is not a kind of intention that can be translated into a recipe or technique. It reflects the holographic nature of existence. Each part is a signature of the whole, auto-graph.

Here is where the warning insight that began this post is aimed. Both in our doing, and in our reading and looking, we need to be wary of how images lean us towards their over determination. Immediacy, fluency or its lack, has an impact that we are likely to take too much on face value. Funny how in this case face value is neither obvious nor an actual value, but the way we are prone to accept them as just that.

Instead of navigating trust and distrust based on how we respond to surface – this is the attitude of negotiation after all! What if we paused, on either side, and questioned, not so much each others motives as our own eagerness to accept that what we see was intended, or even that any judgement based on intention is anything but foolish outright. What we thought was there may not be. What we expected also may be an error. But there just might be something there that brings us closer to something else.

It’s like walking in deep forest or sailing along an unknown shore. Cultivating an open aspect and withholding judgements is a habit to be worked on, and a skill that is most rewarding.

This is what we can bring to images as we search out their purposes. If we can strengthen an old instinct, not of distrust of the other, but of carrying a wariness of our own rush-to-embrace-certainties, we can begin to find each other. We can avoid the traps of intention, and of our expectation of intention, craving a completeness that cannot but appear false to us at a time like this. We thus avoid a habit of disappointment…. Another topic, for another day.

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5 thoughts on “The Purposes of Images

  1. Hi Antonio,

    I can relate very strongly to this, in a small sense. A drawing that only describes its author’s intent is a dead thing.
    At best, we can enter into a dialogue with the images we make – that they can teach us as much they document for us – if we give them the looseness and the freedom to do so.

    At architecture school I was terrified of the apparent arbitrariness of the process. “Drawing is Thinking”, we were told. We all fought that any way we could, looking for generative systems, isms, design rules.
    I’ve since started to suspect that an open process – if approached with any degree of sensitivity – can be much less arbitrary than any rule-based system. Try making rules for sensitivity?

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