Concerning the human life stories Antonio Damasio says consciousness itself only begins when the brain acquires the simple power to tell a story.
I have been musing on life stories and their troubled but omnipresent status in art. Often their use comes imbued with a fear of potential self-obsession. Given this anxiety with the subject, what is the real function of these autobiographical projects which are, in a sense, tales or depictions of situated performances of the self? Life stories always seem to reveal multiple and conflicting self-expressions. These are not singular, straightforward, fixed tales with a clear goal, nor even issued from a singular entity. We could in fact define narrative identity as similar to a polyphonic novel that is authored by many different voices within the person all of whom engage in conversation with each other and also with flesh and blood characters out there in the real world.
Each individual’s life story, that is the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and to others, evolves from the history of storytelling itself, which is culturally specific. There are, for example, distinct differences between the shape and style of Eastern and Western life stories that are told in conversation.Today, stories of the individual are probably most commonly distributed and consumed by us en masse through films, but these feedback-looped, constructed film-influenced life stories also proliferate and expand constantly as society writes its scripts daily through social media. It is in these mediums we can see most clearly the traces of constructed selves, but this is not a new phenomenon: it has never been otherwise that we need to construct ourselves in order to negotiate the social dimension. The Renaissance concept of Theatre Mundi epitomises this trope.
What we certainly need to do is make sense of events; to create a liveable story. Psychologists have turned more to the importance of life story and narrative as a way of comprehending how we assimilate ourselves into life – we are considered in this notion all to be playwrights that have a job for life – to evaluate, across a number of roles, our parts, all of which are hopefully in communication with each other.
This is not about creating fictions; our intention in spite of ourselves must be to at least believe our own story. Even when one gets the idea of the life story narrator as being a fantasist, there is often a feeling that the narrative is being given in a form that is functionally necessary for the teller even if it is factually incorrect. They have to conceive it that way and in that sense it is true – their truth. Fiction is not a word that I am attracted to and I try to prevent people (when I am being that most autocratic version of myself!) from calling the work I produce as being fictionalised. This is absolutely incorrect, as my idea is that on the one hand I am striving for truth but also the work itself does not accept the binary of fact/fiction; it is all fact in that everything in a story that is being told in my work is lived or embodied through enactment or presence.
I think of a life story as a narrative that arises from a series of constantly evolving fragments that the individual chains together so as to show how one thing led to another. In reality this is a post-historicization: the coherent story can only be created after the fact and was not in existence at the time of the actual event; meaning gets assigned later as new significance. Life stories most importantly provide integration of disparate events. Autobiography provides this ‘making sense’.
It seems that artwork, when it turns to notions of the self, is considered to be in danger of becoming a kind of narcissistic megalomania, the product of a mental dysfunction (megalomania defined as a serious illness is, incidentally, cited as being found in less than 1% of the population, although it seems more common! ). The question “Why should we be interested in your life?” is often mooted regarding autobiographical tracts. But oddly the voice that raises that question in itself seems narcissistic, the implication being ‘why I should be interested in anyone else’s life (except my own?) or even “why should we be interested in each other at all?” Potentially every person’s narrative is a fragment of a total story to which we are all contributing.
Perhaps it may seem that I am defending ‘a position’ . I have often used notions of biography and autobiography as a metanarrative in my work because it interests me as to what life has to do with art and how the individual deals with the mass; the micro narrative of the individual against the grand cultural narratives which define us. Pina Bausch’s work 1980 is both a melancholic and very funny exposition of this desperation of the individual to try to define themselves against the pressures of social definitions, to construct a notion of freewill. But to me the work shows the ultimate failure and impossibility of this freedom, as we can only really work with conventions.
Although work of mine has generally been called autobiography, it has almost exclusively been biography; when the work refers directly to me it is only through other voices and opinions (not mine!) They refer to a person called ‘Lindsay Seers’, whom I hardly recognise, an experience we all have when we hear others speak of how they perceive us and the conflicting viewpoints of our fundamental character traits. This is simply because we are not a fixed identity but are defined by relational conditions. I wonder if anything is ever really about our ‘selves’ for this very reason, that we exist only as a set of viewpoints and an isolated self does not exist – it is always about or in relation to someone else.
Biographical tropes entered my work at the moment at which I became a camera – it was inevitable then that a story had to be told simply because the very making of the work was a narrative in which the camera was personified; it was a natural progression to need to tell a story of the process of taking a photograph in this way. The work was achieved not by putting a camera into my mouth but using the mouth cavity itself as the camera body, putting the photo-sensitive unexposed paper into my mouth and using my lips as the aperture so that I could become a human camera. The head is treated as a casing in which an image is captured. But a head also has a personality and an identity and these are the raw material of any story. I became a vampire because of the photographs turning a red colour, caused by the light seeping through my blood infused cheeks as the mouth photographs were exposed.
One of the ways that this idea (being a camera) came into my work was through a struggle to deal with the theoretical and physical way in which photography relates to the problem of objectification. The photographic process (achieved through the remote, programmed device of the camera) reduces empathy or sympathy with the subject being recorded both at the time of capture and in its later distribution in magazines/internet etc. Given the power of the photograph, we can, after all, be imprisoned for owning an image if it falls outside of the ethical framework of our given culture – then we should not underestimate the significance of photography to our social fabric nor our own psychological states.
In the past I had taken a stance that photography by its very nature had to do this dangerous thing – ‘to objectify’ – because it quite simply rendered an event into matter: it literally reifies what is in flux as a set of relations and affects of an event become image without the correct context, space or the actual qualitative circumstances of what was being experienced. Despite its disinterested universal recording of a scene, it is an inaccurate record because it is not human, it is not at all like how we perceive. Its non-human character then makes it ethically unstable.
We have to be highly selective to navigate the chaos of matter in space. Bergson says the whole problem of understanding the mind is thinking that it has anything to do with the camera. He points out that what the camera shows us is the limitations of the mind, a partial view heavily cropped and framed by both necessary and unnecessary prejudice, edited so we can act from what is expedient. We need to ignore a huge percentage of what is in front of us in order to move at all.
Artists, of course, differ in their methods and expectations but when I set out to make a work I have no idea what it will be. Perhaps other artists know in advance what they will make. I cannot even say where the point of inception was for a work, although there is often a compelling research-influenced chain of events that leads me on, but often this is riddled with ‘coincidence’ ruptures and misunderstandings. In all circumstances I feel as if I enter events in the midst of things, from where I try to work backwards and forwards so as to locate myself.
It is impossible to know what has specifically shaped an artwork. When does a life story, if ever, become remote from that shaping? At what point is a work not shaped by biography/life? What are the subtle influences beneath consciousness, other art works, the cultural forces, the social pressures, the failures in the mediums themselves, the harsh critics, anger, judgement, the wig of a man on a bus, an out of season ladybird scurrying around the dining table, and so on – are these not all things that shape a work? The absolute drive not to fabricate but to make real links of cause and effect, as if we can observe origins, is an important one not to let to go of. Perhaps that is a condition of the human mind: to have to think of clear start and end points. It is an operational and functional issue.
So we construct life stories to make senses of our lives. They stand fundamentally for our struggle to recognise who we imagine we are and might be in our heads and bodies with who we are and might be in social contexts of family, community and work place, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class and culture writ large. This absolute compulsion to write ourselves has been ramped up in intensity by on-line identities, which serve to promote an ‘image’ of our lives which is exported through platforms whose forms generate a muddled context in which to try to be oneself ontologically. Although potentially there is a lot of pleasure to be gained from having followers and ‘likes’ etc., marked against one’s contribution, it is a binary system of judgement set on a binary system (the computer). There is also a restlessness about the platform which brings on longings that cannot be fulfilled and which are certainly not conducive to peace of mind for anyone who is even remotely paranoid.
So how do we accumulate these fragments, how do we edit this huge amount of material down to lets say a 30 minute narrative? There is a ‘script theory’ of personality that conceives of the individual as similar to a film editor who organizes their narrative in terms of salient scenes and recurrent scripts; life has little to do with basic needs around particular kinds of affect-laden scenes.
In terms of the excess of narrative it is important to note that distressing events seem to need more work in the mind than pleasurable ones, in that bad events need to be explained whereas good events need less or even no analysis, as they seem self-determining. For bad events we need to know why they occurred so they cannot happen again, how they can be avoided and what can be learnt from it all. This redemptive approach, which in quantitative research on personality has been shown as an autobiographical trope, is very typical in the American psyche. Americans typically make positive their bad experiences (perhaps with elements of positive delusions) and then hope to bring their insights to the culture as a whole for the future generations.
Functionally, stories are the best vehicle for human beings to convey how and why a human agent, endowed with consciousness and motivated by intention, enacts desires and strives for goals over time. The self is both the storyteller and the stories that are told. These autobiographical stories are highly selective and strategic; they are also highly encoded and retrieved only when they meet the user’s goals. Goals for the future often require these memoirs for their construction. Autobiographical memory, however, is notoriously unstable – 8 months showed significant decrease in memory which means a shift in the life story. Is this merely catharsis or is this material of interest to anyone but the owner/speaker of the narrative? Given the amount of fly on the wall documentary or reality shows in which we watch unscripted protagonists react to one another, or the proliferation of the ghost written autobiographies of television personalities, we seem to be extraordinarily interested in other people’s stories. Social media also gives testimony to this. Perhaps we are all looking to one another to find out what and who and how we should be? When artists touch on this barbed subject it is rarely pure indulgence … but on the other hand lets just pray that the protoganist is not merely a bore we need excuses to escape from…