There is something fabulous about working with long strands of fibre to create a painting. When someone makes a mark with ink, there is something controlled and final about that action. But when I place a soggy, glue-soaked strand of crochet thread onto a surface, not only is there is a connectedness in touching the line with my fingertips, but there is nothing in that moment preventing me from picking it back and repeating the process.
Along with this opportunity for play comes a loss of control, an opening for spontaneity. Though hands guide the general direction of the string, in the last moment before it settles on to the surface it twists and curls with its own agenda. In the past I have described this process as a dance where hand and string take turns manipulating one another. To me, not only is working with string more intimate than working with many other materials, it also feels more reciprocal.
In a way, when working on my string portraits it feels as if I’m not making the artwork so much as the materials and I are making it in collaboration. It’s a sort of ritual that involves relinquishing control, experimentation, and play. This has led me to wonder about the links between the formation of the portraits- which are symbolic representations of subjects– and the formation of the subjects themselves. A ritual involving relinquishing control, experimentation and play… now Isn’t this sort of how relationships are formed? Consequentially, as fundamentally social beings, aren’t we all also ‘formed’ by the experiences and models of relationships we encounter throughout our lives?
After ruminating on this for some time I decided to look into what some other people have explored and written on the subject of human relationships and the formation of identity. First, there is no question that humans are extremely social entities. John Donne was truly on to something when he wrote that no man is an island. Our survival as a species has depended a great deal upon our ability to form group bonds and the fact that we have developed what social neuroscientist Pascal Vritika calls “a highly sophisticated social processing machine that enables us to engage in complex social interactions, and to maintain relationships to a great number of individuals as well as groups.” We are, in fact, hard-wired so socially that just minutes after birth, an infant will respond preferentially to face-like stimuli over other shapes and symbols. Furthermore, while positive social exchange activates the reward centres of the brain, we process experiences of exclusion and rejection in a similar fashion to physical pain.
Developmental/comparative psychologist Michael Tomasello has theorized that humans evolved something he calls “Joint Intentionality” which not only gave us an edge from a survival standpoint, but also paved the groundwork for how we think today. Tomasello defines Joint Intentionality as “everything from collaborative acts of problem-solving to complex socio-cultural institutions” (2014). In the early days of human evolution this could have looked like the division of labor on a shared task, with each individual understanding that fulfilling a particular role would contribute to the successful outcome of benefiting the group as a whole. Today, as the infrastructure within which we interact has become more and more varied and complex, I’m sure JI looks equally more varied and complex. But regardless of where JI occurs in the timeline of human development, the idea that this kind of cooperative rationality shaped our view of in/out right/wrong and other ways of orienting in the world remains compelling at the very least.
In his book ‘Consciousness and the Social Brain’ (2013), Princeton-based neuroscientist Michael Graziano also discusses a kind of cooperative rationality in the form of social thinking. Social thinking involves using observation of other people to draw conclusions even before interaction occurs. For instance, if my friend has a stain on his shirt, not only can I observe the existence of said stain, but by following his gaze and other postural/expressive cues, I can make inferences as to his awareness (or lack thereof) of said stain as well any kind of positive/negative assessments he may be making given the situation at hand. I am, in a way, using what I see in front of me, playing it against what I have learned in the past, and combining these two things to ‘get into his head’. Now, of course, social thinking is imperfect and we aren’t always going to get it right. Nonetheless most neurotypical individuals possess an impressive aptitude for social thinking.
Graziano identifies two areas of the cerebral cortex that are very active when it comes to social thinking: the Superior Temporal Sulcus (STS) and the Temporo-parietal Junction (TPJ). When the STS and TPJ are damaged, people can experience what Graziano calls a “catastrophic disruption of awareness”. This can take the form of condition called ‘neglect’ where an individual will lose ability to consciously identify any object in the entire half of their field of vision. It’s like that side somehow doesn’t exist to them anymore, at least not at an obvious level. For instance, someone with clinical neglect might draw all the numbers of a clock from 1-12 just on the right side of a circle.
If awareness is so disrupted when the ‘social machinery’ of the brain is damaged, perhaps it is the same machinery that is responsible for attributing awareness to other people that also participates in constructing ones own awareness and attributing it to oneself. Graziano goes on to conclude that “consciousness is a result of social intelligence, the ability to understand the minds of other people turned inward on ourselves”.
Before Vritika, Tomasello and Graziano there was a Soviet psychologist in the early 20th Century named Lev Vygotsky who coined the idea of the “dialogical mind”. According to Vygotsky, thought is fundamentally dialogical in nature and draws upon the structures of interpersonal exchange. With this in mind, one can wonder if it is the accumulation of many internalized narrative pseudo-conversations that is at the root of our self-awareness and construction of personal identity.
One relatable example of dialogical thinking can be found in the case of Imaginal Dialogues, described by Hermans et al (1992) as follows:
“Imaginal dialogues play a central role in our daily lives: They exist alongside actual dialogues with the real others and, interwoven with actual interactions, they constitute an essential part of our narrative construction of the world. Even we are outwardly silent, for example, we find ourselves communicating with our parents, our consciences, our gods, our reflection in the mirror, the photograph of someone we miss, a figure from a movie or a dream….”
My roommate is always coming up with tidbits of domestic wisdom from her mother, Dubravka. Like how you can crack an egg on anything and it can become breakfast. “Put an egg on that and you’ve got breakfast!”. It made me smile when I was reading about imaginal dialogues and how I have an inner-mother version of my roomate’s inner-mother. (Pretty much they are both domestic goddesses, I mean look at this:)
But it is important to note that the dialogical nature of higher mental functions is not always simply a back-and-forth conversation between ourselves and our imaginary friends, or a cartoon devil-angel or ego/id/superego arguing it out. Rather, it comes out of our ability to accommodate a “simultaneous unity of difference”(Fernyhough, 1996), an understanding that ours is not the only perspective on reality. It is this accommodation of multiple perspectives that leads to flexible, open-ended thought and accounts for many social-environmental influences on cognitive development. (Fernyhough, 2008).
Lots of 20th-century psychology had an overwhelming tendency to look at the mind as this isolated CPU atop a flesh vessel, “commanding from above” in an algorithmic chain of operations. I love how Vygotsky’s concept of the dialogical mind takes us away from a simple Cartesian “I think” and into something more like “I and I and I and I think and I and I”….taking into account a view of the mind that “extends beyond the skin” (Geertz, 1973 via Fernyhough 1996).
I love the kind of visual imagery this view invites. In my self portrait, Chthonic (2014), I included a real depiction of my physical self purched atop a tangled, rooty scene representing those mythology-inspired “unconscious, earthly impulses of the Self” Carl Jung discusses in his exploration of the psyche.
The notion of the mind extending beyond the skin also lends itself beautifully to the imagery and process of portraits in string. Both the background and the human likeness of each portrait is made from the same fibre. In fact, some of the very stands that delineate features that deem the subjects as most humanly recognizable also twist and tangle until they disappear into the hair or the background. In this twisted and tangled mess there is a symbolic blurring of the distinction between our outside experiences and inner selves. And just as the portraits are created in a relational process between artist and materials, the subjects of these portraits have been shaped by a relational process between themselves, others, and the processing that occurs in the liminal space between the two.
I could never replicate a completed portrait. Each piece contains thousands of kinks and curls that would have been affected by the length of the strand, heaviness of glue mixture, moisture in the air, my mood that day and hundreds of other factors. And even in some kind of sci-fi universe where the cloning of human subjects was commonplace , socio-environmental factors are so paramount in the creation of consciousness that no two individuals would ever be the same. Every tiny little twist or curl of fibre, each small experience, exchange, choice or event….. They all form patterns whether or not they are accessible to conscious awareness, and these patterns shape development and shifting of the self through time with a complexity far beyond our cognitive grasp.
My plebeian brain can’t fathom this. They don’t pay me the big bucks to be Really Smart. They pay me the big bucks to play with children’s art supplies. Actually no one pays me any kind of big bucks to play with children’s art supplies. It’s just something I seem to find myself doing.
A Natural History of Human Thinking
by Michael Tomasello (Harvard University Press, 2014)
Consiousness and the Social Brain
by Michael S. A. Graziano (Oxford University Press, 2013)
Hubert Hermans et al., 1992 American Psycholgist
Fernyhough, C. (1996). The dialogic mind: A dialogic approach to the higher mental functions. New Ideas in Psychology 14: 47-62.
Fernyhough, C. (2008). Getting Vygotskian about theory of mind: Mediation, dialogue, and the development of social understanding. Developmental Review 28: 225-262
This String Portrait Project is supported by the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton.
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