Posted: 10/03/15 09:24 | 14 Comments
OCA level 2 student Michael Colvin has made an assignment that we wanted to share with you. It is in response to assignment 2 of the Gesture and Meaning module and highlights how creativity and imagination can turn a standard brief into a springboard for something rather exciting indeed.
Rubber Flapper is a woman from the 1930s who lives in a mysterious self-cleaning Art Deco house. It was designed and built by her adoring husband to keep her safe from the outside world – a world that Rubber Flapper has some trouble navigating. There are hints in the narrative around her sexuality although the facts are hard to pin down. The couple keep themselves to themselves and remain reclusive.
I intend to create a fictional hidden history by making a series of images of constructed photographs and artefacts. Through my images I aim to plot a narrative path that uncovers the story of a mysterious and intriguing woman who lives in a mechanical, self-cleaning house in the 1930s. Her identity and Lesbian sexuality is hinted at through the artefacts and a newspaper cutting. I want to deliberately cut the project’s narrative short, to highlight how un-sympathetic curatorial control can push LGBT identities into the shadows – therefore creating hidden histories. To enable me to do this my artefacts are portrayed as coming from an archive box to which I have been given access to research and photograph the house’s Art Deco history. My discovery of Rubber Flapper’s sexuality makes the fictional owner of the archive uneasy and my access is withdrawn, my research considered an ‘improper’ use of the archive.
My narrative is partly an artistic response to real life events that occurred at Clear Comfort, Staten Island, NY State; home of the Alice Austen photographic archive. The archive was closed off to research by Queer theorists and gender identity historians by Clear Comforts board of trustees in the 1990s. McAlister (1998).
This project is also an artistic response to the wider issue of suppressed voices of LGBT minorities – in a society that has historically perceived them as ‘wrong’ or ‘unnatural’. To show the coping strategies that LGBT people employ to enable them to build a space in which to live out their lives, in a society aligned to a heterosexual binary gender matrix.
Already interested in the constructed story as his means of using photography, Michael decided to use this assignment to get an idea out of his head that has been building for over two years. He set up the whole thing down to the detail of weathering the swimming cap and writing up a fake story in a ‘newspaper’ and ageing it with tea bags. A strength of this project is that without this knowledge, the awareness of what is real and what is constructed is completely unknown. The job is done so well that I was double-taking on everything I looked at when I saw this project recently at an OCATV event. My confusion and the ambiguity, as well as the far fetched nature of the rubber house, added to the magic and intrigue of the story. Although it is lighthearted in nature it deals with some important themes such as the hidden identities of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi- and Trans- sexual people) that have been covered up from public sight. Michael says:
I am interested in hidden histories, particularly Gay and Lesbian ones. Like many other minorities we are not in control of our own representation. Because of this our personal and social histories tend to become sidelined and forgotten about.
I asked him a few questions about this work:
What initially sparked the idea for Rubber Flapper? It seems quite wacky!
I had a couple of potential projects for assignments at the back of my mind for a couple of years now. One was a story I came across about a woman who lived in a self cleaning house in America in the 1970s. I was intrigued by the news item and had a mad notion that I could fly out there and do a documentary project!
The wackiness is intentional. I thought that the subject of minority hidden histories could be a bit ‘dry’. I needed a hook to draw people in. That is sneaky, I’ll admit. It could also backfire. There is a danger that the viewer will only see the superficial story and not the deeper narrative.
How did it grow from there?
I’ve read a lot on the subject of minority representation at level 2. The blocking of the Alice Austen Archive to Queer theorists made me quite angry when I read about the story. Rubber Flapper evolved from my initial idea, into an artistic response to the issues of hidden histories. I wanted to tell Rubber Flapper’s story but at the same time have my access restricted by people outside of my control. Even now I have more images in my head for artifacts that would enrich her story. But will they ever be shown? My fictional curator has the control, not me. The lack of power and representation are what the blank table top images represent. What is hidden and what is controlled by others.
What has been the most exciting thing for you in creating this project?
My interest in constructed photography has grown so much. I like having the freedom to think up narratives that investigate an idea, an emotion, a point of view, and try to make work that expresses my thoughts and confusions. What I’m trying to say is not always fully realised, even to myself.
I love the planning involved. Buying and making props. Trying out compositions, roping friends and family in to help pose for my characters – just working through scenarios and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
As an insider to this world of minority representation did you find this process therapeutic? How so?
It’s quite a pertinent topic for me as a Gay man. A child of the 60s/70s, I had no positive role models and only the worst kind of Gay stereotypes on TV – ones primarily used to mock. To be Gay and Out, each individual has to go through a process of rejecting their social conditioning. To fight to be who they really are. As a young teenager this is a process that’s normally done alone, internally, and without emotional support. That was my experience anyway. What I didn’t realise at the time as a young man, was that I was not only rejecting Heterosexuality, but cruel Homosexual stereotypes that were being forced upon me. I was kind of left in a no-mans’ land in which to build my own identity whilst all the time resisting the assumptions of others.
To read about minority representation in a critical and academic manner is quite an eye opener. The way the world works is often taken for granted and to read about the power of words and images, how they are wielded, and by whom, made me realise that I can use photography to investigate identity and tell stories about LGBT people in my own way. Even if no one ever sees my work, the making of it is quite life affirming in a way.
Can you define Hidden Histories to us?
To me, they are the stories of minorities, women, men, groups of individuals, that for whatever reason are forgotten or ignored. This can be because of historical bias or incorrect assumptions made about them by others – others usually with the power to control representation and make decisions on their behalf. For example the historical archive is packed with paintings by women that are forgotten or mis-attributed to men. There are many women painters that were successful in their own time that have drifted into the shadows.
We have been fed a history that is biased towards one majority group that has controlled the representation of all others. Some say that to re-look at history from other points of view is revisionist. I say that ALL history is revisionist. Even the long standing Patriarchal version. We all have our own versions of history and no-one version should have any authority over another. History is not facts. Facts are facts. History is storytelling from a particular point of view.
What role do you think photography, and in particular the contrstructed image, can play in challenging the idea of hidden histories?
The default assumption is that everyone is straight until known otherwise. So back to a time when LGBT people had to keep their identities private lots of people never even knew that we existed. We know now that Gay people exist! Every time we look at old photographs we have the potential to see hidden Gay people in them. The facts are gone. It can’t be proved that an individual in a photograph is Gay, and bearing in mind that the default assumption is that all people are straight until proved otherwise, we vanish from history. It is important that we no longer allow that to happen.
My constructed hidden histories bring those people back into the light. I can research stories from archives about the persecution of Gay people throughout history and make those photographs. I have a big project in mind for my level three studies that will look at these issues during WWII.
How has Rubber Flapper played a part in your studies so far and how might it take you forward? Has it consolidated your working process or led to new things for example?
I’ve grown a lot in confidence over the last few assignments. I’ve realised that I can make the work I see in my head with fairly good outcomes. I am learning to trust my judgement a lot more and not be daunted by what appears to be insurmountable obstacles. Rubber Flapper in particular seemed like a massive undertaking at the start and I was a bit scared of the amount of work involved. It’s not finished, and I have to plan the photo-book for assessment, but a big chunk of the work has been made and I am happy that it is generating some interest amongst my fellow students.
I think the work has definitely consolidated how I see myself moving forward. I want to remain on the constructed imagery path and see where it takes me.
To see behind the scenes of this project and it’s development I strongly encourage you to have a look at Michael’s blog.