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On Modeling: Re: The Force of a Frame

Editor’s Note: Marina Pinsky is responding to a set of essays previously published in issue #11 of nonsite by Walter Benn Michaels (“The Force of a Frame“) and Margaret Olin (“Response to Walter Benn Michaels“). 

Dear Prof. Michaels and Prof. Olin,

I have read with interest your essays on Owen Kydd’s recent work, including the video Marina and the Yucca in which I appear. I’ve thought a great deal about your interpretations, about the work’s formal components, its framing devices, and most importantly, as Prof. Michaels states, its disinterest in my personality or interior life. Upon reflection I feel I may have some small contribution to make to the discussion. I have the benefit of having been part of the work’s creation, along with the gift of distance and time for consideration between that moment and now.

Owen asked me to pose for the video one day towards the end of our graduate program at UCLA. I was very hesitant – I’ve always been uncomfortable having my photo taken, so I’ve preferred to be behind the camera. During those last few months of school, I was taking portraits of male friends of mine. I showed them as comic relief from my thesis show and jokingly called the series “Beautiful Young Men,” but of course my friends really were all beautiful. I thought it would only be fair to assume the role of the model myself after having subjected my social circle to similar treatment—although my and Owen’s working processes are very different.

So that afternoon I took a break from what I was doing in the studio and told Owen I’d sit for him. He set up his tripod and camera, and I sat on the steps just outside my open door. It took a few takes to get the right shot. There were some technical issues with the lens—I think my sweater was too sharp in capture. And even though I thought I was sitting still I really wasn’t. When my eyes were closed my mind seemed to move even faster than when they are open. It took a while before I could force my mind to still my body. Nobody will ever know exactly what I was thinking in those minutes, I suppose that is what so much portraiture is really a container for. But I can tell you that in the time that Owen was recording me, in my head I gave forms to the abstractions that give order to the world. I thought very hard about the shapes of numbers. I drew their contours and filled them in and turned them over. I popped them up out of nowhere and added them up and kept recombining them. And this is what I sometimes think about before I fall asleep. So maybe I relaxed too much playing games with numbers. But to tell the truth, I’ve always been a bit of a slouch and I think it’s a cool look.

I am clearly not a professional model and have never been one, but I have friends who did it for a living when they were younger. I also worked alongside a fashion photographer when I had a job for a while as a black-and-white printer. He was a brilliant man, and in our long days in the dark he told me in detail about the workings of that world. Fashion models work very hard. They have to know their bodies on a deep technical level in relationship to a machine. They have to possess awareness of the full potentiality of their movements in relationship to every angle of sight of a lens, a range of technicians with differing abilities, a range of products with varying qualities, an endless complex of machinery. An actress has an even more difficult job, on top of all of this: to channel a fictional character, culled from a text, to draw up whatever empathy she is capable of and enact a situation she’s never experienced in her own life. And she must do this repeatedly until the camera captures the perfection of her emotional state. Photographing my friends I came to understand how different it must be to work with someone whose profession it is to be looked at. Though I’ve learned from living in LA that it’s really about the right casting.

I have heard Owen mention Warhol as an influence. To speak specifically about Warhol’s durational films, he left the camera running on his subjects for lengths of time far exceeding a regular film with little to no direction. In his screen tests he let his subjects act out their selves. Or take Warhol’s first film Sleep – that film was interesting because sleeping was such a rarity in those days – everyone was on amphetamines. Warhol writes that he thought sleep was becoming obsolete and hurried to film it. In the present day, I get more than a full night’s sleep, and most of the people I know do too. But I did read a recent psychological study stating that most people would rather inflict pain on themselves than be alone with their thoughts – so maybe being able to sit and think is now a rarity. However, Owen didn’t ask to record me in my natural state (I generally think with my eyes open), he gave me some specific directions.

What does it really mean now for there to be a picture out in the world of me with my eyes closed? Nobody will really know what I was thinking about that day. Does anyone really want to know what women in pictures are thinking about? Could the theoretical question of a work that shows someone thinking, an image of the outside of an alive person’s head, be “(Why) is there something in there instead of nothing?” What form does thought take since it cannot be deduced from staring at a brain?

I don’t expect a picture to reveal anything about my interior life. But here, since I’m not playing a character, I do wish it could reveal something of my outward engagement with the world, as proof that my thinking is not merely tautological. To use the force of a frame to extract a person from their world, symbolic or physical, is a violent act. If I act out my response lightly, it’s only because I’ve grown inured. I wish on screen I could look as alive as I usually am. But my eyes are closed, my body is out of focus and squeezed into a narrow frame, too narrow and with too little depth of field to be able to see into my studio. Instead of being pictured with the surrounding outward signs of what I do with my mind and how I make a living, I just look like a girl nodding off next to an exotic plant.

I keep trying to think about Owen’s video in the third person, but that kind of dissociation is impossible here. Prof. Michaels states that the work’s autonomy reminds us that we indeed live in a society based on class. But the work’s particular framing devices do not separate it from the outside world, they reinforce those workings in how the viewer is made to behave when facing the artwork. If we as spectators assume the behavior I am modeling, if we sit politely, inactive, if we do as we’re told, play the part we’re asked to play and close our eyes to the world, how would this ever produce any form of justice, inside or outside the arena of art? The way that a person addresses an artwork is so deeply conditioned that people think the work is addressing them as though it were alive itself! The way that people act in society is so deeply conditioned that they don’t even know they are acting. The complexity of social struggles in the US cannot be subsumed under the umbrella of class struggle without belittling their particularities.

Photography and cinema have been intimately connected to unrest in the United States since they were brought here (or at least since Muybridge immigrated to the country and did everything that made him notorious, including shooting a man and being acquitted in his era’s “Stand Your Ground” law). The complex of inventions making up the spectrum of photography and cinema have always been used in the service of both authority and protest. The issues being fought for aren’t just out in the street, or in the storefront, they’re also behind closed doors and behind the camera. To look from another vantage point and think outside terms of scale, it’s possible to see that the poorest place in America aside from Detroit is Blackwater, AZ—of which the overwhelming majority of the population is Native American. Consider the race disparities in the American prison system. Compare mandated maternity leave in the US to the policies in other nations. Observe the continued income disparity between men and women at every level of education and in nearly every profession. I’d prefer to read theories that could help make many more of these issues visible—that show how artworks open up all the possibilities of activity out in the world. Doesn’t the image’s power lie in its proliferation of meanings? So what is the point of arguing for such autonomy? Is it possible to separate ourselves from all the forces that teach us how to act in a room with an artwork?

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