18.1.2006, updated 28.5.2006
TESTING YOUR IDEALS AND IDENTITY
Artist's/pedagogue's/curator's thoughts on the Be Your Enemy project
WHAT IS BE YOUR ENEMY PROJECT?
BE YOUR ENEMY / SAM PROTIV SEBIA is a Finnish-Russian photo-workshop and exhibition project that I initiated in 2003. The international touring exhibition that will be launched in Museum of Urban Sculpture (St. Petersburg) in February 2006 has been put together from the photographs made in the five BE YOUR ENEMY workshops that I have conducted so far.
I conducted workshops both in Finland (cities of Helsinki, Turku and Lahti) and in Russia (St. Petersburg). Two of the workshops were for children and teenagers aged between six and twenty and three for professional photo students in their 20s and 30s.
In the workshops I asked each participant to make a self-portrait that consists of three photographs. In the first of the images he/she was to pose as his/her idol, as his/her dream-self. In the second image he/she should try to present him/herself without any pretensions, as her “real”, ordinary, daily self. In the third image the task was to pose as his/her worst enemy.
I originally designed the simple Idol/Self/Enemy-triptych format in 2003 when Kiasma Theatre of the Contemporary Art Museum Kiasma in Helsinki asked me to do a photo workshop for kids as a part of their subURB festival. I was so happy with the results that I wanted to try the format out again and with adults too. I also wanted the results to be properly exhibited. I asked curator / art historian Arja Elovirta to come along, because I thought the workshops and exhibitions would be better (and easier for met) if their were two pedagogues and curators instead of one.
The triptychs were done with the help of professional makeup artists and costume designers. In the children's' workshops they were also helped by professional photographers. In the adults' workshops the participants – pro or semi-pro photographers already – naturally helped each other to shoot the images each of them was after when posing. An important aspect of BE YOUR ENEMY project is that it puts equal weight on the act of posing in photographs and on act of taking photographs.
WHAT ARE THE AIMS OF BE YOUR ENEMY?
For me the first interesting thing about this simple and strict format was that it could force both the participants and the audience to face the fact that each and every one of us has idols and enemies, objects of even embarrassingly blind admiration and targets of equally spicy hate, contempt or fear. No matter how moderate and understanding we try to be, we still navigate through our lives using concrete or imagined role-models. The power of role-models is as strong in an adult mind as it is in the mind of an adolescent. As these role-models have so much power upon us, I think it is important to step in the shoes of our dearest idols and worst enemies in order to embody and scrutinize the figures we admire and hate. Who are they? Why do we love or hate them?
The format is theoretically very strict, but there has been remarkable variety in the students’ responses to it. The triptychs and the tactics with which the participants have approached the task I gave them are wildly different. The variety starts already in how differently different persons have chosen to understand the enemy-role. For some it means straightforwardly dressing up as George W. Bush, who for him is quite concretely the biggest enemy, the person who can do more harm to him than anybody else and who is the embodiment of all the values that he is against. Some other people approached the enemy-question by asking: “What would be the most horrible thing that could happen to me? Who is it in this world that I most fear ending up as?” This has for example led one photo-student to pose in the most nightmarish role that a photographer can imagine: as a blind person.
The triptychs made in the workshops explicitly show that we do not agree with each other on issues of morality, lifestyle, religion, politics and taste. This of course is not a big revelation, but in practice I think it is healthy to bring these differences of opinion and world view out into the open.
Equally important is the moment of self-reflection the triptychs offer both for the artists and the audience. It is difficult to realize, what is it actually that we are after? Who would we be if we could be whatever we wanted? It is difficult to figure these things out, because our ideals and enemies are partly subconscious. Our mind can often play tricks at us. In many of the BE YOU ENEMY triptychs you can see for example how sometimes the role played in the “enemy” picture looks much more convincing and rewarding than the role played in the “idol”-picture. Correspondingly, often the role played in the “idol”-picture is unintentionally revealed to be feeble, stultifying and false.
To actually pose as one’s dream-self and as one’s enemy or nightmare-self can be a way of critically testing these roles. “Would this role really be the heaven I believed it to be?” “Why does this enemy that I’m now dressed up as all of a sudden feel so close to myself?” It is perhaps a bit obvious and naive to to say that all the idols and enemies that we have are at least partly projections of ourselves, but I think it is important to not only intellectually understand this but also to physically realize it. It is also a humanizing insight that forces us to remember, how much in common we have even with our enemies – and it is a healthily skeptical insight too, an insight that forces us to critically test the idols and ideals we thought were self-evident.
The workshops thus had many social aims. One of them was to make the participants aware of the constructed nature of our visual culture, how all not only all representations but also all identities are man-made, not natural. This is of course mainly a good thing, because it means that all facades and identities can be changed, built better. I believe that this constructedness – the moldability – of identities becomes visible for the participants of the workshop instantly when they try to pose "as themselves" for the middle part of the triptych, for it is then that they face concretely the difficulty – or impossibility – of making a “true” representation of oneself and see how strongly coded and easily manipulated even a simple self-portrait is.
The second aim was to encourage people to take critical distance from their values and feelings: to make them ask, why they hate the particular person or feature and admire the other. This does not mean underestimating or looking down on the emotional side of us. It just means that it is important to use our reasoning power together with our emotional thrust – neither of these potentials can alone guide us, but together they can keep each other awake with critical questions and healthy skepticism.
The third aim was to encourage children and students to create art worth serious attention, that is, without categorizing it in a diminishing genre of “children’s art”. This has been an ongoing concern for me. I have often collaborated with children and students – in painting, photography and video – and the aim has always been to produce art equally serious and far-reaching as that produced by adult professionals.
The fourth aim was simply to strengthen the self-esteem of the children and young adults by demonstrating the ways photographs can manipulate the looks and by testing their own potential to move from one role to another. In other words, children – and adults too – can be liberated by letting them physically realize that almost anybody can be made to look as "good" in photos as the most envied stars.
Our aim in BE YOUR ENEMY - project has been to study rhetoric of photography and it’s power to constitute self-image in-between ideal ego and rejected other. In the exhibition the works produced in two different cultural settings and by two different age groups with diverse professional expertise will converse and collide. Be Your Enemy is a sample of values carrying us to the future in the (changing) opinions and actions of the children and young adults. They challenge the public to test their own prejudices and ideals in dialogue with the works.
Artist, Doctor of Fine Arts
BE YOUR ENEMY exhibition tour:
7 February – 7 March 2006 – Museum of Urban Sculpture, St.-Petersburg
23 March – 16 April 2006 – Municipal Exhibition Hall, Petrozavodsk
25 April – 25 May 2006 – Murmansk Regional Museum of Local History
18 June – 20 July 2006 – Arkhangelk Regional Museum of Fine Arts
August 2006 – M’ARS, Centre of Contemporary Art, Moscow
September 2006 – State Museum of Art, Novosibirsk
20 October – 30 December 2006 – Museum of Contemporary Art, Vantaa (Finland)
BE YOUR ENEMY workshop & exhibition project has been supported by:
Russian National Centre of Photography
Consulate General of Finland in St. Petersburg
The Finnish Cultural Foundation
The Arts Council of Finland
Finnish Culture Institute in St. Petersburg
Finnish Embassy in Moscow
BE YOUR ENEMY workshops were conducted in collaboration with:
Kiasma Theatre of the Contemporary Art Museum, Helsinki (Finland)
Turku Arts Academy (Finland)
Baltic Photo School, St. Petersburg (Russia)
Lahti Polytechnic, Department of Photography (Finland)
Project coordinator in Russia:
Head of international programs department of the Russian National Centre of Photography
Project coordinator in Finland:
Ph.lic., Art Historian, Curator