Repetition and the Anxiety of Self

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As an artist when I look at someone’s work I often take on the feeling of what it’d be like to make it, so if I’m standing in front of a large drawing of repetitive obsessive marks, I tense up, immediately embodying the feeling of being hunched over a giant sheet of paper making the same tiny stroke. If I’m looking at a frantic expressionist painting I might feel the joy of pushing paint around or in other cases wince at the unthoughtful mess it’s left behind. Usually though I feel nothing. I move around the gallery and use my body as a navigation device. I’m never thinking about work as I’m looking at it. I’m just trying to find a space that feels right.

Standing in front of this photograph by Meghan Skevington at the 2019 Photography and Filmmaking Exhibition made me feel right and because by sheer luck someone came up and engaged me in conversation, I took the time to think about it. For me thinking about artwork is not necessarily thinking about what the image means or whether it’s good or bad. I never create a psychological narrative about the characters or come up with an imaginative backstory for them. For me writing about artwork is an exercise in thinking, in being able to pull the ideas I care about together and see how the image changes them, reorganizes or sparks something new.

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What Meghan’s piece got me thinking about was repetition, the differing ways we experience it and how it touches almost every aspect of our lives. To begin with I started searching for a quote I’d remembered from college (which apparently doesn’t exist). What I found as I scanned through inspirational quote websites was that there were three categories of how people talked about repetition, and while these categories aren’t exhaustive, they did provide enough comparative material to make thinking about them worthwhile.

The first way repetition is conceived, mostly expressed by artists, is as a mechanistic death. The initial intuitive spark that caused an explosion of spontaneity and exploration has dimmed to a mindless act of repeating the same thing over and over. Learning has stopped. The lights have gone out and you’re simply a robot performing a once meaningful act that’s dulled to routine.

The second, which comes more from the business/sports world, is that repetition is the key to developing skill (practice, practice, practice!) In this conception it’s an essential element to the feedback loop that makes us better. If you’re playing basketball every time you shoot there’s variations in how you hold the ball, where your feet are placed, the bend in your knee, and it’s the intelligent adjustment of these variables in relation to the constancy of the goal that produces skill.

The third is religious and reimagines repetition as ritual so instead of dwelling on monotony or improvement, it reframes it as a communion, where you have the opportunity to reflect on the lineage of people who’ve come before as well as on your own past iterations of self in relation to a single repetitive act.

These conceptions are not separate domains since they can easily overlap especially when applied to an art practice. There’s no better teacher than trying to do something over and over but it’s sometimes difficult to discern whether we’re intelligently exploring a topic or simply repeating ourselves. Dealing with this conflict as we make our work leaves a record of what’s captured our attention and we can use that to reflect on ourselves and the culture around us as well as cringe at the trail of choices we’ve left behind.

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In Meghan’s photo there is the repetition that we can see, and then there is the repetition that’s hidden from us, most discernibly, the face. If the eyes are the window to the soul, the face is the window to our personality. It’s the first thing babies perceive being cradled in their mother’s arms, and it’s the first thing adults look at when shown an image. Biologically speaking, the uniqueness of the human face exists because we’ve evolved in reputational societies that depend on tracking other people’s moral choices, a prospect that wouldn’t be possible if we all looked the same. We even seem predisposed to make judgments about a person’s moral character from how beautiful their face is (the halo effect) and this correlates to a long tradition in literature of describing evil characters as having distorted ugly faces and the good as wholesome clean and beautiful. Faces are where most of our sense organs are located and what we look at when we communicate with others. Given all of this, it is not surprising “the face” is one of the main focal points for our attention.

Take the face away and the gaze searches for other means of identification which is exactly what I did with this image where I found myself noting the differences in clothing, hairstyle, age and height of the seven sisters. What do these things say about them? I have no clue. It’s not an interesting exercise for me to extrapolate on a strangers personality given a few details. Instead, and this might tell you more about me than the image, I focused on the hidden repetitious pattern underlying the variations themselves, their DNA.

Genetically the average similarity between two total strangers is 99.9%. Another way to say the same thing is that two total strangers have 3 million differences in their letter coding, a necessary break in the repetitious pattern that sexual selection and mutation provide. Undoubtedly the recombination and duplication of C T G & A help shape how tall we are, what color eyes we have and whether our hair is curly or straight. This is uncontroversial and most people are fine with talking about the genetic influence on what are perceived as “shallow” traits. The anxiety creeps in though when we go above the neck and consider that the brain is influenced as well, that our identity, our behavior as well as the intuitive attractions we assume are uniquely “us” are affected by these persistent repetitive four little letters.

Repetition can be calming, meditative and stabilizing (I’m thinking here of Agnes Martin) but it can also feel oppressive and abhorrent. It is the later feeling that underlies not just a human uncomfortableness with repetition but manifests in other animals as well. Female song birds love to hear variations on a theme so much that the male song bird’s brain has developed larger areas that produce a greater amount of variety in the songs it can sing. Males that sing less repetitive songs are more sexually desirable and thus tend to be more successful at reproducing. The desire for a break in repetition isn’t just a whim or an aesthetic trend. It’s a preference that exists in animals that’s strong enough to shape biology.

Our anxiety over our identity spreads from the confines of our biological reality to the culture in which it manifests, and we can see it clearly in the transactional situations we find ourselves in with tellers or servers who’re reciting a script that’s turned them into a program that has little to do with who they actually are. Even in interpersonal relationships we might be flattered by a person’s interest only to find they tell the same stories and play through the same sets of behaviors to everyone that’s come before. If you work in the service industry you might watch as person after person makes the same joke in the same situation, each feeling they’ve hit upon some insight that’s particularly their own. There is so much emphasis on human creativity and our ability for wondrous spontaneity that it’s slightly discomforting to recognize that the environments we’ve created can prompt us to act like fairly predictable robots in more situations than we’d like to admit.

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Our attempts to differentiate ourselves, to change the traits we are given, often are framed as “unnatural” such as the manufactured clothing we wear or the synthetics applied to our hair to make it do something it wasn’t going to do on its on. The tension between the natural/unnatural is magnified, not just in the hairstyles that are pictured (some are dyed, some aren’t) but in the photoshopped backdrop where the mountains, trees and sky repeat themselves in a slightly unnerving landscape. This manufactured repetition is reinforced by the girls heart t-shirt that mimics a kind of randomness that is not random at all.

One reading of this image then could be the futility of the family photo itself, that these moments capture the physical growth of our bodies, the small choices we make with our clothing and hair, but masks the underlying psychology of the family and the stories that are currently unfolding. Instead what we’re left with is smiling faces, a moment of faux familial bliss that usually feels strained. There are now websites, coffee table books and memes dedicated to making fun of the awkwardness of the family photo. People are trying to present themselves one way, and if they do a bad job, it calls attention to the presentation itself, which is, well, awkward, that we manufacture these strange environments to take a photo that we’ll share with other people in order to show them how great we are.

In another reading, turning away from the lens subverts the individuality of the people in the picture but highlights the overall uniqueness of the image itself when you compare it to all of the other family photos that’ve come before. In this sense, individuality and uniqueness are conflated, and as such, what makes us unique (turning our backs to the camera when everyone else faces forward) is what makes us an individual. The fact though that all seven sisters are doing the same subversive gesture recalls other futile gestures of rebellion such as the anarchist dress code of safety pins and patches, or even better, that scene in Life of Brian where the entire crowd chants in unison, “Yes, we are all individuals!” and then one lone man raises his hand and says, “I’m not”.

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What most of my interpretations highlight is varying types of existential anxiety surrounding identity. There’s the anxiety over our genes, over the presentation of self within the family, over the presentation of the family to society, as well as the anxiety over the choices we make to differentiate ourselves that with hindsight sometimes look as cartoonish as the hearts patterned across the little girl’s shirt.

But maybe these takes are too cynical and have too high of an expectation for what portraiture can do. The insistence on the family picture year after year does call to mind the religious conception of repetition, that no matter what’s going on in our lives we sit with one another and take this photo and that what’s expected is not a document that peers into our inner psychologies, that lays bare our individuality or shows how great we are. Actually, quite the opposite. The unintended consequence of repeating a fairly superficial sometimes cringe inducing act gives us the ability to look back at all the outfits we showed up in over the years, what hair style we thought really defined us, and as we flip through the photos we can watch time take its toll on our bodies, we can watch everything fall away except the constancy of a family coming together, looking into the camera and trying to smile, or, if we so choose, turning our gaze to the backdrops we’ve chosen to place ourselves.