The Architectonics of Identity Construction


“I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares).”

- Roland Barthes

Chasing my identity around as if I were chasing my tail has become an ongoing race between myself and who I think I am. Like a lot of artists I explore who I am through surface appearance, inner context or self reflection of the past (and the present). Almost never do I explore the future of my identity. It is something that doesn’t percolate to surface in my art making. The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin also explored the self in-terms of identity and its constructs. Using architectonics to create a model of identity Bakhtin theorized that identity can be made up of three parts that were dependent on the use of internal and external language. I would like to approach a selection of self portraits as seen through the lens of the architectonics of identity construction.

For reader/viewer understanding I would first like to include what I have written in my journal when these images were first created. My self portraits have become more intense.  This is the third or maybe fourth self portrait image during the year 2011 that I have produced.  All these images utilize extrusive time.  This is part of the depictive level as described by Stephen Shore where motion represents movement in time as shown through use of slow shutter speeds.  In these images my face is concealed by a masking or shroud, the images have the commonality of concealing some part of the facial identity through use of motion blurring techniques.  There has been a stark duality between my outer self and my inner self that I do not always recognize.   What this self portrait depicts is a ghost of myself.  When this image was created I had just left my second marriage where partially a long battle with PTSD dismantled it, I turned twenty-nine, and I saw the ten year anniversary of my father’s death. A ghost is exactly what I felt then.

Bakhtin lists three metaphors as the construction that makes up the architecture of identity. These include the center, the not-center, and the relationship between the two. The center is not to be mistaken for the core of the identity and it has been described as our bodies, possibly their defining features and all that our bodies demand. Bodies have basic needs and they have specific disabilities to each one. The self portrait provided hides the surface features of the body and thus conceals the first element of identity construction. But does it?  We can tell that the figure is likely slender by the definition of the shoulders and the implied facial features. We can also tell that the figure is not smiling although the shroud is covering the face. The shroud still allows some definition of basic facial features and implies a skeletal identity. The center however is more complex than just basic surface features of human identity, it is a shapeshifter and only caters to the desires of the center. At this time the center desires to hide and it has been concealed with the protection of an ominous image that is provided by the shroud. This creates a wall around the then vulnerable center.

The second metaphor for identity construction is the not-center. The not-center includes all that is surrounding you in the world of society, culture, and media. This could consist of important characters or relationships in your life, what you enjoy, what you do, your cultural influences, and essentially the world that you and I live in. In my self portrait, I have depicted myself stripped of my not-center. There are no clothes, there is no environment, there are no other relationships. During this particular time that these self portrait were made there were many feelings of loss. I had lost the majority of my major relationships by the time of the creation of these photographs. Of course everyday, I was and still am surrounded by the elements in my universe that define who I am. I am still a college photography professor, I still drive a Volkswagen, I am still a vegan, and I still still living in Colorado. All of these define the not-center. Because the not-center is centripetal, all of these things that make up my day to day not-center are in flux with the intensity of interest, internal and external influences.  However, These things are not depicted. The not-center elements are suspended in a void. The not-center is not on display; but do not be fooled into thinking it is not present. These images do not depict a reality, but like Frida Kahlo, they depict something similar to magical realism because I am not a ghost living in a void but allowing the heteroglossia or the inner dialogue to have a voice within this piece of artwork and to speak for itself. My artistic and aesthetic influences dictate the stark and ghostly visual language in these pieces. I am an artist who prefers darkly influenced imagery.

The last construct of identity is the relationship between the center and the not-center. It is my understanding that this relationship is determined by the use of the same language with the various tones and implications that can be interpreted. Many people may look at these images - and although recognize the ghostly visual language that is being presented - and yet not feel the personal impact of these pieces of art meant by myself, the artist. Without background information the relationship between the center and not-center cannot be fully related to the viewer. Without that information the viewer could read a variety of meanings based on their own cultural and life experience. From the perspective of the artist, the relationship between the center and not-center is the battle between the two as the center’s desire to create a protective wall with the ghastly appearance while tearing down the not-center’s characteristics that defines the subject in the photograph. Their relationship is at odds.

In conclusion, the works of art being presented here was a study in releasing the monophony of a very loud heteroglossia. With that, it was also meant to provide a voice to unspeakable hardships that I was taught to chin up and get through (another influence of the not-center). Although some might find this method of understanding ones identity as melodramatic or theatrical, it is still a very real part of learning about who I am. I would like to end with a quote from Susan Sontag’s book of essays On Photography, “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other peoples reality, and eventually in ones own”. I will continue touring and circumnavigating my identity as if I were a tourist gawking at myself and as an artist who is actively curious.  I will continue to chase myself through the medium of photography.