Interviewed by Dr. Lev Manovich, professor in the graduate center of City University of New York, director in Software Studies Initiative, and author of books on New Media Theory
Lev Manovich: Your thesis project is very interesting and visually rich, and on this level it seems to be quite far from 1960s minimalism. But the “system” of combinations you construct brings to mind the systematic approaches used by Oulipo writers who used constraints to create poems and fiction. Can you comment on the interplay between the “rules” you employ in your project and the result?
Ashley Middleton: Similarly to Oulipo writers, I’m interested in how systematic constraints can produce a series of endless potentialities. In my case, it is the endless potential of self that I’m most curious about. So the only rule I’ve made is that every five years, for the rest of my life, I will shoot fifteen strangers that I believe look like me. With the use of photography and video I’ve set up a system to collect people that I think look like me. The goal of this work is not to find my doppelgänger, but to continuously visualize self-perception and locate distortions. Each series will produce a narrative that is a piece of the whole so the project can only exist in its entirety where I no longer do. It is fixed to produce a series of potentials, not a static representation of self.
LM: In your thesis work, you are projecting yourself [through] photos of people similar to you; you also combine photos of these people. The result has some conceptual connection to famous “composite photography” by Francis Galton. How do you see your project in relation to Galton’s work?
AM: Through the study of physiognomy, Galton was looking to access information about a person’s character through their outer appearance. He was focused on quantifying difference and classifying individuals. This is not a set of beliefs I align my work with and without getting into the problematic ideologies of his work, I do think we’re both interested in the space of physiological data. I am just taking a different route and using a different medium to get there. Galton was focused on the end result - the image. I’m focused on the process - I’m turning my subjects into an image to help me understand why I’m choosing them in the first place.
I don’t believe appearance is static or informative of one’s character. My interest is in how we see and how those systems of seeing fold into self-perception. By photographing others I am trying to unfold these systems to better understand how I exist to others and how that relates to how I exist to myself.
LM: In Reflections you create a unique work using the situations which we think we know so well from our everyday life - people looking at themselves in mirrors, window reflections, and more recently, their front facing cameras of their phones. The people in Reflections share something common: their gaze is meditative, soft, and they seem to be in a bit of a dream. Since I worked on the “Selfiecity” project, where we compared 3200 selfies from ve global cities, I know that in the case of self-portraits, people look very, very di erent from what you captured in your project. Did you select the situations where everybody looked similar - almost being lost inside themselves, as opposed to posing or trying to look pretty? Or was it indeed a common look?
AM: As I let go of some control and let the project take its course I realized it began to respond to questions I didn’t know I was asking. It showed me that I was less interested in people looking at themselves and more interested the single moment of loss and disconnection that occurred when people looked at themselves. I still don’t have the precise words for how I see the work but I think the act of looking at oneself - compressing time and space, solidifying experience in an image of self, stopping the movement that informs the image - is a curious act that causes a common reaction. Because the mirror was situated in a public space I did get various portraits of people inspecting the object. However, those images did not make the series. For me, it is the curiosity of self that activates the project and I chose the images that I thought best t that concept.