Figure to Ground
a site losing its system
In the Dialogic Portraits process I invite someone to spend, usually, two days sitting for me while I make at least two watercolour portraits of them. The portraits range in size and time taken. During the sittings the sitter and I have rambling conversations – we can be more or less talkative. I think of the portraits as representing the relations between us, and the time in which we are both working. As well as dating the portraits, at the end of a sitting I invite the sitter to join me in signing them.
Watercolour is not a conventional medium for portraiture and, as a translucent medium, overlaid brush-marks allow for moments or expressions to be glimpsed in a final work – in this sense, water colour is more similar to film’s potential to represent time and variation in a face than it is to photography.
Generally I invited people to participate for a mix of reasons: they might have interesting things to say about representation and data; they were interested in being painted and the project, and I was interested in painting them.
The sittings are followed by a recorded conversation with the sitter. We usually reflect on their relation to representations of themselves, whether through traditional means like the painted portrait or through less tangible forms of their ‘data-selves’. I then review the various recordings, selecting, editing and weaving them together with the portraits to make a work in another medium, a book or a film. Individual voices are presented as a mix, collected and anonymised. For the project ‘People Like You’ I made the 12-minute film, Figure to Ground – a site losing its system, from sittings with 30 people from which I had made 62 portraits. I also included five portraits from projects which overlapped.
When I thought about how sitters might relate to each other in this Dialogic Portraits series, I pictured a game of dominoes; tops and tails following an assortment of different possible connections and lines of thought. Each of the Rooms (to the right) presents one such branching line of thought.
After completing the film, I was interviewed by Celia Lury, one of the members of the People Like You project, for a book on the significance of figures for thinking about representations of the person.