an essay by Celia Lury
Rooms is a response to the challenge of curating an on-line exhibition of the portraits produced by Felicity Allen as part of her collaboration with the People Like You project.
In the project we are interested in how categories of People Like You emerge in digital media, data science and health care. We understand these categories to be created in practices of ‘liking’ (or preference) and ‘likeness’ (or the making of similarity or resemblance), and the combination of these practices in sequence: People Like You Like Things Like This. Both ‘liking’ and ‘likeness’ are terms that we might apply to portraits of ourselves and others: Do we like them? Are they like the person? With what confidence in our own judgement can we say we like a portrait? Is liking even a way to appreciate art? And how can we recognize likeness if we do not know – have not seen – the person who is being portrayed? What other likeness-es are called up for the artist and the viewer?
Allen says she tries to avoid identifying sitters according to standard categories. In Rooms, the categories or groupings of portraits do not only map onto liking or likeness, but address the ways in which the practice of Dialogic Portraits builds on and complicates how we create, interpret and value representations of selves. In the Room ‘Back and Forth’, second or third portraits of the same person, who is described as having made adjustments in response to a previous portrait, are sequenced. Were these adjustments in response to liking or likeness, and who liked or disliked, saw a resemblance or not – the sitter or the artist? Another Room – ‘At Home’ – contains portraits of people Allen is ‘familiar’ with, because they have sat for her repeatedly, raising the question of whether it is possible for the viewer to identify any kind of (non-biological) family resemblance. And what potential – for flattery, for experimentation, for imagination – might reside in such resemblance?
In her Introduction to Rooms, Allen offers the idea that the sequencing of the portraits in each room – an organised walk through virtual space – can be understood, in part, as if a game of dominoes was being played.
Dominoes involves a process of matching ‘like with like’, but also a kind of obviation, of anticipation – what or who will come next – and disposal – what or who will be unused, cannot be matched, is left out, perhaps to be played at a later point in the game. In many versions of the game of dominoes, the winner is the person who is able to use all their tiles; the loser is the player who has one or more left over. In data science, digital media and health care, who can be matched to who, and in what order, may have more significant implications than winning or losing a game.
Allen also observes that when she came to make the film Figure to Ground, and the Rooms, she included portraits she had painted for projects other than People Like You. Perhaps this is not so surprising: the population of portraits from which categories of People Like You emerge is not a population that could ever be said to be complete – the population of which they are part is always a vague whole (Guyer 2014), even if restricted to those by a single artist. As she says, the series is continuing.
Guyer, Jane 2014. Percentages and perchance: archaic forms in the twenty-first century.
Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 15(2):155-173.