Taken from my OCA critiques board thread:
“For the second choice, I want to correlate phone selfies with screen captures from my period tracker app on the same day. Like many people, some of my most personal data is on apps accessed from my mobile. Where I am in my cycle does affect my identity on that day, yet it’s largely (and fortunately) invisible to most of the people I encounter daily. As I get further into my 50s it’s not going to be part of my identity for much longer. An artist friend tells me that womens’ faces are more symmetrical around ovulation, which I find both intriguing and hard to believe. So I’m loosely thinking about a Roni Horn “You are the weather” type series.”
This post will be regularly updated over the next few weeks.
I’ve wanted to do something with my period tracker app (Clue) since I started using it several weeks ago. As I get further into perimenopause it provides an invaluable service in terms of keeping track of my shortening cycles. It’s not just that though, it’s the way that it makes sense of my data, my moods, the almost teenage diversity and quantity of fluids. It’s the idea of quite so much personal data, sloshing around in the cloud where they presumably try to make sense of all the women using it. I’m fascinated by both the range of the data that we give away, and the sensitivity of it.
Menstruation, and menopause, fit neatly with my passion for making work about the commonplace yet unseen, the familiar but forgotten. There’s not much work out there, and what there is tends to focus on the actual blood rather than the delicacy and effieciency of a cycle that in my case has run smoothly for most of 37 odd years. I started my periods when Margaret Thatcher was PM and I’m nearing the end of them with Theresa May. My cycles have stopped and started for the pill, pregnancy, miscarriage, pregnancy and breastfeeding before heading into a peri-menopausal steampunk-style frenzy of over-activity in recent years. They frame my identity, are a factor in managing my diary and I’m not actually sure who and how I’ll be without them. I won’t be making work along the lines of Judy Chicago’s Red Flag or Yurie Nagashima’s This Time of the Month (Auto Focus p80) or even the exquisitely embroidered tampons and sanitary towels by Sarah Naqvi. I want to document just one of the 400-500 cycles that define and circumscribe the fertile years of my life, before they stop for good. I want to document from two perspectives – how the world sees me (or rather how my iPhone sees me through a front-facing camera), and from the daily screens in my app that give me the data that the world doesn’t see. I trust that documenting this way will provoke empathy, recognition and thought. edit – I wanted to work with a consistent but not rigidly so background, so decided on a light background. Over the course of the cycle this encompassed my bed, the upstairs landing walls and the outside of the house.
Moving on, I decided to make mobile selfies as this is in keeping with the culture that gave rise to the app in the first place. So the images are not that polished, and they contrast with the smooth design of the screen captures. They feel real though. I’m using a single corner of the house and the same jumper each day. Valentines Day has seen the introduction of a rose which I think might continue to feature, I’m intrigued by how it might bloom and decline along with my cycle. The phone app offers a range of screens – pre data entry, post data entry, splash “did you know?” screens, calendar overviews, detailed drill down screens for specific data… I think I will capture 2 or 3 each day along with selfies. I upload to Lightroom each day and put a couple of images together in Photoshop. My cycle doesn’t run from day 1 to day 1 because I didn’t start properly until day 6, but it’s a cycle no matter where it starts. Edit – the images eventually ran from day 6 to day 5. I am minded to present them as day 1to day 26 for simplicity, even though that means that the first 5 images are actually at the wrong end of the contact sheet.
The following grid is a half-way house for contact sheets – it’s a log of my composites including trying out different overlay modes. No serious editing applied to this selection and it will be added to as time goes on until I have a whole cycle’s worth of images. Text continues below.
I’m wondering as always about colour or black and white and both. As I get older and see an increasing influence from my mum in the mirror I feel as if I should be in black and white; one of the matriarchs in the photo album. Then I remind myself that I still have many productive years, even decades, ahead of me, and that if I want to spend them in colour I darn well will. I wonder about photo albums as they are now, will they only include black and white images where that’s been chosen as a filter? How much am I defining my own validity and worth by my fertility?
Following a suggestion on the OCA board, I watched the film Stranger than Fiction. A man, whose life has its own GUI, (a bit like in the modern Sherlock series), suddenly acquires a narrator and learns that he is the doomed central character in a novel that’s being written. As the plot progresses his GUI disappears, which I found slightly disappointing. I like the concept, the way you get extra information from inside the character becoming visible.
I’ve realised in the last couple of days that this work isn’t just about layering selfies with data on my menstrual cycle, it’s about sliding further into perimenopause and my response to it. I’m reading Susan Bright’s Auto Focus book, and that directed me to Anne Noggle’s self portraits of herself as an older woman. I feel slightly reassured by her work, though for a variety of reasons am not sure that I would be prepared to show as much flesh and quite probably not as joyfully as she does. There are any number of worries starting to coalesce too – will I run out of ideas? Will I forget to make a shot every day? The project hinges on being a whole set of one cycle after all. Does it matter that it starts on Day 6? Doesn’t that make it a spiral rather than a cycle? Day 1 is a completely different day 1 every time, after all. Is the egg metaphor too clunky?
Sunday 18th and the fear of running out of
eggs ideas is becoming quite real. I’m leaving that Freudian slip right there because it illustrates so clearly that I am normally the last person to understand what my own work is about. My subconscious has to get the flags out and insert subtitles. Perhaps this new knowledge will benefit the work.
Monday 19th, and last night I dreamt that I was at the maternity unit in labour with a second child. I think this may be the first time that coursework has driven my dreams. I think I now know absolutely what this work means to me. I’m starting to realise just how far outside my comfort zone I am, and I think the door slammed shut behind me. Even the standard Instagram selfie is alien to me, something like this day after day feels massively unstable beneath my creative base.
I decided to rewatch Groundhog Day, due to a passing reference made by another student about the banality of keeping a daily diary. It’s strikingly similar to Stranger than Fiction, in that it has a story line of someone trying to regain control over their life when its authorship seems to pass elsewhere. Every day Bill Murray’s character gets the choice to either live the same day over and over, or to seize the chance to do something differently, to invent an entirely new narrative for himself. That rings a bell – when I pick up the phone every day and wonder what kind of image I will make.
A reference that feels relevant – OCA student Sarah-Jane Field’s exercise on Self & Other where she transforms herself to a teenage girl via the use of Snapchat filters. I haven’t fully unpacked the relevance but here is the link https://ocasjf.wordpress.com/2017/12/13/excercise-3-3-the-act-we-act/
20 Feb – a study session with OCA peer Holly Woodward. We talk about how women are largely absent from photographs between the ages of about 45 and 75, about presenting a consistent series, about whether a self portrait triptych such as Anne Noggle’s Stellar by Starlight can be considered objectification. We talk about how older women are frequently photographed after death, via their possessions. I’m not sure how I feel about being defined by my possessions posthumously. We talked about whether this work could be shown as a series with the same basic concept throughout the series but colour changes in the overlay indicating the passage of time through the cycle. Also presentation – I’m keen to present the work in a way that reflect the nature of a cycle, so maybe a never ending slide show, or as a carousel type handmade book that would neatly turn the inside outside. Holly has also lent me some books which I’ll talk about on a separate post.
21 Feb – updated Bridge which is giving me much better options for making contact sheets. I think contact sheets will be key to a strong edit on this work. The time quality to this is odd, I can’t make the work any quicker and there has to be a shot for every day, even if the final edit doesn’t contain a full cycle worth of shots. It’s slightly frustrating having to go at this slower pace. Looking at the contact sheet is also making me think that the final set has to have my face in each one. Somehow the non-face ones feel less me, even though they are me.
22 Feb – discovered how to capture a blurred preview of an iPhone image, which is quite exciting. I’m intrigued by the idea of identity fading after ovulation.
25 Feb the work goes up for peer review this evening. A tutor/assessor who posts on the forum thinks it’s pretty much there already and suggests submitting as an A3 contact sheet. I think I would want to tweak it slightly – the contact sheet at present has multiple images for some days and I want one image per day. After doing yesterday’s image I have 14 consecutive images which makes sense, being half a standard cycle, and I finished on day 19 which makes sense to me as I like prime numbers. If the work is good enough already then there isn’t much point in doing too much more with it, it can start to feel artificial and self-conscious.
I think the contact sheet needs simpler captioning – just the date that the image was made, not the extension and not any other data. I think the dates will anchor the work in time so that the cycle days can run on a parallel track. The rose joins the two timelines on Feb 14th, when estrogen levels were starting to rise and mood improve.
It was interesting making the blurred images. These involve screen grabbing the residual image left on the phone screen after activating the camera on the phone but not taking the photograph. Then it had to be cropped to a square to remove the other screen elements, then it had to be scaled up. The result is very pixelated and blurred with no detail at all. I think there is more work to be done here, though maybe not right now on this assignment.
Call – really helpful in getting feedback.
Why did I layer the app over the portrait? Did I consider doing it the other way?
A – because I view the world and interact with it differently depending on where I am in my cycle. It’s like a prism. Doing the work this way allows me to bring the inside out, to make the inside visible.
Why are all the portraits facing the camera?
That was how it worked best for me. I hadn’t really considered silhouettes etc. I liked the eye contact. Did try other parts of body but they didn’t feel so me.
Not an easy subject for a mixed group to address.
Clive – liked the contact sheet format, “like a sheet of stamps”. (or a calendar) Images need to be big enough to be legible, needs to look like it was done that way on purpose.
27 Feb – despite what it says on the tracker, I’m in the PMS part of the cycle. Looking at today’s images I can’t be happy with them. But then again today I’m not really happy with any of them even though they looked ok yesterday. I wonder if I should keep the images in, as they are a more faithful representation of what happens when I’m premenstrual. I feel as if I’m getting a ringside seat on how my creativity changes with my hormone levels.
28 Feb – the images are starting to get more complicated as I was using effects on the source images. I’ve tried to simplify one of today’s, the dial was too much and I wanted the ripple effect to suggest my data being uploaded to the cloud where Clue uses it to learn. But the relationship in this one isn’t entirely straightforward. It’s a revelation how the hormone level changes both how I make the work and how I view it. This is certainly something that I shall bear in mind from now on. It’s good to know that within 7-9 days I should have finished an entire cycle. Even if every image from yesterday on isn’t good enough I still have enough to do a set of 14 from the first two weeks.
1st March – snow today, which made for some interesting pictures. I took them outside, against the house, preserving the light background that’s in the interieor shots. My favourite image has a blown out background but I like it for the snowflakes. A friend commented on Instagram that she wouldn’t want to pick a fight with me. This afternoon I read about Elina Brotherus’ “I Hate Sex” and was reassured that I’m not the only person who doesn’t smile in self-portraits.
Starting to think again about presentation. If I can run the work for 28 consecutive days then I can present in four rows of seven, like a calendar. I am unsure about whether the work needs dates under the images or not. Also wondering about a video with page turning effect, like in films when the calendar pages flutter off to indicate time passing. Quite like the idea of calling the work “28 days later”.
6/3 Just going to run the cycle full circuit which means two more days to go. I’ve been lucky enough to collate quite a lot of feedback both via the OCA channels, blog and by email. These are the things in my head at the moment:
- contact sheets to include the cycle day as caption rather than actual date. Achieved this by copying and renaming the files in Bridge then constructing the contact sheet. Much easier to read. update – the final compromise was cycle day n.jpg caption to each image on the contact sheet.
- Playing around with constructing photobooth strips and then printing and constructing these into a Mobius loop – idea of loop, idea of self/sexuality on the inside and the outside. Update – I did try this. It felt odd to have the blank side visible though and detracted from the cycle loop itself.
- Getting some test prints. These need to be fairly small as the work is made with the selfie camera and hence only 960×960 pixels. Should work as small square prints though. Update – I need to get my own printer! Bridge gave me a gorgeously spaced PDF file, but Loxley won’t print pdfs, so I did the contact sheet through Photoshop which was not quite as pretty and didn’t allow me to include just the file name without the .jpg suffix I tried 3inch square prints and they were a bit too small.
- Removing the tracker layer and seeing how that feels/looks (might actually be necessity for photobooth strips as they won’t be legible at small size). Update – yes, I did this on a few images and it’s fine. The other images provide enough chronological context.
3/4 Nearly a month since I last wrote here. I ran the set to 26 images, which was the length of that particular cycle. The last day was also International Women’s Day, which turned out quite well (when I did the apple diary that finished on National Apple Day too…) Interestingly, I’m now on day 31 of the next cycle along with no sign of my period, and am wondering if I serendipitously caught my last ever cycle, or if it’s just more hormonal hiccups. I have a contact sheet printed at A3 which I am fairly happy with, I would like to tweak a couple of the images to improved their legibility at smaller sizes. I’ve also established that 3″ square may be a little small for individual prints. I did think about printing them as slides and presenting in a carousel, however the source images really are too small. Using the selfie camera on the camera has restricted presentation options as the images are only 960pixels square. I followed up a forum suggestion of spiral binding square images to give the idea of a cycle, but there’s a problem with losing text, until I print the images with a border and bind in the border. At the moment the contact sheet is working for me, it’s simple and calendar-like and follows the different approaches I tried out during the cycle, thus giving an idea of my learning process.
15/4 After receiving the prints back from Loxley I decided to edit the processing on days 3 and 7 to improved text legibility. I also ordered a handful of prints at 5″ square as well as the changed contact sheet. I was very taken by student Nic Hallam’s idea of presenting these images as slides in a Kodak carousel, because of the way it just keep on cycling around until it breaks. However on looking into it the jpgs are too small to make good slides, and I’m unhappy about a form of presentation that requires a slide projector. I want to try out peer Holly Woodward’s suggestion of presenting the images as a handmade “star” book where the covers open through 360 degree to give a rotary format.
22/4 I haven’t really written much here about the choice for A3 that I didn’t take – working with photobooth style strips to make Mobius loops. This was inspired by Elizabeth Grosz, work on the surface as a way of discussing those aspects of ourselves we choose to keep visible/hidden and the ultimate futility of doing so (she was inspired by Lacan). This idea is now on my shortlist for A5. I like how it puts the (invisible) insideness of a menstrual cycle on the (visible) outside. It leaves me the question of the relevance of the blank back of the strip.
OCA discussion board thread for this work – https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/self-portrait-context-narrative-a3/6711/47
post script – although we didn’t actually discuss this work on the forum live call this evening I did show the first pass of the finished contact sheet. Two further ideas have arisen for developing the work further – as postage stamps and as coasters (it’s an intimate conversation, and I like the idea of opening it up by photographing the coasters in coffee bars, cafes, pubs etc). Plus the Clue ring reminds me of tea/coffee stains.