Looking at Rock Stars Thomas Swiss / University of Minnesota and John Barner / University of Georgia

Psycho Shower 1

Psycho Shower 2

Fig. 1: Marianne Faithfull; Janet Leigh, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (Paramount Pictures, 1960)

I take photographs to see what something looks like as a photograph.
—Garry Winogrand, photographer

These days, people only know my name. They don’t know what I do. I’m just a name.
—Marianne Faithfull

In Part One of this Flow column, we discussed how the modern portrait can be many things—a commodity, a canvas, or a confession. Portraits reflect larger archetypes that progress through the ages and reveal themselves to us in similar poses and themes. In this part, we examine how these similarities present a unique mirror to the psyche and the myth-making that occurs in the iconography of popular culture and its objects: photographs of actors, models, politicians and rock stars. As in Part One, we have assembled photographs and their stylistic antecedents and examined them as if they were parts of a contiguous whole.


Portraits partake of the artificial nature of masks because they always impersonate the subject with some degree of conviction. Personhood, strongly attached to names, faces, bodies, and roles, can be understood as a metaphor for a particular intersection of social relations. What is left to the individual or to the artist portraying them is a matter of choice, perhaps an attempt to foster the pleasing deception that either of them is free. This alerts us to a problem in how we understand a photograph; the shifting distinction between its function as an image and its assumed value. In many ways those photographs deemed to have the most value are the least functional, and vice-versa.

Photographs are placed in categories (or genres) that codify their terms of reference and status. An ‘art’ photograph involves an entirely different set of assumptions from a ‘documentary’ photograph; all part of the complex web of interrelationships within which any photograph is suspended. The extent to which so much photographic practice has been haunted in its development by what has been termed ‘the ghost of painting’ is crucial, for photography established, from the outset, genres and hierarchies of significance related to painting. It institutionalized the artistic and professional aspects of its meaning in terms of an academic tradition.

Someone for ‘Something’

To take someone for a ‘something’—a great artist, ‘beauty’, leader or scientist—is to place that person within categories established by consensus to locate members of a society in familiar roles by which they are presentable and knowable. The denotation of someone as ‘the person who is something’ adopts the meta-language of the social act in defining identity, equivalent in its value to the person’s name. Like all ‘portraits’, images remain framed within a context that asserts simultaneously individual significance and attendant myths. They promise access as they declare privilege. And consistently, the ‘portrait’ hovers between extremes: on one hand the passport image, an identity card which stamps itself as an authoritative image; and on the other the studio portrait, which is offered as the realization of the photographer’s definitive attempt to reveal an interior and enigmatic personality that exists solely within the imagination of the viewer.

The Imagined Subject

David Crosby

Fig. 2: David Crosby

The imagined subject in rock photography is displayed as caught up in narcissistic fascination with the mirror image that, with its connections to curiosity and desire, draws the viewer further in, placing themselves in the role of the musician-as-object. One example can be seen in Figure 2, a portrait of David Crosby, then with the Byrds. Crosby is looking over his shoulder into a mirror at his reflection. His eyes are fixed on the image of himself, dressed in the dandy-style clothing the band wore at the time, sporting a satisfied, confident expression. Since the angle obscures Crosby’s “real” face, the viewer is drawn into the reflected image to glean the details of the photograph. We can compare this with Caravaggio’s famous painting Narcissus (see Figure 3), illustrating the egotistic satisfaction and longing present in both the classical Greek myth and the myth of the ever-confident rock star “attitude.” In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the mirror’s reflection and its recognition are a metaphor for ego formation—considering not only the self as it is but also an ideal self—what we most want to be. The point of the ego ideal, for Lacan,


Fig. 3: Narcissus by Caravaggio (1597-1599), Image courtesy of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

is that “the subject will see himself, as one says, as others see him—which will enable him to support himself.” ((Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans., Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991., 268. Emphasis in original.))

Larry Rivers’s Double Portrait of Frank O’Hara (1955) presents a “doubled” portrait—a simultaneous self and ideal. Through subtle movements of the head and the visual angle of the painting, O’Hara is seen as placid and composed in the right hand panel (see Figure 4) and, with arched eyebrows and a penetrating gaze, much more sinister in the left hand panel. These differences in tone and mood continue in repeated viewings of the portraits, where one begins to show a hint of a smile, the other betrays a downturned countenance, almost a frown. Where the eyes of one are calm, the others seem to burn with inarticulate rage. These two images (which are facets of one image, one subject, one “self”) portray two disparate and irreconcilable aspects of the same personality, indicative of Lacan’s transformative anxiety of the uncanny double experience.

Frank OHara

Fig. 4: Double Portrait of Frank O’ Hara by Larry Rivers (1955)

We call the Rivers portrait “uncanny” in that it captures this dichotomy, whereas other exemplars of Pop Art style, such as Warhol’s duplicated portraits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, seem to, by the very nature of their photorealistic duplicative process, create vacuous space, and rendered devoid of the vaguest possibility of viewer identification. ((Cf. Steven Shaviro, “The Life, After Death, of Postmodern Emotions” Criticism 46, (2004): 125-141.)) That their difference is so subtle, and may not even be evident upon every viewing, is precisely what makes the doubled image an uncanny image of binary opposition.

Often, the cultural industry of popular music exists to both beckon and keep apart divergent elements away from the “rock icon” ego ideal, as is seen by the dual portrait of Bob Dylan (see Figure 5). In the Dylan portrait, the difference between each is exaggerated and heightened where the previous double portrait of O’Hara is more subtle. Dylan is seen, on the right, as peaceful and calm, with softly closed eyes, with his head tilted slightly and lips puckered as if in a kiss. On the left, Dylan is seen as if in either orgasmic ecstasy or anguished pain, with mouth open, eyes tightly closed, head held

Bob Dylan

Fig. 5: Double Portrait of Bob Dylan

rigidly stiff. The viewer’s attention may seem unable to stay fixed on just one of the images, and indeed the viewer may not be able to reconcile the two images as one, thus increasing the anxiety and tension that are characteristic of the moment of displaced, uncanny identification. As Roland Barthes notes, the moment of identification with a photograph is always split and never reconciled, the moment frozen in time at a point of pivotal “catastrophe”—a catastrophe which has always, already occurred, and always will occur. ((Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981., 96.))

Image Credits:

1. Marianne Faithfull
2. Janet Leigh
3. David Crosby (1966), photograph by Philip Townsend, from author
4. Narcissus, by Carvaggio
5. Frank O’Hara
6. Bob Dylan (1976), photograph by Lynn Goldsmith, from author

Please feel free to comment.

Looking at Rock Stars
Thomas Swiss / University of Minnesota

100 Greatest Rock 'n Roll Photographs

100 Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Photographs

If we had to write our academic pieces as if they were poems, as if every word counted, how would we write differently? How much would we write at all?

—John Law, co-developer, Actor-Network Theory

In the collecting world, photographs are big business. Setting new records, Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II sold for $4,338,500 at Christie’s in 2011; Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #96 was auctioned for $3,890,500. By these lights, selling rock-related photos is a small (but growing) business. A limited edition double-portrait of Grace Slick and Janice Joplin from a magazine photo shoot in 1967 costs $6,500 at the online site Wolfgang’s Vault. Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival that same year (“print #48 of 50”) will set you back $10,000; a rock portrait by photographer Annie Liebovitz, sold elsewhere, can cost $50,000 or more. In the last few years, record companies like Sony and others have also realized that images of their artists, buried in their archives and mostly used for boxed sets, are sources of new revenue as music sales continue to decline.

Collected in coffee-table books, sold in galleries and online sites, featured in special issues of Q, Spin, Rolling Stone, and other magazines – venues where the photos often first appeared — rock portraits play an important role in creating the celebrity culture of pop music. Among other things, they reinforce and amplify the “personalities” we imagine making the recordings and giving the performances that constitute a rock musician’s principle body of work. Some may also embody particular artistic designs, demonstrating how aesthetic form brings together musical and social content in and through the image.

It’s hard thinking about portraits, even those by great photographers, as art and not in terms of the “essence” of the person pictured. Here is well-known rock photographer Jim Marshall on his work: “When I’m able to capture the essence of my subject and show something of what they do or reveal who this person is, then I’ve achieved what I want to do.” But whatever the mimetic quality of the portrait — Marshall’s or anybody’s — the photograph remains, of course, a representation of the subject, one whose value as an approximation is less determined by its descriptive character than by the coincidence of the perceptions shared by the photographer and the viewer. Said another way, the “value” of rock portraits in large part reflects both the social and topical knowledge of viewers.

One kind of knowledge I want to think about here – a topic explored by art critic David Lubin in his intriguing book on JFK — is the knowledge of other images. (( Lubin, David M. Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. )) After all, some rock portraits look like or invoke a range of previous images that have already staked a claim on our cultural imagination; others draw on generic or well-known artistic conventions. And while other rock photographs work in other ways, all photographs that are widely valued draw on and add to the prevalent discourses and stories about music and musicians already in play in culture. But how do we tell and talk about these stories? And how do we talk about the photographs themselves? Thinking about these two questions leads me to think about writing itself. And John Law’s questions, both the one in the epigraph above, and this one: How might we imagine an academic way of writing that concerns itself with the creativity of writing?

The creativity of writing. Columns on Flow are meant to be speculative; my last column talked about working collaboratively to escape the tyranny of genres in creative fields. This column will focus in its own way on genres; in this case, on mixing genres as a way of doing criticism. It experiments with the form of the short essay, and unlike most writing on Flow, it does not proceed in traditionally linear fashion and does not make an explicit argument. Instead, it engages the contingent, the associative, and the inter-textual by linking some images and a dozen excerpts from a handful books, blogs, and articles. Among my tutor texts for this approach are John Law’s book, After Method: Mess in Social Science Research ((Law, John. After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. London:
Routledge, 2004.)); David M. Lubin’s Shooting Kennedy (( Lubin, Shooting Kennedy )); Robert Ray’s The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy (( Ray, Robert B. The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. )) ; writers, like Roland Barthes, who deploy fragments with cumulative intellectual and aesthetic surprises; and, of course, contemporary texts composed through the practices of remixing.

Over the last few decades, interdisciplinary methods and an understanding of methods as poetics or interventions have become increasingly visible in many fields. In contrast to traditional approaches, some make use of techniques learned from games, the automatism of digital technologies (especially cut-and-paste) and so on, as alternative modes for the production of knowledge. My own approach here is to create an assemblage (more like the art world’s notion of assemblage than Gilles Deleuze’s conception) that is a gathering of found materials fit together not to make a specific argument but rather to serve as an alternative heuristic. An assemblage is not a fixed arrangement; it’s an open-ended, uncertain process. Assemblages are objects (like this ‘‘finished’’ column), but they are also activities.

In some venues, remixing as a form of composing inhabits a contested terrain of intellectual property and can be marked by ethical (‘‘intellectual dishonesty’’) and legal (‘‘plagiarism’’) issues; regardless, remixes, like other interventions in academic research methods, are generally seen as ‘‘experiments.’’ I offer the following assemblage in that spirit. In what follows, and in a forthcoming column, individual fragments from others’ texts are overlapping and iterative while the structure of the whole attempts to pay attention to unintended effects. In addition to the influences I have mentioned, my experiences as a poet working with fragments, resonance, ambiguity, and alternative forms and formats generally influenced this present experiment.

All comments from Flow readers are very much welcome as I think my way into this experiment.

An Assemblage of Photographic Portraits and Texts

Public Weeping
The Old Testament is replete with references to weeping. The ancient Hebrews wept as part of their supplications to God and before going to battle. The Gospel writers did not feel that tears were a threat to either the manhood or godhood of Christ and dutifully recorded that “Jesus wept.” Perhaps drawing inspiration from this emotional display, early church thinkers considered tears a gift and a natural accompaniment to spiritual, even transcendent, experiences. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas, like the ancient Greeks, made the distinction between the very public weeping that had characterized Hebraic culture, and the idea that it was frequently best to cry away from people’s prying eyes. ((http://artofmanliness.com/2008/06/19/when-is-it-okay-for-a-man-to-cry/))

Stars Want to Control
Nirvana did a brilliant gig, I got great pics of him smashing the guitar and then he went backstage and burst into tears. I thought it would make a good photo, but should I take it because it is a vulnerable moment? I am not a paparazzi, I am a documentary photographer. He knew I wasn’t pushy and I took a shot — he didn’t say no. I took three in all and the third shot he was crying, in the second shot he was sort of ok and the third one he was smiling. A minute between the three was about all this different kind of energy inside him and when he came backstage the energy had to go somewhere. Normally rock stars want to control how they look to the public. ((http://www.iantilton.net/nirvana_new.html))

Kurt Cobain on the stairs

Kurt Cobain in a vulnerable moment

A Gallery of Poses
The history of portraiture is a gallery of poses, an array of types and styles that codifies the assumptions, biases, and aspirations of the society. ((Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. London: Reaktion Books, 2004.))

As Time Goes By
As time goes by, and images pile, one upon the other, in the imaginations and fantasies of viewers, coalescing into a visual narrative, they demand to be remembered. Through this remembering, they become real and believed, and this believing informs ever new and imaginative ways of seeing.

I’m Too Sad To Tell You
Bas Jan Ader’s most popular work is his 1970 silent short film piece, I’m too sad to tell you, that consists of the artist crying in front of a camera after a brief title. The interests and concerns in Ader’s oeuvre locate him in similar art historical tropes of conceptual and performance artists of the 1970s, such as Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman. ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bas_Jan_Ader))

Jan Ader

Bas Jan Ader

Whatever Caused the Tears to Flow
The artist is crying and too sad to tell anyone why. Whatever caused the tears to flow (the artist never publicly stated the reason) is ultimately beside the point. And yet Ader reenacted his private sadness, restaged it, photographed it to mail to others. While his piece retains a “real” sadness, it keeps vital the artifice and melodrama inherent in placing himself before his own camera while crying. Almost all of Ader’s work pulsates with a crisis of some personal intensity. His sincerity is sincere – until it’s not only sincere. ((http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_7_37/ai_54169956/))

The Phallus Can Only Play Its Role As Veiled.
–Jacques Lacan

Just Love Him So Much More For That!
Yes, I do love to see a man cry. I don’t think this is a weakness. I think it is a strength. My hubby has cried a few times over the years. Tears of grief, tears of pain for others, tears of joy. Just love him so much more for that! ((http://askville.amazon.com/love-man-cry/AnswerViewer.do?requestId=16817264))

Image as Witness
Barthes (1984) draws our attention to the fleeting nature of the moment captured in the photograph and the extent to which contemporary experience, along with limited knowledge of the specific context within which – and purpose for which – the photograph was taken, inform ways of seeing and introduce slippages of meaning into any view of the image as witness. ((Van Leeuwen, Theo and Carey Jewitt. Handbook of Visual Analysis. London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2001.))

For me, the value of [the] image is not its verifiability, but its incitement to wonder.
–Lawrence Weschler ((Weschler, Lawrence. Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2006.))

Image Credits:
1. 100 Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Photographs
2. Kurt Cobain in a vulnerable moment
3. Bas Jan Ader

How My Poem Became a Short Film On TV (After Being Art In A Museum)
Thomas Swiss / University of Minnesota

Electronic Lit Collection

The Electronic Literature Collection: Volume 2

In a series of columns this year, I’ll be writing about long-term YouTube video projects and the viewers of those projects, online celebrity photographs and photo-criticism, and television’s relationship to club music. For this initial column, though, I’d like to talk about my own work as a writer — specifically, as a poet composing in new media modes with other artists. Among other things, my story is about collaboration, classification, and genre. It’s also about how new media projects, even in a niche field like poetry, can find multiple audiences.

New media poetry — composed, disseminated, and viewed on screens— exists in various configurations. Many poems are kinetic, visual, written, and sounded.  Unlike print poetry, new media poetry assumes a synergy between human beings and intelligent machines. The work sometimes remediates procedural writing, gestural abstraction and conceptual art, while contributing to an emergent poetics. New forms of digital poetry, especially collaborative digital poetry, challenge already-contested terms such as “poetry” and “literature” and further complicate boundaries between literary genres. But these forms also complicate boundaries between other non-literary genres through interaction, social exchange, and participation.

New media poetry often brings together writers, artists, graphic designers, sound technicians, musicians, and computer programmers. The Internet, of course, plays an important part in the story of collaborative new media poetry (and digital literature in general) because it increasingly connects people who share similar goals and interests, and enables writers and others to generate and disseminate ideas and creative work. It also allows for the sharing of files between artists, writers and critics who have never met, and provides various publication/screening venues for works that might never otherwise gain a wide audience.

New Media Projects as Category Killers

As a poet, I began my own collaborative, Web-based work with visual and sound artists nearly fifteen years ago – with a sense that the opportunities and demands of Web-based poetry, like many other New Media practices, have their roots in the shared notion of community that was integral to the development of the Internet. I was also increasingly interested in new approaches to thinking about time and the text. Many of my collaborations are embodied in Adobe Flash, a vector-based animation software, used, for example, by programmer/DJ/artist Motomichi Nakamura to create our poem Hey Now (2002). The collaboration had its roots in conceptual art.

Hey Now

Hey Now, by Thomas Swiss and Motomichi Nakamura (Click image to watch poem)

Under my direction, I had two friends read various sections of a poem I had written. After that, Nakamura and I began experimenting with the idea of “wrapping” language. Following the ideas of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, contemporary artists well-known for wrapping artifacts, buildings, and landmarks with various materials, we were interested in what “wrapped language” might look and sound like.  Christo’s “The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris 1975-85,” for example, draped the famous French bridge in fabric, and was widely regarded as a fascinating experience for its viewers because wrapping and unwrapping objects hides and then re-reveals the familiar, allowing us to see objects in a new light.

In the case of our composition, the poem is hidden and revealed by animated characters who whisper gibberish before speaking verses of the cut-up poem I wrote. From games, we developed the notion of a pacing cartoon man on the screen, who, when clicked by the viewer/reader/user, kicks the head of a figure who whispers before launching into the next (now spoken) animated section of the poem. “Readers” of new media poems are often challenged to make sense of synthesis; it’s an opportunity to broaden interpretations and to look critically at how language is shaped by new media. It’s also an opportunity, when the composers of the piece are from multiple fields, to find multiple audiences. While I was publishing “Hey Now” in an online literary journal, my collaborator was getting the piece out to art shows and exhibits. “Hey Now” was seen widely as part of new media — which was more “new” then (2002) than it is now – exhibits in a dozen museums in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Collaborative work redefines artistic labor in what is for me (and many of my collaborators) new and complicated ways: what is the relationship, for example, between my language and the images and sounds others create, even if under my “direction”? How do the images and sound “change” the meaning of the language (and vice versa) and in what ways can the piece be said to still be a “poem”? Collaboration allows writers and artists — like myself and those I compose with — to reconsider both our work and our identities, to literally see them anew, as we move from individual to composite subjectivity. Yet while the art world has often been open to collaborative work – in the long shadow of Duchamp’s experiments with Man Ray, the shared labor of producing art in Warhol’s Factory, the many hands needed to make a film — the poetry world has typically had a hard time accepting collaborative work, although our digital times and newly developing collaborative communities are slowly changing that.

Blind Side of a Secret (2008) was a project that includes three finished texts. While I had a hand in all three pieces, much of the compositional labor, much of the art, fell to others. Two of my graduate students, Pam and Bastiann, read the lines of poetry I had written — Pam in English, Bas in Dutch and English. A programmer friend, John, recorded their voices, created the sound files, and mailed them along with my comments, notes, and ideas to a team of digital artists I had invited to work with me. I’ll discuss one of the iterations of this piece.

Yoshi Sodeoka is an artist, designer and musician based in New York City. I’ve never met Yoshi face-to-face; I met and collaborated with him through the internet, and it was through this media that we participated in creating the poems by exchanging files, emails, web-based drafts, code, revisions, and so on. I began with phrases, lines, and fragments of my own creation and then mixed them with portions of a short story I appropriated—

I hate secrets. No, that’s a lie, and here I was hoping to tell you the truth.
Start again.
I hate to be on the blind side of a secret. That’s more like it. Sometimes I’ll be shown, let in on, something that seems a real secret to me, I’ll be allowed to stand right up against it and look all I like, but I still won’t understand. I might as well be staring at a length of algebra, an unknown language – it will have no meaning for me. Worse than that, I will know that it must have a meaning for somebody else. So I’m stupid. No one needs to hide this from me, it is, quite simply, beyond me. I am on the blind side.
(A.L. Kennedy, So I Am Glad, p. 22.)

Using this remixed text as a working script, all three iterations of Blind Side featured my students Pam (who read the lines in English) and Bastiann (who reads the lines in English and again in his native Dutch). These speaking scripts are laid out below and side by side, so you can see who spoke what lines – some are spoken by one person and not the other.

Blind Side Chart

This iteration of Blind Side of a Secret is a Quicktime movie. Sodeoka used the .mp3 files of my students speaking the lines of the poem, chopped it into pieces using a program called Recycle, remixed it in Logic Studio, composed an electronic music soundtrack, and mapped the sound to visuals using a sampler and Adobe After Effects. The result is akin to a music video: it plays through from beginning to end, with visuals and aurals synchronized together.

Blind Side

Blind Side of a Secret by Thomas Swiss and Yoshi Sodeoka (Click image to watch)

Collaborative digital poems invite shared participation; each contribution is meant to be as important to the process of composition as all other contributions. Contributors have equal permission to add, edit, and remove text and multimedia characteristics. The composing process is recursive, each change prompting others to make more changes. Contributors are welcome, too, to “place” the text in any context they choose, and welcome to let others borrow the text. Thus what I published as a “poem” in an online literary magazine also became “art” in several museum shows and a “short film” on a television show in France. The question asked in Blind Side of a Secret – “What was his? What was hers?” – becomes complicated in a process where “his” and “hers” is intentionally remixed by authors, artists, and algorithmic processes.


Helen J. Burgess, 2009. “How to Read an Electric Poem.” Unpublished conference paper. Presented at the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts, Atlanta, GA., November 2009.

N. Katherine Hayles, 2008. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

A.L. Kennedy, 1995. So I Am Glad. New York: Vintage Contemporaries Edition, 2001.

Morris, Adalaide, and Thomas Swiss, 2006. New Media Poetics. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Thomas Swiss and Yoshi Sodeoka, 2007. Blind Side of a Secret. Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures issue 4 (Winter), at http://www.hyperrhiz.net/issue04/swiss/yoshi.html, accessed 29 February 2012.

Thomas Swiss and Motomichi Nakamura, 2002. Hey Now. NMEDIAC vol. 1 issue 1, at http://www.ibiblio.org/nmediac/heynow.html, accessed 29 February 2012.

Thanks to Helen Burgess for her critical attention to and comments on my work in new media and on this column.

Image Credits:

1. Electronic Literature Collection: Volume 2
2. Hey Now
3. Blind Side of a Secret

Please feel free to comment.