Tuesday, 19 February 2008
Think you stand out in a crowd?
A few months ago, I could have sworn I read an article about doppelgängers in Scientific American, discussing the idea that every human being could potentially have up to eight genetic doppelgängers running around the planet. Trying to find the research which actually backed up this remembrance proved utterly futile, so I suppose I’ll have to bury that little factoid as inaccurate. Still, it is an interesting supposition, that each of us may have a (or more than one as the case may or may not be) genetic mirror going about the business of existence in some other part of the world. For some reason it was the curiosity of the doppelgänger that I thought of first when I came across a review of a photography exhibition in last Sunday’s Observer. The photographer Ari Versluis makes his living proving to us individualistically minded twenty-first centuryites that we aren’t nearly so individual as we like to think we are. Or as Wim van Sinderen, senior curator of the Museum of Photography in the Hague neatly puts it in the article, Versluis and Uyttenbroek (his stylist) provide “an almost scientific, anthropological record of people’s attempts to distinguish themselves from others by assuming a group identity.”
Human beings are such curious creatures, seemingly trapped in a cruel dichotomy between group vs individual. We (especially teenagers and twentysomethings) are emphatically insistent upon our own individuality. Some friends seem to spend their lives obsessively editing their own personal fashion collections, acquiring endless books and records, and permanently keeping one eye open so that no esoteric theatre, film, or comedy performance is missed, which might mark them out as an “individual,” a “radical” with unique (and thus, the implication says, better) taste in the finer things in life.
It is intriguing then, that Ari Versluis concentrates his photographic efforts on illustrating his point that individuals are in fact conformists in disguise. Sure, you might argue, Versluis selectively edits his subjects and only photographs or includes those who comply with the manifesto of his tribe du jour. Boring beige dresses for Bordeaux housewives, old men with flat caps and high-waisted trousers in Cape Verde, jeans and tiny tees for yuppie New Yorkers and so on. So Versluis notices a trend and exploits it for art. Well okay, it’s clever, but it is truly reflective of society as a whole?
Psychology, biology, and Rousseau maintain that humans are interested in belonging, if only to ensure our own survival, and we subconsciously mimic those around us because it behoves us to do so (not to mention that the fashion industry is pretty heavy handed in influencing what we wear – but that’s another post altogether). Even if you aren’t shopping on the one-size-fits-all high street, say you predominately shop in vintage, charity, or independent shops, the idea of what’s fashionable or intellectual or desirable in music, books, cinema, and fashion is still dictated by those who produce and those who review. What shows up on shop shelves, radio waves, and theatre stages is all down to the designers, authors, musicians, and producers who are responsible for the creation of these “consumables,” which we proceed to invest with considerable cachet and consume wholeheartedly as evidence of our markedly individual personalities. Are these personalities really constructions of our own making? Surely we should be giving at least some credit to the journalists, buyers, promoters, etc. who make sure we know these things are a) available and b) fashionable.
Certainly I’m generalising, but to me most people appear to be relatively passive (if not mindlessly aggressive) consumers; they buy what they are subconsciously directed to buy. Take, for example, the display of “bestselling” or “top ten” books located near the entrance to almost every major bookstore. What’s so interesting about this concept is that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of consumerism. The local branch of, say Waterstones, is told by its Head Office which books to display on the “Top Ten” shelves. The Head Office makes its decisions based on a number of factors: how heavily the publishing company is promoting the book, television press from people like Richard & Judy or Oprah, or enthusiastic reviews in newspapers or literary magazines. When average Joe the customer enters the store, one of the first things he sees is the display and he ends up buying the book in the number one (to ten) slot. His rationale very sensibly being that if the book is in the top ten, it must be worth reading. Because so many people consistently purchase these top ten books, the books then become best sellers (even if the dirty little secret was that they weren’t always best sellers to begin with). The thought that other people have validated this particular book as being worthy enough to purchase reassures us as to its quality. We choose to participate in group mentality because it comforts us knowing that we’re safely investing our time and money in an item which others have already vetted. Why explore uncharted waters when you don’t have to?
And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Knowing what I know about sociology and biology, it would be somewhat delusional for me to swear that I am 100% my own individual, uninfluenced by the stimuli around me and uninterested in being part of a social community. After all, it is only within the context of the group that being defined as an individual makes any sense. Most people, including myself, who desire to be original and individualistic, do so because they want to stand out from this group. Not necessarily separate from the group, but to be distinctive within it in some way.
And it's not that I’m interested in originality for originality’s sake, more that I’m always on the lookout for the new and the previously unknown. Because while I’ll always have a soft spot for the Jhumpa Lahiri I read my first year at University, I can only read the same book, listen to the same music, watch the same films, and wear the same clothes so many times. And in some strange, slightly naïve way, I find the quest for individuality to be developmental - character building you might say.
We evolve, we change, and we grow. Our tastes fluctuate. I occasionally wonder why we even bother thinking about individuality and personality in the way we do, as if it were a coherent, continuous straight Roman road of a line and not the switch-backing Lombard Street it really is.
What Versluis seems to ignore in his photographs is that individuality is like perfume: two people can wear the exact same fragrance and yet smell completely different..