The Stranger in the Crowd
By Kristin McIver
The crowd exists as a gathering or congregation of individuals. The integration of the individual within a larger whole is a social & political model that has been reconfigured in many forms - from tribalism, feudalism, communism, and fascism through to capitalism.
Humans, being tribal creatures, naturally find comfort in being part of a group. Responsibility is shared, difficult decisions can be left to others, and the animalistic instinct of safety in numbers comes into play.
Within a group, individuals exhibit pack-like behaviour. They submit, if even subconsciously, to a communal consciousness. This shared consciousness is a powerful force, which can become within an instance panic, violence, or ecstasy. But for the most part, the group’s counterparts exhibit this degeneration of personal identity in their mimetic, impassive behaviour.
Several artists have used the group in their work to represent the relationship between the individual and contemporary society, and the breakdown of identity that ensues.
Beat Streuli is a Swiss born artist who has produced numerous series of photographic portraits depicting ordinary urban scenes. His portraits represent the seemingly endless mass of human beings that drift through cities every day, going about their daily lives and oblivious to those around them.
Streuli shoots with a telephoto lens, acting as an impartial, hidden observer and therefore capturing his subjects without their mask or persona. If they were aware they were being photographed, there would be a conscious decision to project a certain guise or “mask”.
Without their masks, the subjects become anonymous. Each individual is simply another face in the crowd. The harsh lighting, choice of background, cropping and camera angles makes the viewer feel like they are walking amongst the strangers in a crowd.
We cannot possibly know these subjects as individuals. Other than their gender, our only visual clue as to the identity of the individuals is through their clothing, and the items they are carrying. Each is displaying mimetic dress of a certain socio-economic group, and it is through these clues that we are able to devise a summation of the essence of the person.
Without these visual identifiers, there would be no way to discern one person from the next. These individuals would be reduced to an animalistic representation, human beings moving from one place to another, creatures of flesh and bones little different from a herd of sheep.
By singling out certain people within the crowd, Streuli creates a visual summary of contemporary society. While he may appear to photograph individuals, Streuli is highlighting that no one person is individual – a crowd is made up of many different people but inherently we are the same.
The artist makes very considered choices in his representation of urban society. Even the artist’s selection of his subjects is well constructed – We see a variety of gender, cultures and classes. Streuli could not represent “all black” subjects, or “all white” subjects, as this would not be an honest representation of the “average” person that comprises society as a whole.
Streuli presents his portraits at larger than life proportions, usually on the outside of buildings. He lifts his subjects out of their relative insignificance and gives them icon-like status. Due to this treatment, the individuals in Streuli’s portraits mirror the society in which they are exhibited – they present to the viewer a reflection of the group around him – and a reflection of himself as merely another human in a crowded city.
Prior to Streuli, the notion of the crowd as subject, rather than the individual as subject, was explored by John Brack in his iconic work Collins St, 5pm. Brack’s crowd is a more blatant expression of the mundane in society - the bustle of commuters as they head home from their routine 9 to 5 employment.
Set in a bleak palette of browns and greys, Collins St, 5pm is a comment on the conformism of everyday life, with all figures looking almost identical, and playing out identical lives. Individual features are pared back, the subjects are devoid of expression, and their attire is uniform-like in its similarity. The colour palette is muted to place further emphasis on the mimetic nature of the crowd.
When viewed from the closer perspective we see slight variations in hairstyles, clothing and facial features, however when seen from a distance as a group, there are no discernable differences. As in Streuli’s works, if we removed the visual identifiers of the subjects, all we would see is an endless stream of humans moving from one place to another.
Each subject within the portrait is walking in the same direction, as if on a conveyer belt. Although they are white-collar workers, Brack represents his subjects as no different to factory workers clocking on and clocking off for their shifts. They are mindless drones, reminiscent of the workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The individuals portrayed in this work form a group with a shared consciousness – they have shared ideals, and shared aspirations. While each may think that they are unique in the life choices they make, they are led to making these decisions by a higher, group consciousness. Within any society, humans look to their peers for clues as to how to live, what to wear and how to behave and mimic these traits.
If we look at various cultures as groups, they each share external attire, beliefs, aspirations and ideals. Within the group, be that a religious group, friendship group, the individual becomes a virtual replica of their neighbours and peers.
In Collins St 5pm, Brack comments that this mimetic behaviour is nowhere more prevalent than in capitalist society. This political model relies on the fact that each individual must work hard to be able to afford those material objects, which are generally accepted by society to be essential – and for these objects they are willing to sacrifice their individual lives.
In Collins St 5pm, Brack we aren’t presented with a group of individuals; we are presented with the group as production line.
Gregor Kregar’s work is also influenced by the notion of the individual as part of the production line, which makes up society. His work bears witness to the artist’s own existence but also expresses the collective body.
When viewing I Appear and Disappear, viewers are literally surrounded by up to 80 clay replicas of the artist himself. They range in height from adult size through to child size.
In a similar manner to Brack’s Collins Street 5pm, each individual is reduced to a selfless replica through their identical attire – and in this case their identical persona.
The varying heights are a result of the artists’ process – each reproduction is made from a mould of the last, and the resulting figures reduce in size each time. From the perspective of largest to smallest it could be read that the individual self becomes less and less visible as one merges and becomes part of a larger group. If read from smallest to largest, it could be read that the group gains power as it swells. It is true that these two factors work in unison – as the group swells, the individual becomes weaker and the group itself gains strength.
The sociologist Georg Simmel comments that “The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things […] The metropolis is the genuine arena of culture which outgrows all personal life.”
Kregar’s choice of costume reflects this viewpoint – his worker’s are reminiscent of Russian Constructivists of the earlier 20th century, highlighting the worker as part of the machine. Their feet are bound to indicate their loss of individual choice; they are forced to become part of this machine that is society - for without it they will not survive.
Roland Fisher also explores the relationship between the one and the many through his Group Portraits, of which Soldiers is a key work. The full work contains headshots of around 300 hundred Chinese soldiers, tiled like a sheet of postage stamps. The shear number of individual portraits and the apparent repetition of a singular image is reflective of the order and regiment of army formations.
In these portraits, we are not given any visual clues as to the identity of the portrayed subjects. The group as a whole is dominant over the individual. There is no visible hierarchy amongst the portrayed; each is seemingly identical to the next.
Like I Appear and I Disapear, the subjects in Soldiers all wear a uniform. The sole function of a uniform is to absolve individuality, to remove all items that represent each person as different from the next. The uniform consolidates the group into a single object - an army, rather than numerous soldiers.
When viewing the work, at first we may find comfort in the ordered repetition of human features - noses, mouths, eyes, blending together to form an ordered pattern. On closer inspection we can observe the unique characteristics of each soldier, however we can always see the neighboring face in our peripheral vision – which in turn leads the eye onwards along the row of faces. This method diverts the viewer’s attention away from the individual and back to the group as a production line of faces. However, the absence of a leader within this group portrait means that this group remains simply that – a production line of soldiers awaiting directive.
In contrast, the inclusion of a leader within a group elevates the group to a living organism that is greater than the sum of its parts. When individuals gather in a group, their capacity to make decisions and think as an individual is diminished.
If a leader is present to make these decisions and steer the group in a specific direction, the group can be infinitesimal in its power. With the mind of one great person, and the hands of many, much can be achieved.
Politicians, religious leaders and dictators have exploited this concept throughout history – for both good and bad purposes. A mainstay element of political propaganda is the faceless group, organized, calm and dutifully standing behind their leader.
Propaganda posters inevitably represent one individual as leader, adored by the group. Portraying the leader as the only recognisable individual within the group elevates them to god-like status.
Both the Mao poster and the Hillary Clinton poster use similar visual tricks to convey the message that society needs a strong leader, and leaving little doubt as to whom this leader might be. Each protagonist stands separate from the group, arms outstretched, with a halo or circle of people around them. Crowds stand below them smiling, cheering, holding placards with raised arms, each member of the group apparently with shared ideals.
Like the soldiers in Fisher’s work, the individuals within the group in these posters are devoid of individual persona. Their role is simply to confirm the identity of the main protagonist as a purveyor of order, decisiveness, leadership and peace.
The Mao and Hillary Clinton posters convey this sense order and prosperity, reassuring the viewer that in the hands of this leader, their individual lives will be peaceful and prosperous. These posters are effective because humans prefer the security of a group. With the presence of a “great” leader to guide the group, the individuals within the group can go about their lives without having to think.
This makes the group passive and easily controlled. Civilisation relies on control and order to survive – the group in an organised sense can be a tool of great power, and unfortunately in some cases, it can be exploited.
However, left unchecked the group can quickly descend into chaos.
A group without a discernable leader can in fact be dangerous – the mob can become violent, panic stricken or revolutionary in an instant.
Sigmund Freud stated in his observations on individual versus group psychology, that “A group is impulsive, changeable and irritable. It is led almost entirely by the unconscious. The impulses which a group obeys may according to circumstances be generous or cruel, heroic or cowardly, but they are always so imperious that no personal interest, not even self-preservation, can make itself felt”.
Governments are wary of groups forming, for wherever there is a gathering of people, there is the possibility that pack mentality could ensue and the crowd could form an unpredictable mob. When a crowd degenerates to mob behaviour, individuals no longer have any resonance; they respond to the communal consciousness of the group.
Gilbert and George’s work Smash, was part of a powerful series of works entitled Dirty Words Pictures which depicted the cultural climate of violence, squalor and decline that became central to urban Britain in the mid-1970s. Smash uses unassociated images and words to depict a grim picture of a nation gripped by racial tension, industrial action and class wars.
Images of decrepit buildings are juxtaposed with groups of loitering youths with their backs turned on the camera; while angrily scribed “dirty” words highlight the anger and frustration of the urban consciousness.
This work resonates with the unpredictability of the mob. Although the images individually are relatively static, their placement, cropping and diagonals create a feeling of disorder and chaos. The combination of images create is a sense of the scene being ravaged.
The grid structure of this work, while a trademark of Gilbert and George, is also a strong device in its reference to the surveillance camera – a powerful statement about the loss of individual privacy and identity through constant surveillance.
Individuals are depicted as part of the youth collective - unpredictable, unruly, dangerous. They want change, and are willing to fight for that change. This group is seemingly on the verge of anarchy. Those individuals that face the camera are staring the viewer down. All the others have their back to the viewer as a gesture of disrespect for the establishment.
The artists Gilbert & George appear in the work, and are represented as impartial observers. They too have their backs turned on the viewer, and in doing so observe the scene as the viewer would observe the scene. Gilbert & George are simply reporting this scene, and observing the political climate that is unfolding around them.
Gilbert and George are wearing business suits, which one could interpret as representing the privileged classes who are aware of the economical and social issues of the time but who are apathetic. When an individual finds themselves in the security of a group, such as a socio-economic class, they can be less inclined to take action as responsibility and accountability is shared. The individual often observes a situation, feeling that they themselves can do nothing of significance as one person, and sure that someone else in the group will take care of things.
This false idea that one individual within a society cannot make a difference leads people to inaction. This is another example of the engulfment of the one by the many, and the degeneration if individual identity & thought.
Just as individuals within a group can be sedated into inaction, they can be roused into action by tapping into the group consciousness. The media is a powerful catalyst for this transformation.
Andy Warhol’s Jackie is detail of his Sixteen Jackies that he created using images of Jackie Kennedy at the funeral of JFK. The images had been widely circulated in the press and came to symbolizing the groundswell of popular grief surrounding Kennedy’s death. In the relatively new Information Age, the media bombarded the public through television and printed media with imagery of JFK’s death, and of the grief surrounding it. Jackie’s grief became public property and the populace relished in it.
What is significant about this portrait is that it alludes to an unseen crowd outside the picture who are taking part in the tragedy. Jackie is not alone in her grief – she is the face of grief, and her grief has become a public commodity.
When viewing this reproduced portrait of Jackie Kennedy, the viewer can only imagine that she is surrounded by a hoard of cameras, greedily capturing pictures of her grief then broadcasting to the masses via television and print media. With the influx of television sets which were now in many homes, one can picture crowds of strangers glued to their televisions, tissues in hand, devouring her grief and claiming it as their own.
Like Streuli’s subjects, Jackie Kennedy is either unaware or unaffected by the presence of the camera as she is consumed by her grief. Seeing her without her mask, she is at once iconified and objectified – her face represents not the essence of Jackie Kennedy, but the collective grief of the masses.
Andy Warhol’s more well-known celebrity portraits comment on the face as a commodity. Just as they highlight the concept of mass-production and mass-consumption, Jackie comments on fact that tragedy itself has become a commodity, which is consumed by the masses in the same manner as celebrity.
Celebrity combined with tragedy is a combination too irresistible to resist - the media assign a celebrity as the face of tragedy, as a tool to sell papers and gain TV ratings. The media has the power to swell crowds and create a mass-consciousness.
When an event is exploited by the media on such a mass scale, the general public revert to group-like behaviour and no longer think or behave as individuals. In the case of JFK’s death, the public were, as Warhol stated, “being programmed to feel sad”.
Personal tragedy becomes like any other commodity, whereby once a certain groundswell is gained, the individual feels they must participate in this grief to feel worthy of the group as a whole. To not participate would appear insensitive.
Warhol breaks down these idealised images of tragedy in his Sixteen Jackies series, exposing it for what it really is – a sad death in terrible circumstances. Warhol’s image of Jackie is far from idealized, rather a gritty and crude reproduction of the glossy images that had dominated newsstands and television screens en masse in the weeks following the assassination.
Tragedy as presented through the media becomes like theatre, and emotional triggers are used to generate emotions and involvement from the “audience”. The tragedy is glossed up, and presented to the viewer in a way that makes it feel like one’s own personal tragedy.
Through his Jackie series, Warhol highlights how the public is drawn into the theatre of the tragedy through the exploitation of the bereaved.
Juan Munoz also plays with the idea of drawing the public into his work. His work, Three seated on the Wall with Big Chair, consists of 3 figures placed on the wall as a group. They are seated in a row as though they are watching a performance in a theatre. The three men are apparently enjoying themselves, talking with each other and not paying much attention to the performance they are attending.
However, the performance is actually occurring outside the work - the roles are reversed and in this work the viewer becomes the performer. The notion of group portrait is turned inside out – is the viewer watching these 3 men or are they watching the viewer?
The viewer becomes an integral part of this scene. The viewer is drawn into the group with the 3 figures. Although a strange group dynamic is created in that the viewer is excluded from the silent conversations of the 3 figures. The viewer is at once a part of the group, and outside the group.
By placing his subjects in this way, the artist implies that the viewer is performing an act. His work alludes to the tendency of humans to present an idealised image to the world of the person they wish to be. Just as Streuli highlights the fact that individuals project an idealized image of themselves via their clothing and attire, people also project an idealised persona to the world via their manner of speaking and body language.
As highlighted in the Brack example, these personas are generally based on preconceived or accepted notions of how one should behave, what should be said in certain situations and so on. The fact that the 3 seated figures are distracted from the performance implies that they have perhaps seen this act before – the viewer is not unique. Within a social circle such as that which revolves around the art world, Munoz implies that there is much performance in every gesture of communication.
The act of viewing art could be seen as a pretentious occupation of the privileged classes. By placing the figures high on the wall, Munoz turns this notion on its head – the seated figures are looking down on the viewer.
The notion of the human projecting a persona to the world via their behavioural “performance” and “costume” is essential for a society to function. We rely on these identifiers to ascertain whether a peer is friend or foe. As humans our brains are trained, either through social or instinctual conditioning, to make an instant assessment of a stranger or group of strangers. Are these people dangerous, friendly, threatening or sexually attractive?
Without a single word, one can make a summation of a person within seconds – based on known stereotypes, which in most cases is fairly accurate. But what if these identifiers are tampered with?
In his Mask series, John Baldessari sources images from old magazines, movies and newspapers and re-contextualises them to create a contradictory visual language. In Studio, the viewer is presented with a group of people standing behind a seated artist. The unusual thing about this portrait is that all the faces are covered by coloured dots. By obscuring the faces of the subjects within the portrait, Baldessari removes all original reference to the identity or persona of each individual within the group.
Their clothing and external identifiers remain true, however their facial and personality identifiers are altered. Baldessari applies his own fabricated persona onto his subjects via the use of misleading coloured dots, which act as masks to disguise any sense of the “real” individual.
For example, if a subject looks dangerous or menacing, Baldessari places a green mask over their face. The expected representation of danger would be red, however by reversing the colour choice, Baldessari intentionally creates a confusing duality within his subjects. He turns a seemingly passive group, into a somewhat threatening group whereby the viewer is unable to be certain of their intentions. This group now appears more like an unpredictable mob, as we are unable to assess and identify each person individually.
Baldessari works in a similar manner to Streuli – in that by using strangers as his subjects, the artist is able use the face and body as a vehicle to create a visual stereotype, losing any semblance of an individual persona.
John Stezaker uses found images and collage to create a fabricated representation of his subjects – who are also not known to the artist. In Pair II, two photographs or images are juxtaposed to form a new image – the result of which is surreal and unsettling.
Like Baldessari, Stezaker, obscures the face of the subjects with a mask to disguise their identity. In place of their faces, is an unrelated landscape image – the choice and placement of which is carefully considered to continue the eerie reading of the face – or in this case the absence of the face.
In this work we see two subjects, however because their faces are obscured we read them as one. The viewer must work from the visual clues provided to understand their identity. We can assume by the genders, clothing and the close proximity of the two subjects that they are married. Stezaker is implying in this work that within in a marriage or other relationship, the individual is engulfed by the pair. The subjects have become a mirror of one another.
The title of the work, Pair II further removes any semblance of the individual persona within the group. Two individuals have merged into one – they are now simply, a pair. Their unique identities have been replaced with a shared identity.
So we can see that even in a group as small as two individuals, the concept of the individual begins to deconstruct.
And so to the single individual – what effect do we see when creating a group from the same identical. Like Streuli’s New York portraits, Marcel Duchamp’s self portrait Marcel Duchamp Autour d’une Table represents the individual as a reflection upon society.
Because the subject sits in front of a multi-panelled mirror, we initially read this as a group portrait. However on closer inspection it is revealed that the figure in the portrait is in fact the same person.
This portrait questions what constitutes identity. When viewing this work are actually viewing one individual as subject, however we read the grouping of these repeated individuals as a single entity. This work comments on the sameness of individuals within a group. Within a group one is looking at a mirror of himself.
Urban society since the industrial revolution has in fact become a “production line” of identical individuals, mirroring the mass production of commodities. Just as products are produced from moulds to ensure each is identical, humans also follow a distinct blueprint in both body and mind - and whilst we may believe we are each unique in our body, thought and behaviour, there is seemingly little difference from one individual to the next.
Duchamp’s clever representation of mass production and the breakdown of individual identity spawned from the industrial revolution, has inspired countless artists from the 20th century who have continued to find this theme a source of inspiration.
When we review the work of each of these artists, a common theme emerges. That is that the individual cannot possibly exist within a group. In becoming a part of a group, an individual’s sense of unique identity disappears and each is reduced to anonymity. Within the group, one individual cannot possibly retain his or her identity.
The group becomes an entity in its own right, with a set of ideals and concerns that are imposed upon and shared by each component of the group. The group offers security, power and identity to its members, but the sacrifice of this security is one’s own self.
About Face : Photography and the Death of the Portrait. / William A. Ewing
Published London : Hayward Gallery Pub., c2004.
Beat Streuli : New York City 2000-02 / Essay by Vincent Katz.
Published Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz ; New York : Distribution in the U.S., D.A.P., Distributed Art Publishers, c2003.
Faces in the Crowd : picturing modern life from Manet to today / [Iwona Blazwick, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev]
Published Milano : Skira Editore, 2004.
Gregor Kregar: Real Art Roadshow Project / Robin Pickens
Published: The Big Book of Essays, NZ, 2007, Viewed 27/04/08
How Art made the World, 2008, Videorecording ABC
John Baldessari / Karen Wright
Published: Art World Magazine, Offset Alpine, Distribution NDD Distribution, April/May 2008
John Stezaker / Ben Luke
Published: Art World Magazine, Offset Alpine, Distribution NDD Distribution, February/March 2008
Portraiture : Facing the Subject / Edited and introduced by Joanna Woodall.
Published Manchester ; New York : Manchester University Press : Distributed exclusively in the USA and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Profile: Face Value - Sally O’Reilly looks beyond the surface of Roland Fischer’s photographs / Sally O’Reilly
Published: Contemporary Magazine, viewed 25/04/08
The Riddle of being Gregor: Between Ridiculous and Sublime / Sue Gardiner
Published Artists Catalogue, Auckland, NZ, 2005, Viewed 27/04/08