A Reliable Truth
The act of making has been an instrument for expressing our own truths from the beginning of humanity. Creating is inherent in processing and responding to the world and our own experience, both individually and collectively. It’s sometimes the only agency some of us have for responding to abuse and oppression. For many of us the act of making is the primary means of processing the injustices and dishonesty we face. In my own case, the autonomy of it, the decisions, the problem-solving, and control have been imperative—the same as breathing.
Many of us know too well the duality of living within the construct of a false reality presented by our abusers/oppressors. Our voices are suppressed by necessity. When I was small, I thought I was the only one who experienced this. I believed the narrative of my community and of television: the image of America where people were moral and kind, our leaders acted always with integrity in our best interests, and the good guys always prevailed. I thought I was alone in not having this. My saving grace was that I painted, drew, colored, and imagined my way through it. I constructed my own version of a just world. I made floor plans, houses, and beautiful spaces that were fair, safe, and true. I created my own order from the disorder around me. I realized early the power and autonomy within my creations. No one could manipulate or change them but me. No one had a say in them but me. They were only what I said they were. This was crucial in not being erased—of creating a portal for my own voice, of making my own definitions and declarations, of stepping around and beyond my own false gatekeeper, deniers, and even of good people who simply needed to believe the best version of us.
We are still not at a place where awareness and exposure result in any action to dismantle these injustices, or lead to any reform. To reveal or expose still results in the cycle of clichéd tropes where attackers simply say “liar,” then malign and discredit those who’ve endured their abuse. It still plays out in the same tired way it always has. “Victims” are deemed broken and fragile.
Art making gives us agency, a vehicle, our own record. Creating is its own means of processing, finding meaning, surviving harm, and reclaiming ourselves. As long as we have a means to create, we have the truth, our own which can’t be stolen.
In the midst of the most recent time in our history when our system of governing was usurped, it became somehow acceptable to say virtually anything on any subject without verification or consequence. Knowing that any organized system we adhere to cannot function without a basis in reality, and feeling powerless, I felt compelled to create something shared and basic. I needed to create something inherently honest because of what we were collectively experiencing. I turned again to what I’ve counted on from the start. I invited all Maine artists to consider a basic form as subject, the chair. It mimics the human form: back, arms, legs, seat. I organized and curated an exhibit called Some Reliable Truths About Chairs. The art created existed despite the deliberate misappropriation of facts we were enduring. This real art event happened, and we gathered together for this shared experience—a shared and reliable truth.
As a documentary landscape photographer, I have found a unique ability to add context, meaning, and relationships to images by combining them into diptychs. Reality in this context is both objective and subjective. Diptychs have the marvelous ability to create sparks in the viewer’s imagination through intimations of optical illusion, like very slow-motion short films. The conflicts inherent in photographing the land are complex, as the landscape itself rarely reveals the history, human uses, and changes it has undergone over time.
My creative process with photography has many aspects, some of which are therapeutic and help me to process heavy information about human politics and land use in a playful way. Doing this type of work is taking action, once the work finds an audience and in the making of it. The work can take on a life of its own once it has viewers. My work confronts the trauma encoded into places and offers a way of working through the trauma of living in a time when reality is easily manipulated and when situating oneself inside history takes a lot of work and dedication.
Greg Mason Burns
I work on the basis that all information is biased, from the subconscious twitch of our finger to the overt declarations we make in political arguments on the Internet. This notion comes from Adam Smith’s Theory on Moral Sentiments, which made him famous before he wrote The Wealth of Nations. One of the key components of the book is that it cannot be proven if one does charity to please God (society) or if it makes the person feel good. When I read that passage in the early pages of the book, it struck me that there must be a reason why it makes us feel good, and that it can’t be intentional. For sure, we can deliberately make ourselves feel better when we’re feeling down, but authentic emotion is uncontrollable.
If someone steals your car, you might be so frustrated that you buy yourself an ice cream sundae in order to do something pleasurable while you ponder what to do next. The ice cream may bring you temporary pleasure, but you know deep down it has done nothing to solve the anger you still feel about losing your car. I remember this feeling distinctly when my wife and I were carjacked in Brazil. I was angry for weeks despite trying to do things that would make me forget. Things like this are, after all, a part of everyday life in Brazil. Eventually, the anger faded away, but it wasn’t because I told it to leave. Somehow, the emotion had solved itself.
Taking this idea that there is something that makes us feel the way we do, it stands to reason that the something is, in fact, ourselves. But if it can’t necessarily be done intentionally, then it must be something else, maybe our subconscious, or maybe it’s our brain in survival mode. I tend to believe it is the latter, that it’s chemical, and that our subconscious obeys that desire to survive. If that’s true, then that means we can’t prove that any of our actions, whether physical or otherwise, aren’t done for the same reason as Smith pontificated over 260 years ago—that we do it to make ourselves feel a certain way, and that action is meant to help us survive (the latter part being my own interpretation).
When I say that all information is biased, I mean that we need to understand the genesis of all information, whether we like the message or not. Every piece of information is meant for that individual’s survival. Truth is only a mechanism we believe in. It’s the same for lies. It’s not the message that matters, but the origin. It’s the “why this was communicated” that we truly fail to comprehend.
The images I’ve selected here are part of a project I am working on regarding information bias. They are intentionally created to highlight the idea that nothing is true and literally everything depends on context. Blur #3 is a simple symbolic gesture toward the blurring of information, but it’s also the exact same object used to create Manipulation #5—Self-Portrait. Manipulation #12 —Dublin Streets appears to be a street intersecting two blocks, but it’s actually the same building on both sides of the street (only one photo was used). All of the images in this project do the same thing: make us think about something different than what the original object actually is. Context matters. Maybe if we understood this more then we’d be less divisive.
Image at top: Janice L. Moore, French School Chair, oil on birch panel, 16 x 12 in.