Mel Keiser

Mel(v.6)—or “Mel Keiser”—was born from Mel(v.4/5) sometime in 2014. She was born in Evanston, IL, where she works as the Department Assistant for Northwestern University’s Department of Art History. Arguably one of the first Mel-versions to consciously recognize her place in the evolution of The Mels clade, she collaborates with Melga Blank to further research into the past members of her clade. Blank’s research will be published as The Life and Deaths of the Mels: A Work in Self Phylogenetics and Experiential Meltiplicity. Driven by her subjective experience as a member of this unique clade, and by the fragmented narrative self-identity that results, Mel(v.6) uses photography, installation, and the epistemology of humanities research to study her own self-change, comparing herself to herself with the passage of time or within the context of different social relationships, to better understand that “the person [she is] right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people [she’s] ever been.” She still resides in Evanston, living with The Only Other, and her dog, Gesso.

Mel as Hyperobject

Borrowing from the ideology of performance philosophy—the study of the form through which research presents its findings, a type of doing/thinking—I mix photography with forms and processes more commonly seen in humanities and social sciences research to create a pseudo-scientific study of a single subject—myself. Many artists who explore issues of self-identity in their work do so by comparing “the self” with “the other,” Instead, I compare the self to the self, looking inward to see how we differ from ourselves.

After looking through your website and artistic career, I see that you initially studied painting. Can you speak about your introduction to photography, and how your past in painting influences your current work?

Until a decade or so ago, I mainly used photography to create reference images for paintings. I was a representational painter, and—I know this will come as a shock based on my current photographic work—the paintings usually contained self-portraits. I used my own image in my painting as a sort of limit—”I begin every piece with an image of myself”—and photography allowed me to expand the vocabulary of my body. Using a camera, my poses weren’t limited to those I could hold for long periods of time, or points of view/lighting effects from which I could still put paint on a canvas. Eventually, my studio practice began making a subtle shift—from paintings-as-final-products to photographs-as-starting-points.

There are many categories of knowledge I first encountered as a painter which come in handy as a photographer—the use of light and shadow, concepts of color mixing, composition, etc.—but particularly influential are the image-versus-object questions which painters are trained to ask, as a matter of course. Are we looking through a painting or at it? Is it a window (image) or a surface (object)? In the spectrum between these two opposites, painting brackets an expanse in the middle (some paintings are 40% image, 60% object; some 99% image, 1% object; etc.). I think about my photographs in this context, as raw-material-images which—like the tools of Heidegger—need “breaking” so they vibrate between object and image. Or to cannibalize Graham Harman, so they vibrate between “obtrusive presence” and “invisible action.” So now I‘m still taking photographs as a beginning, but instead of a beginning image for a future image, the photographs are a beginning object for a future object.

So photographs have a purpose for me as a material, but like many good materials, the processes and history attached to the media offer parallels to the content. For example, the first-person/third-person conflation that arises naturally in self-portrait photography mirrors the oscillation of self-perspective—between “I” and “she”—that happens from moment to moment. That oscillating view from both within and without is the special self-aware property we share with dolphins, primates, and—based on last count—octopuses and magpies. The camera creates a non-locality of selfhood—when you pose alone in front of a camera and trigger the shutter with a remote, you are viewing yourself both from within (through your eyeballs) and from across the room (through the camera), you are both alone and in view of everyone who will ever see that photograph.

In your artist statement, you describe how you implement performance philosophy as a way to compare “the self to the self, looking inward to see how we differ from ourselves.” How do you feel your practice uses art and social sciences to investigate identity in a novel way?

In Will Daddario’s article “Doing Life is That Which We Must Think,” (Performance Philosophy Journal, Vol. 1, 2015), he uses the term doing/thinking to define a type of action, where one is thinking through doing, or perhaps where doing is a record of the thinking.

If we combine Daddario’s term with a quote from Timothy Morton’s recent lecture at the Renaissance Society (“Things Just Got Weird,” 2016 October 23), where Morton claimed the role of art is to investigate “things that are unspeakable,” art making can shift from the expression of an idea to the thinking of the unspeakable. (Another shift of subtleties that is incredibly important.) Art making as doing/thinking becomes research instead of expression, and the end product exists as unknowable.

Now if we speak in generalizations borrowed from Stanford University website “How is humanities research conducted?”, research in the natural and social sciences requires data and hard evidence to form conclusions. Research in the humanities requires historical and interpretive analysis to raise questions and open dialogues. The question of “how do I understand who I am?” is perhaps more commonly seen through the research of the humanities (fittingly, for Timothy Morton—what is more unspeakable than the self?), but in the last few decades neuroscience and cognitive science have been taking a larger role in the discussion.

For example, the experiment by Julian Keenan, where they found that turning the right hemisphere of your brain off makes you unable to recognize an image of yourself, shows that your self-image is housed in a particular, physical part of your brain. Turn that part of your brain off, and you become better at identifying others than identifying yourself. Or John Cryan’s research, which shows a connection between the gut biome and happiness/anxiety—mice that were fed certain probiotics were found to have higher rates of self-preservation. Even the recent research that shows your immune system might control your sociability—namely, that an effective immune system makes you more extroverted. All of this research decentralizes identity—showing that things we tend to think of as defined aspects of personality are actually the side-effects of a complex biological system. But the irony here is that while this objective data is collected and these conclusions are formed, they aren’t even close to adequately describing the subjective experience of self-identity—these quixotic attempts to draw hard edges around such a phasing, enmeshed object as self-identity—this is where things really get interesting.

My work also focuses specifically on a comparison of the-self-to-the-self, instead of the-self-to-the-other. This is the second way my work differs—my work is navel-immersion. The depths of self are so deep, that to compare the-self-to-the-other falls laughably short—like asking how an ocean differs from a tree. How can we come to a faceted understanding of either object through that comparison? Comparing self to other doesn’t provide the critical information of who we are individual, how we experience being ourselves, despite an intention to do otherwise. So my work is like a warped control experiment where I am both the control and the variable. The repetition of my own name and image over and over create a neutralizing effect, like how burning incense in your house will make both everything and nothing smell like incense. If Mel is both the control and the variable, questions of subtlety emerge. Instead of asking for the differences between me and you, I analyze the differences between me now versus me five minutes ago. What about the differences between me sitting with my husband watching tv and me sitting alone watching tv. Who is this Mel-watching-tv-next-to-her-husband? Is she the same as Mel-watching-tv-by-herself? The same as Mel-writing-this-sentence? Or the question that frames my work in A hole’s made of itself—if we follow the guidance of neuroscience which has concluded there are two physically separate parts of the brain for your self-self versus your social-self (self-other), to what does this physical brain space translate? These subtle shifts and changes, this is where true identity lies, like a phase space of probabilities and selves.

You use the work of Timothy Morton as a springboard for your reanalysis of personal identity. Can you explain his ideology, and how that has helped shaped your project, “Mel as a Hyperobject”?

I first encountered Timothy Morton’s text, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, in Caroline Picard’s object-oriented ontology reading group at Latitude Print Labs (later extended at Sector 2337). Morton theorizes the existence of objects “of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” In many ways, he reframes systems as singular objects, or perhaps objects as systems. Hyperobjects are spread over space and time, like global warming or the English language, so we can only interact with parts of them at a time; to experience a hyperobject is to be decentralized from the act of perception. Morton breaks the identity of hyperobjects into five characteristics using terms borrowed from a number of disciplines: viscosity, nonlocality, temporal undulation, phasing, and interobjective. This text is conversationally written, rich in metaphoric potential, and has the tantalizing effect of logic that loops around on itself, popping in and out of comprehension.

When encountering new texts, I play a sort of research game where I replace select words as I read with variations of the word self or Mel, reframing the words of the author to see if they provide new insight on how to understand self-identity. Sometimes I can find small areas in a text that work as a result of the manipulation, but with Hyperobjects, I found a manifesto.

Neuroscience has bolstered the argument that the self and self-experience is closer to a process—one of which we are largely unaware—and a process that is incredibly sensitive to stimuli. Brain scans reveal your brain working to stand up before you are consciously aware you’ve made the decision to rise. Hold a warm drink for a few seconds and you are more likely to view a stranger favorably. Self-identity is something that we think is human-scaled and so can be perceived completely on the human level. But reframed as a vast system in time space, the strange incongruities that arise from an identity averaged over decades in a myriad of different situations seem like a laughable miscalculation—as Morton would say, we can’t understand global warming by feeling raindrops on our heads any more than we can understand who someone is even after dozens of interactions. So the characteristics Morton uses to categorize hyper objects provided a vocabulary with which I could contain certain phenomena I had noticed around self-identity, and I began to think of my work in chapters according to these five terms. Which projects dealt with the viscosity of identity—its stickiness, how you form and affect the people and world around you, how these people and this world stick to you? Which projects show the non-locality of identity, how it doesn’t remain as a closed system in the rigid container of your body? And so using these categories helped me deepen work with which I had already been engaged. But additionally, in the year or so I’ve spent in and out of Morton’s text, I’ve noticed that even as he defines these five categories they stubbornly bleed together, entangled, and I’ve found the bodies of my work bleeding and entangling in tandem.

How do you hope your audience is able to reflect upon their ideas of identity with the aid of your augmented self-portraits?

I feel very strongly that what you learn while making a piece should not be projected as something your audience should learn while viewing a piece, that making and viewing are two very separate activities with different outcomes—so your use of the word “reflect” is apt. Perhaps their view of identity becomes more subtle and more complicated. Society does not encourage obsessive self-study—we fear being accused of narcissism or navel-gazing. But true navel-gazing can never be narcissistic—self-study, real self-study, is self-effacing. It’s like staring at a stationary object—eventually, your brain edits it out as repetitive information and invents visual information for what’s behind it.

At the opening reception for “A hole’s made of itself”, your dual exhibition with Priya Kambli at Filter Photo, you discussed how you were awarded a grant that will allow you to get a full-body scan in Canada. Can you briefly discuss this new phase in your creative practice?

I’ve been working on writing a faux biography called The Life and Deaths of The Mels, where I investigate the social and psychological impacts of treating myself as a stratified series of distinct selves rather than a single person in fluid development, to better understand—in the words of Dan Gilbert—that “the person [I am] right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people [I’ve] ever been.” I’ve evaluated who I’ve been over the course of my life, and I’ve identified five moments of liminality that resulted in significant self-change. The Life and Deaths of The Mels rewrites my personal history as the births and deaths of these five, categorically different versions of myself, using objective, pseudo-scientific research. As a component to the ideas in this text, I’m working on creating physical and performative evidence of this research—making a physical body for each of these versions of myself and burying them in cemeteries near where those versions lived. The scan is the first step in making physical bodies for these dead, phenomenological versions of myself.


You can view more of Mel’s work on her website. Her dual exhibition with fellow artist, Priya Kambli, titled, “A hole’s made of itself”, will be on view at Filter Photo in Chicago, IL until December 31, 2016.

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