The Truth Tellers project uses a method of intervisuality that integrates artistic practise with academic analysis, so as to deepen the deconstruction and understanding of key images. In this process, where both academic and practise-led methods of critical deconstruction are conducted on parallel and in collaboration, images are broken down and remade, in order to understand how ‘truth’ is told, and to tell a different ‘truth’ that is archeological, pathological, and probing in nature.
Inspired by the ideas of Aby Warburg, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva, among others, this method enables a thorough and experimental investigation of coverage of the Manchester bombings. We are not just finding out what the ‘truth’ of a moment or image may be, but also why that ‘truth’ is told as it is; this requires a forensic, practical and collaborative approach to image-making.
In the visual section of the project, Tom and I used a method of intervisuality, which I developed to analyse visual representations of the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, and also to provide a structure through which to explore these ideas in a practise-led, artistic sense. The academic analysis was therefore integrated with artistic practise in such a way that deconstruction of the key images was deepened and their themes were probed further. In this process, images were broken down and remade, in order to understand how ‘truth’ was told, and to tell a different ‘truth’ that is archeological, pathological, and probing in nature. We aimed not just to find out what the ‘truth’ of a moment or image may have been, but also why that ‘truth’ was told as it was; this required a forensic and practical approach to image-making.
Tom began his work aiming to reveal the myriad, clashing identities at play in representations and responses to the bombings, as well as the ritualistic, mournful functions and emotional substance underlying them.
Following our collaborative discussions about the visual material, the combined intervisual study focused on the notions of innocence / purity, versus ‘evil’. My analysis tended to focus on the constructions of innocence, purity and victimhood, which Tom then added to in his own parallel creative studies, with exploration of the construction of ‘evil’. This was not a decision so much as an organic development; while I delved into the construction of innocence by referring to related images of shrines, Catholicism, angels, and pop concerts, Tom then probed the darker connotations of mask-wearing, chaos, and ambiguity in order to deconstruct this binary we had both observed. In this sense, the images were deconstructed, found to be telling a narrative of good versus evil through visual tropes of innocence and purity. Then, through the practice-led component, those binaries were deconstructed. Tom began his work aiming to reveal the myriad, clashing identities at play in representations and responses to the bombings, as well as the ritualistic, mournful functions and emotional substance underlying them.
To begin with, in photographs and short films, Tom explored the shifting, projected identities that came through in the media coverage, using a form inspired by the social media channels through which the news originally spread, especially Snapchat and Instagram. Filters were experimented with to break down and probe the meanings and ultimate surrealism of these ‘masks’, merging innocence and the sinister or grotesque in disarming, unpredictable ways. Dressing up in various guises himself, Tom embodied the clashing identities that we had observed previously in their discussions and intervisual analysis. In singing Don’t Look Back In Anger and then playing it backwards, Tom created a mournful, melancholic ‘hymn’ from the original song, co-opted in the days after the attack by the community, and therefore interpreting this symbolic ritual in his own way, focussing back on the individuals, and the sense of loss and disorientation that co-existed with messages of hope and strength.
In the paintings, which were created last, Tom further explored the idea of mask-wearing and shifting, deconstructed identities, by using thick layers of paint in a way that mimicked and materialised the photographic representations of masks and face paint. Rather than using traditional frames or shapes, he created works with broken, fragmented edges, underlining the sense of chaos and broken materiality and identity associated with trauma. Together with the film and photographic work, these paintings present a searingly painful, and pained vision of the aftermath of trauma, beyond the narratives of unity, hope and strength, to give a fuller picture in which all of these feelings and ideas are interwoven in a complex and disarming way. Trauma, articulated here, challenges us with this broken, and yet fully human, new reality. While we tell stories and create iconic images to heal our communities and selves, often by distancing ourselves from the trauma itself, this complex vision remains important to recognise and understand better.
(…) these paintings present a searingly painful, and pained vision of the aftermath of trauma, beyond the narratives of unity, hope and strength(…)
Ultimately, then, the combination of intervisual analysis, and its practise-led component, contributed a deeper understanding of visual narratives in a political context. Revealing the underlying function of the media coverage following the Manchester Arena Attack—which was, in short, to bring about a sense of order following the traumatic event of the bombing itself—the visual project showed the ways in which ambiguous, chaotic and emotive ideas and observations were articulated into more palatable, comforting and simplified ideas in the media. These representations and stories served important and necessary functions; they brought the community together following trauma, and they minimised the political force of the attack itself, in showing a united front. However, as Tom’s images ultimately show, the ‘truth’ of the moment and its aftermath was inevitably more complex and difficult to reconcile; the chaos and trauma of the attacks remained and underlied those media and communal attempts to give order and sense to a catastrophic event.
Dr Christiana Spens | St Andrews, 2019