Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Research Proposal: Portraits of Berlin

The juxtaposition of living entities is fascinating. I've always been interested in the parts that comprise a whole, the connections between those parts, and the way the individual parts change when integrated into a larger collective. In Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter discusses how self-reference and formal rules allow systems to acquire meaning despite being made of "meaningless" elements. He explains how the individual neurons of the brain coordinate to create a unified sense of a coherent mind; through illustration and analysis, the book takes the form of an interweaving of various narratives.

I plan to execute my research project in a similar style, with a similar foundation of exploring the connections and elements of the whole: the city of Berlin. However, instead of analyzing formal systems, I will attempt to look for connections between the people of Berlin. In a city as riddled with a tumultuous past of complex issues of identity and belonging, I feel that the study of social psychology is especially relevant here. In
The Order of Things, Michel Foucalt's underlying claim is that all periods of history have possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable. He called this notion an "episteme," in other words, a social paradigm. It is my hope that in observing the individual interactions of Berliners, I can come to discover - or at least come close to discovering - the city's paradigm, its underlying social dynamics, and the unspoken truths that compose Berlin's existence.

Hundreds of psychologists have attempted to parse and even to codify interpersonal phenomena. Kurt Lewin attempted to describe behavior as a function of the person and their environment,
B = f(P, E), and used a method called force field analysis to come closer to arriving at a solution to his equation. He believed the "field" to be a Gestalt (descriptive) psychological environment existing in an individual's (or in the collective group) mind at a certain point in time that can be mathematically described in a topological constellation of constructs. The "field" is very dynamic, changing with time and experience. When fully constructed, an individual's "field" (Lewin used the term "life space") describes that person's motives, values, needs, moods, goals, anxieties, and ideals.

This type of analysis relies not only on observation, which is the primary method of research I'll be using, but also on objectivity - which may or may not be possible. Because of this, the medium I'll be using will be photography - a photograph is able to more objectively capture what prose or a painting cannot. This will primarily be a street photography project coupled with a series of portraits (maybe they are even one and the same?). My goal is to capture Berlin's "episteme" through photographs taken up close, and photographs taken from far away; from this, I hope that a portrait of Berlin will emerge from the portraits of its people.

Preliminary sources:

Hofstadter, D. (1980).
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. (1973).
The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books.

Lewin, K. (1943). "Defining the Field at a Given Time."
Psychological Review. 50: 292-310.