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So who is Bosco?

Note: This post is about the photography series called The Bosco Project. Please visit the gallery so you have an idea of what this post is about. Thank you.

Prelude: The Artist Would Rather Not Discuss It

Oh, how I hate it, when directors are supposed to explain their films.

Paul Thomas Anderson

Artists are not necessarily the best interpreters of their own work. And many artists are reluctant to say anything about their own work, preferring to let the work speak for itself: after all, the more that it has to be explained, the less it seems to need to speak for itself. The artist may not even think about what his work means as he dives into the creative process — indeed, thinking about meaning may hinder hearing what the muses whisper to his ear.

Another qualm is that analysis, though it can obviously aid understanding, threatens to sully an honest and pure relationship to the work, which is now coloured by someone's viewpoint that adheres to it, especially if analysis precedes active engagement with the work itself. It's only after an active engagement with the work, in which one has explored one's reactions to it and drawn one's own conclusions, that analysis should be pursued because it's then that it can deepen one's understanding and appreciation.

In a relationship, do you want to feel love, or would you rather examine and justify its nuances — or, worse yet, justify its merits or truthfulness? Would you rather laugh at a joke, or have it explained to you? Some of us creative types are grateful for the New Criticism popular in the last century that sought to examine the merits of the work in itself, eschewing the author's "authority" in interpreting their own works, claiming that it's not any more inherently meaningful than any other interpretation.

So with this in mind, why am I bothering to post my own thoughts on The Bosco Project when I am reluctant to do so? Well, the corollary to the above is that I have as much right to my own interpretation as anyone else, so why not share it?

The truth is I hadn't really thought very much about what The Bosco Project is about. Such a question seems to me besides the point. The series began as a technical exercise and has since evolved into something where I apply my technique to create a parallel world that reflects our own in a kind of existentialist aesthetic. But I don't think about what it means. The inspirations for the photographs arise from an aesthetic impulse: wouldn't Bosco washing his hands make a great picture! I then compose the shot and mise-en-scene to achieve the desired effect. I won't even know if the result is worthwhile until I "develop" the image later.

None of this was an issue for me until, while exhibiting at a recent show, someone asked me point blank "So who is Bosco?" And that's when I realized I hadn't given it much thought, if indeed any at all. I was caught short, so my reply to the question was notable more for its form than its content: lots of stammering in a futile attempt to mask that I was making it up as I went. None of the "Bosco is us" claptrap coming out of my mouth sounded convincing to either of us. The man walked away obviously unsatisfied, most likely with a less than flattering opinion about the artist and his work.

It had honestly never occured to me that I would need to "explain" The Bosco Project. Though I gave an interview about Bosco, there was no point-blank question about what Bosco means. I mean, I understand the guy's point of view: how could the artist not know his subject well enough to talk about it? How is it that the creator didn't have an "elevator" spiel? As if the artist needed yet more evidence about how much he so painfully sucks at marketing and promoting himself. (Because isn't that what artists are supposed to do to make a living at it? Convert Treat their art like a product?)

And yet, it must be said, I was annoyed at the question, inevitable as it was. Frankly, my attitude is that if you don't get Bosco right away, you'll never get it. It's not like Bosco is a superhero with a story arc, is it? I've discovered that Bosco is kind of a litmus test: a lot of people don't get it, and that's totally ok. (Or, even more interesting is when the reaction indicates they get it, but are repelled by it: they'll say "Oh, that's creepy!" with genuine discomfort, missing the humour and the point. Did I just say The Point? Isn't that what this post is about? But, as with a joke, if it needs to be explained, it loses its potency.) Though there are many exceptions, the majority of these people fall into a category the Church of the Subgenius refers to as Pinks.

But some are powerfully affected by Bosco and immediately grok where he's coming from, often with a delighted laugh; and these are, without exception, interesting people worth knowing.

Francis Bacon: Portrait

It's like the work of Francis Bacon: if one doesn't understand his work immediately upon seeing it, one will never understand it at a visceral level, no matter how clearly it's explained to them. (That's not a judgement, by the way: heaven forfend that I suggest in these times of zealous identity politics that I suggest something is a disability (or whatever the inoffensive (or less-than-offensive) term du jour is) when it isn't: we all of us have cognitive blinders to call our own, don't we? Like me, for instance: I just don't understand how anyone can like little barky dogs.)

The man who sought to have Bosco explained to him asked it in the manner of a consumer asking a salesperson about a product: he seemed to want an answer in the form of an easily digestible tweet that would let him know how Bosco fits into the constellation of copyrighted characters that colonize his media-saturated mind. I felt at a loss for how to help him, with the result that both of us were unsatisfied by our encounter.

Well, I don't want that to happen again. So this post is the artist's attempt to figure out what his own Bosco Project is about; it is hoped that the culmination of this brief exploratory journey will be an easy-to-digest elevator summary that will help anybody understand what Bosco is about, at least from one person's perspective who may not be up to the task. Given that I haven't given much active thought to Who Bosco Is, or What The Bosco Project means, I'm just going to throw down my thoughts as a handful of pick-up sticks to play with.

Thus I encourage the reader to ignore the following; or, better yet, not even bother to read what follows if s/he wishes to keep the experience of Bosco unsullied by the blitherings of its creator, who may be quite mistaken about it all. If Bosco communicates to you, then the artist is pleased and we can leave it at that. For it must be confessed that what began as a purely technical exercise has evolved, in the artist's viewpoint, to a kind of Rorshach for our times, and it is hardly the place of the maker of an inkblot to provide a canonical interpretation of it.

So if you, dear reader, decide to read on, know that your thoughts are more important than mine: take what you wish and discard the rest like yesterday's fingernail clippings.

A grotesquely salacious picture; the less said about such obscene filth the better

What The Artist Thinks The Bosco Project is About

As humanity winds down, entering its terminal phase because the species hasn't been able to evolve enough to know when to stop spoiling its own nest (...for the cursed benefit of the worst among them, yet), it occurs to me that Bosco is a perfect emblem for our time.

Bosco is the embodiment of the modern subject living his quotidian life as best he can in a beautiful world impregnated with catastrophe. But the catastrophe cannot be identified because, though it imbues time and space like a cosmic cocoon, it's under the radar of our awareness, like, say, violet noise that soon falls below the level of conscious awareness after several minutes. So we just carry on in a state of subtle anxiety as best we can because we still need to clean the dishes, wash our hands, and brush our teeth.

There's an allegorical quality to The Bosco Project, as if Bosco exists in a realm of meaning where even the most commonplace events take on a special signifcance. If every day follows the same routine is life being lived, or inhabited? Repeating the same everyday tasks takes on the semblance of ritual. Is the function of ritual to replace authentic experience? Or does ritual give meaning to authentic experience? If every act becomes a ritual are those acts denuded of meaning, or given meaning? Or does just going through the motions inure one to the pain of living?

And that the world should lie open to us is the real and concrete meaning of freedom to which we aspire. For what is the depressing sense of unfreedom that steals over us at times but the feeling that the world has closed in upon us, that we are in a prison all the doors of which have been locked, and that we are trapped in a routine that never opens out upon any fresh possibilities?

William Barrett: The Illusion of Technique, p84

George Tooker explores this existential notion of space in his sociological paintings wherein a brilliantly metaphorical and aggressively Cartesian space depicts the alienation of its denizens in a world defined by the logic of consumerism and bureaucracy. They feel their atomization, and are hollowed out by it. They are all too aware of their existential condition of inhabiting a life rather than living one, where community is replaced by a sense of loss, a world where the possibility of genuine inter-personal connection is no longer possible, especially when under the gaze of anonymous bureaucratic forces.

Three Paintings by George Tooker

But despite their profound sense of alienation, the denizens in Tooker's spaces — whether in a waiting room, a grocery store, a hospital ward, a subway, a lunchroom, etc — all still share a communal space, no matter how alienated and atomized they are. Even those occupying cells in a grid, in Tooker's most tranparently metaphorical painting, still all share the same grid. Despite their alienation, they are still social beings: the point is, they are all alone together, they are united in their aloneliness, even if they can't share it. (Which, admittedly, only exacerbates their aloneliness.) Social life is threatened, but not defeated.

Despite many obvious differences, Tooker's denizens and Bosco share a similar existential space, except that Bosco is alone by himself. Bosco knows no other world, so he doesn't feel the same sense of loss. If Tooker's world is the moment of social crisis for the individual, Bosco's is the day after, when the crisis is over and atomization is complete. We have moved from the existential tragedy of social catastrophe to the dark comedic absurdity after its denouement: Bosco waits for Vladimir and Estragon to pick him up.

Tooker's political space exists in the gap between democracy and totalitarianism where the political-economic structure of society is in the process of social atomization, a process that seeks to foster greater control over its population by inducing a sense of psychological solitary confinement under a bureaucratic panopticon.

Bosco is aware that he is being observed. Bosco wonders why you're looking at him: doesn't he have a right to privacy? Or is our seeing him only a projection of Bosco seeing himself? Because he always feels the presence of being seen. Perhaps he has internalized the panopticon — which is part of its point. Before modern surveillance technology, conscience was foisted on individuals to watch their own behavior, with the promise of the eternal carrot of heaven, or the eternal stick of hell. Now the awareness of being surveilled has been externalized through our awareness of agencies who read every post on our social networks. But though he knows you're always looking at him, Bosco doesn't understand why you're so fascinated by what he does — must you really watch him butter his toast and read his book?

Bosco's world, too, definitely seems to be closing in on him, from all sides. The space, however, though it may be oppressive, is not a Cartesian space in social settings: instead of feeling alien in a world of other people, Bosco feels alien in his own environment: he feels in the world but not of it, contained within a space that has no escape, yet he senses another space just on the other side of here, very close at hand but unreachable and unknowable. Things feel off, somehow overwhelming and oppressive. The artifacts of the world around him seem to have some kind of nebulous force that somehow makes his world unstable. If there's a sense of menace, of oppressive forces, it's from the world in itself, not from the world of men. Or perhaps it's a projection of Bosco. One of the conspiracies of life is that it's impossible to know the answer to such things. Whatever the reason, Bosco accepts this solipsistic space as normal, even if others can enter it.

But, if Bosco is alone, why doesn't he take his mask off?

Wait... who said Bosco's wearing a mask? Doesn't the mask we choose to wear for others arise from the same source as the mask we choose to wear for ourselves?

Perhaps his mask is the only thing that protects him, that gives him an identity in a world where reality itself feels somehow unreal. It's a mask of stability. Perhaps the mask itself is his authenticity. ("When you wear the mask, the mask becomes you." —Qiu Xiaolong)

Bosco is the actor who cannot remove his mask. What need does he have to do so? Perhaps this makes us uncomfortable: we must wear a mask even for ourselves to get through the day, even to the point that we no longer know how to take it off.

Perhaps masks make us uncomfortable because they hide the "authentic" person from our scrutiny. Or perhaps they make us uncomfortable because they make plain that which should remain hidden: namely, that we all wear masks all the time, that there is no clear line between artifice and authenticity. Indeed artifice done artfully is often the carrier of authentic truth. (Why else do we seek truth in art? What is theatre, or cinema, or opera, or poetry, or literature, but artifice that has the potential to reveal deep truths?)

Which raises the question: Does a mask hide or reveal?

Three Paintings by James Ensor

To proto-expressionist James Ensor, the mask is a false front we put on for others, or even for ourselves.

In all professions we affect a part and an appearance to seem what we wish to be. Thus the world is merely composed of actors.

Ensor expresses his contempt of the social faces we put on for each other in paintings of gleeful sarcasm. His question seems to be one of authenticity. Is there a face behind the mask? Are we "putting on our best face", hiding from death? If one wears a mask that never comes off, does one really exist in any authentic sense? Or is one merely inhabiting a mask that fits them with varying degrees of comfort? Can an individual even really exist authentically? Or is the individual only comprised of the masks that are socially constructed for him with his complicity?

James Ensor: detail from Pierrot and Skeletons [1907]

And yet, if Ensor's paintings sarcastically decry the inauthenticity of individuals, what could be more artificial than his paintings?

And here is revealed the paradox of art: it's exactly because of the painting's artifice that Ensor is able to express innate truths about our human condition as false actors facing mortality who don't know how to be otherwise. Indeed those of his paintings that feature memento mori strike me as reminiscent of Macbeth's claim that "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more."

And, a hundred years before Ensor explored the mask per se as an existential theme, Francisco Goya explored similar thematic terrain. However, Goya's final Black Paintings show us man as indistinguishable from his mask. Not only that, but the mask has itself become a memento mori.

Goya: Two Old Men Eating Soup

Rather than explore these bleak paintings — the culminating works of one of the greatest artists, one who was deeply attuned to the iniquities our species is capable of — I'll keep it light.

Well, actually, I can't. Clearly Goya succumbed to a quite negative and pessimistic view of humanity. And who can blame him.

The point is... I don't even remember the point. I'm getting tired, and no one's going to read this anyways. So I'll just repeat myself: Here the mask and the man are death are one. And they don't even have the benefit of sarcasm to keep them light: what humour these paintings do have is as gloomy and dark as their palette.

I'll just move on now... But first, let me say that though I love Goya's black paintings, I like colour. And humour.

Ok, I'm definitely losing the thread here...

Is Bosco creepy? Seems a lot of people think so.

If we find Bosco creepy, perhaps it's a reflection of our own discomfort around the Other. Or maybe not. Let's hear what a doctor (PhD) who's thought about the nature of creepiness has to say:

...creepiness is a response to the ambiguity of threat. Non-normative non-verbal and emotional behaviors, unusual physical characteristics and hobbies, or suspect occupations set off our "creepiness detector."

Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.: How We Decide Who's Creepy

So, creepiness, according to Dr. McAndrew, is not the fear of something obviously threatening, but a response to the ambiguity of a potential threat. Thus they are things that are not overtly dangerous, but are things outside the realm of "normal" experience that may seem potentially dangerous. Eg: dark lonely alleys, stairs to a dark basement, graveyards shrouded in mist, guys in trenchcoats groaning around playgrounds: these are not things that are inherently dangerous, yet our mind signals that danger may lurk, and our senses become attuned to the environment.

So if creepiness is a response to the ambiguity of threat, what is it about Bosco that seems threatening? Is it because he appears "non-normative"? (Non-normative seems to be the new politically-correct term for things that don't conform to a culture's mainstream notion of what's normal.) If we find Bosco creepy, what does that say to our discomfort around The Other who doesn't comform to our ideas of what constitutes "the normative"? Are we judging him based upon his unusual physical characteristics? What does that say about our reaction to The Other? Is Bosco The Other who creeps us out? If Bosco is creepy to you, then you are to him. Though, in truth, Bosco may be The Other to himself.

Yeah, that's enough. Let's wrap this up already.

After all of this, I am still loathe to tell anyone what to think. (I think I addressed this in my Prelude.) I want people to experience their own feelings before having it filtered through other sources; to think for themselves; to reach their own conclusions. I cannot stand Hollywood movies that cue your expected emotional response to every scene with music that is incessant and overblown, a neverending din of pretentious trite pap. While I expect most media consumers find this sort of experience nothing but a kind of fun escapism, to me it's insulting, assaultive, and manipulative brainwashing: I'm being treated as a biological robot, expected to respond predictably to sensory stimuli. "Oh, that movie was doubleplusgood!" (As has been said about the conforming power of TV: Why do you think they call it programming?) This is one of the reasons I suck so bad at marketing and self-promotion: I would rather get a person thinking for themself than tell them what to think.

Ok, enough with the palaver... Which reminds me of something that Albert Einstein is reputed to have said: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

And so the artist must admit defeat. He must admit that he doesn't know what The Bosco Project means, or who Bosco is, other than some guy trying to live his life as best he can in a world that is alien to him. And if the reader is none the wiser, the artist refuses to accept any blame because he did strongly urge them to not read further than the Prelude. So we are left where we started: The artist just finds his subject a fascinating one.

But the artist must fulfill his marketing goal of developing a tweet that answers the question So who is Bosco? If what I devise proves to be an unsatisfactory reply for the querent, then Bosco will most likely remain a mystery beyond their understanding, just as it may be for the artist himself...

So is Bosco the personification of the artist, the way a dummy can be for the ventriloquist? Or is Bosco a subject of the Other? Or maybe Bosco is just a guy who is placed in a setting that creates a visually compelling frisson to the artist. Who's to say? It's possible that the artist himself doesn't know.

Ok, enough bloviating. How do I distill all this into the modern unit of communication, a tweet? Let's try a few simple tweet-sized explanations about what The Bosco Project means.

Bosco is emblematic of the inner life of the neoliberal subject.


The Bosco Project documents the normal life of the modern atomized individual in these neoliberal end of days.

No, too political, specific, ...and inaccurate.

Hey, maybe what I said at the beginning...

Bosco is the embodiment of the modern subject living his quotidian life as best he can in a beautiful world impregnated with catastrophe.

Is that a good elevator speech? Maybe at a college library, or while ascending to the nosebleed seats at the opera. But unless the response I'm looking for from most people is a blank stare I think I need to mainstream-it-up. (Which is not the same as dumb-it-down... unless it is.)

Actually, what I said in the prelude is probably as close as the artist can get to explaning the meaning of The Bosco Project:

The series began as a technical exercise and has since evolved into something where I apply my technique to create a parallel world that reflects our own in a kind of existentialist aesthetic.

No, simultaneously both too pretentious and flaccid.

I'm just going to keep it simple.

So who is Bosco? Explained in the Elevator

Bosco's just a guy trying to live his life as best he can in a world that is alien to him.

Fri, Dec 30 2016, 22:31:05

" is metaphor and symbol, and not plain reality, that is memorable and significant."

Jerry P. King, The Art of Mathematics

tags: existentialism Francis Bacon George Tooker Goya James Ensor masks The Bosco Project



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