Article categories: Issue 62
January 26th, 2009

“If you approach somebody you don’t know, he might be a great poet, or great inventor, or… Anyway, the unknown is the richest field of all, because the unknown has no limits, no frontiers”[1].

From the early 70’s Braco Dimitrijevic photographed random people in the street and selectively blew up anonymous portraits to be hung from buildings and billboards. Titled Casual Passers-by I met…, the gigantic black and white banners were of a size and prominence reserved for the powerful, the celebrity, or commercial advertising. Some thirty years later, Zhang Ga has also been organising displays of anonymous portraits on large public (video) walls. His project is titled The Peoples’ Portrait – a Networked Global Public Art Work.

The Peoples’ Portrait is a work that exists and relies on the internet as a portrait collection and delivery framework. Kiosks are built to house the computer-connected camera that is placed in an accessible location where it is possible to take your own snapshot portrait. This image is instantly uploaded to the internet and brought to a central server that quickly processes all locations’ portrait feeds, live. The computer creates a queue of portraits and streams each for a few seconds duration. If there are no live portraits queued, the video wall broadcasts archived portraits, with date and location stamped. Zhang Ga has created a system-based artwork that has a structure and formula to be completed by the audience.

In 2004 the project networked between kiosks in Brisbane, Singapore, New York, Linz, and Rotterdam. This year it will be reinvigorated with another series of festivals and media locations in Adelaide, Beijing, Linz, Seoul, and New York: see web site for details of locations and the extensive credit role of collaborators and supporters[2].

It is interesting to witness how the audience/participants react to the work in different countries. Engagement differed greatly across cultures. In Singapore we saw a general shyness in the population that was so accurately anticipated by the local collaborators that they organised a free hot dog as a reward and enticement aimed to attract participants on the first day. Meanwhile in New York, people were lining up eagerly and sometimes coming back two or three times to see if they could improve their picture and also increase their media exposure. This year we will be able to monitor China’s engagement, where The Peoples’ Portrait has secured a venue in the Danshanzi art district in Beijing.

The Peoples’ Portrait, not surprisingly, has a Chinese revolutionary ring to it. Zhang Ga was born in China and studied at The Central School of Fine Arts, Beijing. He later migrated and eventually settled in New York. He had been away from China for some fifteen years before returning to prepare and initiate The First Beijing International New Media Arts Exhibition and Symposium held in May 2004[3].

The Peoples’ Portrait perhaps suggests a reconciliation of communist ideals and new China with an optimistic, post-colonial, neo-techno, capitalist euphoria. Though lurking just under the utopian celebration are certain Social Realist aspects to the work – a dark side. The portraits, whether smiling, laughing, straight faced or otherwise, hold an undertow of emptiness, futility, and hardship. This reading becomes exaggerated and amplified by the never-ending roll call of faces, the portraits.

The Peoples' Portrait, Zhang Ga, Singapore (C) Zhang Ga, 2004

The Peoples' Portrait, Zhang Ga, Singapore (C) Zhang Ga, 2004

When we compare Dimitrijevic’s portrait Casual Passer-by I Met at 11.09 p.m, Paris, 1971, we see an unremarkable man with a slight smile. The stillness of the portrait gives us a dignified pause to consider this stranger, and all of his possibilities. It is when we compare these two public portraits that we can see the dramatic developments of media and technology where speed, change and the seduction of ‘more’ seems to direct our most contemporary main stream desires – media or otherwise.

Dimitrijevic commits to one portrait in one location. The audience might return or pass by several times and have time to consider possibilities of who the person is behind that face, construct a series of responses to the same image. He purposely avoids any exchange with the portrait subject so as to preserve a sense of open possibilities. Here we are directed to consider both the individual and also the photo portrait as a symbolic monument to great talents that the subject might have, that we do not know.

The Peoples’ Portrait constantly regurgitates images of people in a media orgy of faces and we are left with the flip side of media speed; meaningless democracy and a sense of disconnection. Alienation is reinforced and is overwhelmingly intensified with the knowledge that there were some 26,000 portraits uploaded in the first networked event of The Peoples’ Portrait. Alas, we have lost our sense of exposure in a sea of faces. Does this suggest the project was too successful?

On the other hand the most successful attribute of The Peoples’ Portrait might be seen to be in the over abundance and variety of portraits, the amateur execution of the portraits, the rudimentary framing and strong feeling that these are most closely related to family snapshots. The Peoples’ Portrait is appealing to our delight to see complex technology put to use in a simple and understandable concept. This draws us in. We can associate with the function and enjoy the knowledge that our image is possibly being sent to the most public of spaces that we (mostly) have never or may never see in our lives. We can enjoy an impression of a common place for different cultures and race. To be shown in Time Square in New York is such a cool buzz! The innocent appeal is that we all love to imagine ourselves as famous, big and perhaps even powerful. The Peoples’ Portrait gives us that fantasy; along with a sense of participation in something global that also offers instant gratification – art for the people and by the people.

Kim Machan

Kim Machan is Director of MAAP-Multimedia Art Asia Pacific and was a contributing curator and collaborator in The Peoples’ Portrait in Singapore as part of SENI and MAAP in Singapore and Brisbane in 2004.


[1] Sophie Berrebi interview with Braco Dimitrijevic. Downloaded 29.01.2006



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