Drawing bias

He arrives in hat and coat, wearing a suit of measured tweed. A signet ring glistens on his extended hand. In the other, he carries a worn leather briefcase that holds the drawings he’s been invited to discuss. Ten minutes early and he apologises for not coming sooner. I’m making coffee. The machine is filthy, and when it works it looses grounds over an unseen edge that settle in the pot. I am unprepared. There is no hook to hang his hat. We make do with chairs. I’ve invited a court illustrator to class to talk about drawing, interpretation and law, a man who was also a sitting judge while moonlighting in the arts, and for 35 years professionally upheld the law while deciding the fates of those who sometimes hadn’t.

I’m having trouble focusing the document projector I borrowed from another instructor. The image hits the wall sharp but leaves a blurry halo. We’ll be looking at line drawings. That blur will destroy them. The retired judge (RJ) turns down coffee and water. I suspect he’s downwind of the painting sink or glanced at that dim art school patina on the cups we set out. In any case, he’s not thirsty. Wanting nothing, though I can’t blame him, puts me on edge. It makes me feel like I owe him.

Students are milling in. They take seats. The room settles. RJ retired from his both positions, as court illustrator and judge, ten years ago. He now practices law privately. He is the kind of man who never really retires. He is wound tight, energetic, talkative, friendly and confident. I’m grateful he’s taken the morning off to speak to us. Finding him was a just a matter of knowing someone who knows someone. I followed a question. I have some assumptions about how being a judge might make his position on drawing and the potential objectivity of drawing, an interesting case study. I want to understand the role of illustration in court and also what it means practically, experientially, to sit there and draw under such circumstance. I wonder how the atmosphere influences the act, if the artist by observing while quietly active, in some form interacts. If he cares about his subjects, which subjects, and how if at all that impacts the picture.

Why do we make pictures to consider the events that take place in court? What do we look for in those images?

As old as the idea of justice, there has been art depicting our various efforts to structure it. Historical painting is full of trials and courts, executions and protest, people determining justice in every form possible. And in that work the function of the artist has never been merely to document event. Such images are packed with symbolic meaning conveyed through gestures, expression, and the countless decisions involved in composition, down to the colour of fabric on a figures clothes. Every decision has the potential for meaning and is thereby meaningful. It is hard to consider the making of a picture as anything less. Someone said to me that a court illustrator isn’t an artist, suggesting rather, that they are simply illustrators. An opinion that not only belittles illustration by ousting it from the arts, but in attempting to separate them so rigidly removes the potential for such work to reach another audience on

another level. The artist has always been brought in as an interpreter to establish context for the spectacle, to set an event in line with other historical moments of the time and often finally, on the artists terms. Clearly it isn’t the task of picture making that defines an image as art. Our relationship to all images and events can, and are inevitably liable to change. And so when it comes to court illustration, it is time that may or may not, eventually define the act.

I wonder why drawing is permissible in the German courts when photography is not. In the USA, where I’m from, court shows fill columns of the TV guide. Judges wear makeup, and clip mic’s. Courtrooms are rigged to the rafters to spotlight the drama of life in crux, a show that rarely ends well for anyone. These shows depict an illusion of justice where the remote audience becomes peculiar participants. In Germany, specified by paragraph 169 of the law on Public Process a second sentence of that law (added in 1964) prohibits sound or image recording in the courtroom to protect the privacy of the accused and other involved parties. Put in place to maintain pre-trial discretion, the privacy amendment conflicts somewhat with the idea of public process by raising a question of access. In fact, between RJ’s visit to my class and my sitting down to write this—in the present tense, things past—the law has once again been amended. This time (on April 18th, 2018) the law is amended to allow the sound and image recording of relevant court cases, to be determined by and at the discretion of the court. Between 1964 and 2018, to accommodate the media with visual aids, there was an unspoken compromise: the publication of hand-drawn illustrations, tolerated and sometimes influenced by the court. RJ has come to my drawing class at the art school to discuss the nature of the compromise that spanned his entire career. This situation that RJ calls a “loophole” is something that I believe both underestimates and manipulates the power of the image, while directly contradicting the intentions vaguely specified in the second sentence of paragraph 169. However, this loophole was a concern that no one bothered to fight. Perhaps, because the losers in this scenario whose lives may have been inadvertently impacted by the latent effect of those images, were losing on a much larger scale and so drawing—in the midst of their big picture—might have seemed irrelevant.

He introduces himself with his curriculum vitae and an off kilter side-line about how drawing came into the fold. It was always important, a labor of love, a honed skill, a reason for him to build this stable life around. Compromise is a hard-sell here, but he’s campaigning. I’m enamoured by his dedication to the craft, decades of work with little retribution. He has no formal art education. This takes a while, but it gets interesting when we begin to look at the work and he explains how his pictures are made.

He builds his images by collaging. RJ uses pen. The pictures are all line drawings which can be an unforgiving task. If you’ve ever tried your hand at drawing you know that when it comes to pen you either get it right, right off the bat or it’s shit and you start over. There is no messing around with pen. It’s hard to know when you’ve drawn enough and easy to overwork. To create an image of a trial, he’ll first portray all the individuals in the room: judge, security guard, the accused, attorneys, spectators, sometimes journalists. He draws them all from one position in the courtroom, often on separate pieces of loose leaf paper, all from the same perspective. The seat he occupies at a small table alone is one of privilege. Being a judge himself and a friend to those on the bench, he can get closer than other illustrators. He admits to us that some of the portraits aren’t even done during court proceedings. That he’s often met with judges in their chambers privately in order to portray them in a more forgiving light. Those pictures are made in a relaxed setting, up close. He notes that although those portraits are done out of context this is sometimes vital, because portraying the judges unfavourably could bar him from attending their sessions, and from being awarded such a prime seat in the courtroom. They do after all determine who is allowed to attend, and can ask the public to leave if their behaviour is unsavoury. He suggests that an ugly portrait is an issue a judge might take quite seriously.

The moment RJ assembles, let’s say he’s depicting judges at the bench, a seated defendant and his gesturing attorney standing at the table between them, is not the depiction of a real event. It is hardly the observation of even one exact thing. Neither the time nor the physical placement of those figures provide a technically accurate account of what took place. He puzzles the individually drawn portraits to make one picture. From the onset the image is a complete construction. Still the picture communicates, it is clear, distinct, well drawn. With these quick loose portraits, he makes photocopies in the courthouse copy-room. A technology that has vastly evolved in the past four decades. I imagine the young judge cautiously handing a sketch to a machinist with inky fingers, the rumbling copier behind him the size of a Smart car. RJ enlarges or shrinks the figures in relation to one another by copying, then places them on a new page to create a cohesive composition. (This might be why he’s left the original drawings at home, their construction is complex, they are one of many, the works are fragile.) Doing this, he explains, allows him to build a compact image and put people closer together than they actually are. Not all court illustrators work this way. This is his unique technique. He does this to solve a problem: the problem of perspective.

So, I’m thinking about the nature of this construction, how far from a photograph it actually is, and how much more influence the artist maintains than I anticipated. Is it possible that through his intervention he actually establishes more neutrality than a photograph by changing scale? Is it possible that the hand, in it’s ability to adjust for our perception is more favourable than the camera? I’m trying to figure out what questions to ask. Wondering how he feels about the permission to literally build these pictures out of nothing. If the portraits of the accused are that much different because of the environment in which they are produced. If you can feel the ease of the judge, or the anxiety of the plaintiff in those simple lines. I’m thinking and I’m half-listening, because two voices at once are hard to follow. As he explained to us how he came to drawing and the practice involved in developing this skill, he has said time and again, that it is possible to create an objective image if you could draw correctly. That objectivity resides in precision. Which suggests somehow, that objectivity might have something to do with accuracy, and that accuracy might determine both quality and justice. The argument is complex, and it lies so far from my understanding of how to interpret an image that I am having a hard time seeing things his way. He reiterates, returning to this sentiment while pointing at the almost comic-like simple line drawn faces of judges he’s rendered many times, people he knows personally and well. I feel an urge to suggest that his method is anything but objective, that a hand can impossibly not make decisions influenced by thoughts. Students are repositioning themselves, their discomfort chimes in the rustle of clothes and the groan of junk-yard chairs, in the drop and swift collection of a pen, they are getting restless. There will be time for questions when he’s through. Some people are taking notes, and quietly we wait. From one image to the next RJ skims through cases vaguely relaying what took place: the cannibal, the kidnapper, the wife stabber, the drug dealer, the airport security guards on trial for the suffocation of a man under their restraint. He has brought with him only images of spectacular cases, exceptional trials of public interest once published in the newspaper or on television. Pictures that circulated peripherally through the news machine. And as he speaks a tone begins to emerge. It starts with the subtle dismissal of the subjects on trial, what I mistake for a certain rounding off, or summing up. And then this rounding off takes shape. I hear, “… Turk … foreigner …” and at once he says, “He was a negro (Neger), so it must have been a drug charge.” The room goes cold. My stomach drops. I should point out that I am writing and actively remembering in English. RJ is speaking in German. When I hear the word “Neger,” in German, it is so phonetically close to the N-word that his saying it feels impossible. I want to have heard another word and my mind falls on it, “Jäger,” is what I think I hear. I interrupt him to ask if that is what he said, if perhaps the man was a “Jäger (hunter).” It would have been an odd thing to say in that context… “He was a hunter, so it must have been a drug charge.” But he could have said it, I wanted him to. The class has now turned away from the projection on the wall and face us.

I brought him in. I brought this on.

Beside each other at the table with the document projector, I am seated, constantly adjusting focus on the projector while he stands. Did he say, “Jäger?” RJ speaks up to clarify. “No, no.” He had said, “Neger,” he goes on, “… an African, a black.” And it is funny how quickly one gets derailed and how suitable that image is, because it’s not just one wagon that slips off track. No, it is one wagon hurled into space linked to twenty other wagons that careen off course crashing haplessly into one another while tearing through the previously peaceful landscape. Tons of steel tossed upward, plates, cups, single-serve butter and bland rolls are propelled so violently, so quickly that memory can’t take hold. The wagons are both unable to disconnect or stay together, everything is out of control. Sometimes all it takes are a few words from an untethered voice.

The lecture on drawing now revolves around the use of speech, and the maliciousness of words to maintain an inseparable bond with history.

It has been explained to me that the word “Neger” in German, could be likened to the word negro in English. It translates as thus and at one time it was perceived (at least by some of those using it) as no great offence to call a man a negro, in say the mid-twentieth century. And because RJ, in his mid-seventies must have been around then, well, then some suggest that his use of the term could be understandable. In the same way that we do not argue with a rogue uncle, or an offensive cousin, such inappropriate comments are chocked up as belonging to something other than us, something we do not want to get too involved with or waste our breath on. However, and this is the dig, RJ did not spend the second half of the 20th century in a cave. He spent it at the bench, judging people. His casual use of the phrase in concert with such a racial generalisation is deeply unsettling. The generalisation oddly dressed as common knowledge, is greater than one word alone. Voiced as they were hand-in-hand, this use of language turns a man into something else. Something perhaps that is easy to lock up and forget.

I tell him that he cannot use that word in our class, although I am probably asking too politely. He laughs, and asks me what word I would use to describe such a man. I say that “man” would do, or “person” if “man” is too specific. The conversation runs no deeper. A student suggests that the term he has used “is no longer contemporary.” Her clarity is kind. The unsharp light from the projector still fills the room. The students remain. Not one person gets up and walks out. This bothers me some, because as I wait for it to happen and it doesn’t. I have to wonder why. I’d consider a quiet walk-out to be a valid response. But the students stay, and I worry that they’re there out of respect for me. My reticence, makes me an accomplice. The students seem quieter than before and I sense an edge. When he refers to men of colour from here on out, he uses acceptable terms in a slightly sarcastic tone. He continues to relay the stories that fuelled the images he’s drawn, but for most of us the lecture is already over.

Whatever he experienced helped shape the prejudice he expresses as he shares his drawings with us. He’s been exposed professionally over decades to both criminals and innocent men, but every encounter wore the veil of that one question, “Has the law been violated?.” RJ’s position is certainly influenced by the limitation of this exposure. Of his need to consider the law with a certain unforgiving clarity. His talk reminds me that a judge is a man, that a drawing comes from a hand, and that neither could ever be neutral.

I hardly remember what goes on after that. There are more odd comments, more images, more stories. The drawings don’t feel as important as my uncertainty about how to proceed. Students ask thoughtful questions about the objectivity of drawing and the role of the artist. We follow through. He is our guest and we respectfully listen. The drawings appear both on the wall and on the table in front of me. They are simultaneously small and larger than life. In them I look for evidence of the prejudice he’s voiced, a characterisation of race, a tendency or line that pushes visualisation in one direction or another. I’m searching for evidence of bias in pictures he claims to be objective. I bring my own judgement to the work, now unavoidably influenced by how I think he sees, what I think might be there lurking in the lines.

The first time I heard the word bias it had nothing to do with race, or weighted opinions. In my grandmothers windowless basement while learning to sew: to cut on the bias, to fold on the bias, to sew on the bias meant that you acted diagonally to the weave. Like a shortcut through the park, the bias is an undrawn drawn line that connects at the point where all the others lines cross. On the bias, the weave meets where all paths collide, right across the middle. This intersection is only possible because of my engagement with it. How sad to learn the other meaning of the word: that rather than connect or traverse, for most the bias divides.

He leaves politely hat in hand to go about his business and I insist the students stay to break things down. Chairs get repositioned, the voices are raised and in that talk we take his talk apart. With the source removed his words are now illustrated by 20 other fragmented filters, dispersed memories bound to the associations he triggered. The situation gets talked large, a vocal projection that with it’s growing size becomes diffused. Alone I thought I understood what happened, together, the scene gets worse and worse. At that point, I no longer trust that I know what really happened, what was or was not implied, my part in it, and what it means.

That one vocalised thought, or un-thought rather, could cause so much discomfort and confusion is uncanny. I’d invited RJ to touch on the dismissal of the power of images, and their stealth effects. Their silence is part of their power. They sustain our inexplicable thirst to see, recognise and understand all that surrounds us. Susan Sontag has said of pictures in Regarding the Pain of Others, that, “Nonstop imagery (television, streaming videos, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph…” in this case the drawing, or perhaps a phrase, “… has a deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image … a compact form for memorising … subject to instant recall.” As fuel for recollection, the still image, that single moment is filed in the stock-pile of the mind.

If the object of the second sentence of paragraph 169 is to protect the privacy (and perhaps peace of mind) of the individual, than the law should stand to consider the subjective influence of drawn images made to represent them in the courts. Underestimating the power of illustration allows it to influence in ways we may not be able to understand. In ways no one can fully understand. Because in the end drawing is no more or less objective than my attempt to write this down, and in the shade I cast through details and remarks, clearly power lies in my inclusion, in what is and isn’t said, and in all the things I’d like to be forgot.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. (New York: Penguin, 2004) (p.22)

Starship 18: Gibt es Communities? Gibt es Geister? Lass dich testen! - Cover Ariane Müller
  1. Important information inside Christopher Müller
  2. Hast du schon House of Cards gesehen? Amelie von Wulffen
  3. A painting which serves as bait for young and beautiful souls: Beware Richard Hawkins
  4. Schweig! Vielmehr, sprich! Francesca Drechsler, Carla Lonzi
  5. Be quiet, rather talk! Francesca Drechsler, Carla Lonzi
  6. The state of the world ... Stefanie Fezer, Vera Tollmann
  7. A California Fire Robert M. Ochshorn
  8. The C-word Henrik Olesen, Ariane Müller, Calla Henkel, Max Pitegoff, Martin Ebner
  9. Und ich hab schon wieder Hunger (Erdbeereis) Lisa Holzer
  10. Miniatures Gunter Reski
  11. I just wanna go back Karl Holmqvist
  12. In concert Gerry Bibby
  13. Frau die noch etwas vorhat Ariane Müller
  14. An essay on the study of nature in drawing landscape, 2018 Florian Zeyfang
  15. Elipsis Mark von Schlegell
  16. Just Numb Lars Bang Larsen
  17. Movements Jakob Kolding
  18. Spirits, 2018; .. Simone Gilges
  19. Musix' lost it's Colour Eric D. Clark
  20. Forever Teddy Suite, 2018 Timothy Davies
  21. Der Beautiful Books Club (BBC) Stephan Janitzky
  22. Uniforms Robert Meijer
  23. Rauchen für die Reichen Hans-Christian Dany
  24. Photos from "Grounding" Klara Liden
  25. Imminence John Beeson
  26. The bells put their tongues out Michele di Menna
  27. Nullerjahre Tenzing Barshee
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  29. Sharks Jay Chung
  30. Landscape as Method David Bussel
  31. Drop Car Martin Ebner
  32. Tritt ins Kopf Max Schmidtlein
  33. Das Übergängliche Toni Hildebrandt
  34. Metamorphosis (High voltage pylon hat-stand) Julian Göthe, Martin Guttmann
  35. Drawing bias Adrian Williams
  36. VERTEX af Ei Arakawa, Sarah Chow, Kerstin Braetsch
  37. Anthropomorphism Ariane Müller
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