“Exactitudes”, an ongoing art project started in 1994 by the Dutch photographers Ari Versluis and Ellie Uyttenbroek, is first and foremost a work about recognition and confrontation. Inspired by a shared interest in the striking dress codes of various social groups, they have systematically documented numerous identities over the last 20 years. The name is a contraction of “exact” and “attitude” and at the same time the French word for precision or accuracy. Well chosen, because the project indeed is an uncannily accurate representation of the exact attitudes we reveal through the way we present ourselves. Just take a look at “Exactitude 154. United Americans — Amsterdam 2014” to see what I mean. You can explore all “Exactitudes” online at exactitudes.com.
The idea is simple, the impact striking. Seemingly plucked straight from the streets, people who look remarkably similar in dress, hairstyle and stance pose in front of a neutral background. The artists arrange 12 of those portraits in a grid, adding a serial number, title (usually a description of the “identity” in question), and location. The purpose of the neutral background isn’t just to highlight the striking similarities between people.
“Photography is a language of signs,” Versluis said in an interview with the Dutch art magazine Kunstlicht. “The space around the individuals is usually full of signs, whereas with the neutral background there’s room for more layers of meaning.”
“Like that, you can show people in a different way, outside of the context of a hurried and volatile street environment,” Uyttenbroek added in the same interview. It’s like giving everyone an unbiased space to exist in for a moment.
“People don’t see a black guy in an unsafe bus terminal anymore,” Uyttenbroek said. “No, they see a man in suit and tie. Try to see it differently, the picture says.”
Since its invention, photography has been used for large scale endeavors to classify different “species” of humans. The anthropological aspect of “Exactitudes” is undeniable.
The work is reminiscent of August Sander’s photography. Sander’s lifelong project, “Man of the Twentieth Century,” was an effort to document the people of his native Westerwald, near Cologne, Germany.
“[W]e know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled,” Sander said, according to the Getty Museum website.
He photographed subjects from all walks of life and created a typological catalogue of more than six hundred photographs of the German people.
What Versluis and Uyttenbroek share with Sander is that they find “types” of people. They’re looking for the anthropological codes people use to mark and protect their places in society. Before you start searching “Exactitudes” for the ‘“tribe” you’re part of yourself, know that “80 percent of people aren’t suited for [the] project,” as Versluis put it on Knack, a Belgian website. “It’s mostly the people who put in a little more effort who stand out to us.” There’s an interesting paradox: People are easiest to categorize precisely when they want to differentiate themselves from the masses.
At first glance, “Exactitudes” seems part of the tradition of Sanders and 19th-century anthropologists. But look more closely, and you’ll find that Versluis and Uyttenbroek’s work is much more: a potpourri of fashion and street photography. It combines countless influences and ingredients, permitting multiple and at times contradictory interpretations. For instance, “Exactitudes” can be read as a statement against traditional values of the fashion industry; it’s not about what’s in vogue right now.
“That’s too superficial,” Uyttenbroek told Knack. Most people in “Exactitudes” would never appear in a fashion magazine. “But that’s exactly what we like. We’re making it fashionable. And you can’t deny that their styles determine what everyday life looks like.”
Another big difference is that “Exactitudes” doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. It’s an ongoing project and constantly updated. If anything, it shows that identity is so fragmented that there might be hundreds or thousands of categories to put people in. Maybe the idea of partitioning and categorizing identity should be abandoned altogether. When postmodernism struck, culture became performative. The world’s a stage and individuals play certain roles. Shakespeare was ahead of his time: His idea only gained serious momentum as sociologist Erving Goffman published his seminal work “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” in 1959.
In the performance of identity, clothes and fashion are like a costume or a second skin. With its inherent restlessness, fashion in particular foments fluid identities. The performance of fashion thus contains a deconstructive force, that of moving identity. But, as “Exactitudes” also shows, exploring fluid identities through dress is still mostly potential. Fashion is too commercialized and based on exclusivity for everyone to use it as a performance tool; just look at fashion advertisements in magazines and the streets. The upper classes have the means to exploit the potential out there. Even then, most of them don’t. And for the others, there’s a fixed number of standard looks one can conform to based around dominant ideologies and codes. That’s fashion’s dark seamy underbelly, a system of images that seeks to perpetuate itself through subtle changes, always necessitating more and more consumption.
Back to “Exactitudes”: Its virtue is that it shows us how our clothes encode stories about us for others perceiving us. When we are classified into a certain “tribe’ by a third party, most of us might be surprised to find out how different other people see us from the way we see ourselves, thinking: “So this is me in other people’s eyes.” This gives us an opportunity to realize again how we are perceived in other eyes, irrespective of our will or intention, or reality. What’s more interesting is that despite the fact that our real selves are left behind, we find other people very satisfied with their classification, which was based on the appearance and attitude we have not necessarily been aware of before.
But in the end, what “Exactitudes” can’t show us is how a particular piece of clothing encodes a story about you for you. “Worn Stories,” a project by artist and editor Emily Spivack, continues where “Exactitudes” ends, conceiving of clothes as an “evolving archive of experiences, adventures and memories,” according to Spivack’s book about the project.
“The clothes that protect us, that make us laugh, that serve as a uniform, that help us assert our identity or aspirations, that we wear to remember someone — in all of these are encoded the stories of our own lives. We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we’ve worn,” Spivack writes in the introduction to her book. It’s no surprise that we have such a hard time cleaning out our closets. Think of this when you’re getting dressed in the morning: what you’re wearing today might be part of a memory tomorrow.