Alienation as an Art Form

© Copyright 2018 Marisa Tortola, Ryerson University


In the video essay, Alienation as an Art Form, the concept of something invisible to society has been explored as an art form. Alienation has been set up in contrast to Marx’s idea of alienation being a “capitalist mode of production” (Elwell 2). What I introduce is an artistic and cultural way of seeing alienation and how it brings people together rather than apart simply due to our connectivity to each other. Subway culture has been explored and analyzed within the video essay as a space in which one must submit to as a mass identity that comes with a mass of emotions, subjects and ideas.

Challenging this idea introduced by Edward Relph in his book, Place and Placelessness, my video essay explores how these mass identities show we are ultimately connected to each other despite our differences and further more because of our similarities. In this essay, I will explore the process of creation taken to prove alienation can be looked at as an art form. Calling upon historical contexts from Karl Marx to modern ideas of psychogeography from Shawn Micaleff, I will differentiate alienation and how admiring it as an art form is more effective than Marx’s capitalist views on the concept. 

Process of Creation

The process taken to create this video essay started with the observation of alienation on the subway physically being heavily present. Looking closely at this it became an area of interest in which critiquing the concept demonstrated something of an art form visually to the eye. Alienation visually can be seen since we all subject to ignore one another and claim a place or mind our business in the space. But after closer critique, I was able to recognize that alienation moves in an art form that plays on this ignorance to illustrate we all connect to each other, and it is so obvious to the naked eye we just ignore it.

Rowan Wilken states the following in his paper Proximity and Alienation: Narratives of City, Self, and Other in the Locative Games of Blast Theory, “it is possible for an urban dweller to take pleasure ‘in being draw out of oneself’ by the diversity of people and locations in the city” (178). This ignorance therefore became an area of interest because those who are not ignorant to the space of the subway, such as myself, notice this opportunity to grow within the diversities of one another. 

However, when this ignorance clouds our judgement, we cannot do what geographer Sean Micallef encourages. He takes on a contemporary approach through the concept of psychogeography. What he encourages people to do is to fall victim to the “drift” in one’s daily routine and abandon the normal of it. This ultimately here is what drove my project and my idea on alienation being something more than just a word or a physical observation within the subway. This concept of letting the alienation take over us introduces the ability to let go of our differences and our similarities and just be with one another. To be present in what is in front of us as we all share the same space because when we do that, when we let the small details of each other shine through, we grow in alienation. This is what creates the art form, and ultimately this is what breaks the cycle of being strange to one another when we are in fact closely connected. 

Exploration Into My Way of Seeing ‘Alienation as an Art Form’

In choosing the medium of a video essay, I have taken a first-person perspective and narrative approach therefore creating content as a means of my eyes and words. The power to this choice of medium has created a narrative in which I have taken viewers on a journey not only through our subway system but through the evolution of the word alienation. I decided to include all the stations in the “horse-shoe” of our TTC subway because that is where the most traffic is therefore the most content.

Marisa Tortola, Union Station (2018) taken at Union Station, Toronto. March, 2018. ©Marisa Tortola. Private collection.

The idea of having myself enter into the story, introducing the whole video with “come follow me” created an experience of a “vlog”. A vlog is a video blog and I believe having this structure allowed my video essay to closely critique the ideas I was speaking of in the video making them come to life. It creates an experience that the viewer submerges in, falling subject to the infamous drift I speak of time and time again. It also opens up a connection between me and the viewer and creates a narrative one can follow and relate to.

Alienation when first critiqued will be seen in that capitalist view Marx proposes. But what this method of exploration offers is a close way of seeing how through becoming lost within a familiar place, we can see alienation in a new light. We can see alienation in a positive light, a light that offers familiarity between strangers. It formulates an argument around Marx standing incorrect when discussing alienation only to the lengths of the product and producer. Explored and stressed in this video essay is the critique that alienation is rather cultural, poetic and simply something artistic with incredible beauty. It as an art form that challenges us to become more aware everyday the moment we enter the subway and carry out our daily routine. Alienation challenges us to cherish all the little details of one another that we visually can see right there while sharing the same place. 

Historical and Cultural Context

In the essay A History of Alienation, written by Martin Jay, alienation is described as a term that came to existence in the modern era of the 50s and 60s. Scholars and intellectuals started to use the word as a means to explain the outpour of poverty, social immobility, inequality and other cultural differences of the time. Karl Marx later transformed this idea to a “concrete social condition” where he believed it was found in the production process. (Jay 2018).  It then became a place in which the worker’s activity becomes something alien and no longer belonging to him. It was critiqued by Marx as an act of suffering where the producer became powerless. Everything around him was now against him, independent of himself and ultimately not belonging to him. This lead to Marxist Humanism and ultimate alienation from human life and other men. 

Marisa Tortola, Union Station (2018) taken at Union Station, Toronto. March, 2018. ©Marisa Tortola. Private collection.

Bringing in Edward Relph and his book, Place and Placelessness, the idea of spaces and places are now introduced as a mode of critique to Marx’s ideas. Using his ideas of how spaces and places differ but both create meaning to an individual, I began to tease out alienation as an art form relating it to spaces. Relph argues, “to be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant spaces; to be human is to have and to know your place” (1).  So what I did was take this idea and show how even though we are all strange to one another on the subway, we all have a place in the communal space we are sharing. The space of our subway carries and creates multiple mass identities but ultimately it is just an existential place in which we all identify with. It is a space we share full of places that carry so many emotions and ideas we just choose to ignore because of the mass identities that we subject to. 

Taking on a even more contemporary view of Relph, the introduction to the concept of psychogeography becomes highlighted as the way to further defy against Marx’s capitalist views. Pyschogeographer Sean Micaleff wrote the book, Strolling in Toronto, in which he highlights the act of walking as a mode of drifting from our normal routines. Inspired from many geographers the notion of, “getting lost in a city is a sure fire way to learn how to get found again” (Ridgeway 2014) is initiated as the critique one must do in order to understand the whole premise of alienation as an art form. 

Concluding Thoughts

It will only be in the moments that one subjects to notice things outside their everyday lives, that small details of people become more apparent. Strangers on the subway who once seemed odd or weird are now closer to you and familiar. It shows the power that alienation is holding over us and how we let it control us when in reality it is the answer to connecting to one another. Alienation will always be there on the subway physically, that is not what I am arguing or denying. Rather what strikes importance and what this video essay argues is that alienation is a mode of art and medium in itself. It alone represents all the identities you’ve ever encountered on the subway, all the places you’ve ever identified with and all the strangers you’ve subconsciously connected to at one point or another. Alienation represents art because it makes you reality check in realizing we are all more similar to one another than we choose to believe. Therefore alienation as an art form encourages connectivity, respect and art towards one another ironically through the mode of drifting, distancing and alienating in itself. Simply poetic. 

Marisa Tortola, Empty Subway Cart (2018) taken at Eglinton Station, Toronto. March, 2018. ©Marisa Tortola. Private collection.

Works Cited

Elwell, Frank, 2013, “Alienation and Exploitation,” Retrieved March, 2018,

Jay, Martin. “In the 1950s Everybody Cool Was a Little Alienated. What Changed?” AeonAeon Essays, 14 Mar. 2018,

Lyons, Siobhan. “Psychogeography: a way to delve into the soul of a city.” The Conversation, 18 June 2017,

Relph, E. C. Place and Placelessness. SAGE, 2016.

Ridgeway, Maisie. “The Double Negative » An Introduction To Psychogeography.” The Double Negative, 10 Dec. 2014,

Rowan Wilken. “Proximity and Alienation: Narratives of City, Self, and Other in the Locative Games of Blast Theory.”, The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies, 2013, pp. 175–191.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.