As I work, I continually rediscover that to leave traces of how a work has been done is to allow its continual remaking once my part is completed.
As I work, I continually rediscover that to leave traces of how a work has been done is to allow its continual remaking once my part is completed.
My Research Statement started clearly but tailed off towards an uncertain ending. I had the thread, subject knowledge and so on but crucially what I was thinking was only of slight relevance to contemporary art. I had been dealing with histories of knowledge and putting together a viewpoint that although very interesting to my mind, it was not pertinent to contemporary art and did not contribute to my practice, neither methodologically nor theoretically: I just found it interesting.
I had written around two-and-a-half thousand words when the recurring feeling of dread that asks, where is all this going, became too strong to ignore. I had barely started to look at contemporary artist that might be relevant to the paper. I looked at some suggestion Gareth had given me. Most were examples that were nothing close to what I was talking about, but you only need one, and one did stand out ticking all the boxes. I found that William Latham has been working in a similar way to me for years. He has developed an evolutionary art with computers, I have done it with sculpture. I looked up some references I was familiar with to do with cell automation, a bit about AI and found these things fitted into the contexts I had thought of previously: the Cambrian explosion and the Early Bronze Age.
I am excited in that the hypothesis I am now proposing brings together art, biology, anthropology/archaeology, the digital environment, virtual worlds, philosophy and the future. The idea is not fully fleshed out yet but it is on its way and would not have been possible had I not started the way I did. The idea came a few days ago as a need to find a way of talking about very different artistic processes in the same terms. I have found that despite all the talk of breaking down barriers, merging and blurring the boundaries, art has become too disparate and dispersed. A fog of taxonomies, political stances, power plays creates in me an inability to talk about things cohesively and clearly without having to ignore the unique characteristics of each practice or making crass generalisations. This is not an attempt to judge or weigh one art form against another. On the contrary, it is a way of critically looking at each practice and identifying what makes it unique without recourse to subjectivity. I know that this is a bold claim and it may unravel as I write the paper but it is an interesting exercise. It is probably just another supporting piece of thinking. Many attempts have been made to do this since structuralist, post-structuralist and subsequent theories. I think Wittgenstein wrote something along these lines but it was based on a philosophical logic form that is not easy to understand.
And finally, it is directly relevant to me by helping to re-contextualise my practice in the contemporary environment. I think it could be one way of universally thinking or rethinking about process, categories, art, anything that involves change, which is virtually everything.
Note to self: writing this down is a way of telling myself to continue writing, researching and composing ideas.
Warning: this post contains very subjective material.
After over six months I still remember one visit and one work in particular. At the Annka Kultys Gallery in the London City Island an exhibition of digital works was showing entitled Re-Figure-Ground. Two things I remember, the video-game-like virtual reality goggle-based immersive 3D videos complete with kinetic controls with which to travel within the virtual world, and a simple 3D animation that did not do much with a spoken audio.
The VR works were interesting enough from the point of view of technology but quite honestly they left me underwhelmed on account of their lack of conveying any point to them other than showcasing the technical work. And to add, the resolution was so poor that it left me wondering whether I needed new glasses. This inconsistency between the vision and the actual vision left me somewhat frustrated. Claudia Hart’s augmented reality was like walking through a myopic fruit machine of social media icons along pointless corridors. The fact that she is examining the body, perception and nature ‘adapt[ing] the forms and software normally used to create 3D shooter games was no compensation for what was clearly meant to be a transformational experience.
The Karst cave by Snow Yunxue Fu’s was, as she says, an attempt to embody the concept of Plato’s cave in a virtual realm. She then continues to say, ‘providing a contemplative environment for the visitor to wonder; walking and teleporting within the control of the wireframed virtual hands that are given to them’. Really, Plato’s cave? That is certainly not what Plato was on about when he described our secondhand manipulated perception of the world. Leave that bit of referencing and you are left with an enjoyable, if somewhat, again myopic trip fantastic.
The rest of the show I found cold but one work did stand out for me, and it was not the most accomplished technically. Morehshin Allahyari’s video installation She Who Sees the Unknown, Aisha Qandisha was a back projected video1 of a 3D animated figure that did not do much other than turn around a bit and sit in some sort of digital sea. On its own it would have graced any number of album covers for some group or other singing about whatever. However, when combined with the narrative it became something else. It transported me to another world of magical realism in some ancient past which is very much present.
The combination of powerful scripted content with a weird large image moving, now menacingly with the audio gave me the sense of a deity being displayed before its awestruck followers. This remains in my mind not only for the content but how something relatively simple in digital terms, can still have impact compared to more sophisticated presentations.
Much of her earlier work does not do much for me. It is overtly political and lacks depth; mimicking the tired old tropes of various movements in previous years. Thankfully, she has developed a more personal voice that has moved her into a rich imaginative space.
As I work, I think of how the final pieces will look. Porcelain is a strange material. Silky smooth when fired with a grainy feel if left unglazed. I want to give the surface a skin-like feel.
The Belvedere Torso in the Vatican collection was a seminal inspiration for Michelangelo. Signed “Apollonius son of Nestor, Athenian”. Marble acquires a softness that bellies its nature as stone. Sculpture in stone influences my choice of material. But I choose ceramic as a pliable stone which is transformed by the alchemy of heat. Porcelain is like the white marble of stones and glazing it seems to me betrays the traces of handling and so an essential characteristic of its making.
Why do I choose the Belvedere as an example of marble statuary? Because arms and legs are functional, locomotory and grasping. The body is the centre of physical being from which other things radiate. As it was with our primordial ancestors, so it is with the forms I am working on.
Glazing speaks to me of function, impermeability. The body is not impermeable but in continual transaction with the world. In early times the clay was burnished to render vessels less porous. Decoration has always been applied to ceramics, from the rhythmical marking of the beaker people, to the finest renderings. From symbolism to shear exuberance and delight, ceramics have diversified and many left function behind long ago evidenced in the heritage of form only.
I have experimented extensively with Parian clay which was developed to look and feel like marble, it is soft, vitreous and warm, but it is hellishly difficult to use and is subject to warping and cracking. It is better suited to casting large pieces. Casting at this stage is not for me, it is not sufficiently spontaneous and better left as a means of reproduction. However, I shall continue to work with it on smaller scales.
I do not want to use glaze because it covers detail and the sculpture looses the surface nuances developed during its making. However, the raw biscuit low fired material is brilliant white and unsubtle. It is also prone to get dirty and due to its porosity very difficult to clean. When fired to a higher temperature, the surface vitrifies and becomes sealed to a large extent, less porous and prone to atmospheric damage and the dirty that comes with handling and storage. However, the crystalline surface is still very white and lacks the organic surface quality I am looking for. When the porcelain is unfired and still wet, it has a flesh like look, a warm grey that responds to handling developing a beautiful sheen where it is burnished. However, this disappears on firing. I have looked for a finish that can restore to some extent that sense of sensual softness and has the following characteristics:
Having experimented with a number of possible candidates I have found that the humble paraffin wax candle is the ideal substance. The porcelain is heated with a hot air blower and the wax rubbed on building a very thin layer that penetrates the microscopic pores on the surface and creates a colourless, translucent finish. Finally it is burnished with a cloth or brush.
Starting is always the hardest thing, unless one were to consider finishing. Both are difficult for different reasons. Finishing is the moment when you realise you have done what you can, it cannot be otherwise. It is the collapse of the potential that had been possessed before and during the making. Its gift is to whisper or shout according to its own inclination how the next work might proceed. And that brings me back to the beginning, starting a work.
I am starting a new piece in porcelain, white as the blank canvas of a painter, the beginning of a long journey. And as I set out without a set destination, only a sense of what I am looking for, that freedom is frightening. It reveals my shortcomings in the midst of a vision pulling me back to how I did things before. What is that the right course of action, how do I navigate this landscape of decision and indecision?
To know what to do is not the point. It is the how and the why that will give me the framework to hold on to. Take that journey, on foot say, into a forest with neither the stars to guide me nor compass or map. I have no destination, only the ends of the Earth. If I try to walk in a straight line I will simply do so in circles and find myself back to where I started. I must decide on a course of action, a simple set of rules to break the bias of my own nature. Sometimes rules are changed a little but not so much as for me to loose my way irrevocably.
Over years a method is perfected as is the reason for it. I work as a cartographer, marking each point as a star to guide me, a landmark to aim for. But this is art, not some field to be gridded out with a surveyor’s precision. To do so would yield little more than what is in the ground and the rule itself. To look beyond that field is where progress lies. Progress is born of change, imposed, contingent or better still by means of my own agency. To do so is to turn the world on its side and refresh sight from another vantage point. But habits possess inertia, to turn them over I need help. Something I have learnt working with Janet is to do what I would not do normally. This is just one way of changing the course of things and refreshing what might otherwise become limp.
And so it is with the work I do now and the research statement. By this stage, I should not have to worry about where a work will end, it never ends as each finish is but the start of the next.
It has finally arrived, a beautiful collection of poetry. A few weeks ago, as is my habit, I woke up during the night and settled to listen to the radio. BBC 4 Extra was playing a programme about the life and works of Rebecca Elson. A cosmologist, equally known for her poetry who died tragically young. She wrote about life with as much insight as her work as a physicist. Her latter writings deal with her imminent death in an inspiring fusion of fact and vision. I was enthralled.
Elson brought science and art together in a way seldom done. When the two branches of knowledge come together, not as appropriation, comment or illustration but to speak in a single language of experience, empirical fact and authentic metaphor, something powerful is unleashed capable of prising open this world to reveal others as nestled together, ready to be felt and understood as though they were here. Ted Hughes does something similar but from a darker interior, a biblical horror as opposed to a cosmological creation. The beauty of both poets lies in the merger of nature and culture, with an insight and ability to move from the very small to the unimaginably large, to show the connectedness of all things and that existence is something greater than us.
What struck me when I got the Arduino board was, how small it is, how small all of the things are. And that means, that they will be far less obtrusive than I had previously thought. And seeing how easy it is to work with I look forward to learning a great deal.
The next step is to get to grips with the coding. Fortunately there is a lot of help on the web and even if some piece of code is not exactly what I need, I feel much more confident to be able to tailor it to my needs.
How do I feel about using digital sound in conjunction with sculptures? I have always felt there is an equivocal relationship between sculpture, or statuary to be more precise, and sound. Is a statue not meant to be silent, to be contemplated without the distraction of noise?
But what if the sound comes from within, trapped, allowed a small breathing hole to reach one’s ears, fingertips, barely audible, sensed; a sound that is neither music nor the result of some kinetic accident? I see the sculpture as the receptacle of its own soul, the embodiment of what it is in its nature to be gently radiating outwards, translated into vibrations seeking connection.
There is of course an element of humour in all this, for it to be otherwise would be melodramatic and to what end: humour can be poignant, questioning, engaging, cathartic. All I know is, I go with where the work takes me as it also follows me.
Always you were drawn to the composite creatures, the broken and reassembled, for that is what you are.
The first Research Paper tutorial was a sounding out of the initial outline. It was helpful in thinking about the way the narrative might go and how to apportion space to each component. My responses so far are:
There is a dialogue between the literal and metaphorical manifest as the biological and the cultural.
This leads me to think that I am dealing with three different ecosystems: biological, cultural and machine;
embedded in the Cambrian explosion, Early Bronze Age and the age of digital (for now) machines.
We are currently living in the cultural age which is on the threshold of the cultural-machine thinking period.
Useful worker to look at is William Latham.
Comparison between biological systems and machine systems – for now the human element is still the predominant one and machines are used as ‘intelligent’ tools.
The tutorial helped me in re-evaluating what I have done so far and how to place the historical knowledge element as a contextual framework for talking about the contemporary state of things. This will need a great deal of focussing but I think I can condense the historical elements into just a few hundred words.
The paper really touches on the philosophical ontology of current biology-computational art in relation to truly biological systems… in the context of culture.
Useful worker in the field of computer generated life: Eric T. Olson at Sheffield. He looks at the relationship between animals and humans at a philosophical level.