Research Statement

 

Evolutionary Space: Looking at Artistic Practice in a Disparate Art Ecology

 

The full research statement can be viewed here.

 

Abstract

The disparate but interconnected nature of contemporary artistic practice is examined in the cases of cell automation, computer-generated life, and ceramic sculpture. It is argued that creative systems involve the encoding and implementation of pure information into perceptible modes, manifested, propagated, and proliferated in a process involving the flow of information. This is arrived at, in the context of Dennett’s concept of algorithm, Olson’s ideas on computer-generated life, and biological and cultural systems. A distinction is made between phenotype and hardware, and symbolic or virtual life and organic life subject to physical laws. The possibility of physical life as opposed to symbolic life being generated by computers of the future is speculatively touched on. This in turn leads to the suggestion that there is a symbolic correspondence between art practices and life processes. An artwork in design space within a given ecosystem is seen as a step in the development of a practice arising from what is called here evolutionary space. Evolutionary space is presented as a way of looking at art practices in terms of how they develop, adapt, and operate, in a dynamic relationship with an ever-changing environment. It extends Esslin’s artist-centric approach to evaluating artistic practice consistent with Anderson’s anthropological, and Bayles and Orlando’s sociological notions of art. Evolutionary space may be a way of mitigating some of the complications that subjective criteria might cause when discussing differing practices. In conclusion, evolutionary space offers a flexible and adaptable means of considering art practices, their taxonomies, processes, and outcomes, forming a starting point for further discussion and research into the nature of artistic practice and the role of artists.    

Key words: evolutionary space, ecosystem, artistic practice, information, aesthetics.  

Tutorial 5: 04 October 2019. Gareth Polmeer

Research Statement Tutorial

Earlier today, I was able to get feedback from Gareth regarding the RS. We had a very interesting conversation around some of the subject areas touched on in the paper. 

I am happy that the paper has focus and am grateful to Gareth for the suggestions he made in the last tutorial, namely William Latham’s Mutator. The paper works better than the original drafts, in that it avoids many of the former complexities which were hard to resolve within the word count of the paper while still keeping some original elements. 

One of the things I have to add is a line or two to say that some ideas presented are subject to current debate. This goes particularly for the first paragraph in Part 2 which deals with, yes you’ve guessed it, aesthetics. No single area of art causes more debate than aesthetics, or perhaps be more interesting. And that is perhaps why the Research Statement proposes a way of mitigating subjectivity when discussing more than one artistic practice at a time. 

This does not mean I have found a universal and infallible modus operandi. It is more of a gateway to further discussion and debate, perhaps future research. In fact, there are many potential papers nested in the RS. All these side branches or spurs to other areas, can only be hinted at in a four thousand word paper. So this is another thing I should mention in the paper, the potential areas to be investigated. Areas such as the idea of whether AI can make art, final causality and autonomy of action. 

I have one hundred and sixty four words left. This should be enough for any corrections and additions. One thing I was glad of was that I do not need any further citations. They just take up on the word count. This makes life so much easier. There is just one I could add in paragraph 1 of Part 2 where I could explain where the idea is coming from: the part that mentions … not requiring teleological control. This paragraph is debatable which in the context a short paper can be moved through. These are things many books have been written on.

The first paragraph of Part 2 could go in many directions, and I am aware of this. The paper tests ideas and does not sit on its own. Gareth mentioned Paul Crowther who has written on the phenomenological theory of art, Phenomenology of Visual Arts which would be interesting to read in the future. 

I have been concerned with the way the paper transitions from life simulation to looking at art practice as a life process, whether I have been clear enough. Gareth mentioned the Hegelian idea of Geist and in Hegel’s terms art practice is a form of sublation, in which something evolves and changes, and parts are negated to become something else.

Look at Heraclitus in the context of  process philosophy which predates and counters the Aristotelian and Platonic ideas of being, the four causes and the realm of the ideal.   

All the ideas touched on are a rich field to take forward but most importantly they are never far from practice based work. 

 

Research Statement: Draft for Tutorial and Editing

Today was the due date to hand in a draft of the RS for the second tutorial with Gareth. The paper has gone through numerous transformations and bears little resemblance to what I started out with. I started with something, although interesting, that did not have much bearing on contemporary art or my practice. It was more a case of extending one of my numerous hobby horses. 

It has not been easy to shed so many interesting ideas but the exercise has clarified a great many others. I have managed to talk about contemporary concerns, touched on the future and most importantly made a deeply relevant contribution to my project proposal and practice in general.

Subject matter and content are complete but I still have a number of things to do, namely:

  • Finalise the title;
  • finish correlating the abstract with the body’s content;
  • make sure introduction covers all the points needed;
  • tidy text for grammar, syntax, make sure it makes sense, and tighten up the text;
  • ensure points are sequential so that the narrative flows coherently;
  • add anything that helps clarity;
  • reflect on the conclusion;
  • elaborate and complete the diagrams from the sketches;
  • complete citations and bibliography.

Evolutionary Space

 

Images above: works by William Latham, John Horton Conway and Andrew Lord

Evolutionary Space: A way of looking at art practice as continual process in a disparate ecology.

Art practices have become widely divergent and disparate in recent years, particularly since the arrival of  digital means which have opened out previously unimagined possibilities. Different taxonomies representing a great variety of paradigms, methodologies, thematics, mediums and contexts have given rise to a heterogeneity of approaches when considering practices and the role of artists which can render problematic a holistic consideration of different ways of generating art. Using Conway’s “Life, Latham’s “Mutator”, and the work of ceramic sculptor Andrew Lord as subjects, this paper introduces an approach to discussing art practices, fostering a unified view in the midst of diversity, evolutionary space. Borrowing from the idea of fitness landscape in evolutionary theory, applying it to Olson’s analysis of computer generated life regarding the relationship between pure information and its physical interpretation, in the context of Whitehead’s process philosophy of becoming, and Dennett’s idea of algorithms, a picture is built of how different art practices can be viewed as dynamic information streams coded and implemented in material terms. 

The research paper has changed radically and become frighteningly simply because I have a tendency to complicate things. The above may seem complicated but it is in fact a straightforward synthesis of ideas from various fields to construct a different way of talking about art practices which goes some way to avoid value judgements and the need to describe things subjectively. Writing the paper is making me focus on an increasingly narrow narrative as an explication for a broad idea. It is frustrating at times because I want to explore a multiplicity of ideas but by considering a wide field and having to progressively select out is also liberating. It shows me that things can be simple without loosing depth. Implied ideas can be just as powerful in leaving the reader the possibility to uncover them or find new things and feel the sense of discovery rather than having them pointed out. The methodology I am constructing is also feeding into the project proposal: I no longer feel compelled to spell out every idea. 

Research Statement: Taking Another Direction

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.

Tutorial 4: 01 August 2019. Gareth Polmeer

 

Always you were drawn to the composite creatures, the broken and reassembled, for that is what you are.

Gregory Maguire                  

 

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.

 

Skype Chat 3.4: Research Statement I

Yesterday we went through some of the initial research statement ideas; next week we shall look at the rest.

My initial research statement outline is fairly advanced by this stage. I have been thinking about it for a number of weeks and it builds on notions I have had throughout the course as well as bringing in constant interests of mine including archaeology-anthropology, mythology, palaeobiology and big history. My trajectory has changed markedly over the past seven months. I started with the idea of looking at the relationship between sound and sculpture. However, I have moved away from this as has my work. I think it important that the RS bear some relationship with developments for it to be of use to me and open out onto avenues into the future whilst linking with my past practice. The ideas I am working with now I believe offer greater possibilities for poetic notions to infuse into what I do: what I was thinking previously in terms of sculpture and sound was more of an aesthetic-technical question. 

The response to the plain English summary I prepared was well received although I did feel that the lack of greater detail did lead to misunderstandings that might not have occurred had the text been written in more technical language. It is always a delicate balancing act between clarity and accessibility. Assumptions have to be made either way and reception very much depends on the audience. Nevertheless, I was able to answer and clarify queries during the chat and I also gathered useful reminders of what I need to bear in mind. 

Jonathan asked me whether the final questions regarding contemporary digital environments would be looked at through a particular lens for example any specific artists. I must admit that this is the area I need to research most. It is a large arena and I have to keep to very specific examples. What comes to mind is Asimov and the like but there is new work being carried out in the field of AI which presents a challenge but I am sure that once immersed in the details of research I will find a rich seam of examples. 

Danni suggest contemporary science fiction as a source. Although this is true in terms of fantasy, the field is vast. The Andromeda Strain by Crichton has sudden come into my head and is one way of looking at things. However, I wish to end the enquiry with more concrete virtual examples. 

I think Jonathan’s observation that the final question regarding perception of AI created mythological beings as philosophical rather than an exploration of existing work is a very interesting one. I must bear in mind not to loose my word count, way, by following this sort of enquiry which quite honestly can be never ending. 

I am very glad that Jonathan observed that the two contextual ideas of Dennett and Wengrow made what would otherwise have been a ‘way too big’ research question manageable. I was aware of keeping things tight and Dennett and Wengrow create a very neat way of encompassing what could become a titanic struggle. Today I made a break through in the correlation between the emergence of large metazoan Cambrian fauna and the proliferation of composite creatures in the Early Bronze Age. This offers a methodology that can be applied to many situations, not just this one. By comparing the energy input of both environments as causes and not the causes of the energy changes in both cases, the whole argument is simplified. I need only explain how increased energy input into each respective ecology occurred comparing the effects of that increased availability of energy: oxygen in one case and food supply in the other. The causes then become of secondary (but no less interesting) importance reducing the amount of contextual explanations. Increased energy levels then correlate growth and motility in both scenarios with Hox genes and writing the information codes that enable the development of complex forms. How I shall explain in the text which I believe can be done cogently. This correlate then sets up the scenario for considering modern and contemporary ideas.

I know that I will have to keep focused and as J says, I shall have to exclude a lot of the material due to the word count. Keeping to the contextual lenses will help. But this is all a good thing because it means that if I should wish to take things further in terms of writing. academic research,  or some other pursuit, there is plenty to expand on. 

Dannii brought up a parallel with music: composing with code to produce what does not look like music yet might be called such. This was interesting in the light of my previous ideas for a research paper. This is something I may still incorporate in the project proposal. Dannii referenced Mark Pilkington. Looking through some of his works on his web site I find some of the things worth listening to in parts but on the whole lack cohesion. The works seem to be predictably random and without shape with isolated elements presenting imaginative glimpses into what might be but it is never sustained. I think that the main problem is one of rhythm and pacing sacrificed to a love of novel effects. It follows the traditions of electroacustic tradition and musique concrete without a sense of the whole. 

 

Initial Hypothesis: Research Statement

I prefer to use the term hypothesis to thesis because what I am proposing in the research statement constitutes a series of inferences with wider implications in different contexts inviting further investigation whilst maintaining a tight focus on the subject matter.  

The following summary makes a series of assumptions that will be dealt with in the paper.

Hypothesis

  • That the process by which the increase and proliferation of the depiction of composite creatures in art is partially analogous to the life processes giving rise to body plan diversity in fauna
  • that this proliferation is catalysed and facilitated by novel ways of encoding information
  • that composite creatures arise spontaneously under conditions where an increase in ‘ecological’ niches occurs;
  • that this process is neither dependent on substrate nor content, that is to say it is algorithmic.

Theoretical Context

  • Daniel C Dennett’s idea of algorithm 
  • David Wengrow’s hypothesis, ‘The origin of monsters: Image and cognition in the first age of mechanical reproduction’.

Temporal Context

  • The Cambrian Explosion
  • Early Bronze Age Civilisations
  • Late Medieval Period
  • C20th and C21st information and communication culture including digital

Summary

The paper will explore correspondences between the radiation of diversity of body plans in fauna during the Cambrian Explosion and the proliferation of composite creatures in art production during the early bronze age city civilisations. The paper will focus on the role of HOX genes and the emergence of writing as corresponding ways of encoding information capable of responding to changing conditions as well as the increase in ecological complexity in both contexts. It will also look at the recombination of modular components of information that give rise to novel composites and their spread in the environment as catalysed by an increase in kinetic modes such as motility in fauna and trade and migration in human societies. The process of expansion and diversification of ecological niches in fauna and increase in the complexity and diversity of division of labour in urban settings will be considered as an important contributors creating new environmental conditions that offer increased opportunities.

The implications of the proposed hypothesis will be considered as to its possible effect on contemporary culture, specifically in the context of the digital environment and what the role of AI might be in the creation of hybrid creatures in art; particularly in terms of non-intuitive organisms arising out of inorganic systems and how human perception might receive and contribute to such a scenario. 

Hieronymous Bosch may also be considered as a bridge between the Early Bronze Age and today in the context of religion. Set in the Late Medieval Period, at the end of ‘The Spiritual Age’, Bosch exemplifies the role of religion and its hermeneutics in generating composite creatures in a novel way within a changing information environment (religion, trade, exploration, writing in vernacular, printing, etc), crossing the boundary between intuitive and the non-intuitive notions, through imaginative speculations that offer diverse symbolic representations of composite creatures.

Research Statement: Preliminary Title

   

A preliminary title is an uneasy mapping out of a journey towards an idea without necessarily knowing the best route. This preliminary title is somewhat long winded but it does contain the elements of subject area, context and argument which may well serve as a condensed abstract. The fact that it will need pruning goes without saying but a kernel of an idea does reside in its immature state.

Composite body plans and their proliferation: A comparative examination of the algorithmic increase and propagation of hybrid creatures in the Cambrian, Early Bronze Age, Late Medieval Period and the Digital Environment in the context of D. C. Dennett’s definition of algorithm and D. Wengrow’s archeo-anthropological hypothesis ‘the origin of monsters’. 

This is basically looking at how analogous outcomes can arise from disparate cultural and biological substrates and what this might say about ongoing contemporary developments. I see the Late Medieval element, seen through the optics of Hieronymous  Bosch, as a bridge from the ancient to the modern. However, I need to think about the length of the RS and it may prove too much to weave Bosch’s particular narrative into the whole: his hermeneutic influences may be too mono-cultural relative to the other areas under examination providing an antithesis to the general thesis of the cultural and biological emergence of composite creatures or so called monsters which, it could be argued, depend on more complex environmental conditions. Nevertheless, as a counter argument it creates an interesting dialectic which unfortunately may be beyond the constraints of 3000 to 4000 words.

Skype Chat 3.1 – An Introduction to the Research Statement

 The first Skype chat of the third term was an introduction to the Research Statement.

Research Statement Brief

Using Zotero

The following are additional observations regarding writing such a document.

The RS can take many forms so long as the central methodology is based on critical thinking. For example, it can take the form of a dialectic or the stepwise construction of a hypothesis to be tested. In the current context of the MA tested in the realisation of the project proposal. 

The RS could deal with any area of interest but it would be a good idea to make it useful in terms of relating it to my practice with a link to the project proposal.

To make the RS distinct from the area of interest with respect to the PP would be to loose the main benefits of writing such a paper which I would summarise as follows:

  • build a framework on which to base the PP and final project outcome 
  • creating a conceptual platform/framework, wholly or partially, on which to base future work
  • contributing to my artist’s statement and other forms of presentation
  • contextualising my practice
  • and perhaps start the process of outlining a statement of intent for a doctoral thesis

Both a research statement and a research paper contain a developed argument. However, a RS is not quite a research paper but more something that might be presented at an academic conference: 3000 – 4000 words represents a presentation of around 20 to 30 minutes. It is more a description of an intended area of research or of the context in which one’s practice/research is placed but not about it. On the other hand, a paper is more likely to document an element of some actual research focused on ones own practice. 

Writing objectively, outside my practice can positively impact on it:

  • developing a critical articulation of what I do
  • building meaning into work
  • broadening and deepening the context of work 
  • writing generates – as Jonathan says – contexts. It is actually hard to find a context that is coherent and articulable, particularly without thinking about it critically all the time. The MA has set the context for constant analysis and thought running alongside making which has helped immensely in developing a contextual framework (which is in constant development).
  • A corollary of this is that theoretical thinking, reflection, introspection, observation, etc can stimulate the production of work and not simply be its post-production explanation. 

This latter point is very important but it is also important that the area of research or theory, should sustain my interest. 

A useful algorithm Jonathan gave us to formulate a research question:

  • Find a broad subject area
  • Narrow this interest to a specific topic
  • Question that topic from several viewpoints
  • Choose the question whose answer is the most significant to you

The blog journal has been immensely useful in finding patterns of thoughts helping to identify the subject area. I feel as though I have already gone through this process of selecting and filtering. During the Skype chat I took away a very useful approach. That two or more ideas can be looked at in the context of a third idea perhaps suggesting a thesis which can then be further examined.

I would like this to be the case for my RS: to extract a thesis or more correctly a hypothesis; in art nothing can be proven, only argued and subjectively appreciated. If it were to hold under critical evaluation I would be very pleased. In truth, what I have in mind is more a set of correlations between causal circumstances that have certain conditions in common. These conditions are not substrate dependent and can contribute to the described outcome spontaneously. Not being the whole picture I would say that what I am looking at is a partial algorithm, a part driver in the given process. 

Research Statement: A Start

Six months ago I started with a loose pool of ideas flowing from existential themes. My main aim since then has been to find a cogent argument that reflects my various interests and that could place in different arenas. This quest has been exciting if onerous; I have gone down many wandering pathways. However, I also have had to discipline my thoughts within a varied practice since many of my ideas emerge synchronously with my practice and two years is not that long to develop a coherent trajectory. I know that the Research Statement will need to be started soon and that it needs to be well conceived at the outset in order to avoid time consuming blind allies during the Summer months, a period good for making. 

In view of the upcoming RS, I have looked at the problem both taxonomically and mereologically, reductively and holistically. The tension between these two ways of organising thoughts has helped me identify those ideas and practices that would fit a tight set of self imposed requirements: 

  • original
  • cogent
  • flexible and focused
  • contemporary
  • leading to a project proposal and higher research
  • poetic

A thesis emerged ten days ago in conversation with Janet, not by logical deduction but in moment of gestalt in which I saw a bigger picture. With few words I was able to state the obvious precipitated out of the wanderings and writings I have done over the past six months. But how could I be sure this would hold together? I wrote a preliminary abstract or outline of the thesis in a surprisingly short amount of time, much shorter than the time it has taken me to get this far on this post. Since then I have been able to add content and ideas without disturbing cogency. I was concerned about having to read scores of papers and dozens of books in search of an idea. Instead, I know where to go and what to read for corroborative material and help to shape the argument. 

I shall write about the RS in future post but for now I wish to continue with what I am doing. Instead I have opened a folder for placing material separate to the blog. Today (yesterday) I went to Doncaster to buy materials, time flies.

Briefly the RS tries to bring together in artistic thought:

  • The Cambrian Explosion
  • Early Bronze Age civilisations in the Fertile Crescent
  • Medieval thinking
  • Science fiction
  • Myths
  • The digital environment 
  • Coding of information
  • Algorithmic development and chaotic order