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.

Psychological Voltage

Pen and ink study

 

Following from my previous post, ideas start to form as to how the two aspects of what I am working with, the raw and the refined can coexist. The transition from the radially symmetrical, ordered Chaos Contained  to the more poietic gut forms has been a journey from the external to the internal, searching for the internal world contained within the carapace. I have oscillated between one and the other and it seems that the symbolic reifications have been and still are gestators for what I am working on now. I see the possibility of the chaotic inner world nascent from, evolving and bursting out of the idealised concept of the type form. This may be too literal an interpretation of what I am thinking but in the working with the material is where the transformation can take place.

Plato thought that our world was a mere shadow of an ideal one, our backs turned to the light and all we see is a third hand puppet show – which makes me think of the shadow videos I have previously put together. Aristotle got his hands covered in the slime of dissections and the analysis of the literal world that we see and touch each day. He looked at it straight in the eye and tried to explain it.

These drawings are the first attempts at placing markers for the ideas that are forming in my head. From them I can develop and evolve these ideas, make them less… obvious; more about the struggle between knowledge and knowing, existence and experience, than biology.

 

Pen and ink study

 

In the first visualisation, the internal bursts forth from the carapace; in the second, the metamorphosis of form from raw compost to ideal form. (It reminds me in a way of the empathic climb in Philip K. Dick’s Mercianism.) Two ways of reconciling through transformation. This is where the strength of the myth lies, in the potential to transform mud and dust to a higher state. It is an idea that holds psychological voltage. 

 

Instruments of Gender

 

What is gender in society other than an assignment that is carried by the weight of authority, aimed at organising society according to sex, controlling behaviour through roles, aesthetics and expectations. Gender is all too easily seen in terms of biological sex alone yet the properties given to assigned gender characteristics in society are fluid, decoupling often from sex as their determinant. It is largely a question of language embedded in narratives constructed through words and images.

I have looked at my work so far and language underlies much of it; language’s ability to define paradigms and redirect expectations and points of view; language in its broadest sense. The MA so far has been an unmethodological essay in artistic research that is extending my practice into areas both predictable and unexpected.

Elusive Directions: Taxonomy and Mereology

Instrument of Gender in Porcelain (unfired)

I have been thinking about the direction of my work so far during this MA. It has been a period during which things have moved from one thing to another, a period for exploring ideas and dipping my toes into all kinds of areas. With the Research Statement in mind, I need to move things onto a more decisive footing in order for me to have the time to complete an ambitious project proposal next year. 

In the past I have written about my practice as a molecular construction from atomic elements giving way to a more poetic, informal modelling of material.  I have also written about a search to unify my disparate practice; something that has proved elusive. I remember what Will said about my Mid Point Review presentation, that he would like to see a whole room full of works which are not necessarily interconnected. He spoke spontaneously about something that I have continuously reiterated in everything I do. Collections and series, sequences and lines of descent have always fascinated me and heterogeneity has been constantly manifest. Dannii also hinted at another aspect which I have worked on previously, that of creating a legacy from a speculative world that is not necessarily ours. Some of my past exhibitions have touched on these aspects: Chaos Contained, An Artificial Natural History, Traces of Life, Sacred Places, Steel to name a few. These projects have contained an element of evolutionary repetition in a rational collection form. 

What I have largely done so far is attempt a synthesis through a taxonomic approach: seeing the whole as a collection of different elements and trying to connect them by defining their degree of connectedness or relatedness. This approach can work as a system of classification, atomising the properties and characteristics of a practice. This in turn is helpful as a means of combining and recombining things in novel ways. However, this approach can also be divisive creating boundaries and exclusion.

An analogy would be seeing all living organisms as somehow related and attempting to systematise this connectedness in a meaningful way. I feel that what I have done is akin to constructing a genetic tree of my own practice. In the case of biology this throws light on the mechanism of evolution and descent. However, evolution does not have foresight, it is not teleological. Artistic practice on the other hand, has a strong element of aiming for something, a goal or purpose be it wealth, influence, change, discovering or what have you. Taxonomy although useful, is an analytical tool that does not provide all the answers, it is not contextual. Another analogy would be that of taxonomy in biology only tells us about how related organisms are, but to find out more about how they interact, we need to look at their behaviour in their given environments, their ecology. I am not surprised that the Linnean system of classification predated by a considerable period the first ecological observations by Humbolt.

The shortcomings of taking a classification approach was highlighted in the two group sessions we had on Elusive Taxonomies. In short, taxonomy is only partially helpful in giving a synoptic view of a practice or in developing a methodological and philosophical synthesis. In order to get a fuller picture I need a different optic, invert things so that instead of looking at the relationship between areas of work, I look at how each component relates to a whole. Respective interaction then become predicated on inclusion, as part of the whole in which they participate. Each component then shares a parthood with every other component in relation to the whole. Connections are therefore a function of this parthood rather than a more reductive inclusion exclusion defining their place and function.

This is a subtly different way of thinking. Taxonomy is useful in seeing how things relate to one another; parthood, or mereology, helps to conceptually bring together things that might not appear related in the first place. With respect to my practice, looking at it mereologically, what brings together its different aspects would be things such intent, response, experience, circumstance. (There is one element, modality, that seems to straddle the two ways of thinking and presents and interesting conduit between the two.)

All this of course is an analysis of what arises out of intuitive thinking. It is also complicated by how my practice has changed over time. This introduces an evolutionary element which needs to be largely set aside for the moment: I need to concentrate on the now. However, it does highlight an important element that goes into the heterogeneous character of what I do, that I cannot endlessly repeat an idea or process. The reasons for this are for another time. 

To summarise: using taxonomy and mereology together is a powerful way of critically analysing my practice… after the fact. This analysis  influences but not necessarily directs what I do  in action . Taxonomy is a means of understanding the component parts and their interactions a way of building a framework; mereology on the other hand helps identify the context and reasons for my particular methodology.

Grappling with the Angel

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel: Jacob Epstein, alabaster (in Tate Britain)

 

The Jacob of Genesis wrestled with the angel, some say with God, taming a vengeful angry deity and forging a new relationship between humankind and divinity. I see this divinity as the all encompassing material universe made flesh in a dream as Malakh. 

After completing the Mid Point Review I woke to a new realisation, that of grappling with a multitude of ideas trying to reduce them to a single point with a focused coherence of some sort. It did go through my mind to do the Tantra thing and make a painting symbolic of this synthesis into a whole: a point for meditation. However, my nature would not allow me to settle on such a solution. You see, I view the world as a continuum panning vertically from the infinite to the infinitesimal and horizontally across the fastness of time and space. The world is a whole simple single entity and it is a complex of interrelated elements divisible and united. Reality is smooth and simultaneous, granular and causal. This duality is not a matter of indecision but of phenomenological understanding. 

So the problem I was wrestling with can be summed up as, do I present a single work that tries to represent a multitude, issues, subjects, material solutions and approaches, a symbolic sign or do I present, what I call in the MPR, a compendium of interrelated works, each able to stand on its own? The former requires a silencing-out of ideas, the latter risking to appear disordered and confused. If I am to be honest, the minimalist approach does not satisfy my nature however elegant it might appear. I am a mongrel of ideas and influences, philosophically and genetically heterozygous .

In an attempt to resolve this problem I am lead to ask of myself, what is the glue that would bind the works if I were to take the second path? I have already gone over this in a much earlier post. I also hinted at the answer in the MPR where I have written, words are the labels of my thoughts. This is at least partially true. I am not a good speaker but I enjoy the act of putting ideas into words the semantics of language and their syntax. Much of my understanding of the world is worked out with labels, shuffled and shunted in my mind until they fall into place only to be moved again and again. I am talking semiotics here; touched on in the previous post Significance and Meaning.

Having settled on my general direction and that is not to have to create a single work, however holistic it might be, and that words are the narrative glue that binds their content, I start to think about the relationships between the works. In so doing, they start to take shape in my mind, decisions have a rational and an intuitive element: working with Dionysian impulse and Apollonian restraint towards a balancing and rebalancing a weaving of interrelations, invisible lines of tension that burgeon into some physical form in each part.

But do I explain these relationship in words or should they be left to be uncovered, discovered, debated and vulnerable to misunderstanding. I must leave this to the receiver but the trick is to leave sufficient breadcrumbs for way into the wood to be made accesible. A catalogue or a statement, a performance or poetry, for now that question can be left unanswered, there is time for that to develop and mature.

Now for some content. The very provisional titles with which I refer to each principle work, yes there are also small morsels I plan to sow in the interstices, are significant as monikers for the links being forged. Hermaphroditus deals with gender, language and religion through the channel of myth. Logos/Oracle again inspired by the myths deals, as logos alludes, with the disruption of language and understanding through biological and geological metaphors of the gut and the cavern: the devouring of reason and dissemination of ambiguity and ambivalence. Language links these two works but the third installation is unspoken, the absence of word. Shadowland translates the three-dimensional world into two dimensions, constantly reiterating in analogue and digital means the simplification of form, altering its meaning. Whereas Hermaphroditus unfolds and Logos confounds, Shadowlands simplifies and in so doing creates another narrative. 

The trilogy of unfolding, confounding and simplification represents in some way how I see this project. An attempt to simplify and synthesise entanglements through unfolding. The nature of interpretation and mutation of meaning links the works and suggest further works. Is this not the essence of myth? As I write I start to draw together the elements I outlined in the project proposal and as I do so other considerations start to fall in place, considerations such as the aesthetics of each piece. This starts to look less important and somewhat superficial. However, it is still important as a means of conveying a sense defined by the thoughts that go into the work. 

Finally, there is the fourth element, the antecedent to all three which for now must remain undisclosed lest I should abandon its making and disappoint myself. It is a relic of times past and gives context within my own practice, what you might make of it is not for me to say. 

I now feel renewed, on the threshold of a dawn having wrestled the angel. Like in a dream I did not realise I was in quite such a struggle. This realisation has come with the Low Residency and the MPR. There is much planning and preparation, experimentation and workings out. The projects are ambitious in meaning and in making and I cannot afford to leave things to sort themselves out. I cleared a path but it is yet to be trodden and tested. It is now time to take the next step… and keep writing. 

Mea Culpa Restored

 

 

The final restored Graven Image. One of a series of contingent caprices foretelling the shadow world that follows. A world that encompasses some of what I talked about in the last tutorial with Jonathan; contingent because their restoration and rebirth arose out of an unpredictable and calamitous event that in part, catalysed the shadow world.

 

 

What am I doing here? I am experimenting much as early civilisations onwards experimented with composite creatures: an exploration of the imagination facilitated by the social juxtaposition of different life strategies in one concentrated space. Caprices, perhaps not, rather an expression of a deep seated modularity found in religion, science fiction, and myth. Here the myth is both biological and psychological; how could it be otherwise.

 

Tutorial 2.1: 17 January 2019. Jonathan Kearney

The tutorial was far ranging in ideas and reflections on what I have done so far. I have made notes since then but have needed time to think about what we discussed before committing to a post. I want to distil the essence of the conversation and see where it takes me.

Graven Images

The tutorial started with Jonathan expressing an interest in the Graven Images series and what they were about. These are caprices, sketches that embody many of my thoughts in disparate areas: in biology, parallel biology, science fiction, mythology, modularity, religious effigies and gods. The graven images of which there are many more to come, become relevant in the light of other things I have done. They are a curious combination of non-intuitive imaginings and rational ideas. They are about worship, profanity, and how the imagination can create gods from composite ideas. 

Blog Journal

Because I have a well-developed process of making, Jonathan was interested in how I felt about the actual process I have been engaged in over the past few months, particularly the blog journal. I have found the journal of immense benefit.

The process externalised in the form of the blog journal, is opening out the possibility of contextualising my practise in a deep sense. A sense that can be articulated and externalised not in terms of issues, themes or subject matter, these are material, but in terms of the deepest parts of me. I do not use the word soul because that defies definition, I prefer to say the I in the world as part of the world.

It documents the convergence and synthesis of different ideas and interests.

The process requires time to deepen and broaden my thinking but I can already see the shape of things to come.

Different means of working including, writing, making, reflecting, researching, doing and walking are weaving that elusive fabric I alluded to at the beginning of the MA.

I am seeing repeating patterns that emerge out of disparate areas that reflect how all things have arisen from the whole with fundamental laws governing the behaviour of all things.

As complexity increases, new principles come into play. The traversal from a lower order of complexity to a higher one brings into play new laws: life, consciousness, complex civilisations bring with them new ‘rules of the game’ that often hint at their provenance from deeper set ones.

To represent or express this in an artwork is challenging because I do not want to go down the purely conceptual path in which an idea is illustrated by some trope. I am drawn to the visceral, existential, matter of things. I have to find ways of linking ideas through a methodology that encompasses multitudes.

Jonathan had a concern about the amount I write in terms of the shear task. Fortunately, the writing comes relatively easily. I am developing a writing methodology in which ideas are worked out as I pour in the ingredients.

The post writing is not only a reflective tool but also an experimental one where I test out ideas in the abstract.

Synthesis often occurs while writing. Often a posteriori to act of making.

Jonathan questioned me on whether I am able to filter through the posts in a way that I can gain from them. Is it possible and how do I do it? He noticed that one of my most recent posts is succinct.

My being able to this is as a result of having worked things out along the way. Then space is made for new things.  

Jonathan also wanted to know if the blog was not only useful for working things out but whether it was useful in retrospect when looking back at what I had written.

I find this an interesting corollary to the former question. When going back over old posts one of the interesting things is that I see repeating patterns in different contexts, and how ideas group together. 

I also see where I have made assumptions, created a fallacy, something needs explicating or could have been said better in fewer words. Am I falling into a trap?

The blog posts are engaged in a dance with one another. That dance can be chaotic at times, but that chaos is not random or irrational, it is complex. An important task is to tease out the simple elements, some more obvious than others, and how they correspond to one another.

What to do now with the blog journal

I am resolved to revise the categories and tags but not in terms of content because there are too many candidate words and there is a limit of 45 tags being shown in a normal tag cloud plugin.

I will look at the broad ideas and use tags that correspond to external criteria such as learning outcomes rather than my own internal ones. This I think will help me a lot more.

The projects are precipitating out and things have shifted into a clear set of patterns. So, categorizing the posts will be much easier. I will compare original and new categories to help me clarify my way forward and I hope that by Easter I should have a much clear view towards more ambitious work . This is particularly important since the Research Statement will be starting around then and require a great deal of work. 

The point Jonathan rightly makes is to make sure that I can gain the most from the large body of material I have collected in a short space of time. Just the act of going back and reorganising will be a deep reflective process. I could even use a different way of organising the material better suited to my needs. This is an interesting point that I shall think on.

Video

We discussed the video work as a possible way forward; as a means of tying together different strands in my work.

Working from the first video, post-truth-hurtling, I am developing a methodology from first principles that gives a degree of control over ephemeral phenomena without losing the spirit of contingency and heuristics.

The way I work with video is as a performance that could be enacted live.

This work is almost complete and it links with my idea of Mythopoeia and the shadow world.

I feel that the direction this project is taking is an exciting one. One which can be extended to form a suite or series also behaving as poetic labels for other works.

With the video I have the same philosophy as with my mouse drawings. Working with limitations gives way to greater freedom. Not relying on having the perfect conditions. 

Shadows

An interesting conversation pointing to the potency of shadows as a medium.

Jonathan observed that my work with shadows in their details capture a lot of what I talk about.

The loss of information, as the three-dimensional world is projected onto two dimensions creates a space for the imagination.

The Line

Following on from this dimensional approach, the video of the line intrigued Jonathan and we discussed ways of extending the idea by removing the horizon. I have since thought of ways of overcoming the slight technical impediments that had precluded me from doing this in the first place. He would also like to see the ‘failed’ experiments online, something I will do because it is these as much as the successful experiments that can show new pathways. 

The line video is a metaphor for my working with past material allowing the imagination to roam without consequence and seeing the present through a different optic. Ideas can then be brought into the present and critically analysed in the contemporary context.

Modularity

We discussed the idea of modularity my methodology and the Graven Images. How modularity is not only about construction but also human interaction such as trade, religion, science and so on.

The proliferation of composite creatures tying up with the emergence of complex body plans in the Cambrian Explosion.

Just as there is the emergence of physical characteristics, you also have the emergence of predation which is a behavioural strategy linked to the physical such as the development of the alimentary canal, a salient element in my work.

There must be a parallel with human society. What could this be and what could this say about our society?

Heuristics and Playfulness and Control

I work heuristically, analysis taking place afterwards the fact. The action research cycle starting with the work, leading to ideas and alterations that then inform new work.

I strive for a level of control that is subliminal, built up from experience, that does not interfere with the heuristic element but allows me to decide on the directions I take. 

Jonathan suggested that the heuristic, playful nature of the videos is in contrast with the constraints imposed by ceramic practice involving planning and staging.

I also think that it is in contrast with the side of me that is risk averse and needs to plan and think ahead. By relinquishing a predetermined outcome, I am able to delve into different areas that can bear a variety of novel, hybrid fruit.

I like the idea of the rational being subliminal during making and becoming more overt after the event when it can inform and explain, explicate and imagine (often as a reflection of the self). I have enough experience for this not to be a blind shooting but like a experienced fisherman, casting the line into the water with knowledge borne of experience. 

The process often begins with a what which then moves to how and the why is the much harder part to work out.

The what and how are often contextual and technical. Then there is the external why as a response to the world and the hidden,elusive reason(s) which is much harder to fathom. It reaches down to the deepest recesses of the self.

On Change

I explained about the emerging idea of metamorphosis, process philosophy and the relationship between being and becoming. How metamorphoses can take place within a closed, short term system and over time within a wider context. 

On Sound

I discussed the possibility of consulting with Ed Kelly in relation the MAX MSP. I am not looking to learn how to use the software for some unspecified future idea. I am looking to use it to perform a specific task and in doing so learn how to use it perhaps for something else. I have a clear purpose and direction, so it becomes about how to get there with the appropriate tool. 

East Coast

Jonathan liked the contrast to other posts provided by the East Coast images. We discussed correspondences with my other work in terms of why I am drawn to that way of working and the significances of the subject matter. I see it as a reflection of one thing in another as I have mentioned in the post.

Jonathan also noticed that in the East Coast post images gallery, the images are followed it one continues clicking by images of the maquettes, something I did not know. That is an accidental juxtaposition of the images and ideas for a work which show a great deal of relatedness. What a lovely surprise!

And indeed, not having people in the pictures gives another view onto the correspondences between things.

Miscellaneous

Jonathan was drawn to the post Labelling the World Post in which I discuss the awakening of the self through language. This is another more conceptual stream which could yield interesting things to do with separation, boundaries and relationships

A discussion on Buber and Heidegger followed, and how they view the world in complementary ways.

Jonathan is interested in how I am expanding my well-established process and not afraid of not making things perfect. He would, though, like to see some of the alternative works such as for the line video. We discussed this aspect of the blog and indeed, to show abandoned trials could yield something yet unknown. For example, the line could be extended so that there is no horizon. To get around the issue of the camera’s field of view vs depth of field, one of the large black boards could be used.

Talking about animation, I said that I do not want to get to much into that medium because I do not want to repeat what others have done so so well. We then discussed old Rotring pens!

Something I have not discussed in a post is whether using Rotring pen or an expressive old pen nib. This is a dialectic than will resolve itself with doing.  

I like moving from one thing to another when working with different ideas. I find it useful to go from one thing to another. Jonathan told me about ‘Clock Maker’s Wife’ where she used coloured pencils on a notebook, she was able to do something simply as an alternative process. 

We also share a love of working late at night, when it is quiet and ideas come on the breeze of silence. 

 

Hermaphroditus

Hermes and Aphrodite bore a beautiful son. Hermaphroditus was raised in the caves of Mount Ida by fresh water naiads. Growing bored of his life he went walk about around the cities of Phrygia. One day, he wondered into the woods of the city of Caria near Halicarnassus where he was seen by the water nymph Salmacis. She at once fell in love and lusted after the handsome but still young boy pouncing on him in an attempt at seduction.1 Hermaphroditus rejected her attempts and on thinking she had gone, undressed and entered the pool to refresh himself. On doing so, Salmacis sprung on him and wrapped herself around the boy wishing by the gods never to be parted from him. Her wish was granted and the two blended together creating a creature of both sexes.

This tale, one of many told by the Roman poet Ovid in his book Metamorphoses came to mind as I made a new clay model. It is a blend of ideas from the Willendorf Venus to retro rockets; from Philippe Stark’s juicer to the Sputnik satellite, deep sea monster and nimble crustacean. Cult and functionality melded without overt reference to the human form for hermaphrodites abound in nature. 

The emergence of sexual reproduction long ago conferred greater plasticity to complex organisms enabling them to better adapt to different environments. Hermaphrodite animals have adopted this form of sexuality as a strategy for increasing fecundity, with respect to plants it is the norm. Only amongst the flowering plants do you find separate male and female individuals. These are dioecious plants such as the holly. Only female hollies bear fruit. In humans the sex organs begin to differentiate only after nine weeks but then sex is different to gender. The gendering of objects is deep rooted in culture. Ascribing a gender to a particular type of thing is common in many languages but not all languages assign the same gender to an object. I am always a little disconcerted when referring to a flower in Spanish and then Italian. In the former case it is la flor, whereas il fiore is the Italian masculine for the same word. Two romance languages with common roots, at what point in the linguistic womb did the two diverge? German also includes a neuter gender whereas English has pretty well lost all its grammatical genders other than for people, animals and a few other things such as ships (with a few dialectic exceptions).

A professor (who is no longer with us) said to me a few years ago that my work is gendered. I wondered what he meant at the time as I know that my intention in Chaos Contained was to move away from a binary representation of life. I was working in a neutral but fecund world full of life force transcending the cosmically parochial issue of gender. To this day I do not know to what audience he thought the works might relate to, if that was indeed what he was getting at. Ironically, the touring show of CC was managed, promoted and funded purely by women.

We are apt to see ourselves reflected in things and events including questions of gender. We live in times when questions of gender are being revised of their historical baggage. Whatever the case might be, it is so difficult to be objective about affective things. Emotions are at the heart of art practice and appreciation. That is why academic writing for an artist can be a stretch but it can open windows to new horizons through critical thinking. However, critical analysis has to be treated with an awareness of its implications for creativity.

  1. Salmacis was the only naiad that did not take part in the hunts of Artemis on account of her idleness and vanity. She preferred to wash her beautiful limbs and tend to her hair.  Ovid, Metamorphoses. Book IV, 306-312 []

Mea Culpa Leads to a Unification

This piece was the one that exploded in the kiln and caused the damage. I am now reaching the end of its reconstruction and there are two more well on their way. This small project is running parallel to the main project proposal. It is a reconnection with clay and the organic. However, it is not a caprice, as I reflect on what I am doing, pertinent ideas come to mind: composites, contingency, deep past and cultural transitions, modular thinking, dialysis and synthesis, destruction and construction. The list is endless and endlessly layered. What might be the locus of the Research Paper begins to come into view.

What is emerging is a synthesis of ideas that have so far only existed as a coherent ensemble by virtue of my imaginings and feelings that they are in some way connected. I also begin to see how they relate to present day concerns in articulable form.

Patterns exist at all levels and scales of existence, repeating cyclically, each iteration different but nonetheless containing within itself a core that binds them together. Contingent events can cause large ruptures in systems, nothing is certain or inevitable but seen with hindsight, they appear inevitable and progressive, even predestined. This latter fallacy is a function of how we think, as though things have an aim or purpose. Algorithms are dispassionate and impartial. Disparate life processes, their repeating patterns throughout the planet’s history and from early civilisations to today’s society all bear the imprint of algorithms that might provide one with a glimpse of the future. But this vision cannot be discerned in detail but rather a direction of travel, subject to contingent events, the unpredictable.

What I am sensing is the repetition of patterns within patterns, fractals of fractals; that the history of life, human culture, and the future, are iterations subject to principles that become evident in different ways according to circumstance. The word I have identified as emblematic of what I might explore in the R.S. is metamorphosis. But this does not tell the whole story. Things come together to form more complex, sometimes simpler more efficient systems. Whether they be societies, organisms or ideas. All these things are subject to common laws, the same principles that defy entropy and sometimes succumb to it. Another word close to metamorphosis is emergence, the result of a traversal, a change in kind as from simple chemical reactions to ‘self interested’ replicating molecules or at a higher level of complexity, from sentience to consciousness.

The whole is not made of separate things but we perceive it as such by our own modularity in thinking which in turn could be postulated to be reflection of how consciousness emerged from simpler, chaotic but ordered, causal processes. Time is the function of such changes. We measure time by the rate of change in things whether while looking at a second hand moving across a clock face or our own faces in the mirror as we age. However, time is a flexible construct. It is not uniform or fixed in the physical world; the mind is inconsistent in how it perceives time. The notion of time of itself is meaningless.

But what on earth am I talking about? Whether I am talking about societies, organisms, consciousness or an artwork, the way these things are built is piece by piece, each component interacting with other components in reciprocal feedback relationships. Components group to form units at a higher level of organisation. Levels ‘talk’ across boundaries of complexity and with the outside world. It is a wondrous web of regulated processes of ‘communication’, regulated if that term can be used, by blind, impartial algorithms. Daniel Dennett talks about the nature of algorithms at length in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. By their very nature, algorithms are independent of substrate which means they can apply to different systems whether chemical, physical, biological, ecological, linguistic or cultural.

I am seeing how what happened during the Cambrian explosion as an analogue to the rise of complex urban societies: new ecologies, innovative strategies all based on modularity. The modularity of body plans and their genetic control and modularity of thinking fostered by the coming together of disparate modes of living encoded in art, religion and writing respectively. And if one looks close enough one might see a common thread made evident in the evolution or building of new blueprints whether they be organic or behavioural. And the drive for these changes may differ, whether it is an increase in oxygen levels in the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago, the increase in meat eating (and therefore scarce fat) helping an increase in brain activity many tens of thousands of years ago or more recently the retreat of glaciers a mere twelve thousand years ago. Changes in the environment give rise to changes in life: a thought well worth pondering on with respect to human induced climate change in the Anthropocene.

Can equivalences be made between world events? Can we infer sufficiently accurately to postulate what might happen in the future given certain conditions? And what of contingent events, is human unpredictability that difficult to allow for or are there only a few variables on a large scale? The scale at which something is looked at can alter conclusions. It is hard to predict the behaviour of one single item in the midst of the countless, but the whole will follow a pattern much easier to understand. What is the link between the two, between the individual and the collective? 

Our ability to alter the planet surface gives us power over our future but can we learn from the past to avoid the inevitable or are we condemned to repeat a pattern which, while different in broad details, is the same at a higher level? This may be where the digital revolution might have a decisive role for the better or the worst. If we want a degree of stability, we cannot leave the future to the contingencies of human behaviour. But is human behaviour contingent or predictable? It seems more and more the case that it is the latter but does this reconcile with individual freedom, if such a thing actually exists? To what extent are we free to decide as individuals and more importantly as collectives? Is it enough to say that the collective is made up of countless individuals or is some new paradigm needed? How dangerous could this be? Social engineering is not a new thing.

The Origin of Monsters and Imaginal Discs

Bronze Man and wounded Centaur, mid 8th century BCE

Having started to read The Origin of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction by David Wengrow, many ideas are forming in my head relating to the way I work, metamorphosis and modularity.

The basic idea behind the book is that the assemblage of imaginary creatures comprising body parts from different species including human, is a construct that became established and spread primarily out of the urban way of thinking during pre-Bronze Age civilisations in regions such as the  Indus and Mesopotamia. Wengrow invokes contemporary cognitive research positing that the creation of such creatures conforms to our modular way of thinking and our cognitive understanding of the world from a non mono-causal complex mix of social, technological and moral processes. The most culturally stable composite creatures are those that can function ‘normally’ in the world, breathing, eating, moving, seeing, hearing. They are the most enduring and widespread being the least counterintuitive, least fantastic and most believable, such as dragons, griffins and centaurs. This way of thinking was fostered by and proliferated in early urban societies where the codification of a variety of ideas in the state, organised religions, and writing in particular, promoted modular thinking or as I would say, synthetic poietic thinking. In such environments, counterintuitive views made of composite elements reflected the complexity of city life and intercommunal communication. Represented in object and pictorial form, and propagated and ‘reproduced’ through literature, they became culturally significant and widespread, their metastasis fostered by trade and commerce. Before the bronze age, composite creatures appear much less frequently in the artistic output of cultures, a correlation that Wengrow uses to support his thesis. The one question that is outside the scope of the book is the actual genesis of composite creatures in the imagination. The thesis simply states that the establishment and proliferation of these composites is an emergent property of our way of thinking combined with cultural transitions. Wengrow admits that this is a mid-range study, however, it is rich in imagination and fosters further imaginings. 

This idea of modularity relating to cognition and composite creatures brings to mind the non-teleological evolutionary processes that gave rise to the Cambrian explosion, the advent of metamerism, predation and nature’s ‘experimentation’ of body plans. In order for body plans to be transformable and parts to be interchangeable, a form of modularity is required. Multicellularity is not enough, it is inconceivable that the simple, relatively loose agglomeration of specialised cells in, say a hydra, could be recombined to give rise to a new body plan, only another version of the same. There is a problem in creating a variety of body plans without a form of modularity. During the Cambrian this problem was resolved with the emergence of metamerism or segmentation. If an organism is made up of segments, the genetic regulation of each segment’s respective development becomes much simpler. Each segment can bear relation to the others and yet develop to accomplish different functions such as the head, limbs and tail. We know that HOX were critical in metazoan evolution regulating cell differentiation and thereby the morphogenesis of plants and animals. Modular segmentation allows for a high degree of interchangeability of body parts through genetic recombination without necessarily causing  disruptions that would make any change unviable. One can imagine that this modularity reaches right down to the fundamentals of multicellularity including the brain itself. It is not too far a reach to think that the our thinking reflects that modularity and that that in turn reflects our way of thinking and the imagination. Ray Kurzeil, describes how complex mammalian brains function in a hierarchical modular fashion and how workers in artificial intelligence are trying to create homologues of this architecture. (Kurweil posits a future, in which a traverse in human development occurs through hybrid thinking: simply put, the downloading of network information into the brain, accessing the combined computing power of the web, or similar structure. An interesting idea in which our intelligence can be enhanced by means of ‘plugging in’ to an artificial neural net capable of far faster computations than we are.)

 

Artist’s impression of Anomalocaris, approx. 500 M yrs ago

The flexibility in body plans meant that complex ecologies could arise with the important and transformative emergence of predation. The new relationship between predator and prey brought about the necessity, probably synchronously, for movement, vision, an alimentary canal and a form of awareness of direction. Vision, to see your prey or attacker; movement to catch and evade; a head to distinguish direction of movement. With all these new perceptive and locomotary abilities, the sense organs and mouth would be best placed at the anterior end of the body or head: the first part of an organism that meets the approaching environment when moving forward. 

The alimentary canal is an important part of this new development in survival strategies and must have developed very early on in segmented animals. It is essential for motile organisms, enabling them to ingest, digest and assimilate food on the move. This allowed animal life to expand into environments that would have been otherwise out of bounds. A homologue to the alimentary canal features in many of my works. It is of primal function with a great number of metaphorical connotations. Not only is it of biological and evolutionary significance, the gut from mouth to anus is also the prime organ of the deadly sin of gluttony; it is an internal boundary with the outside world that we share symbiotically with a diverse, and for each one of us, unique flora; the gut is recognised as being in close and complex communication with the brain via the vagus nerve, one of the longest in the human body; and we figuratively make decisions using our gut instinct. 

 

Organic form in as yet unfired porcelain: length 590 mm

The project proposal at the moment features metamorphosis as one of its main themes. I work modularly: when thinking critically about something I break the whole into components which can be loosened and rearranged into new configurations. This is the nature of metamorphosis from within, dialysis followed by synthesis: as a caterpillar digests itself within the chrysalis, it keeps structures known as imaginal discs for each body part as proto-building blocks around which the future butterfly will form. In my case, the soup is as the negative capability from which creative thinking is shaped; the imaginal discs, the prior knowledge applied to give shape to abductive notions. Call this intuition if you wish, but this belies the formal structures that underlie what appear to be informal processes. And so my project proposal continues by harvesting, selecting, distilling and assimilating and intoxicating ‘soup’. 

I am still forming, synthesising, juxtaposing and assessing. It is a long slow process that must fail before it can succeed. As in the case of the Creature narrative I am currently working on. More on this in a later post…