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.

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.

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

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. 

 

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.