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.
My Research Statement started clearly but tailed off towards an uncertain ending. I had the thread, subject knowledge and so on but crucially what I was thinking was only of slight relevance to contemporary art. I had been dealing with histories of knowledge and putting together a viewpoint that although very interesting to my mind, it was not pertinent to contemporary art and did not contribute to my practice, neither methodologically nor theoretically: I just found it interesting.
I had written around two-and-a-half thousand words when the recurring feeling of dread that asks, where is all this going, became too strong to ignore. I had barely started to look at contemporary artist that might be relevant to the paper. I looked at some suggestion Gareth had given me. Most were examples that were nothing close to what I was talking about, but you only need one, and one did stand out ticking all the boxes. I found that William Latham has been working in a similar way to me for years. He has developed an evolutionary art with computers, I have done it with sculpture. I looked up some references I was familiar with to do with cell automation, a bit about AI and found these things fitted into the contexts I had thought of previously: the Cambrian explosion and the Early Bronze Age.
I am excited in that the hypothesis I am now proposing brings together art, biology, anthropology/archaeology, the digital environment, virtual worlds, philosophy and the future. The idea is not fully fleshed out yet but it is on its way and would not have been possible had I not started the way I did. The idea came a few days ago as a need to find a way of talking about very different artistic processes in the same terms. I have found that despite all the talk of breaking down barriers, merging and blurring the boundaries, art has become too disparate and dispersed. A fog of taxonomies, political stances, power plays creates in me an inability to talk about things cohesively and clearly without having to ignore the unique characteristics of each practice or making crass generalisations. This is not an attempt to judge or weigh one art form against another. On the contrary, it is a way of critically looking at each practice and identifying what makes it unique without recourse to subjectivity. I know that this is a bold claim and it may unravel as I write the paper but it is an interesting exercise. It is probably just another supporting piece of thinking. Many attempts have been made to do this since structuralist, post-structuralist and subsequent theories. I think Wittgenstein wrote something along these lines but it was based on a philosophical logic form that is not easy to understand.
And finally, it is directly relevant to me by helping to re-contextualise my practice in the contemporary environment. I think it could be one way of universally thinking or rethinking about process, categories, art, anything that involves change, which is virtually everything.
Note to self: writing this down is a way of telling myself to continue writing, researching and composing ideas.
Warning: this post contains very subjective material.
After over six months I still remember one visit and one work in particular. At the Annka Kultys Gallery in the London City Island an exhibition of digital works was showing entitled Re-Figure-Ground. Two things I remember, the video-game-like virtual reality goggle-based immersive 3D videos complete with kinetic controls with which to travel within the virtual world, and a simple 3D animation that did not do much with a spoken audio.
The VR works were interesting enough from the point of view of technology but quite honestly they left me underwhelmed on account of their lack of conveying any point to them other than showcasing the technical work. And to add, the resolution was so poor that it left me wondering whether I needed new glasses. This inconsistency between the vision and the actual vision left me somewhat frustrated. Claudia Hart’s augmented reality was like walking through a myopic fruit machine of social media icons along pointless corridors. The fact that she is examining the body, perception and nature ‘adapt[ing] the forms and software normally used to create 3D shooter games was no compensation for what was clearly meant to be a transformational experience.
The Karst cave by Snow Yunxue Fu’s was, as she says, an attempt to embody the concept of Plato’s cave in a virtual realm. She then continues to say, ‘providing a contemplative environment for the visitor to wonder; walking and teleporting within the control of the wireframed virtual hands that are given to them’. Really, Plato’s cave? That is certainly not what Plato was on about when he described our secondhand manipulated perception of the world. Leave that bit of referencing and you are left with an enjoyable, if somewhat, again myopic trip fantastic.
The rest of the show I found cold but one work did stand out for me, and it was not the most accomplished technically. Morehshin Allahyari’s video installation She Who Sees the Unknown, Aisha Qandisha was a back projected video1 of a 3D animated figure that did not do much other than turn around a bit and sit in some sort of digital sea. On its own it would have graced any number of album covers for some group or other singing about whatever. However, when combined with the narrative it became something else. It transported me to another world of magical realism in some ancient past which is very much present.
The combination of powerful scripted content with a weird large image moving, now menacingly with the audio gave me the sense of a deity being displayed before its awestruck followers. This remains in my mind not only for the content but how something relatively simple in digital terms, can still have impact compared to more sophisticated presentations.
Much of her earlier work does not do much for me. It is overtly political and lacks depth; mimicking the tired old tropes of various movements in previous years. Thankfully, she has developed a more personal voice that has moved her into a rich imaginative space.
Onto a white acrylic sheet (transmits around the require 50% of light for a good back lighting as Jonathan explained to me) suspended from the ceiling and cleanly fitted onto the sheet by means probably of some sort of projection mapping [↩]
Always you were drawn to the composite creatures, the broken and reassembled, for that is what you are.
The first Research Paper tutorial was a sounding out of the initial outline. It was helpful in thinking about the way the narrative might go and how to apportion space to each component. My responses so far are:
There is a dialogue between the literal and metaphorical manifest as the biological and the cultural.
This leads me to think that I am dealing with three different ecosystems: biological, cultural and machine;
embedded in the Cambrian explosion, Early Bronze Age and the age of digital (for now) machines.
We are currently living in the cultural age which is on the threshold of the cultural-machine thinking period.
Useful worker to look at is William Latham.
Comparison between biological systems and machine systems – for now the human element is still the predominant one and machines are used as ‘intelligent’ tools.
The tutorial helped me in re-evaluating what I have done so far and how to place the historical knowledge element as a contextual framework for talking about the contemporary state of things. This will need a great deal of focussing but I think I can condense the historical elements into just a few hundred words.
The paper really touches on the philosophical ontology of current biology-computational art in relation to truly biological systems… in the context of culture.
Useful worker in the field of computer generated life: Eric T. Olson at Sheffield. He looks at the relationship between animals and humans at a philosophical level.
I have returned to Forest Hill from the Camberwell College library with an armful of books and eyes set on the horizon. In the previous post I took a broad, summary view of what I have done so far. One major characteristic of my methodology to date has been my intention to limit new artistic influences. My reasons for this are twofold: it has been an opportunity to re-evaluate my practice and articulate its synthesis whilst keeping things open and in order to do so maintain a clear view of the context and content.
The need to write the Research Paper now, is catalysing a process of finding new sources from within the contemporary artistic field which lie outside my own familiar domain (in all senses). I see this period as a time for drilling into the content of my work and looking at new artistic sources within and external to the paper. The time has come to take off one set of clothes and put on another.
I am not looking for direction, that I have in abundance, but rather for greater depth of means and idea. I have to be mindful not to overcomplicate things but this I can avoid by paring down to the essentials what I elaborate, again selecting, distilling, in this case correspondences with writers and other artists. The cuttings themselves will be useful for some other projects. The books I have taken out today and will borrow in the future I feel will help me in this regard: whether confirming, refuting or synthesising my ideas, any of these processes arising will prove valuable along the way to build on my understanding of things.
Put another way, so far during the first two phases I have been largely self-referential and self originating. I feel now in the position to absorb new influences into a robust framework that is stable enough not to be disrupted towards confusion and sufficiently flexible to adapt to new ideas and contexts.
Janet’s final show is now over. The works de-installed and packed, I now sit in the library at Camberwell looking at books. So many interesting books; it is a good way to introduce the third phase of unite one. The First phase was one of doing and as I did so, of looking around within a familiar space. From this space I moved in and out forming ideas, refuting others, articulating, clarifying and creating generalities out of which specifics could be selected, filtered and distilled.
The second phase has been one of articulating a thesis, closing some windows and passing through the one that is left to find myself in a vast landscape. It has been a time of deciding on a general direction and envisaging some sort of outcome partly manifest in the final show. I currently find myself in the narrow waist of an hourglass. Much time and many ideas have passed through and I now find myself on the threshold of what is to come. I have a clear idea of what that might be but I have yet to focus on particulars.
Being in Camberwell on and off for around three weeks has given me time away from the blog journal and making. I am forgetting and remembering, sloughing the superfluous which nevertheless has informed my journey. I now have a new perspective leading to a third phase.
The third phase is one where, although what I shall be concentrating on is more or less settled in form, the actual details of making, contextual framework, presentation, background are not yet clarified. This is a time where, having identified the domain in which I will be working, I can focus more deeply on every aspect of the work(s), layering deep sediments to form the body of this practice, making connections, meanings, engagements, and expressions, through techniques, symbols and tropes, modalities and affects.
It is a fascinating process because I now have to plan the works whilst keeping the process open. This I need to do because the making side of things can take a very long time. I also have to experiment new methods and techniques in order to incorporate the ideas I am working with. In addition, I have to contextualise those ideas and forms to position them meaningfully in the contemporary environment trying not to lose sight of where they have come from and the future.
What I have written here is a broad sense of what I am to do. What this is specifically, I shall write about later. For now I am still moving bodies in a mental space which are waiting to be reified and exposed. It is all so very open…
Returning home from the Janet’s show installation I had to think about the interim show’s work title. I have never been keen on the process of naming a work despite knowing how important it is; I have seen it as an intrusion of words that closes down meaning. However, having thought at length about the 17th June tutorial with Jonathan I feel quite different about the matter. It is no longer an external slapping on of words but an added layer of meaning, an entry into the work without necessarily fencing its meaning, rather offering a thought that, if the words are chosen carefully, is both suggestive and open. What is more important is that it is the possibility to introduce a rational side to the work, by virtue of the inherent characteristics of words, that helps create a dynamic equilibrium between the rational and emotional.
Here I reference the paradoxical time shifts that I deal with in my practice, being in the present whilst dealing with time frames interchangeably. I feel this title opens up a whole lot of ideas for me regarding the nature of time and life.
History, or at least the study of it, is in bad shape these days. Almost everyone agrees that knowing history is important, but in the United States, except at the most elite schools, the study of history is in freefall.
A very interesting take on the human condition. It touches on some of the things I spoke about with Jonathan in our tutorial.1
Pinkard opens with explaining how history is a process by which, ‘humanity experimentally seek[s] to understand itself in the myriad of ways in which it gives shape to itself in daily life, and also how historical change is intimately linked to changes in our basic self-understanding.’ As he puts it, shape-shifting ourselves across time.
This is at the core of what I do across Big History. Seeing how we are indissolubly part of our origins and yet try to shake off the past, blindly, without realising that it (the past) clings onto us, embedded in our very flesh.
In ‘What is the Difference’, the creatures shift shape as they rise the Babel-like tower, crude to refined, latent to defined, yet they bear a deep relationship woven into the fabric of life.
Hegel’s first fundamental idea for his philosophical history, self-consciousness, corresponds to the microcosm of the act of reflection in action and the meditative holistic sense in making. His second idea corresponds with the notion of context and placement in a social space in which the first person viewpoint implies a dialectic. Further down the line, the I is separated from the individual ‘flesh-and-blood’ agent as it becomes the we in the accumulation of acts. This in itself reminds me of Buber’s philosophy of relations in ‘I and Thou’.
Hegel’s third idea refers to how circumstance largely dictates how things can go better or worse for an individual. We are all the offspring of history and constrained by the socio-familial-political and cultural environment. Although we are constrained by these factors, we also possess a greater or lesser amount of self determination, the ‘I’, that can set the way amongst the ‘we’.
All three ideas are contained within my work and the setting apart of directly human iconography is in some way the setting oneself apart from the ‘we’ whilst being in it. A toing-and-froing of the two forms which converge and diverge as do the Apollonian and Dionysian ways I spoke about in the tutorial.
I constantly seek to reshape ideas as we do our lives, break with habits and reconcile others; shave off the animal in me whilst embracing it as my history and seeing how I cannot be without that part.
The instability of things inherent in Hegel’s view of the world is reflected in the use of brittle, fragile material capable of resisting eons yet its form subject to catastrophic events. Porcelain is, as far as I am concerned, eternal, yet the form it is given is as fragile as the contingencies that surround it allow.
Pinkard talks about new form of life emerging from the cultural rubble of an unbearable former one. So it is with the works I do, they look into a future as though they themselves are the past, with us absent from the scene yet we are here to witness it. This paradox, at the core of what I do, is the source of much of my difficulty in pinning down an essence. So I have reconciled with the evanescence of certainty, accepting the duality of things including my work.
Pinkard continues to talk about hierarchy and the Ancient Greek world’s moving beyond the freedom of a single person in society. This sense of democracy is implicit in what I am doing, all forms are equal and different without any containing an inherent authority over the others. They are all part of a great whole without which each would lose meaning with the loss of others.
This sense of freedom: does it pass onto me, and if I am free, am I independent? To proclaim oneself truly independent is to self-alienate, a social nothingness that negates an important function of the human self. Freedom does not lie in total independence but in the shape of agency that we assume in the context of one another and circumstance. A series of exchanges that at times result in a negative and at others a positive ‘balance sheet’. But in the end, it is the dialogue, the dialectic, that gives the ultimate fruit of synthesis and progression free from brut force, and art is only part of that but an essential component: in shaping tropes we shape ourselves; therein lies the power and danger of art.
For the actual content see the conversation transcript. [↩]
We discussed the ebb and flow between refined and crude thinking and handling during making and how a maquette is a condensation and clarification of this process before embarking on a large-scale project. How two approaches are kept in harmony: of keeping the dynamism of the sketch and the clarity of further finishing. That visibly incorporating both can give a sense of the kinetic essence of the process of making.
We also discussed the sense of something arising out of the material and the struggle involved. That this maelstrom of life, with crowded entities entering and exiting a surface is a metaphor of life and how this can also speak about aspects of humanity. How humans are part of and not separate from nature.
The forms represent individually more or less formal approaches and that this duality is emblematic of how I work, between the emotionally literal and the rational artificial, ritual and representational.
We discussed a variety of ideas for larger scale work: the evolutionary ideas and the mythology that arises from them leads to the whole created using modular units, interchangeable and capable of fitting together in various ways.
We discussed the central notion of seeing life in a non-anthropocentric way and how alluding to humanity in this way can be a powerful way of raising questions about our place.
The various responses to my work raised the question of whether the works are related to the idea of monsters, something we do not quite understand. Monsters are harmful, I do not see my works as monsters but rather as inhabiting a parallel world, asking the question what if we were not here?
This led to a discussion about the Anthropocene and how my work is an expression of my relationship with the world and view of human relationships, particularly the nature of individual vs individual and individual vs group dynamics.
Language is part of this argument and the image of the Tower of Babel, used in a post on my Research Paper was discussed as bearing a variety of conceptual meanings as a metaphor for difference and variety.
We continued to talk about the study as a means of opening out different elements. The sense of the emotional and rational, the Apollonian and the Dionysian and where I might place my work in relation to these paradigms. The balance appears to be constantly shifting between the material and the idea: how the two exchange during the process of making, what the trigger points might be and how they coexist in a final work. I think that this unresolved internal dialogue becomes resolved as a conversation between two works.
The material itself is neutral and whether the rational or irrational predominates is a function of how it is approached. Which predominates is part of the selection process as it is difficult to treat the material of clay with the same philosophies at the same time. It might be possible, but my personal structure prefers to oscillate between the two. The balance between the rational and irrational in a single work could be seen, as being created during the making process by alternating the two approaches. However, as I said earlier, the resolution of the two is expressed as a conversation between works rather than within a single work.
What I appear to be doing is exploring the referencing of ideas through my visual language having created a vocabulary over time. Time during which I have transitioned from working with ideas at a distance to breaking open the carapace of rationality, found in earlier works, to dig deeper beneath the surface to find what lies underneath. And if it is sound, authentic, it might ring a bell in someone else.
At his point we started to talk about how I might lead someone into the work, particularly as the current artist environment is very much centred on the overtly societal and human anthropocentric.
Jonathan sees my work as presenting an ambiguity that encourages investigation. However, a lot of visual culture exemplified by Instagram, with its dangerous description of the world, works against pausing, waiting, taking time. He thinks that sadly, most people will not engage but those that do will be richly rewarded.
I asked Jonathan how explicit does one have to be before becoming didactic (not a good thing) to open out a deeper conversation, how does one signpost possibilities? Is it not our gift to do so and alas a task for the viewer? We agreed this is an impossible question to answer but explored some ways of answering this.
We looked at how the time for ‘demystifying art’ has hopefully passed and how confusion in a gallery is a way of catalysing a conversation in a gallery. We then looked at the importance of titles. Jonathan sees what I do as emotional and the title is the rational companion to it, a balance of the emotional and the rational. This is a very interesting idea and one I have often considered but not quite in this way. A title can be seen, as an entry into the work, a poetic entry. However, there is a caveat: not to overburden the work with a title that closes-down its meaning with the choice of words. Reducing the space for its meaning can damage it as well. Questions such as, ‘What is the Difference’, are good.
This led to the question of Jargon and how it can cover a multitude of misunderstandings and how having simplified my language, I have been able to express complex ideas more clearly. Jonathan suggested that writing about the work, not necessarily explicitly for the reasoned discussed above but as another layer could be an interesting and effective way of rewarding further investigation. I have been thinking of ways to do this. The important thing is not to close the work down with words but rather say, ‘this is my offering to you as to what I was thinking but actually there is a space for you’.
Finally, we looked at how I am planning my work and how there is still plenty of time although my methodology requires careful planning ahead.
I have been very busy of late and my current work is in a state of incompletion, so I am glad to have just completed a video to accompany a small sculptural work for the interim Summer show at Camberwell. Its simplicity has given me the space to think about a deep level aspect of what I am doing. The narrative in the words of the scrolling text are deliberately anachronistic. I worked on the few words in various versions: directed in the you and I form, playing with tenses, making the content more or less personal. Finally I ended in the place where my instincts had led me to start; with the intention to distance myself from the subject whilst bringing it into direct contact with me in the present as I reflect on its future set in the past. Bringing together the deep past, present and future is very much what my research statement is about albeit taking a narrow field of view. It is interesting how this synchronicity occurs from time to time.
Today we went over some other research statements. What constantly comes to mind is the need to avoid jargon as one develops an idea. I used to use jargon a lot and quite honestly, as I have mentioned before, it does nothing but obscure meaning and prevent clarity of exposition and explication. If a complex idea is explained in simple words, it more often than not open out pathways which were previously barred. Jargon and technical language really serve as shorthand and I try to use only one the idea is fully formed or after have introduced a definition in context. Of course it is not always possible to do this but it is a very good discipline to nurture and develop. It has made me more critical and saved me from a lot of bull shit I might have come up with otherwise.
Other things that came to mind during the session are as follows:
Writing started as a mystical act which changed into pragmatic bureaucracy.
Distinguishing between the real and the virtual needs a defined idea of what is real and virtual much as for the difference between the natural and the artificial. It enters the area of discerning what is true and what is false. Truth and falsehood. As far as art is concerned, I cannot deal with absolute truths, reality or any other such paradigms. I can only deal with tropes and morality or values. Tropes are cognitive comparators and morality is culturally relative, unless one accepts certain inalienable and self evident ideas. It all becomes very difficult to argue in the face of contrary views. I have grown to think that authenticity and integrity, at least for me, are the more important conditions for an artist. And out of this arise observations and descriptions created with tropes that bear some relevance to life.
In order to distinguish between two things, to think only in terms of comparison makes things harder without its sister contrast. Similarities tell you something about why it is difficult to distinguish between those given things but it does tell you why one is considering them as different. Contrasting on the other hand tells you why they cannot be the same and perhaps whether they differ by degree or in kind.
When comparing and contrasting two ideas, objects or events, it is as well to consider any new insights or notions that this might lead to.
Regarding a hobby horse of mine: the word ‘issue’ is much used instead of ‘problem’. I remember when all this issue about issue started, it was a way of thinking positively about something harmful rather than negatively and therefore more approachable in terms of a solution. However, I think it has gone too far and serious circumstances have become issues. Issues are really topics for debate and the word does not necessarily demand solution. So I now like to think of problems as something to confront and issues… you can take them or leave them.
Looking for examples before having formed a clear idea of what they are mean to show can sometimes make it hard to find them. I find it is a good idea to look for the large things such as principles and work my way down until I find examples. It is about taking care of the large things and the details will take care of themselves. It is much harder to construct generality from the particular. However, one small caveat to that is when tidying, I always find I need to deal with the small things first in order to clear the decks for arranging the large things.
Finally I need to prepare some files for the ‘Impromptu’ show at Two Girls Gallery by next Monday (17 June) – A3 files.
Over a week ago I was travelling back from Cluj Napoca, sitting at the Chiorean’s dinner table with laptop next to me trying to follow the conversation as it transpassed me online. The framework around which the chat revolved were four sets of assumptions taken from Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
The following assumption can generate highly personal and interested arguments that can contradict, overlap and synthesise. I have put them below to reflect on. Much of what is said is self evident in the light of experience but to those new to artistic practice they may help to clarify the confusion that can come from lack of knowledge and experience, ambition, received notions and the weight of art history. These writings largely confirm what I have come to know over years of hard work, triumphs and disappointments. The essence of these notions, after they are made one’s own, make the act of making, of creating, of art so much more authentic. That is why I say, each to their own, art cannot be canonised but for one’s own eventual authority in what one does.
1 ARTMAKING INVOLVES SKILLS THAT CAN BE LEARNED.
The conventional wisdom here is that while “craft” can be taught, “art” remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so. In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. Clearly, these qualities can be nurtured by others. Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work. It’s true that every few years the authors encounter some beginning photography student whose ﬁrst-semester prints appear as ﬁnely crafted as any Ansel Adams might have made. And it’s true that a natural gift like that (especially coming at the fragile early learning stage) returns priceless encouragement to its maker. But all that has nothing to do with artistic content. Rather, it simply points up the fact that most of us (including Adams himself!) had to work years to perfect our art.
2 ART IS MADE BY ORDINARY PEOPLE.
Creatures having only virtues can hardly be imagined making art. It’s difﬁcult to picture the Virgin Mary painting landscapes. Or Batman throwing pots. The ﬂawless creature wouldn’t need to make art. And so, ironically, the ideal artist is scarcely a theoretical ﬁgure at all. If art is made by ordinary people, then you’d have to allow that the ideal artist would be an ordinary person too, with the whole usual mixed bag of traits that real human beings possess. This is a giant hint about art, because it suggests that our ﬂaws and weaknesses, while often obstacles to our getting work done, are a source of strength as well. Something about making art has to do with overcoming things, giving us a clear opportunity for doing things in ways we have always known we should do them.
3 MAKING ART AND VIEWING ART ARE DIFFERENT AT THEIR CORE.
The sane human being is satisﬁed that the best he / she can do at any given moment is the best he/she can do at any given moment. That belief, if widely embraced, would make this book unnecessary, false, or both. Such sanity is, unfortunately, rare. Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the ﬁnished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers’ concerns are not your concerns (although it’s dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.
For the artist, that truth highlights a familiar and predictable corollary: artmaking can be a rather lonely, thankless affair. Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists spend virtually all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about. It just seems to come with the territory. But for some reason — self-defense, perhaps — artists ﬁnd it tempting to romanticize this lack of response, often by (heroically) picturing themselves peering deeply into the underlying nature of things long before anyone else has eyes to follow.
Romantic, but wrong. The sobering truth is that the disinterest of others hardly ever reﬂects a gulf in vision. In fact there’s generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work. The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difﬁcult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by overpainting the still-wet canvas. The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many of the pieces you make along the way will never stand out as ﬁnished art. The best you can do is make art you care about — and lots of it!
The rest is largely a matter of perseverance. Of course once you’re famous, collectors and academics will circle back in droves to claim credit for spotting evidence of genius in every early piece. But until your ship comes in, the only people who will really care about your work are those who care about you personally. Those close to you know that making the work is essential to your well being. They will always care about your work, if not because it is great, then because it is yours — and this is something to be genuinely thankful for. Yet however much they love you, it still remains as true for them as for the rest of the world: learning to make your work is not their problem.
4 ARTMAKING HAS BEEN AROUND LONGER THAN THE ART ESTABLISHMENT.
Through most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art. In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed. The painters of caves, quite apart from not thinking of themselves as artists, probably never thought of themselves at all. What this suggests, among other things, is that the current view equating art with “self-expression” reveals more a contemporary bias in our thinking than an underlying trait of the medium. Even the separation of art from craft is largely a post- Renaissance concept, and more recent still is the notion that art transcends what you do, and represents what you are. In the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of orthodox religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies. “Artist” has gradually become a form of identity which (as every artist knows) often carries with it as many drawbacks as beneﬁts. Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make ﬂawed art, you are a ﬂawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all! It seems far healthier to sidestep that vicious spiral by accepting many paths to successful artmaking — from reclusive to ﬂamboyant, intuitive to intellectual, folk art to ﬁne art. One of those paths is yours.
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.
I have condensed the initial ideas for the research statement into as plain English as I can. This may help me see what lies ahead more clearly and explain what I am doing. After all, if I were not able to talk about the subject in an accessible way, what would it say about my understanding of it?
The Genesis and Proliferation of Natural and Virtual Monsters
The ways by which things come about in different areas of life often appear to bear little resemblance to one another. But if you look closely enough you can see that they often share processes that, regardless of the what, where and when, give comparable results if not the same: biology and art are no exceptions despite their very great differences. I am looking at correlations between how large animals evolved – the number of body parts, their shape and the way they are put together – and the creation of the mixed up creatures described in art, religious texts, mythologies and other imaginings. There are strong connections between the ways these real and imaginary animals evolved and spread in nature and across cultures. My research statement will explore the similarities between these processes and their conditions helping to understand how the digital world might influence the creation of future composite mythological beings.
Throughout the time humans have been on this planet, the overwhelming majority of imagined creatures have been what could be called intuitive forms. That is to say, they come readily to mind, eating, breathing, moving and living emotional lives, much in the way we do. However, with the arrival of non-living mechanisms such as computers and their programmes the question arises, what forms might such artificial creators bring forth? Virtual or real, these new organisms might not be readily recognised. as such by we humans. They might well be described as non-intuitive creatures, in other words not coming easily to mind, alien.
A very long time ago, over 500 million years in fact, the world was a very different place. The environment was changing radically, opening out new opportunities for early complex life to evolve new forms or body plans. This was the time of the Cambrian explosion when genetics and the oxygenation of Earth were great driving forces that led to the rise of totally new animal body plans and ways of living. Free movement, predation, heads with sensory organs were formed during this time. Moving forward half a billion years, the world was still changing but in different ways. Ice Age glaciers had long receded and gradually people started to live in large cities leaving their old hunter gathered ways of living, embracing the new sophisticated urban centres in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, the Indus basin and the Far East. This changing social environment also brought with it opportunities in which different ideas and beliefs could come together and forge new mythological beings. They grew in number, variety and extension during the Early Bronze Age, promoted by ever greater and finer divisions of labour, growing trade and the invention of writing. These composite creatures like chimaeras and sphinxes breathed, reproduced and lived emotional lives much as we do. These two means of creation share a great deal in fundamental processes despite their very obvious differences.
Today we are on the threshold of another new world, one we share with machines. Machines affect us profoundly and it seems reasonable to predict that their intelligence may also, in the not too distant future, conjure new mythological beings. Present day conditions too can be seen as corresponding to those of the Cambrian and Bronze Age. However, the internal processes of artificial intelligence are rapidly becoming a mystery even to those that create the programmes. If artificial intelligences were to one day create their own mythological beings, what form might they take? One could say that the old familiar creatures are intuitive to our sensibilities but would we even recognise the new non-intuitive artifices as virtual or living organisms? How would we react to them, with fear, revulsion, wonder, understanding or even empathy?
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.
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.
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’.
The Cambrian Explosion
Early Bronze Age Civilisations
Late Medieval Period
C20th and C21st information and communication culture including digital
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I started a small scale study in porcelain – no larger than twenty centimetres in its largest dimension – for H’s playthings in porcelain. What I show here is the first stage, the plasma. It is small so I can quickly assess its outcome before investing more time in how to proceed on a larger scale. The question for now, is whether to move in the direction of a baroque, visceral rendition or a more schematic, symbolic one. I am thinking that the former might be too ‘noisy’ for it to be receptive to a sound element in the work.
I feel that the two approaches are different aspects of what I am looking to express. This makes me think that there is space for both to coexist, a conversation contextualised in the transition from a mass population engaged in an ecology and the symbolic representation of each class type. The former an animated, raw, poietic emergence from inside me, the living expression of thought. The latter a cerebral aesthetic product, distanced, engaging on another level. Can the two ways be reconciled and merged or are they mutually exclusive?
Not all bodies of work need to be homogeneous. I have talked of heterogeneity before, it represents the outer layer of deeper commonalities. Multitudes exist within one idea, am I to be restrained by the aesthetics of conformity? This may be my own prejudice: the need to replicate serially to create distinct bodies of work.
It may be possible to combine the two in synchronous dialogue, resolving a dialectic within a single work. A transition from raw to refined, from animated foam to schematic idolatry. After all, I am looking for a myth and myths are about origins, creation.
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:
flexible and focused
leading to a project proposal and higher research
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
I often talk about origins: the imagination lights the journey into the past and the future stretches out ahead visible by the same light. Each one of us searches for a story of origin. The sense of continuity that we build for ourselves is perhaps a way of constructing a little piece of immortality, connecting us to the eternity that preceded our birth and what is to come. I say this in the plural voice, there is safety in numbers or so they say but it could equally be said in the first person.
Although these stories are raised to the status of myths and have the power to change the very nature of time, they all too often remain buried under accumulating layers of daily life… but such stories continue to bubble deep beneath the crust that surrounds the self.
Let all flowers bloom – as long as the garden is tended 1
Reading Emily Huurdeman’s paper on essaying art has made me think that what I am doing here, with my work and blog journal, is to create a form of essay (something I mentioned in my previous post). The very nature of the journal, an aggregate of personal responses to my artistic context, its heterogeneity and what Theordor Adorno called unmethodological methodology, makes it very much artistic research. The apparent disparateness of modes connects with the early Japanese quasi essayistic form Zuihitsu. Literally meaning ‘follow the brush’, my thoughts and actions have been in response to what has emerged at each stage in a never ending process.
The noun essay derived from its verbal antecedent assay meaning to test. The essay form defies definition as does artistic practice, it is neither scientific eschewing wholly critically derived content nor completely artistic responding to subjective experience. The essay is a form that pushes boundaries, breaking free from established rules, shaping content in a personal way, free from methodical constraints but not uncritical, not without method. This is the very essence of essaying.
The online blog journal can be seen as new Zuihitsu, a digital workspace where ideas are exposed, weighed and published in a variety of forms: sound, photographs, videos, text, digital interactions in all their forms. But this artistic research although fascinating is not an end in itself but as I mentioned earlier a continuous process. It is a means of better understanding, challenging, renewing and extending what I do. It is a way of harvesting new input and refreshing old ideas, of innovating paradigm shifts, developing and consolidating practices.
Since I started this MA, I have ‘followed the brush’, exercising a freedom from the constraints of a single path and given method. The essayistic form has helped render the elusive graspable and turn the opaque into layered transparencies. Fully aware that I have already touched upon such matters I recognise that many discoveries are only made after many passings over the same territory each time with a different eye.
From the book, Artistic Research – Theories, Methods and Practices. Hannula, Suoranta and Vaden. 2005. Paraphrased to correct a slight, forgivable stilted English [↩]
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.
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.
The previous post talked about sound and sculpture in terms of building blocks of non-verbal language. This is a fascinating area of theoretical practice that seems somewhat neglected whether because it is seen as irrelevant or the two areas are separated by a formal academic-professional gap I do not know. Artists have used sound and sculpture together, but as I have said before, one as the container or instrument of the other, not as equals. I do not presume to find a perfect balance between the two but I do approach them as having, at least theoretically, homological correspondences. Using basic units as the building blocks of each respective language, much as phonemes are the basic units of speech, I can perhaps meld the two together. Curiosity as to whether this succeeds is part of the impetus for the exploration.
I still maintain that sculpture is silent and sound disembodied. Sculpture primarily finds its place in my kinetic being, sound vibrates the corpus as an intangible organ sounding within me. Regardless of how they are interpreted they at least have this in common, that they inhabit the body as the closely related physical senses of touch and vibration.
I have been looking at Pure Data as a means of generating sound, the basic components of it, vibration as frequency, pulse and volume. At last I have worked it out by following some videos on YouTube. The actual mechanics are simple, the syntax is straightforward enough. The learning curve seems to reside in understanding what each object does and how it interacts with other components. From this sounds can be generated without reference to outside associations. This seems the way, at least in great part, for crossing the boundaries between sculpture and sound in the purest sense; how sound can be shaped and moulded to correspond with sculpture… and vice versa, or perhaps even shaped synchronously. Sounds generated can then be edited in some other software or generated in situ and manipulated in real time.
I have referred to the central role language plays in my work. This role is not an overt one, I have not used text or words explicitly so far. However, in this blog journal I use words as a glue that binds together ideas in some way trying to make sense of what are at the outset subliminal responses to experience. In the Mid Point review I recently mentioned language as a principle theme in the project proposal as I did in the initial symposium back in October; the time has come to attempt at explaining this.
Why is language important to me? Beyond emotions, physical responses and sensations, in order for me to think about the world around me in ways that build on experience and gain some understanding I need a more complex and flexible way of ordering thoughts. This way comes in the form of verbal language, spoken and then written. A word is an abstract entity that stands for something we encounter in the world. This label is made up of individual sounds or phonemes. Phonemes are recombined to form words, words form phrases and sentences and so on articulating complex thoughts.
This correlates with how I work through sculpture. The basic building blocks, or ‘phonemes’ are shapes. Each shape raises a response in me just as the sonic values of phonemes carry with them an emotional-auditory response. This idea is used in poetry as in alliteration giving a sense beyond the abstract meaning of the words. In Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood’ the poet uses alliteration just for its sonic effects,
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.
However, he also uses metaphor and rhythm to build a vivid sensual picture full of emotional as well as cognitive tension that goes beyond the semantic values of the words. It is a shaping of the world in words.
Sculpture can also work in poetic terms, the semantic-associative value of shapes when combined give rise to thoughts that go beyond the sphere, cone and rod, nose, finger and pear. I use shape as a response to thoughts and ideas; what emerges is not an ekphrastic embodiment but an intention towards a more poetic form. Sound too can be used to build ideas but its very essence conveys a deeply subjective emotional meaning, one that can be used to build emotional narratives that in turn can create associative responses. Words, sounds and shapes act on our senses and thoughts in different ways but they all bear a commonality in that their basic component units can be combined and recombined to create a complex language. Where they differ is in what they communicate and this is why combining, in my case sound and sculpture does present a valid case.
This leads me to ask, should a sculpture be silent and sound disembodied? This purist idea is difficult to refute and has been the ground for a silent debate during modern European history. Perhaps in the end sculpture should remain silent. But then again, I can see that shaped sound could inhabit a sculpture and pulsate within its form, tracing its contours as it pushes against silence, forming a boundary of perception so that the very space around the sculpture is contiguous with it; a symbiotic intertwining of form and sound tracing reciprocal interactions between two modalities that go beyond the semantics of the words involved in explaining the relationship.
The study in porcelain shown above is one form that challenges me to think how sound might correlate with form. Not this particular form, ostensibly it is part of another work, but as I am looking to bring together different works as part of the project proposal it does ring bells in my head. Is scale important? I think that viewing distance may play a part, perhaps sound responding to the placement of the receiver in relation to the form much as the visual is rewarded with different perceptions: long distance – overall structure and its relationship with the environment, intermediate distance – component parts and their interrelationships, close up – surface and texture. This is all of course separate to the associative meanings the form might bear. How can sound be distilled into this sort of relationship, frequency, pulse, detail? Can the same be applied to sound as to solid form, are their analogies or am I dealing with something different in kind? These are all questions I aim to explore…
The group tutorial was led with a light touch by former student Andrew Fairley. This allowed us to navigate one another’s practice openly. My presentation, based on the blog journal, allowed me to summarise what I have done during the course period in the context of my previous work.
Pav asked me what challenge, what question am I posing with my work? This question that can be opened out in many ways. For some, it is a simple case of stating concerns regarding an issue of social or cultural significance, for others it may be a technical or philosophical matter about their practice. However, I feel that it is important to allow the receiver to infer from what I present and do, any questions or challenges that they might see in the work. It is not for me to impose the questions I pose myself onto their contextual standpoint. Of course I have my own questions and challenges, they are in this sense a framework around which my practice is built. However, at the moment of presenting I am more concerned with what the response might be.
Nevertheless, what I do feel important is, to give the receiver some sort of lead as to the provenance of the synthesis embodied in the work in the form of some text or conversation. Enigmatic presentations are all well and good in engendering debate, but they can also risk work being dismissed or, perhaps less importantly, deeply misunderstood. Minimalist works are especially susceptible to this as are conceptual works, particularly in the case of the latter if they are no aesthetically engaging. With more complex works, the obvious tensions and relationships between parts of a given work can furnish plenty of cues for conversation and polemics.
In the past, my work has succeeded in transmitting much of its content and given rise to much else without my having to give much of an explanation. But the nature of the affect is very much dependent on what the receiver brings: this is true conversation, an exchange of ideas, experience and perception. I find that people react very differently, from fascination and delight to repulsion and unease; they may wonder at the making process or pass it by and react to associations and allusions. All these response feedback directions and insights that help inform how I might go about things subsequently. But above all they give me a sense of external context.
I feel that all too often challenges and disruptions can become vehicles for some sort of power play. I feel that responses and reactions to life’s vicissitudes are important, no essential, but I also seek a balance between what is in my nature and how I navigate the social world. I am not about power play, if authentic an artwork should have a power from within to speak out in its own way. And whether this matches some current political issue or not is a matter of chance.
For the mini popup show at Camberwell on Wednesday 20 March 2019: a 30 second video following from the idea of ‘Do Shadows Dance When There Is No Light?‘, or as I would call it now, ‘Do Shadows Dance in the Dark?’ Having received an email from Jonathan notifying of this imminent show, each one being given 30 seconds of time, I set out that very evening to complete this short. To make something that only lasts half a minute within a short short time frame was a very good constraint on my normal practice, something akin to a workshop timetable.
Unconcerned curves hide the sharp pricks that bleed me in your making. Without remorse. Deep from within the surface of your smile again you bear your self determination, one of Gorgon’s tresses fallen with pride glinting as juice that trickles from rotting fruit; dry as husks in autumn scattered in a storm… yet you are the start of something not quite new but close enough. The indecision of the surface skin broken into pieces and made clear in the late Winter sunlight. I see now that things must be all things and I must double my response as you reflect your shadows in a dancing pair. Light does not come from one source alone; I cannot be one but many. My thoughts are not wedded to a single species but a whole kingdom, writhing, wrestling with life and loyalty rests only with the sense that there is nothing that cannot be.
I have thought hard about which way to go in terms of the aesthetics of the project: surfaces, forms, degree of working, colour, details and so on. I mentioned in an earlier post about the tension between unity of style and variety of content. My nature is such that there is no answer but to encompass all ways and let the underlying algorithms of my mind make the connections and trust that these rise to the surface of what people see: the Mid Point Review has been a great affirmer of what I thought.
I now have a clear way forward; to allow crazy variety, if that is what happens, to manifest itself. The works themselves must be all they can be and not constrained by some overall sense of stylistic cohesion: the world manifests itself in wonderous variety. So now I must work and test, experiment, and reach and grasp outcomes that inform what is to come and trust the process I have gone through. There is much to do in the given time so from now on I shall gather what I have made in my mind and build with it the steps to another world grounded in this one. The above is an image of a porcelain piece in progress accompanied by a written impression of how the process of deciding within one piece affects me.
NB: The surface skin refers to the outer aesthetics of the finish.
Yesterday we had the silent crit of everyone’s mid point reviews. It was a long day and I am glad I had prepared my comments and questions, there was a lot going on and seven minutes for commentary after viewing each presentation made it almost mandatory that responses should be prepared.
Below is the studio based discussion as audio and transcript followed by the written Skype comments from online students.
I felt that I gained a great deal in thinking of the work of others and the responses I gave in writing can be found here.
I found the comments thought provoking, affirming, and stimulating; in time I shall respond to them, in the meantime…
Sound file of the studio comments
Edited for clarity endeavouring to maintain content.
These sculptures remind of video games such as [inaudible] group simulations that focus around evolution. I don’t know if they would be any use. There are lots of simulations on line that kind of simulate evolution and a lot of creatures end up looking like that. So, if he is looking going more into digital that might be quite useful.
I really like the ideas that he is exploring the alternative the alternative forms of creation. There is one particular image in there that resonates with me it brings together all of his ideas in a single image that’s got ceramics in a bowl with different combinations of materials that it speaks [of] anthropology, archaeology and science fiction. The fact that they are made out of ceramics has this ambiguity about whether they are from the past or not or whether they are future artefacts, the way they look is quite science fiction. It holds you in this wonder space where you don’t know where these objects exist in time and space and that for me was the most powerful out of all the images.
I’ve got a question which is, is there a way of imagining an ecosystem in which these fictional beings have an interrelationship
Jonathan: what, like in a whole universe, similar to what Ben said [ about] simulations… a whole environment
Ed: Because I mean they have an organic style and if you were to put several of them on a table together, as has been suggested in some of the images we saw where you start to try and work out how they feed off one another or how they co-habit, that could be a useful tool in…research.
I was wonder, suddenly there were two churches in there and then everything went back to the organic, you see that there was a church and then a mosque then it was… we’re back, we’re back to the fluidity of form… like there is an existential angst to his work that is represented in the faces crying out from this [inaudible] thing… maybe I’m misreading
They seem more like sacred artefacts that have been displayed they are very different, they are much more ordered, elegant, symmetrical they were very very different from the other more organic [inaudible]
There was one large sculpture that had the kind of almost Jewish candle, almost, form, ceremonial form
That’s the culture that’s connected to the organic life forms that’s the human culture that’s evolved from the same environment that these other organisms have evolved from that’s the link between the [two] that’s the human culture relative to the…
These might just be the narratives we develop [as] the audience and maybe it should stay on video.
There’s an artist that Alexis might find interesting called Marguerite Humeau, she’s French she’s quite young, she had a room in Tate Britain quite recently and she calls herself the Indian Jones of Google Times. She makes sculptures of animals or things that could have been but hadn’t been so she’s worked with scientists and all that but she displays them very differently to how Alexis shows his work. It is very slick it’s almost like you’re in a designer store but she incorporates sound into her work as well. It might be someone you could look at, Alexis.
It made me think, what about, a lot about the legacy of life forms and what they leave behind […] because ceramics is one of those things they leave behind because it is so durable but maybe the thing that we leave behind is plastic everywhere maybe there is this plastic after that, maybe explore materials and explore and contrasts things like plastics and other materials with ceramics.
There are lots of different… I think the thing is with his work it just touches on so many different areas and you almost want to say, alright, go for the archaeology, go for the anthropology.
[Jonathan reads the second half of Pav’s comment adding] at this time in the course it still quite big and broad
Ed: and speculative and that’s fine.
You can tell the way he’s thinking in quite a dense way, I actually would like it if he went full on maximalist and maybe really immersed in this whole room of objects not necessarily interconnected.
Danni: Like the British Museum
Ed: Like a Hieronymus Bosch triptych or something like that, where you have an overwhelming deluge of material
Will: I think I would go that way because that’s where his head is at with it and embrace the quantity then the role of [inaudible]
Donald: I think, when you look at pictures of his studio, he’s doing that anyway
Will: That’s what I said, it looks like the Chapman Brother’s studio, there is so much stuff in there, l really like that.
Ed: Well, the Chapman Brothers definitely reference Bosch, ‘Hell and Fucking Hell’ are like three-dimensional Heironymus Bosch triptychs there is a conscious appropriation of that.
I was wondering whether [he’d] be interested in trying in a practical process way to explore the edge-lands of his work, particularly in ecology where the sea meets the land and we have this incredible explosion of creativity whether his singular practices he can bring them together and they can almost cross-pollinate each other and what that would turn into
Ed: Hybrid. He is all hybrids, everything he is doing is a hybrid of one thing or another. I guess it does cross-pollinate. The question is how the ideas cross pollinate in curatorial [setting].
How important is that people understand his work because I think I would need to take away his artist’s statement and spend a couple of hours before I could understand all the ideas that he is trying to articulate and does that matter. Do you care if someone just takes your work at a very face value…
Dannii: I don’t know, I think there is a possibility to discover the language into something much clearer and purer with a more simple language that can make it much easier and accessible, just simply using more common words for example
Ed: So you are asking him to be less literary
Dannii: He is using very specific words to articulate himself
Ed: It is very sophisticated
Dannii: He could be a bit more generalist in his language and then I think more people could potentially could [noise] the work.
Ed: But I think presenting it in a gallery setting could be poetry that he indulges in rather than prose in order to actually make sense of…
I have read this text for a very long time because the words, the English is quite hard for me. But I quite like the idea of inversion of methodology and cross-fertilising, it’s quite interesting for me, but I am trying to figure out the meaning, it is the same meaning in Chinese, when I saw his work I just could not find these things in his work, this is my question.
Skype Chat Comments
My favorite piece in your works shown in the video is the one using face as the core element. I can even hear of something from the picture as the opening mouth is so noticeable. I would recommend you to check the Radio Tower at the Tate Modern, maybe you can put a speaker inside the pot then it will works as the ‘voice’ of man?
Video mapping works really well.
Old time room is much better than white cube way of exhibiting.
Alexis I really liked the idea that nature in choas creates new forms of life and so does the artist. It really made me think of evolution in an instant way. Evolution seems always so slow, but in reality the creation of new forms happens all the time, you made that connection for me, which is so simple, but somehow did not occur to me like that before.
I am fascinated by the way you transform your sculptures from being still life to a machine of emission. I’m curious to eventually encounter the ways in which you integrate digital mediums within your more tangible work.
Relationship between drawing and sculpting reminiscent of Henry Moore – organic similarities, connectivity and fluency in form and growth. ‘The digital as an entity that is separate and encroaching on us’ – i am interested in this notion relating back to conversation we had during low residency – is this something which you could push or consider in terms of how that relates to your feelings about evolution and states of nature – what is ‘natural’? It is something that has a label of belonging to a category and a construct – do we percieve the encroaching digital as a shadow that follows us and belonging to its own dimension in some manner? Is technology threatening? If so why – isnt it that if anything we are our own threat – we gave constructed and clung to a fixed idea of what constitutes ‘wilderness’ or the ‘default’ – I wonder whether intentionally provoking those concerns and shaping a voice for them might be constructive
Brilliantly written as always. It leaves me with a feeling of awe and admiration. It takes me somewhere whery primal and very deep at the same time. Eerie and drawing at the same time. Very dense in theoretical information, maybe a bit too much. I would like to see more physical examples of work currently in progress and any struggles relating to that.
You have developed a sound reportage on your intellectual enquiry into the Universe. Your practice and research have resulted in the production of quirky and diverse work, which is based on a broad theoretical framework. Your video has strong documentary qualities and provides an erudite and detailed record of your approach in a clean and highly aesthetic manner.
However, I felt that the contextual element was underplayed. There was a sense of confusion regarding your research question and the overall focus. Your creative intentions remain ambiguous and undefined. Is it possible to produce work about the dynamics and complexities of our holistic existence?
Can your project be about “everything”
Alexis – Ethereal and Primordial and appearing almost religious and evolutionary bringing lots of ideas and philosophies together. Seemingly precious objects appear as though they are from a past time.
and i think you can even use some echo in your sound work as mythology is included in your contextual research so i guess using echo might be able to imitate the ancient voice. i hope this advice would be useful
Alex’s work reminds me of a documentary of nhk. It talked about life was developed by accident cross accidents which is just like a miracle. And most life was came from ocean and I feel like through your work I can imagine how they develop…
The idea of fragility and permanence and your interest in an evolving society stand out to me. Though I found the overall video quite confusing as there was so much in it! Lots of great ideas in there… Maybe it need honing down a bit moving forward?
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.
Having completed my Mid Point Review video, I sat back and thought about it, what does it communicate, how would it be seen by my peers? The video touches on some of my current research and development, nothing concrete as yet, no final work(s) to show or indicate their latent presence. Ideas and thoughts strung together, loosely milling in my brain taking up positions, making connections, only to be shaken up again.
I was struck by the coherency of the other presentations, how singular and linear, how focused on a single target. In Michelle’s video, she talks about the small history, not found in books, encapsulated in conversations and daily actions. This made me think that I deal with large history, quite a different proposition. But at a point the two must meet. Where does the individual become society and vice versa? This is something I think about a lot; the tension between the small and the large. I would be interested in following this line of thinking further in my work.
Held in all that is said and done lie two things, meaning and significance. These are words often used synonymously. Both convey information but in subtly, or perhaps not, different ways. They can convey roughly the same information with very different implications. Meaning is about the information contained within something and how it is represented, it is symbolic. What is the meaning of, ‘a thirst for knowledge’? The desire to know more about things. Significance on the other hand is more about the relevance or importance of the contained meaning, its impact or consequences: your thirst for knowledge in this research is significant to what you might find.
Both ideas work with information but in different ways, symbolic versus causal. What I am saying here is that my work deals with both the symbolism, the semantics of something and its consequence. Another example arises out of the question, what is the meaning of your work, what is it about? I have plenty of answers to this but are they significant, will they affect the person or just switch them off. This ties in with the conversation had with Pav during the group presentations on the second day of the Residency. I have to be interested in the meaning, it is one of the things that sustains my interest in what I do. However, it is more relevant to be talking about the significance of the work: how does it affect the receiver. And for this, a conversation needs to open and remain open. I cannot tell what the significance of a work will be. I can work with significant matter, but how it affects someone else, that needs to be part of an exchange.
This brings back to mind Anderson’s idea of art, ‘culturally significance meaning, skilfully encoded in a sensuous, affecting medium’. It is ‘significant’ that he deliberately uses the two words in his anthropological summation. The meaning is encoded through a medium that both affects and is perceived phenomenologically, not just semantically. The skill lies in how effective the artist is in doing this. The point then becomes, how significant is the meaning and all that is done with it, to others?
I have some ideas as with Hermaphroditus and Logos.
The Mid Point Review is a moment for revision and evaluation of what I have done so far and give some sort of indication as to where I am going. I do not intend for the MPR to be a literal description of how I work but rather a summation of my philosophical approach and how it has developed during this period. I see it more as a document of inspiration, an indication of where I am heading. Five minutes would not be enough to unpack the lineage of the activities, their provenance, let alone the detailed methods, materials and so on, these reside in the blog itself and elsewhere.
A transcript of the video is included below and can also be found here
I started this course asking myself, how I might bring together the disparate areas of my practice.
Previously I had dealt with this concern by accepting the variety and differences between outcomes while focusing on core ideas which I expressed and connected but not necessarily in overt ways.
Since October, I have engaged in a period of research and reflection; evolving and synthesising, deepening roots through a series of sequential stages as well as more intuitive, simultaneous orchestrations of video, photography, drawing, sound, sculpture, illustration and text.
The different means of expression and transformation I employ, affect facets of my practice in different ways addressing interests that lie in the domains of natural and human activity, science and the humanities, domains which are normally separated but which are nonetheless deeply connected.
The blog itself plays a critical role in the elaboration and synthesis of ideas and solutions as well as serving as a document for retrospection.
Each path I take articulates a different way of seeing. I embrace this multiplicity as I do the complexity of human society which in turn I see as a reflection of the natural world.
David Wengrow furnishes an insight into how composite cultural ideas and forms arise from the plurality of evolved societies. As a society becomes increasingly complex, with a multiplicity of world views, religions, writing, trade and so on, the idea of composites such as imaginary creatures and complex works of art proliferates.
An analogy can be made between this cultural phenomenon and nature’s way of ‘experimenting’ with body plans and life strategies in new and changing environments, as it did during the Cambrian explosion about 5 00 million years ago.
Navigating this ecology of ideas where relationships are often assimilated, sublated and hidden behind a chaotic order, I look for correlations between natural and cultural processes and how new rules of engagement emerge and overlay preceding ones.
This emergence happens when thresholds of complexity are crossed. Thresholds such as the origin of life, the emergence of consciousness and now the digital symbiosis that appears to be encroaching on us.
I am particularly interested in the poetic possibilities of cross-fertilising modalities such as the relationship between sound and sculpture and how meaning and nuance in language can be variously disrupted and manipulated.
These are not only responses to and a way of reconciling with what Ted Hughes called ‘the horror of creation’ but also a rejoicing in the wonder of life and existence underwritten by the question, why is there anything at all?
I see an evolutionary universe in which being becomes becoming, impermanence discloses change, and the desire for permanence and stability becomes a quest for understanding the nature of continuity and time.
For now, I envisage the final show as a compendium in which interrelated themes from different domains are expressed as on the connected faces of a solid, looking outwards, yet out of one another’s sight. A whole in which the existence of a continuity of relationships is inferred from a unity of form.
These outcomes are not set but may include: sound and sculpture installations, a series of videos and a graphic book… maybe even a performance.
The idea of inversion of methodology is one example of how I am currently approaching work. Where previously I embedded sound in sculpture from whence it subsequently emanated, now I am looking at ways of collecting externally sourced sounds within a body where they can resonate and sublate into a transformed essence.
The low residency period has been a transformative time for recontextualised reflection away from daily life. It has brought challenges that have facilitated a clarification of questions posed by the many directions which any one work might take.
It has sharpened my awareness of the need to wield clarity and control with as light a touch as is within my grasp, and that context and experience should ebb and flow through the permeability of the self; filtered and selected to allow the beating core of what I do to sound its own rhythm, be the principle impetus. In all this, my relationship with the external world can be taken as a given, I am immersed in it, self evidently unseparated from it.
I look forward to the next fifteen months, always transforming, always evolving, continually finding the vulnerable protean soft body inside an ordered and constrained carapace.
An introductory collaboration where we formed small working groups to work on a one day project. The starting theme emerged out of a poetic exposition of the art of seeing by Jonathan where an ideal society was likened to the growth of a tree: what if society were to grow like a tree.
A tree displays its leaves so that each one can receive as much light as possible and the living mass above ground is balanced with an equal amount of biomass unseen, below ground. The leaf metaphor proposes an vision for human society where every individual is naturally furnished with equal nourishment and opportunities. I felt that the underlying theme aimed at seeing the groups as analogues for a wider society and the project each one embarked on was its development, growth and flourishing.
We were given materials, artificial detritus, paper, plastic, leaves and threads amongst other things which could be inserted and composed in thirty-five millimeter slide frames and finally slide projectors.
We sat down and devised an initial plan to give us a framework to enable us to work together productively, creatively and enjoyably. At first we worked as individuals exchanging ideas but each one following their own initiatives, each slide being viewed with the projector and placed to one side. The variety of images was interesting and the whole process gave me ideas about how to create abstract images as a divertisment from my normal practice.
Having collected a large number of slides, a group self organised to create a slide show of the images on Apple imovie. They were captured by photographing the projections, scanning and photographing the slide in natural light with the outside environment as a backdrop. The confluence of approaches was collated on the computer selecting and composing a sequence that would be used for a final presentation.
While this was being done, I and Kelda created a shadow puppet show improvising characters and scenes with the materials available. The show was captured as a video by phone. The arrangement was awkward to film and the result had a perspective slant which had to be incorporated in the overall movie. A soundtrack was also created from the video sound and we also improvised sounds in a cupboard room to overlay on the movie video.
The exercise was not so much about the finished project, not even the making process but rather the process of working together and how very different personalities could come together to form something that holds more than its content. Seldom if ever do I have to cooperate as an artist with someone else and this was a refreshing experience that allowed me to slough off the burden of personal responsibility. Under time pressure, often a stimulus to productive innovation, I was able do things that I can work on in the future. Perhaps not for the MA, but shadow puppets would make a wonderful hobby allied to my main.
Obviously the final movie was incomplete, disjointed and at points incoherent but that does not matter. The overall did have a sense of narrative and humour evidenced by the laughter it elicited during its screening. The four groups produced very different final results perhaps showing that societies cannot all be the same and neither could they.
The focus of the session was on different approaches to sound as a medium. What Ed means by this is the abstract conceptual manner of seeing sound.
He started with Walter Murch’s categorisation of sound, relating it to colour.
I always find it interesting how sound, music and colour are often correlated. Kodaly is another example of this idea as in his pedagogical work. I would leave the colour aspect out of this discussion and concentrate simply on the semiotic aspect which seems what this diagram tries to convey. There are so many ways of classifying sounds. I have to bear in mind that Murch is a film sound editor. However, the point is to think about sound in terms of its affect and the information it encodes: emotive, descriptive, semantic, associative, allusive, illusive and how these modes are conveyed. Fore example, are they conveyed through rhythm or pitch, distinctive or chaotic? There are so many ways of looking at the matter but in the end I feel the important thing is thinking about sound in terms of its affect, the reason for that affect, how the sound is made, and the context in which or for which it is created.
We looked at musique concrete, starting with Pierre Schaeffer and his first work Etude aux Chemins de Fer1948, who attempted to categorise sound in his Traité des Objects Musicaux. Michel Chion wrote a guide in English PDF where he lists sounds and their qualities as experienced.
Musique concrete treats sound as abstract objects each with its own qualities. Particularly intriguing was Bernard Parmegiani’s De Natura Sonorum from 1973 composed using the altered sounds of rubber bands using analogue tape, filters, real echo chambers, delays and altering the tape speed.
Diagetic sound is almost the opposite of this. It is associated with a visual cue as though the situation portrayed is the source of the sound. Musique concrete decouples the corporeality of the sound for it to become the corpus of sensation itself. In a conceptual sense, it has no source other than its own sound. The way it is made may be a curiosity or of methodological interest but in its truest essence only a vehicle. It is as an Acousmatic experience in which the cause and origins of the sound are removed so one can concentrate on its sensations and qualities.
Ed introduced the idea of copyright as a ‘spanner in the work’ and then goes on to give some examples of postmodernist sound collages where recording are appropriated to create mixes. Whereas in the case of John Cage’s 1953 mix, in which each situational element is recorded in his own house over a period of time, here we are talking about taking pre-existing recording and butting them either as live performance or recordings. The copyright situation is complex here depending on duration of play, recognisability of the segments taken and in the case of live performance, proof of actual appropriation. Perhaps that is why one of the people doing this uses discs. Ed describes each discrete segment as the ‘cultural grain’ of the whole rather than musique concrete’s sonic texture. It is interesting to look at it in those terms.
The component parts are completed before firing and assembled as evidence of work; each labelled in the mind for an ostensible function that has yet to be thought of. The real underlying reason for its making though, is separate from its illusory presence and is still a secret unfolding: the maquette becoming its own self and not the reason of another.
The guts, its interior are not yet formed, an embryo setting down the matrix from whence its inner working will emerge and the cry of life which is not yet rung. The pieces lie as repertory for a future as though laid in a museum.
My thoughts on it have turned and given rise to other musings.
Such as the idea of consumption and production of cultural objects and how the origination of material from scratch is being affected by the current environment that facilitates and enhances appropriation of material from other authors on a wide scale. I feel that this has had an effect on the idea of transformation in art works, particularly from the physical material to the idea and message.
The colonisation of the imagination by new technology and those that use it is another related issue. Michelle brought up the question of independence of artistic process in this regard and its corollary uniqueness in the context of commercial imperatives in the media. I feel rather pessimistic about this, it requires a great awareness and resolve to make an affirmative choice not to be swayed by the pressures around us including social media and advertising.
The tensions between strategy and tactics and those that employ them is an extensive subject area brought up in the discussion. The image below illustrates this tension: between the tactics of individuals in response to corporate/civic strategy in the context of urban living.
As Jonathan aptly put it…
the strategy of the city planners was the path went round the grass circle — the tactics of us the people was to say no and walk our own way – yes straight over
Amongst other things said, Pav mentioned rightly that qualities of tactics include creativity, critical analysis and intelligent problem solving.
Jonathan also added tentatively, individuality and community as in subcultures gathering around shared tactics. What Manovich points out is that subcultures have in recent decades become commoditised and commercialised so that their rebellious, subversive nature is subsumed into a larger field of social acceptance and monetisation. Perhaps one reason why subcultures change rapidly and new ones emerge as another example of tactics in navigating a controlled environment.
Tactics are decentralised, impermanent and unmappable (De Certeau), they are also adaptable and modular. Jonathan points out that unmappability is due to the sheer numbers of people creating their own individual tactics. However, Manovich suggests that Web 2.0 has made many tactics mappable (traceable), permanent and visible. Control has been handed over to the users but could this be an illusion? Are tactics shaped by the controls of the technology, is this part of a grand design, a spontaneous set of behaviours arising out of a chaotic and competitive field, or is it a question of individual freedom being manipulted? One way of looking at this problem is find out who owns the code, the data and who controls the data. I fear that the answer may not be that optimistic. It is an evolutionary process, inexorable and pitiless. How could this process be described?
When our attention turned to AMVs, Manovich’s example of user generated content, the discussion quickly turned to the aesthetics and merits of such videos and the process of making. However, the point was about the videos being the makers’ tactics. The question posed, are they subverting the original narratives of the anime films and the music or are they being colonised by the tools used? Does the tech and the appropriation of material shape the feel and look of the film too much? I think that seeing these are videos made by fans showing off their technical savvy and skill, they are meant to have a close correspondence with the original source material. However, I also feel that for the majority, the learning process is too tied to the style which might well embed itself in the aesthetic space of the makers stifling their individuality: one is pretty much the same as another. But could this not be said of any school of artistic practice?
One thing, it may limit the imaginative and creative possibilities in the future for those that learn through this pathway but it is empowering. As with many things there are pros and cons which cannot be considered dogmatically. The empowerment is a way of rewarding those that allow themselves to be controlled at a deeper level. Then again, the AMV maker of today might subvert the genre and go on to create something complete new and different, the one in ten thousand.
The overall sense of the discussion intersects with my own interests in the dynamics between the individual and the collective, group, corporation, state and the tools by which control and manipulation are exercised. And within this, the place of the artist and their role in a world where the making and consumption of art has become a mass commodity. Is new technology making a new space for artistic practice or is it controlling it?
Life is one continual tactical process with the occasional strategic goal emerging out of vision, dreams, idealism, experience, fear, and hope. As the title of the conversation points out, everyday life is something that one practises and it needs practice to constantly become more adept in dealing with what life throws at us and to adapt. Questions were raised about what I do in a positive sense. Both as an affirmation of what I do and also a way of reaching out. It makes me think that being an individual artist is a precious thing in the light of the corporate/collective storm in which we stand. Technology is a great enabler but I do not take it as an end in itself. To do so would be for me to abandon the origin of things and lose my way in a system that is dispassionate and sterile. It would be like dreaming of living in the jungle and at that moment being dropped into that world where survival becomes the only thing to do.
For me, the act of making and thinking during and after that act is everything in the moment. The message arises only after. The message is not something I wish to control or should I. That is why responding to open calls is something that I have to consider very carefully. My making is a expression of my relationship, communion with the world, not an explication of it; it is a net and a funnel, a bottleneck, an hour glass; both rational and irrational, a distillate and a generality, an acquisition and a gift, latent and active. If it transmits something, then that is its message, swaddled in its own making.
Today we had a talk by Xavier Sole Mora. It was interesting to see how Xavier reaches his audiences making use of his advertising background to attract people to what he does. He also generously showed and explained his proposal brief for the Aspen Commission. This showed his approach to the competed for commission. This video of his talk that includes the Japanese footage has been blocked by Nippon Television Network Corporation for copyright reasons. I have commented on this below.
There are a number of things that I took away from the session in terms of the artist’s position when it comes to placing work ‘out there’. These are all very worldly things and perhaps only have importance when facing a critical audience or placing in the commercial sphere.
Precedence and originality
Make sure you research what you do in terms of precedence to establish originality of idea or;
show how your work extends preceding practices.
Publish what you do constantly in some form to establish precedence in case you need to show that your work is original.
Commissions and who owns the work
Establish in a contract who owns copyright. If this is pre-set as is the case in many competitive commission call outs, try to negotiate some kind of access and use of the work after handing it over on completion. Many companies commission work for tax reasons, as branding and or because they are a requirement of funding or planning permissions. Clarify who owns the work if the commissioning body is incorporated into another, bought out or closes down. Otherwise the work could well languish in obscurity, archived or even ‘skipped’.
If such an agreement can be settled on, secondary rights could also be clarified which can have financial implications in the case of sale of work or organisation (see below).
Copyright, attribution and appropriation
If work, whether images, audio or any other form of intellectual property is appropriated, copyright issues might ensue, particularly in a commercial context.
This is a complicated part of the law and can differ from country to country which makes it particularly complex in terms of digital work which easily crosses jurisdictional boundaries in all kinds of ways. For example, if a digital work passes through a particular server, the jurisdiction in which that server resides could well apply. Since much of the world’s digital traffic passes through the USA in one way or another, it is likely that a digital work will fall under US jurisdiction. Proof either way can be complicated and expensive.
There is no problem if all work is sourced and or generated by the artist although there are obscure terms which can define copyright owned by software companies although this has not been tested in court to my knowledge.
The aesthetics of digital mediums is very much governed by fashion and fast changing paradigms of taste, appreciation and acceptance and is also subject to what is possible at that time and subject to rapid change: digital work is very prone to look out of date. For this reason the content and message of the work has to be considered, whether it stands in its own right. It is all too easy for digital work to land in the area of entertainment. It is often hard to separate aesthetic and functional experimentation from art in the early pioneering stages of a technology. It is also difficult to know how such work will be seen in the future, work which will also be subject to technological changes.
Such technological changes will affect how current work is presented in the future and in many cases access may be seriously compromised due to the obsolescence and or disappearance of working hardware, software, technicians capable of renovating and or using them and importantly, money to finance the necessary processes. Some formats are more future proof than others such as PDFs which were designed to continue well into the future due to their coding simplicity and universal adaptability of the information contained.
Need for working in teams
It is clear that work is not always feasible for one artist alone. Film, public art, architecture are such examples. Often large teams are required to process the large quantities of material and large scale process. However, when an artist is compelled to project manage, fund raise, lobby and recruit they are taken away from the primal work of making.
Large scale projects have a significant impact on an artist’s practice and life. However, by involving large numbers of people in a project the work can reach much further in a shorter period of time than working alone. Leading a team, delegating and project managing can be a very powerful way of reaching audiences and influencing people. However, the direct contact for the artist with their material can be somewhat compromised and involving many people brings in relational politics which can become overwhelming. In addition the financial requirements for large scale works usually necessitates the involvement of a wealthy third party, whether a gallery, government, individual or organisation, to support the realisation of the project. Such involvement almost invariably places pressure on the artist to conform to external needs which may not be part of or contradictory to their own philosophy.
Some people are well suited to work this way, others are not. It is very much a case of navigating a way through the vicissitudes of working as an artist, and perhaps not being swayed by the powerful propaganda that resonates in the ether of the art world, often obscuring a different reality for the artist.
All the content is from a single take performance with light in the studio involving a Graven Image. The sound I generated in a variety of ways and the music is my remastering of a 89 year old 78 rpm recording.
What I take from today’s session is that, seeing an artwork in terms of its behaviour helps to consider its impact in terms of interaction. Its behaviour engenders a response in the receiver which sets up a dialogue. This dialogue can then engender a response in the artist which can inform future work. If the artist considers this relationship when thinking of their practice it can lead to a broadening of possibilities and deepening of significance.
It is part of process philosophy, of the idea of becoming, of dynamic semiotics.
Questions to ask:
how does the receiver interact with the work
what is the nature that interaction
what meaning is conveyed in interaction
how does it resonate in the after experience
how does what arises affect future work
is the level of interaction excessive, insufficient or about right for meaningfulness
is the level interaction appropriate for the aims set out or could it be improved
The overall chat centred around how control can be nuanced in methodology in the possible interactions between artist, artwork and receiver-participant and how the degree and means of immersion and ways of achieving this can be an important element when considering work/audience interaction. It also highlights the need to consider the boundary between message and means, idea and technology in the digital world. The use of technology itself can affect the degree of control the artist can exercise over aesthetic and idea. Again I feel what arises is that technology is best considered as a tool and not to allow it to take over the artistic practice and agency. Technology becomes more important in cases where what is being considered could not be achieved otherwise or where the technology itself becomes the subject matter of the work.
We looked at some principles regarding interaction in art. Interaction is generally about reciprocal action or influence. Other words can be used in relation to art such as: relationship, dialogue, communication, exchange, action and reaction and so on. Jonathan quoted a colleague of his following from another quote by Duchamp. The former states that a work of art does not exist until two strangers have talked together about it. This was in the context of a course on public art. Stating that whether something is a work of art or not depends on strangers talking about it seems to be to ignore several things.
First it does not address the question of an internal dialogue whether in the artist or a receiver. I can only conceive of what this person says being true if the sole purpose of the work was to create a situation in which two strangers will talk. This I would view as a very narrow definition without an initial premise.
Second, existence is a difficult word to use in this context. Does exist mean the concept, idea, material, location? The thing itself clearly must exist before anyone can observe it. The intention of the artist has formed it to be the way it is for a purpose. Does what the artist do count for nothing until two stranger talk about it? Between the moment the work has been created (and installed) and two persons talking about it there must therefore be a period of limbo. The thing in question only become art when talked about, I think they might have had in mind schrödinger’s cat and applied it to art.
Third, does this mean that anything can become art when two strangers talk about it as such? This is perhaps the one element that bears further scrutiny. In this case, is the conversation the work of art or the thing spoken about. Which makes me think in the case of art, is the conversation the artwork or the subject of that conversation.
Does the thing become art only when spoken about making a conceptual transformation in the process? And if so, what was the state of that thing prior to conversation. Was it an inert object or did it contain latent artiness?
This idea is very much a child of Dewey’s embedded in his book Art as Experience. This democratisation of art is a laudable thing but it does so often bypassing the role of the artist. A work exists before it is made public, it contains latent potential, this potential undergoes a fission reaction on exposure which can take the form of a conversation between two strangers.
I would propose that art does exist before two strangers talk about it, so long as the artist made it. It is perhaps the meaning that moves from an internal conversation within the artist, in latency, to actuality. It may be new meaning that is created in conversation, a meaning that may or may not concur with that of the artist. Art was there before the conversation about it just as stones fell to the ground before Newton’s laws of motion. An artwork is a gift to the world yet to be opened.
The discussion then moved onto behaviours of work, mediums and material in relation to technology: ‘not to focus on the tech and the cleverness but on the things we can learn from the behaviours of the work’ (Jonathan).
A dichotomy appeared between constantly changing work in which the behaviours are constantly changing and work which is finished and completed. Computational, generative art is an example of the former. This category is constantly changing in how it presents but at this time, is it actually changing behaviour? I ask this question because the underlying algorithms at work remain the same. The behaviour is the same, what we see as changing is the chaotic entanglement of simple rules that give the appearance of constantly changing behaviours. In computational art, a truly changing behaviour would have to involve the algorithms themselves changing over time, a form of self learning.
There are no simple answers to any of the above questions or arguments arising. To my mind it is more a matter of differing stances, points of view and starting premises. However, one things I feel is true. That seeing art in terms of behaviours is a powerful way of receiving and perceiving more from what one does and works with: it can help extend the parameters of ones own practice. Johnathan said, ‘I think it [seeing work as behaviours] allows our own work to speak to us and therefore allows others into the conversation maybe?
We then moved on to ways of describing how work engages with the digital environment via five themes, the first two of which were covered in this session: control, immersion, interface, narrative, and play.
Jonathan chose examples of relatively early digital works as a control against being distracted by the technology and focussing on the behaviours demonstrated.
The first was by Myron Kreuger entitled Cat’s Cradle: link – https://youtu.be/5sGeEnGos0Y. The impression I get from the video is that this was an exercise in demonstrating what could be done at the time (1970s) using the contemporary technology. The subject matter is actually quite banal but the title not only is a literal description of the play with the loop, it also reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel of the same title – link– which deals with the implications of technology. The book starts with the narrator Jonah describing how his research leads to this fictitious scientist collaborator in the H-bomb , Hoenniker, who played cat’s cradle as the munition is dropped on the Hiroshima.
The two collaborators on the video project each create one of the human elements each while the loop independently moves and contorts. It makes me wonder how much control the performers had in the process. It is interesting from my point of view how the artists interact with an inanimate element which is itself showing apparently independent behaviour.
Questions arising can be applied to any situation and are well worth asking if nothing else to help understand the nature of the artist/participant/audience relationship.
As Jonathan poses:
how much control does artist give?
how tightly coupled is the relationship between participants and participant/artist?
how much control can the artist give? (there is a skill issue here?)
is the work crash proof?
who is the controller? someone who learns how to use it?
vimeo.com/276859221 (add https:// to the URL. Vimeo places a large notice otherwise) is an interesting installation where the audience does not participate in the outcome but observes the fish affecting the motion of the globes and their proximity to one another as a reflection of the Siamese fish’s reaction to one another. This is a form of behaviour in which the outcome is set in motion at the outset by design but the actual detail of how the behaviour presents is left to the autonomous process. The artist claims inter-species communication but Jonathan question whether the fish have actual agency. The apparent agency is a teleological argument about an emergent property. Where does the boundary between intention and contingency lie? That is perhaps a question that can only be answered a priori. Any afterthought places the intention causally out of sequence. But then, that is how many discoveries come about, heuristically. To answer the question of agency one would have to run a control. As far as the artist is concerned with respect to control, I feel that he has relinquished no intentionality and none has passed on to the fish, only incidental control, no different to an inanimate system.
Immersion dealt with the interaction with virtual reality where the receiver affected how their behaviour affected what they saw and experienced. Interesting and technically proficient. However, I have a problem with the boundary between entertainment and idea in the examples shown where the idea is almost arbitrary. The methodology in both cases shown, however, does show potential in how idea and sensation can be combined. This is very much a demonstration of technology and entertainment, particularly in the case of the second example The sensation here almost overwhelms the meaning. But the idea does hold potential for combining sensation with idea. An artist’s quote actually states that the work Osmose is about method, technology and sensation, psychology in short, rather than a more external idea. It is about he medium itself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaVpDG4JvHE
vimeo.com/8120954 The Roekby video is an early interaction between sound and movement reminiscent of the Theremin. However, although it is an early development, the sounds are pre-recorded and prepared. The movements of the body only activate the sound samples rather than directly control them.
The second example, vimeo.com/27818895, Vermilion Lake is far more akin to gaming.
The third example, Interactive Plant Growing, is far less clear in its artistic intention other than showing how technology can be used to convert objects into a devices for controlling the computer behaviour. It is enchanting though. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXX7JNFD2X8
We all notice the little things, even the mouse hidden under the scaffolding for Anne Boleyn’s execution has a story. The bruise on my thumb also has a story, drawing the eye to its notice. Of what relevance is this to the main narrative? Who can say, but it is part of the world and to someone as, if not more important; perhaps someone who has just done the same thing.
Was there a mouse under the scaffold? Who knows, but I am certain of the events that led to the bruise, can you be? The further one’s mind goes into the past, the more uncertain the truth of events. With the passing of time, accuracy of narrative diminishes and the latitude for the imagination increases. What happens in the past is always an imagining in the present; a speculation based on facts gleaned in the present. The past is a story of broken pieces tenuously joined in rapidly fading light.
Likewise, the present is connected in space and so often certainty in concurrent events are subject to distance. Communication technologies attempt to alter this trend but the veracity of remote news is subject to a large variety of factors. Generally speaking. distance increases the sense of uncertainty regarding an event, in its causality and sequence. This is something that affects us in the everyday. Space, distance and time are great arbiters of fear and hope. Am I talking here about control, or the illusion of control?
The future is also subject to a similar relationship only that there are no pieces to put together, only inferences which are subject to contingency and based on probability. It becomes a matter of approximating as best one can the chances of an imagined or inferred narrative coming about. There is also no past narrative presented for verification, only precedence. Does history repeat itself? 1
I am interested both in the deep past and the future, areas of thought that stimulate the imagination; prehistory, ancient history, science fiction deal with these areas. The closer one comes to the present moment the greater the burden of responsibility for its consequence. An understanding and critical view of history and honest informed political planning are perhaps the two greatest factors in determining how the world develops from now. These are the two things hardest to influence, because they are subject to strong emotions, biases and misunderstanding which affect events today and in the future.
This is an idea I have touched on in previous posts. [↩]
I wrote the following as part of the previous post on writing. When revising what I had written it seemed a bit of a non-sequitur. It was more about creating a context for linking writing about science with writing about art. The ideas I touch on here need expanding but I think it serves as a note-to-self for the future.
The scientist has to assume, indeed believe in the uniformity of the universe, otherwise no finding would have applicable value elsewhere, everything would be relative. What this means is that the laws of physics apply equally wherever you are located in the universe, there is no place where the laws might be different or behave in some other way. This is not to be confused with the theory of relativity and its stated relationship between mass, energy, time and space which is always the same, with the speculative exception of black holes or the very beginning of the universe when the ‘Big Bang’ occurred. If the universe were not uniform regarding to the laws of physics, there would be no possibility of confirming scientific theories or indeed refuting them, for there would be no basis for predicting outcomes according to a hypothesis, phenomena would be subject to local laws only. This assumption is one of the basic principles of the scientific method and experimental philosophy and so far has not been refuted.
The religious person must also believe in uniformity regarding god or gods, otherwise there could not be an ultimate authority for morality and therefore behaviour could not be regulated. Religions rely on a uniformity of consequence, justice, compassion, love, etc. as a central tenet to their universality. Correspondences and conflicts between religions come down to what they have in common as well as how they differ in their universal applicability as much as ritual practices, credos and the like. Likewise, an artist has to trust that there are universals that when applied, bring thought and people together rather than divide them. These universal ideas or the search for them create the possibility for a coherent vision on which to base a philosophy and practice.
In all three cases, these deep level ideas, simple in themselves are nevertheless hard to demonstrate. As for proof, for now they must remain elusive paradigms, ideals, questions of faith. There also appears to be an increase in fragmentation regarding the nature of uniformity. By this I mean that scientific philosophy requires there to be what is known as the doctrine of uniformitarianism applying to all branches of science and technology. The doctrine remains the same for all practitioners whether one is talking about medicine, chemistry, biology or physics.1 With religion on the other hand, the nature of uniformity can change according to belief. The divine agency and its effects differ or agree from one religion to another. The plurality is directly proportional to the number of practitioners that adhere to one particular belief or another. When it comes to art, the situation becomes even more fragmented. The variety and number of different paradigms is a function of the countless movements, groups and individual artists that work and have worked to a particular vision across all societies.
In science, there is a constant search for the consistency of the laws of the universe or perhaps better put, for any inconsistencies that might be observed which in turn, could lead to revised, refuted or new theories which would nevertheless still be based on the assumption of universal uniformity. The spiritual believer is ever racked with doubt about the justice of things, questioning the purpose or reason for the world behaving as it does; asking why justice, redemption and even punishment take the shape they do. Recourse is made to faith in the divine as the pillar on which the belief structure is supported. And the artist has to be authentic in themselves, find what is at the core of their being in order to make sense of things and synthesise them into something that creates a commons with others.
Uncertainty, Time and Distance
Each one of these persons must trust in a different kind of uniformity but this is not static. It is a concept implicitly embedded in the idea of change. The implication being that the same change would occur under the same conditions wherever and whenever they occur. The key here is, under the same conditions. Conditions change and so do outcomes, but an outcome is not as a result of different laws acting. The outcome is the result of the same laws acting on a different ‘mix’ of elements. This means that the laws are reliable but not necessarily predictable. Quantum mechanics has shown us that the predictable world is an illusion created by the averaged sum of an inherently unstable and unpredictable fundamental substrate. However, reliability is the knowledge gained from experience and a belief in universal uniformality, including the unpredictable quantum microcosm.
When it comes to art the matter is somewhat more subtle because art is contextual. Context is an elusive characteristic of complex circumstances or conditions. At first sight, the ‘doctrine’ of uniformitarianism might appear to fall apart but this is an illusion. An illusion created on the surface of things due to context being a chaotic complex of influences and forces, relationships and interactions that provide ‘unique’ conditions resulting in the individuality of artistic visions and production. However, there is no reason why the forces acting on each and every artist are not the same, only altered by circumstance, genetic and cultural predisposition, historical antecedents and so on. The outcomes may differ due to different causes but the underlying laws remain invariant. The result is that although they may appear vastly different to us, there are commonalities which when averaged out produce the sum of human culture. And the wider the sweep of observation across societies and periods in history, the fewer the global correspondences giving rise to the difficulty in defining what art is.
An example of outcomes being vastly different but the laws at work remaining the same, would be the existence of life. Life exists on Earth, no other life has been yet found anywhere else in the solar system. Yet, the abundant, exuberant ecology of our planet is subject to the same fundamental laws found anywhere else in space. The differences are due to local conditions and which laws apply or not and in what proportion. For example, life on Earth is very much dependent on the planet’s distance from the Sun, its magnetic field, age and so on.
The interesting thing though, is that the fundamental laws acting on say, the Moon are the than those acting on Earth: yet nothing much changes on the Moon except for a few parameters, conditions are much simpler. The planet Venus on the other hand has a complex active surface, more complex than the Moon’s with an atmosphere and geological activity, yet it is much simpler than Earth’ surface. On Earth, once life emerged, perhaps as long ago as nearly four billion years, a different set of laws arose. A traversal takes place with the emergence of an ecology which in turn gives rise to evolutionary processes. New laws come into play, sub-laws which are nevertheless subject to the fundamental laws that existed before and continue to do so such as, the laws of thermodynamics. However, these new laws are also different in kind because they act on different kinds of systems such as living organisms (in which case reverse entropy). Could the same be said about consciousness, that once consciousness emerges, a new set of laws comes into action?
Art is a product of our consciousness and part of human culture. Art emerges relatively late on in our evolution, it took some time for art, religion and science to emerge in human culture despite humans appearing in their modern form long before. Could there have been a hidden mutation that caused a leap in human activity, or was time needed for new proceeses to emerge out our consciousness and interactions with the world? And if so, are these processes subject to the same laws acting on new conditions or are the laws a new emergence from consciousness? Or put another way, are there correspondences between the processes that govern society and culture and those that govern other forms of life? If so what are they? If not, what is special about cultural laws?
My hunch is that there are correspondences, as stated by Dawkins in his idea of the cultural meme acting as a selfish gene; also, crudely put, Malthusian-like forces acting on how populations react to conditions. Research into free will is throwing light on how free we actual are, whether it is an illusion or partial illusion and what the forces are that act on us to make us behave and perceive in a certain way. But my intuition also tells me that there are some elements of human activity that have produced unique rules. Whether these are inherent in the domain, such as mathematics and aesthetics or universal and stand outside the need for human presence, is a matter of constant debate.
For the very reason that uniformity is masked by differences in local conditions, the forces at work are often not self evident. They would go against experience and be counterintuitive. To begin to understand them requires prior knowledge or experience, at least familiarity with the field. You cannot understand a scientific theory without the antecedent knowledge that goes to make it up. In a similar way, to understand or appreciate a ‘piece of art’ an experience connecting one with it in some way helps. Whether it be by association, familiarity or knowledge of the field, as Dewey might have said, context creates the artwork in the receiver’s mind.
Perhaps these are intuitive thoughts trying to deal with counterintuitive ideas, such as probability (which is why quantum mechanics is such a difficult field to grasp and accept)… and certain forms of art. But why does art produce such strong emotions when debated? Art in particular divides opinion far beyond its apparent effect on everyday life with opinions being expressed in ways they would not about other matters even to the point of causing offence more readily than in other situations. I think that the effect of art runs much deeper than one might realise. People in power or seeking power have known this since early times. Art can be used to mould opinions, beliefs and allegiances from politics to economics, from status and fashion to the expression of wealth, social and philosophical ideals. Art can even persuade people to be kind, generous and cooperative or cruel and violent. Art is at the root of religion, fashion, status, politics, all complex human activity. Whether it is a simple bead necklace from the Kalahari or Michelangelo’s Pietá, whether a feature film or Homer’s Iliad, they are all expressions of human interactions between themselves and the world. The anthropologist R. L. Anderson suggests that art is:
culturally significant meaning, skilfully encoded in an affective, sensuous medium.
I am talking here of the doctrine regarding the laws of physics and causality, not the more specific reference to early geological ideas which were proposed in opposition to catastrophism [↩]
I came across this rather irreverent table yesterday. It is aimed at the authors of science papers but I think it can equally apply to the arts if clear thinking is considered a desirable thing in this field. I can say that I have been guilty of writing bullshit at times. That is why I constantly need to remind myself against doing so. When writing I ask myself a number of questions:
Do I understand what I am dealing with?
Do I have the means by which to speak of it?
Am I aware of the holes and caveats in my own argument?
Am I using a fallacy to support an argument? For example, begging the question; when the conclusion is used as the premise, all too easily done.
Am I trying to be objective or subjective? Which ever might be the case, I need to make clear my stand point; observation and opinion are two very different things.
But, I must also remember that I should not be afraid to make mistakes, take risks and make intuitive leaps. The absurd can be a useful tool to highlight an issue.
The logical, the heuristic and the intuitive may seem at odds here, and on the surface they often are. However, artistic practice is far more complex a process for one to be constrained to rules adhering to a particular paradigm. Like the whole of life itself, to question is to remain open and live to the world, and one’s art practice is a personal reflection of the world lived. Being an artist, particularly today, provides one with the privilege of stating the speculative, imaginative, daring and singular, the uncomfortable truth and the lie, promote change and be dangerous or liberating, perhaps at one and the same time. It is about making a personal statement that if sincerely and honestly stated, being authentic, it is possible to make a wider statement that speaks for and to more than one person and is communicable. I can only deal with a small area of a vast world case. To attempt otherwise would be to assume that one can understand the entirety of things.
I try not to obfuscate in my writing although at times, for the sake of brevity I must make assumptions and express myself in a form of shorthand which may need unpacking: a necessary avoidance of overly long posts at the expense of time spent making. Returning to the original point about writing, I think it apt to finish with this cartoon that makes the point in a humorous way:
Stand the monologue on its head and one comes nearer to the truth.
I now have to be careful to live by this…
…and take risks at the same time.
So long as I am aware of what I am doing I hope to avoid unintentional bullshit.
I have never done something like this before. I am finding it a challenge but not because I lack the skills of drawing, composing, digital or manual. It is more a case of sequencing and seeing how detail fits with the overall. This might appear to me a matter of applying what I do in other domains to this, the graphic narrative or comic. However, the applicable principles are to be used in a completely different context; one in which the single image does not stand alone but is seen as part of a much larger narrative in images. In addition, the attention of the viewer has to be maintained throughout the process of sequential page turning: rhythm, sequencing (how one images corresponds to subsequent images), pacing of the script and consistency of vision are all part of the process. In short, it is about working with a carefully crafted script. Something I am going to have to do when working on the multiple screen video performance. So this is a way of introducing that process.
Probably the way for me to break down what I have done is to look at the first page and see how the problems presented have necessitated shifts in how I view the overall work. The interesting part of the process is how the initial vision, feeling, has had to be changed in order to convey a more compelling narrative through visual means.
I was fixated with a particular ‘look’, a simplicity that quite frankly was getting somewhat boring. I tried to reduce detail to focus on the narrative but found that this had the opposite effect. It is the detail surrounding the central character that conveys the story, after all, there is only so much that can be done with a single creature in a barren landscape. So what I have done is spend a while looking at the great many solutions that others have used for both comics and graphic novels. This has helped me in seeing how I could do something more affective.
So what have I done? The following is a list of the changes that I have sketched out in my mind and tried out, not shown above:
Change the geographical transitions to convey a sense of the psychological journey of the creature. I had maintained this constant with the result of convey nothing more than repetitive monotony. Although this was the initial intention, it did not seem to hold the attention or even convey the meaning I was hoping to impart. I worked with process but there came a point where an intervention to change direction was needed to increase the affectiveness of what I was doing.
Introduced minor characters which heighten the creature’s isolation much as a lost person would feel in a forest full of unfamiliar animals and plants. This also personalises the character with the viewer creating a conversation between parties. This is a more intuitive direction, after all, most people’s experience is not that of living alone on the Moon or Mars.
Not repeating stances and views, keeping the pace of the storyline going while relating each vignette to the others. This can be done using colour, line, composition and tone as well as the particular characterisation of a given scene. The direction of sight needs to move in a sequential narrative and lines of tension, repetition, reflection and so on, are all devices that can be used to achieve this visual journey.
Most importantly, elaborate the script so it includes details that help create interest in and engagement with the character and its story. The script, to my surprise, is perhaps the most important thing. It does not have to be about speech, it is also description of the scene, emotions, details, incidental action, time, season, terrain. All these are important to compose in an abstract sense so that the drawing phase is not always starting from the beginning when an impasse is encountered.
Work with what I am familiar. This is important in creating a believable situation and characterisation. It is much easier to work with elements of which I have experience rather than trying to set events in locations that I cannot relate to. For this reason I have chosen the Venezuelan savanna, land of tebuys and Conan Doyle’s Lost World. An appropriate setting for the story that unfolds.
But what is this narrative about? I have been thinking if it was about loneliness, or perhaps the dark side of companionship; about a search or about the indomitable spirit of survival. In the light of what I have been exploring in the past few day there is something else, the emergence of predation, not in the sense of a literal figuration of the strategy filling an ecological niche. It is more of a metaphorical account. If examined carefully, again it is not so much about predation but competition, territoriality or even status. There are multiple inferences in the storyline, that is the point of it, ambiguity, and the ambivalence of what is loneliness and what is solitude.
There are also technical elements which are can be worked out in the process. One thing I have found though, although I have spent some time on the project, I am amazed at how little work I have actually done. I can see that I need to do much more ground work. But now I am clearer as to what is needed, I can move on at a more productive and energised pace. What relation does this have to the main project proposal? Everything is still up in the air but there is a strong correspondence with other elements I am working with, metamorphosis, culture and the deep past as a counterpart to the contemporary.
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.
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…
The last Skype chat for our group this term was with Vic Von Posser who graduated from the course this year. Her work developed over the two years moved in a very personal direction. What I found interesting was her use of simple materials and a straightforward methodology in which each piece was an extension of preceding works. I found a resonance with the idea that she saw her work as performance and that each iteration created a ritual.
I find interesting the relationship between ritual and reiteration: as I see it, work can be an embodiment of ritual whether it be in the form of documentation, performance or a physical object. I have spoken a bit about this in my post on The Ritual of Walking. The idea of reification is very much at the core of what I do and goes some way to explain why I am interested in sacred art. But reification is not confined to the religious sphere, it is in fact part of everyday life, from souvenirs and mementoes to branding.
We also took part in an exercise in blind drawing. This is something I have done for many years and have used it for students to help them loosen up and observe rather than work to conceptual models. It is also fun, the results are always surprising and surprisingly interesting. I guess the freedom of not looking at the drawing, even for one instance both concentrates the mind and frees it from convention.