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 [↩]
Four digital prints I submitted to the 2 Girls Gallery ‘Impromptu’ show. They are mouse drawings. That means I drew them using an old mouse. I like this technique because of the difficulty of controlling the mouse as opposed to the ease of use of a pad and stylus. This friction creates a tension between what I want to draw and what is possible. The space that lies between the two tells me something of how striving for perfection is conditional to the means and circumstances. The analysis required is in contrast with the poietic maelstrom involved in working with sodden earth. It is where I can stand back and consider a different aspect of the source of what I do.
The technique of drawing with a mouse I see as embodying that continual striving for perfection by imperfect means that characterises humanity: by necessity flaws become the paradigm. And it is this process of turning one’s shortcomings into something of real affecting power where the magic of process lies.
I originally thought of presenting photographs which had been digitally altered, coloured. However, I was dissatisfied with the results. I have often found that combining digital marks with photographs whether analogue or not, does not give me a good sense. I am not talking about manipulating a photographic image or set of images in which case the material sources are of the same kind. This is exemplified in the work of an artist that Jonathan suggested I look at. Emily Allchurch creates imaginary landscapes based on old master paintings using a library of photographs she has compiled. She works with source material of the same kind and treats it in the same way: there is an inherent coherency here. I am rather referring to adding, superimposing, layering digital marks to photographic images: sources of a different kind. There is always something to be said for breaking rules and mish-mashing but I have found that this approach only works for me when what I am doing has a graphic design This I find only works when the sought after outcome is primarily one that resides in the area of graphic design… and then not always. This is something I would ordinarily leave to someone else who has affinity and experience in this domain.
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
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?
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
The projection of one dimension onto another, limits the information transmitted creating imaginative possibilities from the cast shadows.
Following our Skype chat on Tuesday, which I have yet to comment on, I thought again why I am wary of sole reliance on digital means for my practice as artist. We discussed control and it is this that engenders a will not ro surrender to the seduction of the computer. I work with analogue, organic, mechanical source material which may or may not be transformed, projected, presented, manipulated digitally. The key here is that the source material is primarily non-digital with the exception of source material directly generated using raw digital quantities, parameters and algorithms rather than simulations of analogue sources. I do not want the aesthetics of what I do to be dictated by a coder, programmer or company that has little or no concern for what I do. To surrender myself to the seductive facilitation that digital programmes bring to create source material, is to hand my imagination to another unconnected individual or set of individuals and loose self actualisation and independence. There are of course exceptions to this but awareness of the process into which one immerses oneself is paramount. I feel that a great deal of digital output is primarily there to enhance the experience of the receiver in ways that verge on, if not fully realised, entertainment and sensationalism. Perhaps this applies more to the so called ‘creative industries’, but the boundaries in this regard are constantly being blurred.
Having said this, I still use digital technology to work with as a tool, a wonderful tool, and in a few cases as a source material but not as a means of creating art. Photoshop and digital cameras, 3D rendering and sound editors are tools used when working in mediums, I do not treat them as mediums I their own right. There are exceptions where work arises out of a given technology offering a new means of presenting, or the work arises out of the ‘material’ of the technology.
In the end it is not about whether something is valid or not as art, that would be crass. The point is that I do not want to be controlled by this tools and what they can do. That is why it is important for artists to question, challenge and use digital technology as a tool for making art, imposing their imagination on the machines, to extend limits and set boundaries while individualising the process. After all, there is a difference in the way the artist and the receiver use their respective imaginations.
The question of control is pertinent to the video I am currently working on. It follows from post-truth-hurtling whose source material was natural and contingent. The outcome was subject to a number of atmospheric and seasonal factors which were beyond my control and which I had to seize in that moment. In order to be able to continue and elaborate on this methodology, I have had to devise ways of recreating the conditions in the studio. Only this way could I build on what was started then. I am experimenting with surfaces, objects, light sources, different ways of creating wave interference, narratives and so on. It is a fascinating journey which also brings in sound, text and other mediums. The essence is that I can control ephemeral events and phenomena, control materials and recording means, control methods while letting go of control of outcome and let the process guide me, let the process feed my imagination, let the process bring things together and create new avenues to explore, let the process create meaning. I am in control and so is the process. What it boils down to is that I need to be aware of what I am doing and why but not force the agenda. I have enough experience behind me for meaning to arise from whatever emerges during the process. It is a two way dialogue, a dialectic, a heuristic process, abductive, inductive and deductive, intuitive and rational, it is all things in one.
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 post was finished over a week after the session.
Last week the discussion ranged over the classification and categorisation of art practices with particular reference to digital means. This week the discussion extended to the relationship between the digital and the non-digital and how the perceived gap might affect practitioners and how they approach their work. One of the main points of discussion was whether working in the digital environment was any different to what could be called more physical ways of working.
An idea brought up by Jonathan, citing G. Fifield, was a ‘friction-less and gravity-free’ space with respect to digital tools such as Photoshop. The reference comes from the 1990s and things have moved on almost unrecognisably. However, the notion of friction is interesting being as it is, a physical one but it could also indicate an abstract, conceptual form of resistance. In fact, I have worked extensively with the mouse as a tool for drawing. I have chosen this way of working when making digital drawings, eschewing the tablet and stylus for the very reason that the notion of friction articulates very well. What do I mean by this ?
I feel that the computer seduces us with its perfect lines and even surfaces and gradients. The vision of perfection it offers is not only commonplace now but relatively easy to achieve, offering little resistance with a modicum of skills. However, there is a caveat to this that Jonathan proposed later: that the aesthetic outcome is very much dictated by the parameters set by the software used whether it be by Adobe or any other company. The digital imposes a style or aesthetic that is hard to release oneself from.
Drawing with the mouse has a resistance to the perfect line and form because of the way it works: not being under one’s total control, it can be a little temperamental. This creates a physical and ‘virtual’ friction or resistance to the process both on the surface on which the mouse moves and the screen. A space is formed by the tension between perfection and imperfection. Here the imagination can dwell with contingent outcomes: the endeavour towards perfection by imperfect means is often delicious.
Another area of discussion was that of aura, with Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This is a very wide field of discussion that has personal, psychological, religious and political implications. Jonathan proposes that Benjamin is a starting point from issues of reproduction towards new forms of production and there is a debate about notions of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’, ‘simulation’ moving towards ‘substitution’. This is in fact a form of sublation and something I am working on with regard to a video and live performance work requiring very careful scripting and timing. This opened the debate on simulation and the nature of what is real and what is not. I think the idea of authentic comes into this as does original. These are perhaps best described as notions, as most qualitative descriptors are. Any definition is vulnerable to the deformation by subjective view points and conversely any rigidity too readily turns into dogma. I think the best thing is to remain open to change but be clear about what is changing.
We ended the session by considering some further terms that are useful when describing how a work comes about. Words that come from a variety of sources, from semiotic theory to acoustics, from physics and chemistry to sociology, words such as: filtering, curating, signalling, amplifying, merging. Being all gerunds, they denote action whereas others such as hybrid, score, script and remix are adjectival. Grammar is a wonderful thing, how a word can be transformed from doing to being to inferring. I could describe my work as a hybridisation in which ideas are scripted and encoded as a means of signalling amplified filters of perception. This sounds grand but without content meaningless. They can only help to articulate what is already there to express. The two go hand in hand. Thinking of what one has to say and how to say it are inseparable when using words; the same goes for any other medium.
Coming back to something I mentioned earlier, the final word by Jonathan was regarding the digital: that artists appear to be well placed to do some of the work in ‘revealing the ideology baked into code’, (whether financial, aesthetic, social, etc).
I know that anonymity is the ultimate fate of everyone; after all, what is in a name?
Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, gave up his life for glory so no one would forget his name but whoever he might have been, what we remember is the name, not the man. A name transcends a person and becomes their mythology, symbol or archetype. Film actors take on a screen name, their name supersedes them and their reality. But that is not the person, the name is a mask that may continue after death, subject to the twists and turns of fame or infamy. Why would anyone think that to be famous after their time means anything at all? Perhaps because like many other human characteristics such as, looking for pattern and meaning and finding probability counterintuitive, we are hardwired to do so: it is a survival strategy handed down through our genes.
What would be the corollary of not being programmed in this way? There are those that think that if we did not perceive pattern, we would not see the symmetrical tiger in the undergrowth or the round fruit in the trees. In short we would starve or be eaten, not a very good way for an organism to survive to reproductive age and pass on their genes. In the case of probability, that is more complex but it could be summed as, calculating the probability of something happening requires a developed use of mathematics and insight into empiricism: ask that of our innumerate ancestors. Certainty is not something we can count or calculate, we go by experience and experience is something that is learnt or is baked into our inherited make up by natural selection. This could go some way to explain superstitions such as not walking under a ladder which are often about perceiving danger. Such ideas come without a critical analysis of cause and effect but do have a certain logic. However it is good to remember in such cases the statisticians’ mantra, ‘correlation is not causation’. We would do well to remember this when discussing politics but I digress.
Artist have not always signed their work. For much of history, and still today around the world, many makers leave what they do unmarked. During the Middle Ages in Europe, masons would carve a cryptic mark on the part of a building they were particularly proud of. These would have been recognised by only the very few in what was a form of professional branding and most remain undeciphered. It is not until the Renaissance that we see artist signing their work. Michelangelo famously signed the Pieta but regretted his vanity and swore never to do so again. He was driven by the fact that the sculpture was being attributed to others such as Il Gobbo (Cristoforo Solàrio) from Milan. The reason for and spirit in which a work is signed or left anonymous varies from artist to artist. Van Gogh signed his paintings Vincent as a way of putting distance between his hard won freedom of expression and his earlier repressive family life that he sought to reason with in vain. Pablo Ruiz Picasso chose his mother’s maiden name to make himself independent of his father who had taught him in his early years. The reason for signing a work can be deeply personal or as we witness by the branding that takes place in many galleries, auctions houses and museums of today, an attempt at creating celebrity more often than not underpinned by a hardnosed commercial imperative.
Most, if not all, want to make a difference, to mark this earth with their tread whether in a small unseen way or visible to all. It is a desire that intimates a form of fleeting immortality. I have always found it difficult to sign my work with a name. I find it disruptive and intrusive of myself and the work. I have found myself doing it in an as inconspicuous way as possible. Initials seem less intrusive but are also more cryptic and far less specific, whereas marking a work with a seal is something else. It is closer to the masons mark. I adopted this practice not so long ago, every so often making a new seal when I have felt the time was right. By making this mark I feel comfortable to follow it with initials or a name and date. It is about saying, ‘I have changed this from what it was’, it is about me, not my name. And after all, a name is given whereas a mark is what you give yourself. Coming back to what I said earlier, perhaps this is why an actor is happy to assume a new identity, it is their identity as well as a way of separating their private from public life.
The seal above is the latest carved for the period of the MA. The design was not predestined, it emerged as I worked with the tiny piece of boxwood. In fact, this was the fourth attempt; I had never cut curves on this scale using crude tools. I liken it to drawing with a mouse: the slight recalcitrance of the tools reduces control. The tension between what is sought for and the outcome opens a space where something else can arise. Neither before nor during its making, could I say what the design represented if anything. However, I sensed that it had some sort of meaning, following the radial symmetry of my previous work. There is little that cannot be given a meaning again coming back to an earlier point about pattern and meaning; working a priori to any thesis can give rise to hidden ideas when analysed later. In this case I find that the pattern generated speaks to me of different elements mixing, merging, assimilating, hybridising. This after all is what I am attempting during these two years. There is also a breaking from symmetry which continues something I began since Chaos Contained.
Where does this leave the signing of work and authorship in the digital sphere? This is a complex issue regarding a medium that is connective and infinitely distributable. It is changing the way we look at authorship and copyright. There are those that would place restrictive bounds on what can and cannot be accessed or used, there are others that open out all code to everyone. There are those that hard bake their mark in the code and there are others that realising the futility of practical ownership of digital information ask for accreditation and little more. Then there are artists who, in a time honoured tradition, restrict their output by creating limited editions and destroying the matrix. Putting a high price on these CDs, flash drives or what have you, and restricting access to these works is in my mind a mirage in the eyes of those that believe it to be a true representation of value, at least in the short term. With changing values and obsolescence only time will tell what happens to the way digital works are perceived. Perhaps they will become cyber archaeology, as anonymous as the vases, statues and artefacts we wonder at in museums. This brings to mind, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Liebovitz . This may be a topic I return to later as it has implications on what artists do today.
Yesterday we were introduced to the intricacies of coding in java, by Paul Abbott, with a little html and css thrown in just for fun. It was difficult to follow at times, particularly juggling four different windows at one time, thank heavens for a large screen. It felt like having to catch four piglets and trying to put them into a shallow basket… with boxing gloves. However, I survived and took away some valuable ideas that will help me, particularly when I look at the video recording of the session again. These notions can be summarised in a very cursory way as:
Types of coded information are kept in discrete blocks.
One block of information tells another what to do and the different functions and variables in each one has to correspond to those in another block.
The process is like constructing a flow chart in your head. For that matter, drawing a flow chart when planning code is not such a bad idea.
Brackets hold different types of information.
The syntax of the code has to be precise.
Practice by copying and pasting existing code and alter one parameter at a time and see what happens. Make sure all corresponding parts match one another.
It is no good just reading about code, you have to do it as you go along to understand anything at all.
I do not know how relevant coding is to my practice. It is immensely satisfying, though, when a piece of code works. I know from my scant experience with html and css. However, it is a totally different language and I struggle enough with words. So, although I may tinker with some code and perhaps even build a rudimentary something for the internet, I think I shall leave this one to those better suited for this activity. One thing, as Paul mentioned, it does help when you can converse in the same language with someone if you need something doing or collaborating on a given project.
Today I drew another set of studies. It really is an exploratory activity and a reacquaintance with drawing. The images do not conform to the ideas I have for project work but I am glad for that. Breaking away from the constraint of a predetermined outcome fills me with a sense of freedom and renewal; what I talked about in my first post, Elastic Thinking, Synthesis and Renewal. It is in the true spirit of the MA. From these studies something may come but come what may, the thing itself seems to be what matters. The action, the thought, what it might lead to, give me the same feeling I had when I first started years ago. This happens from time to time but for it to happen now is wonderful.
As I draw I think. I think about what I am doing and how it can be done better. I am learning rapidly as it comes back to me compounded by what I have learnt and experienced along the way. These small sketches represent much more than what they are in themselves.
As part of my brain focuses on the technical activity, another part nudges me into feeling my way, sensing the concept and translating it into a language expressed in pressure, sense of space, distance and closeness, weight, light, volume. These are all empirical technical aspects. There is also another part of my brain that is released and wanders and thinks of other things. Reflection on the doing and reflection on the reflection.
I like the way that all this is achievable with the simplest of tools. A block of toothy paper and two graphite pencils. Is this not the simplicity with which artist worked before? From Lascaux to Phidias, Michelangelo to Ingres, Picasso to Moore. The most exquisite work was done with simple tools and materials. How does this compare with digital media? Is the digital another freedom or is it a self imposed exile into consumerism? I have drawn with digital media and found it a rewarding exercise but more for the outcome than process. The smooth layers, the faultless line, edges that leave no ambiguity. It is indeed very seductive and aesthetic. I have rationalised it and it appears valid. But I ask myself, have we become so accustomed to perfection that we are in danger of losing sight of what human creativity is and where it comes from? Is the machine to be the paradigm by which we measure and are measured and origins lost in time and made irrelevant? So many questions come to mind offering contradictory views it is overwhelming. For now I shall continue building this small, simple, limitless world and see what happens.
What is the relationship between your artwork’s internal cause or impetus and its external input or stimuli? I would ask this of a thinking machine were such a thing possible. The question comes with the implicit premise that during its making, the artwork and artist or in this case machine, are necessarily bound together in process regardless of what happens subsequently. As Aristotle first noted, the internal cause of an artwork cannot be considered to arise from within and of itself. In short it cannot begin to create itself. Unlike a plant seed, it does not contain within it all that is necessary to independently set its growth and development in motion. Art requires an external input. I do not consider the role of the artist as simply that of a vehicle for some sort of transitive phenomenon as it is sometimes suggested. The artist has agency and is integral to the process by which the artwork comes about. Without a maker art cannot be. Although art, as Dewey suggests, is the result of experience and dependent on context, the actual coming about of the thing itself is very much dependent on someone conceiving and giving it birth. This is not a trivial matter when it comes to considering the role of machines. Now that it is possible to envisage a machine doing something we might interpret at least superficially as art I would ask it, where does your art come from, where is its source?
All things gather meaning in our eyes. For art to have a transmissible meaning that transcends ordinary explications, its maker must be authentic. By this I mean, that the process by which an artist does something has to come from deep inside them and in unison with the process of making. There is an element of origination from within. Without this immanent synchronicity between artist and process and medium, the artwork cannot encompass a multiplicity of meanings while retaining its own, could I venture to say identity? If what Dewey said is taken to be the case, then the meaning will always change with changing circumstances. However, if the artwork can retain a core of meaning from its inception, it then retains the potential to engender something that goes beyond a mere intellectual construct. Words can be used to weave such mind games around any object or event to make it look like art. But art has a special significance and to retain this, it has to possess a traceability with its origin and the origins of that which gave rise to it. Why is this important or even relevant, does art not reside in the explanation rather than the thing that acts as its emblem? I believe that the way we look at art and its making impacts on how we see ourselves in a world where machines do wonderful things, and often better than us.
Say I am presented with an everyday manufactured object as a work of art and nothing else. The reception of such a thing would be totally open to interpretation. In such a case, it is I the receiver and those around me that would make the art. The intention of the artist would be somewhat irrelevant: much as a statistician would say, correlation is not causation, any coincidence of meaning between the artist and myself a matter of just that, coincidence, unverifiable since the artist’s true intention must remain undisclosed. Having no contact with the maker, I would construct its meaning, metaphorically and or literally from my personal experience and collective knowledge. I would research contemporary and subsequent texts if they exist. I would listen and evaluate hearsay and legend. I could even personalise it by weaving a narrative with me or my society as protagonist to make it more relevant. My question again, where lies the source of the artwork, does it lie within me and my response? I have no way of tracing its origin, any immanence or synchronicity at the point of its coming into being, must remain silent and the art must lie in my explication, or that of another.
This explanation of an artwork may be philosophically valid and perhaps even be sound, but I feel that it does not go to the heart of what an artwork could be or perhaps even should be in the age of the machine. If a work remains open to interpretation but in and of itself holds a core meaning of its own throughout that interpretation, one that has been generated during its formation, then the piece becomes significant in a different way. It conveys something which can be traced back to a point of origin notwithstanding its transformations by circumstance. The receiver can interpret it in the way that is most significant to them at the time, but the thread of meaning contained within the work cannot be detached from it. It is a form of empathic connection which goes beyond circumstance, it speaks of a common humanity. Yes, the object such as a spark plug or paper cup is also a human product and speaks of humanity and has meaning. So where am I in this train of thought?
Perhaps the difference is one of specificity. You could say a thousand things about the spark plug or maybe a urinal. That is the art of the poet. The poet takes the general and makes it personal, or makes a local specific, common to all. That is their gift. Whichever way round it is, whether looking down a microscope or a telescope, it is about intimate thoughts expressed in words. But a visual artist, to present something which could be described in terms that are applicable to anything else, would represent a loss of intimacy. Is that significant? Perhaps it is better that nothing is said if the same could be said about practically anything else. To do otherwise, the matter would become banal and superficial. In short, there has to be a specificity to meaning and a correspondent to that meaning, for a particular artwork to be meaningful in more than just a cursory way. But that specificity also needs to be flexible and adaptable to different circumstances. Context does give meaning, but context also changes. Is an artwork to be floating forever in the churning maelstrom of circumstance?
Why does this matter? It matters because in an age where machines can be used to make wonderful things, it is of paramount importance that the human element or the human origination to be more precise, remains the core of an artwork. And for this to be the case, the inception and process of making an artwork have to be immanent with it, not simply reside in its explication. It must draw the artist and receiver into an intimacy that could be recognised by others. If this is so, it can become timeless and say something common to all at a distance from its making.
Art made by a machine would have a hard time to create a true intimacy that is endogenous to it. Where would the source for its intimacy reside? Algorithms can process unimaginable amounts of data to produce a simulacrum of human intimacy, and there lies the danger. Are we to be duped by machines, then what? Sentimentality takes over as we fall in love with homunculi and virtual damsels, pine for virtual grannies and call out for the affections of a synthetic dog?
The machine cannot think as we do. We think not only with what we know but also with what we do not know. Uncertainty is what we humans live in and our whole culture, beliefs, history and future, emotions and feelings are centred around that sense of not knowing. It is a major drive behind our responses to the world. We may understand the initiating programmes that start self-learning but once that process begins is there any traceability of its thoughts? Can a machine have the same sense, feeling of uncertainty that we have? Cold logic cannot have a sense of uncertainty and once the initial algorithms are left behind, lost in countless levels of self-learning and unimaginable traversals, can we know where its source lies? Can we have a sense of the machine’s true source? Such a scenario may not be for the immediate future, but it raises questions regarding our humanity that art can only intimate.
Machines having developed their own language alien and impossible to understand, all traceability to the origins of their thoughts and feelings, if that is what they are, would be lost. The result might be, art done by machines for machines. This would be truly meaningless to us. The idea would certainly raise curiosity but it would also be at best entertainment, alien watching, a circus where the public are invited into the cage with the lions. To experiment on how machines might create art might well be valuable research into artificial intelligence. However, art is made by people for people and if machines are to be used in its making, let it be as a tool and not as a prime source generator. A world in which ‘art’ is generated by machines might well lead to one devoid of humanity. Will it happen, does it matter? Time will tell, but I say, leaving what it is to be human to machines is indeed a dangerous path to tread.