Elusive Directions: Taxonomy and Mereology

Instrument of Gender in Porcelain (unfired)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chat Session 1.8: Elusive Taxonomies 2

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). 

Chat Session 1.7: Elusive Taxonomies

This week the conversation was lively and went over various themes relating to classification of art forms. The elusive elements in defining mediums, methodologies and thematics in art, itself a difficult term to delineate in the contemporary context, to my mind are in themselves of little use to the artist… or perhaps very useful. Now, which is it? Taxonomy in the arts can certainly be seen as divisive way of classifying what an artist does… for the artist. However, as in most things, the reality is somewhat more nuanced. For what is a taxonomy other than a means of ordering according to type and hierarchy classes of related things? We all need to order and prioritise our thoughts, and there lies the paradox. To do so in the private sphere of one’s own practice is quite a different thing to how taxonomy is used in the public arena.

There is an element of practicability when it comes to categorising art forms to give an idea of what someone is going to experience when visiting a venue or dedicating time on screen or audio. However, the recent loosening of artistic paradigms and breaking of barriers combined with a (natural some would say) need for people to identify and subsequently classify in terms of type and hierarchy has, to my mind, led to a confusion and profusion of terms more granular than ever before. With the emancipation of artists in the C19th and the growth of private middleclass patronage and galleries, the mediatory phenomenon of the critic emerged. Critics began describing different art forms with epithets such as, impressionism in France and I Macchiaoli  in Italy, often without understanding the artists’ intentions and at times derogative in the first instance as in the case of the latter. Eventually artists in the C20th, seeing the marketing power of such nomenclature and affiliations,  began denoting themselves as belonging to or having invented this ism or that. Giving name to the different styles that arose, as artists felt freed from the constraints of academism, created a many headed hydra that has metamorphosed into contemporary terms which have proliferated as interested groups have clamoured to delineate their own boundaries, often in an attempt to give themselves prominence. Does this serve the artist, or more precisely does it serve an artist’s self actualisation? I believe that it may serve artists in a worldly, status or commercial sense but whether it serves the majority of artists in terms of self actualisation barring the lucky few, I think not.

So who does this benefit? I feel that the atomisation of the arts has been propagated by artists themselves in conjunction with the pressures of commerce and status, although I do not think they are wholly responsible for the consequences and often fall victims of forces far greater than themselves. It is a paradox of the art establishment that no harder do some try to blur boundaries and foster interdisciplinary ideas, others create borders by defining their turf and defending it like crabs on quickly submerging islands built of sand. This is partly due to the academisation of the arts, in a way not too dissimilar to what happened to academic art in the C19th, but this is a discussion for another time. It is also a phenomenon effected by the market and the commoditisation of the arts despite anti-commodatisation movements. Museums, databases, arts organisations, education institutes, competitions, curators are all tied into this system of categorisation (see this table, a small sample of the variety, some would say confusion, certainly fluidity in just one sector of the contemporary artistic environment – link). Although understandable, it has led to a form of schizophrenia for artists. How do I describe myself, how do I fit into this particular taxonomy relating to this particular context? This is further exacerbated because for an artist to move from one domain to another can present other problems, often generated by the ‘turf’ syndrome mentioned earlier. Unless they are resolutely independent, outsider artists could fall into this category, practitioners can find themselves constrained to responding in terms of what others expect. This can lead to a diminished self actualisation in terms of the practice and place an onerous weight on finding success in other terms such as fame and wealth, one could say power. 

Are there any advantages to identifying methodologies, modalities, means and contexts in an atomised environment? Having said all that I have, as an artist I do find that classifications can be useful for the critical analysis of my own practice. Identifying labels for what I do has at times altered perspectives and introduced language that has helped me clarify ideas. At other times, usually in response to outside demands, the result has been restrictive and sterilising. Aware of this latter consequence combined with the former, the result has been a clearer articulation of what I am about: knowing what not to say as much as what to say, all part of developing communication within my own internal dialogue as much as with others. Language can divide ideas but it can also unify them. A word such as performative can be applied to the act of painting and ballet, the placing of sculptural elements and the making of music. This opens up a whole world to holistic, lateral thinking: turn something on its head and new thoughts will come out. It keeps me on my toes with regard to semantics and enables me to play with ideas as abstract and realised.  

So elusive taxonomies in themselves are neutral and as all words, labels by which we can respond to, build, and order a world (view). They can be used positively as well as in a pernicious way. But this is the way with all human activities. Something can be a force for good or quite the opposite. Perhaps the thing is that responsibility does not lie in the thing itself but in those that use it.