Research Statement: Taking Another Direction

My Research Statement started clearly but tailed off towards an uncertain ending. I had the thread, subject knowledge and so on but crucially what I was thinking was only of slight relevance to contemporary art. I had been dealing with histories of knowledge and putting together a viewpoint that although very interesting to my mind, it was not pertinent to contemporary art and did not contribute to my practice, neither methodologically nor theoretically: I just found it interesting. 

I had written around two-and-a-half thousand words when the recurring feeling of dread that asks, where is all this going, became too strong to ignore. I had barely started to look at contemporary artist that might be relevant to the paper. I looked at some suggestion Gareth had given me. Most were examples that were nothing close to what I was talking about, but you only need one, and one did stand out ticking all the boxes. I found that William Latham has been working in a similar way to me for years. He has developed an evolutionary art with computers, I have done it with sculpture. I looked up some references I was familiar with to do with cell automation, a bit about AI and found these things fitted into the contexts I had thought of previously: the Cambrian explosion and the Early Bronze Age. 

I am excited in that the hypothesis I am now proposing brings together art, biology, anthropology/archaeology, the digital environment, virtual worlds, philosophy and the future. The idea is not fully fleshed out yet but it is on its way and would not have been possible had I not started the way I did. The idea came a few days ago as a need to find a way of talking about very different artistic processes in the same terms. I have found that despite all the talk of breaking down barriers, merging and blurring the boundaries, art has become too disparate and dispersed. A fog of taxonomies, political stances, power plays creates in me an inability to talk about things cohesively and clearly without having to ignore the unique characteristics of each practice or making crass generalisations. This is not an attempt to judge or weigh one art form against another. On the contrary, it is a way of critically looking at each practice and identifying what makes it unique without recourse to subjectivity. I know that this is a bold claim and it may unravel as I write the paper but it is an interesting exercise. It is probably just another supporting piece of thinking. Many attempts have been made to do this since structuralist, post-structuralist and subsequent theories. I think Wittgenstein wrote something along these lines but it was based on a philosophical logic form that is not easy to understand.

And finally, it is directly relevant to me by helping to re-contextualise my practice in the contemporary environment. I think it could be one way of universally thinking or rethinking about process, categories, art, anything that involves change, which is virtually everything. 


Note to self: writing this down is a way of telling myself to continue writing, researching and composing ideas.

History and Shape-shifting Across Time: Rethinking a Tutorial

 

What is history? Nobody gave a deeper answer than Hegel – Terry Pinkard | Aeon Essays

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.

  1. For the actual content see the conversation transcript. []

Why ‘Fine’ in Art?

 

What is it that puts the ‘fine’ in fine art? In the past fine denoted something different to the applied arts and crafts, the artisanal element of making. Fine was meant to raise the level of thinking away from the primarily functional and the folk art of the general population. It was meant to educate and impress. Today, this attitude is no longer relevant and neither is it desirable. Artists have often relied on artisans for their initial training and preparations. They have been inspired by the folk, ethnic, primitive, call it what you will, throughout history. Beethoven and folk music, Brancusi and folk art and Renoir started as a ceramics decorator. 

Art today is seen within a spectrum of activity from the rawest of expression to the most worked and polished making. The ‘fine’ today is something different. I see it as the polishing of an idea, honing an argument, refining the making. Any one of these processes transforms poietic activity into an agent of change, stimulating the imagination, engendering empathy and raising curiosity amongst many other things. The constant refining, selecting, filtering, distilling are all part of what might be called fine art. 

The above study in its original form was enough as a place marker of an idea and initial exploration, in short a study. However, I decided to take it further, to refine it. I wanted to take the making process further, to extend its limits in a continual process. By doing so, the idea itself is transformed, maybe slightly but nonetheless altered. The sketch may hold its own dynamic vigor, something to hold on to but not always. A case in hand is Rembrandt’s etching of the crucifixion, which as many of his etchings, underwent through many states, each complete in itself and also a phase towards a transformed more refined end point but no less powerful.

I feel that the sketched beginning possess more life imbued in its making. This is the difficulty in refining, not to loose that freshness. But there are also crudities that distract. It is a balancing act. Moreover, refinement is a way of exploring the capabilities of a medium hand in hand with the notions that underlie it: meditating on the idea, reflecting in action. Neither does the above image indicate an end to refinement nor is it a completed transformation as a study in preparation for further work.

Anthropology and Archaeology

 

Images taken on the East Coast of England. I took them without people. This was a deliberate choice: focussing on formal elements and wanting to give a sense of isolation both geographically and socially. The locations are both Skegness and Cleethorpes off-season, East England coastal holiday towns that have seen better times. As I was doing this, it came to me that removing the people does not remove the human element. What it does is it turns the immediately anthropological to a latent archaeology. What I mean by this is simply that, anthropology is the study of living populations, archaeology the study of what is left after they are no longer present. Both fields try to throw light on how people behave and the causes for that behaviour. The pictures give me the sense of something that has been left behind with the potential to form a future archaeology even if only in images.

I was struck by this relationship between what is present and what is gone while focussing on the structures and environment: the correspondences between the visitors, the infrastructure and their respective purposes and their provenances. The two seaside resorts were built up as holiday destinations for the workers of the industrial Midlands and South Yorkshire. They are places of fun and relaxation yet, the very structures that were built to fulfil this functions reflect the machinery and structures of heavy and manufacturing industries: steel, coal, mechanised production lines in the rows and rows of penny arcades, roller coasters and helter skelters, ferris wheels and paddle boats, Even the restaurants and cafe’s are reminiscent of factory canteens. This is the industrialisation of leisure that followed the rise of the urban industrial society and catalysed by the mass transport of the railways in the C19th. Productive industry was directed to leisure using the same tools and knowhow. 

It is ironic that as such industries have declined over the decades, so too have the resort towns; and what were once bustling rail links have either disappeared, in the case of Skegness, or reduced to light traffic to Cleethorpes. The infrastructures of leisure and fun, entertainment and distraction engender in me a sense of an almost lost civilisation: settlements reduced largely as refuges for the less fortunate pushed to the margins of society and day trippers often intent on doing what they would not do elsewhere. 

I know this seems a bleak view of the areas but they do possess a poignant beauty rich in life where the sea meets the land, the future the past, and an indomitable desire to create a fantasy land still persists in the midst of struggle. And facing all this, growing legions of wind turbines, sentinels of new technology and power generation; replacing the old… at a distance both physical and metaphorical.

 

Uncertainty, Distance and Time or I Caught My Thumb in the Car Door

 

 

ƒ(u) ∼ dt u

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.

  1. This is an idea I have touched on in previous posts. []

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. 

 

 

A Cyclic Return

 

Two days ago I received a copy of Ted Hughes Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow together with a copy of Lupercal, an earlier set of poems. Last night I read an essay about Crow  by Danny O’Connor and it all came flooding back. Years ago I completed a cycle of paintings called Traces of Life. shown in Italy and in London and one of the paintings entitled The Horror of Creation was inspired by Hawk Alights, particularly the following words:

Crow saw the herded ountains, steaming in the morning
And he saw the sea,
Dark-spined, with the whole earth in its coils,
He saw the stars summing away into the black, mushrooms of the nothings forest, clouding their spores, the virus of God.
And he shivered with the horror of Creation.

The Crow cycle of poems is an ambitious text that rewrites the Creation in Genesis and places the eponymous Crow at the centre as a trickster prefiguring Satan and Christ. Crow, observes, frustrates and subverts a God’s less than omnipotent and omniscient attempts at making and intervening in the world. Hughe’s challenges the concept of God portrayed in the Abrahamic religions and how this creation has gone awry. Like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poetry is full of allusions that are magisterially crafted in such a way that the deep seated meaning is clear but needing careful unveiling. However, Hughes’ at times fragmented narrative is reminiscent of the theatre of the absurd and comic strip characterisation – comics together with folk tales were a great influence on Hughes together with the grim realities of farm life in the North of England. The logic is hard to understand on first reading, and here is where this great work distinguishes itself, it contains a deep logic and understanding of what the poet is doing notwithstanding its apparent absurdness. However, Unlike Milton, Hughes’ is not an interpretation of the sacred text but rather a critique and extension of the holy narrative fuelled by what he experiences and sees all around him. 

Reading Crow brings together once again, many of the strands that run through my work: the separation of the human psyche from nature, the arrogance of anthropocentrism, the denial of the animal part of being human, our origins in and our continuation of a long cycle of transformation and traversal from microbe to what we are now, how language has been used to control knowledge and manipulate behaviour. Could humanity have become the trickster, deceiving itself from the reality of who we are and what we are? Many of these ideas are explored in Robert Graves, The White Goddess, and Kraft Von Maltzahn’s, Nature as Landscape, studies in the history of poetry and science respectively. Both books review cultural transformations through the ages, not always progressive in terms of quality of life.  This does not mean that I would have preferred (as if I had had a choice) to have lived in another time. There are countless things about our age that shine as outstanding human achievements. However, the Twentieth Century also looms as a dark cloud over our history both in scale and wanton stupidity, something the trickster, be he man, be she woman, be we the mass of humans, is only too happy to help forget any lessons that have arisen. 

So where does this put me with respect to my current work and project proposal? I can see how what I have thought and done so far fit together and more importantly, how plans and conjectures can now change trajectory. There is a central core that is gradually being defined, creating a gravitational pull towards it. A path is being cleared towards something more encompassing, relevant and consistent. Creation myths from around the world also come into the picture for their differences as well as their similarities to one another. Another aspect of interest is the relationship between the linear and circular chronologies of Western and Asian beliefs; there is a little bit of each in both.