I came across an article about the 300 year old Molyneux’s Problem regarding the relationship between sight and touch as it concerns internal world building. This is something that has come to my mind many times in terms of the aesthetics of three dimensional objects and my approaches in making something tangible.
What was once taken as purely a thought experiment due to the impossibility of giving sight to someone congenitally blind has now been presented with an empirically verifiable solution.
In 2011 Richard Held and Dr. Pawan Sinha leading a team at Project Prakash (Prakash mean light in Sanskrit) demonstrated that which Locke had intuited. That the cognitive association between touch and sight have to be learnt and are not hard wired in our brains.
The experience of shape in each sense is independent of the other and they are not associated from birth. A congenitally blind person being given sight would not recognise a cube, say, on seeing it for the first time even if they were offered an identical one for comparison. However, they would soon learn to relate what they experience through touch with what they see. This seems self evident enough but it was not verifiable until recently with advances in eye surgery and indeed many thinkers thought otherwise. Look up dear old Bishop Berkeley: yes the one that thought if you turned your back on something it disappeared.
How does this affect my ideas about making? I work a great deal with touch through my hands. I have been aware that if I were not able to see the composition of a work it would be very different using touch alone. The aesthetic qualities that would arise out of working blind would pertain to another world; one in which light is alien and the mind would navigate and construct form in quite a different way.
I have often referred to navigating form in my mind with an inner eye, moving around the object in question in a virtual world. Although I am not using my eyes this ‘sighted’ world relies on having experienced sight. How different this would be had I been congenitally blind. So imagining being able to create in the absence of light experience would be well nigh impossible
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
We label all the time. Here I have labelled finishes to terracotta surfaces. Labels, however, are far from superficial, they are at the root of our construction of the world. A label is much more than a name for something. Labels are one of the principle building blocks with which we build a relationship with the world and communicate with others. A word is more than its phonemes, a symbol more than its shapes and lines.
When humans reached the threshold of speech, they recreated the world; in thought and speech; separating us from the other; creating boundaries that can be passed on. In the beginning was the word, logos, knowledge. The word is the fruit from the tree at the centre of that mythical garden from whence we emerged. A place lost in our memories forever hidden by the labyrinth of life, a life spent trying to find the way back.
The word sets roots in the mind and like a garden flourishes or casts its poisonous shadow across the soul. The word made flesh, the symbol, the picture, the letter and grammar, are abstract entities given material resonance in poetry, then literature and mathematics. The word cries out meaning, ‘I…. you’.
The word separates the world from us and brings it closer, it says goodbye to the animal met in the womb. The infant, whole, cleaves to the world the new mother that kicks you in the teeth and holds you up to the sun and gives you warmth. The word is inside us and out there where it shapes our destiny. It is what says ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘we’ and ‘they’ encompassing the world or shattering it into confusion.
And when all has been said and done, the word is all, the word is death, the word is life and all in between. In the beginning was the word and in the end silence.
I wrote the following as part of the previous post on writing. When revising what I had written it seemed a bit of a non-sequitur. It was more about creating a context for linking writing about science with writing about art. The ideas I touch on here need expanding but I think it serves as a note-to-self for the future.
The scientist has to assume, indeed believe in the uniformity of the universe, otherwise no finding would have applicable value elsewhere, everything would be relative. What this means is that the laws of physics apply equally wherever you are located in the universe, there is no place where the laws might be different or behave in some other way. This is not to be confused with the theory of relativity and its stated relationship between mass, energy, time and space which is always the same, with the speculative exception of black holes or the very beginning of the universe when the ‘Big Bang’ occurred. If the universe were not uniform regarding to the laws of physics, there would be no possibility of confirming scientific theories or indeed refuting them, for there would be no basis for predicting outcomes according to a hypothesis, phenomena would be subject to local laws only. This assumption is one of the basic principles of the scientific method and experimental philosophy and so far has not been refuted.
The religious person must also believe in uniformity regarding god or gods, otherwise there could not be an ultimate authority for morality and therefore behaviour could not be regulated. Religions rely on a uniformity of consequence, justice, compassion, love, etc. as a central tenet to their universality. Correspondences and conflicts between religions come down to what they have in common as well as how they differ in their universal applicability as much as ritual practices, credos and the like. Likewise, an artist has to trust that there are universals that when applied, bring thought and people together rather than divide them. These universal ideas or the search for them create the possibility for a coherent vision on which to base a philosophy and practice.
In all three cases, these deep level ideas, simple in themselves are nevertheless hard to demonstrate. As for proof, for now they must remain elusive paradigms, ideals, questions of faith. There also appears to be an increase in fragmentation regarding the nature of uniformity. By this I mean that scientific philosophy requires there to be what is known as the doctrine of uniformitarianism applying to all branches of science and technology. The doctrine remains the same for all practitioners whether one is talking about medicine, chemistry, biology or physics.1 With religion on the other hand, the nature of uniformity can change according to belief. The divine agency and its effects differ or agree from one religion to another. The plurality is directly proportional to the number of practitioners that adhere to one particular belief or another. When it comes to art, the situation becomes even more fragmented. The variety and number of different paradigms is a function of the countless movements, groups and individual artists that work and have worked to a particular vision across all societies.
In science, there is a constant search for the consistency of the laws of the universe or perhaps better put, for any inconsistencies that might be observed which in turn, could lead to revised, refuted or new theories which would nevertheless still be based on the assumption of universal uniformity. The spiritual believer is ever racked with doubt about the justice of things, questioning the purpose or reason for the world behaving as it does; asking why justice, redemption and even punishment take the shape they do. Recourse is made to faith in the divine as the pillar on which the belief structure is supported. And the artist has to be authentic in themselves, find what is at the core of their being in order to make sense of things and synthesise them into something that creates a commons with others.
Uncertainty, Time and Distance
Each one of these persons must trust in a different kind of uniformity but this is not static. It is a concept implicitly embedded in the idea of change. The implication being that the same change would occur under the same conditions wherever and whenever they occur. The key here is, under the same conditions. Conditions change and so do outcomes, but an outcome is not as a result of different laws acting. The outcome is the result of the same laws acting on a different ‘mix’ of elements. This means that the laws are reliable but not necessarily predictable. Quantum mechanics has shown us that the predictable world is an illusion created by the averaged sum of an inherently unstable and unpredictable fundamental substrate. However, reliability is the knowledge gained from experience and a belief in universal uniformality, including the unpredictable quantum microcosm.
When it comes to art the matter is somewhat more subtle because art is contextual. Context is an elusive characteristic of complex circumstances or conditions. At first sight, the ‘doctrine’ of uniformitarianism might appear to fall apart but this is an illusion. An illusion created on the surface of things due to context being a chaotic complex of influences and forces, relationships and interactions that provide ‘unique’ conditions resulting in the individuality of artistic visions and production. However, there is no reason why the forces acting on each and every artist are not the same, only altered by circumstance, genetic and cultural predisposition, historical antecedents and so on. The outcomes may differ due to different causes but the underlying laws remain invariant. The result is that although they may appear vastly different to us, there are commonalities which when averaged out produce the sum of human culture. And the wider the sweep of observation across societies and periods in history, the fewer the global correspondences giving rise to the difficulty in defining what art is.
An example of outcomes being vastly different but the laws at work remaining the same, would be the existence of life. Life exists on Earth, no other life has been yet found anywhere else in the solar system. Yet, the abundant, exuberant ecology of our planet is subject to the same fundamental laws found anywhere else in space. The differences are due to local conditions and which laws apply or not and in what proportion. For example, life on Earth is very much dependent on the planet’s distance from the Sun, its magnetic field, age and so on.
The interesting thing though, is that the fundamental laws acting on say, the Moon are the than those acting on Earth: yet nothing much changes on the Moon except for a few parameters, conditions are much simpler. The planet Venus on the other hand has a complex active surface, more complex than the Moon’s with an atmosphere and geological activity, yet it is much simpler than Earth’ surface. On Earth, once life emerged, perhaps as long ago as nearly four billion years, a different set of laws arose. A traversal takes place with the emergence of an ecology which in turn gives rise to evolutionary processes. New laws come into play, sub-laws which are nevertheless subject to the fundamental laws that existed before and continue to do so such as, the laws of thermodynamics. However, these new laws are also different in kind because they act on different kinds of systems such as living organisms (in which case reverse entropy). Could the same be said about consciousness, that once consciousness emerges, a new set of laws comes into action?
Art is a product of our consciousness and part of human culture. Art emerges relatively late on in our evolution, it took some time for art, religion and science to emerge in human culture despite humans appearing in their modern form long before. Could there have been a hidden mutation that caused a leap in human activity, or was time needed for new proceeses to emerge out our consciousness and interactions with the world? And if so, are these processes subject to the same laws acting on new conditions or are the laws a new emergence from consciousness? Or put another way, are there correspondences between the processes that govern society and culture and those that govern other forms of life? If so what are they? If not, what is special about cultural laws?
My hunch is that there are correspondences, as stated by Dawkins in his idea of the cultural meme acting as a selfish gene; also, crudely put, Malthusian-like forces acting on how populations react to conditions. Research into free will is throwing light on how free we actual are, whether it is an illusion or partial illusion and what the forces are that act on us to make us behave and perceive in a certain way. But my intuition also tells me that there are some elements of human activity that have produced unique rules. Whether these are inherent in the domain, such as mathematics and aesthetics or universal and stand outside the need for human presence, is a matter of constant debate.
For the very reason that uniformity is masked by differences in local conditions, the forces at work are often not self evident. They would go against experience and be counterintuitive. To begin to understand them requires prior knowledge or experience, at least familiarity with the field. You cannot understand a scientific theory without the antecedent knowledge that goes to make it up. In a similar way, to understand or appreciate a ‘piece of art’ an experience connecting one with it in some way helps. Whether it be by association, familiarity or knowledge of the field, as Dewey might have said, context creates the artwork in the receiver’s mind.
Perhaps these are intuitive thoughts trying to deal with counterintuitive ideas, such as probability (which is why quantum mechanics is such a difficult field to grasp and accept)… and certain forms of art. But why does art produce such strong emotions when debated? Art in particular divides opinion far beyond its apparent effect on everyday life with opinions being expressed in ways they would not about other matters even to the point of causing offence more readily than in other situations. I think that the effect of art runs much deeper than one might realise. People in power or seeking power have known this since early times. Art can be used to mould opinions, beliefs and allegiances from politics to economics, from status and fashion to the expression of wealth, social and philosophical ideals. Art can even persuade people to be kind, generous and cooperative or cruel and violent. Art is at the root of religion, fashion, status, politics, all complex human activity. Whether it is a simple bead necklace from the Kalahari or Michelangelo’s Pietá, whether a feature film or Homer’s Iliad, they are all expressions of human interactions between themselves and the world. The anthropologist R. L. Anderson suggests that art is:
culturally significant meaning, skilfully encoded in an affective, sensuous medium.
I am talking here of the doctrine regarding the laws of physics and causality, not the more specific reference to early geological ideas which were proposed in opposition to catastrophism [↩]
This piece was the one that exploded in the kiln and caused the damage. I am now reaching the end of its reconstruction and there are two more well on their way. This small project is running parallel to the main project proposal. It is a reconnection with clay and the organic. However, it is not a caprice, as I reflect on what I am doing, pertinent ideas come to mind: composites, contingency, deep past and cultural transitions, modular thinking, dialysis and synthesis, destruction and construction. The list is endless and endlessly layered. What might be the locus of the Research Paper begins to come into view.
What is emerging is a synthesis of ideas that have so far only existed as a coherent ensemble by virtue of my imaginings and feelings that they are in some way connected. I also begin to see how they relate to present day concerns in articulable form.
Patterns exist at all levels and scales of existence, repeating cyclically, each iteration different but nonetheless containing within itself a core that binds them together. Contingent events can cause large ruptures in systems, nothing is certain or inevitable but seen with hindsight, they appear inevitable and progressive, even predestined. This latter fallacy is a function of how we think, as though things have an aim or purpose. Algorithms are dispassionate and impartial. Disparate life processes, their repeating patterns throughout the planet’s history and from early civilisations to today’s society all bear the imprint of algorithms that might provide one with a glimpse of the future. But this vision cannot be discerned in detail but rather a direction of travel, subject to contingent events, the unpredictable.
What I am sensing is the repetition of patterns within patterns, fractals of fractals; that the history of life, human culture, and the future, are iterations subject to principles that become evident in different ways according to circumstance. The word I have identified as emblematic of what I might explore in the R.S. is metamorphosis. But this does not tell the whole story. Things come together to form more complex, sometimes simpler more efficient systems. Whether they be societies, organisms or ideas. All these things are subject to common laws, the same principles that defy entropy and sometimes succumb to it. Another word close to metamorphosis is emergence, the result of a traversal, a change in kind as from simple chemical reactions to ‘self interested’ replicating molecules or at a higher level of complexity, from sentience to consciousness.
The whole is not made of separate things but we perceive it as such by our own modularity in thinking which in turn could be postulated to be reflection of how consciousness emerged from simpler, chaotic but ordered, causal processes. Time is the function of such changes. We measure time by the rate of change in things whether while looking at a second hand moving across a clock face or our own faces in the mirror as we age. However, time is a flexible construct. It is not uniform or fixed in the physical world; the mind is inconsistent in how it perceives time. The notion of time of itself is meaningless.
But what on earth am I talking about? Whether I am talking about societies, organisms, consciousness or an artwork, the way these things are built is piece by piece, each component interacting with other components in reciprocal feedback relationships. Components group to form units at a higher level of organisation. Levels ‘talk’ across boundaries of complexity and with the outside world. It is a wondrous web of regulated processes of ‘communication’, regulated if that term can be used, by blind, impartial algorithms. Daniel Dennett talks about the nature of algorithms at length in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. By their very nature, algorithms are independent of substrate which means they can apply to different systems whether chemical, physical, biological, ecological, linguistic or cultural.
I am seeing how what happened during the Cambrian explosion as an analogue to the rise of complex urban societies: new ecologies, innovative strategies all based on modularity. The modularity of body plans and their genetic control and modularity of thinking fostered by the coming together of disparate modes of living encoded in art, religion and writing respectively. And if one looks close enough one might see a common thread made evident in the evolution or building of new blueprints whether they be organic or behavioural. And the drive for these changes may differ, whether it is an increase in oxygen levels in the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago, the increase in meat eating (and therefore scarce fat) helping an increase in brain activity many tens of thousands of years ago or more recently the retreat of glaciers a mere twelve thousand years ago. Changes in the environment give rise to changes in life: a thought well worth pondering on with respect to human induced climate change in the Anthropocene.
Can equivalences be made between world events? Can we infer sufficiently accurately to postulate what might happen in the future given certain conditions? And what of contingent events, is human unpredictability that difficult to allow for or are there only a few variables on a large scale? The scale at which something is looked at can alter conclusions. It is hard to predict the behaviour of one single item in the midst of the countless, but the whole will follow a pattern much easier to understand. What is the link between the two, between the individual and the collective?
Our ability to alter the planet surface gives us power over our future but can we learn from the past to avoid the inevitable or are we condemned to repeat a pattern which, while different in broad details, is the same at a higher level? This may be where the digital revolution might have a decisive role for the better or the worst. If we want a degree of stability, we cannot leave the future to the contingencies of human behaviour. But is human behaviour contingent or predictable? It seems more and more the case that it is the latter but does this reconcile with individual freedom, if such a thing actually exists? To what extent are we free to decide as individuals and more importantly as collectives? Is it enough to say that the collective is made up of countless individuals or is some new paradigm needed? How dangerous could this be? Social engineering is not a new thing.
Mythopoeia is the act of making myths. Today it takes its meaning from the title of a poem from J. R. R. Tolkien in his book the Tree and Leaf. His work takes from many strands and weaves them into his epic sagas, something I can relate to. The word today takes its contemporary meaning from his work as a genre of fiction that merges archetypes with traditional mythological themes.
My proposal is the beginnings of a myth expressed in primarily visual and sonic form. As I hinted in What is the Character of a Myth, I am not looking to create character and plot based narratives like the Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. These are tightly composed works. My idea is more open in interpretation and focuses on mechanisms.
It has taken a term to get to the point where I have finally found the overarching theme of the project proposal. With hindsight, I was heading this way all along but things are rarely that obvious when attempting to elaborate something new, that is cohesive, within a complex ecology of ideas. In the group session earlier this week, Jonathan introduced the idea of mixing, merging, hybridising, editing, scripting and scoring. This is pretty well what I have been doing as well as filtering, curating, and amplifying disparate ideas which somehow held together in my mind.
In the post What is the Character of a Myth I looked at myth, not as characterisation but process. This led me to focus on underlying processes which are applicable to a variety of narratives. What underlies all creation myths and cosmogonies is change. This change can be gradual or catastrophic. For example, punctuated evolution proposes long periods of relative stasis in species evolution punctuated by brief periods of radical change, as opposed to the gradual changes that occur in classical Darwinism. Equally, the Garden of Eden in Genesis is a story of catastrophic change, with the expulsion of Adam and Eve and the disappearance of Eden things change radically after which things slow down, gradually moving towards a society, in which Jehovah destroys the world in a cataclysmic flood in readiness for a new beginning.
There may be little in common between these two timelines, but one thing is shared by both, change. It is fundamental in all cosmogonies whether scientific or faith-based. And what is the nature of this change? Metamorphosis. This may be a transformation of form, relationship, organisation or, as in many myths, from the divine to the mortal after which we enter into the territory of folklore.
Metamorphosis can be intra-organismal within a single lifetime, as in the case of the frog or the butterfly or over longer periods of time in the evolution of species. Metamorphosis can be the process of making a mortal eternal, as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses or whole belief systems can undergo fundamental change, as described by Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. History shows us how metamorphoses within societies, revolution, war, disease, commerce, technology, and everyday politics, leading to radical changes in the way people live. Metamorphosis is the essence of existence, process.
What I find interesting is that metamorphosis is a concept that applies to so many of the ideas that interest me and is at the core of artistic transformations: taking matter or concept and altering its properties to give rise to something new: from the metamorphosis of clay into fired stone to that of manipulated sound, to the evolution of ideas. I can see this as a rich seam beginning to be uncovered for mining when it comes to the Research Statement.
And what is the relevance to the contemporary world? We live in a world undergoing great change at all levels of society and in the very fabric of our environment. This time of great change now called the Anthropocene, has profound implications for us all and more so for future generations. Expressing them in ways that connect with origins and their past transformations gives continuity to our world and meaning to the future, reminding us of what is at stake.
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.