Skype Chat 3.3: Four Assumptions

Over a week ago I was travelling back from Cluj Napoca, sitting at the Chiorean’s dinner table with laptop next to me trying to follow the conversation as it transpassed me online. The framework around which the chat revolved were four sets of assumptions taken from Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

The following assumption can generate highly personal and interested arguments that can contradict, overlap and synthesise. I have put them below to reflect on. Much of what is said is self evident in the light of experience but to those new to artistic practice they may help to clarify the confusion that can come from  lack of knowledge and experience, ambition, received notions and the weight of art history. These writings largely confirm what I have come to know over years of hard work, triumphs and disappointments. The essence of these notions, after they are made one’s own, make the act of making, of creating, of art so much more authentic. That is why I say, each to their own, art cannot be canonised but for one’s own eventual authority in what one does.

Assumptions

1   ARTMAKING INVOLVES SKILLS THAT CAN BE LEARNED.
The conventional wisdom here is that while “craft” can be taught, “art” remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so. In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. Clearly, these qualities can be nurtured by others. Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work. It’s true that every few years the authors encounter some beginning photography student whose first-semester prints appear as finely crafted as any Ansel Adams might have made. And it’s true that a natural gift like that (especially coming at the fragile early learning stage) returns priceless encouragement to its maker. But all that has nothing to do with artistic content. Rather, it simply points up the fact that most of us (including Adams himself!) had to work years to perfect our art.

2   ART IS MADE BY ORDINARY PEOPLE.
Creatures having only virtues can hardly be imagined making art. It’s difficult to picture the Virgin Mary painting landscapes. Or Batman throwing pots. The flawless creature wouldn’t need to make art. And so, ironically, the ideal artist is scarcely a theoretical figure at all. If art is made by ordinary people, then you’d have to allow that the ideal artist would be an ordinary person too, with the whole usual mixed bag of traits that real human beings possess. This is a giant hint about art, because it suggests that our flaws and weaknesses, while often obstacles to our getting work done, are a source of strength as well. Something about making art has to do with overcoming things, giving us a clear opportunity for doing things in ways we have always known we should do them.

3   MAKING ART AND VIEWING ART ARE DIFFERENT AT THEIR CORE.
The sane human being is satisfied that the best he / she can do at any given moment is the best he/she can do at any given moment. That belief, if widely embraced, would make this book unnecessary, false, or both. Such sanity is, unfortunately, rare. Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers’ concerns are not your concerns (although it’s dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.
For the artist, that truth highlights a familiar and predictable corollary: artmaking can be a rather lonely, thankless affair. Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists spend virtually all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about. It just seems to come with the territory. But for some reason — self-defense, perhaps — artists find it tempting to romanticize this lack of response, often by (heroically) picturing themselves peering deeply into the underlying nature of things long before anyone else has eyes to follow.
Romantic, but wrong. The sobering truth is that the disinterest of others hardly ever reflects a gulf in vision. In fact there’s generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work. The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by overpainting the still-wet canvas. The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many of the pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished art. The best you can do is make art you care about — and lots of it!
The rest is largely a matter of perseverance. Of course once you’re famous, collectors and academics will circle back in droves to claim credit for spotting evidence of genius in every early piece. But until your ship comes in, the only people who will really care about your work are those who care about you personally. Those close to you know that making the work is essential to your well being. They will always care about your work, if not because it is great, then because it is yours — and this is something to be genuinely thankful for. Yet however much they love you, it still remains as true for them as for the rest of the world: learning to make your work is not their problem.

4   ARTMAKING HAS BEEN AROUND LONGER THAN THE ART ESTABLISHMENT.
Through most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art. In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed. The painters of caves, quite apart from not thinking of themselves as artists, probably never thought of themselves at all. What this suggests, among other things, is that the current view equating art with “self-expression” reveals more a contemporary bias in our thinking than an underlying trait of the medium. Even the separation of art from craft is largely a post- Renaissance concept, and more recent still is the notion that art transcends what you do, and represents what you are. In the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of orthodox religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies. “Artist” has gradually become a form of identity which (as every artist knows) often carries with it as many drawbacks as benefits. Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all! It seems far healthier to sidestep that vicious spiral by accepting many paths to successful artmaking — from reclusive to flamboyant, intuitive to intellectual, folk art to fine art. One of those paths is yours.

Chat Session 2.1: Interaction, Immersion and Control

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