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.

Zuihitsu – Assay – Essay – Blog

Studio still

 

Let all flowers bloom – as long as the garden is tended  1

 

Reading Emily Huurdeman’s paper on essaying art has made me think that what I am doing here, with my work and blog journal, is to create a form of essay (something I mentioned in my previous post). The very nature of the journal, an aggregate of personal responses to my artistic context, its heterogeneity and what Theordor Adorno called unmethodological methodology, makes it very much artistic research. The apparent disparateness of modes connects with the early Japanese quasi essayistic form Zuihitsu. Literally meaning ‘follow the brush’, my thoughts and actions have been in response to what has emerged at each stage in a never ending process.

The noun essay derived from its verbal antecedent assay meaning to test. The essay form defies definition as does artistic practice, it is neither scientific eschewing wholly critically derived content nor completely artistic responding to subjective experience. The essay is a form that pushes boundaries, breaking free from established rules, shaping content in a personal way, free from methodical constraints but not uncritical, not without method. This is the very essence of essaying.

The online blog journal can be seen as new Zuihitsu, a digital workspace where ideas are exposed, weighed and published in a variety of forms: sound, photographs, videos, text, digital interactions in all their forms. But this artistic research although fascinating is not an end in itself but as I mentioned earlier a continuous process. It is a means of better understanding, challenging, renewing and extending what I do. It is a way of harvesting new input and refreshing old ideas, of innovating paradigm shifts, developing and consolidating practices.

Since I started this MA, I have ‘followed the brush’, exercising a freedom from the constraints of a single path and given method. The essayistic form has helped render the elusive graspable and turn the opaque into layered transparencies. Fully aware that I have already touched upon such matters I recognise that many discoveries are only made after many passings over the same territory each time with a different eye.

 

  1. From the book, Artistic Research – Theories, Methods and Practices. Hannula, Suoranta and Vaden. 2005. Paraphrased to correct a slight, forgivable stilted English []

Elusive Directions: Taxonomy and Mereology

Instrument of Gender in Porcelain (unfired)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure Data

The previous post talked about sound and sculpture in terms of building blocks of non-verbal language. This is a fascinating area of theoretical practice that seems somewhat neglected whether because it is seen as irrelevant or the two areas are separated by a formal academic-professional gap I do not know. Artists have used sound and sculpture together, but as I have said before, one as the container or instrument of the other, not as equals. I do not presume to find a perfect balance between the two but I do approach them as having, at least theoretically, homological correspondences. Using basic units as the building blocks of each respective language, much as phonemes are the basic units of speech, I can perhaps meld the two together. Curiosity as to whether this succeeds is part of the impetus for the exploration.

I still maintain that sculpture is silent and sound disembodied. Sculpture primarily finds its place in my kinetic being, sound vibrates the corpus as an intangible organ sounding within me. Regardless of how they are interpreted they at least have this in common, that they inhabit the body as the closely related physical senses of touch and vibration. 

I have been looking at Pure Data as a means of generating sound, the basic components of it, vibration as frequency, pulse and volume. At last I have worked it out by following some videos on YouTube. The actual mechanics are simple, the syntax is straightforward enough. The learning curve seems to reside in understanding what each object does and how it interacts with other components. From this sounds can be generated without reference to outside associations. This seems the way, at least in great part, for crossing the boundaries between sculpture and sound in the purest sense; how sound can be shaped and moulded to correspond with sculpture… and vice versa, or perhaps even shaped synchronously. Sounds generated can then be edited in some other software or generated in situ and manipulated in real time. 

Skype Chat 2.4: The Practice of Everyday Life

Lev Manovich’s essay The Practice of Everyday (media) Life was the focus of today’s conversation. The essay touches on a number of ideas I have been thinking about for some time. 

Such as the idea of consumption and production of cultural objects and how the origination of material from scratch is being affected by the current environment that facilitates and enhances appropriation of material from other authors on a wide scale. I feel that this has had an effect on the idea of transformation in art works, particularly from the physical material to the idea and message. 

The colonisation of the imagination by new technology and those that use it is another related issue. Michelle brought up the question of independence of artistic process in this regard and its corollary uniqueness in the context of commercial imperatives in the media. I feel rather pessimistic about this, it requires a great awareness and resolve to make an affirmative choice not to be swayed by the pressures around us including social media and advertising.

The tensions between strategy and tactics and those that employ them is an extensive subject area brought up in the discussion. The image below illustrates this tension: between the tactics of individuals in response to corporate/civic strategy in the context of urban living. 

 

As Jonathan aptly put it…

the strategy of the city planners was the path went round the grass circle — the tactics of us the people was to say no and walk our own way – yes straight over

Amongst other things said, Pav mentioned rightly that qualities of tactics include creativity, critical analysis and intelligent problem solving.

Jonathan also added tentatively, individuality and community as in subcultures gathering around shared tactics. What Manovich points out is that subcultures have in recent decades become commoditised and commercialised so that their rebellious, subversive nature is subsumed into a larger field of social acceptance and monetisation. Perhaps one reason why subcultures change rapidly and new ones emerge as another example of tactics in navigating a controlled environment.

Tactics are decentralised, impermanent and unmappable (De Certeau), they are also adaptable and modular. Jonathan points out that unmappability is due to the sheer numbers of people creating their own individual tactics. However, Manovich suggests that Web 2.0 has made many tactics mappable (traceable), permanent and visible. Control has been handed over to the users but could this be an illusion? Are tactics shaped by the controls of the technology, is this part of a grand design, a spontaneous set of behaviours arising out of a chaotic and competitive field, or is it a question of individual freedom being manipulted? One way of looking at this problem is find out who owns the code, the data and who controls the data. I fear that the answer may not be that optimistic. It is an evolutionary process, inexorable and pitiless. How could this process be described?

When our attention turned to AMVs, Manovich’s example of user generated content, the discussion quickly turned to the aesthetics and merits of such videos and the process of making. However, the point was about the videos being the makers’ tactics. The question posed, are they subverting the original narratives of the anime films and the music or are they being colonised by the tools used? Does the tech and the appropriation of material shape the feel and look of the film too much? I think that seeing these are videos made by fans showing off their technical savvy and skill, they are meant to have a close correspondence with the original source material. However, I also feel that for the majority, the learning process is too tied to the style which might well embed itself in the aesthetic space of the makers stifling their individuality: one is pretty much the same as another. But could this not be said of any school of artistic practice?

One thing, it may limit the imaginative and creative possibilities in the future for those that learn through this pathway but it is empowering. As with many things there are pros and cons which cannot be considered dogmatically. The empowerment is a way of rewarding those that allow themselves to be controlled at a deeper level. Then again, the AMV maker of today might subvert the genre and go on to create something complete new and different, the one in ten thousand.

The overall sense of the discussion intersects with my own interests in the dynamics between the individual and the collective, group, corporation, state and the tools by which control and manipulation are exercised. And within this, the place of the artist and their role in a world where the making and consumption of art has become a mass commodity. Is new technology making a new space for artistic practice or is it controlling it? 

Life is one continual tactical process with the occasional strategic goal emerging out of vision, dreams, idealism, experience, fear, and hope. As the title of the conversation points out, everyday life is something that one practises and it needs practice to constantly become more adept in dealing with what life throws at us and to adapt. Questions were raised about what I do in a positive sense. Both as an affirmation of what I do and also a way of reaching out. It makes me think that being an individual artist is a precious thing in the light of the corporate/collective storm in which we stand. Technology is a great enabler but I do not take it as an end in itself. To do so would be for me to abandon the origin of things and lose my way in a system that is dispassionate and sterile. It would be like dreaming of living in the jungle and at that moment being dropped into that world where survival becomes the only thing to do. 

For me, the act of making and thinking during and after that act is everything in the moment. The message arises only after. The message is not something I wish to control or should I. That is why responding to open calls is something that I have to consider very carefully. My making is a expression of my relationship, communion with the world, not an explication of it; it is a net and a funnel, a bottleneck, an hour glass; both rational and irrational, a distillate and a generality, an acquisition and a gift, latent and active. If it transmits something, then that is its message, swaddled in its own making.

As It Was, So It Is: a failure to learn from

 

 

This experiment on video follows from a previous trial video. I was interested to explore further the idea of lineage lost in time and distance by loss of resolution. I also wanted to increase the distance of travel of the line and so used chalk and large blackboard surfaces. I consider this video to be a failure and a success.

It is a failure because the form does not really say anything of itself. Wanting to see what would happen when using chalk on blackboard as a way of using a larger surface and reversing tonalities, the sense of line is lost by virtue of the thickness of line and therefore its loss of sharpness and resolution with distance. In addition, the lack of aesthetic consideration with this doodle also led to a meaningless design which does, however, contain some useful information encoded in its making. 

But what does this experiment tell me? 

The action encodes ideas that extend the first trial video and suggests further work. It also synthesises ideas I have talked about previously, notions of repeating patterns through time and how it is difficult to discern the nature of the reiterations.

The line itself become irrelevant as a device for demonstrating the loss of clarity with distance. However, it does connect the far with the near. The pattern drawn near the camera is arbitrary (and therein lies one of the problems with the experiment, lack of meaningful content). But it is largely discernible even though most is out of focus. It is like looking at the near past. When the distal pattern is drawn, I can only see the broad movements similar to the proximal drawing but the details of the pattern remain undisclosed and the broad nature of the pattern is a matter of inference. Lines connect the distal with the proximal, this is mere metaphor. 

When the whole design is seen at the end of the video, the sense of repeating patterns becomes evident. The distal pattern is a simple version of the proximal one. This is a metaphor for looking for patterns over time. There are clear correspondences in the forces that shape one period and another. Only that the further back in time one goes, the less certain one can be of the shape of things and what is putatively known can only be partially inferred from evidence. However, such evidence and inferences lead one to believe that things in the past bear a close relationship to the present. Perhaps not so complicatedly, as in the drawing. 

This exercise is a metaphorical, or analogous, demonstration. I do not consider it as an artwork but rather a thought experiment documented.

What to do next? I will return to the Rotring pen line which is less expressive, more precise and therefore able to convey more accurately and dispassionately that which I wish to imply. That resolution of form is lost with distance and time. The technical remedy to the extension of the line into the distance can be achieved using larger paper. Making these changes I think will raise the aesthetic element sufficiently to make a passably interesting film. In short, it needs more curation. 

I am also thinking of doing something similar with text, words change over time, meanings alter making hermeneutic methodology difficult to manage. The same could be done with symbols and pictograms. This is not taking me away from my major work but rather creating a conceptual underpinning and contributing to ideas for the Oracle, Shrine and Mythopoeia.

In summary, I feel that the conceptual framework needs to be supported by an affecting aesthetic work. To work purely conceptually may be interesting, fascinating and absorbing in its own right but it does leave me with a sense of depression and sterility as creative work. A work made purely from the head with no heart or guts leaves me feeling incomplete and dissatisfied. That is because the vehicle conveying the idea is not felt but only thought and after all, the artist that I am, I cannot work purely from the head. But such an experiment does lead me to finding new contributions to a conceptual framework without necessarily considering aesthetics, that can be absorbed into my practice. 


Today’s Skype chat and discussion of Lev Manovich’s essay was a timely event in view of the ideas I have been working on lately offering a way of placing them in the contemporary environment. 

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

 

 

 

Dimensional Thought Experiment: Worlds Imagined and Recreated

A corollary arising out of the previous post on  ƒ(u) ∼ dt u , this is an abstract musing in the tradition of many popular science abstractions. One such imaginative piece of writing, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott (1884), came to my attention many years ago. A satirical novella set in a world with only two dimensions.  

 

Your are looking down a cosmic microscope where an infinitesimal point fills your field of vision. Sight becomes infinitely resolved.

 

A.  Imagine a dot, an infinitesimal point in three-dimensional space and time does not exist.

Now imagine this point repeated infinitely so each point touches the next along a single axis. The point is now a line.

At any point in space, the line will appear as a single point. You cannot see the line because time does not exist and therefore you cannot move from one point to the next.

 

B.  Now imagine an infinitessimal point in time without spatial dimensions.

The point is now extended in time to form a line.

Remembering there is no space, you cannot perceive the timeline, only a point in time.

 

C.  Now take a point in a world where space and time exist together. Extend it to form a line. You can now see the line because it extends both in time and space. You are able to move through both space and time simultaneously. You can now perceive the line as a continuum of infinitesimal points extending in space and moving through time.

 


 

This thought experiment has many caveats and appears reductive: an infinitesimal point seems counterintuitive as does a dimension devoid of physical extensions with only time as a parameter and conversely a space without time. In addition, a line itself without thickness or breadth, only length is also a pure abstraction. The whole thing is counterintuitive. These things are hard to imagine and can only be spoken of in metaphor or using mathematics because to our brains that are seated and immersed in a spacetime world these things do not make sense in view of experience. Experience tells us that it cannot be so. We are made and exist in this world. Our perceptions and minds have been formed as fractals or reflections of ‘real world’ phenomena and the laws that govern it. Such things cannot exist in our Universe. 

My simplistic thought experiment is a way of imagining space and time as inextricably linked to form the conceptual fabric containing all becoming, existence and change in our universe. Strip one from the other, and the impossibility to experience existence becomes self evident. This was one of Einstein’s insights following on from Maxwell. 

Add another spatial dimension and we enter a world which is alien and again counterintuitive. We can only construct projected shadows cast from such a world onto ours by the imaginative means of strange solid forms. Likewise, our-world solid objects project shadows onto flat surfaces, as an infinitesimal slice of the object that projected it. An idea Abbott made use of in Flatland  with the passing sphere. 

We have no problem in perceiving and conceiving of shadows as projections of a higher (our) dimension because they exist in a world of lower order than ours and one in which we experience shadows everyday. However, when confronted with a world containing more than three linear dimensions it becomes impossible to imagine such a world and we make recourse to geometric shadows in the form of strange solids and mathematical means to describe them. It is only possible to hint at what a world with four spatial dimensions might be like using animations. It is indeed a strange world.

 


 

When I think of my work in three dimensions, I perceive it in time too as my mind traces the surfaces and contours. When I see shadows projected by the work, I see something else, a journey through space riding on beams of light and reforming the world. A world that exist in three dimensions at a subatomic level, but appears flat, in two dimensions. I then recreate that universe in my mind to one that is congruent with an intuitive mind formed in this universe of spacetime. 

Looking into the past and future is also a work of shadows: shadows of ideas and events that do not fully form into rounded experience but play themselves on the screen of the mind as words, pictures and imputed movement. 

 

Uniformity, Local Conditions and Culture

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.

 

  1. 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 []

Mea Culpa Leads to a Unification

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.