History and Shape-shifting Across Time: Rethinking a Tutorial

 

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

History, or at least the study of it, is in bad shape these days. Almost everyone agrees that knowing history is important, but in the United States, except at the most elite schools, the study of history is in freefall.

 

A very interesting take on the human condition. It touches on some of the things I spoke about with Jonathan in our tutorial.1

Pinkard opens with explaining how history is a process by which, ‘humanity experimentally seek[s] to understand itself in the myriad of ways in which it gives shape to itself in daily life, and also how historical change is intimately linked to changes in our basic self-understanding.’ As he puts it, shape-shifting ourselves across time. 

This is at the core of what I do across Big History. Seeing how we are indissolubly part of our origins and yet try to shake off the past, blindly, without realising that it (the past) clings onto us, embedded in our very flesh. 

In ‘What is the Difference’, the creatures shift shape as they rise the Babel-like tower, crude to refined, latent to defined, yet they bear a deep relationship woven into the fabric of life. 

Hegel’s first fundamental idea for his philosophical history, self-consciousness, corresponds to the microcosm of the act of reflection in action and the meditative holistic sense in making. His second idea corresponds with the notion of context and placement in a social space in which the first person viewpoint implies a dialectic. Further down the line, the I is separated from the individual ‘flesh-and-blood’ agent as it becomes the we in the accumulation of acts. This in itself reminds me of Buber’s philosophy of relations in ‘I and Thou’.

Hegel’s third idea refers to how circumstance largely dictates how things can go better or worse for an individual. We are all the offspring of history and constrained by the socio-familial-political and cultural environment. Although we are constrained by these factors, we also possess a greater or lesser amount of self determination, the ‘I’, that can set the way amongst the ‘we’.

All three ideas are contained within my work and the setting apart of directly human iconography is in some way the setting oneself apart from the ‘we’ whilst being in it. A toing-and-froing of the two forms which converge and diverge as do the Apollonian and Dionysian ways I spoke about in the tutorial. 

I constantly seek to reshape ideas as we do our lives, break with habits and reconcile others; shave off the animal in me whilst embracing it as my history and seeing how I cannot be without that part. 

The instability of things inherent in Hegel’s view of the world is reflected in the use of brittle, fragile material capable of resisting eons yet its form subject to catastrophic events. Porcelain is, as far as I am concerned, eternal, yet the form it is given is as fragile as the contingencies that surround it allow. 

Pinkard talks about new form of life emerging from the cultural rubble of an unbearable former one. So it is with the works I do, they look into a future as though they themselves are the past, with us absent from the scene yet we are here to witness it. This paradox, at the core of what I do, is the source of much of my difficulty in pinning down an essence. So I have reconciled with the evanescence of certainty, accepting the duality of things including my work.

Pinkard continues to talk about hierarchy and the Ancient Greek world’s moving beyond the freedom of a single person in society. This sense of democracy is implicit in what I am doing, all forms are equal and different without any containing an inherent authority over the others. They are all part of a great whole without which each would lose meaning with the loss of others.

This sense of freedom: does it pass onto me, and if I am free, am I independent? To proclaim oneself truly independent is to self-alienate, a social nothingness that negates an important function of the human self. Freedom does not lie in total independence but in the shape of agency that we assume in the context of one another and circumstance. A series of exchanges that at times result in a negative and at others a positive ‘balance sheet’. But in the end, it is the dialogue, the dialectic, that gives the ultimate fruit of synthesis and progression free from brut force, and art is only part of that but an essential component: in shaping tropes we shape ourselves; therein lies the power and danger of art.

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

Talking of Origins

Unfired porcelain and cast shadows

 

I often talk about origins: the imagination lights the journey into the past and the future stretches out ahead visible by the same light. Each one of us searches for a story of origin. The sense of continuity that we build for ourselves is perhaps a way of constructing a little piece of immortality, connecting us to the eternity that preceded our birth and what is to come. I say this in the plural voice, there is safety in numbers or so they say but it could equally be said in the first person.

Although these stories are raised to the status of myths and have the power to change the very nature of time, they all too often remain buried under accumulating layers of daily life… but such stories continue to bubble deep beneath the crust that surrounds the self. 

 

Adam and Eve: Rembrandt 1638, etching

 

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. 

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. 

 

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

 

 

ƒ(u) ∼ dt u

We all notice the little things, even the mouse hidden under the scaffolding for Anne Boleyn’s execution has a story. The bruise on my thumb also has a story, drawing the eye to its notice. Of what relevance is this to the main narrative? Who can say, but it is part of the world and to someone as, if not more important; perhaps someone who has just done the same thing.

Was there a mouse under the scaffold? Who knows, but I am certain of the events that led to the bruise, can you  be? The further one’s mind goes into the past, the more uncertain the truth of events. With the passing of time, accuracy of narrative diminishes and the latitude for the imagination increases. What happens in the past is always an imagining in the present; a speculation based on facts gleaned in the present. The past is a story of broken pieces tenuously joined in rapidly fading light.

Likewise, the present is connected in space and so often certainty in concurrent events are subject to distance. Communication technologies attempt to alter this trend but the veracity of remote news is subject to a large variety of factors. Generally speaking. distance increases the sense of uncertainty regarding an event, in its causality and sequence. This is something that affects us in the everyday. Space, distance and time are great arbiters of fear and hope. Am I talking here about control, or the illusion of control?

The future is also subject to a similar relationship only that there are no pieces to put together, only inferences which are subject to contingency and based on probability. It becomes a matter of approximating as best one can the chances of an imagined or inferred narrative coming about. There is also no past narrative presented for verification, only precedence. Does history repeat itself? 1

I am interested both in the deep past and the future, areas of thought that stimulate the imagination; prehistory, ancient history, science fiction deal with these areas. The closer one comes to the present moment the greater the burden of responsibility for its consequence. An understanding and critical view of history and honest informed political planning are perhaps the two greatest factors in determining how the world develops from now. These are the two things hardest to influence, because they are subject to strong emotions, biases and misunderstanding which affect events today and in the future.

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

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.

Mythopoeia I: post-truth-hurtling

The first term has ended and with it comes the continuation of what has gone before. I do not see it as the completion of a phase but rather as the beginning of what is to come. The term has been a time orientation, revisiting and rebeginning, looking at things afresh: all I do seems to ascend in a cycle.

A popup exhibition entitled Virtual Particles has been organised at Camberwell and rather than making a completely new piece, I decided to work on post-truth-hurtling, the kernel of a sketch done earlier in October and take it a little further. With the direction for the mid-term coming into clearer focus through the elaboration of the project proposal, I thought I would try to reflect this in the work. In so doing, I discovered that which I had suspected. That the themes that have emerged, were embedded within the process only to be unveiled by the elaboration of the project proposal. The title tells me everything I need to know; it encodes a number of elements that I had identified in the PP as my way forward for now:

  1. Mythopoeia – the making of a myth.
  2. I – that this is only a beginning of a cycle
  3. post-truth – dealing with current socio-political concerns
  4. hurtling – my sense of physical things and time being expressed in many different ways, hurtling being one of them

Combining elements of my research in one piece I turned the video sketch into something more layered. The sound track incorporates elements other that Storm Callum . I have begun compiling a fresh archive of sound files and engineered tracks that will serve me in the future. This follows my thoughts in the recent post, Breakthrough from the Simplest Source. It also ties in with what I will talk about in a latter post relevant to my process: that of making a ritual of the recordings.

The video incorporates shadows and moving light sources giving which initiates an idea I have had for a while. Animation, of sorts, in an installation that I would grudgingly call for now, Plato’s Cave. My difficulty with this name, although convenient as a temporary place holder, is that Plato’s metaphysical explanation for the illusion of reality was based on people not seeing the true actors and props but only their projections. My idea, on the other hand, is to have three layers of perception in which the actual scenario that creates the illusion is clearly visible and exposed and perhaps even open to interaction. 

The text in the video, is a reworking of the original, a selection, distillation, concentration. I aimed at something more incisive and yet ambivalent by taking out the superfluous. As the video unfolds, each word or phrase subsequent to the preceding ones changes the overall inferences. I want the words to remain maleable. Only at the end is the context alluded to.

The Lime Tree that looks over the studio: one of the elementals contributing to the making of the video

The elemental characters that went into the making of the video remind me of creation myths in an almost Miltonian sense. I avoid icons of or references to the human world. All that I leave is a sense of imputed volition. It is my way of saying that anthropomorphism is a emergent property of who and what we are, seeing the world in our own image. This is a key element of creation myths in contrast with evolutionary theory. Even in the case of the latter, scientists use teleological language as shortcuts for what would otherwise be very lengthy explanations. A simple example is the phrase, ‘evolving towards’. This assumes a direction or goal, something that is counter to the contingent nature of evolutionary processes; a trap we fall into when describing non goal orientated natural phenomena, because we see things with hind sight as though they were leading to some predetermined goal.

Another notion I wanted to imbue the video with is the sense of things continuing ad infinitum even when one is no longer there: an intimation of eternity. This is something I may work on in the future although it has been done numerous times in different ways. The relentlessness I wanted to give the work is part of its possibly dark interpretation; the soundtrack plays an important role in this. At the end I counterpoise this sense of unrelenting descent with the partial revealing of the context at the end: the open, fresh, natural phenomena used to create spontaneously a dark vision. Sun, wind, tree, clay and water: elements often appearing in creation myths conspiring to weave the ‘horror of creation’, as Ted Hughes might put it, or the dissolution of paradise in a Miltonian world where truth is subverted by lies.1

 

  1. from Crow Alights []

Impetus

 

The worn graphite pencil glides to and fro searching form, trying to enter the flat surface bounded by the small parcel of paper. Changing faces, it deftly leaves a trace that grows careful not to mark the paper indelibly with a false word. Thought is suspended in the uncertainty of emergence, I keep quiet and let the form tell me what to do. I am in its embrace, as the pewter carbon slates off the point until, it asks me, what shall I do next? We are now partners in shaping this tiny world. For now it must be all the world, no distraction except for breath. Time does not count in this place, movement reckons change: too much and life is extinguished, too little and we are left wondering what if. Imperfections must be left behind; corrections will unravel all that has been done as lines coalesce into form, light and shade becoming sensible with words of recognition. And so the meaning passes onto me as I hear the other’s voice grow faint in this world. My hope is that it waits for me in the next.

Ancestral

Close my eyes, and I see my parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so it goes on with the people that came before me. As time goes back they become strangers. What lives they led, what thoughts they held, and the world they saw is as much a part of me as it is not. Much the same and so very different, time tracks back tracing humanity to earlier times when there were no wheels and horses had yet to be ridden. The dawn of our time is still an unimaginable distance away from now and yet I go back further. As I think of ancestral forms on hot plains and cool dangerous places, the primitive becomes me, what I am now. Polar jungles and salty seas grow around me where I swim and swelter under an unfaltering sun. Yet I am still there, a small part of me survives the odds of existing. An unimaginable self that still dwells in me, that single creature twisting against its fate, giving birth again and again. I cannot any longer think but feel the cold water against my outer surface as my existence becomes slender. The slight trace of what I would become fading in the darkness, diluted in those moonlit nights when the tide throws me against the furrowed rocks and yet, I am still here. My possibility becomes lessened with every turning of the sun and each generation sheds a part of me as time recedes and me with it and still I am present. I no longer feel but my instinct is still to move with the light and smell the water for traces that are unknown to me. The silt is the dread I cannot know and now all sense of life slowly sloughs off and still the insensate part of me is here. The dim light of life is gently, slowly snuffed out in my thoughts.