Conversation, Intersubjectivity and the Suspension of Reality


Conversation is an often used word implying an informal exchange of ideas and thoughts, perhaps altering these in the process. Useful as it might be as a term, I have always felt uneasy using it with respect to artwork. I am talking here about visual arts and motionless works in particular, not performing arts, artificial intelligence or certain forms of interactive art. In these latter cases the argument is different on account of the degree to which a two way interactivity may take place between art and the recipient. With performances, it is likely that the performer is affected more or less than the audience. With visual arts such painting, sculpture and video, the relationship is one way.

An artworks such as mine would be better described as agent; aiming to affect the recipient in some way through a social nexus. This status as agent is applicable to other art forms, but it is particularly pertinent to visual arts of inanimate nature and passivity of kinetic response: stillness, silence and in the case of video, intangibility. Audiences project their individual or collective feelings, ideas, beliefs onto the art object. The one way nature of this behaviour precludes a full intersubjective relationship. Whitney Davis says that, ‘Artworks are never subjects, but always objects; only subjects are subjects.’ The asymmetry of action that arises when considering an object-subject exchange is something I foster or disrupt according to my intention.

Intersubjectivity is the exchange that takes place between two equivalent subjects. As the status or autonomy of one subject is reduced the intersubjectivity becomes increasingly asymmetric to the point where it is meaningless. I  think that this inverse relationship needs to be considered if one is to talk about a conversation with any sort of clarity.

In order for an art object to fulfil its full capacity as agent for social interaction, there needs to be a suspension of a sense of reality. The recipient enters into a contract where they accept certain premises set by the work or context. The consensual nature of this behaviour gives the artwork a fragile hold over the recipient while the contract holds. This is not necessarily self delusion but part of the artistic process. Without it, a purely literal or rational stance would create a difficulty in imagining and affecting the recipient as might be intended with an artwork.

I feel that this suspension is necessary as part of creating an imaginary universe. It is not enough for me to adhere purely to representation, commentary or illustration although these do form part of my practice. The non-enforceable contract I enter with the recipient is that they too suspend a sense of ‘reality’, their reality. In this way, a dialectic can take place between the ideas behind the artwork and the recipients own. How this is done is a matter for delineating those prototype ideas, give them form within a coherent narrative however irrational, and curate the outcome. But principle above all is the freedom to break the rules and traverse into new realities. In short, art is about creating a reality out of something that we know is not real and making it real.

Going full circle, the word conversation is perhaps apt when confronted with an artwork. However, entering into such a relationship requires a consensual agreement either individually or collectively that permits the work to exert its presence or power and affect the recipient(s). This does not mean that critical thinking cannot be applied but there is a place for both. It is here that prior knowledge of what one is experiences can be beneficial in understanding a novel work. But this does not preclude whether a work works for one or not, it just might help.