Over the past days I have had a very interesting conversation with Taiyo. It covers some of our ideas regarding appropriation, collage, content…
Taiyo has published excerpts of this conversation, typos and all. It is valuable to exchange thoughts and open out to new ideas. I was initially intrigued by the animations she has started to post and contacted her because I found correspondences with what she was saying and doing with my current thinking. It is fascinating how correspondences manifest in things which appear at the outset very different. Is this because there are common threads, are these links an artefact of perception, is it a response to the context and environment? I suspect it is a little of all three.
The documentation of this sort of dialogue is very valuable and unfortunately not that common. It arose spontaneously and without the aim of compiling a document. I must thank Taiyo for having formalised this ongoing exchange from the seemingly fragmented format of the email.
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel: Jacob Epstein, alabaster (in Tate Britain)
The Jacob of Genesis wrestled with the angel, some say with God, taming a vengeful angry deity and forging a new relationship between humankind and divinity. I see this divinity as the all encompassing material universe made flesh in a dream as Malakh.
After completing the Mid Point Review I woke to a new realisation, that of grappling with a multitude of ideas trying to reduce them to a single point with a focused coherence of some sort. It did go through my mind to do the Tantra thing and make a painting symbolic of this synthesis into a whole: a point for meditation. However, my nature would not allow me to settle on such a solution. You see, I view the world as a continuum panning vertically from the infinite to the infinitesimal and horizontally across the fastness of time and space. The world is a whole simple single entity and it is a complex of interrelated elements divisible and united. Reality is smooth and simultaneous, granular and causal. This duality is not a matter of indecision but of phenomenological understanding.
So the problem I was wrestling with can be summed up as, do I present a single work that tries to represent a multitude, issues, subjects, material solutions and approaches, a symbolic sign or do I present, what I call in the MPR, a compendium of interrelated works, each able to stand on its own? The former requires a silencing-out of ideas, the latter risking to appear disordered and confused. If I am to be honest, the minimalist approach does not satisfy my nature however elegant it might appear. I am a mongrel of ideas and influences, philosophically and genetically heterozygous .
In an attempt to resolve this problem I am lead to ask of myself, what is the glue that would bind the works if I were to take the second path? I have already gone over this in a much earlier post. I also hinted at the answer in the MPR where I have written, words are the labels of my thoughts. This is at least partially true. I am not a good speaker but I enjoy the act of putting ideas into words the semantics of language and their syntax. Much of my understanding of the world is worked out with labels, shuffled and shunted in my mind until they fall into place only to be moved again and again. I am talking semiotics here; touched on in the previous post Significance and Meaning.
Having settled on my general direction and that is not to have to create a single work, however holistic it might be, and that words are the narrative glue that binds their content, I start to think about the relationships between the works. In so doing, they start to take shape in my mind, decisions have a rational and an intuitive element: working with Dionysian impulse and Apollonian restraint towards a balancing and rebalancing a weaving of interrelations, invisible lines of tension that burgeon into some physical form in each part.
But do I explain these relationship in words or should they be left to be uncovered, discovered, debated and vulnerable to misunderstanding. I must leave this to the receiver but the trick is to leave sufficient breadcrumbs for way into the wood to be made accesible. A catalogue or a statement, a performance or poetry, for now that question can be left unanswered, there is time for that to develop and mature.
Now for some content. The very provisional titles with which I refer to each principle work, yes there are also small morsels I plan to sow in the interstices, are significant as monikers for the links being forged. Hermaphroditus deals with gender, language and religion through the channel of myth. Logos/Oracle again inspired by the myths deals, as logos alludes, with the disruption of language and understanding through biological and geological metaphors of the gut and the cavern: the devouring of reason and dissemination of ambiguity and ambivalence. Language links these two works but the third installation is unspoken, the absence of word. Shadowland translates the three-dimensional world into two dimensions, constantly reiterating in analogue and digital means the simplification of form, altering its meaning. Whereas Hermaphroditus unfolds and Logos confounds, Shadowlands simplifies and in so doing creates another narrative.
The trilogy of unfolding, confounding and simplification represents in some way how I see this project. An attempt to simplify and synthesise entanglements through unfolding. The nature of interpretation and mutation of meaning links the works and suggest further works. Is this not the essence of myth? As I write I start to draw together the elements I outlined in the project proposal and as I do so other considerations start to fall in place, considerations such as the aesthetics of each piece. This starts to look less important and somewhat superficial. However, it is still important as a means of conveying a sense defined by the thoughts that go into the work.
Finally, there is the fourth element, the antecedent to all three which for now must remain undisclosed lest I should abandon its making and disappoint myself. It is a relic of times past and gives context within my own practice, what you might make of it is not for me to say.
I now feel renewed, on the threshold of a dawn having wrestled the angel. Like in a dream I did not realise I was in quite such a struggle. This realisation has come with the Low Residency and the MPR. There is much planning and preparation, experimentation and workings out. The projects are ambitious in meaning and in making and I cannot afford to leave things to sort themselves out. I cleared a path but it is yet to be trodden and tested. It is now time to take the next step… and keep writing.
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.
The projection of one dimension onto another, limits the information transmitted creating imaginative possibilities from the cast shadows.
Following our Skype chat on Tuesday, which I have yet to comment on, I thought again why I am wary of sole reliance on digital means for my practice as artist. We discussed control and it is this that engenders a will not ro surrender to the seduction of the computer. I work with analogue, organic, mechanical source material which may or may not be transformed, projected, presented, manipulated digitally. The key here is that the source material is primarily non-digital with the exception of source material directly generated using raw digital quantities, parameters and algorithms rather than simulations of analogue sources. I do not want the aesthetics of what I do to be dictated by a coder, programmer or company that has little or no concern for what I do. To surrender myself to the seductive facilitation that digital programmes bring to create source material, is to hand my imagination to another unconnected individual or set of individuals and loose self actualisation and independence. There are of course exceptions to this but awareness of the process into which one immerses oneself is paramount. I feel that a great deal of digital output is primarily there to enhance the experience of the receiver in ways that verge on, if not fully realised, entertainment and sensationalism. Perhaps this applies more to the so called ‘creative industries’, but the boundaries in this regard are constantly being blurred.
Having said this, I still use digital technology to work with as a tool, a wonderful tool, and in a few cases as a source material but not as a means of creating art. Photoshop and digital cameras, 3D rendering and sound editors are tools used when working in mediums, I do not treat them as mediums I their own right. There are exceptions where work arises out of a given technology offering a new means of presenting, or the work arises out of the ‘material’ of the technology.
In the end it is not about whether something is valid or not as art, that would be crass. The point is that I do not want to be controlled by this tools and what they can do. That is why it is important for artists to question, challenge and use digital technology as a tool for making art, imposing their imagination on the machines, to extend limits and set boundaries while individualising the process. After all, there is a difference in the way the artist and the receiver use their respective imaginations.
The question of control is pertinent to the video I am currently working on. It follows from post-truth-hurtling whose source material was natural and contingent. The outcome was subject to a number of atmospheric and seasonal factors which were beyond my control and which I had to seize in that moment. In order to be able to continue and elaborate on this methodology, I have had to devise ways of recreating the conditions in the studio. Only this way could I build on what was started then. I am experimenting with surfaces, objects, light sources, different ways of creating wave interference, narratives and so on. It is a fascinating journey which also brings in sound, text and other mediums. The essence is that I can control ephemeral events and phenomena, control materials and recording means, control methods while letting go of control of outcome and let the process guide me, let the process feed my imagination, let the process bring things together and create new avenues to explore, let the process create meaning. I am in control and so is the process. What it boils down to is that I need to be aware of what I am doing and why but not force the agenda. I have enough experience behind me for meaning to arise from whatever emerges during the process. It is a two way dialogue, a dialectic, a heuristic process, abductive, inductive and deductive, intuitive and rational, it is all things in one.
This post was finished over a week after the session.
Last week the discussion ranged over the classification and categorisation of art practices with particular reference to digital means. This week the discussion extended to the relationship between the digital and the non-digital and how the perceived gap might affect practitioners and how they approach their work. One of the main points of discussion was whether working in the digital environment was any different to what could be called more physical ways of working.
An idea brought up by Jonathan, citing G. Fifield, was a ‘friction-less and gravity-free’ space with respect to digital tools such as Photoshop. The reference comes from the 1990s and things have moved on almost unrecognisably. However, the notion of friction is interesting being as it is, a physical one but it could also indicate an abstract, conceptual form of resistance. In fact, I have worked extensively with the mouse as a tool for drawing. I have chosen this way of working when making digital drawings, eschewing the tablet and stylus for the very reason that the notion of friction articulates very well. What do I mean by this ?
I feel that the computer seduces us with its perfect lines and even surfaces and gradients. The vision of perfection it offers is not only commonplace now but relatively easy to achieve, offering little resistance with a modicum of skills. However, there is a caveat to this that Jonathan proposed later: that the aesthetic outcome is very much dictated by the parameters set by the software used whether it be by Adobe or any other company. The digital imposes a style or aesthetic that is hard to release oneself from.
Drawing with the mouse has a resistance to the perfect line and form because of the way it works: not being under one’s total control, it can be a little temperamental. This creates a physical and ‘virtual’ friction or resistance to the process both on the surface on which the mouse moves and the screen. A space is formed by the tension between perfection and imperfection. Here the imagination can dwell with contingent outcomes: the endeavour towards perfection by imperfect means is often delicious.
Another area of discussion was that of aura, with Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This is a very wide field of discussion that has personal, psychological, religious and political implications. Jonathan proposes that Benjamin is a starting point from issues of reproduction towards new forms of production and there is a debate about notions of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’, ‘simulation’ moving towards ‘substitution’. This is in fact a form of sublation and something I am working on with regard to a video and live performance work requiring very careful scripting and timing. This opened the debate on simulation and the nature of what is real and what is not. I think the idea of authentic comes into this as does original. These are perhaps best described as notions, as most qualitative descriptors are. Any definition is vulnerable to the deformation by subjective view points and conversely any rigidity too readily turns into dogma. I think the best thing is to remain open to change but be clear about what is changing.
We ended the session by considering some further terms that are useful when describing how a work comes about. Words that come from a variety of sources, from semiotic theory to acoustics, from physics and chemistry to sociology, words such as: filtering, curating, signalling, amplifying, merging. Being all gerunds, they denote action whereas others such as hybrid, score, script and remix are adjectival. Grammar is a wonderful thing, how a word can be transformed from doing to being to inferring. I could describe my work as a hybridisation in which ideas are scripted and encoded as a means of signalling amplified filters of perception. This sounds grand but without content meaningless. They can only help to articulate what is already there to express. The two go hand in hand. Thinking of what one has to say and how to say it are inseparable when using words; the same goes for any other medium.
Coming back to something I mentioned earlier, the final word by Jonathan was regarding the digital: that artists appear to be well placed to do some of the work in ‘revealing the ideology baked into code’, (whether financial, aesthetic, social, etc).
I have been thinking for some time about the fact that mythical protagonists are almost always animal, human or both. At times, natural phenomena may come together to give rise to cyclopean offspring as in early Greek mythology or Polynesian tales. These unions tend to occur at the beginning of time after which, almost invariably the main characters behave in a human-like fashion whatever they might be. Much has been written about what stands for what and how, whether crossing between the spiritual and real world, creating the world or giving rise to what takes place in ordinary life. However, what about the mechanisms? These are often left to the explanation, the reading of the myth, the hermeneutics of scholars. Take the garden of Eden for instance, it has been given many meanings, from a literal reading of the Genesis text to cultural transitioning to psychoanalytical interpretations. Whatever the case might be, it is difficult to get away from focusing on the characterisation of ideas through theriomorphism or anthropomorphism.
But what if I were to focus, not on characters but mechanisms? Even in Big History, a contemporary explanation – some would say a modern myth – for how the world came to be and how life emerged on this planet, we are compelled to look at the ancestral fossil record and visualise evolution as a series of animal and plant transformations. But there are deeper principles at work than, as in this case, hyperlapses from one body form to another. I feel that to solely concentrate on characterisation might be somewhat trite and predictable; what if I were to explore the mechanisms that drive myths? What if I were to create works that act as representations, metaphors, analogies or some other trope of these mechanisms? This would free me from the usual narratives, from having to contextualise in a forced manner, from fixing the ideas in a temporal locus. These ideas are timeless, without boundaries; they are not confined to any given period. By releasing my thinking from structuralist or post-structuralist constraints, from period context, from contemporary fashions, the relevance of the ideas embodied in myths might become self-evidently natural rather than contrivance.
This is not an easy thing to do. It is a way of creating an alchemical admixture of ideas and material form: I hope not too obscure. I shall not speak of these mechanism yet. I need to think more clearly, allowing the idea to walk hand in hand with the making: the concept with the affect and aesthetic.
Introducing my (exogenous) tabula rasa. A palimpsest as yet untouched. Made recently, I approach it with the same indecision as that of a blank canvas. It exists in the uncertainty of what it will bear, waiting for its baptism with the first scrawlings of the mind’s eye. A black board on which every idea is erased to make way for another.
It is where the juice of my mind will be extracted to create flavours with which to work. Rational though I may often be, it is the feelings and emotions that are strung together as beads along a thread of consciousness that form the shape of what I seek. This view has correspondence with the Indian aesthetic system of rasa. An organisation of affects that itself has an affinity with Aristotle’s poetics where he describes how the dramaturge uses devices to engender emotional states catalysed by the play enacted on stage.
I had been writing about art and machines, all rather heavy stuff when for some reason, the family of bowerbirds came to mind: perhaps as a reaction to thinking about artificial intelligence. Distantly related to the crows probably means they are quite bright possessors of natural intelligence. They live in the islands of New Guinea and around Northern Australia where they have evolved rather elaborate courtship behaviours. I have in mind a particular bird, the satin bowerbird.
During the mating season, the male spends a great deal of time and energy collecting coloured and shiny objects from the forest such as petals, berries, leaves and the odd plastic bottle cap. These are assembled into glorious arrangements neatly arrayed in the shadow of an architectural grass chamber. The bird then expends more energy dancing an intricate and exhausting display which includes spreading feathers and stomping around in a repetitive, somewhat aggressive, rhythmic ritual. All this in the hope of attracting a rather dull looking female. But it is she who does the choosing, usually after three visits, although it is thought that she decides on her first.
For all intents and purposes, what the bowerbird does looks very much like art. Not the daubs of a chimpanzee in a primatologist’s hut, but something far more spectacular, albeit on the scale of a black bird. The whole installation includes sculpture, engineering, design and a choreographed performance in a complete show of avian creativity. It is aesthetic, has meaning, to the female bird at least, and requires skill and hard work.
But what is the bird’s prime aim, is it to create an aesthetic that gives pleasure and meaning beyond sex, to inspire bird thoughts and feelings such as, how tall and wonderful the trees are, or does it do it to attract a mate? The process might be rewarding in itself, why else would the bird put so much effort into such an endeavour without the certainty of successfully attracting a female. But the underlying purpose, the sought for outcome, is to mate and reproduce. We may perceive it as aesthetically wonderful, but is it art? I hope there are not too many artists out there for whom art is the sole way of getting a date.