Living Presence Response


I was watching a video featuring the blue ringed octopus, a poisonous creature that warns would-be predators by the appearance of iridescent blue rings as part of a rapid colour change. Unusually bright colours in animals and plants are often protective warning signs that they are poisonous, a strategy used advantageously by innocuous opportunistic mimics. Equally, bright colours can also attract as part of courtship and mating in many animals as well as a means of plants encouraging the ingestion and subsequent dissemination of their seed. Animals respond to such cues just as we are attracted or repelled by colours, movement, smells and sounds. This raises the question, is there a correlation between the living presence response elicited by artworks and the way we respond to the natural world?

Gell, van Eck and others have looked at the phenomenon of living presence response from an art historical stance but it seems to me that a lot can be learnt from observing our responses to the natural world. Van Eck in Particular talks about the role of the sublime. The sublime as a topos has been written about copiously since the enlightenment, however, this is as much an area for behavioural and evolutionary psychologists as it is for those interested in art history and theory.  Responses of awe, terror, pleasure and overwhelming presence have been used by artists ever since people have been making things. Authors and facilitators have employed notions of scale, beauty and technical virtuosity to great effect. These are amongst a number of properties found in nature and religion. What could be more sublime than an idyllic landscape or an all encompassing deity whose beauty is such that it cannot be imagined let alone looked upon, maker of all the world?

Authors and enablers of art have often been motivated by the desire to possess at least a small piece of the cause for awe, sublimity, beauty and power through the facilitating and making of great works. And we raise such things to mythical heights, from the Sistine Chapel to the Pyramids. It is this close relationship between our emotional response to natural things and art objects that interests me: the reason we look upon certain art as though it were alive despite knowing it to be inanimate. We speak of such works as speaking to us, living, and we respond to them with emotions and thoughts that are close to those with which we react to animals, plants and indeed other human beings. We treasure them, often above other humans, and we make pilgrimages to see them in the hope of experiencing their purported transformative properties. Centres of power have long recognised this as self evident.

Religious icons, large painting cycles, marble statues, tribal carvings and video installations vary in the way they create responses but all hold in common the desire for us to engage with them beyond cognitive interactions. The aim in such cases. to engender a gut reaction, a psychological jolt that brings us into an emotional-volitional nexus with it. This entanglement is most often set in a social context. The art object gives rise to a dialectic and perhaps consensus of its meaning and function. There is a toing and froing between the art object and the viewers of response, inference and rule making. In this way, the art work’s agency could be seen as not only being defined by social conventions and interactions but its characteristics which are then assimilated into the social nexus and become part of the way in which it is viewed.

How this agency is created is largely the role of the artist. The artist’s charge is to imbue the work with sufficient information for the work to act with agency in its respective social setting. However, this of itself is not enough. The social setting must be receptive either by prior knowledge of the domain in which the art object functions or be informed of the aims or function of the art object so that the viewers can be guided in their response by a set of rules of reaction.

The skill of the artist is to enable this nexus of meaning and function. The artist can employ many strategies and tactics to do so, but for the work to elicit the living presence response, he or she much be aware of the context and receptivity of its audience.

NB: the terms I have used so far could be replaced with Gell’s. This would make the writing and reading of the text much simpler as in my previous post, namely: artist, index, prototype, recipient, agency.

I have not mentioned examples as this sort of post is more of a place holder for a fuller text. 

Constructing Irretrievable Narratives to Living Presence Response



Trying to Grasp the Irretrievable

To connect with the past through an atavist organic self, is to reconstruct not only events but the notion of sentience in another time. How can this be possible if the past is out of reach? Humans have grappled with this problem of creating an uninterrupted narrative in one way or another since people have wondered what it is to be. Ultimately, is it not about trying to explain the world as it is and how we got here, and perhaps by discovering some best explanation, for that is all it can be, have a glimpse of purpose, or if indeed there is one? Abductive reasoning is at the core of this, there is no certain conclusion, only evolving ideas that change as evidence accrues or new paradigms are installed as others are packed away.

Describing such a narrative is about filling the spaces between what we know to create mass. An uncertain substance yes, but it is something to hold on to, to shape our view of the world. Mass is a speculative place holder for something we can probably never come to know, experience for certain, only through projections and models that we build of the world, again as best fit explanations for their time. Knowledge is at best, one long sequential series of inferences that bring the world to life, a vision limited to our lives and senses in this four dimensional existence.

Personal memory, collective memory are acts of reconstruction, constantly discarding and reforming narratives in a dough constantly kneaded into shape. We sail in a ship of Theseus of the self, shedding and accreting thoughts that keep our sense of momentary self in some sort of integrity.

A medium is a metaphor, an analogue even of part of such mass, malleable, reformable. Clay is such a medium, however, the conversion of clay into ceramic stone, the alchemical process of firing, is the consolidation of an idea into what could be seen as a dogmatic shape, no longer responding of itself but only capable of being responded to. It is at this point that making ceases.

The process that gives rise to a work of art becomes translated into another behaviour. The work of art becomes more than the frozen embodiment of the intentions of its maker. It becomes an agent, a social agent not just of those aims and desires but a vessel accruing the actions and feelings of those that experience it. The work of art is kept alive in this sense, by the communion of the recipient. In that way the work leaves the hermit shell of the artist and grows into something else. Something undetermined but possibly significant. It is fed by the context it inhabits; living, dying, resurrecting as circumstances may change, paradigms shift, society attempt to reconstruct a narrative, a new narrative, so long as it survives the vicissitudes of history and nature.

I have given a preliminary look at Alfred Gell’s seminal work on art anthropology, Art and Agency. It is a continuation of Dewey’s idea of art as experience. Gell applies this to situations in which artefacts become objects of ritual, veneration and even fetishism. It is a fascinating area for me because it forms a way in which I can articulate some of what I am doing. This in turn has its origins in Sanders Peirce’s work on semiotics. It is a way of explaining the relationship between artwork and viewer when the viewer treats the object as a living entity. Caroline van Eck explains this dynamic in clear terms in her paper, Living Statues: Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency, Living Presence Response and the Sublime. It contextualises my practice in that domain, where the object is treated as living without the need to talk of it as a biological metabolic organism. This ties in with my paper on Evolutionary Space: Looking at Artistic Practice in a Disparate Art Ecology. It is about the transfer of information. And this transfer of information is not necessarily one in which free will or even action is required on behalf of the art object. The art object  is the carrier of information in much the same way as a printed book or screen does. The container of information is a vehicle and its intrinsic value as art is perceived, just as a sacred rock is seen as such even though it is physically no different to any other rock. Both Gell and Eck extend the argument to looking at why an inanimate object should illicit a response of the kind that art objects and artefacts do, a living presence response. These texts are of course mainly written in the context of ritual anthropology and pre-contemporary art history. However, they can be useful in considering the function and affect of a contemporary artwork and how this might influence art practice. It certainly is not applicable to all forms of art but the future destiny of an artwork is often if not always beyond the grasp of the artist or their contemporaries.

I may write more about this as it enters into domains directly pertinent to my own interest but I need to study the texts further before doing so. these texts deal with salient aspects of my very first project proposal draft, A contract with the Ineffable, and may be useful in my explication of what I am currently doing. Eck concludes her paper pretty well where I began with my first draft project proposal, ‘[the] living presence response considered as an experience of the representation of the unrepresentable’.




Collected these treasures on a beach in the South of France the day before yesterday. Janet picked up the biofacts and mineral objects. I was drawn to the glass worn by the incessant wave action. What would our distant, and perhaps not so distant ancestors have given for these coloured jewels? They would have certainly used them to adorn themselves and decorate their most precious possessions; traded them inland and held them as symbols of status, wealth and beauty. The irony is that these are today’s waste cast into the sea, transformed and neglected in the sands of a affluent watering hole. 

What will our descendants think of the pebbles and algae washed up on shore? The pebbles will always be there, or somewhere else. The algae, who knows. All too often, the natural environment is entangled with plastic and other detritus from our ‘evolved’ world. How will clean, natural things be seen in the future?

Janet and I collected different things, One the natural historian, the other the archaeologist. The two go hand in hand, and we did not ‘fight’ over any particular object. The truth is, that we helped each other to find the objects we sought. A meaningful juxtaposition arising out of a collaborative exploration on a modest scale. 


Tutorial 5: 04 October 2019. Gareth Polmeer

Research Statement Tutorial

Earlier today, I was able to get feedback from Gareth regarding the RS. We had a very interesting conversation around some of the subject areas touched on in the paper.

I am happy that the paper has focus and am grateful to Gareth for the suggestions he made in the last tutorial, namely William Latham’s Mutator. The paper works better than the original drafts, in that it avoids many of the former complexities which were hard to resolve within the word count of the paper while still keeping some original elements.

One of the things I have to add is a line or two to say that some ideas presented are subject to current debate. This goes particularly for the first paragraph in Part 2 which deals with, yes you’ve guessed it, aesthetics. No single area of art causes more debate than aesthetics, or perhaps be more interesting. And that is perhaps why the Research Statement proposes a way of mitigating subjectivity when discussing more than one artistic practice at a time.

This does not mean I have found a universal and infallible modus operandi. It is more of a gateway to further discussion and debate, perhaps future research. In fact, there are many potential papers nested in the RS. All these side branches or spurs to other areas, can only be hinted at in a four thousand word paper. So this is another thing I should mention in the paper, the potential areas to be investigated. Areas such as the idea of whether AI can make art, final causality and autonomy of action.

I have one hundred and sixty four words left. This should be enough for any corrections and additions. One thing I was glad of was that I do not need any further citations. They just take up on the word count. This makes life so much easier. There is just one I could add in paragraph 1 of Part 2 where I could explain where the idea is coming from: the part that mentions not requiring teleological control. This paragraph is debatable which in the context a short paper can be moved through. These are things many books have been written on.

The first paragraph of Part 2 could go in many directions, and I am aware of this. The paper tests ideas and does not sit on its own. Gareth mentioned Paul Crowther who has written on the phenomenological theory of art, Phenomenology of Visual Arts which would be interesting to read in the future.

I have been concerned with the way the paper transitions from life simulation to looking at art practice as a life process, whether I have been clear enough. Gareth mentioned the Hegelian idea of Geist and in Hegel’s terms art practice is a form of sublation, in which something evolves and changes, and parts are negated to become something else.

Look at Heraclitus in the context of  process philosophy which predates and counters the Aristotelian and Platonic ideas of being, the four causes and the realm of the ideal.

All the ideas touched on are a rich field to take forward but most importantly they are never far from practice based work.

Wolfgang Gil: Maleable Sound as Sculpture


Resonant Body I – Wolfgang Gil


Gareth Jones, in his essay, describes the historical changes in the relationship between sculpture and sound. This dichotomous tension is straddled by Gil’s work in Sonic Plasticity proposes the use of sound as a malleable material – one that can be stretched in all dimensions, encompassing height, width, and depth, with curves, edges, and changing geometries. His Aural Fields and Resonant Bodies combine physical structures set to vibrate, creating geometric fields of sound perceivable in space with edges and form.

This is an interesting field I am currently investigating with respect to the final proposal with respect to sculptures. I am not proposing to do the same sort of thing but Gil’s work does have correspondence with how I see sound as creating a physical entity in itself.

My idea is to counterpoise the readability and sensuality of the solid pieces with the pure perception and sensuality in another modality of sound. I am concerned about the cancelling out of one another: should solid sculpture reside in silence, should sound be disembodied? These are questions I intend to explore and aim to resolve in some way. The use of digital interactive devices is something I have been working with enabling an element of audience interaction. But then again, the work in silence also speaks of itself. This is an interesting area of empirical research which needs a trial and error, or heuristic, approach.


Evolutionary Space


Images above: works by William Latham, John Horton Conway and Andrew Lord


Evolutionary Space: A way of looking at art practice as continual process in a disparate ecology.


Art practices have become widely divergent and disparate in recent years, particularly since the arrival of  digital means which have opened out previously unimagined possibilities. Different taxonomies representing a great variety of paradigms, methodologies, thematics, mediums and contexts have given rise to a heterogeneity of approaches when considering practices and the role of artists which can render problematic a holistic consideration of different ways of generating art. Using Conway’s “Life, Latham’s “Mutator”, and the work of ceramic sculptor Andrew Lord as subjects, this paper introduces an approach to discussing art practices, fostering a unified view in the midst of diversity, evolutionary space. Borrowing from the idea of fitness landscape in evolutionary theory, applying it to Olson’s analysis of computer generated life regarding the relationship between pure information and its physical interpretation, in the context of Whitehead’s process philosophy of becoming, and Dennett’s idea of algorithms, a picture is built of how different art practices can be viewed as dynamic information streams coded and implemented in material terms. 

The research paper has changed radically and become frighteningly simply because I have a tendency to complicate things. The above may seem complicated but it is in fact a straightforward synthesis of ideas from various fields to construct a different way of talking about art practices which goes some way to avoid value judgements and the need to describe things subjectively. Writing the paper is making me focus on an increasingly narrow narrative as an explication for a broad idea. It is frustrating at times because I want to explore a multiplicity of ideas but by considering a wide field and having to progressively select out is also liberating. It shows me that things can be simple without loosing depth. Implied ideas can be just as powerful in leaving the reader the possibility to uncover them or find new things and feel the sense of discovery rather than having them pointed out. The methodology I am constructing is also feeding into the project proposal: I no longer feel compelled to spell out every idea.


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.


Art and Science



It has finally arrived, a beautiful collection of poetry. A few weeks ago, as is my habit, I woke up during the night and settled to listen to the radio. BBC 4 Extra was playing a programme about the life and works of Rebecca Elson. A cosmologist, equally known for her poetry who died tragically young. She wrote about life with as much insight as her work as a physicist. Her latter writings deal with her imminent death in an inspiring fusion of fact and vision. I was enthralled.

Elson brought science and art together in a way seldom done. When the two branches of knowledge come together, not as appropriation, comment or illustration but to speak in a single language of experience, empirical fact and authentic metaphor, something powerful is unleashed capable of prising open this world to reveal others as nestled together, ready to be felt and understood as though they were here. Ted Hughes does something similar but from a darker interior, a biblical horror as opposed to a cosmological creation. The beauty of both poets lies in the merger of nature and culture, with an insight and ability to move from the very small to the unimaginably large, to show the connectedness of all things and that existence is something greater than us.


Finishing Porcelain



As I work, I think of how the final pieces will look. Porcelain is a strange material. Silky smooth when fired with a grainy feel if left unglazed. I want to give the surface a skin-like feel.



The Belvedere Torso in the Vatican collection was a seminal inspiration for Michelangelo. Signed “Apollonius son of Nestor, Athenian”. Marble acquires a softness that bellies its nature as stone. Sculpture in stone influences my choice of material. But I choose ceramic as a pliable stone which is transformed by the alchemy of heat. Porcelain is like the white marble of stones and glazing it seems to me betrays the traces of handling and so an essential characteristic of its making.

Why do I choose the Belvedere as an example of marble statuary? Because arms and legs are functional, locomotory and grasping. The body is the centre of physical being from which other things radiate. As it was with our primordial ancestors, so it is with the forms I am working on.

Glazing speaks to me of function, impermeability. The body is not impermeable but in continual transaction with the world. In early times the clay was burnished to render vessels less porous. Decoration has always been applied to ceramics, from the rhythmical marking of the beaker people, to the finest renderings. From symbolism to shear exuberance and delight, ceramics have diversified and many left function behind long ago evidenced in the heritage of form only.

I have experimented extensively with Parian clay which was developed to look and feel like marble, it is soft, vitreous and warm, but it is hellishly difficult to use and is subject to warping and cracking. It is better suited to casting large pieces. Casting at this stage is not for me, it is not sufficiently spontaneous and better left as a means of reproduction. However, I shall continue to work with it on smaller scales. 

I do not want to use glaze because it covers detail and the sculpture looses the surface nuances developed during its making. However, the raw biscuit low fired material is brilliant white and unsubtle. It is also prone to get dirty and due to its porosity very difficult to clean. When fired to a higher temperature, the surface vitrifies and becomes sealed to a large extent, less porous and prone to atmospheric damage and the dirty that comes with handling and storage. However, the crystalline surface is still very white and lacks the organic surface quality I am looking for. When the porcelain is unfired and still wet, it has a flesh like look, a warm grey that responds to handling developing a beautiful sheen where it is burnished. However, this disappears on firing. I have looked for a finish that can restore to some extent that sense of sensual softness and has the following characteristics:


  • does not yellow over time,
  • is colourless,
  • does not create a thick layer,
  • is not glossy
  • and is easily restored.


Having experimented with a number of possible candidates I have found that the humble paraffin wax candle is the ideal substance. The porcelain is heated with a hot air blower and the wax rubbed on building a very thin layer that penetrates the microscopic pores on the surface and creates a colourless, translucent finish. Finally it is burnished with a cloth or brush.