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.
I prefer to use the term hypothesis to thesis because what I am proposing in the research statement constitutes a series of inferences with wider implications in different contexts inviting further investigation whilst maintaining a tight focus on the subject matter.
The following summary makes a series of assumptions that will be dealt with in the paper.
That the process by which the increase and proliferation of the depiction of composite creatures in art is partially analogous to the life processes giving rise to body plan diversity in fauna
that this proliferation is catalysed and facilitated by novel ways of encoding information
that composite creatures arise spontaneously under conditions where an increase in ‘ecological’ niches occurs;
that this process is neither dependent on substrate nor content, that is to say it is algorithmic.
Daniel C Dennett’s idea of algorithm
David Wengrow’s hypothesis, ‘The origin of monsters: Image and cognition in the first age of mechanical reproduction’.
The Cambrian Explosion
Early Bronze Age Civilisations
Late Medieval Period
C20th and C21st information and communication culture including digital
The paper will explore correspondences between the radiation of diversity of body plans in fauna during the Cambrian Explosion and the proliferation of composite creatures in art production during the early bronze age city civilisations. The paper will focus on the role of HOX genes and the emergence of writing as corresponding ways of encoding information capable of responding to changing conditions as well as the increase in ecological complexity in both contexts. It will also look at the recombination of modular components of information that give rise to novel composites and their spread in the environment as catalysed by an increase in kinetic modes such as motility in fauna and trade and migration in human societies. The process of expansion and diversification of ecological niches in fauna and increase in the complexity and diversity of division of labour in urban settings will be considered as an important contributors creating new environmental conditions that offer increased opportunities.
The implications of the proposed hypothesis will be considered as to its possible effect on contemporary culture, specifically in the context of the digital environment and what the role of AI might be in the creation of hybrid creatures in art; particularly in terms of non-intuitive organisms arising out of inorganic systems and how human perception might receive and contribute to such a scenario.
Hieronymous Bosch may also be considered as a bridge between the Early Bronze Age and today in the context of religion. Set in the Late Medieval Period, at the end of ‘The Spiritual Age’, Bosch exemplifies the role of religion and its hermeneutics in generating composite creatures in a novel way within a changing information environment (religion, trade, exploration, writing in vernacular, printing, etc), crossing the boundary between intuitive and the non-intuitive notions, through imaginative speculations that offer diverse symbolic representations of composite creatures.
A preliminary title is an uneasy mapping out of a journey towards an idea without necessarily knowing the best route. This preliminary title is somewhat long winded but it does contain the elements of subject area, context and argument which may well serve as a condensed abstract. The fact that it will need pruning goes without saying but a kernel of an idea does reside in its immature state.
This is basically looking at how analogous outcomes can arise from disparate cultural and biological substrates and what this might say about ongoing contemporary developments. I see the Late Medieval element, seen through the optics of Hieronymous Bosch, as a bridge from the ancient to the modern. However, I need to think about the length of the RS and it may prove too much to weave Bosch’s particular narrative into the whole: his hermeneutic influences may be too mono-cultural relative to the other areas under examination providing an antithesis to the general thesis of the cultural and biological emergence of composite creatures or so called monsters which, it could be argued, depend on more complex environmental conditions. Nevertheless, as a counter argument it creates an interesting dialectic which unfortunately may be beyond the constraints of 3000 to 4000 words.
Six months ago I started with a loose pool of ideas flowing from existential themes. My main aim since then has been to find a cogent argument that reflects my various interests and that could place in different arenas. This quest has been exciting if onerous; I have gone down many wandering pathways. However, I also have had to discipline my thoughts within a varied practice since many of my ideas emerge synchronously with my practice and two years is not that long to develop a coherent trajectory. I know that the Research Statement will need to be started soon and that it needs to be well conceived at the outset in order to avoid time consuming blind allies during the Summer months, a period good for making.
In view of the upcoming RS, I have looked at the problem both taxonomically and mereologically, reductively and holistically. The tension between these two ways of organising thoughts has helped me identify those ideas and practices that would fit a tight set of self imposed requirements:
flexible and focused
leading to a project proposal and higher research
A thesis emerged ten days ago in conversation with Janet, not by logical deduction but in moment of gestalt in which I saw a bigger picture. With few words I was able to state the obvious precipitated out of the wanderings and writings I have done over the past six months. But how could I be sure this would hold together? I wrote a preliminary abstract or outline of the thesis in a surprisingly short amount of time, much shorter than the time it has taken me to get this far on this post. Since then I have been able to add content and ideas without disturbing cogency. I was concerned about having to read scores of papers and dozens of books in search of an idea. Instead, I know where to go and what to read for corroborative material and help to shape the argument.
I shall write about the RS in future post but for now I wish to continue with what I am doing. Instead I have opened a folder for placing material separate to the blog. Today (yesterday) I went to Doncaster to buy materials, time flies.
Briefly the RS tries to bring together in artistic thought:
The Cambrian Explosion
Early Bronze Age civilisations in the Fertile Crescent
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.
Bronze Man and wounded Centaur, mid 8th century BCE
Having started to read The Origin of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction by David Wengrow, many ideas are forming in my head relating to the way I work, metamorphosis and modularity.
The basic idea behind the book is that the assemblage of imaginary creatures comprising body parts from different species including human, is a construct that became established and spread primarily out of the urban way of thinking during pre-Bronze Age civilisations in regions such as the Indus and Mesopotamia. Wengrow invokes contemporary cognitive research positing that the creation of such creatures conforms to our modular way of thinking and our cognitive understanding of the world from a non mono-causal complex mix of social, technological and moral processes. The most culturally stable composite creatures are those that can function ‘normally’ in the world, breathing, eating, moving, seeing, hearing. They are the most enduring and widespread being the least counterintuitive, least fantastic and most believable, such as dragons, griffins and centaurs. This way of thinking was fostered by and proliferated in early urban societies where the codification of a variety of ideas in the state, organised religions, and writing in particular, promoted modular thinking or as I would say, synthetic poietic thinking. In such environments, counterintuitive views made of composite elements reflected the complexity of city life and intercommunal communication. Represented in object and pictorial form, and propagated and ‘reproduced’ through literature, they became culturally significant and widespread, their metastasis fostered by trade and commerce. Before the bronze age, composite creatures appear much less frequently in the artistic output of cultures, a correlation that Wengrow uses to support his thesis. The one question that is outside the scope of the book is the actual genesis of composite creatures in the imagination. The thesis simply states that the establishment and proliferation of these composites is an emergent property of our way of thinking combined with cultural transitions. Wengrow admits that this is a mid-range study, however, it is rich in imagination and fosters further imaginings.
This idea of modularity relating to cognition and composite creatures brings to mind the non-teleological evolutionary processes that gave rise to the Cambrian explosion, the advent of metamerism, predation and nature’s ‘experimentation’ of body plans. In order for body plans to be transformable and parts to be interchangeable, a form of modularity is required. Multicellularity is not enough, it is inconceivable that the simple, relatively loose agglomeration of specialised cells in, say a hydra, could be recombined to give rise to a new body plan, only another version of the same. There is a problem in creating a variety of body plans without a form of modularity. During the Cambrian this problem was resolved with the emergence of metamerism or segmentation. If an organism is made up of segments, the genetic regulation of each segment’s respective development becomes much simpler. Each segment can bear relation to the others and yet develop to accomplish different functions such as the head, limbs and tail. We know that HOX were critical in metazoan evolution regulating cell differentiation and thereby the morphogenesis of plants and animals. Modular segmentation allows for a high degree of interchangeability of body parts through genetic recombination without necessarily causing disruptions that would make any change unviable. One can imagine that this modularity reaches right down to the fundamentals of multicellularity including the brain itself. It is not too far a reach to think that the our thinking reflects that modularity and that that in turn reflects our way of thinking and the imagination. Ray Kurzeil, describes how complex mammalian brains function in a hierarchical modular fashion and how workers in artificial intelligence are trying to create homologues of this architecture. (Kurweil posits a future, in which a traverse in human development occurs through hybrid thinking: simply put, the downloading of network information into the brain, accessing the combined computing power of the web, or similar structure. An interesting idea in which our intelligence can be enhanced by means of ‘plugging in’ to an artificial neural net capable of far faster computations than we are.)
Artist’s impression of Anomalocaris, approx. 500 M yrs ago
The flexibility in body plans meant that complex ecologies could arise with the important and transformative emergence of predation. The new relationship between predator and prey brought about the necessity, probably synchronously, for movement, vision, an alimentary canal and a form of awareness of direction. Vision, to see your prey or attacker; movement to catch and evade; a head to distinguish direction of movement. With all these new perceptive and locomotary abilities, the sense organs and mouth would be best placed at the anterior end of the body or head: the first part of an organism that meets the approaching environment when moving forward.
The alimentary canal is an important part of this new development in survival strategies and must have developed very early on in segmented animals. It is essential for motile organisms, enabling them to ingest, digest and assimilate food on the move. This allowed animal life to expand into environments that would have been otherwise out of bounds. A homologue to the alimentary canal features in many of my works. It is of primal function with a great number of metaphorical connotations. Not only is it of biological and evolutionary significance, the gut from mouth to anus is also the prime organ of the deadly sin of gluttony; it is an internal boundary with the outside world that we share symbiotically with a diverse, and for each one of us, unique flora; the gut is recognised as being in close and complex communication with the brain via the vagus nerve, one of the longest in the human body; and we figuratively make decisions using our gut instinct.
Organic form in as yet unfired porcelain: length 590 mm
The project proposal at the moment features metamorphosis as one of its main themes. I work modularly: when thinking critically about something I break the whole into components which can be loosened and rearranged into new configurations. This is the nature of metamorphosis from within, dialysis followed by synthesis: as a caterpillar digests itself within the chrysalis, it keeps structures known as imaginal discs for each body part as proto-building blocks around which the future butterfly will form. In my case, the soup is as the negative capability from which creative thinking is shaped; the imaginal discs, the prior knowledge applied to give shape to abductive notions. Call this intuition if you wish, but this belies the formal structures that underlie what appear to be informal processes. And so my project proposal continues by harvesting, selecting, distilling and assimilating and intoxicating ‘soup’.
I am still forming, synthesising, juxtaposing and assessing. It is a long slow process that must fail before it can succeed. As in the case of the Creature narrative I am currently working on. More on this in a later post…