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’.

Traces, Thoughts and Transformations



The wet clay leaves a trace, a marker of its passing. All things leave a ripple in the fabric of the universe, gradually sublated into the chaos of complex interactions, inexorably moving towards randomness. But the random is not without pattern; a lack of pattern is a tell-tale sign of order. The patterns we perceive in random systems are unpredictable, truly formless. Those patterns are the conceit of the mind, progeny of the brain, evolved to recognise symmetry… or invent it. 

But these traces are not random, they are chaotic, and that is something very different. Photographing and manipulating the image gives rise to a pleasing pattern, something of aesthetic significance but without knowing its provenance, of what value is it? Does value lie in the way it is selected and treated, in perception, context and inferrences? How deliberate must a work be? Is intention the framework around which a work must be built or is there something else at play?

To look at the stain on the floor, the shape of clouds, a flower or bird in flight all delight the mind but is this enough? Maybe, but I feel that transformation of source material is key for something to become art: a metamorphosis into ordered form, the aesthetic; change engendered in the mind, the conceptual. Hand in hand they must walk together as sensation and idea.

Is digital transformation enough for the artist?


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.


Mythopoiea and Metamorphosis


Emperor and Four Ways of Being Inspired


Mythopoeia is the act of making myths. Today it takes its meaning from the title of a poem from J. R. R. Tolkien in his book the Tree and Leaf. His work takes from many strands and weaves them into his epic sagas, something I can relate to. The word today takes its contemporary meaning from his work as a genre of fiction that merges archetypes with traditional mythological themes.

My proposal is the beginnings of a myth expressed in primarily visual and sonic form. As I hinted in What is the Character of a Myth, I am not looking to create character and plot based narratives like the Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. These are tightly composed works. My idea is more open in interpretation and focuses on mechanisms. 

It has taken a term to get to the point where I have finally found the overarching theme of the project proposal. With hindsight, I was heading this way all along but things are rarely that obvious when attempting to elaborate something new, that is cohesive, within a complex ecology of ideas. In the group session earlier this week, Jonathan introduced the idea of mixing, merging, hybridising, editing, scripting and scoring. This is pretty well what I have been doing as well as filtering, curating, and amplifying disparate ideas which somehow held together in my mind. 

In the post What is the Character of a Myth I looked at myth, not as characterisation but process. This led me to focus on underlying processes which are applicable to a variety of narratives. What underlies all creation myths and cosmogonies is change. This change can be gradual or catastrophic. For example, punctuated evolution proposes long periods of relative stasis in species evolution punctuated by brief periods of radical change, as opposed to the gradual changes that occur in classical Darwinism. Equally, the Garden of Eden in Genesis is a story of catastrophic change, with the expulsion of Adam and Eve and the disappearance of Eden things change radically after which things slow down, gradually moving towards a society, in which Jehovah destroys the world in a cataclysmic flood in readiness for a new beginning. 

There may be little in common between these two timelines, but one thing is shared by both, change. It is fundamental in all cosmogonies whether scientific or faith-based. And what is the nature of this change? Metamorphosis. This may be a transformation of form, relationship, organisation or, as in many myths, from the divine to the mortal after which we enter into the territory of folklore.

Metamorphosis can be intra-organismal within a single lifetime, as in the case of the frog or the butterfly or over longer periods of time in the evolution of species. Metamorphosis can be the process of making a mortal eternal, as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses or whole belief systems can undergo fundamental change, as described by Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. History shows us how metamorphoses within societies, revolution, war, disease, commerce, technology, and everyday politics, leading to radical changes in the way people live. Metamorphosis is the essence of existence, process.

What I find interesting is that metamorphosis is a concept that applies to so many of the ideas that interest me and is at the core of artistic transformations: taking matter or concept and altering its properties to give rise to something new: from the metamorphosis of clay into fired stone to that of manipulated sound, to the evolution of ideas. I can see this as a rich seam beginning to be uncovered for mining when it comes to the Research Statement. 

And what is the relevance to the contemporary world? We live in a world undergoing great change at all levels of society and in the very fabric of our environment. This time of great change now called the Anthropocene, has profound implications for us all and more so for future generations. Expressing them in ways that connect with origins and their past transformations gives continuity to our world and meaning to the future, reminding us of what is at stake.


Oracle: Maquette 3 – End of a Phase

Studies: graphite on paper, 316 x 237 mm. From the maquette

When evolving an idea, there comes a time for leaving the process to the subconscious; to open it out to other influences and make new connections: this takes time. I remember when taking my physics A level at school, the best strategy for solving a particularly difficult problem was to read what was needed, identify the equations and methodology, understand the variables, try a few things out and then sleep on it. Perhaps the next day or a little later, the solution would present itself as though the most natural of outcomes. I am not saying that solving a physics question is comparable to producing a work of art. I only mention this because the mind continues working in the most wonderful ways while we are distracted elsewhere. By going to sleep on a problem, we dream and see things from different perspectives in different contexts. This enables solutions to arise that would otherwise be constrained by fixed thinking. My attention is now turning to sound, relics, shadows and other things. I leave this particular part of the project in a place where, of its own account, it can respond to different ideas and methodologies and await a refreshed return.  

Oracle: photos of maquette 2

Taken after I had completed the drawing. There are well over one hundred images and I have chosen nine, not for their aesthetic, formal content but for their ability to convey information and ideas that take me beyond considerations of the sculpture alone.

Relic and Ritual

The first maquette for ‘Oracle’ dried and broke up. Removing the wire armature broke the pieces further. Recycling the remnants of the idea, composting them for future use is the usual way. Early humans buried their dead. Where lay the transition point from composting to burial? Humans have thought that somehow the preservation of the body allows it to transition to another domain and built myths and religions on this notion. The idea embodied by the maquette has moved on and evolved into something different. To ritually preserve its remnants is to keep the idea alive for transitioning. From clay to clay: each iteration encased may foster an evolution towards something else. 

The box is made carefully with attention to detail: it is imperfect, rough, not quite symmetrical; housing incompleteness, impermanence, transition, and the now absence of what was. Wabi sabi  is the embodiment of such ideas. Much of what I have done corresponds with this aesthetic principle, particularly in the case of small works. Subtlety and contemplation are rewarded with a sense of understanding the world in a profound way. The ritual of preserving the maquettes, time consuming, onerous, is a ritual that builds significance. The Confucian idea of ritual through deliberate action and repetition, turns the practical into symbolic action, into physical reality, back to idea into action. If an idea is conserved, it remains alive, if it is alive, it has potential, if it has potential, it can metamorphose. This is one way of my moving forward with what I consider an ambitious project. 

I can see how this approach is endlessly expandable and scalable. But would that go far enough in my view? I think not, it would be to alight on one of the first ideas and stay there. That is not the purpose of this exercise which is about deepening and connecting rather than producing in the first instance. However, having said that, I intend to make each stage a document in the journey towards new work.

Oracle: Maquette 1

Studies: graphite on paper, 316 x 237 mm. From the maquette

Today I made the first maquette for the work I am currently calling Oracle.  It is a continuation of the sketches in Drawings 1 and Drawings 2 in unfired clay and metal wires. Although the final intention is quite the reverse, I am thinking about how language is digested and deconstructed through the alimentary canal of human behaviour. Starting as incoherent noises a comprehensible message emerges at the other end. The Oracles of ancient Greece and Rome worked on this principle and functioned as political spin, from the personal and local to the national and imperial, ambivalence and ambiguity almost always the mode of interpretation. Has it ever been any different for those in power, regarding today’s politics? Is this not what religions do when interpreting the numinous in a bid to acquire and keep hold of power? Take an unexplained phenomenon and make of it what you will.

However, as I mentioned at the start, this work is intended to reverse the process: converting a comprehensible message into an incomprehensible babble in real time. Words are deconstructed as in a form of Chinese whispers from the initial utterance to a final noise. Along the way different iterations of this deconstruction are audible adding to the confusion… all in real time. Is this not what happens to what is said as it passes down and away from its source? This is at the heart of the process of collective assimilation of individual attempts to communicate. 

The maquette is already cracking and breaking up. It disintegrates as do so many thoughts that need be transcribed into a more durable form for retrospection and reflection. This disintegration is part of the cycle of things… I envisage the sculpture being held up by iron rods and suspended from above with iron wires. I can use other materials as I look into different configurations while I research the sonic component. But the things is to always start with what is at hand: plaster, air drying clay, paper mache, metal, stone are all considerations. Eventually I shall make a more permanent scale model to resolve difficulties in making and installation; I am sure that new ideas and solutions will meet me along the way. And as I work on this I will consider it holistically with the other works in mind. Language, myth, ritual, group, self, absence, disintegration, unification, permanence, transience…

As the maquette disintegrates, its container is made: the rests of an idea.

A Sculpture Waiting for Meaning: Project Idea 1

I have many ideas, often all at the same time. I aim to rationalise the documentation of these ideas using this blog. But I do not wish to hamper the processes of openness by which these ideas come about with a restrictive system. However, I realise  that by placing them in some ordered way, I can access, integrate and develop these ideas as I move forwards with other more conceptual and text-based elements currently in progress. It is a balancing act.

This first project idea is one that naturally follows from what I have done so far. Until now, I have taken sound and embedded it into the body of the sculpture so that the sound emanates from it. What if the sound were brought in from outside and were somehow processed within the sculpture’s body

Ceramic shrines are common to many cultures, the pre-Columbian America, The Middle East, India, are all  places where these form part of the archaeological heritage. They sometime have the effigy of some deity held within, but at other times they are quite empty. This is the case for early Middle eastern cultic miniature shrines. Made of stone or clay, they are plain or decorated but always found empty.

I first thought of calling this project shrine but that presumes knowing what its use is and maybe even its content. I have no idea what it might contain at this point. I have many possibilities, and they change with every moment. Even the idea of feeding sound from its surroundings and concentrating them in the space held within the enclosure leaves open the question as to what sounds.

It is clear to me now that this is a sculpture that is waiting for its meaning. It is a structure with a latent destiny. And that is what I find interesting. There are of course aesthetic considerations: how much detail or no detail at all; what materials to use and its size and proportions. These are all things that can be developed as context is refined and intention clarified. Perhaps it could be made of small bricks, each brick imprinted with a significant mark… there are so many things that can accrete. At the moment it is a latent idea. One that can move and alter with time; one that can be integrated with other projects, assimilate them or move to one side.