It is clear that with the coronavirus pandemic, things will change. Not least the end of the MA and final show. In view of any difficulties that might arise, I think it prudent to take a twin approach to the project proposal and how it will be delivered.
I don’t think that the show will now take place which is a great disappointment. Materials and equipment supplies may also be affected. I must also take into account the fact that the kiln may not be connected (although I hope this is a remote possibility).
What to do then. First, I shall continue making: that is the priority. Second I shall continue to plan for the show at Camberwell, describing the installation in situ, logistics, how it would work and so on. Equally important and perhaps more so, in reality, is how would I present the work online in the great likelihood that the show will not physically take place.
The latter scenario presents an opportunity preparing me to show the work to a wider audience in digital form. I could set the works up in various locations and video them there, narrating, presenting text, creating an online unfolding in a dedicated website. Many possibilities present themselves, not least the fact that I could show work in greater depth in a virtual presentation. However, I must also be realistic in terms of the time it would take to complete a complex presentation.
In conclusion the blog will now take a twin path, real and surreal, actual and hypothetical.
This post was written before and subsequently posted after the previous one. This explains any anachronisms that appear in the text.
In my previous-but-one post, I started by describing how the reconstruction of a narrative by its very nature is at best an approximate endeavour. The description of a past reality in and of itself is in all probability a chimaera made of many parts pieced together as best as one can with the sensory and intellectual tools at one’s disposal. This is the main thrust of Donald Hoffman’s thesis that proposes the impossibility to see the world as it really is. He explains that we experience reality in terms of ‘fitness payoff’ and that this evolutionary pressure has shaped the way we perceive things in terms of what is the best way for us to survive in the world, not the most accurate description of it. So is a narrative a question of convenience and advantage?
Hoffman’s shift in the way the age-old problem of describing reality is approached is another example of how contemporary paradigms are shifting and being replaced at an ever-increasing rate. Thanks to an increasing knowledge base ever more accessible, the ability to bring together disparate areas of interest in one place has stimulated holistic approaches to almost every area of study. Crossing disciplines is essential if new insights are sought.
Alfred Gell’s revision of how artworks might function in society is another example of seeing things differently. His book, Art and Agency singles out precisely the mechanism by which viewers interact with art as though the latter were similar to living beings. Gell sees this in terms of agency, i.e. influencing viewers to behave as though they were engaging with something alive rather than inanimate. An artwork lies within a context, a social environment or art nexus, as van Eck calls it. Van Eck puts it rather well:
[Gell] considers objects of art not in terms of their formal or aesthetic value or appreciation within the culture that produced them. Neither does [he] consider them as signs, visual codes to be deciphered or symbolic communications. Instead, Gell defines art objects in performative terms as systems of actions, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it. Artworks thus considered are the equivalents of persons, more particularly social agents.
Gell identified one mechanism by which viewers can be influenced as technical virtuosity. This presents something made in a way that is hard to comprehend, functioning as a form of ideal or magic. The key is that this thing is to achieve what viewers try to do in other areas. This technical virtuosity can take many forms and is not confined to the skill of carving or painting.
This view of art as a performative agent is at first sight somewhat at odds with Richard Anderson’s view of skilfully encoding culturally significant meaning in a sensuous affecting medium. The skill element is common to both as is the significant meaning. However, in Anderson, the emphasis is placed on encoding meaning, whereas Gell’s hypothesis sees agency as the main function for the artwork.
Anderson in his anthropological idea is trying to bring together very disparate areas of creativity. In his book, Calliope’s Sisters his examples are taken from across very different societies some of which do not recognise the idea of art. Gell’s approach is more art-historical. Both Anderson and Gell are trying to identify art and its function in a way that does not fall into Western artistic paradigms of aesthetics and semiotics. Anderson’s hypothesis focuses on the semiotic content of an art object whereas Gell’s focuses on the mechanism by which an art object exerts influence. Gell’s idea is closer to Bayles and Orlando’s proposition that art changes the world in that he states that the agency of the object [or event] consolidates or reforms a world view in a social setting. This is very much the case in sacred contexts but also in the way art is perceived and responded to in secular white cube spaces to mention just one of many possible examples.
Gell borrows from Peircian semiotics and TAG analysis and replaces terms such as object, meaning, interpreter, sign, signifier etc with words that are more readily applicable to the arts.
Agency: the power to influence the viewer, this is mediated by the
Index: the material object that elicits responses
Prototype: the thing the index is representing.
Artist: the immediate cause or author of the existence of the index and its properties
Recipients: those affected by the work or intended to be by the index.
Semiotics, structuralism and post-structuralism originally resided in the literary and anthropological domains. What this does is to slim down the complexities that arise when analysing work in terms of their function in a humanities context. Focus is placed on the visual arts aspect without losing contact with the humanities. Most significantly, the term meaning is exchanged with prototype. This reminds me of the Jungian idea of archetypes. But rather than presenting as a Platonic overarching concept, the prototype can be specific to the index in question.
Prototype is an important departure from meaning because it enables the representation of something ineffable. The living presence of the object is enhanced by, in many cases dependent on, its social context. So the art object becomes the explanation of the ineffable rather than ‘the problem to be explained’. 1 Because of the social nexus, in appropriately reinforcing circumstances, the effect becomes proofed against rational explanation. A response mechanism is created that is emotional and volitional rather than rational and cognitive.
These taxonomies are useful when attempting to disentangle relationships and the role of each player in the social nexus in which they are enmeshed. This system of analysis may be a helpful tool in confirming putative or identifying actual causal relationships between the art object its social, anthropological and psychological effects. This form of analysis has been used primarily in art historical context but I can see how I can apply it to tease out aims and objectives from intentions in artistic practice.
I see aims and objectives as analytical descriptions of process. They are the functional and purposeful surface ideas that have to be worked out, arrived at and articulated through cognitive processes. Intentions on the other hand are more deeply rooted. They lie beneath reason, often unrevealed or tacit. To find one’s intention is like holding one’s beating heart. It can be dangerous or bring well being, we often keep intentions well hidden inside the mind; somewhere deep in the brain. Intentions are tinder waiting to be lit. They can give light and warmth or burn everything to ashes.
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.
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’.
I have been away from the studio now for over four weeks. I shall be back in around a week after a prolonged period abroad. I worked over the Summer months on 3D works, coded and learned some VR rendering. This has been a belated Summer coming at the right time. A chance to complete the Research Statement, curate the blog, reacquainting myself with the past year and clarifying the Project Proposal. I have flown, walked, swum, eaten and looked at some art but I have made none.
Being away from my work has brought it closer and into greater focus. The work for the coming nine months is now much clearer: what to do, and more importantly, what not to do. Had I continued as I was, I would have been in a process of desperate and confusing accretion rather than distillation and consolidation.
The research statement is submitted, although I will continue to revise and resubmit it – it is a nervy process and something might come up nearer the deadline; I don’t think I have ever been so in hand with a piece of writing as this. The blog curation is nearly completed and I shall keep sifting through it, milling the information ever more finely. As for the Project Proposal, that is an ongoing document which for now has the lineaments of the final show and future work.
I still have a great deal of learning and experimenting ahead, particularly with the digital and display aspects of the work. However, when I get back into the studio next week, I will be able to immerse myself fully in making with a clear direction of where to go and how to get there.
We talked about the Unit 1 Assessment process and criteria.
Jonathan also showed us some works being shown at the Linz Ars Electronica 2019.
I found it interesting the correspondence Wu Juehui’s installation, Bit Tower, has with installations I made in 2010, 2013 and 2014 using sacred spaces and low frequency sounds.
In 2010, I experimented with sculpture and sound during a residency at Nottingham Trent University. The result was Contingent Ceremony, an installation in a small redundant church looking at worship and the sacred in the light of mystery and magic.
I also showed a version of this at the Crypt Gallery St Pancras in the same year. Incidentally, the same show as Genetic Moo, graduates from this very same course long before I ever knew about it.
2013, the next installation was more ambitious in scale, in the large Chad Varah Chapel. Here I used a variety of sound sources enveloping the space and emanating from a central sculpture. I remember the highlight for me was when one of the festival organisers was brought to tears by the associations she made with the work. It is humbling when such things happen and also bring to mind the responsibility one has to others when doing something affecting.
The next installation was in 2014 as part of the touring show Chaos Contained. The installation was in the Bell Tower of St John’s Church in Scunthorpe. This time I used the sounds of the tower clock together with low frequencies.
For the project proposal I am thinking of using low frequencies but this time with a digital control mechanism which interacts with the audience. I worked with the Arduino earlier this Summer, learning how to use it and code. I shall continue this as soon as I get back to the studio. This period away has been useful for writing the Research Statement, thinking about the Project Proposal and curating the blog.
Adrien M and Claire B from Lyon are artists I was already familiar with through social media. Their work is interesting in the simplicity of use of technology. However, I do think that it is more style than content. The work at Ars Electronica I particularly liked. It is lovely to see when seen from the right place. But the fact that it is limited in its angle of view is a shame and seeing it is made with an ipad reflecting from glass at 45 degrees does give me the sense of a simple magic trick demystified and laid bare to disappointment. Nevertheless, I think that the simplicity itself is the trick and not what it shows. This sort of augmented reality is beguiling for a moment until I become habituated, then I want to seek something deeper. Despite my misgivings about the nature of this kind of work, it is entertaining and creates associations and gives me ideas. That certainly cannot be a bad thing.
Akinori Goto’s work is a holographic zoetrope reminding me of Matt Collishaw’s Massacre of the Innocents. It is more ethereal and less theatre but I much prefer Collishaws’s subject matter. Goto’s dancing figure seems more of a demonstration of a technique and again lacks subject matter. At least, Adrien and Claire’s particulate bombardment of a block of crystal is cosmological, a dancing figure is too much like a computer generated film effect of a fairy dancing on a table.
Despite all the things I say, hats off to these artists for their ingenuity and technical savvy, although in some cases I am sure there are some backroom boys, or girls, involved, who knows, they are hardly ever named, at least in the headline credits.
Memo Akten and his crew do some very impressive work in Istanbul. It is a little disturbing, especially with how beguiling it is. The work again seems a demonstration of technology. It makes me think that the artistic content of the work lies in one’s inference of its nature. The technology is the content itself rather than a means to express something else. That is how it seems to me very often. It is left for later generations to pick things up and take them further.
And as for Luca Zanotto’s Eyes – emoticons on steroids.
A thread of thoughts is like a gut that extends from air to air travelling through a body grown and developed around it, nourished by the ingestion, digestion and assimilation of ideas. The alimentary canal, symbolic and figurative appears in my work as such a thread.
The constraints of the surface to volume barrier to growth are dissolved by the gut. From the genesis of complex life onwards, it is the single structure that has enabled all the physical attributes of animal life that we have come to recognise as active autonomy. Regardless of nervous networks and the evolution of the mind, without its capability to furnish the organism that we are with energy, motility and subsequent life strategies would not have been possible. When we are born, our prime priority to it nurture this function while we nurture and help develop our other faculties.
I have subconsciously worked with this idea since Chaos Contained which is now set free, as an overt symbol in my project; a vehicle for the exploration of language, evolution and myth, as though I were moving within a metaphorical underground cavern complex. It collects ideas, like organs, that adhere to this single thread as the Indian rasa come together to form the elements of artistic expression.
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.
I came across an article about the 300 year old Molyneux’s Problem regarding the relationship between sight and touch as it concerns internal world building. This is something that has come to my mind many times in terms of the aesthetics of three dimensional objects and my approaches in making something tangible.
What was once taken as purely a thought experiment due to the impossibility of giving sight to someone congenitally blind has now been presented with an empirically verifiable solution.
In 2011 Richard Held and Dr. Pawan Sinha leading a team at Project Prakash (Prakash mean light in Sanskrit) demonstrated that which Locke had intuited. That the cognitive association between touch and sight have to be learnt and are not hard wired in our brains.
The experience of shape in each sense is independent of the other and they are not associated from birth. A congenitally blind person being given sight would not recognise a cube, say, on seeing it for the first time even if they were offered an identical one for comparison. However, they would soon learn to relate what they experience through touch with what they see. This seems self evident enough but it was not verifiable until recently with advances in eye surgery and indeed many thinkers thought otherwise. Look up dear old Bishop Berkeley: yes the one that thought if you turned your back on something it disappeared.
How does this affect my ideas about making? I work a great deal with touch through my hands. I have been aware that if I were not able to see the composition of a work it would be very different using touch alone. The aesthetic qualities that would arise out of working blind would pertain to another world; one in which light is alien and the mind would navigate and construct form in quite a different way.
I have often referred to navigating form in my mind with an inner eye, moving around the object in question in a virtual world. Although I am not using my eyes this ‘sighted’ world relies on having experienced sight. How different this would be had I been congenitally blind. So imagining being able to create in the absence of light experience would be well nigh impossible.