Living Presence Response: A Description of the Ineffable?


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 chimera 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 define[s] art objects in performative terms as systems of actions, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it. Art works 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 achieves 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, emphasis is placed on encoding meaning, whereas Gell’s hypothesis sees agency as the main function for the art work.

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.

  1. Van Eck,[]

Grappling with the Angel


Jacob Wrestling with the Angel: Jacob Epstein, alabaster (in Tate Britain)


The Jacob of Genesis wrestled with the angel, some say with God, taming a vengeful angry deity and forging a new relationship between humankind and divinity. I see this divinity as the all encompassing material universe made flesh in a dream as Malakh. 

After completing the Mid Point Review I woke to a new realisation, that of grappling with a multitude of ideas trying to reduce them to a single point with a focused coherence of some sort. It did go through my mind to do the Tantra thing and make a painting symbolic of this synthesis into a whole: a point for meditation. However, my nature would not allow me to settle on such a solution. You see, I view the world as a continuum panning vertically from the infinite to the infinitesimal and horizontally across the fastness of time and space. The world is a whole simple single entity and it is a complex of interrelated elements divisible and united. Reality is smooth and simultaneous, granular and causal. This duality is not a matter of indecision but of phenomenological understanding. 

So the problem I was wrestling with can be summed up as, do I present a single work that tries to represent a multitude, issues, subjects, material solutions and approaches, a symbolic sign or do I present, what I call in the MPR, a compendium of interrelated works, each able to stand on its own? The former requires a silencing-out of ideas, the latter risking to appear disordered and confused. If I am to be honest, the minimalist approach does not satisfy my nature however elegant it might appear. I am a mongrel of ideas and influences, philosophically and genetically heterozygous .

In an attempt to resolve this problem I am lead to ask of myself, what is the glue that would bind the works if I were to take the second path? I have already gone over this in a much earlier post. I also hinted at the answer in the MPR where I have written, words are the labels of my thoughts. This is at least partially true. I am not a good speaker but I enjoy the act of putting ideas into words the semantics of language and their syntax. Much of my understanding of the world is worked out with labels, shuffled and shunted in my mind until they fall into place only to be moved again and again. I am talking semiotics here; touched on in the previous post Significance and Meaning.

Having settled on my general direction and that is not to have to create a single work, however holistic it might be, and that words are the narrative glue that binds their content, I start to think about the relationships between the works. In so doing, they start to take shape in my mind, decisions have a rational and an intuitive element: working with Dionysian impulse and Apollonian restraint towards a balancing and rebalancing a weaving of interrelations, invisible lines of tension that burgeon into some physical form in each part.

But do I explain these relationship in words or should they be left to be uncovered, discovered, debated and vulnerable to misunderstanding. I must leave this to the receiver but the trick is to leave sufficient breadcrumbs for way into the wood to be made accesible. A catalogue or a statement, a performance or poetry, for now that question can be left unanswered, there is time for that to develop and mature.

Now for some content. The very provisional titles with which I refer to each principle work, yes there are also small morsels I plan to sow in the interstices, are significant as monikers for the links being forged. Hermaphroditus deals with gender, language and religion through the channel of myth. Logos/Oracle again inspired by the myths deals, as logos alludes, with the disruption of language and understanding through biological and geological metaphors of the gut and the cavern: the devouring of reason and dissemination of ambiguity and ambivalence. Language links these two works but the third installation is unspoken, the absence of word. Shadowland translates the three-dimensional world into two dimensions, constantly reiterating in analogue and digital means the simplification of form, altering its meaning. Whereas Hermaphroditus unfolds and Logos confounds, Shadowlands simplifies and in so doing creates another narrative. 

The trilogy of unfolding, confounding and simplification represents in some way how I see this project. An attempt to simplify and synthesise entanglements through unfolding. The nature of interpretation and mutation of meaning links the works and suggest further works. Is this not the essence of myth? As I write I start to draw together the elements I outlined in the project proposal and as I do so other considerations start to fall in place, considerations such as the aesthetics of each piece. This starts to look less important and somewhat superficial. However, it is still important as a means of conveying a sense defined by the thoughts that go into the work. 

Finally, there is the fourth element, the antecedent to all three which for now must remain undisclosed lest I should abandon its making and disappoint myself. It is a relic of times past and gives context within my own practice, what you might make of it is not for me to say. 

I now feel renewed, on the threshold of a dawn having wrestled the angel. Like in a dream I did not realise I was in quite such a struggle. This realisation has come with the Low Residency and the MPR. There is much planning and preparation, experimentation and workings out. The projects are ambitious in meaning and in making and I cannot afford to leave things to sort themselves out. I cleared a path but it is yet to be trodden and tested. It is now time to take the next step… and keep writing. 


Skype Chat 2.6 – Sound with Edward Kelly


The focus of the session was on different approaches to sound as a medium. What Ed means by this is the abstract conceptual manner of seeing sound.

He started with Walter Murch’s categorisation of sound, relating it to colour.



I always find it interesting how sound, music and colour are often correlated. Kodaly is another example of this idea as in his pedagogical work. I would leave the colour aspect out of this discussion and concentrate simply on the semiotic aspect which seems what this diagram tries to convey. There are so many ways of classifying sounds. I have to bear in mind that Murch is a film sound editor. However, the point is to think about sound in terms of its affect and the information it encodes: emotive, descriptive, semantic, associative, allusive, illusive and how these modes are conveyed. Fore example, are they conveyed through rhythm or pitch, distinctive or chaotic? There are so many ways of looking at the matter but in the end I feel the important thing is thinking about sound in terms of its affect, the reason for that affect, how the sound is made, and the context in which or for which it is created.

We looked at musique concrete, starting with Pierre Schaeffer and his first work Etude aux Chemins de Fer 1948, who attempted to categorise sound in his Traité des Objects Musicaux. Michel Chion wrote a guide in English where he lists sounds and their qualities as experienced: PDF.

Musique concrete treats sound as abstract objects each with its own qualities. Particularly intriguing was Bernard Parmegiani’s De Natura Sonorum from 1973 composed using the altered sounds of rubber bands using analogue tape, filters, real echo chambers, delays and altering the tape speed. 

Diagetic sound is almost the opposite of this. It is associated with a visual cue as though the situation portrayed is the source of the sound. Musique concrete decouples the corporeality of the sound for it to become the corpus of sensation itself. In a conceptual sense, it has no source other than its own sound. The way it is made may be a curiosity or of methodological interest but in its truest essence only a vehicle. It is as an Acousmatic experience in which the cause and origins of the sound are removed so one can concentrate on its sensations and qualities. 

Ed introduced the idea of copyright as a ‘spanner in the work’ and then goes on to give some examples of postmodernist sound collages where recording are appropriated to create mixes. Whereas in the case of John Cage’s 1953 mix, in which each situational element is recorded in his own house over a period of time, here we are talking about taking pre-existing recording and butting them either as live performance or recordings. The copyright situation is complex here depending on duration of play, recognisability of the segments taken and in the case of live performance, proof of actual appropriation. Perhaps that is why one of the people doing this uses discs. Ed describes each discrete segment as the ‘cultural grain’ of the whole rather than musique concrete’s sonic texture. It is interesting to look at it in those terms. 

Below are a list of Ed’s links 

Musique Concrete
John Cage: Williams Mix

Williams Mix used sounds recorded by Louis and Bebe Barron (of Forbidden Planet fame) in 6 categories, organised according to the I-Ching using a 193 page score.  

Acousmatic Music

Note: see the notes below the Youtube clip for the track listings, as these are entire albums of work!

Culture Jamming / Appropriation of Recorded Media


Skype Chat: 2.2 – Interaction, Narrative and Play


What I take from today’s session is that, seeing an artwork in terms of its behaviour helps to consider its impact in terms of interaction. Its behaviour engenders a response in the receiver which sets up a dialogue. This dialogue can then engender a response in the artist which can inform future work. If the artist considers this relationship when thinking of their practice it can lead to a broadening of possibilities and deepening of significance. 

It is part of process philosophy, of the idea of becoming, of dynamic semiotics. 

Questions to ask:

  • how does the receiver interact with the work
  • what is the nature that interaction
  • what meaning is conveyed in interaction
  • how does it resonate in the after experience
  • how does what arises affect future work
  • is the level of interaction excessive, insufficient or about right for meaningfulness 
  • is the level interaction appropriate for the aims set out or could it be improved