The introduction to the current issue of the Journal American Art takes as its starting point Astrid, a work by Xavier Cortada. “The works were made in Antarctica, about Antarctica, using Antarctica as the medium (provided to me by the very researchers who inform us about Antarctica).”
The Introduction goes on to open up a series of key issues for both art and for ecocriticism in the Anthropocene. Read on here http://cortada.com/press/2014/AmericanArt
Archive for the ‘Eco-Criticism’ Category
The introduction to the current issue of the Journal American Art takes as its starting point Astrid, a work by Xavier Cortada. “The works were made in Antarctica, about Antarctica, using Antarctica as the medium (provided to me by the very researchers who inform us about Antarctica).”
Last Sunday Thom Van Dooren spoke about extinction at the first Only Human? Festival in Glasgow, part of the nationwide Arts & Humanities Research Council Being Human Festival. Previous posts have highlighted key quotes from his book Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. Thom very kindly agreed to us sharing recordings of his narratives of Vultures (which features in Flight Ways) and of Snails, which is as yet unpublished.
A few other links that might be useful:
The chapter on albatrosses ends with the following challenge,
As nesting birds quietly ignored my close presence, I reflected that perhaps what is most tragic about the current situation is not the “failure” of albatrosses to adjust or adapt to new threats and an altered environment: intensive long-line fishing or brightly colored plastics that look like food. Rather, what is most tragic is another failure to adapt. Our own failure – in which some societies and some people are far more complicit than others – to come to terms with our own relatively new capacity to systematically alter environments in a way that undermines possibilities of life for other living beings and, ultimately, for ourselves. Perhaps it is we who have not yet “evolved” into the kinds of beings worthy of our own inheritances. (p.43)
Van Dooren’s Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction constantly questions human exceptionalism. One of the tropes of modern urbanisms and contextual or social arts practices is ‘place-making,’ perhaps something we might assume to be uniquely human until we read of the Little Penguins inhabiting New South Wales, Australia. Van Dooren challenges the way we use the word ‘habitat’ when talking about other species’ places where we use the word ‘home’ for our own (p.80),
It is precisely this inability or unwillingness to recognize penguins’ relationships with local places as significant – as meaningful and vital – that enables us to so blithely evict them from a shoreline. In this context, what has been usurped is not a home, not a meaningful and important place, but a piece of interchangeable “habitat.” And so the inability or refusal to recognize how penguins relate to particular places undermines the significance of their relationships to these places and, in so doing undermines the importance of the claim that they make on them. But penguins do not occupy “habitats.” Rather, they inhabit experiential worlds in which a burrow might meaningfully be understood as a “home.”
Please come and talk about extinction and human exceptionalism on Sunday 16 November at 12.30 in the James Arnott Theatre, Gilmorehill, University of Glasgow – part of the Only Human? Glasgow programme.
“Picture after picture [by photographer Chris Jordan] depicts the decomposed bodies of albatross chicks – just bones, feathers, and a beak remaining, and in the middle of each, a multicolored pile of plastic and other debris: cigarette lighters, bottle tops, toy soldiers, and so many other little items.”
“Millions of years of albatross evolution – woven together by the lives and reproductive labours of countless individual birds – comes into contact with less than 100 years of human “ingenuity” in the form of plastics and organochlorines discovered or commercialized in the early decades of the twentieth century.”
Reading Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction by Thom Van Dooren in preparation for chairing a discussion on Sunday 16th November at the Only Human? Festival in Glasgow. [note: the discussion on Sunday 16th is with the author Thom Van Dooren]
The humanities and creative practices have a role in comprehending the meaning of the anthropocene, where all of the world is affected by one/our species. We have a role in addressing extinction, the end point of millions of years of the evolution of, for example, the albatross becoming itself as a species, and its-selves as individuals. We have a role in challenging human exceptionalism. Face it, we need to talk about it.
Judy Spark: You remarked earlier that you feel that for you it’s “important to keep a lightness to creative work” and I would certainly agree with you on this and I think that this does bear even more import for visual than for written work. Other than the ‘academic’ aspect of some written work, I’m not sure that I can articulate exactly why I think this just yet, but it is something I think about. You also quoted Rebecca Solnit – that “the ‘results’ or ‘outcomes’ of creative work are nonlinear and unpredictable” and I would certainly agree with that, but again, this for me, seems to stand particularly for visual over written work. Perhaps is just the way that I go about a piece of writing: I know roughly what I am setting out to say, but probably not, at the beginning, how I will say it. Whereas with visual work, I think that I almost deliberately set to one side what I think I want to say, in order to allow the work to ‘make itself’, to borrow Carol Becker’s term. Then, I work out through a sort of retrospective process exactly what it is I’ve been doing. The whole process is a little bit more under my control than that might make it sound, but it is a process that I have had to learn, and in fact am still learning, to trust.
Samantha Clark: Yes, the retrospective view is when we get to figure out what was actually going on. It’s intrinsic to the reflective process, and here we might get bogged down in definitions of ‘practice-led’ or ‘practice-based’ – ‘practice-following’ research feels most apt sometimes – we do it and then figure it out later. I had a conversation with a colleague who is a social scientist recently. She seemed very surprised that we don’t figure it all out first, assemble all the theory, work out the method, and then just carry out the process we planned. The practice follows a hunch, or launches from a familiar point of departure and sees where it ends up. As you say, it can be quite instinctual. You make a leap, take a bit of a chance (it might not work), and then the research fleshes it out. I think we can become too apologetic about this. I take heart when I read about scientists and the so-called scientific method and find that it’s not so very different sometimes. Kekule saw the structure of benzene in a dream. CTR Wilson built the first cloud chamber on a bit of a whim, to recreate some of the mists and coronas he’d seen walking on the hills – he had no idea his apparatus would reveal the tracks of subatomic particles. According to Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, ‘you work with so-called scientific methods to put it into their frame after you know’. (Rosen, 1994: 486) Agnes Arber recognised this thought process not as a linear progression but as a reticulated network of associations, analogies and resonances, which were translated into words and equations only with a struggle, after the original, nonverbal and empathic insight. ‘The experience of one’s own thinking suggests that it moves, actually, in a reticulum (possibly of several dimensions) rather than along a single line…A reticulum.… cannot be symbolized adequately in a linear succession of words.’ (Arber, 1854: 18) And here’s the mathematician Poincaré: ‘It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover…logic teaches us that on such and such a road we are sure of not meeting an obstacle; it does not tell us which is the road that leads to the desired end. For this it is necessary to see the end from afar, and the faculty that teaches us to see is intuition.’ (Poincaré,1914: 130)
JS: Yes, for a while I think the notion of ‘intuition’ in art making was very unpopular, was regarded as something that only happened in ‘women’s art’! The next time I hear anyone slight the part of intuition in making art, I’ll most certainly produce that Poincaré quote, it’s perfect! I sometimes wade into the practice ‘led’ / ‘based’ / ‘following’ debate by stating that I have a ‘research led practice’; the argument behind this will be stronger once I’ve worked out exactly what I mean. In any case, it has something to do with listening and with trust. I’m really interested in this notion of waiting, of listening / active listening or attentiveness in making – you touched on this earlier when we were talking about drawing. Heidegger talks about the poet’s primary role as one of listening before anything is made of that experience. This waiting is as much a part of the process of making as gathering and focus are; all play a part in solving what arises, until the thing is re-solved. But the waiting/listening is difficult; I’ve used the notion of tuning a radio in relation to this, the idea of being on the best frequency and the act of deliberately re-tuning attention – back to Buddhist contemplative practice, or it’s western equivalent, mindfulness. But what about the consequences of not listening, pouncing before things are ready; that desire to fill gaps or absences, to have the art work, poem, writing take a familiar shape….and by a deadline?!
Becker, C. (2004) “Intimate, Immediate, Spontaneous, Obvious: Educating the Unknowing Mind” in Baas, J. and Jacob, M.J. (eds) Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press
Rosner, M. (1994) Journal of Advanced Composition Vol 14:2 Values in Doing and Writing Science: The Case of Barbara McClintock http://www.jaconlinejournal.com/archives/vol14.2/rosner-values.pdf [Available online. Accessed 4.12.13]
Arber, A. (1954) The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint, Cambridge Science Classics
Poincaré, H. (1914) Science and Method, London and New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons
Heidegger, M. (1971) On the Way to Language, New York: Harper & Row
Judy Spark: We have talked about ‘hope’ and about ‘wonder’ but looking around at those mechanisms that will seek to commodify almost every realm of human endeavour the second it appears, it’s easy to feel a bit dispirited sometimes, despite the legions of creative practitioners who are standing up to this – or that play along with it in order to! Is for instance, the creeping ‘academisation’ of creative practice something that we should worry about in this respect? This development is surely bound up with the commodification of ‘knowledge’ and in a way that is closely aligned with what Tim Kasser (mentioned in the last post) would call ‘extrinsic’ values? In any case, for me, writing happens differently to making – though listening is still a major component – but I’ll need to think about what makes them different.
Samantha Clark: For me, it’s important to keep a lightness to creative work, not to let it become too sure of its own rightness, or too didactic. It needs to be a little uncertain, always in a questioning stance. But, like you, I’m also drawn to the academic, philosophical work. For me, the two are in direct conversation, I don’t draw a line, though as I’ve said, I like that I can load the academic work with all the baggage so the art can have more lightness. But it’s not done in the hope that I might make better art as a result of all that booklearning, but because I like to stretch my mind that way. But I recognise it’s not that way for everyone. As for writing v. visual, creative work in either medium feels like a similar process…you hold an idea, thought, sensation, moment in your mind, turn it over and over, and it’s quite fuzzy and indistinct at first, but then something begins to crystallise out. Maybe it’s a word. Maybe it’s a sound. Maybe it’s an image. Maybe it’s an image that conjures up certain words. Maybe it’s a word that conjures a particular image. But whatever it is it seems somehow to resonate. And so you set it down. Then another word, image, sound seems to sit alongside it in a way that is more than the sum of the two, and so you just keep going. It always feels like stepping out blindly, one foot after another, into a white fog hoping the ground will be there when you step onto it.
JS: Yes, that is a highly accurate description of the process! It seems that neither of us really make a line between the processes of writing and making. Something led both of us to the MAVE; perhaps a desire for rigour in the philosophical subject area that might not be found within the fine art MA (I very much liked the reference you made to the notion of the ‘personal trainer’ to get you through all those philosophical texts!) Perhaps this latter point, about rigour, could be a bit contentious given the current phenomenon of the interdisciplinary MA? I mean because maybe some of those fine art crossover MAs think that this is what they’re offering – and I hasten to add, maybe by now they do, but contentious also because of the number of artists that are beginning to take on this ‘training’ – Isn’t making art enough!? Stupidly, it becomes about what’s ‘fashionable’…if enough people do it, institutions think everyone should, and so begin to structure their courses accordingly; and so we end up with, for instance, the debacle over the PhD potentially becoming the ‘terminal’ degree in fine art instead of the MA – James Elkins and Brad Buckley have both written well about this.
For me, a lot about the way I work has to do with recognising the multitude of other ways that artists work; it’s to do with the generosity / gift / love element of contributing to a dialogue. In short, I don’t work the way I do because I think it’s the ‘right’ or ‘only’ way to work – and I’m sure you don’t either – it is about ‘following your nose, as a way of making that sort of contribution.
SC: Yes, I see what you mean. For bookish types like us it’s fine, but there are some very fine artists around for whom this is such an imposition, this expectation that you should be an artist AND an academic, that making art is no longer enough, you have to also be able to theorise it extensively, and write about it academically. I suppose it’s an inevitable outcome of the process of Art Schools becoming part of Universities. It’s worth pointing out that art education in Germany has not gone down this path. So there are alternative routes. And artists don’t HAVE to be in the academy to practice, unlike a philosopher, for example. Artists can and do exist completely outwith the academic world, but are just subject to a whole other set of pressures – commercial ones – which they navigate with varying degrees of success and equanimity. Unless you are financially independent (with your own gallery and PR to boot), you’re going to have to navigate either, or more likely both, of these worlds. And it’s going to be a continual adjustment. Well, that’s my thinking anyway. Maybe I’m fudging it, but wherever there is money there is an agenda. As education becomes increasingly monetised this will change, but still, for all its many faults, the world of Higher Education inspires me more than the commercial art world, and fits more closely with my values. Not a perfect fit, but good enough for me to make some creative headway.
JS: Yes, I feel that inhabiting that world works for me too. It seems the best place to be, to return to hopefulness for a moment, of formalising my hopes of contributing fully to, and of getting something back from, on-going philosophic discourse of environment (and for you too perhaps, through the field of creative writing). Of course it is possible to contribute in this way as an artist, and though it is at least beginning to be widely accepted that artists have much to offer within such discourse, I feel that they are also generally expected to bring an artist’s perspective to the mix, whatever that means! In my experience, I still think that it is difficult to shake off the perception of the artist as being some free spirit that can drift in bringing their artist’s perspective, like some elixir, to every problem. I wonder if there is still the tendency to regard this perspective as a form of idealism, a sort of blue sky thinking outside of real world solutions to problems?
Perhaps it’s not important but I noticed very recently, when under pressure to refine REF statements in fact, that it was, for me, very important that the written output stood as something undertaken by a person who is writing as opposed to the notion that the writing might take on some form/character as a result of having been written by an artist. Indeed it’s perhaps the case that being ‘An Artist’ actually hinders dialogue over some things, but you go to a conference, first just as another ‘someone’ who has written something and then it comes out in conversation that you are also an artist, that seems to work better!?
Buckley, B. And Conomos, J. (2009) Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: The Artist, the PhD, and the Academy, Halifax, Canada: The Press of The Nova Scotia College
Elkins, J. (2009) Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing
[In the previous post, Samantha Clark had been talking about the ethical import of wonder in the work of Ronald Hepburn, Suzi Gablick and Jane Bennett.]
Judy Spark: I want to believe in this link between wonder and ‘ethical generosity’ and even love and that there may only be a ‘short step’ from here to ‘humility’ but I feel compelled to take up the cynic’s position again. I’m not convinced. It’s not that I think that this is not possible exactly, but rather that it will be a long road. The human capacity for wonder is one that is shared by the artist, philosopher and scientist alike, indeed all of us have this latent disposition whether or not it is ever developed. But if it was going to lead naturally to an ethical relationship to the wider world, then I think that it would have done so by now. Sometimes it has pre-empted great scientific discovery, but equally, it can lead us to dismantle and separate things in an effort to learn how they work. It does not necessarily, for instance, always lead to an appreciation of the interconnected dependency of things. I feel inspired by Hepburn and Gablick, though I’m not so familiar with Bennett, but I don’t think that they back up their claims with anything concrete, how could they? How exactly does one move from a position of wonder to one of love and ethical awareness? But if this progression is at the moment unclear, perhaps this is ok. I think that the reason I make art and write is in order to encourage this tuning to wonder and the hopes for its potential, that maybe at some point, the pathway between these things will become clearer.
Samantha Clark: Yes, I think you are right to be cynical. Wonder linked to ignorance is a dangerous combination. People flock to see the orcas performing at Seaworld, and experience genuine wonder at the power and beauty of these creatures and their willingness to engage with humans, but they are ignorant of the suffering that this captivity causes the very creatures they admire so much. People wonder at the bare landscape of the Highlands with no idea that they are looking at an ecological disaster area, a man-made wet desert. A little bit of ‘dismantling to see how it works’ doesn’t need to dispel wonder, but can actually create a more educated awareness. Wonder doesn’t depend on a state of naivety. Kant, in his Critique of Judgement, noticed a difference between astonishment (Verwunderung) which fades once the novelty wears off, and a steady, contemplative wonderment (Bewunderung) which does not depend on novelty, and may even grow deeper with familiarity and understanding. The contemplative wonderment he described maintains the questioning and questing aspect of wonder, and yet rests attentively in the wonderful object (Kant, 1997: 273).
A recent document put together by the organisation Common Cause seems to propose some means by which this transition from ‘wonder’ to ethical and environmental awareness might be made. Their focus is on addressing the values we hold in order to create a shift to a more socially and environmentally just society, suggesting that the arts’ ‘capacity to trigger reflection, generate empathy, create dialogue and foster new ideas and relationships offers a powerful and democratic way of expressing, sharing and shaping values.’ (Common Cause, 2013: 4). In the core paper of this document, the psychologist Tim Kasser suggests that our values can be described as either broadly extrinsic, such as financial success, image, popularity (which depend on rewards or other’s opinions and promote competitive and selfish behaviour), or intrinsic, such as self-acceptance, community, affiliation (which promote more empathic and co-operative ways of behaving). He argues that we all have all of these values in us, but that they increase in importance to us the more they are stimulated, and that, broadly speaking, consumer societies emphasise and so promote the development of extrinsic values. These are shown to make us more dependent on external sources of happiness, such as status, entertainment and consumerism. This has far reaching effects. ‘People who prioritise extrinsic values have been shown to care less about the environment and other species, whereas a focus on intrinsic values promotes more ecologically sustainable attitudes and behaviours’ (11). Kasser builds an argument that pursuit of the arts (either as active participant or viewer) is important as it may deepen public commitment to values that promote environmental and social concern. I think there is some truth to this, though with certain caveats. Engaging with art as a high-end luxury commodity and status symbol clearly stimulates extrinsic values. So we need to be circumspect about what kind of art, and what kind of engagement we are talking about. But it seems pretty clear that it is emotions, not factual arguments, that shape our decisions, and that art can have some role to play here.
Ellie Harrison hits the nail on the head in her contribution to the same publication – arguing that to emphasise ‘art’ and ‘culture’ per se gives them a falsely elevated status and is misleading. ‘What we all need regardless of our occupation, is not arts and culture per se, but simply time and space beyond the realms of the market, where we can each access knowledge, critically reflect and feel empowered to change our lives for the better’ (21). She’s right, but art can be one way of opening up some space and time. I think that wonder, when it crops up in the mundane, maybe hearing migrating geese honking as they go flying over the supermarket car park, momentarily opens up a space of this kind. Engaging with art or writing which invites us to share that experience with the writer or the artist ‘primes’ us to be receptive to it when it crops up in life. I think it helps us to open up a little crack in the midst of the day, a ‘space between,’ a momentary breather from the demands of making our way in a market economy devoted to heedless economic growth. Anything that makes us stop and remember to be grateful, even in a small way, makes a contribution. Gratitude is very subversive in a consumer culture that primes us to be in a constant state of wanting. Kasser again: ‘One set of studies showed that very brief and very subtle reminders of the extrinsic value of money lead people to behave less helpfully and generously moments later’ (9). And another study, ‘that focused particularly on people for whom material possessions and social status were quite important found that thinking for a few minutes about the intrinsic values of affiliation and being broadminded caused these individuals to express stronger care for the environment’ 10). So inviting others to share a moment of wonder or reflection or gratitude through the art we make is maybe part of this drip feed, just tickling those extrinsic values one more time.
You mentioned hope, and hopefulness is a real issue these days, its something I seem to come up against again and again – in the context of ‘eco-art’ especially. Reading Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope in the Dark’ helped me to think about this – that ‘results’ or ‘outcomes’ of creative work are nonlinear and unpredictable, so hanging on to some idea of what you’d like to happen as a result of your creative work is pointless. If you want direct results then direct action is a better bet. As artists we’re working at the level of metaphor, getting in ‘under the bonnet’ of thought as it were – shift the metaphors and you contribute towards shifting thought. But it’s not something didactic, or fact-based. It’s more like lending your own small weight to the other side of the scales, towards tipping things back, rebalancing, in a Taoist kind of way. And if Kasser is right, and even such a subtle cue can unconsciously affect someone’s values and behaviour, then perhaps that’s cause for hope.
Kant, I. (trans. Pluhar, W) (1997) Critique of Judgement, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
Common Cause and Mission Models Money (2103), The Art of Life: Understanding How Participation in Arts and Culture Can Affect Our Values http://valuesandframes.org [Online: Accessed 12-11- 2013]
Solnit, R (2005) Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power, Edinburgh: Canongate
Judy Spark: Olafur Eliasson’s work seems built around this notion of a ‘gap’ as we catch ourselves in the shift between responding to what it seems we are faced with and our recognition of this response. Although I have only ever seen it in books, I love this piece; it resembles some sort of natural geyser – it reminds me of an exquisite Hokusai landscape but it’s constructed around the flue outlet of the Museum’s heating system. You’d said that the ‘spectacle’ of his work had sometimes made you uncomfortable, and indeed, I appreciate what you mean by this, but I’ve been persisting recently with trying to unearth a bit more about what he does. The work plays on our tendency to ‘name’ things as we momentarily encounter the thing we are viewing as ‘real’. For me, it’s as if this thing of the spectacle; the technological sublimity he creates, ends up coming back on itself to ‘the things themselves’; as we remember that what we are seeing is an artwork, a ‘construction’ and not a ‘real’ thing, we are made to reflect on why we were not at first moved by the original – had forgotten how to see it. His work does seem to effect a shift in perception of our natural surroundings. Perhaps his intentions may turn out to be a little less ‘worthy’ than that but we are being invited to make what we make of it (every title has ‘Your’ at the beginning) or at least encouraged to recognise that this is what we are doing. It almost hurts that we might, for instance, have lain basking in wonder in Tate Modern (beneath the Weather Project) when we have forgotten how to be fully aware of the full implications of the sun itself! Eliasson’s relationship to phenomenology is well evidenced, specifically in the work of writer Daniel Birnbaum. As I see it, Eliasson’s work creates a ‘gap’, a space for wonder. I think a lot about this potential of the artwork as a space for wonder.
Samantha Clark: Yes, wonder as a momentary suspension of discursive thought, a pause or space we can enter. Wonder comes in for criticism, seen as a privilege of the leisured classes wandering awestruck around the mountains while local people are just busy getting on with their work, or as some kind of brainless, slack-jawed paralysis. It’s been used that way historically, by the Church for example, to suppress curious and possibly heretical questioning. But I’m interested in some of the ethical arguments for wonder and enchantment presented by the likes of Suzi Gablik and Jane Bennett, Ronald Hepburn too. What a poem, or an artwork, or a piece of music can convey, is that sense of suspension, sharing a moment of wonder that comes like an unexpected gift, a moment with a particular weight to it, that leaves us in a slightly different shape. Bennett argues that this enchantment brings a gratitude and generosity to our ethical relations, that isn’t about obligation or duty, but about love. Art works can open that space up for us. And I think that ideas can do that too. So I don’t draw a line between academic and creative work in that regard.
Bennett argues that ‘wonder is not a naive escape from politics but marks the vitality and agency of a world that sometimes bestows the gift of joy to humans, a gift that can be translated into ethical generosity’ (2001: 175). It’s not about going about in a constant dwam, but about those moments of wonder that punctuate the everyday. She equates wonder with love for the world, a love that engenders care. Like Hepburn, she thinks we should cultivate the capacity for wonder, and embrace those moments of enchantment which act as a ‘shot in the arm, a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life’ (5). Bennett suggests that the delight and joy of wonder spills its good humour over into our ethical life, to nourish an ethics based on love for the world rather than on duty and obligation, ‘rendering its judgments more generous and its claims less dogmatic’ (10). Hepburn sees an affinity between the non-exploitative, non-utilitarian attitude of wonder and ‘attitudes that seek to affirm and respect other-being’ (1984: 145). Wonder keeps our attention in and on things in the world, poignantly realising their potentiality and fragility. The attitude of wonder is one which, Hepburn thinks, readily gives rise to compassion. ‘From a wondering recognition of forms of value proper to other beings,’ he suggests, ‘and a refusal to see them simply in terms of one’s own utility-purposes, there is only a short step to humility.’ (1984: 146)
Grynsztejn, M.; Birnbaum, D.; Speaks, M. (2002) Olafur Eliasson, London: Phaidon Press Ltd
Gablick, S. (1993) The Re-enchantment of Art, London: Thames and Hudson
Bennett, J. (2001) The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics, Princeton: Princeton University Press
Hepburn, R. (1984) Wonder and Other Essays: Eight Studies in Aesthetics and Neighboring Fields, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Samantha Clark: I was really interested in how you see the role of drawing within your practice. It seems to me that the process of drawing, particularly such obviously meticulous and detailed drawing that has evidently taken some time, is a kind of attention, a meditative or contemplative process. And I think so much of creative work, whether visual or writing, is fundamentally about this paying attention, and then through putting the work out, drawing other peoples’ attention, a kind of ‘pointing out’, saying ‘have you ever noticed this?’ To ‘attend’ means to wait, to be present with, to serve, to listen, to wait, to take care of someone/something. Its Latin root ‘ad-tendere’ means’ to stretch into’, to stretch one’s mind towards something.
I wanted to quote from the Canadian poet Tim Lilburn’s essay How to be here? because he puts something very eloquently that I couldn’t say any better. Lilburn was trained as a Jesuit, now teaches philosophy in a catholic college, and his work is imbued with a very scholarly understanding of the tradition of ‘negative theology’ and the mystical, contemplative tradition of Christianity that has been somewhat lost. He writes really beautifully about the practice of contemplation, and that desire to be ‘one with nature’ that is bandied around so much in environmental thinking, especially some of the less careful interpretations of deep ecology. It’s something I am always uneasy with. We can never be ‘at one with nature’ in any straightforward, cosy way. Nature doesn’t give a s**t.
Lilburn is eloquent on this being-in-the-world and yet there being a separation, a gap, an otherness. Merleau-Ponty is also helpful on this when he talks about the ‘flesh’, that there is a kind of blind spot, a gap in our experience of the world just at the point where we are folded into it – a ‘chiasm’. He goes back again and again to the experience of the toucher touched, when you touch one hand with the other – you can experience ‘touching’ or ‘being touched’ but not exactly simultaneously. I think he was wary of the ‘merging’ that can be implied when we start to see self and world as ‘the same’. In his work on the flesh he describes an ‘embrace’, not a merging. The fleshy solidity of things in the world is not an obstacle but a means of communication. There is differentiation, a gap. But this is not the same as dualism. (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 130-155) Sartre was big on this too: ‘Nothingness haunts being’. He argued that when we become ‘self’ conscious, there is a slight displacement of the ego that allows us to become reflexive, and so there is a gap, a nothingness, right at the heart of the self. (Sartre, 1937/2000) He was predictably bleak and gloomy about it, describing it as a ‘worm’ at the heart of being, but I think of it in a similar way to the ‘gap’ between two eyelines in stereo vision (or sound) that punches a third dimension into experience, or like to space in a bell that allows it to resonate.
Judy Spark: I had never heard of Lilburn until you introduced me to him but I am really struck firstly by how beautifully he puts this feeling of wanting to ‘know’ the world, but not really being able to; he sees his ‘separation’ from it as part of the experience; a “desire whose satisfaction is its frustration and continuance” and his thinking does seem comparable to Merleau-Ponty’s on the concept ‘flesh’. These notions speak to me especially in light of what I was alluding to earlier about the impossibility of bridging this separation through description or the sort of attention that is part of drawing, and I’m not saying that bridging the separation ought to be the aim. What we seem to be saying is that this gap itself is very important, and indeed may itself prove to be fertile ground in ways that we (humans) do not yet fully appreciate or understand.
This practice of drawing is indeed a method of paying attention, it is contemplative and the idea of ‘stretching ones mind towards something’ is exactly how it feels. However, these drawings don’t come about through any romantic method of sitting in a field meditating over something and its rendering. As much as this activity may exist as a personal counter to an overload of daily information transmission, through which little of value may actually be received, their making employs the tools of this culture: the digital camera, the print shop, the photocopier. The subjects of the drawings are ones that have ‘spoken’ to me, usually accumulatively, over a period of time on walks made regularly as I go about daily activities (getting to work for instance) on routes that are often a mix of the urban and the rural, the peripheries of the cities I inhabit. I would no more sit down in these environments (or any other outdoor locations) and start drawing than fly in the air. I am too much a product of the 21st Century for that, I’m too afraid I’d attract unwanted attention (human or animal), I’m too soft – get too hot or too cold easily, get hungry, need to pee, or suffer from some other discomfort. As long as I keep moving, I’m fine. But the things still ‘speak’ and I try to build sense from these broken transmissions. Back in my climate controlled studio, I grid up the enlarged photograph of the ‘thing’ that I’m working from. I refer to the notes on it made after each encounter. I think my way back through this encounter as it is transferred to paper, appears as marks in graphite and ends up as not of one world (mine) or another (the one the thing itself inhabits) but something in between. In this process of working in the gap between the two, I find the space to ‘stretch my mind toward’ the thing encountered, the world it inhabits, and this ‘exchange’ is picked up again, the next time I’m on that particular path.
I’m aware that there is again something of the cynic present here in this account of observing the ‘natural’, in a way that still ‘confounds’ it with the technological, in the methods employed in bringing about the work, and in the overlaying of the sound-work that relates to it. Sometimes during the process of these drawings, I think about an experiment I came across in a book called The Secret Life of Plants, the aim of which was to clear a field of pests using electromagnetic resonance to treat, not the field itself, but a photograph of it! It was claimed that the molecular make up of the photographic emulsion would resonate at the same frequencies as the objects in the photograph. If this is just slightly unbelievable (it maybe doesn’t work with digital!), it nevertheless does make me think about what exactly is taken, made, stilled or distilled in the making of a photograph. There is some sort of exchange, and energy has to be part of this, between the seer and the seen. Both are slightly changed by the encounter, folded into one another but still distinct, to turn to Merleau Ponty again. Drawing these things, even through these clunky methods, is a way to begin to get to this.
Lilburn, T (1999) Living in the World as if it Were Home: Essays, Ontario: Cormorant Books
Merleau-Ponty, (1968) The Visible and the Invisible, Evanston: Northwestern University Press
Sartre, Jean-Paul (1937/2000) ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’ in Priest, S. (2000) Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings, Routledge
Tompkins, P. and Bird, C. (1974) The Secret Life of Plants, London: Allen Lane (Penguin)
Samantha Clark: According to astronomers we can only actually perceive about 4.7% of the universe. This is the ‘shiny stuff,’ the atoms and particles that we can actually see, the ‘things’ bit. The rest of it, the ‘nothing’ bit, is made up of ‘dark matter’, which is about 27%, and ‘dark energy’ which makes up about 68%. These percentages are not absolutes, not slices of a finite pie, but expressions of relationship, a ratio between the visible and the invisible. They speak eloquently of the relationship between the material and the ineffable. According to modern physics, the material world is only this 4.7%, a tiny fraction, our only point of contact, the tip of an iceberg, a keyhole to peep through. Behind it lies a vast hinterland of strange, dimly seen, uncanny something-nothingness, which is only seen through the effects it has on see-able matter; through its gravitational effects, in the case of dark matter, and in the accelerating expansion of the universe, possibly caused by dark energy. I took part in a short residency this August at Allenheads Contemporary Arts in Northumberland, and together with a group of a dozen or so other artists we explored this notion of the 95% of the universe which we can’t perceive, and had fascinating conversations with an astroparticle physicist who had also been invited. Particle physicists use non-detection as a means of detection – they look for the gap, the hole, the nothing, and voilà! An invisible particle! It turns out that mass, the very solidity and weight of the material world, is not a property of matter itself but a result of the interaction between matter and Higgs particles. We swim through the Higgs field like fish through the sea (and it through us) and its pull we experience as gravity, a phenomenon that remains a great scientific mystery. For the purposes of this one-week residency I quickly made a series of ‘sketches’ in response to the ideas we explored together – ‘Instruments for Exploring the Universe’ – including these ‘gravity boots’ and accompanying piece of text::
‘Walking up a hill is a good time to remember that gravity is a mystery to science, though knowing this doesn’t help the climb much. How strange it is that this firm press of my two feet upon the ground should be felt so keenly by the body, yet seen so dimly by the mind. They say that cold dark matter, the unseen stuff that makes up most of the universe, trawls through us all the time. Like all of the visible world I am fat with the unseen fullness of empty space. Dark matter, slow, lead-heavy, its dull pull clumps galaxies together like dust seeding rainclouds. Puffing uphill I am clogged with it. I feel my own weight as it leans into me. Yet this whole shining world would drift away without its dark ballast.’
Judy Spark: Gravity, a fundamental element of our own make up, yet we generally talk of it as something separate from us that ‘happens’ when we drop something. I really like the way that what you’ve said here emphasises the relationship we have with this ‘ineffable substance’. This notion of ‘relationship’ is so vital to a fuller appreciation of the things and processes, both natural and technological, that are present or taking place around us. I note that alongside the boots was another Instrument for Observing the Universe in the form of an old valve radio tuned to what’s between stations……
This printed and bound text, was exhibited in a two person show Back to the Things Themselves with Lesley Punton in the Briggait in Glasgow as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2012. The work consisted of a series of written descriptions detailing what could be heard during a concentrated period of listening in the gaps between broadcasts over the FM spectrum of a Robert’s R25 analogue radio (88 – 108 FM) on the 25th May 2011 between 4.20 and 6.15pm.
The notion that the ‘spaces’ between broadcasts themselves hold ‘content’ is of great interest to me. It seems to say a lot about the presence of what appears, on the surface of things, to be absent, and I’m drawn to the parallels between this and the experience of what is between thoughts, i.e., nothing, the Buddhist conception of ‘pure consciousness’? Again it seems to pertain to the idea of a ‘gap’, a stillness, that quells the chatter about what and how things are, leaving a space for things to be more fully disclosed in different ways. Phenomenology has it that consciousness is always consciousness of something.
It may be something cynical in the quality of my observation but it seems that in our culture, we generally find that we must name what occurs in a gap, rather than simply experiencing the quality of this space itself. An extract from the text pictured above reads,
“102 – 104
Soft hiss, like rain in trees, but at a distance. The spinning high-pitched sound
is there but less keen. The odd crackle, like dust on a record, can be heard.
These sounds play around the edges of deliberately broadcast ones.”
A parallel work Instructions for Creating a Gap, shown in the adjacent room, consisted of a pile of A4 folded sheets of printed instructions. Visitors were encouraged to take a copy away with them that they might try ‘listening in gaps’ themselves at home. Over the course of the exhibition, around 1000 of these texts left the gallery; however I have no information as to whether the exercise was undertaken by anyone who holds a copy.
Still with the notion of radio and ‘gaps’, both these pieces of work used mini FM radio transmitters to transmit sound through radios. In Morning Broadcast, the cynic takes those ‘universe observing tools’ and plugs gaps through which it might be listened to with her own sounds……in this case, birdsong.
(The sound of birdsong in the room in which this discussion was taking place became apparent at the appearance of this slide.)
This ‘confounding’ of the ‘natural’ with the technological is designed to address the ways in which we attend to things. Because of the acoustics of the Briggait it sometimes seemed to gallery visitors as if the sound were coming from outside the building. The Things Themselves consisted of two radios broadcasting a series of softly spoken descriptions, in both male and female voices. The descriptions articulate the natural forms that are the subject of the drawings A Sort of Visual Rhythm (Symphoricarpos) also situated in gallery 1 and Orrery (Galium aparine) in gallery 2. The soundtracks coming from the two radios were slightly out of sync with one another, so that two different voices could be heard at any one time. I think that my interest in this latter radio work, lay in the fact that neither in the reported descriptions, nor in the drawings of the things themselves, could even an approximation of the content of the original experience, that of encountering the forms in the landscape, be made. The real ‘listening’ could only really have taken place within that original experience.