Monday, 7 October 2013

Systems Seminar continues with 1000 Plateaus

The Systems Reading Group is starting up again.

This year we’ll focus on the single text: A Thousand Plateaus.

This blog can be used as a hub for activities in much the same way as before here, and here.

Running up to Christmas the meetings are on these Wednesdays:

16th Oct.; 6th Nov.; 27th Nov.; 18th Dec.. All at 6pm at NCAD.

For the 1st meeting we’ll discuss Introduction: Rhizome (pg. 1-27)

All welcome, email me for more details.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Collecting Dust

During a recent trip to Istanbul we found ourselves in the Sultanahmet Camii. It was one of those sticky, prickly days when your clothes and skin feel like they’re being laminated together. So it was a relief to be inside the cooling air of The Blue Mosque – as it is commonly known.

The famed blueness of the interior comes from a combination of the decorative schema of over 20,000 hand-made ceramic (Iznik) tiles; and the stained glass windows which modulate the light as it flows inside to give it the quality of a calming mist.

The space was, unsurprisingly, busy and filled with that admixture of the curious and the bored; the informed and the ignorant; initiates and onlookers which you’ll find in any popular tourist attraction. Yet, despite this, it was still and quiet. Almost completely, except for a constant, somewhat melodic drone. A sonorous hum damped down the harsh edges of any noises which didn’t belong in here. It was a meditative thrumming of the air which addressed itself to all the senses - not just the ears – and demanded contemplation.

Perched, as we were, on a platform of almost total ignorance we launched ourselves off into a sequence of speculations. My fellow visitor proposed that this was the reading of sacred texts. Perhaps, we wondered, there is always a reading taking place in here, no matter what time of day, as means by which to retain the sanctity of the place by filling it with words of devotion. Obviously, I argued, we were hearing the prayers of the devout. As I warmed to this theme I imagined that above us sincere acts of adoration were taking place as they had done for hours, days and generations before and which shamed my own irreligion and indiscipline. And how better to worship, we agreed, than through the physical, aesthetic act of giving a public voice to private faith? We weren’t sure what was going on but we knew that it was beautiful and significant.

It was only as we were leaving that a distracted glance caught the source of the sound. A small man was diligently and patiently wheeling a very large, antiquated vacuum cleaner over the elaborate carpets which adorned the mosque. The transcendent had begun with the quotidian; our reverie emerging from collecting dust.

Monday, 24 June 2013

OOO discussion at Nottingham Contemporary

Video of the whole discussion here

Thanks to Emma Moore for organising a great event in the context of the show, "The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things" curated by Mark Leckey.

19 Jun 2013, Nottingham Contemporary, 6pm - 8.30pm

Free, The Space
6pm Screening:
Elizabeth Price User Group Disco

6.30pm Discussion:
With Graham Harman, Michelle Kasprzak, Kevin Love, Andrew Goffey and Francis Halsall
What does it mean to imagine that everything exists equally in the world, and that human beings have no more status than atoms or alpacas? Object-oriented ontology (“OOO”) puts things (rather than human beings, science or social relations) at the heart of studying what it means to exist. It is a new philosophical movement that has had a decisive influence on the work of both artists and exhibition-makers. A discussion with philosopher Graham Harman, curator Michelle Kasprzak and lecturers Kevin Love and Francis Halsall will address implications for the artwork as object.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Mala and Blossomest Blossom

 “Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It's a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it's white, and looking at it, instead of saying "Oh that's nice blossom" ... last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There's no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance ... not that I'm interested in reassuring people - bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.” (Dennis Potter, CH4, 1994)

When Dennis Potter gave this interview to Melvin Bragg he casually sipped morphine directly from a bottle to mitigate the pain of the cancer that was killing him. The closeness to death had gifted Potter a great privilege; that of being able to attend to the aesthetic richness of living with the relish of a glutton and the meticulousness of an obessesive. The fullness of everything in the world, he seemed to be saying, was too much to be contained by words alone.  The experience of living life in the present tense causes language to become stuffed to bursting point. It begins to split at the seams and irruptions like “blossomest”  - a word that shouldn’t exist - spill out.

A few years ago I found myself in Beijing enjoying the hospitality of philosophy students at the university there. They invited us to a lavish lunch on campus and, inspired by a mixture of generosity and institutionally sanctioned greed, ordered plates and plates of food until there was no room left on the table. Some of the foods were familiar; other less so such as a fungus broth served in a log (as I remember it.) Our hosts took great delight in explaining what was in each dish and how we should eat it. But amidst the flavours and textures both familiar and strange there was a taste I couldn’t place. “What’s the ingredient in this?” I asked. I struggled to be more specific. In the end the best I could come up with was a face in which I pulled my lips back over my teeth: “the one that makes my mouth go sccchhh and tchkk” I said. Our hosts thought this hilarious, “How can you not have words for these tastes?” someone asked, puzzled that something so ordinary could fail to be named. I’ve since worked out that the flavour comes from Sichuan Pepper a common and popular ingredient in China. It provokes a particular and peculiar sensation in the mouth. It’s called málà in Chinese which roughly translate as numbing and spicy.

Quite obviously the world that I savour with my whole body is not one that can be limited to linguistic approximations of if. Wittgenstein was wrong: the limits of my language are not the limits of my world. The world is richer than the words I find in it. And I can taste as much. The numbing spiciness of blossoms will always exceed their descriptions.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Why drawing is like phenomenology (and why I cant do it)

I’m not very good at drawing and any of my efforts to date have been pretty clumsy. The main reason as to why I can’t draw well is that I haven’t learned to look in the appropriate style. David Hockney calls this particular style of looking to draw “eyeballing” which he says is,
The way an artist sits down in front of a sitter and draws or paints a portrait by using his hand and eye alone and nothing else, looking at the figure and then trying to recreate the likeness on the paper or canvas. By doing this he ‘gropes’ for the form he sees before him. (Hockney 2006, p. 23)
Also, I can’t seem to make my hands do what I’d like them to in order to make a satisfactory drawing. I don’t have the technical facility to use the drawing materials effectively. In short, I don’t have what Ernst Gombrich calls a “schema” for drawing.

A colleague once gave me a drawing lesson and I, apparently, made the classic mistake when trying to draw an object. In this case it was a beer glass. I first imagined the immediate experience of the glass as a conceptual object, which in this case was a transparent, open cylinder. I then attempted to rotate that cylinder in my mind’s eye to bring it parallel with the picture surface in order to represent it through drawing lines. The reason that this does not work as a strategy for drawing is that it is the wrong style of looking. This style of looking takes first hand expe­rience and attempts to mediate it conceptually according to a pre-existent shape (such as a cylinder) before attempting to re-present that shape according to the material of the drawing (pencil, paper and so on) and parallel to a picture plane.

The successful drawer, on the other hand, must attend to the specific experience of the object as it is experienced. In short, they have to become a phenomenologist (even if they didn't know it.) They learn to attend to the gaps between things and treat the spaces between elements as something rather than nothing. They must then match their observations with a set of learned procedures and physical actions. The good drawer uses their arms and hands and thumbs and other parts of the body to relate the proportions of the viewed object to their own body. They must bracket (put out of action) a conceptual consideration of the object in favour of grasping its concrete particularity. The drawer must then translate this experience into the medium they have to hand according to the techniques they know.

I find such a style of “eyeballing” and close looking – what I call the drawing style – actually very difficult to do. It is certainly the case that this is not how I experience the world on a day to day basis whereby my natural attitude to things is as something ready to hand to be used or understood. I rarely attend to door frames or tables as significant aesthetic experiences or perceptual conundrums. Even many works of art do not present themselves in such a way too. Recently, for example, I spent a considerable time looking at the Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by van Eyck and marvelling at its complex ico­nography of saints, patrons, angels and so on. I was absorbed by the lustrous surfaces of oil paint. And puzzled by its weirdness. But I did not imagine myself drawing it. I was not in the drawing style of looking. There seemed to be too much going on, a surfeit of richness perhaps, to allow for this.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Spiral Jetty, Fade to Pink

[Text from a spoken introduction to the first of a two part programme curated by Aoife Desmond at Irish Film Institute organised by the Experimental Film Club. Ruins and Entropy Part I shows Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty 1970 and Mono Lake 1968-2004 ( made with his partner Nancy Holt).]

The first time I saw Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was in a lecture theatre at Glasgow University where I was studying history of art. It was a faded slide of the famous photograph of the work taken by Gianfranco Giorgoni in 1970, the year the earthwork was completed.

Old analogue photographic slides on transparency have a tendency to become pinker as they get older. I have a theory that  progressive viewings by bored students in darkened rooms slowly leeches them of their colour and life. That each slide has a limited amount of views that it can yield, and it will degrade with each gaze directed at it. In the case of the slide of Spiral Jetty it was particularly faded, and indistinct. And especially pink.

This seems appropriate for two reasons.

Firstly, the pinkness – the salt lake itself, at Rozel Point, beyond the Golden Spike monument, in Utah is bright pink. In part this is why Smithson chose this place for his piece having aborted attempts to work at sites in Bolivia and Mono-Lake, California. As the slide was becoming pinker it edged toward the conditions of the landscape it pictured and began to mimic.

Second, it’s also appropriate for the photographic slide to be faded because it points to something of the object Spiral Jetty in general – that is that it alludes perception and resists representation.

I witnessed this allusiveness first hand in 2001 when I visited the piece as a PhD student to find that it had, again, gone beneath the water.

[Spiral Jetty, 2002, Photo: Francis Halsall]

 My own art safari to the site revealed further dimensions to the work. It stank, for example. A sulphurous fug hung about the landscape. It’s also, despite what is often claimed for it, not monumental. In actuality the 1500ft coil is somewhat quaint. Spiral Jetty is somewhat dwarfed by the industrial causeway one first encounters that was built as part of an aborted attempt to run an oil extraction business there. We spent some time walking up and down this before realizing that we weren’t on the Spiral Jetty.

 [2002, Photo: Francis Halsall]

All of which suggests that the film of Spiral Jetty which we are about to watch is an equally deficient form of representation. And in part it is a deficient form.

But this is, of course, part of the point. The film is just part of a complex system of cross references which include an earthwork in Utah, a film and an essay.

Craig Owens likens this conceptual structure of self-reference to a spiral.
“The Jetty is not a discreet work, but one link in a chain of signifiers which summon and refer to one another in a dizzying spiral. For where else does the Jetty exist except in the film which Smithson made, the narrative he published, the photographs which accompany that narrative, and the various maps, diagrams, drawings, etc. , he made about it?”

These are a 35 minute film with sound on 16mm color stock (1970) and, 2 years later, the essay Spiral Jetty.

The film and the essay have comparable structures. They weave together at least three key themes:
(i)  A documentary account of the creation of the work
(ii) An, at times, hallucinatory account of how Spiral Jetty is an allegory for Smithson’s ideas of time and space and entropy
 (iii) A self-reflexive meditation on the relationships between the different media of the work (sculpture, film and written word.)

It thus emerges that there is no single, unchanging thing that we might call Spiral Jetty. There is no discrete art item; and no singular work of art. Instead, it transpires that the Spiral Jetty, has an unstable identity that is manifested across and between a variety of media.

The essay itself spirals around itself with repetitions and false starts bringing the reader back around upon themselves.  And it too begins to disintegrate into something formless – just as the earthwork frequently disappears.

Thus, the physicality of language – elsewhere Smithson talks about Strata in language, and heaps of words – relishing its brute physicality - means that whilst it may be mapped directly onto a landscape, it can never full represent it. Just like the photographs and the film.

This, then, is the point at which nature re-enters Smithson’s work.

This seems, at first glance, odd, to talk of nature in relation to an artist who uses broken glass, mirrors, collapsed wood-sheds, glue and asphalt in his work. In one sense his work is anti-environmental.

But, by nature I don’t mean that fluffy nature of moss and dew, but something far more threatening. The nature of entropy.

All of Smithsons work is concerned with entropy.

One of his famous examples is the sandpit from A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey. Smithson imagines a child’s sandpit split in half with black sand on one side and white on the other. When a child runs clockwise in the pit the sand turns grey, but if they run anti clockwise the sand doesn’t revert back to black and white. It becomes ever greyer.

Like the sandpit Smithson’s work is in collapse. But collapsing not only materially; it collapses theoretically too.

Spiral Jetty is not represented by any of its different iterations. It is rather a complex object comprised of those iterations.

It is the sculpture, the essay, the film, the photographs, the drawings, the conversations, the arguments.

His work is also in a process of collapsing in on itself, of moving towards entropy. In the Spiral Jetty essay, Smithson writes: ‘No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence.’

Smithson writes and makes films not to valorise literature and film-making; but to bear witness to their failures. He claims that language ‘covers’ rather than ‘discovers’ its situations. Its dumb materiality, the thud of its words and the rustle of its language will always bring into view the gap between words and the world.

Language, like other forms of representation, such as cinema, and faded slides in art history departments
must always fail;
must always break down.
And fade to Pink.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Carburetor Dung

In 1894 the Times of London ran a story about horse manure on the capital’s streets. If horse numbers continued to rise, it warned, then as soon as 1950 the streets would be submerged in 9ft of dung. The very thing which made the city function, its horse power, threatened it from within. If left unchecked, unstoppable waves of fecal matter from the city’s horses – so necessary for transportation– would choke and constipate its commercial systems. A new form of urban transport was required to save cities from the swelling, steaming heaps of excrement.

There are two readings of this failed prediction.

The first is optimistic. It’s underwritten by a comforting faith that humans will always be able to come up with technological advances to engineer themselves out of the predicaments they find themselves in. Or, in other words, we needn’t worry too much about our carbon footprints or air-miles because new technologies will emerge soon enough and render our petro-chemical age redundant. Just like the internal-combustion engine replaced horse power so too this will be superseded in due course. Any current anxieties about global warming will seem as quaint in 50 years time as worries about horse manure do now.

The other reading is to recognize the truth: all technology produces shit.

Both horses and motor cars generate by-products relentlessly. These are the redundant but necessary productions of their operations. Their dung. Dead bits of stuff are always left-over, and left behind. All processes of production produce surplus. From the whittlings of working in wood to the chaff of threshing and all the sawdust, stubble, and sump-oil in between; every technology will produce its own surfeits and pass its own stools. These excesses are the non-signifying elements of its processes. They are without meaning because they don’t sit obviously within a system of objects. They are rather the dross which rises to the surface. The swarf.