Going Outside

I must collect my thoughts in order to write this, in order to distinguish what properly belongs inside this account and what should properly be left out. Any delimited interior is of course an artifice. This account could have been constructed differently. It could have been composed of different elements in a different order. It occurs to me that this dilemma leads me in three directions:

  1. I become harshly restrictive. I rigorously discard extraneous elements to the extent that very little is left and the interior grows stale and atrophied.
  2. I discover the paradoxical aspect of every element. Everything outside belongs inside. Everything inside belongs outside. I am left with the indeterminable.
  3. I refuse to strictly enforce boundaries. I permit impertinent elements. I then worry that I have said nothing.

Each of these directions on their own and in combination can be incapacitating. Even now, I am tempted to delete the few sentences I have written so far and begin again. But I won’t, or at least not quite yet.

This account is concerned with the relationship between inside and outside. There are of course multiple insides and multiple outsides. There are rooms and backyards, shopping malls and refugee boats. There are doors, thresholds and exclusion zones. There is the tired and tiresome issue of distinguishing between what lies within the contours of art and what lies outside. And there is the awkward problem of conceiving the infinite potential of a finite space – that it is discovering aspects of outside on the inside. It is something like the latter that concerns me here and that will be the focus of my account. In my view, this is not simply an abstract problem.

Take the series of twelve notes in the standard Western musical scale. They are a finite set and yet there are infinite expressive possibilities. This infinitude is partly determinable in terms of formal parameters of melodic sequence, volume, timing, instrumental acoustics and the like. It also takes shape socially and artistically in terms of the relationship between player and instrument, player and musical genre, player and cultural milieu. So while I may only be able to unlock a relatively small portion of a particular instrument’s musical potential, I nonetheless recognise its infinite musical scope.

The point is that I look towards this apparent site of restriction for signs of opening. Of course there is a standard argument that creativity requires restriction. To be confronted with literally infinite options is disabling. But I am concerned with something more than this. I aim not only to find freedom within restriction, but also to recast freedom in terms of the mechanism of restriction. That is, the outside is summoned precisely through the logic of exclusion that manifests the inside.

Or at least this is how I have tended to think of things.

For close to two decades I was a programmer. I was passionate about the impersonal language of code. Many of my projects were about space. I spent a winter in Turkey photographing a small Turkish town on the Euphrates river that was soon afterwards permanently submerged by a large hydro-electric dam. I went outside to do this. When I got back I spent many months inside coding a system that would enable Myst-style first person navigation of the town’s winding cobbled streets and access to the lives of the local people. At a conceptual level, I was concerned to move away from regular, grid-based spatial representation to something more nuanced and knotted. The space was represented as a set of linked nodes.

Another project also involved travelling outside. I went to the Antarctic and videotaped footage of the Ross Sea. I then designed a system that cut up image frames into grids of image subsections. A related system played these sequences back, but with specific portions of the image (image subsections) playing back at different speeds, in different directions, etc. In this manner, an already infinite space was disarticulated. It was rendered in terms of the explicit limitation of a visual grid in order to project another infinity.

Later this dialectic to the outside became more complex and obscure. I designed drawing systems that employed images of the New Zealand alps as raw material. I wrote a 32×32 pixel computer icon tool to represent major historical events (the so called ‘War on Terrorism’). I spent a number of years designing recursive, grid based drawing applications – in an effort to open up space within the terrain of repetition.

Ultimately, however, I lost the will to proceed any further. I no longer wanted to spend more and more time at my desk coding increasingly elaborate systems. I stopped programming. I decided to work outside, but acknowledging that my thinking inside would inevitably affect what I did outside. I knew that I would be developing and following systems, but now they would involve procedures that I followed myself rather than entrusting to a computational agent. I would become my own mechanism.

Enough of this history of me. I want to conclude by briefly considering two images, which represent two different relationships between inside and outside – one from my final programming project, Loom, and the other from a series of detailed Illawarra water catchment maps.

Loom is a two-dimensional subdivision engine. It takes any regular polygon and recursively divides it according to set of simple subdivision rules. Over generations of subdivision fine polygonal patterns are developed. I find two aspects of this process compelling: firstly, the capacity of mechanical procedure to produce shimmering complexity; secondly the potential to produce a polygonal efflorescence that exceeds the initially finite conditions while adhering to them absolutely. In relation to the latter, it as though the outside takes shape within the inside; there is no need to look beyond the logic of restriction in order to escape it – it is matter of sticking to it closely, blindly, determinedly.

So this is an image that posits an outside on the inside, within the confines of the inside.

The other image maps the complex contours of a local water catchment system.

I am currently working with Kim Williams and Lucas Ihlein on a project that involves exploring Illawarra waterways. We are walking up creeks from the sea to the escarpment. Easier said than done. The creeks are close-pressed by urban, industrial and suburban development. Of course, we expected these impediments. That’s the point of the project, to trace the contemporary complexity of waterways – the faint lines of their original passage and the overlay of all manner of other stuff – buildings, trash, laws, etc.

Anyway, Kim was chasing up information and she came across these maps.

Here I can only write notes – running out of time today (I want to go outside before it gets too late).

The catchment boundary describes an irregular curved shape. The creek appears as a delicate tree within the catchment, with its upper branches in the escarpment and its trunk running out into the sea. The detailed branches indicate the potential for further subdivision, suggesting that the entire catchment area feeds into the creek. In this sense, the boundaries of the creek are ultimately indeterminate. They are delineated for convenience, but not absolutely. The internal area is infinitely subdivisible. Yet the catchment area is not fully enclosed. It feeds out to the sea, up into the atmosphere via transpiration and down into the ground via underground water systems. The boundaries of the catchment are only notionally determinable in terms of surface contours, not at the level of atmospheric or subterranean geological relations. Beyond its finite delineation and the infinite subdivision possible within that finitude, the catchment involves wider relations. It communicates more broadly. It has nothing but a provisional interiority.

At a ground level, while walking, the catchment boundary has some manifest aspects. It is linked to ridges and the top of the escarpment, but this boundary tends not to be experienced in strongly delineated terms. On the contrary, it takes shape as an uncertainty about which way the creek goes next. The catchment watershed is experienced as the creek’s disappearance. The catchment boundary is effaced just as it is encountered.

I still have to make sense of the relationship between these two images – these two modes of practice, these two articulations of inside and outside.

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