The relation between LeWitt and his draftsperson is often compared to the relation between a composer and performer , but I think it’s also valid to look at the comparison between a programmer and the entity of execution.1

In an article about his 2004 {Software} Structures exhibition, Casey Reas positions Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings as a model for aspects of contemporary software art.2 Creative programming is likened to the conceptual field of LeWitt’s written wall drawing instructions, while the field of program execution (of computational process) is likened to the manual labour of actually realising the instructions on any specific wall. At the same time, however, Reas acknowledges a key point of difference. LeWitt’s instructions lack the precision of programming code. They are conveyed in natural language and directed towards human readers. Rather than entirely restricting the space of execution, they work to suggest a focused field of creative possibility. Reas is keen to regard software art in similar terms, aiming to identify a form of conceptual software practice that precedes actual software programming and that provides a generative conceptual basis for all manner of actual algorithmic drawings.

The work develops in the vague domain of image and then matures in the more defined structures of natural language before any thought is given to a specific machine implementation.3

He employs the term “software structure” to designate this pre-computational, creative-conceptual field and associates it with a potential for intuition and expressive freedom.

I want programming to be as immediate and fluid as drawing and I work with software in a way that minimizes the technical aspects. I often spend a few days creating a core piece of technical code and then months working with it intuitively, modifying it without considering the core algorithms. I use the same code base to create myriad variations as I operate on the fundamental code structure as if it were a drawing – erasing, redrawing, reshaping lines, molding the surface through instinctual actions.4

No doubt LeWitt’s wall drawing can be interpreted in all kinds of ways. Certainly, his account of them is full of curious paradoxes in which the machinic and the intuitive intersect, but it does seem slightly odd to harness LeWitt in order to elaborate a notion of expressive, de-technologised, computational drawing. LeWitt is associated much more with a critique of the modernist concern with subjective, image-oriented and materially-based expression. As Ana Lovatt suggests, “[a]gainst prevailing notions regarding the immediacy, directness and primacy of drawing, LeWitt devised a drawing practice that was always already mediated by technologies of reproduction and communication.”5 While Reas never positions software structures as literally material, he conceives them in terms of “the vague domain of the image.”6 In this manner, the notion of software structure recalls the mute and intuitive aesthetics of formalist modernism. This works to conserve an intimate and properly human realm of creative conceptualisation, the validity of which is established in terms of its isomorphism to the self-evident character of perceptual manifestation. Whereas LeWitt disturbs the boundaries between the intuitive and the procedural, Reas maintains their conventional distinction. The domain of conceptual expression, of software programming, is positioned as a form of alienation from intuitive conceptualisation. It manifests the underlying concept in a language that is itself, despite its abstraction, properly separate from the inner-sanctum of the conceptual. Examined closely, it is evident that the overall division between the conceptual and the manifest functions throughout, with the former privileged only as long, rather peculiarly, as it takes shape as the latter. A conceptual space is delineated, but in terms that precisely correspond to the reassuring visibility of the material image.

Let’s consider more closely how LeWitt emphasises a disruptive relation to traditional notions of expressive drawing and unsettles the relation between conceptual and executable dimensions of drawing. Rather than the conceptual appearing as a subjectively grounded sphere of autonomy and dominance and the executable as an utterly derivative space of expressive material determination, their relation is articulated in profoundly paradoxical terms. Consider this classic statement from his 1967 “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”

In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.7

This would seem, very evidently, to insist on a hierarchy in which the conceptual comes to determine and render trivial the sphere of actual making. The conceptual appears to render making a simple terrain of laborious execution, involving the strict performance of precise instructions. Aside from the fact that, as Reas demonstrates, LeWitt’s conceptual instructions actually leave considerable space for creative interpretation, the key issue is that for LeWitt the perfunctoriness of execution is not simply a negative quality. The term “perfunctory” suggests a task that is mechanically performed, without any sense of subjective investment. This establishes a paradoxical affinity to the conceptual. LeWitt insists that “the idea is a machine that makes the art.”8 The sphere of the conceptual then is also interpreted in mechanical terms. Both the conceptual and the executable are stripped of subjectivity and cast in non-reflective terms. In his 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual art”, LeWitt describes the ideational blindness of the conceptual, “The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.”9. Note how far removed this is from “the vague terrain of the image” that Reas describes 10 Ultimately, the intuitive machinery of the conceptual enters into relation with the machinery of making.

28. Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
29. The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.11

The value of the “perfunctory” is clearly evident here. It is a productive dimension of mechanism that tests and inspires new concepts. Although apparently distant and distinct, the spaces of conception and execution find themselves paradoxically closely allied and linked. They share a common antagonism to the thinking of subjective expression. Together, as paired coordinates, they suggest a notion of drawing that reaches beyond the human, that struggles to find means to engage with dimensions of blind process.

It is worth noting that LeWitt’s ambivalent relation to the space of execution is evident in the story of how, within the context of Lucy Lippard’s 1968 benefit exhibition, “Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam”, he priced his wall drawings in terms of the time it took to paint them.12 His gesture indicates at once a critique of the special qualities of aesthetic production, while also clearly serving to highlight the space of perfunctory labour. It is in this sense of acknowledging the work of laborious making – stripped of its cultural pretensions and foregrounding its actual time and non-reflective, operative force – that LeWitt provides a model for highlighting the relation between software programmer and dimensions of computational process. Of course, programming introduces another level of complexity. Alongside the labour of computation there is also the labour of programming. There is no way that the complex reams of code that programmers write can possibly preserve the sense of conceptual immediacy that is evident in LeWitt’s wall drawing statements. The work of programming even more clearly demonstrates that “the idea is a machine that makes the art.”13

  1. Reas, C. (2004) “A text about Software and Art”, {Software} Structures exhibition, Whitney Airport Commissions, http://artport.whitney.org/commissions/softwarestructures/text.html (accessed 12 June 2011)
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid
  5. Lovatt, A (2010), “On Drawing, Ideas in Transmission: LeWitt’s Wall Drawings and the Question of Medium”, Tate Museum, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/10autumn/lovatt.shtm (accessed 12 June 2011)
  6. Reas, C. op.cit.
  7. LeWitt, S., “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” in Alberro, A. & Stimson, B. (1999) Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, MIT Press, p.12
  8. ibid.
  9. LeWitt, S., “Sentences on Conceptual Art” in Alberro, A. and Stimson, B. (1999) op. cit., p.107
  10. Reas, C. op.cit.
  11. LeWitt, S. (1999), “Sentences on Conceptual Art”, op.cit. p)
  12. Lovatt, A. ibid.
  13. LeWitt, S., “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, op.cit.
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Last Exile

Exhibition opening talk – Last Exile, Agnieszka Golda and Martin Johnson, Friday June 17th 2011, Wollongong City Gallery

Thanks to Martin and Agnieszka for asking me to open this show, which I know has taken so much work. We shared an exhibition venue last year. I can remember being very impressed by their ingenuity, which involved manufacturing all manner of large and small pieces in their relatively modest home studio, then somehow packing them up, carting them to the gallery and re-constructing things without any sense of either disabling chaos or fascistic organisation. The move simply represented an opportunity, starting with the old and familiar, to build things anew. All the stuff was neatly bundled like kindling or better like the walls, beams and tiles of an old house that is moved from one place to another.

And this is also, it seems to me, what this exhibition is about – the problem of moving (and the problem of staying still). How to move without leaving everything behind, but the necessity also, in leaving, to permit all manner of unexpected meetings, strange encounters and transitions. The most obvious move is from the folk culture of Poland through the apparent detour of Japanese anime to whatever it is that Australia represents (a place of exile? A place that demands a fanciful work of reconstruction? A stripped down, plainly scaffolded space – the terrain of contemporary installation art?).

The thing about this exhibition – I might as well say it now – is that everything that is happening at the practical level of making – of painting images, of weaving little shawls for votive wooded figures, of tacking bits of pine together – is mirrored at the formal-aesthetic and thematic level. Everything involves a process of negotiation, whether it is moulding the work to the demands of the specific gallery space, or setting sculpture and textiles alongside painting, or the cute alongside the frightening, or the minimal alongside the kitsch, or the human alongside the animal, or elements of Japanese Noh theatre and anime alongside the Slavic myths of Baba Yaga. The exhibition establishes a liminal space in which these and many other elements discover a hesitant and uncertain terrain of encounter.

You can’t miss Baba Yaga. She is in many of the paintings, sculptures and prints. She flies through the air in a mortar bowl. She is a kind of demonic pestle mixing together all that she encounters. She lives in a house that is supported by chicken’s feet. The house is mobile. It constantly turns to face the darkest part of the forest. To enter, the supplicant must speak to the house, must ask it to move, must utter, according to one story, the magical phrase, “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.” 1

In terms of these encounters, what I find especially interesting is the mixture of meeting (conjunction) and incommensurability. Things are brought together, but without losing their sense of difference. Rather than any effort to forge a unifying cross-cultural or aesthetic-stylistic myth (and an overall scene of resolution and reconciliation), there is a sense of playful and intrinsic tension, a sense that all meetings are contingent and that multiplicity is less something to be mourned than celebrated. Like Baba Yaga, who according to Laura Strong is known variously as “the Guardian of the Underworld, the Mistress of the Forest, the Goddess of Death and Regeneration, the Wolf-Goddess, the Bone Mother, the Mistress of the Animals, and the Guardian of the Water of Life and Death” 2, Last Exile – for all its apparent finality – has an ambivalent aspect. It is as much about projecting a space of possibility as it is about representing a space of loss, mourning and death. Here there is a strong sense of what Russian literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, terms the carnivalesque – of the world turned upside down and of the productive force of the grotesque. 3

This sense of reversal is evident for instance in the emphasis on anthropomorphic animism. The life and agency of animal spirits and of inanimate materials is juxtaposed to the static, awkward corpse-like weight of the human forms. At the same time, the passivity of the human enables motions of transition and transformation. See how the cloth wrapped around human flesh, light and flowing, suspended in the beaks of birds, grows hard and angular, like the contours of bones, and then shifts into the solidity of pale wood and the flatness of printed textiles.

Alongside these chains of metaphoric association there are also points of irreconcilable juxtaposition when, for instance, detailed textured forms – foxes, birds and the like – are placed beside baldly outlined figures and the flatness of patterned or plainly dripped surfaces. Here a kind of irony seems evident – in which every figurative gesture, however extravagant, however baroquely pursued, is also at the same time reflectively suspended – but in a way that manages to never entirely withdraw from a faith in the power of totemic animals, mythical figures and shamanistic signs.

In this respect another dimension of ambivalence is evident. What I find most odd, interesting and affecting is that it is as though the impossibility of the image (and the unlikeliness of summoning the liminal, other-worldly experiential space) is acknowledged at the same time that a faith in its arcane powers of imagery and reconstruction is made manifest. Belief and the suspension of belief run somehow side by side. And this again indicates a creative commitment towards bringing things into dynamic relation. Myths of continuity – of the life prior to exile – are nothing until they are brought to life in their artifice – or through artifice brought to life. For example, the thin lengths of Bunning’s pine establish a fragile ritual space, while at the same time undermining any nostalgic hope that it can literally and coherently return.

Now I can’t help myself. A technical word comes to mind. The crucial word for me, alongside “encounter” and “incommensurable”, is “iconostasis”. In eastern Christian churches the iconostasis is the wall of paintings that separate the nave from the sanctuary. It also refers to the practice of propping up church icons on portable stands. The iconostasis sets an excess and extravagance of the image alongside a self-evident work of constructedness. It demonstrates a weird mixture of pragmatism and faith, reflective distance and imaginative investment that is characteristic also of Last Exile.

I’ll conclude by congratulating Agnieszka and Martin on their long running artistic collaboration. Yet another field of negotiation! Somehow, despite all the possible points of disagreement, blockage and collapse – as you individually make various things and arrange them in space, as you paint over one another’s figures – you manage this encounter, as the encounters within your work, with energy and hope.

  1. Baba Yaga Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baba_Yaga (accessed 16/6/2011)
  2. String. L. Mythic Arts website: http://www.mythicarts.com/writing/Baba_Yaga.html (accessed 16/6/2011)
  3. Bakhtin, M. (1984) Rabelais and his World, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis USA
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Walk – 19/11/2011 & 20/11/2011

A walk can follow a trail, but it can also determine one. It can shape a trail from a network of real and latent paths. The trail may shift from the uncertainty of an animal track to the clarity of a paved road.

What can I say about this particular walk?

It begins just across the street. A short steep trail ascends between two houses to a large, grassy paddock (the remains of an old farm). People don’t use the trail much. Feral deer descend the slope at night to forage in gardens and drink from Byarong creek.

street, trail, view

street, trail, view

What I find remarkable is that the trail is so close and yet instantly marks a transition to another space. It leads quickly up to a green and open field. From here, it is possible to look back across the coastal hills to the sea. Ahead the trail ascends a steep grassy hill towards a forested ridge. On this particular day – the first of two consecutive days that I make this walk – it is late afternoon and the air is noisy with flies. A herd of deer scramble through the bush. Mount Keira is sunny and prominent above the suburbs.

Further up, the field becomes an empire of weeds. Scotch thistles moult drifts of whispy white fibre. Thickets of lantana are covered in clumps of bright small flowers. A fox hurries across a small section of open ground. Parrots emerge from the brush and fly up to the trees. A track between the lantana leads up to the ridge line. Near the top, a feather lies on the ground.

thistle, feather, lantana

thistle, feather, lantana

The ridge line marks a change. The rough trail intersects with an established track. A high fence encloses a large modern water tank. To the right, the track continues past some old pump infrastructure towards the escarpment proper, first dropping down to a saddle and then following the ridge consistently upwards. I have never seen the path so lush. Bracken ferns grow along the edge and soft mounds of grass obscure the old water pipes. A new steel-mesh fence runs along the left edge of the ridge and a rough track to the top of O’Brien’s road is now sternly gated with a “no entry – private property” sign.

water tank, lush, locked gate

water tank, lush, locked gate

Just before the track proceeds steeply up through some bedraggled rainforest to an old pumping station, a scarcely visible track skirts the ridge to the right and connects to a dirt road heading directly west towards the escarpment. The plant life in this section is especially compelling – a mixture of extravagant weeds and curious natives.

mushroom, seed, flowers

mushroom, seed, flowers

The dirt road is less immediately inspiring, with its blue metal mounds and faded heaps of dumped domestic goods. The road proceeds gently up for awhile and then drops to a shady saddle with fire trails twisting down to the valley on either side. Shortly afterwards, the dirt road contracts to a walking trail and then suddenly becomes paved – the black asphalt appearing incongruous in such an overgrown and inaccessible place. A set of smashed guard rails are visible on the left. A steep slope down into the forest is strewn with wrecked vehicles. This must have once been a publicly accessible road, with cars rolled off the edges late at night. Through the break in the trees, I can see the Mount Kembla coal mine in the opposite valley. I decide to turn around. It is 6pm and there is not enough daylight left to complete the walk.

rock, keira, trash

rock, keira, trash

The next day I begin a bit earlier, although there is the sense of a late storm approaching from the West. Deborah comes up with me as far as the water tower. She finds the feather that I had seen the day before and another one as well. She puts them both in her hair and walks back down the hill. I continue up the track. My aim is to finish the walk.

Taking up from where I left off yesterday, the asphalt road curves up steeply after the dumped cars. Then in the shadow of tall eucalypts and the looming green escarpment, it passes through a metal gate and alongside more decaying water pipe infrastructure. The sound of trail bikes in the distance. Roaring mud-covered bikes were common on the track a few years ago, but a series of locked gates have thinned their numbers. Instead, they now swarm like angry wasps in the nearby and much more concentrated space of the Mt Kembla trail bike park.

two feathers, track, railing

two feathers, track, railing

The trail follows the old water pipes south. A small waterfall on the right is just visible through the confusion of weeds and ferns. Even the highest branches of trees are covered in vines. Just past a disused concrete bridge, a large black snake lies on the edge of the track. Seeing me, it turns back into the undergrowth.

snake, fallen tree, darkness

snake, fallen tree, darkness

The afternoon grows increasingly dark. It starts to rain – first lightly and then heavily. I keep an eye out for the obscure right turn that indicates the trail up through the jungle to Harry Evans Drive and the old coal mine. Eventually I recognise the turn near the bottom of a hill and begin the long clamber up the dark and muddy trail. The first time I walked up here, the path was scarcely visible, as though it had fallen into disuse. More recently, it had become more obvious. There were signs that it was being developed as a mountain bike track, with little wooden bridges running across the gullies and precarious jumps at the top of steep slopes. But now the track seems once again to be disappearing beneath the undergrowth. Several year old mountain bike ramps already look ancient – rotten and covered in yellow mould.

rain, trunks, rotting wood

rain, trunks, rotting wood

I persist upwards for awhile, slipping about in the mud and pausing occasionally to pick thin and speedy leeches from my legs. Eventually I reach a pretty sheltered area with large flame trees. Something about the place suggests an old settlement. I walk to the edge of the trees and then suddenly there is only an unbroken sea of green ferns. Perhaps I could push through to the other side, but it seems more appropriate to stop. The trail is gone. This is now, for the time being, where the walk finishes.

tree ferns, overgrown trail, shelter

tree ferns, overgrown trail, shelter

As I descend back down the sodden track, I can just make out the bright flame from the distant Port Kembla steel mill surging through the fading light, the rain and the mist.

port kembla steel mill

port kembla steel mill

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Flooded Creek

Why bother describing the creek when I have photographed it, when I include the five photographs here? Is it to provide a context for the images, to explain that they depict a flooded Byarong creek – a creek that runs just behind our house and that has in the past torn our rear fence away? Is it to convey other dimensions of the event, to indicate, for instance, that the roaring sound of the creek’s flow can be heard in our bedroom? Is it to characterise an explicit subjectivity – perhaps my own? Is it to play upon the difference between written description and photographic documentation? Or is it to indicate an excessive level of attention that is determined – even if not strictly necessary – to employ a surfeit of descriptive means? Most likely all of these, but it is the latter that especially interests me. It is as though the excess of the moment, the rush of the flooded creek, however slight this event may seem, demands an excessive effort of representation. This excess is plainly never sufficient, but nonetheless works, precisely through its awkwardness, to summon the otherness of the flooded creek and the otherness of the moment that I stood within it. For shortly afterwards, the rain, which had been incessant for six days, stopped. A wall of blue and bright sunlight shunted aside grey with the abruptness of a bright image in a previously dark slide show.

flooded crossing

flooded crossing

turbulent flow

turbulent flow

waterfall drain

waterfall drain

hint of sun

hint of sun

run off

run off

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9 Walks (idea)

A work on walking and the everyday.
Not the walks of a flaneur or a psychogeographer. No effort to reshape space via the practice of walking. Instead to reflect upon a set of walks that I regularly do.
Begin with Zeno and the strangeness of conceiving the passage from one point to another, of engaging with the possibility and dimensions of mobile experience.
Some possible walks:
– walking about the house
– walking home from work
– mowing the lawn
– shopping at the supermarket
– something at the gym (does running on the treadmill count?)
– walking up Mt Nebo/Mt Keira
– walking up the Castle
– the dreaded family walk
– walking on overseas holidays

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Media Art 0

[Sorry, there are going to be a number of these. I know they are repetitive. They are my effort to find ways of describing media art, not that the genre is especially important or requires closely policed limits, just that there seems a need to envisage a space of speculative media practice that it is not entirely circumscribed by a conception of technological media, that addresses notions of media and processes of mediation more generally.]

What is it that distinguishes media art from new media art or electronic art? Nothing absolute, of course. Just a shift in emphasis. Electronic art stresses a specific technological medium, exploring how aspects of action, interaction, perception, information, communication, logic and cognition can be rendered in electronic terms. New media art is more specifically concerned with the advent and implications of the digital. It shares the same technological emphasis as electronic art, but focuses on the creative potential of new forms of computational media.1 Media art is a bit different, or at least potentially a bit different. It represents a transition beyond the exclusive concern with technologically enabled mediation. Charting pathways to varied traditions of historical media and to diverse currents of contemporary art practice, it shapes something more like an epistemological conception of media. It is concerned with media not as physical medium, nor as a multiplicity of technological forms, but as a fundamental condition of experience. The concept of media denotes a paradox. Media represents an intervening space of distance, separation and delay, which is nonetheless constitutive of our experience of being, interaction and communication. Media art highlights this terrain of uncertainty, this play of engagement and disengagement, access and alienation, summoning and disappearance.

  1. see, for instance, Manovich, L. 2001, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.
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Media Art 1

[These are notes for a possible introductory text.]

What is media art?

Forgive me, I know this is a dumb, dumb question…

Vere simply, media art is not a clear category. It is not as though you can simply clarify the concept of media, marry it up to the concept of art and then you are done. For a start, media and art are not entirely easy bedfellows. They have a long history of attraction and repulsion. Andreass Huyssens argues that the early 20th century avant-garde were fascinated by the visceral shock of new technological forms of representation and communication (photography, film, etc.), drawing these qualities within art through strategies of collage, chance, fragmentation and the like. At the opposite pole, the high modernism associated with Clement Greenberg’s reduction of painting to colour and surface represents a deliberate turn away from the mechanical cacophony of popular media. More recently there has been an on-going tension within contemporary art between all manner of apparent centers and peripheries. Whether it is supporters of traditional forms of modern art lamenting the spread of projected video works or the supporters of post-object installation art decrying the political and aesthetic naivete of digital-interactive work, media more often figures as a point of contention than agreement.

One approach may be to discuss the concept of media and then link it to the concept of art. I will pursue this approach, but need to acknowledge at the outset that it is naive. Names are curious things. Their meaning is not totally locked up in the name itself. The meaning of media art is not entirely etymological. It draws on an historical, institutional context.

Leaving aside the vexed question of how to define art, let’s begin by considering the concept of media. We typically think of media in terms of various technological systems of representation and communication. The media refer to things like photography, film, newspapers, radio, television and the Internet. These take shape not only as a technological forms but also as cultural and institutional fields, involving political, commercial and social dimensions. In the complex, globalised, contemporary world, the media appear as a plurality of mechanisms for provisionally linking together and differentiating various strands of the cultural universe. There is much more that we can say about media, but let’s begin with just this notion of technologically mediated systems of communication.

Ways of engaging with media:

  • produced with… (technological definition)
  • exploring through… (positioned as creative medium, but regarding the means as unproblematically constituted)
  • speculating within/beyond… (finding purchase in the interstices of the existent – drawing out other conceptions of media, particularly at a formal-aesthetic level)
  • obliquely reflecting upon… (sometimes by turning away from media – Bourriaud’s “law of relocation”)
  • directly reflecting upon… (considering/addressing media)
  • interventions within… (activist critique)

Media art is typically associated with practices that employ media technologies to produce art. If the video medium qualifies as a form of ‘media’ while painting or something else equally medium-specific does not this is because painting appears as a traditional, material-craft based activity, while video is more apparently enmeshed in modern technological forms and systems of communication. However, the issue is complex. In its characteristic avoidance of modern media, painting can be regarded as providing an oblique critique of contemporary media. This highlights the need to think beyond narrowly technical conceptions of media art. Beyond creative experimentation with media technologies, media art can also represent a conceptual, critical and aesthetic engagement with contemporary systems of representation and communication. This need not necessarily involve the explicit use of photography, video, computational code, etc. All manner of materials – water, wood, live bodies, even paint on campus – may provide effective means for reflecting on the current state of media. (Consider Bourriaud)

There are other possibilities as well. Media art practice increasingly considers the history of media forms.

Within this context, when you enter a Media Arts program you expect to produce audio-visual projects, whether in terms of traditional, linear time-based work or in terms of contemporary forms of electronic, networked or installation-based new media. It becomes then a matter of producing art with contemporary tools and engaging critically and creatively with the current state of media.
We say that something comes in “immediate contact with skin” to suggest that the contact is direct, that there is nothing intervening between object and skin. Similarly, we say something “happens immediately” to suggest that it occurs without delay. Immediacy represents a state of being unproblematically present both in space and time. It is the opposite of the mediate, which involves distance, separation, delay and a corresponding, positive work of intercession. Instead of immediately speaking to a person, we employ a text or a phone call. The latter media act as relays, as intermediaries. But equally instead of directly communicating our thoughts and feelings to another person we employ the media of language and non-verbal communication. These most apparently intimate forms of communication serve as means for crossing the inevitable divide that separates the inner experiences of any two people. This suggests that mediation is not something restricted to just the more obvious forms of separation. It affects even those areas of our lives that we regards as most immediate.
Middle..means. As means it is not seen until it fails. McLuhan switches focus from message to mediumgive

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Media Art 2

Media art is typically associated with technologically based systems of representation and communication. However the notion of media can also be thought more generally – as middle, as milieu (Serres), as paradoxical ontological condition. The strangely inert and active space of mediation gains critical attention, upsetting the precedence of source, message and receiver and suggesting a relational sense of identity. But it is not as though this more abstract conception of media is unrelated to the technological one. The field of technical media – as instrumental means, as the dumb and silent agent of any communication – engages with wider issues. It renders the supplementary, extraneous and inhuman aspect of mediation explicit (Derrida, Stiegler). In this manner technical media can become emblematic of mediality generally. The problem, however, is when media art is exclusively associated with technological questions, ignoring its wider implications and space of questioning.

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Evening Sounds

Garbled, scarcely audible sounds emanating from the rocks, way up on the cliffs, in the gathering darkness, with the brown brush jutting out between the cracks, with nothing being said below or in the nearby town, with the lights of the other village flickering in the late heat, as though fragments of the setting sun still remain, while across the ocean comes the purple step of night, which is seen from one of those things, a bus or a truck, with windows and the tendency to tilt over, careering across the hills, framing views of the ocean, of the rocky shore, of the mangled clouds, and picking up speed along the way, leading the passengers in the back to grumble and complain, but in garbled, scarcely audible voices – the voices, no doubt, of the dead.

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things to remember

– Communication and Media Studies – amorphous and interdisciplinary – my background
– Derrida, Ponge, Bazin, Barthes, Blanchot, Kracaeur on the thing (the other). Serres combines a concern with the complexities of mediation with a concern with the real. All of this as a means of pointing to undercurrents within strains of 20th century french thought that are not totally bound to the thinking of anthropocentric correlationism (Mellissaux – spelling?). An attempt then to respond to Harman oversimplification of the earlier tradition – his tendency to misread the catch-cry ‘there is nothing outside the text’ as insistence upon the human space of language and a complete bracketing of anything else. So the first object is historical – making it clear that a realist committment (in the ethical sense) is not something totally new or totally alien to even the post-structural tradition. Serres provides a particularly good example of a theorist who draws realist and epistemological concerns together.
– related to the latter, draw up the main features of the ancient Greek god, Hermes, as a means of explicating the paradoxes of mediation. I have not read Serres’ work in this area…

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Media 3

A medium is alive as long as it is being used for pornographic ends

In his Tue, 20 Dec 2011 15:51:41 +0100 post, Florian Cramer argues that McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message” is less an effective model for radical media arts practice than a sad point of exhaustion. The creative thinking of the medium (any medium) is plainly exhausted when all it can do is nostalgically and solipsistically reflect on its own material conditions. With a deliberate sense of provocation, Cramer argues that a medium is only alive and only new when it is used for pornographic ends. Pornography is associated with the field of the message – with everything that extends beyond the deathly self-regard and self-absorption of the medial. But isn’t pornography necessarily at its basis also caught up with the thinking of mediation? Particularly if media/medium/mediation is thought more generally, less in terms of the conventional image of mechanical/electrical/electronic systems of representation and communication, than as middle, as milieu, as play of intercession and supplementation. Doesn’t pornography – and the thrill of the pornographic – hinge precisely upon the separation and exchange between image, skin, smell and sensation? Doesn’t it always figure as an alluring and disabling middle space that disturbs the immediacy of sex as such – that precedes, exceeds and proceeds from whatever it is that actual physical intimacy/coupling represents? And isn’t sex itself – assuming that it can somehow take shape apart from the pornographic – also a space of mediation? Isn’t it perhaps the archetypal media space? In what sense then does it represent a simple level of content? In what sense can it appear as clearly distinguishable – miraculously unmediated – message? In short, conceiving media in these broader terms, couldn’t pornography be interpreted, on the contrary, as the clearest demonstration of McLuhan’s argument? Isn’t pornography less about some simple, unmediated order of content than about an excessive medial play that is nonetheless also constitutive of sexuality?

I guess what I’m trying to suggest is that it is only when working with a restricted and conventional sense of both medium and message that Cramer’s critique of McLuhan gains any force. The genuine challenge, however, of McLuhan’s slogan is to think beyond these conceptions – to recognise media, for instance, where before we had only seen traffic lights. And this, of course, may also entail thinking beyond McLuhan’s notion of media as extensions of human capacity or as technological-ecological features, recognising instead more intricate and fundamental conditions of mediation.

I should stress, however, that my aim in extending the sense of media is less to establish some vast and vertiginous uber-discipline (very unlikely) than to pursue a thread of argument to its logical consequences, or, more aptly, to follow a rough pathway to wherever it leads. And of course this is hardly an aim that I can lay claim to myself. I could mention the work of many theorists, but I am thinking now particularly of the writings of Michel Serres. Serres is interesting in terms of the way he links a nuanced concern with the texture of mediation to a concern with the real and the material. In a manner that echoes the thinking of the Pre-Socratics, Serres conceives the material world as itself constituted by sets of dynamic mediations, rather than insisting that the medial is entirely reserved for the realm of human representation, communication, technological invention and finitude. In this manner, the distinction between medium and message, between intervening tool and substantive content, becomes meaningless. Mediation appears as an inescapable condition of all being.

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Media 4

I began studying a Bachelor of Communication and Media Production at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (now the University of Canberra) in 1982. It was the first year that the program ran. I can remember meeting with the convenor, Dr. Graeme Osbourne, before I started. I was seeking advanced standing for portions of two years of prior (aborted) study in a Bachelor of Arts program at the Australian National University. In a very affable manner, he declined my request, arguing that none of my study in English, Philosophy or Fine Art corresponded to what I was about to learn. At the very outset then, Communication was presented as something alien, as something that drew from the traditional humanities but that described a radically different field of concern. Of course, at that stage I had no interest in whatever the field of Communication represented. My interest was in the Media Production portion of the program. I was particularly keen to gain access to all the photographic, film and video production facilities (informed by some fond dream from my early teens of becoming a film-maker).

Communication studies was then only just emerging as an academic field. It had historical links to the field of Journalism, but described a much broader set of interests. It was ambitious, but also a bit disreputable (hence offered at a College of Advanced Education rather than a traditional university). Our first textbook was John Corner’s Communication Studies – which drew together a variety of relevant readings from, as I recall, sociology, linguistics, cybernetic-style information theory and psychology. The introductory lectures focused upon, among other things, defining communication, tracing the historical development of the information society, and explaining the distinct characteristics of interpersonal, small-group, organisational and mass communication. Apart from the odd interesting reading from a theorist such as Erving Goffman (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) or on the psychology of perception, most of the interpersonal communication stuff was bit dull, involving, for instance, categorising aspects of non-verbal communication (Knapp). Small-group and organisational communication were much worse. Some fairly vacuous stuff geared mainly, it seemed, towards the needs of corporate management. Mass Communication was much more interesting and substantial. It seemed ridiculous to present it as only one quarter of the field when it had much greater historical and intellectual range and much clearer cultural and political relevance. It examined the history of mass communication technologies and their problematic relation to aspects of social change. We considered issues such as printing’s contribution to the European Enlightenment, the role of propaganda in Hitler’s Germany and the implications of the mass panic surrounding Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast. The key conceptual thread involved questioning and making sense of the effects of mass media. We learned how early ‘billiard ball’ models of media influence were replaced by more nuanced conceptions of mediated effects and then by more broadly cultural-ideological approaches that positioned mass media structurally rather than as crudely mechanistic agents.

It is not so much, however, all the details of what we learned that interests me here. Instead, it is the particular way in which the Communication discipline took shape. It appeared in the following terms:

  • amorphous – the field of Communication described something difficult to recognise – something opaque and elusive, something that was less an object or domain than an abstract process endlessly subject to metamorphosis. Rather than a self-evident object of study, it represented a change of perspective in which the focus shifted from objects to relations, from substance to the flux of communicative exchange.
  • interdisciplinary – related to the above, the question of communication was confronted in a whole range of disciplines and traversed a whole range of disciplinary approaches, from empirical psychology to anthropology, history, art and speculative philosophy. It extended from the hard, quantitative sciences (behavioural media effects research) to the most qualitative (Guy Debord’s critique of The Society of the Spectacle). This was hardly a peaceful space. As a student, you were forced to choose broadly between scientific and critical traditions of Communication research, which largely represented a choice between the US and the European traditions respectively.
  • open – although, it had already developed, particularly in the US context, a fairly dull canon of communication models (Sender-Message-Channel-Receiver and the various tedious corrections – feedback arrows and the like), there was nothing neatly settled about the field. It projected a space of contention and possibility. For me, it provided a pathway towards cultural studies, media theory and postmodern and post-structural thought.

I doubt that the discipline can appear in quite the same terms any longer. It appears more well-established and staid, retreating from its earlier sense of risk and creative exchange. Perhaps because of this early experience, which I found very valuable, I have always preferred unstable, self-questioning fields of study. Seems to me that it is less a matter of establishing clearly definable disciplines than of projecting potential disciplines – imagining that they may somehow have coherence, squeezing them for insights and pushing them to collapse. Which suggests a paradox: disciplines are only of any value before they take accepted shape. This would account for my continuing affection for the discipline of Media Arts – its proper space, its boundaries, its traditions and skill sets are all inadequately determined.

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Media 5

Related to Media 5 post, it is funny that Shannon and Weaver’s transmission model of communication (1949) was always presented as a vital and yet ludicrous point of disciplinary origin. What enabled this apparently very crude model of senders, messages, channels and receivers to serve as an origin for the field of Communication? Why not, for instance, trace a very long history within Western philosophy? Why not examine the Pre-Socratic thinking of mediation, or Leibniz’s conception of the interaction between monads or Hegel’s notion of dialectical logic? Was it because Shannon and Weaver had clearly and explicitly produced a diagram of communication, while earlier traditions had focused on more general issues of relational identity (and hadn’t spoken of “communication” as such)? The strategy of diagrammatic representation seems particularly significant. It provided a means of conceiving what had previously been thought in philosophical- humanistic terms in mathematical-mechanical terms. The controversial character of describing the technical transfer of communication (along phone lines) as “communication” is key towards understanding the novelty of Shannon and Weaver’s model, but was never acknowledged or discussed in my Introduction to Communication classes. Instead, the model was lampooned for its crude reductionism, its failure to represent the complex social character of communication. Ironically, however, rather than sternly resisting this attempt to abstract and simplify features of communication, subsequent Communication theorists (Berlo, Schram, Barnlund, etc.) simply developed more complex and nuanced diagrammatic models (incorporating context, incorporating feedback, etc.). The essential radical thesis then of Shannon and Weaver’s model – that issues of technical information entropy were somehow equivalent to “communication”, that communication could be described in the discrete terms of electronic processes, that communication could be shifted away from any necessary focus on the human – all of this remained at some level within subsequent, more sociological and humanistic models through the acceptance of the underlying diagrammatic mode of representation. In this sense, Shannon and Weaver’s model does constitute an important point of origin for the Communication discipline – its novelty inextricably linked to its apparent crudity.

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Stack Order

By default WordPress displays posts in reverse chronological order – the first come last and the last come first. This system accords at the level of the user interface with a fundamental computational data structure, the stack. Like a stack of plates, the first one off is the last one that was put on. Of course, this is quite unlike an ordinary paper journal where the first page is filled with the first entry and subsequent pages contain subsequent entries. I know this default display mode can be easily modified. It is just a matter of changing the sort order of the database query, but I am more interested in how the default affects my conception of journal writing. I suppose I could think of my blog posts less as gradually developing entries in a journal than as letters to friend that are kept in a stack in the order that they are received. In the latter case, the emphasis falls naturally on the most recent entries – the concern is with the most current news and with representing the order of reception. I can imagine a number line with the top most blog entry at position zero and everything else appearing in descending order through the sequence of negative numbers. The problem, however, is that I scroll the sequence of blog entries as though they are organised in ascending order from first to last. The scrollbars obey the logic of the traditional journal while the entries are structured as a descending stack. We encounter then something like a clash of logical and spatio-temporal metaphors. This is most obvious, for instance, when my numbered “Media” entries appear in reverse order.

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Computation and the Everyday

Have recently become interested in the question of the ‘everyday’. Very developed body of literature on this topic, including authors such as Lefebvre, Blanchot, de Certeau, Perec, Sheringham, Highmore, etc. Lefebvre describes the everyday as a level of social being – one in which we spend a great deal of time and yet have inadequate means of conceptualising and acknowledging. Very generally, it describes a realm of habitual practice, representing the formless space of the ‘lived’ – of all that falls outside the extraordinary and significant sphere of memorable and historical events. The everyday is opaque. It disappears both when disregarded and when too scrupulously attended to. Most particularly, it resists critical apprehension. It is inimicable to all efforts to gain clear perspective – to perceive and render in clearly articulated analytical terms.

Now in the most obvious sense computation would seem opposed to the everyday, representing instead a space of abstraction and distance from the terrain of lived experience. It is associated with precisely those forces that marginalise the everyday, that represent it as a bracketed special problem. Yet in other ways there are dimensions of similarity. Computation is human intellectual labour passed into the machinic. Computation defines a space of unconscious informational process. So it shares this same sense of resistance to critical apprehension. Yet the everyday is conceived as a protean space – a space of repetition that can never adequately repeat, that is constantly transforming cultural forms through the texture of lived practice. In contrast, computational processes appear utterly dominated by regimes of abstraction. They are the material fulfillment of abstraction, offering no potential for granular noise or resistance.

Yet perhaps they provide a means of discovering the everyday. Not as an entirely reassuring space of human intransigent imperfection and malleability, but as a paradoxical space of iteration. Computation enables a meditation on the nature of iterative process – and of the human investment in the iterative, which is never simply about manifesting the autonomous power of the human, that passes beyond the human precisely through the impossibility of adequate comprehension. This is relevant to describing the relationship between programming and software execution. Instead of appearing exclusively as a confident field of demonstration and proof, the space of execution opens up lacunae within the regime of abstraction – drawing it away from self-consciousness towards fields of space-time that exceed the human precisely.

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Loom (new)

Finally have returned to the Loom graphics engine. Big job of implementing bezier curve subdivision. So far have just worked on quad subdivision. Two examples, playing around with the fly-wire theme. Of course these are very tiny versions of much larger images.

Loom (new)

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At one level academic referencing is a matter of honesty and etiquette. It acknowledges that your work has developed from other work and enables your readers to follow up on specific sources should they be interested. Hardly objectionable in these terms. But referencing is not only about ethics and good behaviour. It is also about tracing and insisting upon a network of intellectual property relations. Furthermore it suggests that the various borrowings (debts) can be adequately accounted for. Only the commonly known escapes the need for a reference. Everything else – everything that is properly owned – must be properly acknowledged. This also implies that everything that is not common currency or an acknowledged source is your own work. So by acknowledging the claims of others, you assert your own scope for originality and your own proprietary claims. But is it possible to fully acknowledge your debts and to establish a clear space of ownership? Wouldn’t the inter-textual character of any written document exceed the capacity for it to ever be adequately referenced (not only at the level of the explicit content, but also at the level of rhetoric and style)? And is writing and the cultural dialogue it entails best thought in terms of the model of property, of ownership?

I ask this because I have just read Michel Serres’ Malfeasance (2010), which includes no references whatsoever. This comes across less as intellectual hubris than as an acknowledgement that everything he writes emerges from a tradition. it is his and it is not his. it is original and it is not original. Explicit references would only downplay the extent of his debt and overestimate his scope for repayment. But, more than this, Serres’ practice opens up the possibility of perceiving writing as something more than an individually owned possession, as something that attracts an author as a necessary fiction, as something that has the potential to manifest other identities and other relations.

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Loom (more)

My mode of practice…

So I determine the set of parameters relevant to the work of subdividing a spline polygon. A new center, for instance, can be calculated at the actual center of the current polygon or the center can be randomised. If randomised, then the value can be constrained within a specific numerical range. Similarly, the control points on a new spline curve can be positioned anywhere along the line between the two anchor points, or even beyond those anchor points, and their rotation can either be manually determined or randomised. These and many other variables provide the basis for specific Boolean and numerical parameters that constitute the combinatory space from which any particular image emerges. Due to the complex interaction between the various values, I can never fully anticipate how the image will look. Each rendered image suggests the potential for further tweaking of the parameters or for more radical alteration (a new subdivision stack). I follow a trajectory of weirdly mechanical curiosity. I make some changes and run the program. Numbers rush by in the console as the various subdivisions occur. Once the calculations are done, the drawing panel appears. I wait a bit longer until the image is actually drawn to the panel, hit ‘s’ for save, and wait again until the image is properly saved (takes a while to write the complex data set to the file). The whole process can take a couple of minutes depending upon the number of subdivisions. And then, as I say, new possibilities suggest themselves. Several hours later, after repeatedly promising myself that this will be the last image, I resist the temptation to follow new combinatory trails and stop. Sometimes I think that I would do better to follow a less peripatetic process and be much more assiduous in keeping notes, but I also know that there will never be a need to return to these permutations – I exhaust them as I play them out. I work for a time on incorporating additional algorithmic features and then play with the algorithms until they drift into repetition. Once the software is finished then I tend to stop playing with it altogether. It never amounts to anything that is simply ‘creatively useful’.

Loom images

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Hammer Heads

What the hell am I dreaming about? Some ludicrous performance/installation in which two young men crawl about across cushions or mattresses in a paint-spattered gallery space. I try to describe this to an acquaintance but he quickly loses interest. Realising that I am speaking to myself, I turn back, only to discover another set of performance/installations – this time very chummy, lots of people sitting in circles doing something with bits of paper (cards perhaps?). I’m aware that I don’t quite belong and head into another space – this one a bit macabre (living bodies in pools and in cubes). I step outside and am standing on the balcony of an apartment or on the deck of a ship and waves begin to break over the rooftop/gunnels. I can see another huge wave rapidly approaching. There is no hope and I hang on as it crashes all around me. I gain the sense that everything is obliterated. Once it has receded I head into the ships interior looking for loved ones. They are all strangely fine. Some are even dry. But one elderly relative has drowned. There is no possibility of entering her room.

I’ll make no effort to reflect upon the meaning of this dream, except to note that it suggested an idea for an installation. This is not to say that the content of the installation related to the dream, rather that the concept emerged directly after the dream. I should confess that the idea itself is not quite fixed. It begins with three different combinations of hammers and nails. The first combination involves a pile of hammers and a single nail. The second a pile of nails and a single hammer. The third a single nail and a hammer head with no handle (but now, to be honest, I am unsure that this actually was the third combination – whatever the option was seemed much more combinatorially obvious when first conceived). But then rather than separate piles, I think perhaps everything would be better in a box – a box with four hinged lids. Which of course leads to the problem of needing a fourth combination of hammers and nails, or perhaps something else altogether. There could even be four boxes, each with four hinged lids. Or maybe there is just a single box and the view through each lid is somehow completely different – revealing different aspects of the scene (perhaps through different lighting, but I’d like to avoid technological complexity). In any case, I am leaning towards including no hammer handles at all, just single or roughly piled sets of hammer heads.

I must confess that I have been reading Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object (2010), so the plans for the installation are probably more explicable in terms of reflecting on aspects of ‘tool-being’ and quadruple relations than upon any relations to the original dream.

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I first heard the term ‘object-oriented’ used beyond the context of computer programming in relation to the rhetoric of promoting an on-line learning initiative. Structured as discrete modular bundles, the various learning activities were said to adopt an ‘object-oriented’ approach. The implication is that learning can somehow be assembled from a set of isolated entities – promulgating a kind of Lego-style conception of learning. Not that this may not prove useful in many cases, but it would certainly seem to bracket more holistic approaches. Whereas the latter tend to insist upon bringing things into relation – discovering points of conflict, dialogue and exchange – the former conceives learning in a more discrete, summative fashion. The notion of ‘object-oriented learning’ seemed to me not only naive but also indicative of an impoverished conception of education. Furthermore, it seemed duplicitous – drawing upon the technical language of computer programming to project a dubious symmetry between dimensions of technological and pedagogical novelty.

Perhaps because of this, when I encountered the notion of ‘object-oriented philosophy’, I had a similar sense of misgiving. I am happy to embrace object-oriented programming (OOP) within my software development practice, but suspicious of its wider metaphoric extension, particularly when little effort is to made to explicate its sense within programming. No time to pursue this adequately here, but OOP appears as a reaction to imperative-procedural styles of programming that work to neatly segregate data and algorithms. OOP combines data and algorithms into higher-level abstractions that combine both attributes (data states) and algorithmic processes. These so-called ‘classes’ are then instantiated as actual objects in memory at run-time. The classes are not natural things, but representations of fundamental conceptual units within an overall software process. They are very much artificial constructs – inventions. Confronted with a specific problem, any two programmers are likely to conceive a different OOP solution. Indeed it is quite common for a single programmer to re-conceive, modify and re-articulate their own OOP systems when they return to a given problem. To repeat, OOP programming provides a means of conceiving a process space in terms of a set of modular interactions between logically discrete entities. The various classes extrapolate the essential attributes (data) and capacities (algorithms) of particular entities, as well, very importantly, as establishing protocols for interaction between entities. Classes are explicitly and deliberately simplifications. They act as logical blueprints for the run-time generation of specific objects. The object represents the particular, while the class represents the generative abstraction. Both class and object are conceived as black boxes. The aim is to shape code entities that have predictable public interfaces to predictable but safely autonomous internal attributes and behaviours. Here autonomy has a logical rather than a strictly material-existential dimension. A legal conception of public, private and protected access structures the autonomy of individual classes/objects.

Despite my sense that a fuller examination of the relationship between OOP and recent philosophical conceptions of object-oriented philosophy is necessary, I have come to recognise that there is an important sense of metaphoric relevance. I am thinking specifically, of course, of Graham Harman’s conception of object-oriented philosophy1, where he defends the notion of the object from those who would either figure it as entirely projective (ideal-phenomenological) entity, or as a naive macro-level construct (everything is created of smaller things – atoms, particles, quarks), or as an illusion that dissolves before the sense of fundamental relational or dynamic-emergent identity. Harman defends the reality, autonomy and possibility of the object from all of these notable points of philosophical attack. At the most simple level then, Harman and OOP share a fundamental concern to conceive the world in terms of the notion and potential of discrete objects.

I certainly can’t claim to adequately engage with Harman’s ideas, but here, in the midst of trying to understand what he is getting at, I just want to express some provisional, no doubt simple-minded, doubts – if only as a means of clarifying the issues for myself. No time to write this up properly. Just some minimal points.

Is it possible to conceive the object without the necessity of a subject? Without the pairing of subject and object? Wouldn’t it be better to describe the object in other terms to avoid this awkward conceptual and connotative space? Objects, objectivity, etc. This is perhaps intended as a provocation, but not sure that it is a helpful one.

The notion of object suggest the problem of determining boundaries. The stream behind our house is named Byarong Creek. If you tell me to walk down to the creek, I know where to go. I know how to cross it. I know how it increases to a dangerous torrent during rain. But then again, what is the creek precisely? What are its limits. Is it just the obvious banks? Wouldn’t you have to extend outwards (certainly during rain) to include the innumerable little trickles of water that flow off roofs, gutters and leaves and across the ground to flow into the creek ‘proper’? Is the creek the entire catchment area that extends beyond the suburbs up the nearby hillsides to the escarpment? In notionally restricting the creek to just its conventional boundaries, don’t I plainly indicate that objects have a projective status, that they simplify phenomena? Now I know that Harman would acknowledge that all perception of objects simplifies them, that they have a veiled complexity that inevitably withdraws from any notion of fully adequate appearance, but then what is it that enables the objects boundaries to appear, to take coherent shape?

There is also the issue of temporal boundaries. All objects are mortal – although I doubt Harman would agree with this. Let my qualify, all material entities are mortal. They come into existence and pass out of existence again. The plastic keyboard that I am currently typing on is all the time exhaling mildly toxic plastic fumes. It seems utterly autonomous and integral, but is necessarily in a constant relation of exchange with its environment. Once again, its boundaries are not inviolable, and its coming into existence and passage out of coherent existence are demonstration of this wider material relation to the world. The reality of an object can only withdraw so much. This withdrawal is always provisional and contingent. Objects do not appear to me as monads. Here the apparently reductive tendency of the natural sciences to render everything in terms of their underlying constituent features serves an important purpose. It manifests a crucial material terrain of interaction, of the passage beyond dimensions of apparent or metaphysically determined autonomy.

Then, of course, there is the obvious problem of scale. Objects only appear at specific scales. A grain of sand only appears when you are not looking at the entire beach. Skin only appears as smooth sheath when you are not closely examining the pores. In this sense, objects only gain coherent determination when viewed at specific scales under specific conditions. This is not to say that matter and entities do not exist independently of our perception of them, just that they don’t take shape as coherent objects until the requisite conditions of autonomous coherence are defined and met.

Note to self: need to consider more carefully the relevance of considering object-oriented philosophy in terms of the model of OOP…(read Bogost properly2).

  1. Harman, G. 2011 The Quadruple Object, Zero Books, UK
  2. Bogost, I. 2008 Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts
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It occurs to me, after writing the preceding post (“Objects”), that object-oriented programming (OOP) differs from object-oriented philosophy in one important respect. The objects in OOP are instances of abstract classes. They lack any sense of opaque, materially impenetrable autonomy. They are the product of conceptual design/abstraction. In this sense, OOP subscribes to a Platonic model, with the field of formal classes providing the foundation for any possibility of instanciation whatsoever. Yet Plato’s pure forms precede any labour of deliberate design. They are cast not as human constructs but as real metaphysical entities. Genuine formally constituted reality only become apparent when the philosopher escapes the cave of illusion – in which derivative objects (mere shadows) appear as essential truths – and ascends to the blinding light of properly formal existence. In OOP, however, the realm of formal origin (classes) is itself a space of artifice. It involves writing and invention. The realm of objective, differentiated being (program running) appears as a theatrical construct, but one that is itself based upon practices of fiction (modeling).

If this has any relevance for object-oriented philosophy, it is perhaps to caution against imagining the absolute autonomy of the object. The eidetic character of the object always entails a work of perceptually framed and culturally situated abstraction. In terms of our relationship to real world objects, this abstraction involves, for instance, the recognition of defining qualities and coherent boundaries, as well as positioning the object within the universe of other things – recognising its place within a network of similarities, differences, associations. This is not to say that this perceptual-categorical labour exhausts the field of the real. The real, as an attractor, as something that we can never exhaustively apprehend, has many more dimensions than we can perceive and categorise. But, for me, the notion of the object is inevitably caught up with this problem of delimited perception and cognition. The problem of an object, of an object taking shape for a subject – taking shape within perception, consciousness and language – preserves a vital sense of ambivalence. The object at once exceeds our relation to it and contracts into the form of an object as such. The notion of an object indicates a convenient fiction – it reduces the impenetrable character of the real to ‘objectively given’ things that can be neatly perceived and categorised. To naturalise the object, to position it over and against the awkwardnesses of perception, cognition and cultural relational identity, reduces the object in another sense again. Much better, in my view, to find other means of referring to the patterns, flows and accretions within the real that exist beyond all of our efforts to adequately name and account for them.

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Loom (more…)

Loom is based on an overall graphics engine, but it is easy to forget about the engine’s more general capacities when focusing on the details of shape subdivision. At the weekend, for instance, somebody asked if there was any means of scratching back portions of the rendered image. I recalled that I can erase a shape simply by inverting the drawing color. Which set me thinking about drawing a shape multiple times, which is fundamentally, of course, animation with no background redraw. The Loom engine was designed to do precisely this kind of thing, but I hadn’t considered the possibility for ages. So anyway, the image below involves no scratching out, but is the product of a set of iterative drawing cycles with a subtle amount of scaling, This produces a strange sense of motion blur, with stillness and clarity at the center and pronounced blur at the edges.


I have also been playing with the subdivision of more organic shapes.


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Critical Art

[Art apparently draws light from darkness, dispels the clouds of habitual perception and wards off the prospect off a living death. In short, it enlightens. At the same time, however, rather than simply opposing or sublating the figures of darkness, habit and death, art encounters these exterior threats within itself and becomes caught up in their operations. Art discovers its own inner estrangement, which infinitely complicates the hope for enlightenment.]

[My aim is to question the complacent sense of a critical art and to acknowledge the vital/deathly space of the uncritical within art.]

Art is associated with making things visible. The notion of visibility serves here as a metaphor for a work of revealing (Heidegger employs the Greek term, aletheia1) that can take all manner of sensible and conceptual forms. How are we to make sense of this revealing ? Does it involve tearing away the veils which obscure an underlying truth or, on the contrary, staging the display of truth by fashioning further veils? In some ways there is no need to decide, because even in the form of veiled display, art preserves a sense of unveiling. Even in the guise of dream and illusion it insists upon the possibility of revelatory awakening. The hope that art genuinely entails, particularly within modernity, is of becoming aware, coming into perception and consciousness, coming into vivid lived experience. Within this context, the aletheia of art gains meaning precisely in contrast to its opposite – the habitual character of ordinary experience; the latter’s dimension of blindness, unconsciousness, automation and death.

Consider, for instance, Russian Formalist, Viktor Shklovsky’s, theory of estrangement (ostranenie). Shklovsky associates aesthetic experience with a renewed affective perception of the world. Our ordinary experience of things is disrupted so that it can suddenly appear in a new light. This is in contrast to modes of everyday experience, which he regards as habitual and semi-automatic. For the most part, he argues, we recognise things in terms of their general characteristics – their approximation to generic constructs – rather than in terms of their perceptual specificity and novelty. He contrasts a generic, “algebraic” mode of thought to a perceptively open mode of being. He links algebraic identity, despite its conceptual abstraction, to a sense of nothingness and unconsciousness. Here he quotes from Tolstoy, who relates a story of having cleaned his house and forgotten whether he had dusted the sofa: “[I]f I had in fact dusted the sofa and forgotten that I had done so, i.e., if I had acted unconsciously, then this is tantamount to not having done it at all.” The general lesson that Tolstoy draws from this is that “[I]f the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been.” Shklovsky introduces his notion of ostranenie precisely as an alternative to habitual life: “[A]nd so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art.” In its crucial role of renewing perception, of revealing the genuine complexity and potential of the world, art functions then to fight off the ever present risk of unreflective, automatic experience – life abstracted, life as death.2

[The notion of estrangement retains a persistent force within modern and contemporary art. However, it can hardly be said to constitute anything like a universal aesthetic principle. Medieval art, for instance, is full of stock types and standard modes of representation. It constantly mingles aspects of recognition and revelatory wonder. Elements of conventional iconography and impersonal craft-based process appear as the vital foundation for spiritual-aesthetic experience. Indeed all manner of traditional and contemporary cultural forms depend upon repetition, recognition and de-individualised craft. Difference and change need not be deliberately deployed. They occur within the grain of repetition itself, within the impossibility of pure repetition. Although popular, typically oral, cultural forms tend to be devalued, they arguably represent a much more nuanced relationship between issue of novelty and continuity, unconscious process and reflective insight, than is found within the modernist conception of aesthetic estrangement. It is finally worth noting that Shklovsky’s fear of algebraic experience is very much linked to a negative, modern conception of the habitual – of the apparent unconsciousness and loss it entails. Unconsciousness, loss, absorption within larger iterative patterns can also be regarded more positively as constitutive means of coming into being, of engaging with the ambiguous, evanescent nature of manifestation and identity.]

Andrei Rublev, The Trinity, 1410

[And things become even more wayward after here…]

It is not such a big step from the demand for perceptual revelation to the demand for critical revelation. The Russian Constructivists, for example, regarded perceptual transformation as a crucial basis for revolutionary political transformation. In this manner, the terrain of visibility, of revealing, comes to extend beyond the senses as such to encompass every dimension of experience. The contemporary emphasis on the ‘critical’ potential of art indicates this conception of art’s capacity to prod one awake from the uncritical death of ordinary existence.

The problem, of course, is that the relationship between the blindness of unconscious everyday life and the revelatory critical sphere of art is awkward and complex. The two are not simply opposed. Some obvious examples: Nietzsche’s sense of the coupling of Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies in Greek tragedy; the Surrealists’ concern with dreams, automatic writing and revelation; Georges Bataille’s parodic inversion of the Hegelian dialectic (in which moments of insight becomes indistinguishable from moments of sacrifice and convulsion and in which in which the reflective, meditative serenity of the sun is reinterpreted as an exploding anus); Maurice Blanchot’s notion of an orientation towards blindness within art (art’s impossible concern to render that blindness properly); Jacques Derrida’s efforts to chart the critical aporia within the tradition of western philosophy; and Roland Barthes’s characteristically modern dilemma in the Pleasure of the Text: “So, nothing happens. This nothing has nonetheless to be expressed. How can one express nothing?”

So where is this leading? Towards arguing for an acknowledgment of the place of unconscious process in art. Towards questioning the conventional sense of art as totally oriented towards revelation and insight. More specifically, towards recognising the intimate relation between the dimensions of habitual, unconscious process and dimensions of art-making. More specifically again, to acknowledge the relationship to mechanism – the inhumanity, the alterity of mechanism – within aspects of art-making itself.

[This also necessarily involves re-conceiving the relationship to whatever it is that art is said to provide an insight into. Very often, for instance, art is positioned as a means of reflection on something or other, or revealing it properly so that it can be judged and assessed. This is certainly how much critical technological art is positioned. In this manner, art never dares to risk a genuine relation to technology, which explored more thoroughly has the potential to threaten art’s complacent sense of self-identity – precisely because technology inevitably appears as figure of darkness, habit and death. Paradoxically, following Blanchot, what is needed to enable new species of insight is perhaps the risking of insight altogether.]

  1. Heidegger, M. 1993 “The Question Concerning Technology” (originally published 1927) Basic Writings, Harper Collins, USA
  2. Shklovsky, V. 1991 “Art as a Device” (originally published 1929) Theory of Prose, Dalkey Archive Press, Illinois State University. pp.5-6
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Loom (operation)

How to conceive the space of operation? I am thinking of the operation of the Loom subdivision algorithms – their actual running. Can the sphere of operation be conceived in terms of Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole – with the underlying algorithms representing the systematic character of language and their concrete operation representing the sphere of speech (performance)? An important issue, however, is that while Saussure positions parole as essentially derivative of the abstractly constituted and notionally finite linguistic system, more recent theorists have stressed how performance itself works to transform langue. The actual historical process of speech no longer appears entirely subservient to the underlying system. This is evident, for instance, in Certeau’s emphasis on the various complex micro-level tactics of resistance that remove cultural processes of consumption from any simple domination by systems of production (strategic power), distancing consumption from any sense of passive operation – positioning it instead as active, interpretive and resistive.1 We can also think of Serres notion of parasitical noise, in which the purity of a message is inevitably preyed upon as soon as it ventures within the play of mediation.2 Noise, as entropy, as indirection, as material filter undermines the autonomy and constitutive force of any framework of abstract determination. In the case of Certeau, systemicity is upset by the dimension of social praxis. Serres points to more general and more directly material forces. It seems harder to apply Certeau’s conception of resistance to computational operation – where, after all, can we recognise anything like the small, idiosyncratic tactics of human consumption within the whirling space of binary processes? Where is there scope for idioms of freedom and play, except in the sense of a failure of operation (program logic errors, input-output errors, basic technical faults, etc.)? Serres conception of noise seems more relevant, except that my interest is less in stressing all the deviations from proper program operation than of pinpointing a work of operation that obeys all the rules and yet still retains its alien, impenetrable character. Parole (program operation) relates to langue (programmatic system) as an abyss, as something that summons the need for systems and also motions beyond them – motioning precisely through a faultless play of operation. Operation, in this sense, is aporiatic.

  1. Certeau, M. 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life (translated by Stephen Rendell), University of California Press, Berkeley
  2. Serres, 2007 M. The Parasite (translated by Lawrence Schehr), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
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The field of operation always remains out of view. Even when apparently visible, operation withdraws. It withdraws by dutifully following and, in following, it charts a plane of performance that can be mapped but never encompassed. No matter how well I know the underlying mechanism, no matter that I built it by hand and shaped all its functions, once it runs it escapes me. It becomes something other. It obeys mutely. It carries my instructions off to another place. Operation is a species of blindness, and I too am bound to this blindness. It is what draws me to articulate systems and then, in the very moment that they gain their curious life, to recognise their disappearance, their transition away from any prospect of adequate comprehension.

[Certeau describes culture as the “oceanic night”1. This metaphor is apt for the field of operation as well.]

[I am very aware that I am conceiving operation in terms of the romantic language of blindness, otherness and aporia. Is this to devalue and fail to recognise the banality of operation?]

  1. Sherringham, M. 2009 Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p.218
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