Some sample efforts at ground level studies for upcoming ‘Walking Upstream – Waterways of the Illawarra’ exhibition at Wollongong City Gallery:
At the beginning of his second volume of The Philosophy of Nature Hegel writes of the nature of sunlight. Arguing against the view that sunlight is the product of material (chemical) combustion – and thus any sense of an association to terrestrial fire – Hegel suggests that sunlight is aligned more closely with ideality. Sunlight is in his view cold and abstract. His evidence for this is not only logical-philosophical but also empirical – he notes that the air becomes cooler the higher one ascends up a mountain. In this manner Hegel not only unsettles the materiality of sunlight but provides empirical evidence for its ideality.
My interest here is less in any sense of contradiction that this entails than the way in which it projects a rich, complex and ultimately uncertain relationship between materiality and ideality. It would seem to me that this is also what art enables.
Rather than attempting to map an entire creek, I am considering representing a single section of a creek in detail – at a scale of 1 to 1. Furthermore, rather than attempting to represent the selected site via a single photograph, my interest is in employing a grid-based sampling approach. So a section of creek (probably the edge of a creek) of say 2.5 by 2.5 metres will be photographed via a set of overlapping square samples. These can then be stitched together to form an overall detailed map of the ground, which can ultimately be printed at the same size as the ground itself. The multiple samples enable a highly detailed overall composite to be produced. They would also seem to have the capacity to estrange the space – rather than representing a single visual perspectives the visual map emerges as a perverse and impossible composite. It is an analytical non-view.
In order to put together such photograph there is a need to enact a meticulous grid-based sampling process. I can imagine a complex tripod grid, with the camera moved from one axis point to another to capture each spatial sample. I may attempt something like this, but need to first get a clearer sense of what’s involved – so this afternoon I ran a less than rigorous process in my backyard with some climbing bolts arranged in a rough grid. The photograph below shows two versions of the grid. The first is just a single photograph from a single viewpoint. The second is a composite of 28 images; each image taken directly above a relevant bolt in my hazily conceived gridof 7 columns and 4 rows).
Apart from the apparently broken bolt at the upper right of the composite, there are a uncomfortable visual artefacts – the wall, for instance, is weirdly composited, seeming to lean inwards, partially obscuring the view of one bolt. Worth pursuing, but still unsure how to sample effectively?
Code led me to think more discretely. It enabled to conceives processes and systems in modular terms. Code also enabled me to think more holistically – to consider systems as sets of choreographed entities and processes. Of course, systems also slipped in and out of view. Focusing on a particular systemic feature or the interaction of discrete entities often became so absorbing that the sense of a larger whole receded. No mode of attention was ever adequate to take in both the complexity of the immediate and the larger complexity of the whole. Hence the typical need to work back and forth between these perspectives, to constantly re-craft towards simpler and more generic solutions – if only to project an alignment between discrete and holistic views.
Does any of this relate to stuff I do now? Or is it just the memory of another way of being?
It is quite possible, of course, that I learned nothing from code, that any lessons that I discern now are simply self-serving – enabling me to shape a productive relation to an experience that could equally be represented as one of loss. I had an unbalanced commitment to programming. I couldn’t let problems go. I could devote days and weeks to solving minor technical issues – perhaps with the sense that something was being built (however slowly and painstakingly), but also with a willingness to just abandon myself to the task.
It seems to me then that I also need to make sense of this aspect of unproductive expenditure – the neurotic, obsessive, wasteful and misdirected relationship to code.
[I wonder if programming enabled a certain suspension of time? Of ordinary mortal time? Programming provided no actual immortality. It didn’t even suspend the everyday exigencies of time, but it represented a strange priority that distanced me from my accustomed temporal scales related to the length of the working day, the balance between work and leisure, the attention to human relationships, etc.]
Note to self: consider the relationship between the experience of wider social change associated with globalisation (the spatial extension, temporal speed and overall intensification of processes of flow, communication and exchange) and the experience of programming. Coding shapes a microcosm of globalising forces. It is the globe inverted into a microscopic and ultimately invisible space – but one that remains at least partially subject to the fantasy of control.
It’s roughly five years ago that I gave up programming. I gave up in the midst of a long project that involved the recursive subdivision of regular polygons. This makes it sound like I was some expert in geometry, but I wasn’t. I’d just happened upon the graphic potential of subdivision in the midst of hacking together a very rudimentary 3D engine. Good success when the algorithms were simple – calculating middle points on lines and centers of simple shapes – but once I introduced complex spline based polygons everything became more complex. This made me question my whole relationship to programming. I had reached a limit of what I could do with code. I either needed to become much more mathematically literate or accept that I would endlessly repeat my current limited range of programmatic party tricks. So I decided to quit.
But now that I am no longer an active programmer, what can I remember of code? What did I learn from this intense 15 year devotion to the craft of algorithms?
What is the relationship between aesthetics and movement? What kind of aesthetic receptivity does the experience of movement produce? Here my interest is less psychological than historical and cultural. My interest is in how the experience of art is anticipated, mediated and structured by conventional patterns of movement – particularly walking. And yet not simply walking as a physical activity – but by tours, journeys, promenades and strolls. And the walking is not just anywhere. Nor is it entirely informed by the presence of art. Instead I am thinking of a kind of antechamber – an initial space that must be passed through in order to pass within and encounter art itself. I am thinking, for instance, of the Grand Tour, which involved a passage across Europe and through the Alps prior to descending into the properly aesthetic landscape of Italy (Florence, Venice, Rome, Naples, etc.) Or of the aesthetic philosophy of Kant, where the movement through natural beauty provides a means of comprehending art. This is not quite literal movement of course, but there is still a sense of passage and movement – the experience of nature serves to anticipate the experience of art. The same movement remains even within critical modernist aesthetics; Adorno considers the aesthetic quality of natural beauty before focusing more specifically on art. So my concern is not just with walking per se, but with the literal and metaphorical movement that frames, precedes and informs the experience of art.
(I am also interested in how nature is depicted at the margins of various paintings from the Renaissance – small curious animals, bushes and shrubs, rocky grottoes and distant peaks. These curiously charged margins suggest that any particular focused mythological scene is inevitably framed by a difficult journey.)
I really didn’t know what he was saying when I turned the corner on to Smith’s Street. He was standing just outside Domino’s – very thin, tight patterned brown trousers, straggly beard, filthy bare feet. He was yelling something at a nearby couple who were waiting to cross the road. He was yelling in that way that does not actually engage, where it is clear that the person yelling is addressing their own demons, or the demons of society generally, rather than the conspicuous faults of particular individuals.
Initially, however, there is the experience of being directly addressed. The complexity and ambiguity of the situation relates to this double awareness of being targeted and yet not convincingly addressed. There is only the most general context for interaction (we are all people on the street, we are in public proximity) and the words are uttered without any expectation of reply. Perhaps this explains the tendency for street people to voice insults and imprecations. They broach barbed contact, but require no reciprocal interaction. Our silence, our pretence that nothing is happening and nothing is being said, provides perhaps the most eloquent and damaging reply. It underlines the yelling person’s utter alienation from sociality. Their flow of misdirected insults are treated as simple noise, of no consequence whatsoever.
And yet I couldn’t help eventually hearing what he said, because I walked past him and he followed me down the street. I’m not sure who he was speaking to – me? other passerby? – but he kept saying, “Jesus told me the Germans are invading your crotch – maybe you’re a natural.”
I found myself listening carefully, making sure I was hearing right. Then I stopped and wrote down what he said as a note on my phone, because I had no faith that I would remember his words. I feared I would forget them because they seemed so strange – linking Jesus, German invasion, my crotch and the potential of being “a natural”. What interested me was that the statement had an insulting aspect – and was uttered in a well rehearsed insulting tone – and yet made no clear sense. It was sufficiently vague and imprecise to innocent itself – to partially withdraw from any capacity to cause literal offence. It broached rude social interaction and then suspended it. In this manner it seemed to suspend the social altogether, demonstrating its fragile scaffolding and assumptions.
(Short paper I gave at the ‘Transforming Waterways’ session of the Global Ecologies – Local Impacts conference, Sydney University, 23-25 November 2016)
The question that I want to address in this paper is that of transformation, particularly art’s capacity to transform.
Here we are talking about waterways. How are waterways to be transformed and what role does art play in their transformation?
While I have no wish to insist upon some strict, old-fashioned sense of art as field set apart from ordinary action, I can’t help noticing that the problem of transformative action – of art’s space of action and capacity for action – remains a vital issue within contemporary art. Art regularly intervenes these days. So called ‘Socially Engaged Art’ (SEA) moves beyond galleries and conventional artworks to intervene in social processes and stage models for alternative social action and interaction. At its most radical, it dispenses with the ‘art’ word altogether and describes itself simply as ‘social practice’. Yet it is never quite social action as ordinarily conceived. It both engages with and struggles to slip free of conventional modes of social intervention. It celebrates a capacity to unsettle standard forms of socially remedial action – to frame them differently and to enable new possibilities to emerge. Social work, community work, ethnography, ecology and activism are mined as radical, non-art forms of practice, but are also made strange through their contextual repositioning within the framework of radical art.
This leads me to suggest that SEA moves beyond the contradictory inaction of modern art, but in a way that also disengages practice from itself – that renders it poised uncertainly between action and reflection.
My aim here is to examine the paradoxes of artistic action in relation to a particular project. Waterways of the Illawarra is an ongoing collaborative project involving artists, Kim Williams, Lucas Ihlein and myself. The project involves walking up the neglected waterways of the Illawarra region, chiefly around Wollongong, but extending south to Minnamurra and north to Helensburgh. We start at the sea and then walk inland along the waterways as far as we can – or until we run out of time or energy. We’d ideally like to make it all the way up to the top of the escarpment – to some creek flowing off a sandstone cliff, but have never made it that far. The waterways disappear beneath all kinds of infrastructure – roads, railway lines, factories and suburbs. If they miraculously make it to the lower reaches of the escarpment, then they quickly vanish into a steep and non-specific catchment.
The waterways disappear rapidly because they are only minor. There are no rivers, just a series of small, often rain dependent creeks. They once provided vital corridors for all kinds of life – and in ways they still do – but they now typically appear as neglected and disregarded spaces. They may be walked, but only occasionally take shape as pathways. More often there is the experience of impediments – of walks blocked by walls, fences, dense lantana and the transmogrification of broad serpentine corridors into focused and linear underground drains.
Why do we walk these creeks? I guess it is about physically navigating the implications of prosaic environmental change. The minor nature of these creeks, their ready disappearance, provides precisely the rationale for our walking them. It is about noticing that the creeks are still there despite what has happened to them. It is about discovering their implicit curves and reflecting upon everything that renders them so opaque – so nearly invisible, so marginally evident. So we walk along them. And other people join us. And we talk about all kinds of things, not necessarily just about the waterways. And we pick up plastic bongs and laugh at obscene graffiti. Sometimes we draw maps. We often take photographs. And somebody usually writes an account of the walk for the WOTI blog.
All of this sounds very much like art – walking, observing, collecting, representing, etc. – but recently we have been joined by people who would like to do more, who would like, for instance, to return sections of creeks to their ‘original’ pre-colonial state, or to create alternative transport corridors that link people to the beach and community facilities in lightweight and environmentally sensitive ways. We have discussed the project with local Bushcare groups and independent ecologists and environmental scientists who are interested in intervening practically in the waterways – cleaning them up, replanting them, submitting plans to Council to build signposted paths, etc. This is another order of encounter and intervention that raises issues in terms of how we conceive our project – its identity and scope for action.
At one level, however, it presents no issues for us. WOTI was always conceived as a dialogic project. It has aimed to mobilise discussion and social interaction around our local waterways. As a meta-level means of fostering engagement and action, the success of the project is evident precisely in its capacity to move beyond standard conceptual-reflective art practices and to encourage forms of action that shift the focus into other terrains of action.
But still there is the issue of how we can maintain that slight distance that allows all of these new relationships and possibilities for action to emerge. My suggestion is that this involves reflecting upon the limits of everything that we attempt to do (and are being drawn into doing). Art is vestigially evident as an internal critique or hesitation within the space of action itself. Art’s action is to both to set action in play and to suspend it.
Why this double movement? Here the complex history of the notion of the aesthetic is evident. The aesthetic is cast within Enlightenment philosophy (Kant, Schiller, Hegel) as opposed to utility and desire – to all forms of causally, instrumentally and subjectively motivated action. Struck outside the ordinary frames of active social being, it is nonetheless fundamentally concerned with grounding our basis in the world – with reconciling dimensions of understanding and experience and with manifesting a potential for human freedom. Later, from a jaundiced modern perspective, it comes to manifest contradictions – the impossibility of reconciliation between fact and value and between the rhetoric of freedom and its endless historical ruin. Despite his awareness of the contradictory status of art and the aesthetic, the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno draws hope from the very texture of these antagonisms. In its alienation from action, in its endlessly belittled and compromised state, art retains a capacity to convey the truth – not so much the truth of any particular work of art, but the truth of a fragmentation of existence generally.
But surely this pessimistic modernist vision is not characteristic of contemporary SEA? Instead, as I mentioned earlier, SEA revels in its powers to intervene within the social – to overturn the alienation of the aesthetic, to return to art a capacity to meaningfully connect and act. Nonetheless, I wish to argue that if SEA hesitates, if it encounters moments of awkwardness and uncertainty, it is precisely in terms of its difficult relation to the possibility and sufficiency of action.
Consider, for instance, the actions that we are contemplating. We could wander along waterways collecting garbage. We could assist in cleaning up creeks and restoring them to some nostalgic-imaginary green state. We could build nature walks, lined with sculptures and Indigenous signage. But what would this actually accomplish? Arguably it may provide a useful model for artistically fostered local environmental practice, but it would also – at least to some extent – represent an evasion of the particularity of these creek environments and the broader crisis that they represent. It would provide the consolation of action, but the action itself would ultimately be inadequate. Art loses all its force, of its capacity to manifest contradictions, if it imagines that it can literally ameliorate, so it must step back somehow – in no matter how small a way – from its social and ecological interventions. It must find means of acknowledging their inadequacy and limitations.
None of this provides an excuse for avoiding action altogether. None of this means we should break off our dialogue with groups who wish to clean up waterways and reclaim them as sustainable natural corridors, but the art in all this does not lie in the ‘success’ of the actions themselves, but in their capacity to render particular tensions and uncertainties, to honestly address and engage with the complexity of contemporary circumstances. Our art lies in retaining an aspect of critical, imaginative and reflective reticence within the space of any action that we attempt.
Postscript A (scribbled note to self)
To act is not possible because no action is adequate, but since action is always inadequate – always falling short, always revealing new contradictions, it retains its aesthetic possibility, which involves a dimension of revealing. Inaction is a means of revealing the shortcomings of action – and it can occur within the space of action itself.
Postscript B (some quick notes written on the train up to give my paper. They address the issue of aesthetic uselessness, which had been raised the previous day in the artist’s roundtable.)
Paradox: art obtains its use value precisely through its uselessness. So what is this obscure uselessness that makes art socially useful? It is actually by advocating a space of value that is quite closely linked to our concerns here – in this conference that is concerned with how artists, social scientists and activists can effectively respond to the global environmental crisis.
We need to be clear about this – uselessness is not about denying the use value of art per se, but rather of conceiving a non-appetitive and non-exploitative relation to things. Rather than perceiving something as desirable or instrumentally useful – as something that can serve your own interests – it is perceived in terms of its capacity to enable an experience of recognition (an alignment of the apriori and the sensible world). Unlike ordinary cognition, the particular thing is not subsumed beneath a general concept/idea. Unlike ordinary social action, the particular thing is not engaged with in terms of purposive, means-end action. In this manner the notion of the aesthetic – of aesthetic uselessness – is profoundly about trying to conceive a non-destructive relation to the world. The difficulty, of course, is that this can only be conceived in terms of a necessary disengagement from anything conventionally conceptual or practical. A non-exploitative relation to particularity and otherness is envisaged, but only in the basis that interaction is suspended in a moment of recognition.
This recognition is allocated crucial value. It establishes the sensible basis for human community. It is the quiet, demarcated, separate space that grounds every other realm of human thinking, value and activity.
Despite our protestations, I don’t see that any of us have really given up on this paradox. We say art is useful, but precisely in terms of its playful relation to existing forms of social agency. Art loses its value if it becomes neatly instrumental. It loses its capacity to unsettle standard modes of experience and action. This unsettling is clearly useful in all kinds of ways. It becomes useful precisely by unsettling our ordinary ‘useful’ relation to the world.
Finally – and drifting slightly away from the issue of uselessness – I can’t help wondering about this work of unsettling? Is it really what defines our radicalism?
We heard yesterday that artists work to unbalance inertial social forces, but what is at rest and what is in play? And is art as essentially radically progressive as we imagine? From another perspective, we could say that art is just as much conservative as progressive. Perhaps it is most progressive in its conservatism.
Art has traditionally always been about the performance and maintenance of culture through space and time. This is the major concern of primarily oral cultures, where the entropic forces of forgetting and cultural disintegration are constantly evident. As many have argued, it is perhaps global capital that is the most radical and disintegrative force, changing our social experience and the contours of the global ecosystem in the most blindly forceful and unsustainable ways. If art now becomes focused on environmental crisis, it does so less to innovate precisely than to stress crucial dimensions of traditional value that have become lost. It becomes conservative in the best sense of the term. So art works to make strange the far more radical making strange that global capital is enacting.
I’m trying to make sense of our creek-walking, particularly in terms of its relationship to more clearly environmental restoration based activities. We have tended not to intervene in creek environments. We have walked through them. We have engaged in conversations, we have made observations, we have drawn maps, we have occasionally collected stuff, but we have not attempted anything useful, reconstructive or site-specific (no sculptural diggings, no small mounds, no arrangements of twigs or trash, no bridges, benches, no clean-ups, etc.). But is that to say that none of these things are possible – that practical, imaginative, worthwhile interventions are forbidden?
The recent history of Socially Engaged Art (SEA) practice includes many examples of just such practically geared, social-environmentally restorative action – so there is nothing actually preventing us from doing this kind of thing, and recently we have had walk participants who have expressed an interest in renovating and reactivating creek areas. If we were to pursue these ideas then would we doing anything different than many other community groups do? Where would the art portion of the project sit precisely?
My sense is that what we are doing – as art – only makes sense within the context of debates within contemporary art. There is actually nothing about the practical action – whether it is walking, cleaning up, building stuff or whatever that plainly marks its distinction from any form of socially-geared community action. In some ways what we do becomes art via negativa – through all the things that we don’t do: we don’t make objects, we don’t produce work that exists comfortably in a gallery, we don’t produce work that resembles conventional art. More positively our work, in line with SEA generally, struggles to find new contexts and a new social relevance for art. It experiments with new modes of activism that have a holistic social dimension and that resist being tagged exclusively as art. They are art and non-art at once. In this manner they insist upon the uotopian promise of art versus its cultural and institutional confinement into a special sphere. Our aim is not so much to drag a bunch of impertinent stuff within art as to decolonise art itself – to question its sense of itself, of its proper modalities and sphere of being.
But still we hang on to the notion of art. Why is this? Is this only because of our involvement in contemporary debates about the nature and possibility of art? Is this only because we want to draw art into relation with activism? I’m wondering whether there is still not some other residual sense of art that we are determined to hold on to, but can no longer precisely envisage or name – that remains like some legacy appendage that we no longer make adequate use of, but can still not altogether abandon. Just to guess at what this might be, or at least a portion of what this might be – could it be poetry? Not written poetry, but more a non-prosaic relation to any kind of activity, whether it be catching a bus, cleaning the house, or getting involved in some small scale community activism. Of course this also entails shifting the sense of poetry, which now also paradoxically discovers a relation to the practical and prosaic.
But poetry is not quite right. In any case that is just a deflection from one impenetrable term (art) to another (poetry), but ‘the holistic’ might be more useful. Art perhaps represents an adherence to interests that won’t permit themselves to be ordinarily restricted, that spread outwards.
Have been in Brighton for several days now. Have roughly recovered from jet lag, even went bouldering two days ago, but this morning a slight collapse – brief episode of sleepiness.
Have not yet found adequate means of describing this trip – of teasing out the small moments that are indicative of the peculiar texture of contemporary travel. Perhaps I cannot recognise them. Perhaps there is nothing peculiar to travel. Perhaps I only imagine that travel represents a distinct experiential space. Jet lag is clearly distinctive, but that can be roughly summoned at home via insomnia, hang overs, etc.
Of course one of the defining features of contemporary travel is the paradox that everything changes and nothing changes. There are still auto-tellers and malls. There are still times of waiting – perhaps more times of waiting. Seeing something recognisable – a distinctively British streetscape, a pebbled beach, the iconic Brighton Pavillion – produces this inner sense that one should be more impressed, that one should drink in its distinctiveness more completely, but somehow lack the resources. Sooner or later an epiphany no doubt, but constructed from what?
Perhaps I’m simply distracted – unable to see what could possibly be said. Must find means to be more attentive. Must find time to write more regularly. Or maybe not. It would be nice to describe things adequately, but equally nice to permit some portion of silence.
In summary, we missed the 6am flight and had to take the next at 9:10pm. Sat in a cafe all day with our bags. Long, uneventful flight to Dubai. Arrived at 5:20am. Caught connecting flight to London at 8:30am. Landed at Gatwick at 12:20pm. Took forever to get through customs on a non-EUR passport. Taxi to Brighton. Walked along the foreshore in the late afternoon heat. People lying on the pebbled beach and swimming in the ocean. Managed to stay up until early evening and then collapsed – sleeping until the middle of the night. Sleepy again early in the morning. Up at 9am. Left an hour or so later to walk from Hove into Brighton. Saturday today. Bank Holiday weekend. Very busy with fireworks tonight. A cool breeze blowing in the window now in the late afternoon. Feeling tired again. Seagulls crying in the near distance.
The strangeness of jet lag – of falling out of phase with the sun. Only since the middle of the last century has this experience even been possible – this sense of queasy disorientation. I find it harder and harder to manage. I can’t help imagining either resolutely remaining in one place or travelling much more slowly, allowing spatial movement to maintain a sense of solar alignment. This would maintain the fiction that the world obeys a universal cycle – that everywhere is consistently morning, afternoon or night. Traversing space would in this way retain a cosmic continuity. Air travel disrupts this imaginative possibility entirely – as well as also disrupting the texture of ordinary experiential reality. It renders the world in true and yet disintegrative terms. It demonstrates that the Earth is a sphere, but in a way that alienates us from lived space and time. Or better, that manifests these in alien terms – within the claustrophobia, immobility and tedium of flight.
(Also met Candy, but that’s another post).
Too tired to think deliberately. I walked out into the cold morning beyond the terminal – out to a valet car park and back. Wrong level for trees. Failing to walk down the stairs. Recognising that we are stuck here all day, taking turns minding our baggage at a cafe area. Surprised they even allow us to sit here – that they don’t shoo us away to make space for paying customers. Oh well, here we are. Travel sucks. Fucked up travel sucks. I dream about travel so often. Travel is a time to begin writing. But why precisely? Why is this time any more significant than any other time? Why is it more conducive to observation and reflection? And could it be that this reflection is necessarily shallow in that I can only recognise this time for writing? In any case, the superficiality of this impulse to write within the midst of travel must be acknowledged before anything else is possible. This is a meditation upon my own limitations, upon the conditions for this writing itself – in 2016, a privileged moment perhaps, when travel and travelogues are still possible.
What does it matter that some money is gone? Money is always going or gone. When we try to save it, things happen to make it go in massive, unexpected chunks. Somebody explained the karma of money to me – spend money and it returns to you (and grows). Never been entirely convinced by this, but also very aware that our relation to money is affected by arbitrary events. Things happen. Something fucks up. She fucks up. I fuck up. There are always fuck ups no matter how carefully we guard against them – and then another chunk of money is gone. If anything, thinking superstitiously, I’d say that the greater our efforts to manage our limited financial resources in a frugal and responsible manner, the more likely that arbitrary losses will occur. So in this sense perhaps the karma theory has some validity. Perhaps profligate spending protects against loss. Why? Less because loss no longer occurs than because it no longer affect us so much. Invested in the experience of arbitrary loss, further loss leaves us unmoved. Within this context, any money that flows the other way – that comes to us – appears as a wondrous gift that can only be protected and celebrated with further arbitrary expenditure.
So we missed the flight. Somehow thought the flight was at 8:30am, when it was actually 6am. Our early start (3am) wasted. Big expense buying new tickets for this evening. Dumb, but what can we do. Sitting in a airport cafe trying to distract ourselves with work, any kind of work.
Who says I’m not a writer or an architect or anything? Who has the authority to decide these things? […] Honestly, I am a fraud, I’m an outsider in all these fields, but this gives me the liberty to work subjectively. Truth and accuracy are not my concerns. If an academic would work with fiction in this way, it would be dishonest, wrong even, whereas you’d be a fool to trust an artist in the first place. (Simon Fujiwara (2009) quoted in Rachel Wetzler (2012) “The Art of Fieldwork”, rhizome.org)
This mention of fraud leads me to rethink my understanding of the contemporary artistic concern with fieldwork.
It occurs to me that I have got everything wrong, that I have been taken in by the slogans and hoardings, accepting that contemporary fieldwork is all about representing relations beyond art and beyond conventional artistic disciplines when actually precisely the opposite is at stake.
Fieldwork is quite possibly less about opening up experimental relations to an expansive field than about securing a very focused relation to a specific institution – the academy. It is a means of demonstrating that artists engage in some order of faintly reputable research. They have a method. This method, like the scientific method involves two attitudes – one that is scholarly, reflective and withdrawn (occurring in library, laboratory or studio) and one that is outward looking and methodical (fieldwork).
I did a quick Google search to see if I could find anything written about the artistic method of the Impressionists, expecting that somebody would describe their plein air method as a form of fieldwork, but found next to nothing written on the topic. At least initially it would seem that the notion of fieldwork is tied much more to traditions of natural and social scientific research than to traditions of artistic research. Arguably, fieldwork appears now as one among a number of ways of rationalising the relatively recent paradigm of art as research (and art as researcher), which is significantly more about pursuing new forms of artistic patronage than it is about establishing any essential link between artistic practice and scholarly scientific research. Not that parallels can’t be drawn between art and science, not that the two are not and can’t ever be intimately related, simply that the motivation for pushing so strongly for this research based conception of artistic practice is indicative of fundamental dilemmas affecting the position of art in contemporary society. In order to take residence within its new academic institutional home art must find means of adhering roughly to the rules – and that means demonstrating some proper capacity for research.
Yet this produces all kinds of tensions and paradoxes. In the quote above, for instance, Fujiwara at once signals this broader orientation of art – the contemporary tendency to pursue fieldwork under all manner of non-artistic disciplinary guises – but at the same time distinguishes it from properly academic approaches, which he suggests have a dedicated concern with truth. Art, on the contrary, has an irresponsible relation to discourses of disciplinary authority; it plays with them, it wears them as masks, it tells all manner of lies. The artistic fieldworker is an outsider who cannot be trusted, who can be trusted only within the realm of subjective fiction.
So what is it that artistic fieldwork represents? Is there a mode of fieldwork that is properly artistic? Is it linked to representational traditions that involve aspects of observation, sampling and note-taking? Or is it linked to the tradition of art and everyday life experimentation? Possibly, but something else is evident as well – less a native conception of ‘artistic fieldwork’ than a deliberate effort to seek out models from elsewhere, in this case social scientific models of fieldwork. The notion of fieldwork gains prominence as art reconsiders its ontology and epistemology in a new institutional context.
My concern here is not with sublime prospects.
The infinite’ that concerns me here is more prosaic and technical. It is linked to George Cantor’s notion of multiple infinities.
Of course I am not dealing with numerical prospects, but with aesthetic ones. We have the sense that art is a constantly expanding set of possibilities. No longer content with traditional media and conventional institutional contexts, contemporary art exists only at the point that it risks and describes new limits. Within this context painting can appear as a restricted and aesthetically exhausted field. Why bother painting anymore? Everything that can possibly be done with paint has been done. Every brush stroke can only reference other brush strokes. Etc.
But this is mistaken in my view – and here I am not concerned with arguing for the infinite formal potential of any given painted surface, but rather that the attitudes of painting are open and malleable. The sense of restriction is linked more to an inability to imagine other relations to painting than to any intrinsic limitations of the medium. The medium is ultimately not simply a formally, materially constituted thing. Nor is it constituted necessarily by aesthetic regimes of representation or abstraction. It can take as yet other and unknown forms and be informed by other as yet unknown cultural relations.
My sense is that we imagine artistic innovation in crude terms as simply an expansion outwards, when it as available – and even perhaps more so – within the tissue of evidently well-trodden ground. And it may be that this infinity available within any given medium (within the thinking of medium and against the necessity of formal conception of this term) is greater than the crude infinity of x = f+1; of linear motion beyond the last limit, which can all too often collapse into a simple alternation between inside and outside, art and non-art.
There are possibilities within painting that have not yet been discovered and these infinitely extend beyond whatever has already been discovered. The trick is to recognise the openness of this set and its essential uncountability.
I can recall being despondent one day in my early years of High School. I was sick in bed and unable to go on a long anticipated field trip to the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (Miami, Florida). The garden had a motorised train that transported you along red bitumen paths through rainforests and across bright expanses of green lawn. But I was for once genuinely sick and I would never have the opportunity to visit that garden again.
Why do I recount this memory? Perhaps to take another field trip – this time from the necessity of a more formal mode of writing. You see the problem is – as the story above makes clear – I originally associate field trips with pleasure, with freedom from the drudgery of ordinary work and experience.
Of course a ‘field trip’ is not the same thing as ‘fieldwork’. Our concern is properly with the latter. Leaving aside the scientific sense of the term, which I shall return to, ‘fieldwork’ can simply indicate the labour of working in fields – ploughing, planting, harvesting, etc. None of that is especially fun, or is perhaps only fun if it is not characterised by economic necessity. Clearly for many people a well-tilled field represents less a space of freedom than one of poverty and social confinement. If I speak of fields now, it is with the privilege of regarding them metaphorically as openings and as spaces apart.
Scientific fieldwork adopts this latter stance. It conceives dimensions of pleasure, adventure and escape (as well, of course, of reality and evidence). Field work is the stuff of memoirs, while ordinary laboratory research typically seems dull and prosaic.
Here I am afraid I must stray away from the bookish general topic into the field again. My father was a marine microbiologist. He has written extensively of his field work experiences in the Antarctic and in Northern Queensland. His writing starts when he leaves his office and lab. Indeed it is usually with some description of departure from the conditions of his ordinary scientific life that his various memoirs begin. The field appears as a heightened and memorable space. It takes shape in compelling narrative terms. It is conducive to moments of drama, humour and poetic observation. As a child and teenager, I can remember always envying my father’s opportunities for fieldwork. They seemed so much more fun than the kind of science that I studied at school. I quickly realised that I would never obtain the requisite mathematical and scientific skills and understanding to follow in my father’s footsteps, so I opted instead for another order of mediation and abstraction. I became a humanities and creative arts academic. My field work had to discover other and more cunning forms.
I should really explain about my own fieldwork trips up creeks, into the escarpment, to Antarctica, Paris and Turkey, but I will tell another story instead – this time about my mother. While my father pursued his scientific career, my mother brought my sister and I up and pursued a private passion for painting. She never exhibited, but painted all her life. Mainly studio based work, but when we moved up to Townsville in North Queensland in the early 1970s (just shortly before my parents divorced), she bought herself an old Viscount caravan and had a large viewing window installed on one side. This allowed her to travel around Townsville – down to the river, out to the Common – to paint the local landscape. Instead of painting in conventional plein-air style she painted the view from inside the caravan. This enabled her to stay out of the hot sun and to make herself a cup of tea whenever she liked.
Her field work did not seem an escape. Nor did it adapt any adventurous narrative form. It was simply a means of enabling her to work as an artist. Her focus was always on observation – and on the relationship between representation and abstraction. She did not even dress up the experience in conventional artistic terms. There was no fetishisation of standing directly on the ground or of seeing things directly. It was very important for her that she actually went out into the field, but she did not mind that she was looking out through glass from a shaded space. In a sense then, rather than leave the studio behind, she took it with her. I mention this example because I think that many artists do this, even when they feel they are doing precisely the opposite – when they feel they are encountering the world beyond any form of studio constraint. The studio has a way of following you into the field despite our best intentions.
In any case, what interests me about my mother’s practice was that it was unconcerned with any sense of opposition between studio and field. It represented a novel, practical alignment of the two and a deconstruction of their terms of necessary difference. This is what made it much more genuinely radical than it initially appeared.
These memories and experiences shape my conception of field work. Quite possibly, they may have left me confused about what fieldwork represents. At one level I am drawn to my father’s conventional romanticism, at another level I can’t resist ironising it. My mother’s practice appears pragmatic and deflating, but possibly also reveals another layer of romanticism (and realism) – one that avoids standard artistic myths so that, in very contemporary fashion, art and its other can intersect.
…the experimental artist who plays with the commonplace does so in the very midst of crossing the street or tying a shoelace. There is no excerpting and reenacting them on a stage, no documenting them for a show. Art is thus easily forgotten. And that is the condition for experimentation: the art is the forgetting of art. (Kaprow 2003: 249)
Art exists as a separate world since anything whatsoever can belong to it. […] Art is given to to us through these transformations of the sensible fabric, at the cost of constantly merging its own reasons with those belonging to other spheres of experience. (Ranciere 2013: X-XI)
To enter the field of art is to enter a realm of paradox. Genuinely experimental art tests the margins of art. In doing so it risks passing beyond or outside art, yet this is precisely the point at which contemporary art becomes characteristically manifest – at the instant that it risks its own disappearance. The double maneouvre of rejection and return takes shape as a conventional strategy and expectation.
And it is this sense that there is no genuine passage out into a wider field, because the wider field (its aesthetic alienation and uncertainty) is a feature of art itself. The larger field is actually a subset of the smaller field. Art stages its relation to multiple outsides. For all of its apparent exteriority, all these other places appear in picturesque terms. Here a sly relation between the conventional aesthetic attitudes of the picturesque and the sublime is evident. The infinite prospect of the sphere of non-aesthetic sociality (everyday life, other practices, other disciplines) develops its own conventional iconography and tropes (ellipses, ephemeral records, rough diagrams) – a set of aesthetic lenses for negotiating and representing all manner of alien fields.
So we must cautious about fieldwork. We must be suspicious about envisaging so simple a relation to a pure exterior.
But the statement from Ranciere also suggests something else. While at one level it reflects upon the conventional dialectic between inside and outside in contemporary art, it also suggests something more – something that may help progress matters beyond the impasse of a formal paradox. With its capacity to accept anything and to expand its boundaries however it likes, art has the potential to re-position fields and entities – not so much simply to make them strange within art, but for themselves and in relation to one another. Art – a very imperfect container – has the capacity to juggle elements, and this juggling has implications beyond art itself (partly because art lacks the power to contain everything that it engages with). In this sense, key forms of contemporary art work less to colonise aspects of ordinary experience than to tease out dimensions of estrangement and possibility.
Trying to produce the odd oil painting.
Trying to adopt a simple approach – single session, single brush, fairly heavy paint.
Today I decided to begin with the highlights and then work back to the darker tones – mainly to keep my brush light initially.
Seemed to work ok for me – although after a while I ended up moved back and forth between dark and light as I felt inclined, occasionally wiping off my brush with a cloth to make things less muddy.
Discover online that I’m meant to do the opposite – start with the darks and move to the lights. But this creates problems for me. I find it hard to add highlight colours on top of newly painted dark regions. I also like the way darks can be used to lend interest to area of thick highlight colour.
In any case, not much interest in doing anything that creates an illusion of depth. More trying to produce an image that has a diagrammatic aspect, that has a strange, uncertain relation to ordinary vision.
Subsequently noticed that I’d left a lot of paint on the palette.
Pressed the square of pine that I use as a palette several times on to a piece of paper.
Smeared the paint with a cloth doused in a bit of linseed oil.
Painted around the edge of the smeared central region with black.
Looks a truly bad abstract painting until I hold it up in front of a window – then it becomes like stained glass, with colours and blank portions showing up brightly.
Over a few months keep a diary describing three dimensions of being – dreams, bureaucracy and writing.
All three each day entered on a single sheet of paper. A single paragraph for each dimension.
An entry can be filled or blank.
A note about the dimensions:
- dreams: I typically don’t remember them
- bureaucracy: this is work – tasks, meetings, emails
- writing: this can’t be anticipated
Paint bear idea with different wordings
So what does it mean to return to painting?
But now without any skill or any sustained interrogation of the conditions of the medium?
Semi-stupidly, in short? [Damn it, that just sets things in train again, reminding me of Duchamp.]
I bought some oil paints and some small, black boards.
I mixed the colours up in a ukelele box.
Which is the painting – the one I discarded or the one I kept?
K and I collected Greenstone pebbles on the West Coast of NZ South Island. The seas were wild and foamy and the beaches were dark and covered in driftwood. K was better than me at picking out the little green pebbles from all the other water-washed rocks. Put them in a Chinese bowl when we got back. Couldn’t resist soaking them in ink and tipping them on a piece of paper. Some very direct and fairly indistinct form of printing. Then washed the pebbles and hung the bits of paper up in the shed. The light passed through them in a beautiful way. Took some photographs. Is this an idea? Perhaps.