Defining Aesthetics

In a note on the tradition of modern aesthetics, Ranciere offers a definition of the field:

‘Aesthetics’ designates two things in this work: a general regime of the visibility and the intelligibility of art and a mode of interpretative discourse that itself belongs to the forms of this regime. (Aesthetics and Its Discontents, p.11)

Aesthetics then is tied to art, and to modern art particularly, in two senses: it relates to a specific historical regime of art’s sensible identity, which Ranciere delineates in semi-circular fashion as ‘aesthetic’; and it indicates a mode of discourse that emerges from within this regime and aims to make sense of it.  In more simple terms, it refers to both the sensible and intelligible forms of modern and contemporary art and also the efforts to describe and account for those forms.

Yet elsewhere Ranciere lends aesthetics a more general currency:

[A]esthetics can be understood in a Kantian sense – re-examined perhaps by Foucault – as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. (The Politics of Aesthetics, p.13)

In this sense it is not limited to the Enlightenment, post-Enlightenment, modern, post-modern and contemporary world.  Here ‘aesthetics’ aligns more closely with Baumgarten’s original sense of the term, as signalling a focus on sensible experience generally (1735).  But of course Baumgarten positions sense differently – not as something that subsists at an a priori level, but rather as a terrain of confused sensible impressions that only gradually finds its way to intelligible, rational thought.  Here his model is Leibniz.  Clearly Kant’s notion of the a priori comes later.  And what are the implications of this shift.  If Leibniz conceives a complex mediation with the multiplicity of the sensible world, Kant draws mediation inward and makes it self-constituting?  Nothing is precisely experienced (intelligibly experienced or generally experienced?) that is not already there within ourselves.

And I am unsure which of these two positions that Ranciere adopts.  Does ‘the distribution of the sensible’ appear as a field of contestation, in which the sensible world, and our capacity to sense, is endlessly renegotiated and redistributed, or does it solidify into historically inculcated a priori forms that represent a given, paradigmatic and intransigent distribution?

But, in any case, the key thing here is that Ranciere employs the term aesthetics in a variety of ways – and in more ways than he acknowledges.  Most evidently, at times the term pertains to the general problem of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ and at other times to the particular dilemmas of modern art.  My particular interest is how the notion subtly expands and contracts – broadening here and there to encompass key aspects of politics and then regularly refocusing on the common sense space of art.  My sense, however, is that another possibility is available.  Instead of returning to art, there is the possibility, via the notion of aesthetics, of shifting away from the endless contradictions of art.  This involves considering the ontological and epistemological dimensions of the aesthetic, rather than, for instance, permitting Hegel’s bracketing of aesthetics original and more general meaning as an inquiry into the nature of sensible experience.

I wonder what aesthetics would look like, for example, if it also sought its basis in the debates of the Pre-Socratics about the arche (fundamental principle) and the logos (word, or true account)?  I wonder if, in reaching back to philosophical origins, aesthetics payed less exclusive attention to Plato’s exclusion of the poets and Aristotle’s conception of drama, and instead considered the words of the Muses in Hesiod’s Theogony (735BC:

Rustic shepherds, worthless reproaches, mere stomachs, we know how to say many lies like the truth, and, whenever we wish, we know how to tell the truth.

Here after all are key features of the aesthetic – base existence, sensation, appetite and the uncertainties of being and truth.

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‘The Distribution of the Sensible’

The following are a set of questions about Ranciere’s notion of ‘the distribution of the sensible’.

The term ‘distribution’ suggests a work of differential apportionment – aspects of sensibility are made available here, but not there, and to some, but not others.  The definite article ‘the’ suggests that the distribution is a definite state of affairs that has happened.  Although the origins of the distribution is not explained, the definite article suggests that an account of origins is possible.  The notion of distribution can be read both in terms of neutrality (a given statistical distribution), it can also suggest an aspect of agency (a general distributing the spoils of war among his troops).  Is the distribution of the sensible simply an emergent state of affairs or is it an expression of the machinations of power?

Why the emphasis on the ‘sensible’?  Is the term to be understood literally or metaphorically?  Ranciere regularly employs the example of disadvantaged social voices that cannot be heard.  Is it that we literally don’t hear them or, more metaphorically, that we disregard them?  It would seem to be less an issue of how sensibility is distributed (the audibility of particular voices) than whether or not we choose to acknowledge and engage with the disadvantaged.  We hear the homeless person on the streets begging for money, but walk straight by, pretending not to hear.  In any case, if some voices attain prominence it is less because they are somehow more audible, but because they are selected, recorded and broadcast.  The difference is less precisely at the level of sensibility than of selective, socially inscribed currency.

The notion of the sensible seems to point to something more materially bound than ideology, yet when Ranciere’s notion of the sensible is interrogated at a detailed material-experiential level it seems to fall apart.  Perhaps this is because I am taking the term too literally?  I am unsure.

In some ways the notion of ‘the distribution of the sensible’ appears as a more materially inclined version of linguistic determinism and/or linguistic relativism (I’m unsure which because it remains unclear the extent to which social agents can experience beyond the given sensible-experiential categories without recourse to the radical space of the political and the aesthetic).  Instead then of being unable to think beyond the conceptual constraints of a given language, we are unable to experience things beyond the frame of a given distribution of the sensible.  Yet this seems too crude.  After all, Ranciere devotes a whole book to describing how elements of the 19thc working class found the means, despite their onerous working and living conditions, to become artists and intellectuals.  They worked all day and then refused to sleep at night.  They developed other lives against the grain of the extant distribution of the sensible.  So Ranciere must conceive scope for resistance.  His view must then be more of a sensible relativism…

I guess, just to be as clear as possible, although I acknowledge culturally informed modes of sensible experience, I’d tend to avoid overstating their determining influence, particularly at the level of fundamental sense perception.  While sensible fields and affordances take culturally legible shape, there is always – and intrinsically – a potential for excess, for things to be experienced differently.  This occurs not only in privileged moments of resistance, but all the time, based upon all the complex interests and interactions that constitute sensible experience.  A gallery is a place for quietly viewing art, but it is also a place for kids on a school excursion to muck up, for lonely people to brush up against others, for people without an umbrella to escape the rain.  No sensibly distributed space is ever restricted to the given distribution.

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But Aesthetics is Modern

I can imagine an objection to my previous post: there may be different periods of art but that does not indicate that the notion of the aesthetic is anything more than a peculiarly modern phenomenon, emerging during the Enlightenment as a reflection on the gap between the intelligible and the sensible world and then developing into a reflection on the complex dilemmas of modern and contemporary art.

In this sense, I am mistaken to imagine a correspondence at the level of aesthetics between Ranciere’s ethical, representational and aesthetic regimes of art.  Only the latter regime is properly aesthetic.  Only the latter addresses the disjunction between modern art’s utopian promise and its institutional delineation and alienation.  So if there is also an art of maintenance, recovery and care, this need not imply that it is aesthetic.  It may simply be a legacy of the earlier ethical regime of art.

Yet this seems to confuse two issues, the nature of art and aesthetics, and its historical periodisation (or lack therof, since in Ranciere’s view there is only modern aesthetics – the qualifier ‘modern’ becoming effectively redundant).  The problem, in my view, is that Ranciere is forced to bracket a great deal of what counts as art in the contemporary world as essentially non-aesthetic, in order to defend a notion of the aesthetic as being associated with rare moments in which the sensible world is redistributed.  It is not adequate to argue that every other moment of art is simply a legacy of the ethical or representational regimes of art, or simply lacking in any disruptive force.  There are plainly other interests in contemporary art that need to be addressed – interests that are not simply oriented towards the reconfiguration of sensible experience.

Ranciere distinguishes two main tactics of contemporary art: the strategy of the sublime, in which the unrepresentable is prefigured in order to order to signal the impossibility of art’s reconciliation with the world, and to preserve the hope of some radical beyond; and the communitatarian, relational strategy of dissolving art into everyday life, subverting art’s autonomy and the privileged character of artistic creation.  Yet are these the only two major strategies?  They make sense to me because I am a product of this western critical art tradition, but what of all the other contemporary art?  What of the post-colonial and indigenous art that is also contemporary, but that cannot be so neatly reduced to these two sets of aims.  Take western desert painting from Australia.  Is this work fundamentally focused on post-Enlightenment aesthetic dilemmas, or does it have its own interests and concerns?  It can be read in terms of the sublime and in terms of relational, socially-engaged practice, but this can hardly adequately charaterise what is at stake in this work.  Would it make more sense then to regard it as a kind of anachronistic throw-back to the ethical regime of art?  Should it be removed from aesthetics altogether?  This is only seems to deny the complexity of the present (of multiple presents, multiple arts, multiple aesthetics).  There is a need, in my view, to conceive the aesthetic in more open terms, to remain sensitive to historical difference but to less strictly enforce historical boundaries (particularly when they threaten to consign aspects of the present to the past, effectively silencing them).

In any case, finally, what accounts for the shift from the ethical to the representational to the aesthetic regimes of art?  If they are historical categories – if they don’t also have a curious trans-historical force – then there must be a means of accounting for the transition from one to another.  And how can this be explained if it entails a radical shift in apriori experiential categories?  Presumably these shifts occurred beyond the frames of art (however conceived), affecting much larger conditions of experience.  Perhaps they represent the shift from the ancient civic world (of slavery, of obligation, of religious instruction) (the ethical regime of art) to the pre-industrial mercantile world (the representational regime of art) to the modern industrial and post-industrial world of global capitalism (the aesthetic regime of art).  But then these periods appear similar to Althusserian ideological formations – despite some relative autonomy, they appear as cloudy cyphers of underlying social-economic structures.  I am having trouble making sense of the notion of ‘distribution of the sensible’.  How material are these distributions?  How hermetically sealed? How open?  And if subject to redistribution, then on what basis?  On the basis of their own social-material logic (the logic of resistance) or on the basis of wider changes that make ‘aesthetic’ change (change at the level of sensible conditions) possible?

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Ranciere

My sense of Ranciere’s aesthetic theory is that it curiously both overvalues and devalues the field.  At one level, aesthetics is associated with the ‘distribution of the sensible’ – the social regimes of sense that structure our capacity to experience the world (to hear, see, touch, taste and smell it).  In this manner aesthetics obtain a fundamental political dimension.  It shapes our underlying political affordances – our capacity for political intervention and self-determination: so that only those voices that can be heard matter, only those images that can be seen, only those modes of experience that can gain sympathetic currency.  At another level, however, aesthetics is understood more narrowly as representing the particular modern, complex, knotted configuration of art, with all its awkward efforts to both erase the difference from ordinary life and to set itself utterly apart.  Ranciere shifts then between a general philosophical notion of aesthetics and a specific historically informed conception of the contradictory space of contemporary art.  It is in the difficult relation between these two concepts of aesthetics – and in an effort to link them together – that Ranciere ultimately restricts the aesthetic, like the political, to moments when something definitely happens, when the current regime of sensibility is unsettled and redistributed.  There is everywhere the ‘primary’ aesthetic of a distribution of the sensible and innumerable examples of contemporary art, but only the occasional moment when the aesthetic takes shape as a significant event – a meta-political event that reshapes the conditions of sensible experience.

So aesthetics is peculiarly cast – it obtains a very broad sway, but only obtains vibrant identity in its uncertain irruptive moments.  Which makes me wonder about all of those other moments, all of those other times when the aesthetic is sleeping.  Is it bound up in nothing more than reinforcing existing regimes?  Does the aesthetic have another mode, in which like a blanket it covers over everything, keeping all our senses warm without allowing them any freedom? Or is there a more positive possibility?  Could it be, for instance, that there is no clear line between obedience and resistance?  Could it be that the sensible is constantly being redistributed and that their are multiple modes of redistribution – not all of them violent or evident in terms of rupture?  Could it be that there is no iron clad regime of the sensible – that the sensible is more open and pervious than Ranciere envisages?  More specifically, it seems to me that art is as much about care, repetition and maintenance as it is about resistance.  Prior to modern society, the fundamental problem was less of mobilising change than of holding on to the past. Things quite simply disappeared unless there were cultural methods set in place to deliberately retain them.  A great deal of art and aesthetics is better explained within the context of shaping contexts and forms of experience that manifest and reinforce continuity, than in terms of ‘dissensus’ and disruption.  While Ranciere acknowledges this in defining an earlier ‘ethical regime of art’ that has a focus on social cohesion and integration, he nonetheless still associates the aesthetic proper with moments of rupture.  In this manner, the ethical regime is positioned as pre-aesthetic.  My point is that rather than making a historical, periodic delineation, it may be better to seek out the ‘ethical’ within contemporary art – not only in affirmative art, not only in the art that is not properly ‘aesthetic’, but also within the art of rupture.  What is it, after all, that moments of sensible redistribution demonstrate if not, very often, a ground of experience that the modern world undermines and threatens?  Beneath gestures of aesthetic radicalism, there are often profoundly conservative motives.  ‘Conservative’ in the best sense of the word.

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Loom 2018

Loom engine beginning to take new shape with a dedicated Bezier drawing program to create more complex polygons and the capacity to transform 2D into 3D shapes.

Here are three render samples.  Playing around with the idea of making something out of negative text statements.  I created the text in the Bezier drawing program and then recursively subdivided the text in Loom.  The final image plays with a standard iconic human form silhouette.

BTW: these are low resolution samples (actual output is 9000X9000 pixels (upwards))

No In, No Out

No Mountains, No Valleys

No More Sunsets

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Some Time

Close to a decade ago, I gave up programming. I figured that I could do no more – certainly not without becoming more mathematically literate. I was also sick of the hours of staring at the screen. I wanted to go outside. I wanted to walk up hills. I wanted to explore other (lived) processes.

However, I’ve recently returned to programming. I’ve returned to finish some projects – or to push them a bit further. I’m focusing particularly on developing the Loom subdivision engine.

I’ve been surprised how easily I’ve found it to get back into programming – not only the arcane syntax of Java and Scala, but also the whole mind-set needed to make sense of complex data structures and algorithms. It all seems so familiar, as though I have scarcely been away – like an alcoholic that only has to taste liquor for the addiction to return in full.

I’d like to say more about this eventually, but just here I want to mention a bug that I solved this morning. I had been wrestling with it most of the weekend, running endless println statements to try to trace where the values were going astray (the experience of debugging is also very familiar to me). Anyway, I finally found the problem. I had an overall manager class that managed a whole complex Bezier drawing system. I’d assumed that I’d need to create an instance of this class when I was loading existing drawings from XML files, but it turned out that the class was already instanced at a higher level in the program. I was then referring to two instances of an overall manager, which each represented aspects of the loaded drawings. They were strange coextensive doubles that had unclear implications in the same drawing space. They were intersecting alternate worlds, each withdrawing (providing null data or wrong indexes) just when they were needed.

I only had to change one line and it was all gone. The whole program worked. The hardest thing to do is to examine an intractable problem with open mind, to not make assumptions that lead me astray.

Bezier drawing app for Loom

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Aesthetics

Aesthetics is not fundamentally about discriminating between the ugly and the beautiful, art and non-art. Aesthetics is not fundamentally about beauty or art, these are simply allied concepts. Aesthetics engages a space of mediation.

For the 17th century philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, the field of aesthetics explores the complex relationship between sensible experience and knowledge – between corporeal and conceptual dimensions of being and understanding. Drawing upon the philosophy of Leibniz (and against Cartesian dualism), Baumgarten describes a continuity between the sphere of lived experience and abstract thought. The confused complexity of the sensible provides the basis for efforts of differentiation, discrimination and logical delineation to emerge. There is less a binary divide between body and mind than a difficult realm of coexistence and negotiation. In this sense, aesthetics is not about the sensible alone, but about the medial relationship between the sensible and the conceptual.

Of course there is no need to adhere to this original conception of aesthetics. If I pursue it here, it is because it may prove valuable in terms of rethinking the field of aesthetics against the grain of current conceptions. Apart from removing it from a quasi judicial notion of arbitration between the ugly and the beautiful, art and non-art, it also enables aesthetics to slip free of a range of contemporary impasses linked to efforts to distinguish its proper characteristics. If the aesthetic is less a determinable space than a field of questioning and mediation, then it may discover a new social relevance.

And this is not only via any efforts towards philosophical lucidity. It is also by recognising the limits of lucidity. Aesthetics does not simply lucidly take shape as resistance. It does not endlessly broach novelty. It is as embroiled in repetition and consensus as it is “dissensus” (Ranciere). If anything, it suggests the potential of unreflective gestures to enliven and to undermine (from within) totalised realities.

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Budawangs

I envisage a project that involves myself and later others walking up into the Budawangs mountain ranges, stopping here and there for a few hours, a day or several days to form small camps and read and transcribe short books.

The Budawangs are south and inland of Milton Ulladulla. I’d focus the project around slowly ascending one of the most prominent Budawangs summits, the Castle.

I envisage each camp as a small raised platform with basic items. Platforms are supported on poles. Platforms are just big enough for an adult person to lie down full length. They also have room for a small box that contains vital items – food, paper, writing implements, a light, and most importantly a book. The book is for reading, transcribing and commenting upon. I’m thinking of something like the Monadology by Leibniz. It’s only thirteen pages long and it’s broken up into very short sections – only a paragraph long each. So philosophical or short literary works – focusing on experience, reflection, action and aesthetics.

Above the platform is a suspended canvas tarpaulin for shade and to keep out the rain.

Visitors walk up into the forest to the various camps and spend time at the platforms – perhaps a couple days, perhaps only a few hours. They can go on their own or they can go as a group. They find their way via sets of cryptic instructions – as though following a treasure map.

Every camp will have already been visited, but with only a single trace – a white, wooden weather-proof box containing a book and a commentary. I will have been the first visitor at each camp.

Each visitor or set of visitors are expected to set up the camp – assembling the poles, platforms and tarpaulins. They carry everything with them. They discover light means of fixing the poles – perhaps by pushing them into the ground or strapping them to trees and rocks. They ensure that the platforms are level. They suspend the tarpaulin at an appropriate height above the platform, leaving room to lie down beneath, sit or perhaps even stand.

Groups of people are free to create a single platform or a whole set of individual platforms.

People can replace my suggested books with their own. Monadology is just a suggestion. The books need to be short. People need time to transcribe them entirely and to add their own commentary. They leave the commentary behind when they move on.

They proceed up through the series of camps to the top of the Castle.

At the end of the project all of the boxes are collected from the forest and displayed as an installation, but with none of the books, transcriptions or commentaries visible. Instead they are contained in the boxes.

Note: there is a roughly 40 km drive in via a rough and corrugated dirt road to the starting point for the walk up the Castle. The walk starts down low beside a creek, leads through a patch of rainforest, then quickly up into dry sclerophyll forest. After a couple of hours it ascends to a steep conglomerate cliff line and traverses beneath to a large cave. There is then another long climb to a final high layer of sandstone cliffs. The final section of the ascent is surprisingly tricky. A gentle but very exposed set of slabs provide access to the northern tail of the mountain. From there a 800 m walk follows the narrow escarpment summit to the southern end, which provides an expansive view past Byangaree walls and Pigeon House mountain to the coast.

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Notes

Leibniz introduces the uncertain space of apperception.
This can be related to the sphere of art and aesthetics.
Perhaps it is the prefix ‘a’ that is especially pertinent?
In the sense of ‘no, not, without, away from, negative’.
Apperception represents a displacement within perception – not a negation so much as a reflective doubling. (But perhaps also the possibility of a doubling of cognition).
Art as doubling – the doubling of any action.
Not quite repetition, because all codified action is in some sense repeated.
But rather doubled to introduce some element of distance.
Mimetic doubling, expressive doubling.
Intoxicated loss only becomes art when it obtains form?
Significant form is that sense of art obtaining a concrete reflective shape.
Not necessarily mimetic reflection – though it may be – but more a formal reflection, a structured pause that moves away from the thing, the event, the experience, the thought itself.
Although there need not be a referent as such.
Art finds means of distancing and displacing – it partakes of this motion, even if it cannot exclusively possess it.
I cannot avoid thinking in a modern context where the separation is as much social and political as it is formally determined.
Social practice introduces a displacement within the fabric of all kinds of other modes of action and sense-making. This displacement affects both art and everything else that it engages with.
Asocial Apractice – distancing both the social and the practical through an Aart that refuses to remain separate and ineffectual. All categories are questioned, but in such a way that none are directly undermined. Art retains a capacity to pause and displace, while social practice, even if staged, is nonetheless conceived as real and consequential.

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Question(s)

At one level, I can conceive the aesthetic in particular terms, but then quickly discern other possibilities. I am tempted, for instance, by the 18th century notion of the aesthetic as concerned with the realm of sensible experience, but am also hesitant to portray the aesthetic as preconceptual or radically disengaged from language and understanding. Taking another step, the aesthetic can possibly be conceived as a space of hesitation and contradiction – in which sense and concept (as well as freedom and determination) intersect in unexpected ways. This positions the aesthetic as a form of unsettled (and politically charged) apperception, involving a meta-level awareness of mediation – clearly a very modern conception. While arguably there are really only ever modern conceptions of aesthetics, we tend conceive the aesthetic more broadly – to recognise its relevance, for example, to interpreting traditional craft ‘art-making’ practices. The latter demonstrate a different aesthetic conception focused on continuity and aligned with processes of cultural maintenance (rather than disruption).

Perhaps these tendencies are not so opposed? Perhaps the contemporary concern with medial complexity and non-reconciliation (the lack of integrated experience and identity) represents, at least partly, a lament for earlier more holistic experiential and aesthetic modalities?

[Deeper tension evident here between an historical and trans-historical conception of aesthetics – both alternatives problematic. Former probably preferable, but also more pointedly in need of careful unpicking and criticism (in order to question simple-minded relativism).]

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Aesthetic Mediation

We shift now from focusing on the artistic medium as the bridge to dimensions of experience that exceed rational forms of understanding to focusing on experience itself as a medial condition. There is no longer a need to posit the materiality of a medium to vouchsafe our relation to the lived world – to support it precisely through a necessary alienation. We have made the alienation intimate. We can do without prosthetics. Walking, seeing, touching, imagining, remembering, etc. all reveal dimensions of mediation themselves. Presence is never truth, nor is it simply self-present. There are always layers, tensions, complications, abrasions. The aesthetic is not simply about art, nor about beauty, it is about the play of lived mediation. Art and beauty are simply codified instances – and, if anything, they distract from the genuine potential of aesthetics, which draws upon and is enmeshed within confusion and uncertainty.

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Aesthetic Dust

While browsing through books on aesthetics in the UOW library, I came across Eighteenth Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art (Mattick, P. (ed.), 1993). Bound in black and covered in a thick layer of dusk, the book had only ever had a single loan (in 1995). Bit concerned the arguments would prove dated, but decided to give it a go.

Mattick’s introduction sets the tone for the collection, emphasising – in a standard critical manoeuvre – the gap between nature and culture. The book is couched as an intervention in a complacent field. Aesthetics has for too long imagined a capacity to universalise, regarding itself as a domain of human commonality and consistent critical inquiry. Questioning the latter particularly, Mattick stresses historical discontinuities between modern and ancient aesthetics, arguing that the Greek philosophical tradition had neither a clear sense of art as a distinct social (or experiential) sphere or of beauty as a distinct quality that can be precisely distinguished from fitness for purpose, rational proportion, etc.

The collection of essays in this volume aim to historicise aesthetics. Many examine how modern conceptions of the field (from Baumgarten onwards) are socially inflected – how they work to reconcile dimensions of subjectivity and universality, freedom and determination, sensible experience and rational cognition within the context of new paradigms of social, economic, political and cultural organisation. They position modern aesthetics as an historically legible discursive formation that requires close critical interrogation. The best essays, however, are less concerned to deconstruct 18th C aesthetics in terms of its social and ideological blindness than to tease out the complexity of the field – and to demonstrate that the contemporary critique risks misrecognising the tradition; portraying it as naive when it is actually more complex and sophisticated than we imagine. There is a tension then in the book between reading 18th C aesthetics in terms of modern critical debates and reading it in its own terms.

In my view, the articles that are open to the alterity of 18th C aesthetics are much more interesting. Very informative article, for instance, by Jeffrey Barnouw on how Baumgarten’s notion of aesthetics as the field concerned with aspects of sensible experience (rather than conceptual understanding) was informed by earlier notions of the value of the sensible intuition of inexpressible qualities and particularly by Leibniz’s conception of sensation as a sphere of clear but indistinct ideas (a transitional space between the confused flow of sense data and higher order aspects of cognition). Within this context, it becomes evident that 18th C aesthetics had wider interests than simply art or the experience of beauty (or the sublime). It was fundamentally about conceiving the mediation between lived reality and dimensions of imagination, memory, coherent action and understanding.

The most interesting article is by David Summers – ‘Why did Kant call taste a “common sense”‘. Whereas there is an obvious temptation to be suspicious of any notion of common sense (and to misread it in terms of contemporary debates), Summers demonstrates that Kant describes not an order of naturalised understanding, but rather a more general capacity of medial interaction with the world that occurs beneath the level of conceptual understanding and above the level of of simple sensible perception. His concern with sense and its common features relates to a tradition of inquiry (stemming from Aristotle) that is concerned with dimensions of higher order but pre-conceptual sense. The notion of common sense in this context does not assume any particular sensible content, but rather the relevant universality relates to the common capacity to find things beautiful, the common capacity for a play between levels of experience to occur (and for us to reflectively realise this and take pleasure in it). This sheds a different light on the notions of sense, commonality and universality that undermines our own conventional responses to these terms. This is precisely what good criticism should do – brush away the dust to discover something else.

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Samples

Some sample efforts at ground level studies for upcoming ‘Walking Upstream – Waterways of the Illawarra’ exhibition at Wollongong City Gallery:

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Materiality/Ideality

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.

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Ground Level Sample

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).

Single image at left, sampled composite at right

Single image at left, sampled composite at right

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?

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Code 003

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?

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Code 002

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.]

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Code 001

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.

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Code 000

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?

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Aesthetics/Motion

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.)

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Street Insult

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.

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Transforming Waterways

(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.

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Reclamation?

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.

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Several Days

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.

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Jet Lag

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).

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