Loom : Conceptual Art and the Space of Execution

In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. [1. LeWitt, S., “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” in Alberro, A. & Stimson, B. (1999) Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, MIT Press, p.12]

Sol LeWitt famously insists upon the possibility of a purely conceptual form of art. He distinguishes a space of conceptual making that is distinct from that of practical making. This represents a rejection of Clement Greenberg’s formalist conception of modern art, which insists that art has its basis in the distinct formal properties of specific physical art media. It is also a rejection of an associated notion of art making founded on values of perceptual sensibility and subjective expression. The conceptual idea is positioned as a machine that not only determines the space of execution – of material making – but also reconstitutes the nature of artistic creation as “emotionally dry” (and yet “not theoretical” ) [2. Ibid., p.12]. The nature of this conceptual machinery is difficult to pin down precisely. At one level it appears rarefied and procedural, at another it is cast as “intuitive” and “purposeless” [3. Ibid., p.12]. In this sense, LeWitt’s notion of conceptual art retains aspects of formalism within the alien, awkwardly conceived space of the conceptual.

While keeping in mind that “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) represents a specific historical response to the dilemmas of formalist modernism and that LeWitt himself deliberately qualifies its general relevance [4. Ibid., p.12], it nonetheless has proved very influential in terms of conceiving the conceptual nature of art. For my purposes, within the specific context of software art practice, it provides a standard means of distinguishing between the abstract-conceptual space of software programming and that of perceptible program output. For example, in his Whitney Museum project, Software Structures, Casey Reas explicitly places Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings as the model for his practice, enabling him to distinguish between the coding imaginary and the visual-perceptual character of any particular code-drawing instance.

There is a complete separation of the concept of the work from its perceptual manifestation. The relation between LeWitt and his draftsperson is often compared to the relation between a composer and performer , but I think it’s also valid to look at the comparison between a programmer and the entity of execution. [5. http://artport.whitney.org/commissions/softwarestructures/text.html, accessed 9th May 2011]

What interests me is the neatness of this split, the clarity of this distinction between the conceptual and the manifest. However, it quickly becomes evident that the split is more complex than a division between two orders of being. Instead a complex chain of mediation is evident. Reas, for instance, insists upon an intuitive conceptual stage prior to the work of software writing. He argues that “[t]he work develops in the vague domain of image and then matures in the more defined structures of natural language before any thought is given to a specific machine implementation.” [6. Ibid.] The stage of machine execution can also be distinguished from that of the final result – the manifest image-instance. Leaving aside the transition to natural language, we have then a minimum of four stages:

  1. conceptual image
  2. conceptual expression (as a set of definite written procedures)
  3. machine execution
  4. manifest image instance

My interest is in questioning the notional integrity, linear structure and implicit hierarchy evident in this model. Note first the paradox that the primary scene of intuitive conceptualisation is conceived in terms of the final stage of the manifest image. This seems to provide a means of preserving an intimate and properly human realm of creative conceptualisation. Its validity is established in terms of its isomorphism to the self-evident character of perceptual manifestation. Whereas LeWitt permits ambivalence, even contradiction, effectively blurring the boundaries between the intuitive and the machinic, Reas firmly distinguishes between the two. The domain of conceptual expression, of software programming is positioned as a form of alienation from intuitive conceptualisation. It manifests the underlying concept in a language that is itself, despite its abstraction, properly separate from the inner-sanctum of the conceptual. Examined closely, it is evident that the overall division between the conceptual and the manifest functions throughout, with the former privileged as long, rather peculiarly, as it takes shape as the latter.

If anything, it is the middle two steps that appear devalued, appearing both insufficiently conceptual and insufficiently manifest. It is interesting here to indicate how LeWitt’s notion of the relation between conceptualisation and making seems to change in his subsequent “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1969). If “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” provocatively renders the process of practical art-making as entirely secondary and unimportant, “Sentences on Conceptual Art” allows a more nuanced and equal relationship.

28 – Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
29 – The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.[7. LeWitt, S., “Sentences on Conceptual Art” in Alberro, A. and Stimson, B. (1999) op. cit., p.107]

In these later statements LeWitt emphasises the need then to submit to the “blindness” of process [8. Ibid.]. The procedural character of making is what allows the shift beyond subjective expression. It also produces “side effects” that extend creative-conceptual trajectories beyond their anticipated outcomes, opening up new conceptual possibilities[9. Ibid.]. It is precisely the machinic (procedural) character of the concept that allows it to engage machinic dimensions of practice. This is to suggest that the intimacy of the conceptual is immediately affected by non-subjective forces. This is the means by which it escapes expressive solipsism. Its space of intuition is irreducibly related to the blindness of process, the alterity of making.

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