At first glance it is difficult to detect a relationship between Agnes Martin’s 1960s minimalist (or possibly abstract expressionist) paintings and the titles of the works, which often reference conventionally picturesque aspects of the natural world – ‘flower’, ‘mountain’, etc. The works take shape as meticulously crafted grids, notable more for their subtle and curiously embodied relation to abstraction than any sense of reference to particular beautiful or sublime natural things. Yet somehow – by both playing at and avoiding reference – the works establish a complex and evocative dialogue between minimal grid and ostensibly alien referent.
My focus is on her ‘mountain’ works particularly, and less with the details of these works, or what Martin may have meant by them, than with the questions they pose about the nature of mountain experience. While there is a self-evident link between a minimalist aesthetic sublime and the sublimity of mountains, my interest is in layers of correspondence that are less iconic than phenomenological – related to features of indirection, pattern and performance. I argue that the interplay of repetition and subtle, almost imperceptible differentiation in the paintings engages with intimate aspects of mountain experience – the iterative inhalation of breath, the search for lines, the recognition of space as a macro and micro level field of affordance.
The paintings provide a means of thinking mountains differently – not as exterior realms of otherness, but as profoundly lived and imagined spaces, always already covered in real and virtual infrastructure – roads, data trails, and lines of least resistance. I argue that long before the mountain is abstracted into a grid, it is already abstracted, it is already subject to a work of repetition and projection. It is always already more than it appears to be. I link this multi-modal conception of mountains and mountain experience to aspects of Martin’s ‘mountain’ paintings and to my own experience as a rock-climber, walker and artist. I consider particularly how my own work alternates between literal interaction with outdoor spaces (mainly mountains) and gestures of apparent distanciation, involving indoor practices of writing and computer programming. Rather than regard these as entirely separate fields of activity, I argue that close engagement with mountain environments summons abstraction in the same manner that the computational line summons the lived step.
In response to the first wave of British Alpine mountaineering, the British art critic John Ruskin famously argued that the Alps were better appreciated from the valleys than the peaks, suggesting that climbing represented a desecration of the ‘cathedrals of the earth’. Since then, the scope and scale of leisure based engagement with mountain environments has vastly increased. The world’s mountain regions are more and more characterised by complex networks of routes, trails and trajectories and are increasingly integrated within wider data and communication systems. Via these means, mountain experience has changed for us. It is no longer so remote and separate. It is no longer exclusively informed by a rhetoric of sublimity. Mountain experience has become more intense and immersive and mountains themselves have become less neatly separable from features of the modern world.
- it is not actually a binary choice between sublimity and immersion, they are linked in complex ways. There is an interplay between them – a capacity both to make externally visible and experiential.
- I was lost early morning on the Larapinta trail. I had a headtorch that normally worked to follow the track, but crossing a dry creek I missed a less visible exit and became lost. Usually crossing creeks there were yellow metal trail markers. I struggled to see them. So I had to sit for several hours until it became light before I could re-find the trail. The whole place changed when there was no longer a track. Every boulder and stunted tree had a new resonance as I tried to read clues into an obscure landscape. Before I sat down and waited, I made a number of efforts to walk 50m or so in particular directions in the hope that I’d stumble across the track or a trail marker. I had only my footprints in the sand and rough memory of dark clumps of bush and lines of boulders to find my around – and everything became increasingly obscure. I imagined that I could see the lights of Alice Springs glowing in the distance, but not sure what I was seeing. Dawn eventually rose from that direction… What was apparent here, was the attempt to recognise signs – to follow the concrete abstractions that make navigation possible, but instead there was this amorphous and confusing darkness. In some ways this was one of my most intense and memorable experience on the trail – when I lost it altogether and when time, and my predictable motion across the landscape – was suspended. Confused space, suspended time.
I think therefore I am.
I know that this has been considered innumerable times, I know that I need to read much more on this inexhaustible topic, but still can’t avoid making a minor, ill-educated comment. The statement adopts the form of a logical deduction. The experience of thinking demonstrates the necessity of existence. Yet it seems to me that existence is less something to be logically deduced than a predicament that immediately affects us. It is a constitutive condition rather than something that either requires or has the capacity to be logically deduced. Whichever way one decides on the relationship between thought and being, being and thinking persist.
Actually more to the point is the strangeness of what is constitutive for us – thinking being, being that is living and self-aware. All manner of existence is inanimate. Thinking less establishes the necessity of being than represents a curious addition. As thinking beings we have no sense of simple existence – of existence without thought. And yet ultimately everything that we think and do is shaped by inanimate forces that exceed us. The hardest thing for us to think is that a dimension of unthinking objectivity ultimately provides the basis for our subjective experience.
A few years ago I wrote a brief manifesto defending the value of processes of following:
A MANIFESTO OF FOLLOWING
What are the implications of following? Where does following lead?
Instead of trying at every instant to do something new.
Instead of commenting wryly on the past.
Instead of feeling stuck.
Instead of lamenting the disappearance of the future.
Instead of attending to a restrictive past.
Instead of strictly following.
Instead of deliberately going astray.
Instead of imagining that following is a simple process.
Instead of imagining that following is especially hard.
We follow. We follow following. We follow following wherever it leads.
I wrote this partly in terms of a creek walking project. A small group of us were walking up local creeks. We were following watercourses from the sea inland as far as we could manage, encountering various barriers along the way – weeds, roads, fences, drains, etc. Within this context the notion of following was linked to the affordances of urban and suburban creeks – their intermittent capacity to be walked, but I was also referring more generally to the creative potential of following.
Following involves repetition. It involves adhering to the contours of an existing line or path. It does not initiate something ex nihilo, but takes up with the existent – in this case not with a sense of irony, but with an attitude of humility and curiosity. The humility is nothing self-negating. It simply attends to what is before it without any feeling of regret – without any sense that something is missing.
Following adheres – lightly, not absolutely – to existing lines. It waywardly follows them, that it is to say its following also creates a line – one that no matter how one tries is never exactly identical to the line followed. In this sense, following includes the necessity of passing (not deliberately heading) astray.
My overall point: to trace the place of the non-original within the aesthetic, to recognise it as source of movement and inspiration.
Now to become literal again, I envisage a walking project that sets out to follow every trail in a small section of local bush. I live in the city of Wollongong, which runs in a long line between the sea and a steeply rising sandstone escarpment. The lower flanks of the escarpment are a dense mix of temperate rainforest, drier sclerophyll forest and patches of indeterminate weediness (mainly lantana). Hardly iconic mountain landscape, but the escarpment runs to over 1000 feet in places and counts as a mountain space for we beach-hugging locals. What would this involve? How would I set about doing it? What is a trail and how can it be recognised and determined? Beyond this, how can this experience of trail discovery and walking be documented? How can it be represented? Does it take shape as a work, or only as the vestiges of a work?
And this represents a different relation to the mountain environment – here regarded not as an alien, sublime space, but as something already well discovered, as something thoroughly traversed from the outset.
I think therefore I have the capacity to entertain the possibility that I may not exist.
[Every so often impressions of consciousness are construed as coherent existence. A chair does not ask itself if it exists, nor does it need to think to exist – of course then we have an argument about the nature of existence. We distinguish between sensible and insensible souls, subjects and objects, but not going there…]
Of course, everything I have written so far about Ranciere betrays layers of ignorance, so I have set myself a program of (constantly expanding readings):
- Kant: must make my way through Critique of Pure Reason to get a grasp on how the aesthetic figures within Kant’s sense of the relationship between the conditions of experience and the unity of consciousness – or, in other terms, how aesthetics figures within his ontology and epistemology, rather than simply serving as an external and posterior supplement (the Critique of Judgement).
- clarify the metaphysical aesthetic tradition – particularly stemming from Leibniz: the notion of aesthetics as representing a mediation with sensible confusion, with an intractable multiplicity (an infinite and infinitesimal excess).
- clarify the empirical and pragmatist traditions – Hume to Dewey.
- on this basis review strands of pre-Socratic philosophy to trace out aesthetic features that relate not to art, mimesis, beauty, etc., but instead the relationship between truth and appearance, unity and multiplicity, repetition and emergence. Not clear on this yet, but pursue this in an effort to conceive aesthetics as closely aligned or intrinsically linked to ontology and epistemology.
- pursue Plato’s double conception of aesthetics as both improper doubling (mimesis) and proper intoxication (music). Memory very hazy here.
- trace the implications of Hegel’s aesthetics, particularly its bracketing of our response to the natural world – its exclusive emphasis on art; and then Adorno’s re-emphasis on nature and Derrida’s meditation on the mediation between art and objectivity (Signeponge – Ponge’s Notes on the Pinewoods).
- read up on the phenomenological tradition of aesthetics – particularly Heidegger and Gadamer. Heidegger holds on to art but rejects aesthetics. What if we attempted the reverse? Could this prove a more effective way of rethinking the possibilities of art? But I agree with the fundamental idea of a layer of primary experience that exceeds all efforts of reflective cognition. How does this align with Leibniz?
- explore the aesthetics of post-object socially engaged art as a case study of issues and dilemmas affecting attempts to think art/non-art at once.
- and continue reading Ranciere!
The risk in all of this is that I will never find time to develop any of my own ideas, and instead make endless poor efforts to catch up with and summarise other people’s ideas. Must accept that I will never reach the point in which I am properly across the field and just get on with writing stuff. Some level of ignorance is an inevitable condition for thought, rather than a state that can ever be adequately superceded. Curiosity and reading are fine, but not at the expense of endlessly forestalling the capacity to write.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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))
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).]
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.
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.
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?