Sunday, 28 August 2011


When somebody says that they're not very good at something, what they are really acknowledging is that the criteria they have accepted (or imposed upon themselves) are beyond their reach. The more unassailable these criteria appear, the more the drive and determination to overcome them diminishes.

Sometimes we’re better off not knowing where the top of the mountain lies.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Experimental Art and Play

I've just attended and presented at a two-day conference in Sydney, Australia, on the subject of experimental art. My criticisms of this conference could run into several megabytes, but in this instance I'll simply express my disappointment that there was so little discussion and debate of the term "experiment” and almost no-one, at least amongst any of the presentations I attended, made even the slightest attempt to sharpen the terms used and consequently I have real doubts about the value of the conclusions that might be drawn from the conference.

One of the keynote speakers, Donald Brook, did make one or two salient contributions. Brook focused in particular on the idea of art as a meme which replicates itself with small variations in much the same way as genes do (I'd like, at some point, to explore this idea further in relation to some thoughts I've expressed recently on the nature of variation in art). Brook also made the assertion that all art is experimental, therefore the term “experimental art” is a tautology. It’s a compelling point but I believe we could take it a stage further which could certainly help us understand what might be meant by “experimental art” and therefore give us a deeper insight into how this might operate in the larger field of activities that we call art.

My contention would be that experimental art is not a tautology in the least and this can be exemplified by contrasting it with the idea of “playful art”. Playful art is indeed a tautology which is probably why the term is rarely, if ever, encountered.

The process of art production is playful in that it involves multiple variables and seeks neither to limit these nor to apply itself to systematic accumulative enquiry. This is not to say that art cannot, or does not, engage in processes more closely aligned with Scientific Method but when it does so, beyond simply establishing its techniques or the superficial appearance of “the lab”, it must necessarily be exactly what we might term “experimental art” since it uses experiment, in the strict and only useful sense, to arrive at its objectives.

Earlier this Summer Lesley and I conducted a number of video interviews with artists in Glasgow on the subject of art, experimentation and play. One of the interviewed artists made the claim that what distinguishes play is its purposelessness. This struck me as a powerful insight at the time but on reflection I've come to regard this as more of a common misconception which finds support in the fact that the results of play are so intangible. Play is not purposeless. We might say that play is activity directed towards stimulation and learning. I don't have any books here in Sydney to check any authorities on this subject, but I'm sure Piaget would agree - play is the first and foremost means by which we come to know the world, not experiment. You only have to watch a young child to see how true this statement actually is. Humans are inordinately gifted pattern recognisers and when expected patterns are contradicted we are drawn to them, presumably, because they hold the promise of expanding our understanding. As many philosophers from Alfred North Whitehead to Heidegger have noted, we come to know the world in the first instance not through proof but through use.

Play then, is the primary form of inquiry that artists are involved with and it's significant, I think, that experiments can form a part of play - can be a subspecies within play - but play cannot form a part of an experiment (other than by being its subject) since play would immediately threaten to undermine the necessary logic, objectivity and traceability of the process.

It’s important here not to confuse the play of artists with aimless fiddling (in fact the term “to fiddle” tells us a great deal about how the word “play” has become normalized within the discipline of music for example). The play of artists is tempered by their expertise (itself a kind of limiting of variables) which allows them to discriminate between unexpected outcomes that are merely odd, superfluous and insignificant and those that are genuinely worthy of attention.

Roman Signer No. I don’t want my art to be didactic. There is actually nothing to be learned from me. Beuys always lifted his didactic finger.

Armin Senser Are you sure there is nothing one can learn from you?

Roman Signer Learn to play more.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Art Doesn’t Progress, it Varies

Not only do the results of scientific experiments confirm discoveries but the knowledge gained is accumulative such that further theories may be formulated and new experiments devised for testing them. Science makes progress in a way that no other field of human endeavour can equal, and this sets a challenge for art since the criteria used to evaluate art are predicated upon many of the very same assumptions as are applied to science, one of the most pervasive and misdirected being the idea that artists and the work they produce should improve. Art, according to this logic of achievement, must make progress.

One of the major contributors to this mindset would seem to be the fact that art has adopted and inherited a significant number of the core terms used to describe and evaluate science. Art involves research, development, exploration, experiment, discovery, inquiry, insight, knowledge and so forth and this sets up an expectation that art can, or indeed should, deliver results on the same basis or according to the same principles.

A few days ago James Atherton linked to a wonderfully iconoclastic and enlightening paper by the philosopher Eric Dietrich, entitled "There is no Progress in Philosophy". Dietrich makes an extremely persuasive case that philosophy has made no progress at all since the days of Aristotle:

“Except for a patina of twenty-first century modernity, in the form of logic and language, philosophy is exactly the same now as it ever was; it has made no progress whatsoever. We philosophers wrestle with the exact same problems the Pre-Socratics wrestled with.”

Applying the same arguments to art we find that the case is almost identical: art makes no progress whatsoever. Atherton goes on to speculate whether we might also question the progress of literature and the humanities in general and he also, quite rightly, reminds us that the humanities are already threatened in the academy. How could this be otherwise when compared with the formidable and measurable achievements of STEM subjects?

If a whole raft of disciplines have been found to lack some seemingly essential ingredient, perhaps rather than doubting the validity or contribution of these subjects we should instead examine both the validity and applicability of this required essence as applied to them. We might also do well to more accurately determine what goods we believe the humanities actually bestow upon the world and to ensure that we confidently champion these when faced with demands for such things as “new knowledge” and “progress”. Atherton makes a brief but brilliant connection here by introducing Michael Oakeshott's "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind" (1962). The same was quoted –understandably - by the late Richard Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (where I first encountered it as a student) and is a fabulous piece of nuanced thinking that deserves to be read in full. Here’s a lengthy extract:

“In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no 'truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. ... Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument. . . . In conversation, 'facts' appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; 'certainties' are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other 'certainties' or with doubts, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another. ... Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part. There is no symposiarch or arbiter, not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials. Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation. And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy. Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, not is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. … It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian.” [my emphasis]

Is it not enough that art, the humanities and culture in general should contribute to - constitute even - this very discourse? For Richard Rorty this constant comparison and contestation of perspectives leads to a kind of discursive distillation whereby the most appropriate framework for the current moment emerges. Recently Hugo Mercier of the University of Pennsylvania and Dan Sperber of the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris have advance a very similar conclusion with their “argumentative theory” of reason:

“Reasoning is made for arguing. Because of this people have a strong confirmation bias that plagues lone reasoners. But when people argue, the biases of the arguers can balance each other out and lead reasoning to felicitous outcomes. Let’s reason together!”

Culture is a framework or lens through which we view the world. It informs our thinking and gives complexion to our ideas and expressions. Without exposure to other cultures though, it becomes practically impossible to recognise, let alone fully appreciate, our own perspective upon the world for the contingent and partial thing that it is. Our desire then should not be to progress to a single ‘perfect’ homogenised global culture but rather to share and experience the profound and subtle interplay of diverse perspectives, tastes and interpretations. This is why a diversity of cultures is so valuable to society, since monoculture discourages discourse and reinforces monotony and dogma. A good analogy here might be to think of cuisine. With all things culinary, we enjoy - and therefore crave - variety as much as perfection itself. If perfection were the only measure we sought in food then we’d be perfectly happy eating the same perfectly balanced meal ad infinitum. But where aesthetic matters are concerned variety is not just the spice of life, as the cliché goes, but its very substance.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Prejudice and Parochialism

One of the students I teach in Aberdeen has some work in a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pride exhibition at Aberdeen Art Centre. The venue want her to remove several of her pieces since they fear these might cause offence, presumably to more “sensitive” minds. You can read about it on her blog here.

If art really had the enormous power to corrupt impressionable minds that some people attribute to it then there would need to be one heck of a lot more censorship than there is, not just that of removing the saucy bits from brief exhibitions in near forgotten public spaces. What she is having to deal with is ignorant, conservative puritanism pure and simple. “Prejudice” would be the more familiar name for it. I've written about this form of social exclusion elsewhere.

When people do not fear the corruption of their own minds but those of the more 'sensitive' they are simply responding to their own ignorance and confusion in the most cautious way they know how. If it weren’t so contemptible - because they wield power and believe they’re doing the right thing - it would be pitiable. They are the ones whose minds are corrupted.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Experimentation and Discovery (art and science)

©/Hamlyn/ Punton, SCA Sydney 2011

The Swiss artist Roman Signer is renowned for the quirky and inventive “events” he stages using a diversity of familiar objects (suitcases, canoes, bicycles, umbrellas etc.) transformed through explosions and other dynamic forces of change. Constantly varying the conditions and combinations of materials and setting, Signer has compiled a vast compendium of varied and thought provoking works that span more than 35 years of continual practice.

Much of the work is modest in scale, resisting the temptation toward grand gesture so common amongst established artists, and whilst the work often refers to the idea of the spectacle it rarely reduces (or exceeds) to the merely spectacular, preferring rather to explore the more familiar and personable scale of everyday experience. This contrast becomes all the more provocative due to his careful balancing of proportions processes and materials.

Commentators upon Signer’s work frequently make reference the terms “experimental”, “experiment” and “experimentation”. These terms are clearly intended to suggest the testing of volatile substances, the combination of unpredictable circumstances and the uncertainty of the result. In this sense the word “experiment” is used loosely to refer to the idea of trying something out to experience a process and result.

Scientific experiments, on the other hand, are more rigidly defined:

noun |ɪkˈspɛrɪm(ə)nt| |ɛk-| a scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact”

It would seem unfair to apply a scientific expectation to Signer’s practice, after all, it was never intended to prove or disprove a hypothesis, nor to demonstrate a fact nor even make a discovery (though many would disagree with me in this last instance). I would contend that the “discoveries” have already largely been made in the initial imaginative visualization/conceptualization of the ideas and in the more speculative testing of methods and materials. For example, we rarely, if ever, see the many failures that inevitably occur in preparation for the work we do see. This is not to say that beautiful incidents and accidents are absent from Signer’s work but, due to the often hazardous materials and circumstances involved, there is perhaps less room for improvisation than might otherwise be the case.

AS Do you have any expectations when you’re working on something?
RS Never, but I imagine certain scenarios. The ideal-case scenario is the one I had imagined: for instance, there’s a puff of smoke and a helicopter disappears into it and then emerges again. But when I do an action it might turn out completely different. That’s the adventure. I’m actually looking for small adventures in art. Otherwise art gets boring.

This process of allowing the work to lead to unforeseen conclusions – of courting the unpredictable - is a major compulsion for many, perhaps all, artists. In so many instances of creative production there is such a demand for control of materials, of skill in manufacture and realisation that little room is left for surprise and serendipity (or failure for that matter). Too much expertise too rigidly applied often results in the most stilted, preconceived and lifeless work. No doubt this is why Signer is so fascinated with the explosive moment. It is a dangerous game and one in which a great deal of care must be taken to ensure that even the desire for unpredictability remains within certain given tolerances. In many ways it is this implicit threat, this frisson, that fuels the underlying appeal of Signer’s work.

In a scientific experiment the outcome is paramount and is intended to either prove or disprove a theory. Once again, as with Signer, the result of the experiment is less a discovery than the realisation (or in the case of science – possibly the contradiction) of what has already been imagined. For Karl Popper this potential for confirmatory or dis-confirmatory outcome (testability and falsifiability) exactly differentiates science from pseudo science.

Scientific discoveries then, are the result of a two part process, first of theory formation followed by proof through experiment. If a test fails, either the experiment was poorly conceived, poorly conducted or else the theory was flawed. For this reason science attempts, wherever possible, to limit the number of variables in any given experiment in order to avoid rogue results. Art, on the other hand, often multiplies the variables in order to do the very reverse. Unexpected results in art, when they are not detrimental to the result, are often perceived and presented as discoveries since anything that contradicts expectation is likely to provoke curiosity and may even have instructive value, if only on a technical level. Discoveries, thus encountered, are valued but rarely, if ever, become part of a systematic inquiry since the object of art is less about illustrating facts and securing knowledge than producing meaning and experience (and that’s a subject for another blog post).

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

New Knowledge

Increasingly in academia there arises an emphasis upon “new knowledge” and in tandem with this comes a growing pressure upon senior art students and art teachers to unearth and explain how their work and research provides a contribution to knowledge. Knowledge, it is felt, is the major commodity of academia, an exalted substance through which intellectual, social, cultural and economic progress is made and in and through which learning is inscribed and enhanced. By focussing specifically upon new knowledge we are able to prioritise those innovations and discoveries at the forefront of human intelligence and ensure that unnecessary repetition and duplication are avoided thereby saving valuable resources and maximising efficiency.

In order to measure up to this formidable objective, substantial amounts of intellectual energy have been and are being expended to establish exactly how and to what extent art might embody or generate knowledge and in the process a litany of philosophers and philosophical theories are being mobilised to underpin the claim that art is indeed a significant, though tricky, producer of new knowledge.

Impressed as I am by the arguments, I can’t help wondering that if it takes such convoluted and complex argumentation to stake this claim then there must surely be something wrong. Aren’t we simply looking in the wrong place? Whilst knowledge might result from artistic endeavour it’s hardly a principle objective.

It seems to me that art is the soil upon which ideas and knowledge are cultivated. This soil is not directly responsible for any knowledge generated but rather it provides the conditions by which knowledge might emerge and flourish. ‘Good’ artworks are those that sustain extended discourse, that keep the conversation going - that continually generate new questions, thoughts and ideas and occasionally new artworks. In this sense art is like an interlocutor who stimulates rich discussion. Knowledge, when it occurs, is not a product of any singular individual or event but is a dynamic outcome of an interaction with already existing and emergent ideas.

We can applaud the perspicacity and rapport of a good interlocutor but I think we’d be perfectly justified in doubting any claim they might make to having singularly generated new knowledge in any significantly involved conversation with us. This might explain why it’s so difficult to ascribe knowledge directly to those artefacts we call artworks. It might also reassure us that the soil we create as artists need not be barren due to lack of care, skill or ingenuity on our part but may simply be waiting for exposure to light, water or the right seed to bring its potential to life.

Monday, 8 August 2011

The Laughter of Philosophers

“The Laughter of Philosophers”, 2011. Audio work, 47sec (source: Philosophy Bites Podcasts)

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Doctors Are Taking Over The Asylum

Sydney College of the Arts at the former Callan Park Lunatic Asylum for the Mentally and Criminally Insane

I’ve just started an Artist’s Residency at Sydney College of Art and yesterday I had an introductory meeting with the Dean and Associate Dean. As I was being shown around the studios and introduced to the customs of the college it came up in conversation that there is a growing pressure upon Australian universities, whilst making new staff appointments, to employ applicants with doctoral degrees (especially with staff under the age of 35). I’ve never previously heard any explicit mention of this particular “pressure” before but it was spoken of as if it were both familiar and internationally recognised. Quite what form it takes and how forcefully it is exerted is still unclear to me but it would appear to have a logical, if rather suspect, basis. It reminds me of something an ex Programme Leader at Glasgow School of Art (also an Australian as it happens) used to describe as “creeping credentialism”: the tendency for university degrees to become devalued due to the increasing numbers of graduating students and the associated pressure to gain (and provide) postgraduate degrees (MA, PhD etc).

It’s logical because it makes sense that institutions dedicated to the propagation of credentials should be run by people who are qualified to do so. For example, in the last 3 years I’ve been roped into “2nd” supervising two doctoral students even though I only have a MA. My 15 years of teaching experience at both BA and MA level obviously count for something, but until I get some PhD “completions” under my belt it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever be made a principal supervisor to a PhD student. In this respect then, I have been aware, for quite some time, of the subtle pressure academic institutions are under to provide adequately qualified staff to support the increasing number of doctoral students they are offering places to. It also hasn’t escaped my notice that “experience” is only ever grudgingly accepted as a qualification for teaching. And this is the strange irony, because in practical subjects, like art and design, there is only so far a research oriented academic qualification will take you in terms of a genuine engagement with the stuff of making and doing. And as qualifications become increasingly inflated and the staff that administer them become more academically qualified there’s a real danger that experience, as well as all things experiential, become relegated to the lowest orders of education. This privileging of theory over practice, knowledge over skill and qualifications over experience isn’t simply an Australian problem, it’s a problem the world over.