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.


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