Absurdity, Absurdity, and Absurdity

Dave Ball, currently pursuing a practice-based PhD at Winchester School of Art, presented ‘Absurdity, Absurdity, and Absurdity‘ as part of Conversas series at Schillerpalais, Berlin, 29 Nov 2017. The following are his reflections on the event.

Conversas
 is a regular series of thematically diverse talks held with the aim of creating discussion and dialogue, where audience members are encouraged to interrupt and ask questions, and presenters are warned against preparing “too tightly”. I decided, therefore, not to give a conventionally coherent presentation of my work or my PhD research, but instead treat the event as a public testing-ground for some of the more speculative elements emerging out of my research into absurdity.

The plan was to present a series of examples of what I’d identified as eight variants of absurdity observable in works of contemporary art. Since those categorisations were, to a degree, based on my own intuitive assertions about what would or wouldn’t constitute “absurdity”, I was very keen to test them out publicly.

The talk began with a short screening of one of my own video works, which was greeted appreciatively, followed by a brief introduction to my research. As soon as the presentation turned to the work of other artists, however, the atmosphere in the room became unexpectedly heated. In fact, the very first slide shown (a photo by Thomas Ruff of a man inelegantly attempting a handstand on a leather chair, legs flailing in the air) received an immediate rebuttal that “Why shouldn’t we do handstands on chairs? Why is that absurd? That’s so conservative!”


In fact, almost every slide I showed initiated some tirade or other on what various audience members seemed to consider an affront to their intelligence, their outlook on life, or at least their conception of art. My gentle conceptual enquiry into whether or not the works could be considered absurd was frequently met with an impassioned and resounding “no!” Whist some of these protestations could easily be dealt with through reasoned argumentation or clarification of concepts, others unearthed genuinely fertile grounds for further investigation. But what took me completely by surprise was the level of passion, conviction, and emotion with which the audience responded to the topic. Absurdity, as was repeatedly made clear, really matters – and not just to this particular PhD researcher…

Pictorial Address and Seriality in Art

Jason Kass recenlty completed his PhD at Winchester School of Art. The title of his thesis is ‘Cognitive Aspects of Pictorial Address and Seriality in Art: A Practice-led Investigation’. In this post he offers an overview of the nature and scope of his research.

My doctoral research explored the perceptual and cognitive processes that underlie spectatorship of pictorial artworks and incorporated insights into the production of new works of art. The fundamental premise of my research was that artworks exist as part of the visual world and are subject to the same visual processes as ordinary scenes and objects. Applying existing empirical findings from cognitive psychology to spectatorship of works of art allows for a more complete understanding of pictorial address.

Using theories and methods from psychology to understand the experience of artworks is not in itself novel. The field of empirical aesthetics boasts a wide literature comprising experiments around aesthetic preference and art appreciation. My research differs based on my position as a visual artist rather than a scientist and my emphasis on relating psychological findings to existing art theory and art historical narratives. The incorporation of practice-based research in the form of producing new works of art (Fig. 2) also brings a different perspective to an established yet often divisive discipline.

Figure 1. Installation shot from PhD exhibition.
Figure 1. Installation shot from PhD exhibition.

Within the thesis, I focused on seriality as an aesthetic strategy and the mode of address offered by serial works of art. Serial artworks have previously been theorised, in particular by Coplans (1968), who established a distinction between serial artworks that comprise multiple discrete but related instances and pictures produced along the masterpiece model. Fer (2004) has said about seriality, “It brings with it a whole set of assumptions about the nature of aesthetic experience as direct and spontaneous” (p.4).

My research sought to reveal the direct impact of seriality on the experience of the viewer by way of cognitive and perceptual processes. In the first instance I considered Monet’s painted series of the Rouen Cathedral. A proto-serial artwork, Monet understood the importance of exhibiting the nearly thirty paintings depicting different light and weather conditions being exhibited together.

I consulted theories of concept formation and face recognition that speak to the ability to form a stable mental concept from a set of varied instances: a feature essential to navigating a complex visual world. Findings within the study of face recognition indicate that the process may involve retaining invariant information across instances while eliminating extraneous superficial details; a process akin to averaging (Young & Bruce, 2011).

Figure 2. A subset of nearly thirty paintings by Monet of the façade of the Rouen Cathedral (left) and an averaged composite of a subset of the paintings created in Photoshop (right).
Figure 2. A subset of nearly thirty paintings by Monet of the façade of the Rouen Cathedral (left) and an averaged composite of a subset of the paintings created in Photoshop (right).

Applying this same premise to Monet’s cathedrals it is possible to infer that the variation in colour and luminosity across the paintings prompts the viewer to form a stable mental concept that lasts long after the in situ viewing (Fig. 2). With regard to art historical narratives, this implies that Monet’s series are as much conceptual as they are perceptual in nature, which runs counter to Duchamp’s well-known exclamation of Impressionist artworks as purely retinal in nature (Krauss, 1990; de Duve, 1996). I explored these findings through photography, drawing and found images (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Series arrived at by dropping a portrait of my mother into Google’s ‘search by image’ function. The work responded to ideas of concept formation and Barthes’ writings in Camera Lucida (1981).
Figure 3. Series arrived at by dropping a portrait of my mother into Google’s ‘search by image’ function. The work responded to ideas of concept formation and Barthes’ writings in Camera Lucida (1981).

The second case study examined Warhol’s use of serial repetition in works from his Death and Disaster series that repeat a gruesome image multiple times across a single canvas. Warhol said, “when you see a gruesome picture over and over again it doesn’t really have any effect” (quoted in Goldsmith, 2004, p.19). He presumed that repeated exposure to an distressing image results in a ‘deactivating’ of the negative affect.

Employing existing psychological findings regarding repeated exposure (Zajonc, 1968) it is possible to infer that viewing artworks from the series ultimately leads to an increase in negative affect for the viewer, despite an initial increase in positive affect as a result of repetition. This is due to increased access to the negative semantic content, also a result of repeated exposure (Reber et al., 2004). Related ideas were explored through practice-based research responding to Hunter’s (1973) ”aesthetics of boredom” (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Installation shot of interim PhD exhibition.
Figure 4. Installation shot of interim PhD exhibition.

Through future research I hope to build on my dissertation as a model for the exchange of ideas between experimental psychology, art theory and art practice. Although within the dissertation I did not conduct original empirical research I believe there is scope to expand on the theoretical frameworks that I developed through experimentation. I am also keen to further disseminate my findings through practice-based research resulting in creative outcomes that can be publically exhibited.

 

List of References

Barthes, R. (1981). Camera lucida: Reflections on photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Coplans, J. (1968). Serial imagery. Pasadena: Pasadena Art Museum.

De Duve, T. (1996). Resonances of Duchamps Visit to Munich. In R. Kuenzli & F.M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

Fer, B. (2004). The infinite line: Re-making art after Modernism. Hartford: Yale University Press.

Goldsmith, K. (2004). I’ll be your mirror: The selected Andy Warhol interviews 1962-1987. New York: Caroll & Graf Publishers.

Hunter, S. (1973). The Aesthetics of Boredom. In S. Hunter and J. Jacobus eds. American Art of the 20th Century: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Krauss, R.E. (1990). The story of the eye. New Literary History, 21(2), 283-298.

Reber, R., Schwarz, N. & Winkielman, P. (2004) Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: is beauty in the perceiver’s processing experience? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4), 364–82.

Sagner-Duchting, K. (2002). Monet and Modernism. Munich and London: Prestel.

Young, A. W., & Bruce, V. (2011). Understanding person perception. British Journal of Psychology, 102, 959–74.

Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2), 1–27.

 

AMT Reading Group

Archaeologies of Media and Technology (AMT) research group has started organizing a reading group on media theory. The reading group had its first meeting in October with the aim of initiating a lively forum for discussion amongst students and faculty whose interests overlap with AMT. The research group itself—an office for theoretical and practice-based work in media, design and art, in relation to both contemporary culture and cultural heritage—had its inaugural conference, Future Past Tense, earlier the same month.

We meet at the PhD room in Winchester campus fortnightly to discuss selected texts that relate to themes and topics, concepts and issues in contemporary media theory. The work range from German media theory to new materialism, from issues of power and politics to the role technologies play informing what is produced as material reality.

Some of the first sessions had a particular emphasis on the theorisation of ‘cultural techniques,’ with a couple meetings dedicated to explore the writings of some of the key theorists of the area: Bernhard Siegert, Cornelia Vismann and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. The discussions revolved around the limits of such conceptualisation in analysing the emergence of objects and processes in contemporary media culture.

We also convened a seminar in collaboration with the PhD studio week to address “critical technical practice” and discuss current approaches to media and art research from a practice-based perspective. It involved issues around making and unmaking and the questions of media technologies as epistemological and aesthetic frameworks. A range of relevant art practices and projects (such as art group YoHa and Critical Engineers) were discussed, as well as the work of the participants. Michael Dieter’s ‘The Virtues of Critical Technical Practice’ was the key text for this workshop.

Recently, we have been increasingly occupied with the problems surrounding life and politics in the present: thinking, writing and making about/with media and technology in the midst of ecological catastrophe. The first port of call in this journey was Donna J. Haraway’s recent book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, which will inform coming meetings.

AMT directors Jussi Parikka and Ryan Bishop have been collaborating closely with Berlin based digital media arts festival transmediale. A product of this dialogue is the reader, across & beyond, which has been published to mark the 30th anniversary of the festival. The books is edited by the directors of AMT with transmediale’s Kristoffer Gansing and Elvia Wilk. We will engage with the articles, as well as artworks, that reside in this book in the coming sessions.

 

If you are interested in the reading group, please contact us:

Jussi Parikka / j.parikka@soton.ac.uk

Yiğit Soncul / yigit.soncul@soton.ac.uk

Webpage: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/amt

Cultural Diversity & Creativity in Lebanese Family Design Businesses

Roula Al Kadamani is currently undertaking her PhD research at Winchester School of Art, examining how cultural diversity impacts on creativity and profitability in the context of family-run design businesses in Lebanon.  In this post she outlines some of the key considerations of her work.

The phrase ‘cultural diversity’ has been associated with individuals and deeply embedded in everyday life in Western and Eastern societies. For example, Lebanon, as a Middle Eastern community, does not constitute a unique culture, and religion should not be viewed as the only source of Lebanese national character since the Lebanese society is a mosaic of different religions and cultures. The role of cultural diversity in Lebanon relates to a difficult history of cohabitation. Civil wars in the 19th and the 20th centuries had a considerable impact on management and leadership style. Despite the fact that Lebanese citizens live in a diverse community, they do not practice diversity in their daily life as their beliefs, cultures, political views and religious practices have immense effect of their behaviours and lives.

Lebanon operates a sectarian system, which is based on ethnic or cultural origins, with powerful families or cluster of families that share a perceived ancestry and culture competing for political sway and resources within the Lebanese state. In Lebanon, family businesses constitute 85% of the private sector, accounting for 1.05 million of 1.24 million jobs. The family unit is usually the only intact institution capable of sustaining innovative activities in Lebanon following civil war (1975-1995). Family businesses play an important role in Lebanese economy if they foster supportive working environments and career opportunities to overcome the employment challenges. In family firms, property and control are so firmly entwined that family members are involved in both strategic and day-to-day decision making, and the firm is shaped by dynastic motive. A family business owner may behave like a dictatorial head of the family. Hence, it is important to provide evidence that diversity has a pivotal role to play in an organisation in attracting top talents who can most effectively contribute to the organisational performance and enhance its competitive advantage.

Consequently, we can assume that family business ownership promotes a paternalistic management and leadership style. Lebanon shares various forms of discrimination, which have fuelled insecurity for both Lebanese citizens and other nationals. Despite Lebanon’s attempts to reduce the number of discriminatory laws and regulations, the country has not been actively engaged in promoting effective implementation of diversity management practices. Therefore, Lebanon is supposed to foster conformity in group, section, or unit behaviour. To overcome these potential limitations, diversity management has to focus on enhancing profitability through the fostering of social justice in the family businesses. If the Lebanese family design business is leading an inclusive culture within their practices, they can lead the culturally diverse workforce to create a more inclusive society.

 

Global Diversity management practices?

Diversity management practices actually emerged as a concept from the United States of America and the United Kingdom and drew attention to significant changes in the demographics of the workforce and the implications for business. The interest in diversity management has spread in recent years and has become a key managerial response to changing economic and social factors perceived as having an effect on organisational competitiveness. Many global practitioners engaged in the diversity management approaches, have reviewed a shifting discourse to initiate changes from local or international to multinational and global firms. This shifting discourse is assumed to be more understandable and appealing to managers, as well as a closer fit with the discourse and practices associated with Human Resource Management.

Diversity management practices are vital in contemporary organisations as they allow employees to bring their unique backgrounds (visible and invisible differences) example, race/ethnicity or gender and perspectives or opinions to lead creativity for the growth benefits of the organisation. Gender and religion play key role in diversity management for many organisations. Other issues such as age, education, experiences and qualifications are also becoming central to the achievement of a diverse organisation. Many organisations are therefore aiming for a more diverse and inclusive culture, which is essential to develop and promote different skills and perspectives for fundamental organisational change. The adoption of diversity management practices helps to develop skills and experiences and create new ideas within an organisation. These skills and abilities of employees lead to creativity in the workplace, as new ideas are harnessed for the profitability and management of the organisation. Furthermore, diversity management plays a key role in improving human creativity and increasing business performance within the local or global context. Recent studies have gathered evidence on how managers use their positional power to create “inclusive or assimilative” cultural norms through diversity management practices. In the Lebanese context, diversity management is not yet implemented in organisations. Implementing diversity management practices gives companies a competitive advantage in areas such as problem solving, intellectual property and awards for idea generation. However, the challenge of diversity management practices is to break the harmful cycle that equates cultural difference with social/economic disadvantages.

Therefore, the emphasis on the business advantage of diversity management is probably a good motivator for companies to enact diversity programs, it does not mean that moral and ethical missions should be neglected or overlooked. To overcome these potential limitations, it is important to focus on implementing diversity management practices in Lebanese design sectors. This project study will identify some important keys for local and international companies to implement diversity management in their practices. It will emphasize the importance of the role of increasing creative performance arising from diversity and maximizing the access of talented employees. This project study also suggests new strategies to enhance the role of employees who have different experiences, skills and perspectives in the workplace.

 

Creativity in Lebanon?

Creativity generates lasting value (social and economic benefits) and competitive advantage. Numerous studies on creativity within organisations have been conducted in Western countries. However, only a limited amount of research has been undertaken in in Lebanon and in the Middle East. Western and Eastern perspectives provide different views on creativity and present key directions for future research in Lebanon, the Middle East and the rest of the world. This project study highlights aspects relating to the field of creativity, which requires more in-depth research in Lebanon and the Middle Eastern countries. If Lebanese family design businesses seek to promote creativity such as selecting, creating and modernizing traditional ideas, this would increase creativity and productivity that are desirable to a contemporary items and launch effectively creativity in the local, regional and global markets. Creativity might be fostered including diversity, flexible production, and consumption in Lebanon.

 

The traditional tools of the creative process in Lebanon. (Images taken from Author’s fieldwork).

The link between ‘cultural diversity influences’, ‘diversity management practices’ and ‘creative performance’ has not always been associated with organisational performance. As a result, this project study seeks to explore the relationship between cultural diversity, diversity management practices and creative performance in Lebanese family design businesses. Using design sector as a case study, this project study will explore further the link between diversity and creativity. If there is a positive link then Lebanese family design businesses would improve performance by increasing diversity. Clearly, we can easily assume that there is a lack of cultural diversity, diversity management and creative performance in Lebanon. This PhD intends to explore this relationship and understand creativity further in Lebanese family design businesses.

Post-Global Luxury – Handicraft in Sri Lanka

Lucy Hitchcock’s PhD research examines the concept of ‘post-global luxury’ in the context of Sri Lanka. Luxury studies is a growing field. In the following account Hitchcock outlines the main scope and themes of her work.

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Post-Global Luxury?

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we need to reassess the meaning of the term ‘luxury’. We live in a shrinking world where technology and globalisation have fundamentally changed the way in which we see and value luxury. Today, luxury serves a global audience, not an aristocratic world of title and old money. For many, the term ‘luxury’ is founded upon a plethora of assumed connotations such as rarity, costliness, quality and connoisseurship, which have developed over its long history. Indeed, the overuse of the term in contemporary ad speak seeks to draw upon these qualities. Within an advanced capitalist society, where the range of consumer goods available is often staggering, the term ‘luxury’ is used to signify a high-end good within a particular category; commonly supported by a high-end price point.

The link between a high price-point and the term ‘luxury’ stems from the intrinsic relationship between luxury and class structure. Luxury has always been associated as the domain of the elite and has been politicised throughout history as a social tool, from the use of sumptuary laws to conspicuous consumption. In fact, the use of luxury as a tool for social construction has been a constant throughout history, both in the East and the West. Within recent history, the processes of globalisation have had a profound impact on social structure around the globe. Increased connectivity, enabled by the processes of globalisation and the technology revolution, has created a global class system increasingly based upon economic wealth.

The many processes of globalisation have created a dominant market of global luxury brands that are universally recognisable. Their logos have become social signifiers. As consumers we carefully curate the commodities we use and brands we patronise in order to present a sense of self within an increasingly global society. This growing industry has drawn upon the historical connotations of luxury, such as quality and rarity, but has also cemented the relationship between the term luxury and the overt world of branding. Consequently, ‘luxury’ has been transformed as a result of its contemporary association with the eponymous world of global luxury brands.

The ubiquitous presence of these brands within our contemporary society means that, for many, they have come to embody an understanding of luxury. Certainly, the semiology of these brands and their products provides an understanding of ‘luxury’ that can cross geographical and cultural boundaries. Even within particular localities where the global industry of luxury brands does not yet have a physical presence, the qualities of these brands and their association with luxury are understood. However, as this PhD will establish, the scale and relevance of the market of global luxury brands is not in itself sufficient to characterise an understanding of luxury. At a base level, this is due to the simple fact that these goods are not yet universally available. This would suggest that within localities that do not yet have physical access to these brands and their products, there is a lack of luxury.

This study proposes a research project that looks outside of the dominant discourse of global luxury brands. Although these multinational companies form an integral component of our contemporary understanding of luxury, they are not sufficient to define it. In contrast, post-global luxury represents instances of luxury that counteract the traits and circumstances of this predominantly Western market of global luxury brands. This sense of luxury remains intrinsically linked to globalization, as an inevitable fact of daily life, but through catering to a local market does not actively seek to be ‘global’ in nature. As a result, these products offer a more nuanced and diverse understanding of luxury, dependent upon the circumstances of a particular locality rather than the overriding trends of globalization around the world. This is apparent within the national market of luxury goods within Sri Lanka.

 

Rolls of hand woven cloth designed by BAREFOOT. Image courtesy of image credit for Barefoot Ceylon.
Rolls of hand woven cloth designed by BAREFOOT. Image courtesy of Barefoot Ceylon.

Post-Global Luxury in Sri Lanka

Since the end of the civil war in 2009, and after 30 years of distance from the global economy, Sri Lanka has been swept up in a flurry of economic development. Huge amounts of investment, the majority from powerful Asian economies such as China and India, have transformed the experience of everyday life across the island. Consequently, much of the population of Sri Lanka are becoming progressively global, through increased access to new technologies and steadily growing wealth. Despite this, the relatively small population of Sri Lanka combined with the cost of import duties has meant that very few global luxury brands have branched into this market. Without the physical existence of globally recognised luxury brands, how do we seek to understand luxury within Sri Lanka?

Within the urban hub of Colombo, the range of consumer goods available is continually growing, alongside the expanding middle classes and a culture of consumption. Many longstanding, national brands are now under competition from a wealth of new, local brands that have emerged with the economic boom that has swept the island, catering to the growing consumer class. These brands and products dominate a market where there is very little international competition. These goods are designed and manufactured for a local consumer. Yet, this does not restrict their global appeal, to both the Sri Lankan diaspora and tourists alike.

Many of the high-end national brands within Colombo and across Sri Lanka utilise traditional handicraft techniques, such as handloom weaving or batik, within their product range. There is a long, historical connection between the concept of luxury and handicraft techniques, stemming from nostalgic ideas of the master craftsman before the industrial revolution and factory-line production expanded. For many brands, such as Barefoot and Paradise Road, their ethos is built upon the foundations of handicraft techniques. These techniques have been absorbed into the historical narrative of Sri Lanka, and for many provide an expression of nationalism. Similarly, there is a new generation of Sri Lankan designers who are catering to the emerging consumer class in Colombo. The AOD International Design Campus in Colombo is encouraging their students to invent the ‘New Sri Lankan Style’, working alongside artisan communities around the island. Many of these new designers and brands seek to revitalise and reinvent traditional handicraft techniques, such as handloom and batik, creating goods that are desirable to a contemporary consumer. Others look to modernise traditional items of clothing, such as the sari and sarongs.

The creation of this sense of ‘local luxury’ exists in stark contrast to the dominance of particular global luxury brands within other, more developed Asian economies, such as India, Japan, and China. These goods offer an entirely different experience to the exported, mass-produced goods of global luxury brands. Consequently, Sri Lanka provides an understanding of luxury, and luxury goods, which contrasts with the dominant discourse around global luxury and the marketing plans of these brands. Clearly the discourse around global luxury brands is not universal; it does not ring true for every locality. This PhD intends to explore this unique instance and understanding of luxury further.

 

[Feature image courtesy of Barefoot Ceylon]

Plastic Surgery

3D printing is now commonplace, and frequently referred to in popular discourse. Controversies arise with the 3D printing of illegal items, such as a working model of a gun, or utopian visions unfold with ideas of 3D printing buildings and aircraft. It is also the case that 3D printing is now increasingly affordable and accessible. However, unless you have had first hand experience of the production of 3D printing there remain many questions and quandaries. The second of the Re: Making seminars, under the title of Plastic Surgery, sought to address this knowledge gap. The two day seminar was primarily led by Ian Dawson (who has many years of experience as a sculptor) and Chris Carter (who regularly teaches many sculptural techniques, including the use of 3D printing). But it was also a collaboration with Sunil Manghani, who introduced the two days and offered a specific ‘prompt’, bringing in plastic toys of Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue.

The choice of these two figures was on the one hand simply for their associations as icons of ‘plastic pop’. Manghani began by discussing notions of plasticity as it is used in the arts. The term ‘plastic arts’ is perhaps less used now. It refers of course to 3D art, typically as sculpture or bas-relief, that is characterised by three dimensional modelling. However, as a plural term, it was often used to refer also to visual art (as painting, sculpture, or film), and especially as a means to distinguish from ‘written’ art forms (as poetry or music). However, the relationship of plasticity and writing was asserted in the seminar through reference to Roland Barthes’ classic text Mythologies. Originally published in 1957, the book offers short essays on the newly emerging consumer culture, which, postwar, is beginning to grow rapidly, and not least due to new, modernist technologies and processes including plastic. Indeed, one of the entry by Barthes is prompted by a plastics exhibition fair.

Despite having names of Greek shepherds (Polystyrene, Polyvinyl, Polyethylene), plastic … is in essence the stuff of alchemy. […] more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible. And it is this, in fact, which makes it a miraculous substance: a miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature. Plastic remains impregnated throughout with this wonder: it is less a thing than the trace of movement. […] In the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material … it embodies none of the genuine produce of the mineral world: foam, fibres, strata. It is a ‘shaped’ substance: whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature. But what best reveals it for what it is is the sound it gives, at one hallow and flat; its noise is its undoing, as are its colours, for it seems capable of retaining only the most chemical-looking ones. […] Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them. The hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticised, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas. (Roland Barthes, ‘Plastic’ in Mythologies).

It is not just the emergence of plastic as a new material technology that is significant. Mythologies is a key text for the emergence and popularity of Semiology, or the science of the sign. Barthes’ innovation is to lift a concept related to language and linguistic and apply it not only to literature, but also popular culture. Everything is a ‘myth’ and ‘sign’ according to Barthes. As a cultural theory, semiotics, and later the notion of the Text (and intertextuality) thus opens up a whole new ‘plasticity’ of ‘reading’ culture and making meaning within it.

The choice of Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue is undoubtedly a playful one, but of course connects immediately with the both the ‘trace of movement’ and the hallow and the flat that Barthes refers to with plastic. Jackson was certainly much discussed for this ‘plastic surgery’ (including of course the controversial debate about his skin tone). However, also, his music offers a means for his body to movement in ways that were not seen before (at least not in popular forms). His mooonwalking is the most obvious example, but more generally, his body is a highly fluid and yet sharp ‘medium’ through which he performed. As part of the seminar the video for his Smooth Criminal was screened, which includes a dramatic sequence in which he appears to lean forward beyond the realms of ordinary physics. The plastic model used for the seminar represents Michael Jackson from this video, and even comes complete with various re-attachable hands and feet and a ‘shadow’ stand that allows the figure to lean impossibly forward. The hard plastic of the figure offers a precision rendering of Jackson from his video, which in turn leant itself well to its reproduction through 3D scanning and clay moulding.

By contrast, a more rubbery doll of Kylie Minogue provided a fairly poor reproduction of her image. Which, in this case, was meant to recall her look c.2001, much associated with her worldwide hit ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head‘. The music critic Paul Morley has written a whole book around this video, Words and Music, which begins by making a bold connection between Minogue and Alvin Lucier’s 1969 work ‘I’m Sitting in a Room‘. Morley fascination with Kylie is of a virtual and near-alien creature. In  ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, she drives effortlessly towards a Ballardian cityscape, the epitome of postmodern pop. During the seminar, a connection was also made to Allen Jones’ pop art, and particularly some of his drawings which develop his play of both bodies and clothes (and genders). Kylie Minogue perhaps represents the other side of digital pop music, with Michael Jackson representing last days of analogue music making. They become intro and outro of form of pop music that is ‘perfected’ by the late 1990s, to the point of sounding hallow and flat.  An additional reason for the reference to Kylie Minogue came through Manghani’s drawing that was originally exhibited at the Practices of Research exhibition, and which was directly related to an entry he contributed to a book reimagining Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (see more). Thus, taken together, the kitsch dolls of Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue were adopted as ‘models’ to explore simultaneously both physical 3D rendering processes and conceptual understandings of plasticity as evoked by the fine arts and cultural critique.

As can be seen with the images included in this post, the seminar worked through a series of different techniques. It began with recording the figures through photographic and digital means for processing in 3D printing softwares. This was a lengthy process, but requiring relatively straightforward and even imprecise means to gain ‘data’ for the softwares to crunch. There is certainly an element of ‘blackbox’ as to how the softwares treat the various inputs to render a three-dimensional figure. However, the process of looking carefully at the models, experimenting with the cameras, lighting and angles prompted lots of discussion and speculation. Working with a sculptor, it was also possibly to think way beyond the narratives that can be played with the two iconic figures and rather consider material processes. It was soon agreed that we need not only to experiment with 3D digital technologies, but also more traditional clay and plastic moulding apparatus. Two very prominent ‘outcomes’ of the seminar were as follows:

an ability to ‘think’ through process and material. Ian Dawson’s insights into the various processes and possibilities soon eclipsed the initial theoretical consideration of the figures. While their was certainly a confluence of ideas, the need to keep making – to operate through iteration, as a means of critical consideration – meant that the figures (and the processes we applied to them) became the real force within our collaborative thinking. It became necessary to try out different techniques and to have the opportunity to bring the various result together as quickly as possibly, which in turn prompted further ideas. The speed with which you can mock-up objects through 3D printing is of course a boon to the sculptor’s methodology.

a material consistency of time and space, or even time-space. From an intuitive way of turning the figures around in your hand to wonder about them, it soon becomes apparent how all of the various techniques for re-making and testing these figures operate through the means of rotation. The video at the top of this post shows the Kylie figure held (on the left) in the rotational moulder, which is a metal set of frames to allow rotation on all axis. On the right, she is shown rendered through 3D software, which again immediately provides the means to rotate in all directions. When a scan is first placed in the software there is no reverse to the image. We are familiar with a sheet of paper having both a front and back. In 3D software the image scan begins with no reverse. As you spin the object it simply disappears. In order to prepare for 3D printing it is necessarily build up the reverse. In a similar way when a mould is placed in the rotating metal frames the ‘object’ has no surface, it is merely outlines by the mould. Liquid plastic is poured in and rotated to gain a even coating, which then effectively gives the object its outside and inside. While all very simple to comprehend the two days of the seminar repeatedly foregrounded this principle and its consistency through many different processes.

 

 

Return to Re: Making

Writing as Making

For a final seminar of the autumn semester 2015, Writing as Making, we gathered for two days to work as a community of writers. Picking up from the Practices of Research exhibition that was held in 2014, which presented work of 16 PhD students and two members of staff, the idea for this seminar was again to acknowledge the diversity of research practices but also the fact that a written component must be submitted for all examined research, whether practice-based or not. As the rationale for Practices of Research put it:

Studio-based researchers in art and design work alongside those engaged in humanities and social science research, covering areas of art history, critical theory and curatorial practice, as well as the management and marketing of advertising, design, media, fashion, textiles and luxury branding. All researchers at the School are engaged in the critical making of new knowledge: each moving in and out of complex and disciplined modes of activity. Whether it is reading, writing, looking, making, coding, speaking, recording, and much else besides, each are forms of imaginative and critical engagement, developed and extended within the context of a collaborative and inter-disciplinary research community.

As a form of writing retreat, the primary aim of Writing as Making was to provide dedicated time to write, but also to share in the act of writing, and as such to reflect critically on various strategies. There were three main interventions. Firstly, all participants were asked to consider how at sentence level they pursue a form of critical writing. A simple technique used in schools known as PEA or PEE (Point, Evidence, Analysis, or Explanation) was put before everyone, in effect as a provocation, to question how both arguments and analysis are drawn out from the materials we are citing and synthesising. Like the writing through a stick of rock, are the points we wish to make working their way through each and every sentence. Is there an underlying coherence to our work?

A second intervention was a typewriter. This was placed in the room on its own desk, with all participants encourage to take ‘time-out’ from their own work to experiment with this now defunct tool for writing and printing. As Friedrich Kittler suggests, ‘[r]eading functions as hallucinating a meaning between letters and lines’, and as corollary to which the medium through which we write effects how we think (or ‘hallucinate’). According to Kittler, when philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche turned to using the typewriter his prose ‘changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style’. Part of the change in style reflects the practicalities of using the device. As Emden suggests, Nietzsche found using the typewriter ‘more difficult than the piano, and long sentences were not much of an option’. With Nietzsche’s eyesight failing, the ability to ‘feel’ his way through writing was appealing, but arguably the technology then has a profound impact on the status and nature of his philosophising. As Kittler writes:

Neitzsche’s reasons for purchasing a typewriter were very different from those of his colleagues who wrote for entertainment purposes, such as Twain, Lindau, Amytor, Hart, Nansen, and so on. They all counted on increased speed and textual mass production; the half-blind, by contrast, turned from philosophy to literature, from rereasing to a pure, blind, and intransitive act of writing.

Quite aside from any romance we might now associate with the typewriter – as a signifier of a golden age of modernist writing and criticism – the clatter of the machine proved too much for some of the seminar participants. While individuals became quite engrossed in typing, the thud thud of the device meant others buried themselves in their headphones to listen privately to music as they worked.

The ambivalence of the typewriter in the room (and the wild sheets of paper that came out of it) relates well to the writer, Walter Benjamin, who became the third intervention for the seminar. In his One Way Street, published in 1928, Benjamin argues, in a section titled ‘Teaching Aid’, that the typewriter ‘will alienate the hand of the man of letters from the pen only when the precision of typographic forms has directly entered the conception of his books. One might suppose that new systems with more variable typefaces would then be needed. They will replace the pliancy of the hand with the innervation of commanding fingers.’ However, it is in the section shortly after this, ‘Post No Bills’, that gave impetus for a collaborative outcome of the seminar. In this section, Benjamin offers ‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’. All participants were invited to contribute an entry for a new version, or re-making of this text. What emerged was a highly eclectic set of thoughts and missives. Of course, unlike the authoritative (even pompous) voice of single author, as in the case of Benjamin, the new text presents a much more heterogenous and fragmentary set of voices. It is also a much more immediate text, like a diary digest of the two day seminar marked out as concrete poetry, and which in fact we did choose (against Benjamin’s wishes?) to display as a bill poster for the Re: Making exhibition. Click on the image image to download a PDF version of the wall poster. As a document it quickly reveals writing as practice, as a working and re-working of texts in pursuit of new thoughts, images and confluences

 

 

 

References

Benjamin, W (1997) One-Way Street, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. Verso.

Emden, C. (2005) Nietzsche On Language, Consciousness, And The Body. University of Illinois Press.

Kittler, F. A. (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter trans. by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Standford University Press

 

Return to Re: Making

Re: Making

Re: Making
L4 Gallery, Southampton
13 February to 8 March, 2016

‘…what of the artists, the makers, how do they make decisions? …now an artist is as likely to atomise or extrude or draw, print, wear or perform with objects as part of an adaptable practice. And since art has been transformed into aesthetic communication it is no longer traditions but messages that count…’ – Ian Dawson, Making Contemporary Sculpture, 2012, p.9

‘I don’t think it makes sense to untangle the picture (as material) from the image (as immaterial). […] Somehow we get snagged by a desire, an objet petit ‘an’, to theorise the image as a singularity, rather than reimagining and enacting theory around its multiplicity.’ – Sunil Manghani, ‘Images: An Imaginary Problem’, 2011, p.228.

This exhibition documents three PhD seminars that each ran between 2-3 days at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. Underlying Re:Making is a consideration of what it means to make and re-make ideas, objects and processes. Each seminar centred around key prompts or challenges for collaborative engagement, but without necessarily stipulating required outcomes. Instead the sessions were intended as a open spaces to explore and experiment. Working together we can observe and draw upon the range of decisions we each seem to make intuitively as we approach the ‘research’ in hand. In part a response to Ian Dawson’s suggestion from a previous seminar, the aim was to work together, and intensively, to question what it is we do and think when making, writing and researching. Taken as a whole, Re: Making asserts we might need to make before we think as much as we think before we make.

Prompts were provided to explore different modalities of making as follows:

  • Reading Room was the re-creation of an exhibition of artists’ books that had originally shown in India. The artworks were brought into dialogue with the School’s own collection so reframing and re-tracing thoughts, beliefs and emotions within the boundaries of a book and the cultures in which they circulate. In this case a 3-day seminar ran between Wednesday 28 and Friday 30 October 2015, with the Private View of the exhibition held in the evening of the final day. See more…
  • Plastic Surgery (held on Tuesday 10 and Wednesday 11 November 2015) took two icons of ‘plastic pop’, Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue, as ‘models’ to explore simultaneously both physical 3D rendering processes and conceptual understandings of plasticity as evoked by the fine arts and cultural critique. Taken together, Re: Making asserts we might need to make before we think as much as we think before we make. See more…
  • Writing as Making was a study retreat for dedicated time to write, to share in the act of writing, and to reflect critically on various strategies. The seminar was held on Wednesday 9 and Thursday 10 December 2015. One outcome was a re-making of Walter Benajmin’s ‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’, which quickly reveals writing as practice, as a working and re-working of texts in pursuit of new thoughts, images and confluences. See more…

Of related interest, see also:

  • Drawing Together  – a participatory outdoor drawing event, co-orangised by Cheng-Chu Weng and Sunil Manghani. The event was held on Saturday 17 October 2015, 11am – 1pm at the Discovery Centre, in Winchester and was part of the wider programming for 10 Days, Winchester’s  biennial, interdisciplinary, arts festival. Through the medium of chalk and shadows Drawing Together sought to bring people together in a shared act of drawing. Visitors to the Discovery Centre were invited to draw together as a means to draw each other together if only fleetingly, just as our shadows are mere fleeting images of ourselves. See More…
  • Practices of Research – as a precursor to the Re: Making seminars, a collaborative exhibition, Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research, was held at the L4 Gallery in early 2014. The exhibition presented the work of 16 PhD students and two members of staff from Winchester School of Art (WSA). Taken together the works offered a series of images, texts and objects, helping to think about different ways of seeing, thinking, writing and making. See More…

Inner Colonization

Abelardo G. Fournier is a PhD candidate at Winchester School of Art. His practice-based research speculates with the notion of a digital colonization of the visual, both by machine vision systems and the industrial coating of visible surfaces. In this post he reviews “Inner Colonization”, the project developed during a 6-week residency in Matadero Center of Art in Madrid and the resulting exhibition with the rest of the selected artists from Spain, Korea and Japan.

In a large old industrial slaughterhouse area transformed into a cultural center, last November I participated as an artist in residence in the program El Ranchito, supported by Matadero Center of Arts and AECID. There, eight artists and collectives from Spain, Korea and Japan, selected from an open call, shared studio space to elaborate our projects and to prepare a collective exhibition of the results.

Inner Colonization, a project belonging to the practice-based research I’m elaborating at WSA, has dealt with the operations of the Spanish National Institute of Colonization during the 1939-1973 years as part of Franco’s dictatorship reforms. During three decades, this institution transformed enormous extensions of Spanish land in search of productivity, demographic growth as well as ideological control. Linked to the so-called “Green Revolution”, it involved the engineering of large-scale water infrastructures, big movements of population and a centralized management of the information gathered in the continuous monitoring of the process. This inner colonization, as it was called by the Administration, has been one of the most ambitious reforms in the recent economic history of Spain, and completely changed, as a result, the face of its rural landscape.

Frontpages of an annual publication devoted to the colonization

Interestingly, this technification, exploitation and population of large extensions of land coincided with the first series of aerial orthophotographic pictures mapping the whole Spanish territory. The same land that, on the one hand, was being measured and parceled, was on the other hand being photographed frame by frame by fleets of aircrafts. Although the resulting images where not used as widely as contemporary satellite ones nowadays, the aerial point of view pervaded the illustrated documents and the audiovisual films that publicised the reform. Seen from above, any of these transformed territories appears today as a huge green stain surrounded by wasteland: its industrial scale becomes visible, once the workers, their tools and homes have been made imperceptible. It is a vertical perspective, using Hito Steyerl words, complementary to the engineering of the soil, that completes the assimilation of land into the circuits of abstract economy.

Aerial photography, 1956 and 2014. Left: Vegaviana, a settlers’ town founded in 1955; right: colonization at the Borbollón dam (software reconstruction). Source of the image tiles: Spanish National Geographic Institute (IGN).

During the residency in El Ranchito, I’ve proposed a speculative parallelism between the actions of the Institute of Colonization and the transformations operated by the digital industries nowadays. Under the gaze of machine vision systems, land was populated by settlers with a “Terms of Service” type of contract and tightly controlled by State officials, just as social media networks are, today, populated by TOS regulated users and monitored by corporate databases. As two processes that have transformed the ways we relate to the surfaces of the world, the project has emphasized in particular the extractive relation with the terrain itself they also share: the soil, its variability and its becoming something to be pictured and measured in order to be capitalized. To do this, I have developed a set of specific measuring devices designed to approach those terrains as media to be read or, more accurately, decoded. Lengths, frequencies and computer vision techniques, together with a deciphering algorithm, have been put together to playfully establish a relation between stones and words, between any particular terrain and any chosen book.

Details of the installation
Details of the installation

“But it is not an alphabet, it is a pattern without a message” (Caillois, 1985, p.70). A sequence of selected pages of Roger Caillois’ book The Writing of Stones is shown in a screen inside a display cabinet table, together with the measuring instruments, the stones and other documents and videos. The cabinet is surrounded by other displays -several screen monitors, a vertical panel and a plinth- containing other pieces that have been elaborated for the project.

In the exhibition space, the installation unfolds as a still lab, an aggregation of pieces and fragments documenting a process of research and conversation. Three of them, additionally, have been elaborated by three different artists invited to contribute with a specific work: José OteroSandra Santana and María Andueza. The nature of the actions of the Institute, its archives together with the nuances of the name given by the Government to the process, inner colonization, suggested and stimulated a collective approach, open to a variety of voices and actions.

Pieces by María Andueza, Sandra Santana and José Otero, specifically produced as contributions to the project
Pieces by María Andueza, Sandra Santana and José Otero, specifically produced as contributions to the project

The exhibition was open to the public in Matadero until the 10th of January. It also included work produced by Gun-hee Kim and Part-Time Suite from Korea; Nobuaki Itoh and Maiko Jinushi from Japan; and Helena Grande, Jonathan Notario and Alejandra Pombo from Spain.

Top image courtesy of José Otero.

 

References

Hito Steyerl, In free fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/ . Accessed: 20-12-2015

Roger Caillois (1985) The Writing of Stones. University Press of Virginia.

While in Tokyo…

Stephen Cornford is a PhD candidate at Winchester School of Art. His fine art practice-based research explores the materialities of residual media. In this blog post he reports on a recent commission for the Ftarri Festival in Tokyo, along with a further installation, Migration, and a CD, Kinetic Sculptures.

For the 2015 Ftarri Festival in Tokyo I was commissioned to make a new work to be performed by myself, long-term collaborator Patrick Farmer and a Japanese musician Madoka Kuono. My response to the commission was to produce a three-screen 16mm performance titled Digital Audio Film. The central concept of the work was the exposure of analogue film to the laser of a CD player – film emulsion being sensitive to radiation wavelengths far beyond the abilities of human sight. The work brings a technology for the reproduction of digital audio into dialogue with a moving image technology, allowing them to re-interpret one another. A machine intended to reproduce sound becomes a producer of images. This work was performed at SuperDeluxe on Sunday November 22nd with the help of Japanese filmmaker Shinkan Tamaki who leant me his projectors and provided technical support throughout the day.


After receiving the invitation I also managed to arrange an exhibition at a small independent art space, Gallery 20202 run by Yukari Fujimoto ex-promoter of Off Site, a performance space for experimental music now considered instrumental in the emergence of Onkyô. The work exhibited here titled Migration, is an installation for numerous factory-second dictaphones which modifies their mechanics and electronics to produce an audio-visual effect reminiscent of the massed migrations of birds or insects. In doing so the work draws a parallel between this organic seasonal process and the global shipping of electronics as they move through our economy from production to their inevitable end as pollutants.

Coinciding with this exhibition was the release of a new CD titled Kinetic Sculptures on the vlzprodukt label. This CD collects together works from 2006 to 2010 the majority of which were made during my MA at Dartington College of Arts.

While in Tokyo I also performed twice in collaboration with other musicians invited to the festival. On Saturday 21st I played a trio with Makoto Oshiro and Matija Schellander which took and saw us placing sound objects all over the venue in a performance which deliberately dispersed the traditional focus of attention on the stage space. I worked with 10 modified Dictaphones and a turntable placing these chirruping devices among the audience, at the bar and on the PA, while Matija walked in circles around his double bass, plucking a rod inserted between its strings and Makoto placed home-made vibrating devices and alarm clocks throughout the space and then preceded to set off firecrackers in the toilets. Finally on the Monday after the festival I performed a duo with British harpist Rhodri Davies at a local record store.

Throughout the week I was taken aback by the generosity and hospitality of the Japanese. During the installation of the exhibition and following the opening I was treated to several traditional Japanese meals at local restaurants, including one evening meal of almost a dozen small courses, each served on its own specific crockery. A wonderful week and I very much look forward to returning to Tokyo in the not-too-distant future.

 

To see more of Stephen Cornford’s work visit: http://www.scrawn.co.uk