Reflecting on my non-thesis

The orginal intention of the thesis was very wooly, I recognised this before I had even sent it off. I was somehow interested in how working with objects in the world could disrupt the established tempo of neo liberalism. I was interested in being bored and repetitive tasks.[1] The initial interest came from science fiction, and how it is capable of making this rhythmic disruption, of flinging us to an imaginary future. In terms of consumption this is pretty useless. You aren’t buying when you are day dreaming of an imaginary future (unless you’re watching a movie full of Audi concept cars and other brands cool futures). Somehow I conflated the act of making with this. Frederic Jameson talks about how science fiction gives us an oblique entry point into the present, through a framing of it in another way. I thought (in my lazy western, not really committed way) that spending months looking at and working with, say, scented bin liners, opened up a similar temporal fissure which might bring with it a whiff of alternatives, or understanding of the baffling-ness of contemporary existence. Bergson entered here, and I was excited by his arguing against the idea of things being reduced to concepts, or rather, his acknowledgement that things need to be broken into concepts for some things, but not everything (metaphysics and philosophy, religion and morality being the things I have encountered up to now), and how this can expand our understanding of reality in new ways. Bergson was working in a time where there was a massive effort to mechanise thought, to assimilate consciousness into the logic of natural science. This meant quantifying sensation, which Bergson though was bad. I kind of drew similarities between this situation and the contemporary assimilation of consciousness into the logic of neo liberalism.

So, the link between the things I haven mentioned above, science fiction, boredom and Bergson is creativity, and the conditions under which novelty can emerge. Neo liberalism obviously has hoovered up the creation of novelty as just another aspect of the market, with everything now marketed as bespoke and individual. Everybody wants to be the same as everybody else in their uniqueness. Bergson, on the other hand, suggests that there is a un-nameable generative movement at work, for convenience he calls this duration, which creates a purer novelty that operates via intuition. Intuition allows us to sympathetically align ourselves with other objects (That said I’m not sure what good this does as I think about it, perhaps it is just it’s alternative-ness that appeals, so how is it different to religion, new-agey living, etc?). I ask myself questions like ‘what is saved in this purer for of novelty’ and realise that it’s not novelty’s job to save things, it is to make the world novel, to provide new things. So I must reframe this and ask ‘what is gained and what is lost with Bergson’s elan vital that is lost with the neo liberal novelty? And how can my art practice reflect and explore this?’. My first delves into Bergson introduced terms such as virtuality and multiplicity, I forget which is which but one represents all things that are possible but yet realised, while the other represents all things are that are impossible and yet to be realised. Just because something is impossible, now, does not mean it cannot be possible in years to come or even tomorrow.[2] This is what hampers science fiction, through necessity it exists in the realm of the already possible, and why time travel is theoretically impossible (at the moment) as it suggests it is possible to momentarily ‘dip out’ of time, when it is the generative nature of time itself that shapes the future.[3]

In an effort to tighten things up a bit, and bring these rambling back to the realm of my practice, I have been trying to think more particularly about situations where this novelty occurs, territory that neoliberalism has a grip on that is producing it’s own particular brand of novelty. As someone who has lived without the internet until I was 19, then worked with the internet extensively in the pre broadband/pre google years and witnessed it’s shift to being dominated by a few billion dollar sites I thought it might be good place to start. The web and the interface that allow us to access it, as tools, or places (the web is a place, the interface is a tool, I guess) are undergoing the shift to produce a particular sort of neoliberal novelty (geared towards the production of the 24/7 always on neo-liberal subject). I can intuit this, the web makes me angry, or annoyed most times I use it. I get a creeping sensation up my spine that makes me want to throw my phone out of a window or snap my laptop screen back on itself.[4] I think it’s because I can almost feel my brain brimming over with information. It’s coming out of my eyes.[5] I can sense that it is trying to shape me, and I am helping it each time I log on. The technology gives me all the cues I need and I respond, each time I reach in there I wall myself a bit more into a world of my own making, devoid of surprises.[6]

So, the digital interface. One option under these circumstances is to reject the medium completely and disengage, turn off the internet and do something else. But I sense this is a futile act; history is full of hermits. It’s selfish, isolationist. Anyway, a hermits novelty produces experience outside of just one-less network, with one-less tool where plenty of others are available[7]. I sense I would be a hypocrite to leave, I still rely massively on the network for other things, just because I don’t use it directly, doesn’t mean I’m not still shaped by it. Some of the work I have made, sitting for two weeks folding paper feels a bit like this, hermit-like, a-political. It might produce a novelty, but again it is a singular one.[8] Is there any sense in comparing this sculpture I make and, say, my Facebook feed? Both operate by selecting and ordering things in a particular way. There is a logic to how computers operate that is the antithesis of what Bergson postulates. The computer constructs the world from binary units, and not units like verbal or visual language, words and signs, but somehow they are emptier, possibly due to only being interpreted by other machines. So am I saying that it is impossible to make art on a computer? In an introduction to metaphysics Bergson describes the example of a building that is ‘lit up one by one the rows of gas jets which already outline the shape’ serving to illuminate just what is already there. The pixel, or data stream feels like reality lit up one by one, but not reality itself. So the means of illumination provide a sense of novelty, but the reality itself is not novel, just a second hand re-presentation. What might a first hand experience of the data steam look or feel like? What are it’s characteristics? Can it even be represented? If we wanted to intuitively engage with the data how can we do it?

  • Glitch is one possibility, when the data stream gets disrupted it’s true nature perhaps get exposed. I’ve already seen lots of this.
  • Progress bars are another, the suspension of time when you just stare at the interface and perhaps for an intuitive moment ‘get’ that data is in the process of arriving, of building. Or not, maybe it’s just a small crushing impatience.
  • Thinking about the size, in pixel dimensions of images is another. I recently ordered all of the images of paintings at the MOMA by pixel size, from widest to narrowest and played it as an animation. This allowed me to look at the series not as images from the art historical canon, but images made from pixels.
  • Looping is another. Things that are digitally generated can be looped perfectly. Anything that occurs in reality is imperfect and cannot be looped as it will never occupy the same space twice[9]. In a circuitous expereiment (that took three months and started with aerobic resistance bands in the studio and ended up with me downloading aerobic videos from youtube) I tried looping video of people exercising – doing ‘reps’ – and trying to loop it. It was impossible, and even when I got really close it looked very unnatural.

There are Bergsonian elements to all of these experiments. The idea of repetition til the nature of things becomes apparent, is one. Perhaps what I’m trying to intuit is digitality itself, rather than the information it transmits, but I’m not sure this is even possible, the medium, after all, is the message.

[1] although in a true 21st century sense I was only tinkering around the edges of these things, I spent a few days looking at one painting in gallery, or a few weeks driving round a roundabout, perhaps reaching it’s apotheosis in an eight month research period into scented plastic bags. It’s not like I crushed cars for six days a week, in a car yard, for 35 years, like my uncle.

[2] Perhaps this is a key difference between Bergsonian novelty and the novelty of neo liberalism, neo liberal novelty is predictable – shaped by the market and our own tastes, there are no surprises as we are getting a sly mix of what capitalism deems profitable dressed up as what we always wanted, whereas Bergson’s novelty has the ability to provide us with things we never even knew we wanted, or could even imagine.

[3] Visiting myself in the future would mean leaving a version of myself behind to enact all the things I would do that shapes the future, as part of the infinite network of stuff that interacts in spacetime. It’s a typically human conceit to imagine that we are ‘outside’ of this network and we could navigate around it willy-nilly.

[4] Interestingly I heard someone comparing threats to leave Facebook to a child’s threats to run away from home – you always come back. Why is this?

[5] Another related dead end flight of fantasy was to look into self-enculation – or the practice of removing one’s own eyes. Purposeful self-blinding could be read as a radical act of disengagement.

[6] So I am building a fiction around myself, a fabulation that panders to all my desires, even immortality.

[7] It is tempting though, during a brief phase of job-interview related insomnia I started reading Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden, Or, Life in the Woods’ and it was a tonic. But me saying ‘I don’t trust the internet, I’m not using it’ is like Thoreau saying ‘I disagree with Hammers, so I’m not using one’. As I Understand it he was actively using the tools at hand to see what was possible.

[8] In a weird sense, at the time I felt as if I was producing a type of computer, made of wood and paper, but similar in a way to a conventional computer that I still can’t define. There was a network and an interface. I was definitely looking at a lot of those star trek interfaces where the actors just prod at screen full of lights connected to biometric circuits – I like those.

[9] Curiously that makes me think about how it is possible to tell a still from a moving image, even when the subject itself is still. Can we just tell? Absolute stillness in time is hard to find and I think would take a lot of planning and preparation to achieve and record, or would it? A closed room with fixed lights and a rock on a table would do it surely?