Exhibition Essay: Forming

Written by Judith Duquemin

 

It is obvious that an imagined world, however different it may be from the real one, must have something - a form in common with it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus                                                                              

Constructive Reductive, is a multi-disciplinary exhibition of contemporary, constructive art by twelve international artists whose practices include: immersive light installation; virtual reality/eco-sculpture; projective relief; painting and narratology; structural/spatial/geometric/code-defined painting; luminal kinetic construction/photo sets; immersive drone-based sound-scape; digital drawing; sonic science, audio art and sound plastics. The purpose of this essay is not to canonize the works in a literary sense, more to allow us to understand them better through a closer understanding of artist intentionality, an important subject that often evades the formal critique of an artwork. Intentionality in philosophy refers to “the quality of thoughts, beliefs, hopes, desires, and other mental states which consist in their being directed towards some object or state of affairs”[1], for example the intention to create in a certain way. Constructive Reductive, the title of the exhibition broadly refers to mental processes of bringing together elements to form, an event made up of a series of basic actions that mentally contribute to the actual formation of something, hence the title: Forming.

A basic action is a mental action of volition or willing. The premise in this essay is to suggest that basic actions reflect our primary intentions: are constructive agents; are expressions of a sometimes constructive, othertimes reconstructive brain, depending on the mental event and its neural network. Such mental events are the focus of digital brain mapping. They add to a definition of constructive process in contemporary art, at the same time embracing the intentions of the early Constructivists whose attempts to link the mind to constructive process was limited by scientific knowledge of the day.

Looking at the wider picture basic actions can be viewed as expressions of freewill which derive from the Latin verb “velle” meaning “to will or “to wish”.  The exact nature of freewill lacks consensus but is generally referred to as the ability to choose and act freely. Opinions are divided between compatibilist and non-compatibilist arguments based upon a freedom to choose, or an action that is determined. Explanations of freewill state: that freewill is an illusion yet good for believing in; that freewill is a self-forming action where desires are played out; or that consciousness and decision-making stems from our brain with all human behaviour a direct product of natural laws. The philosopher Robert Kane (1938 -) a contemporary writer on freewill, summed up the non-compatibilist argument when he said: “Freewill and responsibility requires that we assess our first-order desires or motives and form “second-order volitions” about which our first-order desires should move us to action. Our “will” - the first-order desires that move us to action - are free...when they conform with second order volitions, so that we have the will (first-order desires)…we want (second-order desires)… and in that sense we “identify” with our “will”[2]. Most likely freewill is a combination of natural laws and human intervention on a psychological level to serve things like autonomy, moral responsibility, or creative intention. “When an agent acts freely - when she exercises freewill - it is up to her whether she does one thing or another on that occasion. A plurality of alternatives is open to her, and she determines which she pursues. When she does, she is an ultimate source or origin of her action. So runs a familiar conception of freewill”[3].

Basic actions are involuntary actions that don’t always occur because of choice. In the philosophy of action, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951), used the argument that movements are both voluntary and involuntary. In a well-known statement about “trying” he said: “What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm”[4]. Wittgenstein questioned the voluntariness of a voluntary movement[5]…stating that one does not distinguish one’s voluntary actions by an inner experience. Unless they are felt in a particular way to be different, one would not know which of one’s actions one had brought about[6]. Wittgenstein’s main objection to other theories of action was that they favoured the voluntariness of action by identifying something relative or something that accompanied voluntary action[7]. Adding that “our tendency is to describe something as a matter of atmosphere around a situation in too primitive a way”[8]. Wittgenstein said one doesn’t imagine movements and watch them happen. Actions viewed in this way are actions that are willed and lead to the habit of identifying causes. Actions can occur kinaesthetically without our observation of them occurring without any feeling of innervation, one can think, imagine, or calculate in the head without feelings associated with the mental activity. Wittgenstein’s stand influenced new volitional theories within the philosophy of action, seeking to avoid the reductive tendency of directly linking actions to certain mental events[9].

The concept of basic action was first introduced by American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto (1924 – 2013) who said ‘if there are any actions at all there are basic actions that don’t cause things to happen[10]. New Volitional Theory in the late C20th. also described volition as a series of actions, not happenings linked to causes. Thoughts that give rise to movements in our body are actions…are forms that possess content…are propositions without a result[11]. They contribute to the artist’s process of working, a process more governed by healthy failure than calculated success. The object of the artist’s intention is not the completed work as is often supposed. The object is simply to "begin"…to piece together elements propelled by a personal knowledge, progressing beyond a series of hunches and staged guesses to a point when new ideas emerge from within the medium in an intuitive, inspiring, and meaningful way. It involves a process of bringing together and acting upon mental representations such as quale, imaginings, intuitions, visions, memories, knowledge, thoughts that strike…, providing a framework for constructing a set of relations that will ultimately form to become something that communicates as art.

Artist intentionality has been addressed throughout the centuries in different ways from selected artist writings to brain mapping types of imagination and other forms of mental representation in the present day. An example of artist writing from earlier times is the artist diary of the French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863). Much later published examples of the artist manifesto provided a collective overview of artist intentionality, often in support of an art movement. They were a common feature of the modernist avant-garde that attempted to address a range of personal, cultural, social and political issues sometimes altogether. Manifestos like De Stijl (1917) by co-founders Theo van Doesburg (1883 – 1931) and Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944) (et al) and The Realistic Manifesto (1920) by Naum Gabo (1890 – 1977) (et al) effectively changed the course of art in some fields[12] [13]. Manifestos, artist statements, daily 'to do' lists, interviews and collected writings, intellectual property, podcasts and social media, documentaries and cinema, provide insight into the intriguing realm of artist intentionality with perhaps the most reliable source being that of artist writing in particular the artist diary. Many leading artists have sought to document their personal and practical intentions. British painter Bridget Riley (24/04/31 -) is recognized for her accurate commentary about creative inquiry. “An artist's early work is inevitably made up of a mixture of tendencies and interests, some of which are compatible and some of which are in conflict. As the artist picks his (her) way along, rejecting and accepting as he (she) goes, certain patterns of enquiry emerge"[14]. Riley is a master of the psychology of painting process for the way that she exposes and articulates the most fundamental of thoughts and gestures involving the medium that lead to the construction of each new work. Specific quotes about her classic approach to creative research can be found online by following the link in the footnote, and in every text she has written or has had written about her. 

Art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) cited the limitations of historical analysis for defining artist intentionality by stating: “a purely historical study whether it proceeds from the history of form, or the history of content never explains a work of art as a phenomenon except in terms of other phenomenon adding that historical critique does not draw from a higher source of perception to explain the artist’s production within his/her time…He cited Kunstwollen, a principle that lies ‘beneath’ the phenomenal appearance of the work adding that production represents not only the expression of subjects but the informing of materials, not the given events but results”[15].

The Hungarian biologist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891 – 1976) was motivated by the role that intuition played in intellectual inquiry believing that western knowledge had overlooked the tacit dimension of epistemological endeavour. He referred to knowledge as a process of knowing whereby actions of the body in conjunction with the mind help us to discriminate and form judgements about things. His theory is very useful for defining practical knowledge adding that all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. Much like artist knowledge, tacit knowledge is silent knowledge, knowledge we know but cannot always tell. Tacit knowledge, a term coined by linguist Noam Chomsky (07/12/28 - ), refers to a language of tacit knowledge underlying linguist rules. He called the concept ‘unconscious knowledge’[16]. The idea that our thoughts and behaviours are influenced by operations inaccessible to consciousness had been addressed in psychology and philosophy by other thinkers such as Herman Helmholtz, Franz Brentano, Sigmund Freud, Gilbert Ryle, and Charles Pierce…[17]. Tacit knowing today is known as procedural memory ‘a type of implicit memory which aids the performance of particular types of tasks without conscious awareness of previous experiences. Procedural memory guides the mental processes we perform, and most frequently resides below the level of conscious awareness’. Polanyi included action in the behaviour of perceiving and applied it to the principle of Gestalt psychology quote:

“I am looking at Gestalt, on the contrary as the outcome of an active shaping of experience performed in pursuit of knowledge. The shaping and integrating I hold to be a great and indispensable tacit power by which all knowledge is discovered, is held to be true. The structure of Gestalt is then recast into a logic of tacit thought, and this changes the range and perspective of the whole subject…As such it will be shown to form the bridge between the higher creative powers of man and the bodily processes which are prominent in the operations”[18].

In the pursuit of a less autonomous art expression, Theo Van Doesburg stated in the Principles of Neo-Plastic Art’ (1917), that the formative idea is given direct and actual express by continual cancelling out of the expression means…’[19].

“The aim of the formative artist is simply this: ‘to give form to (his/her) aesthetic experience of reality or, one might say, (his/her) creative experience of the fundamental essence of things… The essence of the formative idea (of aesthetics) is expressed by the term cancellation. One element cancels out another. This cancelling out of one element by another is expressed in nature as well as in art. In nature, more or less concealed behind the accidents of the particular case in art (at least in the exact formative kind), clearly revealed. Although we cannot grasp the perfect harmony, the absolute equilibrium of the universe, each and everything in the universe (every motif) is never the less subordinated to the laws of - this harmony, this equilibrium. It is the artist’s business to discover and give form to this concealed harmony, this universal equilibrium of things, to demonstrate its community to its own laws, etc. The (truly exact) work of art is a metaphor of the universe obtained with artistic means”[20].

Doesburg’s concept of ‘cancelling out’ bears resemblance to the current neuroscientific principal of predictive processing (or predictive error minimization) mostly in association with the Bayesian brain whereby the brain sees percepts, not images or their equivalent. According to neuroscientist Eric Kandel (1929 -) percepts run through a web of unique memories of prior experience, emotional responses and mirror neurons, forming a mental image that we decide to relate to, keep or discard [21]. The shared idea is that our perceptual experience – whether of the world, of ourselves, or of an artwork – depends on the active ‘top-down’ interpretation of sensory input. Perception becomes a generative act, in which perceptual, cognitive, affective, and sociocultural expectations conspire to shape the brains ‘best guess’ of the causes of sensory signals received.

Bayesian brain theory draws from Hermann Helmholtz’s concept of ‘perception as inference’ and is applied to Bayes’ theorem named after C18th. statistician, philosopher and cleric Thomas Bayes (1702 – 1761). Although not all agree, Bayes’ theorem has gained popularity across many fields of knowledge as a method for calculating the legitimacy of beliefs in the form of hypotheses, claims, propositions based on available evidence drawn from observations, data and other information. In art history, the same idea is captured by Ernst Gombrich’s (1909 – 2001) notion of the ‘beholder’s share’. Introduced by Alois Riegl, and made popular by Gombrich, the notion of the beholder’s share refers to how the viewer decodes, deciphers and interprets the intentions that underlie an artwork based upon their own life experiences. Gombrich said:

“It is the power of expectation rather than the power of conceptual knowledge that moulds what we see in life no less than in art”[22].

The essence of Doesburg’s formative idea can be extended to a biological brain that not only sorts and re-constructs sense data…it reconstructs its anatomical self. ‘The ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to internal or external stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, and neural networks is known as neuroplasticity’[23]. The brain undergoes biological changes from cells to cortical remapping as a result of lifetime experience or response to brain injury. It was previously assumed that the brain stopped developing in infancy. The creative brain most artists would agree is a neoplastic brain that responds to heightened awareness and observation, experimentation and problem solving, adding to an artist’s knowledge…, that being a reflection of his/her creative intention[24]. All of the artists in the exhibition demonstrate an experimental approach to practice. Experimental art has gained significance in an information age. According to the Australia Council for the Arts, experimental art today is an important art discipline that extends the boundaries of art through cross disciplinary inquiry and focused practical research. The process of exploration is viewed as more relevant than the completion of a fully resolved work of art. New materials and techniques are investigated for the purpose of bringing out new forms, new methodologies, and new ideas. 

Basic actions in this context are involuntary actions that don’t immediately lead to happenings. Aided by a constructive brain, they are the building blocks of creative thought. They emerge from deep within the brain structures to form mental constructs that reflect the artist’s intention. They imply a concept of action as form…dynamic weightless form…form as forming. All of the artworks in this multidisciplinary exhibition are linked by examples of dynamic form. (see Table 1.)  Form in an information age is better viewed as dynamic form according to Lev Manovich (1960 -) writer and theorist of many books about digital culture including the recently published book titled: Info Aesthetics. Based upon our reliance on information technology he highlights the significance of new and emerging examples of ‘dynamic form’ by comparing it to examples of ‘good form’ that characterized the modern era quote:

“Form, Good Form, Ideal Form, Gestalt, Malevich’s abstract compositions made of geometric primitives floating in outer space…Lissitzky’s Prouns extending Malevich’s elements into the 3rd dimension in the anticipation of International Style solids (which) soon populated every modern city,…Mondrian’s grid-making procedure,…cutting a rectangle in this way or that with certainty of (an) industrial robot,…Arp’s and Brancusi’s biomorphic shapes,…forms made of wires by Gabo, Smith, and others,… drawings carefully made by Gestalt psychologists to demonstrate human innate preference,…or the need to delineate “good form”…into the visual field…”[25]. Manovich justifies this claim by stating that the pre-occupation with form and content in modern art was accompanied by its double, ‘formlessness’ (l’informe’), a concept belonging to French philosopher and writer Georges Bataille (10/09/97 – 09/07/62) and reintroduced (1996) by Rosalind Krauss (30/11/41 -) and Yves-Alain Bois (16/04/52 -) in the text Formless: A User's Guide, that described form as a tool for creativity, not for elevating art but ‘getting it down and dirty’ and off ‘art’s high pedestal’. Bois and Krauss derived a concept of ‘formless’[1]. Formlessness has different connotations in art, culture, and philosophy, and suggests a reluctance to arrive at anything fixed, adopting strategies that imply, alter, override, or interrupt.

Manovich plays down modernism’s obsession with ‘solid objects, geometric abstractions, sculptures and 3D constructions, chairs and teapots, office skyscrapers and photographs…never thickening into something solid and fixed’[26], stating: what ‘good form’ was to modernism, ‘networking’ is to ‘informationalism’[27], being a state of social production that is shaped by mental and informational labour. Networking as an example of dynamic form, is form that is constantly changing through access to software and computers, and digital hand held devices that deliver in moments of curiosity or need. ‘Database’ Manovich adds, is also an example of dynamic form. Borrowing from Erwin Panofsky’s notion of symbolic form, Manovich says what linear perspective as symbolic form was for the modern age, database is for the computer age[28]. Different databases utilize different ways to organize data as a collection of information stored in a computer system in such a way that it can be easily looked at or changed[29]. Content is presented as layers of variable and interchangeable tables, records and fields…images and texts, sounds and video clips that lack narrative without beginning or end, unlike examples of modern fiction or cinema. Information technology drives contemporary art practices in new and dynamic ways.

 

Table 1. References to dynamic form

Charley Peters structural/spatial painting: formal illusionary, referencing and recontextualizing abstract language; Roland Emile Kuit & Karin Schomaker sonal/visual: modelled quadraphonic sound planes and architectural forms; Judith Cisneros immersive geometry/light installation: neuroperceptive dynamic structure visual/haptic/sonorous/olfactory/gustatory; Judith Duquemin structural/systematic painting: neuropliable geometric form; T. Michael Stephens luminal/kinetic construction: universal model, resonance/duration, curvilinear pattern, synthesis by motion; Liz Helman immersive drone-based sound-scape: situated in place, processed sound, extended listening; Elizabeth Day projective relief: textile as new construction; Gosia Koscielak virtual reality: eco social sculpture: transdisciplinary, free-flowing digital/organic elements in space; Jon Thogmartin digital drawings: perception and simple form, combinations and permutations, systems and processes; Joseph Buis structural geometric 2D/3D kinetic installation: modular/air current and dynamic wave pattern; Aaron Perkins painting and narratology: grammatic abstraction, relational syntax, looking and reading, subjective interpretation, potential signification. 

Image. judith cisneros_puntos de vista_copyright judith cisneros 2020  

Copyright Judith Duquemin 2020

All rights reserved                                           

 

 (under construction)

 

 

   



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  • [2] Kane, R. Introduction: The Contours of Contemporary Free-Will Debates in The Oxford Handbook of Freewill. Kane, R., (Ed.) Oxford University Press, New York, 2002, p. 20
  • [3] Clarke, R., & Capes, J., Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Freewill, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), URL=<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/Spring 2017/entries/incompatibilism-theories>
  • [4] Wittgenstein, L., in Michael Scott, Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Action, Philosophical Quarterly, Vol., 46, No., 184, July 1996, p. 348
  • [5] Voluntary movement is movement that we consciously control and is different from involuntary movement that is associated with the actions of bodily organs such as the organ of the heart.
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  • [8] Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations), Anscombe, G.E.M., & Rhees, R., Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1958, p. 185
  • [9] A habit all too frequent when assessing artist intentionality.                                   
  • [10] Danto. A. C., Basic Actions in Philosophy of Action in A.R. White (ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford,1968, p. 51       
  • [11] McCann, H., New Volitional Theory in the Philosophy of Action an Introduction. Polity Press, Basil Blackwell Ltd. Oxford, 1990, p. 20
  • [12] “2020 marks the centenary of the radical The Realistic Manifesto written by Naum Gabo and undersigned by his brother Antoine Pevsner. The manifesto sought to redefine conventional approaches to solid mass, volume, line and colour. Instead, it advocated for the inclusion of space, time and movement’…’ By ‘realistic’, Gabo intended that art should be grounded by the present. It should express actual experience not an illusion of it. He challenged the evolving styles of modern painting such as Futurism and Cubism, which were gaining influence across Europe…He wanted art to be non-representational, dynamic and interactive in order to be universally relevant to the wider public”. Tate UK Art Terms. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/naum-gabo-1137/four-principles-behind-naum-gabos-art
  • [13] “Originally a publication, De Stijl was founded in 1917 by two pioneers of abstract art, Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. De Stijl means style in Dutch. The magazine De Stijl became a vehicle for Mondrian’s ideas on art, and in a series of articles in the (first year of issue) he defined his aims and used, perhaps for the first time, the term neo-plasticism. This became the name for the type of abstract art he and the De Stijl circle practised. Other members of the group included Bart van der LeckVantongerloo and Vordemberge-Gildewart, as well as the architects Gerrit Rietveld and JJP Oud. Mondrian withdrew from De Stijl in 1923 following Van Doesburg’s adoption of diagonal elements in his work. Van Doesburg continued the publication until 1931. De Stijl had a profound influence on the development both of abstract art and modern architecture and design”. Tate UK Art Terms https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/d/de-stijl
  • [14] Bridget Riley Quotes, Art Quotes - Exploration, http://www.art-quotes.com/auth_search.php?authid=3885#.X7dBQc0zZPY
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  • [16] Sanders, A., Michael Polanyi’s Post Critical Epistemology A Reconstruction of Some Aspects of Tacit Knowing, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1988, p.1
  • [17] Helmholtz is known as the founder of the science of perceptual physiology. Helmholtz believed that sensory signals only have significance as a result of associations built up by learning. Interest in illusions led him to the claim that perceptions are ‘unconscious inference’. Gregory, R., The Oxford Companion To The Mind, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987, p. 311
  • [18] Fuchs, T., The Tacit Dimension. Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/philosophy_psychiatry_and_psychology/v008/8.fuchs.html
  • [19] Van Doesburg. T. Principles of No-Plastic Art, in Art in Theory 1900 -1900 an Anthology of Changing Ideas (Charles Harrison & Paul Wood Ed.). Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1993, p. 281
  • [20] Van Doesburg. T. Principles of Neo Plastic Art, (Trans.) Janet Seligman, Lund Humphries. London. 1968, p. 32-33
  • [21] Kandel wrote in NY Times after publishing The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the present, 2012.
  • [22] Gombrich, E. H. Art and illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Princeton University Press. Ewing, New Jersey. 1961, p. 188
  • [23] Neuroplasticity in Physiopedia https://www.physiopedia/Neurplasticity                 
  • [24] Judith Duquemin’s painting practice explores plastic neuropliable structures based upon a contemporary definition of neuroplasticity, © Judith Duquemin 2020 all rights reserved.
  • [25] Lev Manovich. Information and Form. Electrolobby at Ars Electronica 2000. http://electrolobby.aec.athttps://manovich.net/
  • [26] Op Cit. Information and Form                                            
  • [27] Op Cit. Information and Form
  • [28] Lev Manovich. Database as a Symbolic Form. 1998, p. 2. manovich.net/
  • [29] Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus. Cambridge University Press. 2013