December 15, 2006

Reflections on the Playground

As Logocentric Playground comes to a close, and before I make some general comments here on my experiences and the knowledge gained during the installation, I should provide a brief background on the history and purpose of the work:

My art practice has evolved from original text written on panels, using my particular “text-bisection process” and resulting in a dense veil of fragmented sentences, works that addressed the difficulties of meaning in this system of representation that we call language. Around a year ago I began to write a proposal for an installation of blackboard panels to be presented as “inactive” and open to public interaction, this interaction to take the form of “deciphering” my writing with provided chalk. The reason that I called these proposed blackboard panels “inactive” was that only with the hands-on action of a site-visitor would the interactive process actually become a literal "questioning" of the fragility of meaning in the written word.

One impression I have gained is that there were two distinct possibilities for the interactions, not the types of actions, i.e., deciphering, writing, drawing, etc. but the essential directions a visitor interaction could conceivably take:

1) There is a perceived sense (wall text, museum press release, website) that I am engaging in a conversational discourse if I present sentences on the blackboards that are bisected with reduced recognition, then there is a game afoot, with the realization that there is a possible “understanding,” deciphering or recognition to be gained. There is also the possibility of misrecognition or an ignorance of the original text. These interactions have to do with understanding that something is written there and acquiescing to the perceived importance of what is written, and comprehending that the artist is wishing the interaction to be directed along his own lines of inquiry or his “preferred” direction.

2) However, there is the equally real possibility, with actual proven instances, that the original words are of secondary importance to a visitor, that the words are ignored or overlooked (in some cases literally over-written) to promote and further personal agendas, said agendas taking the form of personal thoughts, philosophical musings, “tagging” or signatures for recognition, even interpersonal conversations between individuals.

This means that there are two avenues to traverse [one of which alludes to “logocentricism,” not only the questionable belief that ideas exist outside of the words we use to express them, but the logocentricism of the “author’s” original bisected text]. If the artist’s intention is recognized as the essential purpose, then the deciphering of the bisected words takes on paramount importance. However, if one chose to ignore, avoid, or not yield to the artist’s intended direction then one could privilege one’s own interaction (and text) over the artist’s.

Mystery of Interaction
The additions or contributions to the panels by visitors became quite mysterious to me as the installation progressed. Clearly this was because rarely was I able to “witness” the act of people writing – the interactions only appeared when I made a site-visit. I am undecided whether this should remain a mystery to me, as well as to “repeat visitors.” There is the obvious possibility of including a technological aspect to the installation, i.e., closed-circuit video or stop-action cameras. Yet perhaps the intrusion of technology would shift the emphasis from the original conception of the work to the performances of individual visitors, which seems to be a very real desire, as articulated by the . . .

Power of the Platform
By providing a “stage” or a platform upon which unknown individuals can engage in a culturally sanctioned “conversation,” I have entered the provocative “arena of public discourse.” If one decides not to play my “game” of deciphering text then it is tantamount to declaring that one’s “choices” are going to be more important than the platform. The fact that the platform has been erected in respect of the artist’s intentions bears little or no importance in this “power-play” as the sequencing of power yields to the “public” stranger. This stranger’s persona is quite practically an unknown individual who has an invitation to “collaborate” with the artist on this platform, but the opportunity to collaborate is obviously not enough to counteract the personal desire for power.

This particular four-week installation at the Katzen made me acutely aware of an approximate ten-day incubation period for the “peak” of the discourse. Within three days, I had positive, clear contributions that began to “fill-in” missing fragments of words. This occurred quickly but soon the panels became inexorably consumed with visitors' catch phrases, self-promotions or ironic humor. By the end of the second week there was an accumulation of detritus, a networking of lines, scribbles, and other writing, that began to obscure the original bisected texts. If I continue the project, whether with these particular panels or new ones, I am certain that I will determine the most effective duration to optimize the discourse.

I am concerned with the immediacy of a discourse between artist, viewer and the artwork, a discourse that is essentially self-aware, self-critical and self-reflective about the process of viewing and “interacting,” whether passively or actively, with the work. I am making work that comes from a conceptual position, i.e., concept over object. This installation was conceived as an expansion of the artwork from a "precious object" to a "living" thing, to focus the visitor's attention on where art actually resides - in the discourse itself instead of "in" the object.


emily said...

I was surprised to realize that I had participated in this 'game of deciphering' without realizing it.

Because the words were arranged in a pattern on a painting, I assumed that their purpose had less to do with transferring meaning through sentences than with forming a composition.

As to the section on Duration:

The installation does follow the rules of living things and not 'precious objects'.
After a few people begin to scribble on the wall, a rush of others, previously intimidated and without an idea to start from, will follow. A starting line gave me an idea for a new mark, just as dust particles in a solution make it possible for a droplet to congregate or a crystal to form when it otherwise could not. physical thresholds and psychic thresholds follow similar rules, so the installation has a predictable life cycle.

It is instructive to see the installation as "living" rather than as a "precious object." Living things teach more! I think of how the concept of evolution was missed in studies at the Galapagos when researchers looked at trends over decades and found nothing. But then researchers noticed significant changes year to year that agreed with the theory of evolution. Similarly, the threads of thought that change the direction of the artist as he paints are covered up in the final layer, revealing only a precious object that followed a predictable path based on logic and composition.

The installation allows me to consider the moment to moment evolution of an unfinished work, one that has not yet been forced into a path.

What determines effective discourse? Something that shows one read the text,(a viewer finishes the bisected sentences) something that shows one read the letters as independent symbols (the viewer borrows a letter and finishes their own sentence), or something that shows one sees marks (a viewer continues the pattern of markmaking in a logical configuration)? is the discourse between the artist and viewer or between the painting and the viewer? Ideally, do the artist and the painting say the same thing to the viewers?

it's late and i'm not proofreading. if it didn't make sense, it wasn't you.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Game, mystery, revelation – all possible when engaged in discourse with an artwork, especially those that explore “meaning.”

Even if scientific observation were read as analogous to “seeking meaning” in art, might that awareness of the “moment to moment evolution of an unfinished work” be something more just a desire for knowledge? I think that I have delayed the completion of my installation to avoid the “predictable path” to a complete “composition” by attempting an apprehension of this experience of art making as a “process” and sharing that process with the viewer /visitor.

It may be helpful to note that our word discourse issues from the Latin discursus, signifying a running to and fro. If a Katzen visitor glanced at my panels, they would undoubtedly “read” some text even though it was fragmented in bisection. Regardless of the interactions of viewers, whether finishing my sentences or making their own from “borrowed” letters, my writing is a supplement to my thought, therefore we are “speaking” in discursus with my panels plainly supplemental. However, the words I speak and the words I write cannot “say the same thing,” because our perceptions of speech and writing differ, i.e. both are subject to interpretation but the speech act commands more authenticity through the presence of the speaker.

emily said...

About the question "might that awareness of the 'moment to moment evolution of an unfinished work' be something more than just a desire for knowledge?' -----

one may observe artwork desiring knowledge because images clarify concepts. But if that were all one took from the work, they would not witness mystery and revelation.

Being aware of the "evolution of an unfinished work" is reaching understandings that cannot be expressed and made known.

about the discourse----

I see now.
The discourse will be between a viewer, the artist, and any previous viewers, with the panel merely supplementing everyone's thoughts.
The discourse is no longer effective when it becomes difficult to read, or when the conversation stops "running to and fro," i.e. people write things on the panel that do not respond to previous thoughts.

I would not have been confused with who/what was involved with the discourse if speaking replaced writing on a panel, because as you say, the speech act commands more authenticity. Yet, just like with writing, speech is just a supplement to thought as well. (oh!)
I cannot say what I really think, and yet I assume that everyone else does.

I am humbled and honored that a professor and artist takes the time to maintain a website and respond to commenters. that's pretty cool.

Marcus Silverthorne said...

I would like to pose the following question: Is the ultimate success of this particular installation contingent on the viewers' belief that there is in fact some "meaning" to the work?

If we take your two directions of possible viewer interaction, we find that the viewer either recognizes an implicit meaning in the work or, in essence, views the work as a public "blank slate," similar in significant ways to the walls of a bathroom stall (public but relatively anonymous, no concrete sociolinguistic context, no clear communicative norms). These two "directions" seem to be in immediate conflict. The former will view instances of the latter as obstructions to the task of decoding and responding. The latter will view the former as "taking up space." In a way, does the concrete results of this conflict not appear as a kind of history of a failure of the "fusion of horizons" Gadamer speaks of (though only, of course, as a regulative ideal).

The thrust of my original question is this: Would it be fair to say that the more convinced the viewership as a whole was of a concrete (even if obscure) meaning to the work, the more likely it would be that the resulting discourse would begin to establish its own unique communicative norms and thereby, at least theoretically, find some ground in the regulative ideal of the fusion of horizons?

Shanthi said...

I am sorry I couldn't make it to the Katzen Show.
But having tried to decipher your installation in a previous show, I would like to add a few comments.
It was an evolution of sorts for me to view your work. When I first saw a picture of the installation on the internet, I was struck by the work on the whole, the large picture. As I looked at it closer, I realized that the symbols were amazing, and also looked familiar in a way. When I realized that they were parts of letters, there was need to decipher them. When I saw your work at DCAC, there was this temptation to write, but this was a piece of art and so I held back. But when I realized that it was meant to be interactive, it was good. When the deciphering was done, there is the whole message that was in front of you that kindled a lot new thought. I think that is wonderful.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Emily: Perhaps the “mystery and revelation” that occurs as one “observes” my text [artwork] has something to do with the indeterminacy of “meaning” in any artwork. As the observer becomes a “part” of the “process” [experiment], their “objectivity” evaporates, i.e., the observation affects the experiment. Moreover, my “images” are derived from words yet my text-bisection reduces possible recognition of (possible) signifieds. Your insights on discursus are eloquent, and quite charming as you realize that “speech [like writing] is just a supplement to thought as well.” As is art, I might add.

Mr. Silverthorne: Your visits are welcome and I am honored that you have the time to critique my work. Were you able to see Logocentric Playground at the American University Museum at Katzen Arts Center, or via my photographs on my website?

With appreciation for your erudition, a direct response to your question is not possible, given that the relationship between the “success” of my installation, or any work of art for that matter, is not dependent on the acquisition of the “meaning” of the artist. Indeed, visitors that interacted with my installation possibly did so to express a “belief that there is in fact some ‘meaning’ to the work” in the attempt to decipher my bisected text. I believe that you understand my views on the fallibility of “meaning,” yet I might add that the key contingencies to a perceptive “reading” of my work would have to address both the “play” of recognition of text and the ultimate realization of the inadequacies of the written word. In any case, belief in an “implicit meaning” in a work of art is an “unsuccessful” expectation, as “meaning” may not be found within the work itself, but resides instead within our constituted representational systems.

I disagree with you that walls of a public latrine have “no concrete sociolinguistic context,” as there is historical precedence that discourages this opinion. I respectfully suggest that although your analysis of the possible “directions” that viewers take in their interactions may seem opposed, perhaps your view overlooks similar actions undertaken within those two contexts, i.e., “the viewer either recognizes an implicit meaning” or “views the work as a public blank slate." Each of these two “directions” involve first, an individual’s choice of whether to “decode” or “disrupt” the code, and second, that any further actions taken, other than passively viewing the installation, might involve an inscription upon the blackboard panels, whereby the participant is placed firmly within the “sociolinguistic context” of writing.

Thank you for your introduction of the thoughts of Gadamer into our discourse, and although my knowledge of his views is second-hand, I have done enough investigation to note his belief that language is the “form in which understanding is achieved.” Perhaps our very discussion illustrates this hope, as we are in an ongoing struggle of “interpretation” here. However, as our “play” with language is always an “unfinished event,” these “horizons” within history that recede and are reborn within our consciousness through language may merely distract us from an apprehension of “meaning” as infinitely deferred. The egalitarian nature of an art that hopes for an “establishment” of meaning within any word, sentence, or specific work is outdistanced by the realization of the fragility of communication based on semiotics.

Shanthi: Thank you for your kind thoughts. I would only add that I had hoped that the urge to “understand” would provoke the viewer to become interactive with my text. This extends the definition of the “work” into the realm of “becoming,” as the process evolves.