November 25, 2008

Making A Piece About Making A Piece

It is clear that there are associative procedural similarities between curatorial practice and studio practice. Both actions involve, or theoretically ought to involve, an appreciation of the relevance of art history (past and current) and the “skilled” manipulation of material/image/context to manifest representations and/or experiences that have aesthetic and/or intellectual resonance in contemporary society. The essentially “positivist” hope is that such endeavors advance society culturally through “progress” and that one can “learn” from the trial and error of history.

This might be as hopelessly romantic as it is na├»ve. If we can learn anything from or about history, it is that “History is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in the textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious.”(1) Humanity’s past can be viewed in many ways – politically, economically, culturally - and “interpretations” can advance agendas based on the pretense of “progress.”

Art could certainly use a little definitive “progress” but can one advance art by learning from art history? Or art theory? As an unofficial “assignment,” Nicolas Donnelly proposed this challenge to a fellow student:

“Using any contemporary topics or issues that you have a firm holistic understanding of, generate a sculpture based on the visual iconography of these ideas. What do these ideas look like in time and space, and why have they been represented like that throughout history and in popular culture …”(2)

Nic’s challenge is worth addressing because it not only evinces the energetic discursivity of today’s artists but it also hints at an unspoken desire for a methodology of art making. Whether possible or not, such an approach to the “what” and the “why” of art initiates questions about the motivation behind the making, and such thinking rightly needs to be done beforehand. Furthermore, artists that understand the necessity of grasping art’s “contemporary topics or issues” are better prepared to seek the “validation” that history promises through this elusive “progress.”

Having said that, let me “progress” further with my critique and commentary: my chief quibble concerns the nature of Nic’s usage of the term visual iconography and its putative relationship to the “contemporary topics or issues.” First, I suggest that the term itself is redundant, as iconography is always illustrative of something, thus is already visual. This is more than a niggling matter about word choice, however, because the preferable term, representation, would help clarify the challenge. Representation was already there in verb form: “What do these ideas look like in time and space, and why have they been represented like that …”

This unconscious avoidance of “the real challenge” is revealing of the scope of the question: how do we represent intangible issues like identity, context and authenticity? As Nic’s articulation of the “parameters” of this challenge explains:

“You could think of this as the process of validating or invalidating what you’re fundamentally interested in and how you [sub]-consciously determine aesthetic value. In other words I’ve asked you to filter the endless and uncontrollable stream of arbitrary information and ideas that we encounter everyday, then redirect those concepts into a calculated scientific system. The ‘result’s’(sic) of which effectively will determine the subject matter of all your future artworks and ideas …”

This statement unveils a hope that these “results” will yield a determinacy of art making, a formula for “future artworks,” and this again raises the question of “progress.”

We can propose that humankind has progressed from the caves, that our technological modernity is better than ancient darkness and cave-dwelling. Culturally, we have made a generalized progression from tribes to communities, from anarchy to government. In visual art, we have mobilized the image, advancing from frescoes to easel painting to digital representations to YouTube.

Progress? I shall not digress through variant arguments based on aesthetic preference or qualitative judgments about “progress” in representation. However, it must be noted that the critical hierarchy that was in place in 1960 has stunningly evaporated. It would not be presumptuous to say that representation has rapidly seceded from a proper criticality, a criticality related to a reductive, conceptual and relational aesthetics.

My final comment has to do with Nic’s “background research” which explores “sensemaking” and “situation awareness.” Generally informed by Gray Klein’s views, Nic writes:

“In brief, sensemaking is viewed more as ‘a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively’(3) rather than the state of knowledge underlying situation awareness … (the author) points out that sensemaking is backward focused, forming reasons for past events, while situation awareness is typically forward looking, projecting what is likely to happen in order to inform effective decision processes.”

“Sensemaking” reminds me of causality, cause and effect, as “forming reasons for past events” evokes the quasi-scientific method of causality: my foot hurts (effect) because there is a pebble in my shoe (cause). Apparently, “situation awareness” uses similar empiricist methodologies, based on past events, to predict future events. This differs considerably from simple, yet effective, causality and is in actuality a speculative method to “inform effective decision processes.” Thus, it lacks validation as the basis for a “calculated scientific system.”

Notwithstanding the obstinance of my critique, I appreciate the motivation of the quest for authentic “formulas” for art making based on narrative trajectories. History is the true obstacle. In proposing self-reflexive awareness of intentionality, this quest is based on the optimistic idea that art can be made that might provide a teleological advancement. As described under Nic’s “objective,” his challenge was in “making a piece about making a piece,” and it is this meta-activity that resonates authentically.


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1. Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, New York, 1981, 35.

2. This and all subsequent quotes are from an unpublished paper by Nicolas Donnelly.

3. Klein, G., Moon, B. and Hoffman, R.F. “Making sense of sensemaking I: alternative perspectives,” in IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(4), 2006, 70-73.

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