MCP305 Draft Paper
Research Advisor: Carolyn Guertin
Studio Advisor: Jean Marie Casbarian
What began as an investigation into time, connection, networks and the posthuman Anthropocene has since been distilled into a single, simple, illusive and yet pervasive phenomena...Air.
I began this project with a clear vision: to have no vision and no definite direction. This seemed like the logical way to follow the path of research and open-minded, blind faith as a way of seeing where it all potentially leads.
I was possibly inspired by the artistic development of Robert Irwin when he stated that, “Maybe I was just gradually developing a trust in the act itself, that somehow, if it were pursued legitimately, the questions it would raise would be legitimate and the answers would have to exist somewhere, would be worth pursuing, and would be of consequence.”i
After much deliberation, reading, experimentation, investigation, contemplation and procrastination all paths have led into thin air... that invisible presence that permeates our entire existence. The phenomenon that intimately connects us to everything beyond ourselves...it is the medium of creation, of life and of breath - Taking a breath is the first and last thing we will ever do.
“We are what we are connected to,”ii [now so, more than ever]. And on the most fundamental level we are permanently connected to air.
So why Air? How did this all begin?
My original inspiration was sparked by an accidental social experience that occurred during an exhibition in 2013. Fascinated with how internal biological mechanism associated with time (heartbeats, breath, rhythms and cycles) could play a collaborative role with technology. I created a series of interactive pods, that when held in the palm of your hand, responded to the pace and rhythm of your heartbeat. Initially, I was interested in simply externalising an internal biological system, however, what became more fascinating for me was the intimacy between strangers that this sense of play created. It was through play that I stumbled upon an even more interesting phenomenon. If two people hold hands their hearts begin to beat at the same time. Although I have since found out that this is common knowledge in the medical world, it sparked a curiosity in wanting to understand how we as humans can be so intimately connected through interactions that exist purely in the external world?
I began by investigating the interconnected nature of human cohabitation. However, after attending the Anthropocene workshop in Berlin, the research broadened significantly to move beyond just the human-to-human connection and to question our connection to the “whole.” How do we influence and mark our existence onto the historical map of our planet?
Value of Research to Practice
This research has become important for me in that the ideas I have uncovered seem vital at a time when we face the potential for a systematic ecological breakdown, moving at an ever-increasing pace towards an irreparable point of no return. We can, at least at this very moment possibly change this current trajectory. And reestablishing the mostly forgotten human connection we have to our environment seems like one of the most pressing issues of our time.
It has become important for me to pursue a creative practice that endeavours to reinstate the value of connection as a means of remembering our place within the breathing, living landscape.
This has led to research into the many different types of complex networks that connect all facets of life. After such research I have found that the current political system (and those leading it) are incapable (or unwilling perhaps) to address the battle we currently face. We are so imbedded within the complexity of multiple networks it seems almost impossible to navigate our way into a different mode of thinking.
Through this research into the Anthropocene I have realized that the most pressing challenge we face involves the manmade manipulation of complex bio-spherical networks that pervades every aspect of our natural planet. Pace and connected acceleration in all facets of networks are proving beyond current political capabilities.
“A financial crisis that seems to drag on endlessly... A historically expensive decade of war against terrorists that produces more terrorists. A global ecosystem that seems beyond repair. New pandemic diseases arriving like clockwork every year. Endless refugee waves. Domestic politics that have been transformed into shouting extremism...every one of these problems has exactly the same cause: networks.” iii
I am acutely aware that the current political climate operates within [or does it generate?] a divisive social climate that is fought between nostalgia and paranoid pessimism on the one hand to a euphoric exaltation, individualistic win at all cost economic attitude [often perpetuated by the highly lucrative self help industry] on the other. At this point, neither ends of the spectrum are helping, however, both are highlighting that the change needs to occur at a psychological level first.
I am not claiming that this project is able to find that solution, what I am aiming to do is highlight the psychological friction our current relationship with nature induces and to recall the deep seeded awareness we all have of our place within the environment. [Actually, what I am secretly aiming to do is to see if I can create a body of work out of thin air].
I think a considered investigation into one of the most intimate and yet complex networks we share [breathing] could potentially be a valuable pedagogical tool. As Nietzsche stated, “the more abstract the truth you wish to teach, the more you must allure the senses to it.” This raises the question, could the knowledge harnessed from an investigation into the simple act of breathing [with intention to comprehend the complexity of air] be used as a means of grasping the complexity of the networks that pervade all other systems? Could the power of all networks be demystified by the simplicity of knowing the most intimate network?
“We experience power through networks now, as once we experienced it through brick-bound institutions...Networks don’t merely accelerate our markets, our news, and our innovation. They revolutionize the very nature of their power.”iv Understanding the power that networks have on every level has the potential to develop the intuition required to conquer the downsides of the accelerated connected entanglement we now find ourselves in.
The word “network” has become a ubiquitous term for everything from financial systems, DNA databases, social media, artificial intelligence, and geopolitics to narcotic rings, mafias, and terrorist cells to name just a few. However, the commonly overlooked equally complicated networks designed by nature are either ignored or exploited beyond repair with the common belief that these systems have been put in place purely to be manipulated to advance the human agenda.
In considering all this, the following research question was established:
How do we carry the marks and nuances of our shared experience?
[The term shared is used in this context to question the marking of the human and non-human alike]
On the surface it seems like a relatively simple question and yet as this research progresses the underlying complexity begins to surface:
This project has taken me into fascinating and unexpected territory including the perplexing shadows of mysticism, creation theories, and cultural psychology as a means of trying to understand the human connection to the environment through breath from the many varied cultural points of view. Or as it is more commonly phrased here with indigenous Australia: the connection to country through Air [Dreaming].
Without wanting to romanticise the past or live in the grips of nostalgia, I also found it important to research scientific theory and the technology associated with psychology, neuroscience and perception as a balanced way of interpreting the sensuous nature of our existence in Air.
Aim of Research
Through this research I plan on developing an immersive installation that creates a nonlinear experience...an almost mythical space that blurs the edges of perception. In what shape or form this space occupies is still open for experimentation and further research.
What I hope to find out is whether this experience will make it possible to remove [even temporarily] the imagined boarders we have created between one another and between the self and non- human? If so, how would we then carry the mark of that experience?
“Modern societies cannot be described without recognizing them as having a fibrous, thread-like, wiry, stringy, ropy, capillary character that is never captured by the notions of levels, layers, territories, spheres, categories, structure, systems. Familiar borders, like the ones dividing science and politics or military power and civilian safety, begin to erode when everything is linked [connected].”v
By drawing attention to the complex web of bio-spherical systems, networks and intricately woven connections we as humans and non-humans share could it potentially lead to a re-evaluation of the human and nonhuman relationship? The aim is to move beyond the preconceived idea of “us above them” and to transform this language into a nonlinear experience that distorts/changes our perception of what lies at the edges (surroundings).
Method of research
Through investigating scientific research into sensory perception, neuroscience and psychology, I aim to show that an understanding of the human mind (both the ephemeral and tangible aspects) is at the core of human potential and that the brain is yet another example of a complex network that requires a level of understanding if we hope to progress. How we perceive the world directly correlates to how we experience it.
My current understanding of perception has been greatly enhanced by researching the artwork of James Turrell.
“The greatest revelation borne by Turrell’s art is a deeper understanding of what it is to be a perceiving being and an awareness of how much our observation and experience is illuminated by the “inner light” of our perception.”vi
It is important to also consider here that this study is just as much about space and the human emotional instincts that arise when encountering a space as it about science, theory and technology.
Through this research I have been inspired by James Turrell’s interpretation of space. “...The quality of consciousness in space that occurs when you come into it, when you realize it is like an eye in the same way a camera has an eye, and space is somehow seeing and has a way of seeing made by the subconsciousness. With my work...its like walking into the lens of a very large camera that has this special way of seeing.”vii
As a means of support for the experiential and hermeneutical research methodology, a critical framework in relation to the contemporary art practice of artists such as James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Tacita Dean, and William Kentridge will be investigated.
Of all the facets this current topic has unearthed, there are three main categories of inquiry: Light, Air and Isolation.
1. LIGHT (past)
Starting with an investigation into the potential for drawing, I began by creating a list of ideas and assumptions for what drawing is ‘supposed’ to be – I then turned all of these assumptions around to find an interesting approach that possibly challenges these commonly held beliefs. This was the beginning of the light drawings – perforated, punctured, wounded “paper like skin” [Zarina]viii – opened pores to finally allow it to breathe – given my previous fascination with biological rhythms, breath became the current rhythm I chose to work with.
I was initially investigating light as a medium to draw with. However, as the meditative effect of the process developed, breath slowly crept into the project (predominantly thanks to the advise of my Studio Advisor Jean Marie).
What started to change with the development of these drawings was the intention of breath. Each hole became a single breath...a deep inhale with intention...followed by a relaxed and natural exhale. After reading a biography on the artist, Robert Irwin, I found out that much of his development as an artist were both inspiring and relevant to this project. After studying Zen philosophy, he talks about the energy that is inherent in an object.
“There is a consistency to physical objects that somehow reads all the way through...you can see it without even picking it up. It’s absolutely essential that everything be done all the way through.”ix
This comment was in reference to Irwin’s dot painting series in which he meticulously painted both sides of the canvas. “...Those paintings were finished both on the front and on the back, which...maybe from my exposure to Zen Pottery– the basic idea being that any gesture of idea, should read all the way through...I just had this conviction, that the sum total would be greater, even though that might not be definable in any causal, connected way...You only picked it up subliminally, this added energy.”x
This statement kept me on track during the infinitely slower process I was now adopting by linking each hole in the drawing to a single breath. Every time I was tempted to quickly finish the work, with only myself accountable to the process, this statement rang true in my head. No longer was this work about producing a finished drawing, it was about a process from which the drawing became merely a byproduct, however, it was a byproduct imbedded with the energy of intention. I now wonder if that energy can be seen/felt? What I do know however, is that there is honesty in this work.
Light and breath are the two fundamental elements found in many of the creation mythologies I have been researching. And as James Turrell states, “light is the essence of seeing...what and how we know and feel is a function of the way we look at things; our desire to see and know also shapes what we see.”xi
Turrell and Irwin’s investigation into light and perception is an area of research that is very interesting for me. This inspiration then led to the question of how to ensure this research didn’t lead into a form of imitation. How to distance myself from a field that has so successfully been navigated by these two Californian artists? How do I now walk with this information and yet use my own language or more importantly my own questions? I believe that by focusing on the relationship between air and breath in conjunction with light may lead to a different path.
Breath and light – what potential does this hold? An interesting possibility arose from this question: Can breath be transformed into light?
The psychology of the light or more importantly the mythology of light as a medium in itself and not as a prop used to enhance the experience of a picture is what fascinates me about light.
2. AIR (present)
“It is much easier for us to hide behind and reason in complex terms rather than yield (even submit) ourselves to an idea that is beautifully simple and direct...that the breath is the only vehicle we have for the transportation of human ideas and human spirit.”xii
The breath is at the very heart of connection and after careful consideration I realised that the mechanical process of breathing is in fact the catalyst for an even deeper investigation into the inherent potential in Air. “The power of breath lies not only in understanding how we breathe but perhaps more importantly, what we breathe.”xiii
Of all the biological cycles that continue to sustain us for our experience on Earth this is the one that firmly grounds us to the Earth, our breath is a mutual exchange the happens continuously between ourselves and our world....
Air is this mythical and invisible medium that we mostly ignore in the constant quest for human progress, mainly because its pervasive presence is so absent.
Many traditional and ancient cultures placed huge significance on the vitality of the Air that circulates and vortexes around and in us continuously.
“Aristotle describes the origin of breath as having its source within, either as a “function of the soul” or “soul” itself...for Aristotle, pulsation, breath and soul are the fundamental principles interlinking the physical and the psychological experience of the body.” xiv In a similar vein, for the Navajo people, Air -with its capacity for awareness, thought and speech – has the same properties that modern European cultures attribute to an interior or individual “mind” or “psyche.” By attributing this abstract concept to Air, the Navajo believe that what we attribute to the “mind” does not belong to us but rather belongs to all encompassing environment in which we participate.xv
Air gives power to communication. It gives a voice to your thoughts – try to say something without exhaling any air? People take it for granted...the continuous rhythmical inhale and exhale... with very little consideration for the potential held in within the air that we breathe.
For this project I plan to take inspiration from the breathing landscape, to reconsider the value of this powerful medium, to slow down, to breathe and to listen.
There are 2 artists that, for me, capture the transient, ephemeral nature of air, and both use drawing as a medium to capture it. Tacita Dean’s Fatigues series are immense blackboard drawings documenting the melting snow from Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush Mountains. By using chalk on blackboard, Dean’s drawings capture the state of constant flux between the drawn, the redrawn, the erased and the ghostly remains of what came before it in a process that imitates exactly how the air draws on the surface of these mountains. The chalk is also subject to the movement of air, creating a temporality to this work. These drawings are quiet, meditative and respectful to the subject matter. This work talks about time, disappearance and obsolescence. Most of Dean’s practice sits in the realm of meditation and patience.xvi
Labour intensive work is common in Dean’s practice and these particular drawings took nearly a month to complete. It was refreshing for me to find this out about her practice as artists are often now criticized as not being spontaneous if they take this approach. It is a common thread that Dean shares with the artist William Kentridge.
After researching William Kentridge’s practice, I developed an even greater respect for his art. His use of political content never feels dogmatic or opinionated, it is simply stated as it occurs. “The personal concerns have to be interesting as thoughts outside in the world, and what I contemplate in the world has to have resonance in the studio: there has to be something to make or draw. I work through inversions and transformations.” xvii
I am particularly interested in Kentridge’s use of movement, sound and projection with drawing. His drawings in this format create an experience of being enmeshed in the drawn space rather than just as a passive viewer.
“Kentridge is interested in how humanity is layered over nature, in how our perceptions are determined by ourselves rather than by their objects.” xviii
For me it is the movement in drawing that intrigues me most about Kentridge’s work. The drawings are constantly assembled and then disassembled with the film as the only evidence that these drawings ever existed. What I found most fascinating about Kentridge is that he considers the walking between the drawing and the camera as being a part of the process, a kind of walking meditation and documentation.
"Kentridge has said that the palimpsests in his films and drawings originally seemed to him a grave misfortune, the result of imperfect erasing - and then a friend remarked that it was the most interesting thing about the work. The pentimento of his first imaginings haunts the image that is preserved. There is no present tense in Kentridge's work that is not mottled by the past.”
This statement makes me question my fascination with the potential held in the future. And if the idea of visible erasing speaks of the past, could it be inverted to create drawings that somehow glimpse into the potential of the future...
3. ISOLATION (the future)
Through this path of inquiry I came to the realisation that solitude is important for the development of this project; isolation as a meditation on air and contemporary drawing. To be completely immersed in the landscape, as a way of connecting to the ideas and potential in Air is something I feel instinctively committed to. I hope to find the mental silence required to breath life into this project – to be as far removed from the familiar as I can – to completely immerse myself into the ideas presented in this paper. I plan on applying for a residency either in Iceland or the desert here in Australia.
I have been inspired by the artists, Robert Irwin and Adrian Piper, who both chose a period of self-imposed isolation at different points of their practice. Adrian Piper intentionally created a space of vulnerability, fasting and social deprivation as a private, autobiographical investigation into understanding the human mind through the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant. This resulted in the project, Food for Spirit (1971). I really appreciated the level of dedication and honesty Piper put into this project, to immerse herself into the process so completely that it overpowered all other aspects of her life.
Robert Irwin on the other hand, fortuitously found himself in a situation of self-imposed isolation. His account of this event appears to have infiltrated every aspect of his art practice.
He spent 8 months in a secluded section of Ibiza, Spain, without any books or tools to remain occupied [completely unplugged as he put it]. He could not speak the language of the local people and had no way of communicating outside of the local area.
“He thought about less and less. Finally he just thought about thinking. No longer calibrating his thoughts in terms of a social reality... he almost stopped thinking in terms of language. There was a slow purification of thinking...When you peel all those layers away and you arrive at just the qualities of the ideas themselves, it becomes very clear and very simple ...”
After researching a number of different indigenous and ancient cultural beliefs that surround human connection to the landscape, I realized there are so many consistent threads that transcend boarders and continents and even time. One of which is the profound value of periods of isolation where often the shaman/ mystic/elder lived in the periphery of the community. Acting “...as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field...they ensure that the relationship between the human society and the larger society of the nonhuman is balanced...”xix
However, the most common thread that binds diverse cultures, throughout history is the recognition of the vital importance of the Air, the Wind and the Breath as aspects of a singularly sacred power... “air for oral people is the archetype of all that is ineffable, unknowable, yet undeniably real and efficacious.”xx
i Weschler, Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, 89. ii Cooper Ramo The Seventh Sense, loc. 409.
iii Cooper Ramo The Seventh Sense, loc. 86.
iv Cooper Ramo The Seventh Sense, loc. 370.v Cooper Ramo The Seventh Sense, loc. 645.
vi Govan, James Turrell, 15.
vii Michael Govan and Christine. Y. Kim. James Turrell. Los Angeles: DelMonico Books, 2013, p 212
viii Pesenti, Zarina: Paper Like Skin, 1
ix Weschler, Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, 63.
x Weschler, Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, 93-94. xi Govan, James Turrell, 275.
xii Jordan, The Musician’s Breath, loc. 135.
xiii Jordan, The Musician’s Breath, loc. 220.
xiv Jordan, The Musician’s Breath, loc. 1241.
xv Abraham, The Spell of the Sensuous, 237.
xvi Royoux,Tacita Dean. 26.
xvii Solomon, “William in Exile,” 31
xviii Solomon, “William in Exile,” 38
xix Abraham, The Spell of the Sensuous, 7
xx Abraham, The Spell of the Sensuous, 266.
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