In March 2009 I was given a wonderful commission by the Graduate Student Alliance of the Rhode Island School of Design. We had been discussing the idea of a kaleidoscopic conversation flowing through and around the adventures of creating and making work by all the graduate students as the year culminates in the graduate thesis and events happening as the RISD year transitions into everyone’s future. In a brief way the words here are no more than an impression of that imagined and unique conversation during the year.
We can say that there are spaces, and that there are cognitive spaces, that is, spaces of discovery, knowing, modelling, of receiving and giving, of neutrality, waiting, of action, of patience, of effort, occurrence, and realising. We live in a spatial world of three vectors and six directions, where multiple additional senses cross-reference each other and where time can be fast or slow, and yet simultaneously the same for everyone. In other words a paradoxical sphere of possibilities limited only by our imagination and courage. Our cognitive space is therefore a space of process rather than fact. North, South, East, West, Zenith and Nadir lend us some cognitive buoyancy which we can begin our journeys. Without something to balance or resist us, it is impossible to move. The studio is our balance, and our engagement with the material world and through it with ourselves and with others, occurs both through the process of our work and through the results of this in the social world.
I’m sure we all wish to be wittier than it has pleased heaven to make us since the foundation for our courage is to be able to believe in our own agency. And we do that by remaking and reliving our own stories. One of the richest experiences in a life can be when another tells back to you your story after an unexpected period of time. In setting out on an endeavour, our normal condition really is that we rarely know how to get from A to Z, that is, from our thoughts and inspirations to an effective expression. We often cannot conceive of it, or the idea of being able to do it eludes us. Whether we know it or not it is process that solves this paradox for us. We can see it in the natural world as winter transitions to spring and indeed, in ourselves in myriad ways.
The spirit of the grad process book is atmospheric, ambient and fuzzy in conception; as in fuzzy logic. I am intrigued by the idea that fuzzy logic is essentially socially inclusive. Precisely because it is not too pointed. We are often asked ‘what is the point of what you do?’ a question that is as annoying as it is difficult to answer. For me Art is the lifeline that draws us away from the atavistic and builds fresh intelligence and new civilizations, surviving both small and large catastrophies. Ellen Dissanyake has shown us that art is in our genes. (Dissanyake Ref; Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why)
‘Electrostatic’ makes me think of an effect felt at a distance. We need to speak about what is ambient and what is the subject of attention because these two are contingent upon each other and cannot be separated. What is it that is chosen as part of an overall experience?
The evocative aspects of that which is ambient tend to move us eventually in a particular direction. Perhaps we also choose more specific things to look at, to listen to, or to feel, as a way to draw us away from the specific toward the evocative as a way of amending our journey.
There are things that the eye takes in that we don’t realise we are looking at. Another way of stating this is that there is more to a field of view than what we think about. Add to this the essential ambiguity of time inherent in so-called ‘right-brain’ cognition, then we now have a kind of perceptual time travel, without which it would be impossible to construct narratives.
Conversations across space (moon drawing)
We tend to think that our cognitive space pretty much coincides with what is ‘out there’. In fact we can only know what is out there by travelling through it, colliding with things and attempting to connect up the sensory experiences we have at all the surfaces of the body, then making up stories about it. An amusing example of this is when we hear someone say “Have you noticed the moon is really big tonight?” Although the moon does indeed appear to be bigger or smaller at different times, in fact the angular displacement in the visual field of the moon’s disc as it orbits the earth varies much less than we think it does. The illusion occurs because of a significant discrepancy between cognitive space and space as it is distributed in the solar system. We each have significantly less vested experience in the vertical (Zenith) direction than we can accumulate by living in and interacting with objects in any of the horizontal directions. This means that for us, (and not for birds) the horizontal directions contain a significantly larger density of mapping and history for any potential physical experience than does the vertical dimension, straight up in the air where the balloon goes. In this vector few of us have any embodied experience, and so cognitively it is reduced in significance. This differential in spatial engagement translates into a virtual cognitive ‘sphere’ in which the vertical axis is considerably compressed than are the horizontal axes, resulting in a disc form of elliptical section. If you then compare the transit of the moon’s disc around this elliptical shape you will see that we read it differently according to altitude rather than according to its physical size with which we have no direct connection and so cannot know, we only have a cognitively modelled connection. This is so much easier to draw than to describe.
It also means that what we touch is known to us more completely, and in fact known to us as a precondition of seeing. In this way, touch confirms vision. Vision without touch can be anything from speculative, to ambiguous, to illusory. This is the value of what we call ‘hands-on’. Conversely, vision can be thought of as extending the sense of touch in both time and space, extending the domain of our imagination and experience way beyond the boundary of the body.
The Critique Effect
The process of critique makes me think of distinctions between writing and speaking, and the specific aspects of each type of communication;
Written and spoken language each have differing characteristics, and the discrepancies between the two point to a domain that has to be explored to be understood. Written language can be thought of as embodying the correct syntax that signifies dominant power structures, ownership and control at a distance. In contrast the spoken word carries through sound; which conveys such qualities as character, nuance, individuality and poetic inflection within the moment. Poetry is meant to be read aloud. Sound is often thought of as a primary formative influence in both the material and experiential worlds.
Aesthetics is the immanence of what has not yet been produced (Jorge Luis Borges)
It is my belief that an effective critique cannot be held unless first the intentions of the individual are explored and made clear. In 2009 the Division of Graduate Studies at RISD was lucky to have out of its many visiting critics a number of significant contributors to the subject of critique. David Gersten constructed a ‘listening critique’ across differing disciplines, and Jürgen Partenheimer discussed a way of managing a critique to be as constructive as possible, for example by forming a kind of carefully ‘depressurised’ zone around the individual artist in order that newly emerging or fresh perceptions would be allowed to come into awareness rather than being suppressed or hidden by insensitive or irrelevant critical language. Advanced strategies by leading practitioners are cultivated by such dialog between students and faculty.
I think of critique as the main opportunity for all of us to continue to develop our language through testing it and extending it so that it may keep up with our work. The use of language in this kind of ‘ideas lab’ setting clearly helps to propel our understanding, simplifying and clarifying where possible; identifying directions in our practice and researches where needed.
Beyond the Vernacular
What is it that arises from our behaviour? We call this an emergent property. We have all had the experience that we may intend something as we begin, or that we have ‘intentions’ which we do some work with. What then happens is an actual journey that may depart either a little or most profoundly from our intentions. We need to notice the discrepancy between these things in order to learn something about ourselves and our circumstances. Put another way, we should try to understand the relationship between our intentions and what actually happened. This ‘intention and realisation’ becomes a condition for our creative awareness. Once the work is ‘out there’; of course, it takes on other relational meanings separate to ourselves.
The theme of ‘What happens on the journey’ is one of the constituents of the great historical teaching narratives in the world, such as the Odyssey or the Aeneid in the Greek myths, or in a more local sense The Dream of Crazy Horse. Such narratives may have an outer description of a previous epoch but actually consist of common human experience extending throughout and within time, independently of transient cultural aspects. Where temporal location has disappeared, our human condition may be revealed in its essential forms.
Through variations in our own creative practice we can be either inside or outside of our own time and in a larger sense within the human continuum from where we can observe and locate specific meanings within our moments. We can come face to face with generations and surprisingly with ourselves. Seeking to go beyond, below, around, within and through our own vernaculars becomes our endeavour.