Art in The Face of The Sublime

[unpublished, 2000]

One would imagine that the purpose of an Art education is to learn about Art theory and practice. Over my undergraduate education I have found that the more ideas I am exposed to the more I realize how little I really know. In my first few university years I thought of Art only as a form of expression and communication. I thought all Art had to have a statement, a concrete proposition to make about the world. At this point in time I don’t feel that I know enough to make concrete statements. Answers lead to questions and the more I learn the less sure I am about what truth means. My role as an artist and the purpose of Art itself becomes just as mysterious. It would seem that in order to be an art-maker one must have the answers to these questions. Perhaps the purpose of Art is the pursuit of these questions.

In the process of writing this paper a very significant question was posed to me: What drives you to make images? At first I had no idea how to approach such a question. I was lost; why do I make Art? I have realized that the force that drives me to make art is the same force that drives me to know. I wish to know through subjects such as semiotics, philosophy, mathematics, quantum physics, and biochemistry. These areas are particularly inspiring for me.

I have what would be called an “analytical” mind. I tend towards deep thoughts about reason and truth. The force that drives these fascinations is my need to understand, to know. The force is not only a teleological drive, but contains within it an apposing force. Alongside this need to explore is the understanding that the world, in its entirety, cannot be fully understood. Sciences, and all systems of knowledge, are playing with understanding and truth. The way Derrida sees the “play of signification” in a text I see a play of truth in systems of knowledge. Not grounded on any absolute, the referent is constantly shifting. The properties of the objects of science are slippery and interdependent. So much so that one would never be able to move beyond them to anything concretely “real”. I don’t believe in Science, not as the source of some absolute truth. I see science as a structure through which to understand the world, rather than a reflection of the way the world really is. No doubt the structure fits, which is the purpose of science. Just this fact is what makes science so alluring. It’s all in the interpretation. I’ve surrendered to the idea that there is an unbridgeable gap between theory and truth. The world is at such a level of complexity that it cannot be wholly understood. An understanding of truth, in its entirety, is indeed beyond human comprehension.

So what happens to the idea of “progress?” Where are we marching towards if there is an impassible gap between our destination and us? Like Hume, I do not think it makes any sense to get rid of those systems of knowledge that have served us so well. In our knowledge and understanding we are playing in those signs that make up our knowledge. We have created richness and complexity of meaning from the chaos of the outside world and that is as close to our nature as anything could be. This is why I don’t feel I have anything concrete to say. I research an idea, a subject for a work, and the closer I get into it, the more I understand, the more I realize how utterly out of grasp it is. Attempting to truly understand, to push through the system and look out into the chaos of the chasm, is the best way to collide with the sublime, face to face.

THEORY

For me art has been informed by a number of different schools of thought. My main influences are structuralism, post-structuralism/deconstruction and quantum physics. From the start, of my art making experience, I’ve been obsessed with structure. When I was younger I was first exposed to the idea of molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, etc. It seemed as though every object was nothing more than a collection of other smaller objects, some yet to be discovered. Seemed to me that this was an indication that this chain would go on forever, every object yielding new ones but never getting to anything concrete. Only the relations between particles left. This idea leads me to think more about the relations between elements than the intrinsic qualities of those elements themselves.

The central idea of Structuralism is the belief that all objects operate within the context of a system and therefore one cannot understand the object without understanding the system. This idea comes from the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who looked at language as a closed system where meaning was arbitrarily assigned by the surrounding culture. These meanings can never be understood in isolation because the meanings of the words are interdependent. According to Saussure the system of language is what allows the creation of reality. For him there is no reality beyond the structure of language. The structure of language contains reality. These ideas have greatly influenced my thinking about the world, and my ideas about artwork. The difference between Structuralist thought and my own is that I believe not in only one system of language to define reality but multiple, and possibly contradictory, systems which define reality.

The antithesis of Structuralism is Poststructuralism. Structuralism subscribes to the same beliefs as science, where there is an objective reality that is beyond a subjective view. In the case of linguistic Structuralism this is language itself. In science it is the scientific view of the world. This is scientific realism. According to this view concrete truth comes from the application of the scientific method, and reason, to the world. Poststructuralism is more skeptical about knowledge. The connection of meaning for the poststructuralist is much more fluid, it is not tied so concretely to reality. Poststructuralism is anti-logocentric, not attached to a “center” or “ground” on which to anchor meaning. Indeed the purpose of Poststructuralism is the decentering of meaning to frame it in different contexts. In my own mind these ideas of Poststructuralism have moved beyond language and into all studies of “truth” or “knowledge.” I approach the body of knowledge, from a science, as Derrida would approach a text. As a system within itself with references to the outside world, as a play of meanings which requires decentering. The references inside science are not perfect. The nature of the system itself distances the sign from the signified. The signified in science is a piece of an implied world, rather than a concrete one. The signs used to develop knowledge in science don’t point to truth, but to its own construction of truth. This is where the idea of Simulacra comes about. A simulacrum is a copy, a reference, without a referent. This separates the constructed “truth” from objective Truth. For me this is an indication that there is no objective Truth. The referents in the system of scientific knowledge are not “real” but are projected into reality. One could have multiple systems of knowledge that are all valid, yet give contradictory visions of the world. A perfect example of this is the particle-wave duality problem in physics. Depending on the experiment (the intellectual context) light presents itself either as a wave or as a particle, never both at once.

Quantum physics is one of my strongest inspirations in art and the pursuit of knowledge. Evolving directly out of the foundations of science, some interpretations of quantum physics suddenly break from the “objective” reality assumption. According to the Copenhagen interpretation the act of observation collapses the potentialities in the universe to one reality. Under this interpretation, as far as quantum physics can see, the “objective” world is only this collection of potentialities. Reality comes from the collapse of the possibilities. The Copenhagen interpretation is not the only way of looking at the knowledge from quantum physics. There have been many interpretations of those ideas. Another prominent interpretation is the “multiple worlds” theory. According to this interpretation each of the potentialities are actually separate universes that split off when events occur. Every possibility for the arrangement of the universe exists as a distinct universe. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, put forth by Bohr, Heisenberg, and Born, the cloud of potentialities are all there is, to the “objective” reality. Reality only exists when observation collapses the potentials to one particular arrangement. The link from the cloud of potentials to a particular reality, produced by observation, is as arbitrary as the link from a signifier to a particular signified, in a text.

ART-MAKING

Here I am, face to face with the sublime, completely in awe of the truth before me. What is there to say? Once one is looking right into the face of the sublime what is the purpose in saying anything? What can a statement hold that has value with this before you? What is the meaning of Art in this context? The key to this question is one put forth in the earlier paragraph. It is the drive to understand. Art in this context is a way of understanding, a way of playing with those signs that make up our reality. Art is playing with ideas, making mistakes, creating processes, learning and becoming. Once you have cast off the shackles of common “understanding” then you are left to create. I have realized I want to make art that lives. To make art that has an existence, a meaning, beyond me-the creator. To create work that continues to evolve and is connected to the play of signs from other systems of knowledge. For the piece to live it has to have meaning, a place beyond the intentions of the artist, it is not just a manifestation of ideas but a living entity. It cannot be summed up or reduced to a “concept”. It is something so attached to those systems around it that it would be impossible to exist without them.

Ekran recently completed a show called “Myselves Ourself.” The curatorial inspiration came from a Sharon Brooks article. According to the article the function of the curator is to create a richer meaning in the art based on the juxtaposition of works. Brooks stresses that that multiple works, in a gallery context, create a dialog between them. Ekran took this idea into the new media / system based Art context and created a network where the individual pieces could actually communicate with one and other. Each piece, which was either system-based, or time-based, sent its metaphors out to the other pieces which effected their behavior. The aim of this was to have the network exhibit behaviors that it was not intended to have. Through the communication emergent properties came about. The show became much more complex than the sum of its individual parts. In most cases this lead to an incredible lack of stability. It was very difficult to keep the system up at all. The individual elements became more and more erratic, even unpredictable. Such was the nature of the project. The show was alive because it was intimately tied to the world, to its audience (through sensor interaction and the act of observation) and to truth because nature itself had a lot to do with the unpredictability of the system. Each piece in itself was also a complex system. Two of which where even complex enough to create their own unpredictability. The software on the computers was sufficiently complex to make prediction quite difficult. Since the piece was physically connected-alive, its physical (concrete) elements were connected to the play of signs, play of knowledge, though the metaphors of each piece, and the meaning interpreted from each of its states.

For a work to be alive it does not require concrete metaphor. I do consider my pure-mathematical experiments alive. These are experiments, in structure, based only of mathematical and aesthetic principals. In these types of work the elements, sine waves for example, are signs. They are certainly very slippery ambiguous signs, with no easy route through which to grasp meaning. To grasp meaning from such a work, research becomes necessary. The work is made more to be pondered than to express meaning, it’s in the pondering that the meaning takes shape and the signifiers start to collect. For example there is a connection between the sine waves in my systems and the quantum wave function in physics.

There is a continuum between structuralist and poststructuralist ideals. On one hand meaning has a direct tie to its referent, signs are understood to have meaning. On the other hand the meaning of the signs is decentered and becomes a process more than a reference. It is in these purely mathematical works that the meanings become most decentered, simply because of the ambiguity/generality of the signs. The relations between elements become far more important that the content of the individual elements themselves.

Once you look at an artwork as system of signs, concrete and implied. Then every object becomes a system. Science does reflect this. A rock is not simply an inanimate lump but is a complex chemical and material system, continually changing and altering over time. So if everything really is a system then how can one look at meaning as a simple signifier-signified relationship? To ascribe a literal (concrete) meaning to Art is not to take into account how it really functions. All creations, including knowledge, are systems. Perhaps an embrace of the intrinsic systematic nature of Art, and knowledge, will bring us closer to the surface of the sublime.