Alive to Perception
A Practice in Four Chapters and a Coda
Let me start at the end (or perhaps the beginning, for I was reading books about brain, mind and self long before I first picked up a pencil). Twenty years ago I trained in Neuro Linguistic Programming (which can be defined as the study of subjective experience). Now I read books about Phenomenology. Is there really anything new here? Is it more about what I do with this information, how I process it, turn it into knowledge? That in a way I now share it rather than storing it and concern myself with what I am communicating, the act of communication itself and its failure.
And what of dancing? I have been dancing in some form or another since my late twenties, learning to inhabit my body through belly dancing. These days I practice social tango, a highly intellectualised dance uniting musicality with non verbal communication between partners, and deliberate control of one's movements.
In March 2017 I said: ‘At the moment, everything is a study, a circling around embodiment’. This is still true, that my practice is at heart a study that works best when I work organically, listening to what resonates, with a regular return to my foundations in Chapter 4 The Coolness of Looking.
And when I make work I find now that somehow all roads are leading back to the occupation of space, to my corporeality expressed in that, moving in space, engaging with it through touch, knowing that it is there, the abilities that I use to operate within it that marry my interior and exterior worlds.
Then thinking further, and reading Chapter 4 of The Visible and The Invisible – The Intertwining (Merleau Ponty) (Analysis here) I find that the concept of intertwining speaks to me of inseparability, that there is a constant elision between the senses and their experience and none of this can be divorced from our constant operating in space.
And so I call this Coda “Inseparability”, uniting the four chapters of my practice in an endless circling around embodiment.
Learning to Walk - Stills & Extract
Chapter 1: The Loss of Forgetting
Being aware of the action of operating in space
how to rely on the consciousness?
how to challenge the consciousness?
to be surmounted by the idea of consciousness as
(pg 198 The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty)
What does this mean?
When I speak of the Loss of Forgetting I am speaking of an awareness of the body’s capabilities in their use.
I am looking inward, paying attention to the operation of the body in space. It comes from my conclusion (see below) that we truly occupy space in movement and that this requires the use of all our faculties in a way that we learn very young and that then slips beyond awareness except when we try something new.
How do I make work about this particular form of subjective experience?
To describe experience is to experience a description, a shadow experience (albeit that the imagination is a powerful tool). To enter into experience fully requires stepping into it. But how do I engage others in that.
As I came into the new year I was reflecting on my failures at the end of 2017 and how to take forward the occupation of space. To say that Body Tetris had ‘gone flat’ would be quite an understatement but I concluded that the problem lay not with the material but with its passivity, it’s inertness.
So I turned to movement, initially through photography of long exposures of the hand in movement, occupying space through movement. I have a large number of hand images (again), some of them quite captivating, but it was clear to me that the next stage was movement per se rather than a still image of movement….
This would be via its observation or its record, so the choices are: video; performance; or participation.
Echo Test 3
Do You Know What I Mean?
An obvious place to start is video: if nothing else I have used this as a tool already in some of my investigations. Since I had started with the movement of the hands in space I continued with this but using a clip on video camera to obtain a fingertips eye view of the world. Whilst my playing around with the Echo Tests was quite fun and may be worth revisiting, there was no immediate mileage. So, I skewed my exhibition going more towards videos than normal and made one myself for the end of term critique in March: 'Do You Know What I Mean?', a first attempt to marry the record of movement with a narrative of being.
When I watch a video I experience a measure of distance even when ‘in it’ or emotionally engaged in it. This is in measure the experience I am calling on when I talk about the desire of touch – that the visual distances. To me a video is still a shadow experience even when immersive. If anything it steals from me an opportunity for imagination.
As I reflected on this it seemed to me that for me, the only real way to express movement is through movement itself, rather than its record.
As part of this consideration I went to ‘Somewhere in Between’ at the Wellcome Collection and reflect on the two videos here.
Reviewing my own writing I came across this from January:
To become aware of the body is mostly about being asked to move or change the body in ways that you do not want or where you are incompetent (or confined). If I am going to confront someone with their own physicality then I am going to have to confront them in some way, get them to move in a way they do not really wish to, confine them, reduce the amount of space available to them, or give them something to do that they can’t do.
My only previous experience of participation is in the Touching Contract which I have now reflected on here. In the Touching Contract we were manipulated so there was a lack of spontaneity which made it a different experience, in a way it was a performance because as a participant I still felt quite incidental.
Although I would prefer to work with something participative there is no guarantee that someone will participate, in fact it is unlikely which is why I have chosen to start by experimenting with performance. The set up for the Touching Contract is that people were invited to apply to participate through Artangel which has quite a following anyway, a scenario that would not apply to me.
A path through the installation
When I see a performance I ask myself: what is it about this activity or action that tells me something? What is it I am supposed to be taking away or am I here to take from it exactly what I see? The fact is that most art is consumed not experienced which sets up a barrier to the things I speak of (I even do this myself). But one must start somewhere.
Lately I have skewed my exhibition choices more towards performance and I reflect on this here.
Although observation is not participation I am thinking that the set up should be simple enough that people can imagine themselves doing it, creating a connection through engagement and empathy with the physically present body in space and time. And performance is spatial, even when observed, in a way that video is not which is compatible with my practice being about the occupation of and operation in space.
Learning To Walk
‘Learning to Walk’ is about using my body’s ability to learn and to feel and to balance, proprioceptive skills I use all the time and normally take for granted but repackaged so that I must pay attention to them. So I will be walking backwards using the bare foot to detect a difference in the floor texture to navigate. At the same time there will be a few obstacles to take into account.
I wanted to keep this as simple as possible to avoid other connotations; its complexity lies solely in what I am asking the body to do (because this is actually a highly complex thing already). This is within the range of a normal healthy body; there is no need to be a dancer or an athlete or train for hours in gymnastics. The set is in black and white to unite it aesthetically but it’s not about being aesthetically pleasing. If the design has any connotations I am intending these to be an association with everyday materials, perhaps of the city.
Having said that it is the case that I am drawn to the work of John Virtue and do have a love of visceral charcoal drawings (which in the past I have made myself and quite possibly will return to in the future). I think this has clearly influenced how I have developed the "camouflage" on my installation, a camouflage that requires substantial movement in space to create.
There is a question too about whether I may learn the path through repetition, information I will gain from the degree show itself for use in the future.
Whatever I do here requires space and that means a studio or a residency or both plus further research and experiment around performance, and going to more performances. My preference would be to move into participation, possibly with a collaborator, but setting that up could take some time as I work on building up suitable connections. I would also like to bring back in an element of playfulness and draw more on my own experience in dancing.
In the immediate term I have booked on a choreography course at Siobhan Davies dance studios on which: "participants will consider how we use choreography in our everyday lives drawing upon the social habits, structures and ideas that organise our movement. Participants will be encouraged to try out different methods for creating and structuring movement, and building choreographic skills."
Chapter 2: The Desire of Touch
The reaching out with the hands for connection – the occupation of space through touch
Would anyone disagree with me if I said that I have an obsession with hands? But why do I have an obsession with hands? And where does it fit in my overall practice?
What does this mean?
Clearly everything I do, I do with my hands. Even when I write I do so with a pen or a keyboard, tracing my words out across the keys, sensing the letters through the spatial comparisons between fingers. When I draw, even drawing that falls into the Coolness of Looking, there are my hands again. And I talk with them. What would a conversation be without the hands right in there dancing along to the rhythm of my voice, emphasising the points I am making with specific gestures, reaching out and pulling back as I push my points forward and regroup, embodying my speech.
And what is this desire?
For me this is about the desire for the real, the tactile… We touch all the time without thinking. The visual is not enough even with the body’s ability to recreate in itself an empathic response to what is seen. I do not feel connected through the visual it is touch that brings connection. So the desire of touch is that it is for connection to space.
At the same time this is part visual. After all I do not reach out to touch something I have not seen. For me, at least, I see and then I have the desire to touch. So the two are linked.
In focussing on the occupation of space then I am also reflecting on how we connect to that space. Or as Merleau Ponty has described it:
Since the same body sees and touches, visible and tangible belong to the same world. It is a marvel too little noticed that every movement of my eyes – even more, every displacement of my body – has its place in the same visible universe that I itemize and explore with them [my eyes], as, conversely, every vision takes place somewhere in the tactile space.
(Pg 134 The VIsible and the Invisible, Merleau Ponty)
The history of my obsession begins as ever in Chapter 4, the Coolness of Looking. In developing this work I am drawing on my responses to making the skull scroll, the flatness of the hand scans, and consideration of “what do the hands do?” Why do I call the skull scroll “Sometimes I feel the pencil moving on my skin”? Why did I have this experience?
In June 2017, out of the blue a phrase appeared in my morning writing ‘the desire of touch’. Working with scans of the hands, whilst fascinating had reached an end point. Exactly how many scans of the hands can there be? I have a storehouse of images and have reflected at length on the lack of depth of field and how this feeds back into considerations of the occupation of space, the three-dimensionality of the hand and the body.
So back to drawing but what sort of drawing? What is it about the hand that speaks to all of me? It is the hands ability to reach out and touch. So I started looking at the hand in contact with objects, the way it wraps around and grasps objects. That this appeared at a time when I was reflecting on the occupation of space is surely not a surprise, where else could my obsession with hands go in this context?
Touch Structure 1
It is this that I started to work out in the pieces I created for Sensing Place with their mix of the digital and the drawn, impossibility of structure and handprints (literally touching with painty fingers). So these works are developed at the layer of experience I talk of, rather than being drawings per se.
They are a play on touching as well as a record of touching. The digital is about the visual, the disconnection of vision and that we in part use photography rather than engaging with what we are seeing or experiencing, including ourselves. This is contrasted with the textures of the drawn, things that have a haptic quality and also mark out the textures of the skin, using oil paint as a skin to be drawn into. And the impossible structures, that it is not possible for a hand to touch such structures in this way.
For a detailed discussion of Sensing Place as an exhibition go (here)
I am now reading “Hands and What We Do With Them” (Darren Leader) looking at the psychoanalytic aspects of our relationships with hands… The implication of this book is that humans are the ultimate fidgets and we reach out and fiddle with things all the time as a distraction from being present to ourselves. This is an interesting contrast to my own thinking and deserving of contrastive analysis.
In making work I continue to explore in my sketchbooks the interaction of the hand and its distortions around objects. I am making playful videos about what the hands can do (Echo Test 3 is above in Chapter 1). A fingertips eye view of the world proved to be extremely dull but there is something to be mined here around capacity.
Following a conversation with Margaret Ashman at Embodying Gesture (analysis here) I am also considering whether I should learn sign language.
Chapter 3: To Go With Bare Feet
The Occupation of Space through Movement – The Operation in Space
What does it mean “To Go Barefoot”?
There is the literal interpretation, which is the freedom that goes with the removal of the shoes, think then about what we associate with that freedom. Childhood, beaches, holidays, just being… In my ideal world I would be permanently bare foot though that is not really what I mean here.
To Go = To move, To be in space through movement
Bare Feet = connection to that going and the freedom within it
This then is about a state of being and understanding that state of being. I have come to this point from a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding as to how much space I really occupy, followed by a consideration of what it is to occupy space.
Last year I spent some time investigating my lack of true perception of my own size. This period started with photography of the body itself, printing out images for the Corridor Show at their accurate dimensions. I cut further pieces of paper accurately to my height and widest point but then started flipping to and fro between ideas of positive and negative space. Calculating my volume at 1/20 of a meter cubed I built a meter cube to find out what that meant and spent a number of days wrapping myself in chicken wire to “see” my volume. For more details on the residency please go here.
As part of this I started making negative imprints of the body and developed my footprints into the piece Rock, Paper… for the Crypt Gallery exhibition. (Although overall Rock, Paper… was a response to the location so looked at the potential religious implication of the footprint contextualised via the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes as representative of the transience of life.)
I also explored extensively other artists that work with the body in 2D and 3D. Much of this proved to be about contrastive analysis, that what these artists were doing whilst it did indeed involve the body, showed me what my practice is not about.
So, for example, John Coplans work is about the body ‘just as it is’ rather than about it’s aliveness. Thomas Florschuetz is concerned with self-definement, as if by fixating on his own body he ensures his own physical existence. Javier Vallhonrat contributed a reflection point with his project title “The Possessed Space” even though the work itself left me unmoved.
It is not though 2D and 3D that primarily interest me at present, it is in fact the movement in space that interests me which pushes me in a new direction again….
Walking in my shoes at the Shoemaking Workshop
At the moment this dovetails into The Loss of Forgetting, that my movement in space itself draws attention to my bodies abilities in movement with my main form of action being in walking, being in connection to the ground with the foot and with the sense of balance…
I recently developed my own shoes on a shoe-making workshop, returning again to the negative space of the foot, and I consider that there is a strong component of connection through the feet to be worked out further, probably in performance, perhaps by exploring what the feet can do compared to the hand.
I have been privileging the hands in awareness, is it now time to investigate in more detail what the foot is truly capable of?
First though, there is a series of performances at Chisenhale Gallery coming up now with the artist Emma Backlund who ran the shoe making workshop. I was particularly intrigued by her idea of moving with eggs strapped to the arch of the foot. Hopefully I can make it to quite a few of her weekend sessions.
Chapter 4: The Coolness of Looking
The Seer – The Observer – The Reflector – The One that Steps Back – The Analyst
‘Play is the Highest Form of Research’ (Einstein)
Exploring how my drawing hand becomes lost in space without the order imposed by an observing mind seeking to control its outcomes
It includes the times when I am just looking, just thinking, just writing… and I am always writing. I write more than I draw, a great volubility poured forth in a special notebook for the morning, an ordinary notebook I carry around with me, the back of the nearest piece of junk (or not so junk) mail, the back of a supermarket receipt….
None of the above came from nowhere, it is built on my willingness to start again and see what happens.
At the foundation of my practice lie all the things that I do when I don’t know what to do. The things I do when I have no idea what I am doing, when I am working for inspiration, when I go back to first principles; the work that would not normally see the light of day, and some of which is only fit for the bin. The work that either reaches a dead end and swift demise or which proves to be a true return to first principles that will lead to a new or newly nuanced revisiting of other things.
Exploring the question "what am I doing" as I draw...
Here too is drawing for its own sake, the analytical frame, drawing that is not about a concept. Here is my approach to process, e.g. exploration within limited parameters – where I speak of ‘Inspiration through Limitation’.
Attention then goes to my response to what I am doing, the switch over beyond the coolness of looking, where does the resonance begin, or not begin?
Discovering how when I draw I can feel the pencil moving on my skin
Here is where I returned in October 2016, ‘starting again’ with drawing exercises that led me on to making sound pieces, looking at ‘what is happening’ when I draw. Then videos of myself as I drew imaginary drawings at an imaginary easel, my hand taking on a life of its own, moving more widely in space than when I have the control of seeing. Reviewing these works on a throwback basis it is clear that I was already on the way to reflecting on the occupation of space.
Alongside this I was drawing a skull on rotation, a drawing for each 10 degrees and having that strange experience where I was feeling the pencil move on my skin as I drew. A scroll that I think of as a still animation, which I followed with other still animations, looking at objects all the way round, again their occupation of space.
And here too, perhaps, go many of the books I read and the exhibitions that I go to. My exhibition going splits into two categories:
Specifically seeking people who:
do or speak of similar things to me;
do things I am interested in doing; or
potentially inform me of the edges of my practice.
Maintaining a general technical and contextual knowledge in all mediums in which I have or might have an interest, with questions such as
How did you do that?
Why did you do that?
How did you instal that?
In 2004 I decided that it was important enough to me to develop my knowledge that I would average at least one exhibition a week and I have generally stuck to this. What has changed is the types of spaces I now visit (or trek to) and the way I make my choices.
Picking out key influences from this can be hard. I have always envied those people who come to college and have an artist or artists that they know have inspired them whereas I always seem to be taking snippets from here and there. If I do have one it is possibly Bruce Nauman, and his approach to the studio. Definitely Helen Chadwick with her sensuality, irrespective of her medium. And I am inspired by her use of materials, the way she tried out new things and ways of making to achieve her results – that’s new, how can I use that? Then there is Mona Hatoum with her ways of pushing us against our sense of our own bodies with a hint (or more) of potential danger.
Bruce Nauman, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square
And then there are the artists whose work is visceral, that give me that sense of pushing back into my own body when I see their work which I consider form an important part of my processes when thinking about embodiment. This goes with my love of charcoal, its nature, that a mark can be remade, wiped away, leaving a trace that builds up, that charcoal is at one level burnt wood and that it lends itself to the creation of presence… but also that it seems to lend itself to the creation of substance, solidity that objects don’t always pull off. Here I would list: John Virtue, Anita Taylor, Jenny Saville. And indeed Rebecca Warren with her oh so solid clay.
So my key artists are then those that push me back into an awareness of the hand in action and the solidity of the body.
Rebecca Warren SHE No. 6 2003
And this is perhaps the point where I must circle back to the coda…