Following my reflections on self-isolation, making oneself an island, in this current climate of coronavirus lockdown, I wanted to experiment with creating an earthwork in performance. A moat, while ostensibly being a body of water, is first an earthwork – involving the movement and construction of large amounts of earth. I planned that this should primarily involve my push gesture, on my knees, arms extended, pushing the earth away so that it would create a trench and a mound encircling me.
The video above records this process, which in fact ended up seeing much more tearing and pulling than pushing – I encountered several areas where the earth was resisting my efforts, and felt great frustration and hopelessness. I persevered, and it took great physical effort. I paused at the end to rest, recover my breath, and find peace in the space I had made for myself. Throughout we hear and see the effect of external forces (the wind), and some passersby can be spotted in the background, and reflected in my reaction during my recovery period.
I decided to walk out to Northchurch Common, approx. 25 minutes walk from my home, to conduct this performance, taking with me my camera and holder. I chose this place as I was aware of there being historic earthworks in this area, used for a similar protective purpose. I discovered a tree near to these earthworks with suitably low-hanging branches I could affix my camera to, with a patch of ground that would be appropriate for my experiment.
I particularly wanted to engage with the process of making the earthwork using my hands/fingers, rather than using any tool or gloves to shield or protect myself. Firstly, so that my only protection was coming from the earthwork itself – we have no defence from this virus other than the practices of self-isolation, social distancing, and hand washing. Secondly, to directly undermine this hand washing practice – making my hands purposefully very dirty. Thirdly, as a representation of manual labour – I am literally labouring with my very hands, something that is atypical for someone of the middle class, and in our digital world where we engage less and less with the physical, with nature. Lastly, to make this most personal and direct means of expressing – by sensorially and manually engaging with the earth, I felt I might be better able to channel my emotions through my actions.
I chose to dress in black, to reflect the dark emotions I was exploring, and to avoid drawing focus from my actions. But too, the top I wore was similar to a dance leotard. I chose to keep on my accessories (engagement ring, watch, earrings, hairband), which I felt personalised the video more, made it individual and also feminised. It also roots the act in my identity and social strata (something I cannot escape). I kept on my practical hiking shoes, though in retrospect I think it would have been poignant to have worked barefoot here.
That my top rides up at the back in the video, revealing my lower back, was unintended, but is a curious effect. It highlights my vulnerability in this process, as well as being an unflattering view of my body. This harks back to my future self-portrait, which sought too to highlight and undermine notions of feminine beauty.
I think I will need to do some further research, to understand land art as a context, and what female performance has taken place within a context of nature/earth previously.
I was keen to get started experimenting with linear gestural mark-marking. It was important for me to capture the process of this as potential starting points for performance too, but as I have been cautioned not to use the studio space in the university due to the corona virus shut down, I was presented with a challenge to make use of my home environment to do this in!
My first challenge was in erecting some way of filming the process from above, as I do not own a tripod or the special craning equipment that would be used by professionals. I discovered a DIY instruction for a cardboard cradle of sorts for my phone that could be affixed to the ceiling using masking tape, and used this for some drawing experimentation in my sitting room. This floor is carpeted, which would mean it less than ideal for paint work, but does give me the most floor space in which to work.
Having centred myself by completing a yoga exercise, and reflecting in my journal, I decided I would explore different modes of attack for my gestural drawings – from standing, from kneeling, and from lying down. I was also keen to see the difference between using a large graphite stick and large charcoal (i chose these large materials to more easily capture my gesture across a wide surface, and for greater distinction in pressure, orientation etc). I opted to do these with my eyes mostly shut whilst moving, so that my gesture might be guided from the sensation/from within, rather than aesthetic appraisal. I did allow myself moments in between marks to assess whether further marks were needed or not.
I think the standing piece is my least preferred, it is more chaotic and less readily understood in terms of being gesture. I especially enjoy the expression of the charcoal, the pushing/expelling nature, and how the paper in fact moved away from me and contributed to the mark itself. Kneeling seems to be the posture in which I can exercise more control of expression, and capture the full arcing of my arm movements. Lying down was intriguing for allowing movement that was not isolated to the arms as much, and for more chance to be involved (when the graphite was caught in my hair and made no mark on the paper).
While the cardboard cradle worked for this short experiment, i found that the masking tape peeled away and the camera angle could not be easily perfected. The sound of the tape coming away was quite distracting, so I decided I would purchase a cheap phone holder as an alternative. I reasoned that if I am needing to use my phone camera to document anyway then this is a worthwhile investment!
I decided to try a paint pour experiment using this holder, this time working on my kitchen floor (to prevent any spills marking my carpet!) and had the holder clamped on my kitchen table. This allowed for a more up close view of the work in progress, but less vantage of my full body movement. I think this shot though is better suited to the A1 paper size I am currently working with.
I chose Ultramarine colour to experiment with, as I believe it the nearest to the blue of Yves Klein. I wanted to repeat to some extent the gesture used in my charcoal piece – the pushing element I thought might be interesting explored in a more fluid sense. Perhaps in my execution I was more focused on the pour (I did not perform this with my eyes closed, though perhaps I should repeat this with them shut!) and so there is less forcefulness in my gesture. It seems more meditative.
In order to kickstart my final major project, clarify my aims and plan for the weeks to come, and contextualise around it, we were tasked with drafting our project proposal and action plan, and creating a Pecha Kucha presentation to share our initial research. A Pecha Kucha (aka a 20×20) is one primarily composed of images, spanning 20 slides, each of which is shown for just 20 seconds, meaning that the full presentation lasts just over 6 minutes. Below I summarise the contents of my presentation, and so the research I conducted in the first two weeks of my project.
Reflection on past work
First I reflected on some of the commonalities/themes I have previously explored in my work that have driven my interest in the topic of my FMP: expression. This related to the work in Futures project, where my future self-portrait and the navigating space/grid cell/instruction work has commonalities of i) an interest in perceptions of self/observation by others. ii) Behaviour and body language. iii) Psychology, consciousness and identity. iv) Manipulation, instruction and expectation. v) interaction. Thus something around behavioural expressions/externalisations of our inner psychology and how this is expected/observed by others would be a natural continuation.
Also too that in previous Unit 2 work I was interested in gestural and expressive mark-making, and the notion of automatic drawing or writing. I have not yet taken this into the action itself as a performance, as opposed to a work produced from it, so would be interested to explore this in my FMP.
I was keen to contextualise the notion of my performance of expression within what might be interpreted from it – and the problematic biases of my being a woman artist. I saw this being across multiple facets. One being narcissim/vanity. Autobiographical work by women is interpreted as superficial or vain, self-obsessed, while autobiographical work of men can access universal themes and move beyond the personal. I linked this to the works of Helene Schjerfbeck who I went to see back in 2019.
Too, it is a paradox for women artists that in portraying their subjective reality/perception of themselves they are colluding in their own objectification. I related this to the Ways of Seeing I researched previously, as well as Tracey Emin’s self-portraits which evoke her subjective sexuality, but at the same time could be objectifying and eroticising herself.
I was conscious too that in externalising my emotions, I could be pervading the prejudice that women are ruled by their emotions, and the problematic connotations of this in relation to hysteria. I discovered that hysteria (back when it was treated as a psychological disorder), was specifically seen as the height of female sexual expression in a world of repression and strict social behavioural restrictions.
The surrealists were particularly interested in this – as an expression of the subconscious sexuality of women. This brought me onto another problematic context for the performance of women – that women’s performance takes place within the asymmetric power relationship between men and women. The surrealists choreographed/instructed a performance (below) by the dancer Helene Vanel to simulate hysteria – sexualising and objectifying her.
Another such problematic performance, which explored the body and gesture in performance art, was Yves Klein’s Anthropometries.
Here naked female models were instructed to cover their bodies in Yves Klein’s blue paint, and place themselves against surfaces in ways instructed/choreographed by the artist. He clearly objectified them here, calling them ‘living brushes’, though later the models have claimed they were collaborators in his work.
In considering female performance art, it is also important to contextualise this within the gender theory of philosopher Judith Butler – that gender itself is performative and we identify someone’s gender from the repetitive behavioural characteristics that we attribute to certain genders. This is evidenced in the performance of drag – whereby someone identifying in one gender performs the characteristics of the other as an illusion/subversion of such gendering. It’s easiest to see the skill involved in this, and thus the nuances of behaviours we interpret as gendered, by comparing an experienced drag performer with a novice who has had a makeover, in the makeover challenge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race (below)
So one theme I explored was resistance and women’s rage. I discovered that just as long as women have been resisting, they have been using their bodies to do so.
I also looked at how other artists have sought to express through suggestion or absence of the body, but where the works themselves have been created with the body or with interaction with the body in mind.
I also looked at artists who have used performance as the work itself, or in the creation of works, where abstract gestural mark-making has been utilised.
And works where the gesture itself is fully expressed in the mark/performance, and repeated.
The taking on of gestures/expressions of others as a suppression of self/ventrioloquist expression.
This is by no means an exhaustive line of research, and indeed since compiling this I have already found more lines that are of interest and relevant to this work!
I am keen to work further on the instructions I created, to help navigating the unknown. In my assessment yesterday, one of my tutors mentioned that it could be interesting too if people are able to take just one instruction in isolation and whether they might interpret this differently without the context of the others, or if this instruction in isolation might be interesting.
This had me recall the work of Brecht, where he had a box or card system of instructions that you could take from. This reminds me of board games, such as Cranium or Pictionary, where the player is given instructions and often other players have to guess what was on the card. It also reminds me of notices placed on notice boards, where there are tear off contact details at the bottom, or of ticket machines at deli counters etc, where the piece of paper you have taken affects the result for the next person (by removing the previous number in the case of tickets, or reducing the number of people who can take the contact details from the notice). Or even fortune cookies, whereby a ‘personal’ script is found inside each one. It could be interesting to explore these different modes of presentation for my work.
In looking up the above image, I came across an excerpt from a book mentioning this work, called Critical Play: Radical Game Design by Mary Flanagan, see below:
This chapter in particular made mention of an artist I have found very interesting to read about – Gabriel Orozco. There is a fascinating interview with the artist found here. That he combines two interests of mine – a playfulness and also philosophy, is fascinating! Games turn up as a theme here, not only in his process, and he confounds the rules of some conventional games such as ping pong, billiards, football and chess by transforming them in some way. He speaks very well about his thinking behind these transformational acts, and I have included some quotes below that I found particularly interesting.
That is the space that I’m interested in, the in-between space. Even in photographs, I think what is interesting is in between the photographer and the space, which is the same as the in-between of the photograph and the spectator. To activate that space—to activate means to fill it with meaning and connections, so that we can think about it. We can connect with it and make it happen as a space and time in between things.
I think every game is a universe, in a way, or every game is an expression of how the universe works for different cultures… Every game has a connection to how we conceive nature and landscape, how we order and we structure reality.
Probably they are more like philosophical games. I believe that philosophy has to be a practice: practical philosophy. It’s like the way the Greeks used to solve philosophical and mathematical problems—by walking. Not sitting. It’s easier to solve problems moving—when you walk and you talk—probably because you have better irrigation in the brain or just because you are breathing better. Because you are moving, you have better chances to solve complex problems. And also I think, in a way, it’s an action thing. So, I think philosophy is an action; it should be. And to play the games are part of it.
I concentrate on reality in terms of what is happening to me, and I try to revolutionize that and try to rethink it and transform it. I try to transform reality with its own rules, with the things I found there.
I am interested to learn more about him and have reserved some resources from the library to look into!
Another work I have come across in my initial research is his photo series called Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe (1995). Here he drove around Berlin on a Schwalbe motorbike, and photographed it next to a second whenever he came across another one. The final work in the series of 40 includes a third bike, as he had sent invitations to all the Schwalbe owners in Berlin to meet him for a get-together (and only 2 turned up). I love this level of unpredictability in his series (providing an instruction that may or may not be followed by other persons), but also too this repetition and persistence. The photography itself had a kind of rule to it, without other persons, closely framed, bikes in close proximity, etc. making it a game in itself. It’s interesting that games should require rules to be set, almost paradoxical in a way.
One of the things that captivated me following the initial group ideation session we had around Futures, was the notion that technology could progress such that not only human-computer mental interfacing was possible, but human-human, i.e. telepathy (the communication of ideas/thoughts by means other than the senses).
The idea of telepathy first caught on in western culture in the 19th century, following on from the spread of spiritualism (communing with the spirit realm/the dead) and animal magnetism/mesmerism (whereby healing can occur via induced trances and hypnotism). These pseudosciences caught on in response to the fantastical advances in science that were making the world at once more understood and more mysterious. Why should we only trust our senses if there are microscopic cells (with cell theory – that we are made up of cells – only being formulated in 1839), and if time can be relative (theory of relativity in 1905).
Hilma af Klint was interested in spiritualism, and can also be credited with the first abstract art – exploring automatic drawing in attempts to visualise this non-visible reality. I encountered some of her sketches in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and enjoyed how naive and free they seemed, some of which are below. The nesting and interaction of colourful organic forms, and looping, swooping lines also appeal.
Magicians then, using biological cues, performed ‘thought reading’ stunts, which still continue to this day. Indeed, much of the trends seen in the 19th century reared their heads again during the New Age in the 1970s, e.g. the idea of ‘channelling’ spirits or the collective unconscious via trances to gain new information. This took a strange turn as documented in the book and film adaptation of The Men Who Stare at Goats, with the American military hoping to harness the power of psychic agents for intelligence-gathering (and also, bizarrely, attempting to harm or kill psychically)
This idea of psychic ability being used as a weapon or military advantage is also explored in fiction, e.g. in Star Trek with the Vulcan mind meld appearing in it’s first season, and then later too with empaths such as Betazoids and the hive mind of the Borg. The notion of ‘hacking’ or mind control of another by means of such interfacing is a central theme of fiction such as Ghost in the Shell. This relies too on the notion of interconnected technological knowledge and AI systems within a ‘cyberspace’ – a concept conceived before the internet by William Gibson in his Neuromancer novel, but now a term used to refer to it.
But for me, I am interested in the consequences of such technology. If we were able to communicate telepathically, would this make language redundant? Would we lose language, particularly in our more intimate relationships? This could be a means in which telepathy could be a force for good, and answering a central human desire to be understood – enabling us to fully intimately understand and know our romantic partners and significant others. But what might be lost from our current relationships, and would this be a destructive or positive change?
There is a unique mode of communication already in existence between romantic partners, a secret language you only use within that context – formed of in-jokes, pet names, and particular phrases or patterns of speech that you build together. In a world where you could communicate without language, this would be defunct. I explored some ideas for how we could record these future dead languages, to house in future museums.
Below is a work I encountered in an exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery, curated to explore a post-language society (here conceived as a post-apocalyptic eventuality). The work below explores communication through a personal visual language, which are curious, but I’m unsure if they truly communicate (though perhaps they are recognisable to a native spanish speaker!) – it’s intriguing to see here again colourful, somewhat organic forms appearing.
Returning to my idea… The thought that these languages would be shared, which previously have been intimate and private between two people, is intriguing but one which made me feel unsure I could in good conscience ask people to share with me openly. This is interesting in itself, that I would hesitate to do so. That making open and shareable something entirely private is similar to this notion of sharing our inner most thoughts with others via telepathy. It is certainly an uneasy future being imagined.
What then could be more private than our own sense of self, our inner eye. What might it mean for our perceptions of self, if we can be fully aware of how others perceive us, and view ourselves through their eyes? Would this exacerbate or destroy the current situation of ‘selfie culture’ – whereby we feel pressured to curate our online image to the extent that our bodies, our lives appear perfectly manicured (whether doctored through photoshop or filters or not), and the comparison of ourselves to the online image of others is damaging to our mental health. The obsession with picturing ourselves in any and all situations can be seen as narcissistic and superficial, but it reveals our humanity too. Our desire to understand ourselves, to fit in and be understood by others. To mark our place in the world, and confirm yes I do exist. But this conflict between our inner world and how we appear externally is hard to process – and body dysmorphia and eating disorders are on the rise.
I very rarely take selfies of myself. My profile picture for several years on Facebook has me in sunglasses that obscure much of my face. This is not out of a particular desire to be unknown, or undocumented. I admittedly do see flaws in my appearance, and suffer that horror when you accidentally have the camera facing the wrong way when you turn it on on your phone. So I never spontaneously feel the urge to do so – to take a selfie feels contrived for me, though I understand it can be different for others! I was interested then to explore this possibility, of the complete knowledge of my appearance to others, and engage in a process that exposed me more than I would usually be comfortable. To invade my own privacy.
To do so, I recorded my appearance in a typical evening at home with my fiance. By attaching a head-mounted GoPro to him, I hoped to approximate his point of view and gain this notion of the self-image through someone else’s eyes. Below, I edited together only those moments when I was in frame. It provides a disjointed account of the time spent making dinner, and the conversation appears surreal.
The camera angle feels like I am floating above myself – as though in an outer-body-experience – which I suppose this is! It is disorienting how it jerks around according to his head movements.
It is uncomfortable seeing so much of myself in a video, to see less than flattering angles and lighting. Much like the confusion when hearing your voice on a recording (how it never sounds quite as you hear it in your own head), it seemed strange to see my idiosyncrasies – mannerisms and facial expressions – played out in front of me. I feel vulnerable in particular when seeing how my eyes remain closed sometimes when talking – something I am unaware of doing in the moment. Also – I seem so short! In all I think this was a successful experiment.
In approaching this grid work, I knew I ought to investigate minimalist works such as by Agnes Martin.
I listened to an episode of the Bow Down Women in Art podcast discussing her life and works. It was interesting to understand the influence of Zen Buddhism in her work, which emphasises the need for mindfulness and meditation, and a sense of oneness. Though her works are perhaps a little too minimalist for my tastes, this set me down an interesting path of research, when looking for her work in a compendium of women artists in modern art. I came across the works of Eva Hesse here for the first time. I was interested here in her use of repetition to reveal naturally-occurring difference and iteration. This implies a sense of change and time for me, and the use of organic forms and materials was also interesting here. Her works for me seem tactile and invite a human spectator.
In looking further at her work, I discovered an intriguing article about Performativity in the work of female Japanese artists 1950-60s and 1990s by Yuko Hasegawa. Here I was introduced more deeply to the works of Yayoi Kusama, and to the instructional works of Fluxus artists Yoko Ono and Mieko Shiomi (who are also influenced by Zen), which I think are all relevant to the line of inquiry I have pursued in this project.
While I had previously been aware of the reflective/mirror infinity rooms of Kusama, I had not previously understood the context of her fascination with infinity and the dots which also pervade her work. The infinity nets series is a direct catharsis of visual hallucinations that Kusama experiences, which she has been afflicted by since childhood. Here polka dots cover her visual world like net curtains. By engaging with repetitive pattern and action she is able to gain balance in what might otherwise be an overloading experience.
These infinite repetitions and patterns seem highly relevant to my grid cell pattern work, and it could be interesting for me to explore building up layered work in the way Kusama has done with the thick textural paint in her No. F. It’s fascinating to me that she would be experiencing visual hallucinations which sound so similar to these visual navigation patterns I have been imagining, and I could hypothesise that she is actually just seeing this secret/hidden way in which our visual field navigates the world!
She also has explored visual infinities of self, and sense of the alter ego, in terms of the interaction of either herself or the audience within mirrored spaces. The duplication but also obliteration of the body by making it become one with the environment itself -> achieving invisibility. This reminds me of the phenomenon whereby repeating a word endlessly removes its meaning and makes it sound just as a series of noises. I think this could have implications for my future self-portrait work (which I have not yet had chance to write about on my blog!)
Instructional works interest me, for meaning that the outcomes of the work are unpredictable and unprecedented, something not controlled by the artist. Yoko Ono’s work is intriguing for specifying the destruction of a canvas or painting by burning with a cigarette, with the smoke produced being a part of the work. In displaying the work she would have the instructions and then the outcomes themselves, which I think is very intriguing.
Instructions were also used to good effect by Shiomi. I am particularly interested in her Spatial Poems work, where she sent letters to 100 people over the course of 10 years, coordinating a network of simultaneous events to take place across the world.
It could be interesting for me to develop a set of instructions for others to recreate the grid and perform an interaction with it in any space. This could allow for all sorts of iterations to be created and explored beyond my own control which would be interesting.
My research into AI and artificial minds took me into the latest developments of DeepMind, the research arm of Google. I was intrigued to learn in this article that the increasing sophistication of AI is in turn advancing our understanding of the human brain – specifically here in relation to how we navigate space. It particularly fascinated me this notion of there being cells specialised to certain sensations (a bit like the individual conscious agents that Hoffman mentioned in the interview I posted – the specialised cells all contributing to one seamless conscious experience of space) – one type acting as a ‘you are here’, one for the direction of your head, and another forming a grid for relative position/spacing.
This regular pattern of grid cells was especially intriguing for me – here it referenced a hexagon, though it could also be considered a tesselated pattern of triangles. It has previously been proven in rat brains, and only in the past few years have we seen early proofs it could too be present in humans.
I love this notion of a secret/hidden mental map that is created to help us navigate the world, that is underlying our visual interpretation of the world. I wondered too if there could be a future in which we could ‘hack’ this secret mental mapping system, to make familiar spaces that we are new to, or allow you to immediately understand the best route through a maze, for instance. Use of this regularised grid could help you to better predict or adjust to new situations, which of course the Future is the ultimate one.
This strikes me as similar to the dots used in motion capture technology – to help digital imaging ‘navigate’ an actor’s body/face in order to best map it to a 3D computer generated image.
That this should be in a hexagonal grid was also very intriguing for me. Instinctively, I imagine organic forms and shapes to be irregular, curved, amorphous, but hexagons are geometric, regular, straight edged. That said it is a form we do see in nature, for instance in honeycomb structure, or the basalt columns visible in places such as a the Giants Causeway. It is described as being the most ‘efficient’ shape, and hence why the cooling rock forms in this way. It is also described as the strongest shape – hence it’s use in the structure of the strongest known material, graphene.
It was thus especially eery to come across this display in the Whitworth, just a day after reading of grid cells.
I was interested too to see what these grid cells might look like in reality. Unfortunately it does not seem there are specific electron microscope images of these in existence, so I instead looked to images of generic neurons.