Friday, August 20, 2021

You Are Therefore I Am: From Dualism to Allocentrism (and What Any of It Has To Do With Art)

If pressed to encapsulate in just a few words what might be the foremost imperative of our time, one might justifiably hasten to offer Forget Descartes. But such would be to cast things in a negative light, and anyway, to be fair, the fault was hardly Descartes' alone. In any case, what is becoming increasingly clear in the contemporary Western consciousness is that our beloved cogito – that noble affirmation of the self muscled into being by rational thought, and that cultural shibboleth with which every thinking person has at least a passing acquaintance – was, in fact, a colossal error. It was an error, we now know, in its separating the thinker from the whole person, and it was a colossal one because of all that came with it – namely, an entire cognitive style incapable of understanding without first cleaving what is to be understood into mutually exclusive twos. Mind versus body, thought versus emotion, human versus nature; spiritual on the one side and material on the other, animate in rigid contradistinction to inanimate: twin pillars of our culture all, and now one by one being laid bare as the phantom structures they always were.


Of course, it has become fashionable these days to claim that we're beyond all this, that we have definitively entered the post-Cartesian era. But in truth, it's not so easy to forget Descartes. For one thing, even a cursory look at our language reveals so much partitioning and dichotomizing that it seems nothing short of a complete overhaul is going to do justice to the task. Try going an entire day, for example, without thinking of your body as something you have. And to have, of course, is to have a haver. (Who is this mysterious haver who gets invoked whenever there is body-having to be had?) Then there's the rigid subject-verb-object construction, by which active somethings are always committing deeds on passive somethings-else, disallowing for more nuanced relationships in which agency is entangled. What's more, if the ready alternative to dualism is an undifferentiated oneness[1], then we're forced to surrender the truth of our experience for an abstract (and, let's admit it, rather woolly) idea. For new age feel-goodisms notwithstanding, I am not the same as that tree, nor am I identical with the worm nesting in it; less still am I interchangeable with the bacteria feasting on all three of us. Perhaps more to the point, I am not you, and you are not me, and however mutually admiring we might be, I doubt either of us would sincerely welcome an assertion to the contrary. 


Clearly the truth lies someplace else or in between, and indeed we are now feeling our way toward that other place. In what's known by some as the Relational Turn, a new understanding[2] is being articulated, an understanding that recognizes the distinctions between things but that locates the very thingness of each thing in the web of relations sustaining it – social, biological, ecological, and cosmic. "Interbeing" is Thich Nhat Hanh's beautiful word for it, and while still largely inchoate, the vision it promises should give us much hope. Nevertheless, to most it is still a vision, and this leaves us in a rather curious position. Here we are, standing before the expanse of the new century, livened by a consciousness newly alert to a greater truth, and yet burdened with a language and cognitive structure inadequate to its realization. Between paradigms, someone has called it. In such an awkward state of suspension, a certain paralysis can be forgiven.


And yet, hovering between paradigms, there is something we can do – something that is in fact actionable today. It involves a pivot, a (deceptively simple) change in direction. The turn I mean here is psychological, but it is also more; it is a reorientation of the entire self away from itself and toward what we might call the axis of otherness. The logic is simple: if we are for now stuck with the dualisms bequeathed to us by a dying order, we can at least turn away from the agent occupying the center of that order –  namely, Me: the Cartesian me. This is the thinking me, the fully isolated, autonomous, self-sustaining agent to whom all that exists beyond itself is conceived of as foreign –  foreign and, obeying the Cartesian dualism[3], to lesser and greater degrees also hostile. So it is a turn, yes, but it is also an opening, for out there on the axis of otherness lies an unexplored wilderness: that vast expanse of world that is decidedly not-me – human and nonhuman, animate and otherwise, spiritual, material, and however else we want to conceive it. I'm calling it an allocentric turn, away being the general direction, but above all it is a step in the direction of a more accurate worldview.


But what exactly would this mean, this great opening outward? In practical terms, it would mean, first of all, a moratorium on subjectivity, a strategic suspension of talk about human interiority. For after centuries of probing the depths of the human psyche, we have become all but insensate to what lies beyond it: the inner lives and styles of being of other species; the quiet world of rocks, trees, and minerals and all the stuffs of the earth; those of our human artifacts that exercise their own kind of animacy; all that cosmic matter whose vitality pulses lightyears beyond us. Attend. Become interested. Above all, listen. Listen to the voices of otherness, to the stupendous diversity. Revel in the differences that make not-me not me. On a strictly human scale, we might enact a daily practice of allocentric empathy: study other people, even strangers, and inhabit their otherness. Without imposing on them our ideas about what they should be (for in the Cartesian world, shouldn't everyone be like us?), marvel at the differences. In a truly post-Cartesian world, others and otherness would become designations of honor.


Opening still further: If this reorientation of the self can be enacted within each of us, it can also make its way into our larger cultural endeavors. Which is, finally, how we arrive at art. Can art become allocentric, and if so how? Before answering, we should question its complicity in the obsolescing order. Consider the art world today: One needn't look far to find Descartes around every corner. He is there first and foremost in the supremacy of the ego-agent, that juggernaut of ambition out to make a name for itself, out to achieve its immortality-by-proxy. But perhaps more subtly, he is also there in our preoccupation with ourselves in our art itself – both with human subjectivity in general and, increasingly these days, with the individual self of the artist as the work's subject. Art as self-expression; art as biography; identity art; art about the human condition; even art that, engaging with the spiritual, locates the meaning of that term in the inner life of the human being: does anything characterize recent art more than these? How can art make the turn? How can it make the shift onto the axis of otherness?


Two possibilities immediately suggest themselves. The first follows the imperative of the more general shift: Embrace a moratorium on human subjectivity. Instead of art about ourselves, our inner lives, our personal identities, how about more art whose subject is the world beyond us – not just the animals and plants that vastly outnumber us but also the wealth of inanimate things, both earthly and cosmic? The second possibility involves human agents, but those who by definition occupy the axis of otherness – namely, our viewers, those neglected agents on the receiving end of our art. Can we imagine a mode of practice in which it's the viewer who's central? Can we imagine a kind of art made for her body and consciousness? No longer about the artist or even the artist's ideas, this would be an art whose purpose it would be to do something to someone, namely to generate an experience, perhaps even a transformation. Imagine what such a shift in emphasis might mean on a large scale. First, how refreshing it might be to have an alternative to the egotism and careerism that so plague our time. But even more important, it might mean a greater role for art in the larger culture. For a viewer-centric art would mean nothing less than a shift from artists making products to artists, individually and collectively, providing a service. Art in the service of culture: the very words teem with promise. 


But it is when the two possibilities are merged that art becomes truly allocentric.  What I mean is this: Can we imagine a kind of art made, first, for the viewer, for a shift in her consciousness, but then in addition, a kind intended specifically to turn her in the direction of otherness – to draw her out beyond her ego-self and toward the immensity of not-me? In what way might this be achieved?


One way presents, on the face of it, a paradox – one we might call "the way out is in." For if what we want is for the viewer to take leave of her self, to inhabit for a time the domain of otherness, where better to begin than with the otherness within – all the parts of herself that her Cartesian Me has cast off? The ostensibly mindless "animal" senses, the wayward and dismissively feminized emotions; all the autonomic processes so vital to life over which we have no conscious control; all the unconscious content housed deep in our species-memory – where better to begin than with a turn toward these? This, however, is just the first part. In order for the Cartesian me to fully take leave, it must be presented with something it can't master – namely, a situation so impervious to the grasping intellect that the latter, flummoxed – shipwrecked – beats a hasty retreat. And here we come to the otherness within art itself: that rare kind of art that, defying ready comprehension or systematic interpretation, instead plunges the viewer into the ocean of unknowing. 


The ego of the viewer absent, her senses absorbed in the manifold mystery before her, she now takes the full step onto the axis of otherness. For it is when we are at our most creaturely, which is to say most fully immersed in our bodies, most fully situated in the here and now, that we truly open ourselves to the world. We’ve all had the experience: as if a scrim has been lifted from in front of our eyes, the world rises to present itself in all its wondrous strangeness. Colors are intensified, light and shadow come to life, the separation of the different senses gives way to an undifferentiated sensing. In such a state, nothing need be understood, just fully beheld. And if the work in question is sufficiently compelling, the viewer might just stay like this, wide open, long enough to be moved. If it is extraordinary, she might just walk home thus, turned inside out – her whole being a porous organ drinking in the otherness of the world.


It might be objected that we already have art like this – art that moves us, perhaps deeply and enduringly, beyond ourselves. Indeed we do, though with the reign of the discursive[4] that looms over today's art, it is by no means the norm. What we don't have, however, is a practice of thinking, talking, and writing about art in the allocentric terms such an approach demands. Is such a reversal feasible? Let's imagine. Imagine that instead of pivoting our discourse around the artist and her ideas, we drew into the center the encounter itself: that between the object of perception and the viewer receiving it. Ideas may or may not play a role, but let them be the viewer's ideas -- whatever passes through her consciousness in the dialogical encounter. Further honoring the move toward otherness, we might focus on how the work elicits any alloversion in her – how it moves her beyond her ego self and turns her out toward the world. Imagine an analysis – an article, a review – that elides all mention of the artist whatsoever and speaks solely about the textures of the receiver's ec-static experience? In a culture that has all but deified the Individual Self, such a thing might be as necessary as it is discomfiting.


Of course, what I'm calling allocentrism is by no means the final goal. For in truth, the otherness toward which it turns turns out to be inseparable from ourselves; we and all that we are not are interwoven through and through. In truth, what happens to you happens to me because what happens to you shifts the larger whole in which both of us participate. But the seeds of the real insight are embedded in the turn. For in moving outward beyond ourselves to explore the wilderness of otherness – in the felt experience of all the differences that populate that wilderness – we might just come to recognize our utter dependence upon it. It might arrive as an epiphany: We ingest not-us every day in the form of food to survive. We rely on all the photosynthesizing not-usses for the very oxygen we breathe. That giant ball of plasma in the sky – that paragon of otherness with which we in fact share our origins: even the most formidable rationalist won't think herself into being once we reach, as we must someday, its terminal midnight. But for now, we have a choice to attend: we can cling defiantly to our unraveling separation and involution, or we can willingly, courageously, and humbly make the turn, extending ourselves outward to meet our relations. In anticipation of the latter, perhaps art will rise to the occasion and, in the role of gracious host, initiate the introductions.


[1] I am aware that in philosophy there is now what’s called “dual-aspect monism.” As a layperson to that field, perhaps I can be forgiven for finding this somewhat comical.

[2] New to us in the West, that is. In other places and cultures it is very old indeed.

[3] We call it the Cartesian dualism, but given the strange antagonism implicit in the binaries, we could just as well call it the Cartesian duelism. (We marvel at the hostility of our bi-partisan politics, and yet there it is baked into our very worldview.)

[4] What I mean here is what I call “issue art”: art that addresses, interrogates, challenges, subverts, etc. issues and ideas (which is to say the artist’s issues and ideas.)

Thursday, August 19, 2021

A Silent Mattering: On Art, Crisis, and the Urgency of the Real

 (This essay was originally published in Interalia Magazine, October 2020)

What good is art in a time of crisis? Save perhaps for our cave-dwelling forefolk, for whom art may have been invoked as a protection against mortal danger, the question has probably been around for as long as there have been human calamities. My first deep descent into it came after 911, when images of the towers falling rearranged the architecture of the collective psyche. It was as if reality itself had been stretched to new capacity, and in this warped and wounded new real art seemed utterly superfluous. Over time I recovered my sense of purpose as an artist, but the sting of its absence never fully left me. For the deeper question that that crisis laid bare is one that vexes even in normal times: with so much of practical value one can do in a suffering world, can art – does art – really matter?

I can’t say I arrived at an entirely satisfying answer back then, but if I had it would have been different from the one I’m entertaining today. For here we are again inside another historic rupture – this one less telegenic, perhaps, but no less soul-shifting. Only now the question has acquired a pointed specificity: with so much of the world moving online, why should we continue to make material things? Destined most likely for the insult of digitization – or for the worse insult of storage, where they languish unseen – the objects we bring into being with such devotion can take on a lonely heaviness, a new kind of homelessness in the world. Many artists have turned to digital art. Some have stopped making altogether. Indeed, with a pandemic and an ecological crisis and political mayhem raging, the times demand a robust – a concrete – answer to why art matters.

Curiously, but by no means incidentally, what I’ve come to see as the answer is contained within the very question. It’s the word ‘matter’ that I mean here, and to understand what I’m getting at we need to turn first to the social sciences.


Proxemics is a word few still know, much less use, but back in the 1970s and ‘80s it was a formative presence in many fields following Edward T. Hall’s landmark book on the subject. The word refers to the human use of space and its effects on our behavior, the idea being that how we live in, move through, and define the spaces around us profoundly shapes our experience of the world. At the center of proxemics is the reminder that we are animals and as such navigate the world primarily with our bodies – which is to say with an intelligence that, deeply situated in the earthly, is always in sensual contact with its surroundings. While Hall grounds his findings in studies of other animals (Why do lemmings jump off cliffs? Because they sense electrochemically that their numbers have become unsustainable), most of his work focuses on human-to-human spatial relations. Varying distances between bodies, varying quantities of bodies occupying space at those distances: all transmit distinct patterns of information that alter the internal rhythms of the bodies involved. Sensory in nature, much of what gets transmitted are affective states (we literally internalize others’ emotions by way of olfaction), but patterns of thought, patterns of consciousness, travel too, emanating from body language, vocal rhythms, subtle changes in thermal states emitted by our skin. Rather like the underground mycelial network by which trees communicate with and nourish each other, it turns out that our bodies are engaged in constant conversation while our minds, busy shuffling abstractions, entertain their illusory solitude up in the clouds.

So what does any of this have to do with art, you may be wondering. The connection becomes clearer when we expand what can be meant by body. For just as living bodies actively influence other living bodies, so too are they in dialogue with the inanimate things that surround them. As art forms that explicitly give shape to space, architecture and design figure prominently in Hall’s work. The layout of a tenement building, the orientation of a desk chair, the placement of a window at the end of a corridor: every arrangement of space speaks to the bodies that move through it, imprinting on them its distinct affective signature – for good or, of course, for ill. We’ve all had the experience of hostile architecture – the low ceilings and acidic lighting, say, of a cheap motel – and of finding that our mood is accordingly fouled. What we’re less aware of, however, is the degree to which our everyday spatial experiences inform who we are, giving shape to our ideas about the world and ourselves. For just as the language of a culture influences the worldview of its people, so the structure of its built environment informs the structure of its consciousness. In all directions the human organism bends toward synchrony, unconsciously slipping into unison with the dynamics of its enveloping world.

And what, then, of paintings and drawings? If bodies in proximity and spatial arrangements so affect us, should the same not be the case with the things we call art objects? For art objects too are bodies in space, and ones whose rhythms are orchestrated for no reason other than to communicate. The implications of proxemics for art are profound. First, if most of our knowledge about the world comes to us sensorially – mycelially, we might say, under the radar – then we can surmise that it’s a work’s form rather than anything it signifies that penetrates us most deeply. And second (and crucially), it’s not just a thing’s form. It’s a work of art’s live – which is to say real time – material presenceits presence in space relative to all other bodies in the ever-shifting field that is the community of beings.


Matter matters. It matters because it speaks to us, and in speaking to us it informs who we are. The reason, of course, is that we too are matter, all of us made of the same stuff, all vibrating together to the same rhythms of the same elements. We feel this in the presence of great works of art. We feel our bodies in conversation with the objects as other bodies, our muscles reiterating their rhythms in biosynchronous lockstep. When in the live presence of great works of art, can there be any doubt that art is a force – a something that’s doing something rather than just being – and one that alters our organism in ways we can’t explain? If this can be said of us as makers, should the same not be true of the casual observer – the one who passes a certain sculpture on her way to work every morning, or who absent-mindedly gazes at a painting in a friend’s apartment? She may think she’s uninterested. She may know little about art. But her body cares nothing for concepts and categories. In the silent, sensuous language of things, it will do what it has been honed to do by millions of years of evolution, which is to lean into the world, listen, and, taking the shape of what is said into its own rhythms, respond in kind.

Art as a mycelial power. A disquieting possibility now arises. What if, rather than being a marginal actor forever in need of justification, art in fact matters far more than we think? What if, by virtue of its being part of the material environment that gives contour to our consciousness, it has been complicit, without our knowing it, in the making of our broken world? Suddenly the weight of the question has shifted. If we’re truly willing to entertain the idea of art as world-making – not figuratively or abstractly, but concretely, in the flesh – does it not fall on us to ask: Is this the kind of world we would make if we knew we were making it? Have we inadvertently perpetuated, reinforced, or otherwise abetted anything to which we might consciously be opposed?

While it would be a stretch to suggest that art has had any role in the pandemic, or in promoting racial injustice or escalating the threat of war, there are more hidden sources of cultural brokenness on which one cannot be so sure. We could take aim at the usual suspects (art’s complicity in corporate capitalism comes to mind), but these may in turn be rooted in something larger. For beneath the clamor of the immediate present, and afflicting all of us indiscriminately, an unattended wound grows deeper the longer we ignore it. To put it in the language of crisis, we might call this wound the crisis of our retreat from the real.

“The real” is none other than our carnal existence in, and continuity with, the actual, material world. Before our concepts, before our artificial dichotomies, before the differentiation of our faculties into discrete, isolable functions: before all this there is the raw fact of our sensual existence as animals. The real is the native intelligence of the body, source and ground of all our discursive activity. It’s the rich spectrum of emotions without which conscious thought is unthinkable. It is the intelligence of touch as our most primal way of knowing, of olfaction, and kinesthesia, and all the other under-recognized senses. Finally, the real is our situatedness in space and place, the fact that we are not just organisms but always organisms-in-environment.

Given what the pandemic has done to isolate and confine us, it hardly needs saying that we’re losing contact with the real. But the present moment aside, our gravitation away from the actual and toward the virtual has had us on this trajectory for some time, an impulse that seems itself rooted in a source deeper still. For before Google, before Facebook, even before cellphones, were we not already living at a safe remove from the real? The very identification of the self with conscious, discursive thought, so natural for everyone living in our culture, is already an act of withdrawal from nature. Then there’s the denigration of the senses and the emotions as legitimate ways of knowing – to the point where we’ve all but eliminated natural odors from our lives – and the valorization of language and logic as the sole avenues to truth. There’s the mighty self as solo agent to whom the material world is other, animal means not human, and being elsewhere in thought is more comfortable, more “natural,” than being in our own flesh here and now. Save for those precious moments when, whether by effort or by grace, we find ourselves fully present to the world, we live in perpetual flight from the real, invoking our exhausted dualisms to justify and make sense of it. Only a culture built on its absence could spawn an entire industry around what we call “mindfulness.”

Some will insist that this is no crisis at all. Some will say that what we’re in fact witnessing is a momentous advance in the right direction – one that will lead to our eventual liberation from our bodies and, all thanks to technology, from the larger prison of nature itself. But if proxemics teaches us anything, it’s that our dynamic contact with the sensual world constitutes so much of who we areOne could no more extract oneself from the web of sensual relations than one could lift the water out of the river and still have the river. How lonely, how enfeebled, how shapeless, the lifeless water.

And where does art stand on the crisis of the real? While one can’t presume to speak for individual artists, the general thrust of recent art suggests complicity with the lifeless water. For what is the demotion of form and matter to the ranks of servant to “content,” so prevalent in this age of addressing issues and ideas, if not precisely a distrust of the body and sensual experience? What is the insistence on concept as the generative force behind art if not an affirmation of the intellect as the locus of intelligence? And what, not least, of the disavowal of beauty, so long now relegated to the amateurs and the unsophisticated? One might argue that this is insider talk, that the vicissitudes of the art world have no real effect on the larger culture. But if we’re to believe proxemics, this is a gross underestimation of our form. We might profess to espouse a progressive ecological worldview, and we might even desperately want our art to matter in its service, but however earnest it may be, if our art ignores the body it is mattering in the wrong direction.

All of which brings us, finally, to the present moment. The great online migration: from the standpoint of proxemics, nothing could be more disastrous – for art or for the world. In severing vision from the rest of the senses – already such a deep current in our image-oriented culture – we are denying ourselves the sensual fullness we need to be whole. When looking at online art, do we not feel this? Does the body not ache for all that is missing? Never before has one been so aware of art’s physical gravitas than when experiencing an anemic facsimile of it through a screen on a desktop. But online art does more than just deny us the full conversation. What’s worse is that, very subtly, though certainly unintentionally, it affirms the legitimacy of the disembodied observer: the one who, having uprooted itself from the sensual world, believes it can know, move through, and live in the world from its isolated perch somewhere outside nature.

It has long been leveled against our culture that we’re too materialistic, that we care too much about our things and not enough about the invisibilia. Indeed, some would argue that our wasteful consumption is precisely what has brought us to crisis. But what if, in our flight from the body, from nature, from the real-time actual, we are in another sense not materialistic enough? While we may covet our material possessions, we have grossly underestimated their power and agency. Were we more aware of the silent conversation of things, would it change our relationship to our material environment? Would it change what we as artists bring into the world, and the conditions under which we bring it? While art is unlikely to quell political upheaval or deliver us the salvific vaccine, it certainly has a role to play in our recovery of the real. By embracing its own mattering – its sensual, material presence in an increasingly virtual world – and doing so emphatically, without apology, and wherever possible, it can serve as a silent force of return, pulling us back into the nourishing humus of the world. And in asking if art matters, should we do so again, we might remind ourselves that to be matter is to matter. And, following the wisdom of the etymology, to matter is in the most profound sense to mother. The only question is what kind of mother art will be.

Thingly Affinities: On the Strange Power of Visual Form

 (This essay was originally published in Battery Journal, December 2019) 

Across the road at the bottom of my driveway, half sunken behind a small slope and a thicket of weeds, there is a dead tree. No taller than two men and naked and spindly, there ought to be nothing remarkable about it. Indeed, there would be nothing remarkable about it were it not for one thing: by some conspiracy of forces that strains the imagination, one of its branches, wrested from the trunk by some celestial hand, hangs precariously from the fork of another, its overturned arm cutting diagonally across the vertical thrust of its neighbors. A quiet paean to gravity and matter’s protest against it, it has stood thus for sixteen years. While there are people for whom such things go unnoticed, this odd little corpse has commanded my gaze every time I have passed it. Drawing me to it as if by some strange magnetism, it holds my eye until it can’t anymore, and each time, without fail, I am utterly transfixed.

As artists, we are particularly attuned to the visible world. We notice, we attend; as it is said, we bear witness. But not everything we see elicits a strong response. How many things meet our eyes each day as but fleeting blips in our awareness? What’s curious to me about this tree is how much it moves me – and that it can, at times, even seem to change me. Often, as I watch it receding in the rearview, I lose myself for a minute and only later retrieve my thoughts. When my thoughts return, they are not the same thoughts; it’s as if they’ve been turned somehow, somehow rendered softer. How can a piece of inert matter have such an effect? How, indeed, can it cast such a spell?

The rational mind, of course, does not take kindly to spells. Eager to extinguish this one, it rushes for sensible explanations: All dead things, it might venture, send us into reflection, their existence a reminder of what we would all rather forget. Or perhaps it’s the sheer improbability: the uncanny precision with which the branch landed and its equally uncanny, phoenix-like persistence. Or perhaps the tree reminds me of one I loved as a child. But I’m inclined to accept none of these. What I’ve come to believe is that the depth of my response derives not from anything the tree represents, but rather from the structure created by its interwoven branches. It is a physical response, in other words, to its form. I say this with confidence for one reason alone: the texture of the feeling my tree gives me is identical to the kind I have on a prized day in my studio—a day when the forms over which I’ve been laboring emerge from incoherence and achieve, often suddenly, a resolute rightness.


The power of form is one of art’s great enigmas. How is it that we can be perfectly indifferent to two shapes sitting side by side but aesthetically roused when one is nudged slightly upward? This arousal, this internal shudder, being something we feel rather than think, the faculty of reason is of no help to us here (as artists know all too well, language tends to founder every time we’re called upon to deploy it). All we can say is that when the visual resonances we perceive have this quality of rightness, we feel a deep satisfaction unlike any other. For me, the feeling is a flickering wave that moves through my body, settling in my consciousness as a kind of inner expansion.

This rightness of which we speak need not be about balance. Nor is it necessarily about beauty, or elegance. Sometimes it can happen when there’s just the right kind of awkwardness, or when the tensions between elements set them on the verge of collapse, or when a cascade of shapes sends the whole into chaos. Sometimes a composition achieves just the right kind of uglinessTo labor over form is to search for this rightness, and if it eludes me for too long I am anxious and irritated. Or, worse, I feel nothing at all.

Of course like all subjective experiences, rightnesses differ; what induces it for me may not do so for you. To you my tree might be a weed blocking your sun, and a tree you find spectacular may leave me cold. But what is certain is that we all know the feeling – even, though probably to a lesser degree, those who are not artists. For each of us there is a zone within which visual things stir us and seem to lock us in a kind of visceral trance. And for many of us, this experience can be profound. How to account for the strange power of form?


In physics, two oscillators placed on a shared substrate will, given sufficient time, begin to oscillate at the same frequency. There’s nothing spooky about this; the synchronizing occurs because each emits small vibrations that get transferred one to the other until, seeking the least possible resistance, they “phase-lock” into the same rhythm. It’s a phenomenon known as entrainment, and it occurs in biological systems as well. In many subtle and not so subtle ways, we ourselves do it all the time: when engaged in conversation, we tend to adopt the speech patterns of our interlocutors, and – like many other animals – our sleep/wake cycles are tuned to the Earth’s daily rotation. And then there is music: few are those who can resist tapping or swaying in the presence of some particularly infectious rhythm. For we too are oscillators: our bodies are constantly pulsating to rhythms and cycles not under the control of our conscious awareness. The world is abuzz with animate forces, and we are among its many transmitters and receivers.

Could something of the kind happen with visual form? On the face of it, this does sound a bit spooky. For what sets vision apart from the other senses is that it operates across distances. I can be moved by the contour of a mountain I see from miles away, but neither the torques and tensions of its rocky mass nor the vibratory dance of the particles inside it reach my body in any physical way. Nevertheless, there is a very real sense in which the mountain does reach me. What reaches me – what in fact penetrates me deeply – is the presence of its form: the soft slope of its curve as it pushes up the sky and the tiny rivulets of light and shadow that shimmer across its surface. The image I see penetrates me because it is happening inside me; it is a physical response of my organism to the raw data of my senses. And it is a happening that I experience not in some isolated mind-chamber but rather with my entire body. I see the slope of the curve and my body reenacts it. I see the rivulets of light and shadow and they shimmer through me. Like deep visceral echoes, our images are secretions born of our visual contact with things. But our mental images are not entirely ours; without the thingly presences that give rise to them, they wouldn’t exist inside us. In this sense, seeing is a profoundly collaborative act – one in which the world offers itself to us and we in response reiterate its form.

It is also, if we see deeply enough, an act of empathy. For we don’t see just with our bodies but with our whole selves, with the inseparable cohort of our senses, emotions, memories, and imagination. To see something deeply is to draw ever closer toward it. First, it’s the eyes: Sweeping over the form’s surface, examining its different facets, your gaze seems to touch the thing, to be running a finger along its contours. Then, if you keep looking, you begin to feel the thing in your muscles: the distribution of its weight, how it sits in space, its various tensions and contractions. You feel the atmosphere around it, you feel its

“mood.” Eventually, the emotional tenor of its presence permeates yours. By way of this kind of corporeal empathy, you are just as much inside the thing as it is inside you. If we and what we see are so deeply interconnected, is this not itself a form of entrainment?


Thingly forms affect us. Our rhythms synchronize with theirs, our tensions with their tensions. But only some grant us access to that rightness. For the forces that animate other things might not agree with our own; we might even find ourselves falling into lockstep with a thing we can’t stand, such as the slick videography of a television commercial, or the barrage of lights on a Times Square billboard. Moreover, something that induces the rightness for us once might not do it for us again. As artists, we know all too well that singular disappointment when the thing that sends you into rapture on Monday barely nods in your direction when you meet it again on Tuesday. Rightness is fickle, shifty, a little deceitful. But then, if all bodies and things are always moving and changing, everything throbbing and pulsating with the animacy of the universe, this capriciousness should not be so surprising. The real question is why, when it does so, this visceral enthrallment feels so satisfying.

If the feeling in question is a particularly powerful form of empathy, perhaps it is this moving out of ourselves that is the source of its power. For not only do we move out into the thing whose form so stirs us, but we also take leave of our ordinary, discursive consciousness: all our thinking and planning and worrying and remembering – in short, the whole panoply of thought-events that like to masquerade as “I.” Rightness is a silent place, void of language, void of thought. It is a place where, temporarily relieved of the chatty and imperious ego, we return to the deeper intelligence of the body. We feel the vitality of that intelligence as it pulses through our veins, reawakening the deeper dimensions of our consciousness that have been buried beneath our words. Coming back to ourselves as sensory, incarnate beings, we experience somatically something the conscious mind forgets: that although our intellect may seem to, it has never severed our continuity with the rest of the material world. We are embedded in matter, and it is embedded in us. Or, rather, we are matter. It should be little wonder, then, that the rightness of form feels so right: essentially a kind of corrective re-membering, it is a means by which we rejoin the larger matrix of the world. That our word “matter” comes from “mother” is no co-incidence.


As entropy will have it, the day will come when the branch of my tree finally succumbs to gravity and topples to the earth. I imagine myself descending the driveway on some early spring day. The crisp air rustling newborn leaves under a low white sky, I reach the clearing near the road where the magnetism begins to call. Something is amiss. There is a hole in the world. My eyes scan the field, searching for the wound. And now there it is: where once stood a thing of exquisite perfection, a thing so right in its form it could silence a scourge, there is now a barren, gangly, lifeless little tree. I’m crestfallen. But then I begin to think of the others: the larger trees just up the hill, the weeds, the cows, the songbirds. I imagine a collective swerve, a little ripple through the field, as all of us in unison adjust to the new arrangement. I drive on, silent. I go do what it is I have to do, pass the tree once more, and return to my studio to move a line leftward.

Drawing, the Body, and the Cognitive Unconscious

(This essay was originally published in Iteralia Magazine, March 2020)


 What does the body know that the conscious mind doesn’t? Considering that we are the product of millions of years of evolution, animals descended from other animals born of the earth, the earth itself birthed in some remote cosmic furnace made of particles forged in the very cradle of time, the answer is: probably a lot.


Over the last decade, this question has been the generative force behind both my studio work and my writing. In the former, drawing has been my primary mode of exploration, for drawing is essentially a language of the body. A kind of somatic or motoric thinking unmediated by the conscious mind, drawing registers ideas and impulses we cannot know by other means – and ones that often belie the mind’s explicit discursive content. Scientists call this the cognitive unconscious: that 98% percent of our thought we don’t know we are thinking but that nonetheless shapes much of who and what we are. Mining this wealth of knowledge housed deep inside our cells, drawing is thus a means of accessing our deeper intelligence, or what we might call, in contrast to the personal kind, our shared species-knowledge.  


My work begins with simple gesture drawings made with graphite. Executed without plan and with as few strokes as possible, the forms that emerge record a confluence of forces. A kind of collaboration between a sensing organism and the dynamics of its environment, each drawing is unique, irreproducible by definition. Mystery is paramount: I can explain or understand the forms no more than anyone else can. I consider a drawing finished only when it achieves a certain rightness, a judgment I make not analytically but viscerally. When finished, the drawings are scanned and either laser-printed on Lucite or printed on fiber with piezography inks. In working with digital media, the question that interests me is whether the presence of the hand so prized in conventional drawing is preserved across the various transformations. Most recently, I have been reversing the progression from analog to digital by meticulously recreating – and thereby further transforming – my digitized gesture drawings in charcoal.


The experience of the viewer is central to my work. Just as my drawings are made with the instrument of my body, so too are they to be felt as distinct pulsations in others’. For mimetic creatures that we are, every act of seeing is in some sense a reenactment, our bodies reiterating what is seen in the way of subtle muscular tensions. But although my drawings originate with me, they are emphatically not about me. In the movement of their forms the viewer might intuit the rhythms of nature, since to attune to the body is to attune to matter, and in matter we find our continuity with the natural world. In this rejection of the personal in favor of the transpersonal, my work aligns itself with the posthumanist ethos, an orientation intent on moving beyond the anthropocentrism of the humanist era.


In a century in which we’re being called upon to address our disavowal of nature, drawing is emerging as an especially relevant medium.  Indeed, in its affirmation of the body as a valuable organ of our intelligence, it has the potential to serve as an agent of cultural healing, beginning, as it must, with what we’ve disavowed in ourselves.

You Are Where You Are: A Review of Sarah Robinson's Architecture is a Verb (Routledge, 2021)

 (This review was previously published in The Brooklyn Rail, April 2021, and Interalia Magazine, May 2021 )

Rounding the dimly lit corner, you approach the entrance. It's a formidable entrance, a wall of unornamented concrete. You reach for the door handle and are met with cold steel; it's an angular affair, less knob than knot. Straining against the massive weight of the pivot, you make your way inside into the cavernous lobby, an opulence of mirrors furnished only with a tall, lifeless desk. Accompanied by the distinct scent of an aggressive sterility, you work your way through the maze of marginally navigable corridors, finally, after a few hours, accomplishing what you set out to. Before making your exit, you stop to use the restroom, where the hypermodern faucet leaves you grateful no one's witnessed your struggle to engage it. But no matter; the day has been a success. Why is it, then, that you leave feeling diminished – physically and emotionally drained, even a little abused?

With a powerful argument of sweeping scope and depth, Sarah Robinson's new book gives us the answer to this question. You leave feeling diminished because the architecture is hostile. Like so many buildings designed over the last fifty years, this one was not made to serve human bodies, but rather for the sheer spectacle of its austere forms. It did not greet you warmly, or anticipate any of your needs. It didn't even bother much to accommodate you when these needs arose. Indeed, so intent was it on its status as an aesthetic object that its entire existence seems to have been predicated on your distance as a beholder. All of this matters, Robinson argues – and much more than we think. For far from being inert objects wholly separate from ourselves, the structures in our built environment do something to us. By choreographing our movements and framing our perceptions, buildings shape our consciousness, inflecting our thinking and influencing our moods. To an astonishing degree only now being confirmed by science, where we are is inextricably connected to, and co-determinate of, how we are. Life-impoverished buildings, life-impoverished lives.

This is not, however, a book that dwells on the negative. On the contrary; part theoretical manifesto and part practical guide, the book advances an emerging approach to architecture that offers a radical corrective. Robinson – herself an architect who practices in Italy – draws on an enormous range of scholarship to support her thesis. Insights from philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and the cognitive sciences weave in and out of those from literature, animal studies, and architectural history, all making for a thrilling compendium of ideas old and new. Written in refreshingly clear prose that tends toward the poetic, the book will appeal not just to architects and architecture students but to anyone longing for a revitalized world. With our own field similarly denuded by decades of soulless theory, visual artists especially will find much inspiration here.

Of all the disciplines Robinson borrows from to substantiate her thesis, the most significant is neuroscience. Indeed, as she demonstrates by way of a wealth of compelling case studies, recent findings in this field have such profound implications for architecture that for the latter to ignore them would be not just irresponsible but inhumane. Several new discoveries undergird her thesis. First and foremost, it is now the consensus among scientists that the human body is a knowing body. So long considered the lowly counterpart of the mighty mind, the body has now been shown to be the very locus of our intelligence, the instrument with which we do not just our sensing and feeling but also our thinking. The second is that the knowing body is also what Robinson calls a resonant body; in constant dialogue with our surroundings, our bodies are rhythm-sensing and - transmitting organs that bend toward synchrony with the rhythms around us – animate and, significantly, otherwise. Then there is the remarkable fact of our neuroplasticity. Evidently, so attuned are our bodies to the particulars of our environment that consistent exposure to the same stimuli changes the very wiring in our brains. And finally, as the emerging field of 4E cognition suggests, consciousness itself is now understood not as something that happens exclusively inside us but as a distributed phenomenon born of our interactions with the world.

Part of the larger cultural movement growing around theories of embodiment, Robinson's approach is a practice she calls situated poetics. At its center is not just the human body but the body in dynamic engagement with its environment: the knowing, resonating, and interacting body that thinks, feels, and knows with and through what surrounds it. Recognizing this fundamental reciprocity is crucial to the new model, for as Robinson suggests, the inhumanity of recent architecture is a direct consequence of the now obsolete, though stubbornly persistent, ideology that denied it: the assumption that the world is made up of binary oppositions. Body and mind, organism and environment, self and other, nature and culture: no longer conceived as mutually exclusive polarities, these are now understood to be mutually informing, interpenetrating, inseparable complementaries. In a particularly beautiful passage, Robinson offers readers a powerful way to conceptualize this interdependence. Describing the relationship between consciousness and our environment, she writes:

A river's flow is determined by the shape of its bed, the confines of its banks – and from source to delta, is itself a process of gradual accumulation and redistribution. Slowing in the depths and speeding in the shallows – if a river is impeded – its languid surface issues the white froth of resistance. And if dammed, it swallows its surrounding banks. Like a river, consciousness not only flows, but does so in varying intensities and pulses according to the variables of the shifting situation.

As a relational approach to architecture, situated poetics is design focused on body-building interactions. Unlike its predecessor's affection for the grand and monumental, however, the new model is concerned with interactions small and humble: all the routines of daily life that we perform while thinking about other things but whose textures register in the intelligence of our bodies. Rising, bathing, eating, sleeping; walking, window-gazing, ascending stairs, descending: with great attention given to the embodied experience of each, all such acts are transformed into meaning-laden rituals.

While honoring ordinary acts with respect to the body, it is also an approach that honors the cycles of nature, weaving awareness of their rhythms into its spatial poetics. Other core values include an embrace of mystery, a respect for the innate presence of a place, and a recurring invocation of what Robinson calls primal metaphors: forms that take us back to the earliest origins of our species. Nest, cave, plateau, forest: architectural forms that invoke these primal places appeal to us so deeply, Robinson suggests, because our sensory systems evolved in a time when they were our home. (Anyone who doubts the power of primal places is advised to go out and spend an hour under some trees. The writer defies anyone to return claiming indifference.) Finally, unlike so much recent architecture intent on reflecting the discordance of our world, situated poetics seeks to cultivate personal and collective healing. It is, in Robinson's words, "an attitude of tenderness" that expresses itself in "acts of exquisite care."

While the first half of the book lays the theoretical groundwork for Robinson’s approach, the second half brings the abstract to life in corporeal form. Here, over the course of five illustrated chapters, we're taken on a tour of existing architecture that embodies elements of situated poetics, exploring not just buildings but also parks, fountains, playgrounds, and gardens. Loosely framing the tour is Robinson's "taxonomy of interactions," a conceptual scheme intended less to systematize than to draw awareness to all the subtle and not so subtle ways in which we interact with buildings. While all of the interactions in the taxonomy will be familiar (remembering, imagining, storytelling, thinking, playing), few readers are likely to have thought much about the role buildings play in any of them. This, along with Robinson's wonderfully evocative descriptions of the sites, makes this second half the most exhilarating part of the book.

Both the taxonomy and tour begin with breathing, our most basic interaction with the world, and the one we take most for granted. Robinson begins by pointing out that while we tend to think of architecture in terms of solid forms, it is in fact mostly constituted of air. Orchestrating the quality and flow of air by way of doors and windows is one way that architecture choreographs our breathing. There are, however, others less obvious. One such involves the use of rhythmically moving forms, whose patterns awaken our viscera and nudge our nervous systems into synchrony. Robinson cites as one example Ned Kahn's "Wind Arbor," an enormous building facade in Singapore made of delicate metal shingles that shimmer in the breeze. Like the surface of a pond, the facade glistens and ripples in ever-changing patterns: the building breathes to the tune of nature, and human bodies respond in kind. Other examples include buildings whose surfaces breathe more literally: so-called foliage facades, which integrate plant life into their protective membranes.

Touching also figures prominently among the interactions. Robinson is especially compelling when it comes to the primacy of touch. Noting that, "In an increasingly virtual world, the starvation of physicality seeks its compensation," she shares the observation that when tourists finally visit the places they've long dreamed about, one of the first things they want to do is touch. "To sense presence," she writes, "there is no more accurate indicator than the sense of touch." One memorable example in this section is Polina Chebotareva's "Urban Carpet," a woven textile for sidewalks made of slats of charred wood. One can imagine the pleasure of coming across this unexpectedly, of moving from the hard resistance of concrete to the warm give of wood, the woven texture of its surface massaging one's soles, the percussive rhythm it creates pulsing through one's body. A smaller but no less meaningful gesture is Alvar Aalto's practice of wrapping handrails and door handles in leather. Skin greeted by skin: one can hardly think of a better way for a building to express welcome.

Some of the most moving sites in the book are those designed to facilitate entire complexes of interactions. Of these, Carlo Scarpa's Brion Cemetery in Italy might be the consummate example. Commissioned by a wife in honor of her husband, the memorial is a collection of architectural elements that includes a chapel, a meditation pavilion, a pool, and several lawns, all of them arranged with exquisite attention not just to the individual elements but to the spaces between them. (Having just traveled to Japan, Scarpa was influenced by the use of space in Kyoto's rock gardens, the latter of which are also lovingly featured in this book.) Built to mark one of life's most profound rites of passage, every aspect of the cemetery is designed to nurture grieving and healing. The walls surrounding the compound lean inward, in, as Robinson puts it, "a gesture of embrace." As one enters the site, the ambient temperature and light drop, effecting a shift in consciousness that draws one into the present. The stairways' asymmetric risers alternate between smooth and rough surfaces, slowing walkers' pace, aiding contemplation. Approaching the chapel, visitors walk on water by way of irregularly placed stepping stones, an act as spiritually resonant as it is sensually soothing. Patterns of light and shadow, the gentle sounds of running water, the smell of the seasonal foliage: Just experiencing the place vicariously through Robinson's words, one gets a deep sense of whole-body engagement, and of the beauty and solemnity of a place made for remembering.

In the book's final chapter, Robinson returns to the theme of healing and architecture's potential role in our reclamation of the body. Noting that breathing is the ultimate act of communion with the world, she uses it to underscore our bodies' need for rhythmic oscillations. Light and dark, closure and openness, rough and smooth, silence and sound: design that gives us both is nurturing design. But above all is our need to simply use our bodies. Exposing the downside of our marvelous neuroplasticity, she reminds us that if we don't exercise the exquisite sensory apparatus bestowed on us by evolution, we're sure to become ever more insensate, ever less human. In a final plea for a built environment that respects and nurtures our biology, she reminds us: "Our own bodies are our most sensitive tools for knowing the world, and developing and refining these hard-won capacities and aptitudes would seem to be the true calling of our innate plasticity."

In more ways than one, the timing of this book could hardly be more apt. As so many of us have spent the last year holed up inside our homes, we're more aware than ever of our immediate environment – and probably more aware than ever of how we feel about it. Perhaps we're also more aware of our daily routines and rituals, many of us bearing the sameness with dispirited resignation. But now is also an opportunity for effecting new beginnings. Recognizing the potential of the moment, what if all of us were to become more aware of ourselves as biological organisms – organisms with physiological needs we deny at our own peril? And what if we were all to become more conscious of our habitats as active agents – places whose rhythms, shapes, and textures mold our being every day? And what if, finally, we came to see our selves as neither "in here" in the one nor "out there" in the other but as successions of arisings that occur where they meet? For if architecture is a verb, so too are we. You see beads of water glistening on that leaf, and there you are in the seeing-glistening. You run your fingers along a stony surface, and there you are in the touching-texturing. The aroma of coffee emanates from a nearby window, and there you are in the inhaling-emanating. Many such small acts accumulate, and there you are in the pattern of their shifting. Thus extended, thus invigorated, you go back home. There you discover that parts of you are caustic, so you tenderly rearrange your small corner of the world. Other yous do the same, and then more and more and more...until finally you find yourself nested in a built environment that everywhere you go reaches out to greet you – and then there we all are, a million times over, in that handshake.

I Run My Hand Over the Race

(This essay was originally published in The Brooklyn Rail, June 2019)


The words in my title belong to Robert Irwin. I came across them years ago in Lawrence Weschler’s much-loved book of dialogues with the artist, and since then they’ve become something of a personal shibboleth. Referring to his technique for placing bets at the track (a second vocation in which he enjoyed great success), Irwin relayed that, after carefully studying the statistics for each horse, he would forget all the facts, close his eyes, and “run his hand over the race.” I don’t think I’ve encountered a better metaphor for tacit thinking: the kind of thinking we do unconsciously, without language, with and through our bodies. Nor can I think of better words to describe what I do, both in my work as an artist and in my art writing. For in both – and indeed in looking at art, itself a kind of art – my body is my primary instrument and most trusted informant.

Hands and the haptic sense are behind everything I do. It’s not just that I make things with my hands; I think and see with them too, if only internally, intra- muscularly. But there’s another sense in which touch is fundamental to my work. In fact what all artists have in common, be they object makers or not, is that our work touches other bodies: transmitted as pulsations originating inside us, it enters and activates the flesh of others – sometimes, if we’re lucky, long after we’re dead. Rather than calling ourselves makers of objects, then, we might better say we craft corporeal experiences. We artists have our hands all over the place.

In the making of form in my studio, my hand demands a strict departure from language. It’s not that I want to dismiss it forever (God knows I’ll need it later, lest my world be reduced to chaos); it’s just that my instrument won’t fully show up otherwise. To give the latter a good tuning, some kind of physical movement is usually necessary: the twirling of a coin, a bit of pacing back and forth. Gradually, the I who thinks recedes and a greater intelligence emerges, articulating itself in visual rhythms and relationships. Qualities announce themselves – a sharp edge is needed here – often with an authority that takes me by surprise. Problems emerge and are resolved, all piloted by my knowing viscera. Concepts will show up later as a concession to reason, but I know the work’s real content is implicit in its form.

This insistence on implicit content is something I bring to the work of others. Knowing that the kind of empathic encounter I want will be violated if I’m assailed by concepts (and how often does an overeager gallerist deliver exactly this), I avoid all explanatory literature until after a thorough viewing. Apprehension of the whole always comes first: the mood and atmosphere of the space, the smell of the materials. As my eye runs its hand along the contours of each work, my body registers new rhythms as I entrain with their qualities. Mental associations arise and are not dismissed, but are rather folded into my sensory experience. If I’m sufficiently moved, the shape of my consciousness shifts a little. If it shifts a lot I know I want to write about the work.

If my making and looking are done in the absence of language, the writing component of what I do of course cannot be. But here too my body maintains sovereignty. Since the act of reading is a somatic as well as mental event, here too I am crafting an experience for another body. Rather than what they will denote, then, it’s what the words want to do that comes first. What kind of rhythms and pacing, what structure and tone; what verbal atmosphere will transmit a felt sense of the work’s presence? Then there’s the aural texture, the chromatic resonance, of each word. And just as artists use negative space to give shape to form, what will be left unsaid is established early on, bounding my piece with its silent presence along the borders. Arriving last is the work’s explicit content, which is delivered, as it must be, in discursive prose. But the reader’s body knows better than to fall for this ruse. If I’m successful, her viscera will flicker with signals that have travelled all the way from the body of the artist, through her work into my flesh, on from me into the flesh of my words, and finally out from them into the electrochemistry of her organism. For I trust that the reader, too, consciously or not, will be running her own knowing hand over the race.

Monday, February 15, 2021

On Electricity and Electronics: An Essay about Art

One morning many years ago, when I was a young artist fresh out of grad school, new enough to New York to still be smitten with the city but seasoned enough to wear a cool detachment about it, I gathered up all the loose bills I could find stuffed into the pockets of various jeans, walked twenty-six blocks down to Barnes and Noble -- caffeineless, as I recall, having nothing to spare for the coffee -- and bought a 360-page book on electricity and electronics. It was called Electricity and Electronics. This book still sits on my bookshelf today, its pages just as clean as they were twenty-five years ago. I don’t know why I’ve held on to it, really. Perhaps I’ve kept it as a reminder. Perhaps exactly so that I would write this essay.

While singular, perhaps, in the extremity it represents, in truth the book is not such an anomaly. Perusing its nearest shelf neighbors, we find, also from that era, a history of the microprocessor, a book on code breaking, something called Patterns of Software, and a smattering of other nonfiction volumes on digital technology. Unlike the tome I strode back uptown with that day -- a door-stopper of a textbook every bit as exciting as its title -- I did read and quite enjoy all of the former. But there was something amiss about the whole project. Something, in fact, profoundly wrong. For I wasn’t reading these books out of pure interest; I was reading them specifically to inform my studio work. To inform, that is, the content of my studio work -- my emphatically material, process-based, vaguely minimalist, abstract work.

And therein, of course, lay the problem. How does knowledge about resistors and capacitors, or how code is written, or John Wheeler’s (admittedly fascinating) “it from bit” theory, make its way into an abstract work of art, not just as the artist’s explicit intent but indeed as the work’s viewer-vectored content? The short answer is that it does not. It does not because it cannot. Expressing discursive ideas in abstract art makes about as much sense as dancing about architecture.* And yet there these ideas were, swirling through my head as I mixed my paint. And there I imagined they went, seeping into the fibers of my canvas. Worst of all, there they lay, leaden, in my artist statements. My work explores the ways in which digital technology is profoundly altering our understanding of the world… (Cut to yellowish-grey field of paint with some linear marks resembling circuitry.) (Grimace.)

From the safe distance of middle age, it’s easy to deride the missteps of our youth. But more productive, if also a bit more painful, is to look them soberly in the eye and try to extract something of value. In this spirit, then, let us spell out the errors here. The first and most glaring is the crudely un-nuanced understanding of “content.” It’s as if I took content to be something that originates outside the work -- something that, when deposited just so into the work's form, becomes the substance of, and justification for, the work’s existence. (We might add that further compounding this error was the nature of my content: conscious, articulable, rational knowledge -- all for a medium marked by its discursive silence.) The second is an error I’m only marginally less embarrassed by, which is my failure to admit, in spite of knowing deep inside my body, that the first error was in fact an error, and that I could correct it simply by looking at, and listening to, the work itself. (It would be many years before I stopped protesting and began to listen.) But it’s the third that draws my attention now, for this one is far more subtle, and indeed more culturally pervasive. (To those who may be objecting that we’re not quite done with our list: duly noted, but let us move on nonetheless.) 

To understand error #3, we need to go back to #1 and shine a sharp light on the very word content. In its general use, we all know what it means: it’s the thing that goes inside the other thing. When applied to art, that other thing is form, or the material component of a work that we perceive with our senses. If we pause to consider this arrangement for a minute, it can come to seem rather strange. For what makes us so sure that (1) art has two components, and (2) if it does they relate to each other as container and contained? When in the course of our thinking did we decide that this is so?

As it happens, the idea is not ours at all but rather one we’ve inherited -- one whose genealogy we can trace all the way back to the Greeks. By the Greeks I mean the Classical Greeks -- the ones who set about dividing the world into twos: subject and object, mind and body, body and soul, etcetera, ad infinitum, or nauseam, depending on where you stand. But before the twos came the solitary ones: their notion that the world is made up of fixed, isolable, independent entities bound off from each other by impermeable boundaries. It turns out that the very Greeks we have to thank for so much we treasure about our culture left us with a host of rather suspect assumptions. If we’re honest, and if we’re willing to acknowledge that our concepts could be otherwise, we might consider that our whole cognitive apparatus is rather peculiarly biased: first toward conceiving of things as fixed and discrete entities; next toward pairing said entities into binary oppositions; and finally toward seeing to it that these paired entities remain mutually exclusive. Revisiting the aforementioned #’s 1 and 2 in the light of 3, it seems I can now feel less entirely foolish. For if we as a culture conceive the world in this way, the ensuing errors will seem not like errors but like laws of nature.

The container metaphor pervades our conceptual life. We speak of the clouds in the sky, the ripples in the water, the curls in her hair, the wrinkles in his skin. But does the metaphor really reflect the actual state of affairs? In truth, do we not know that the clouds are not in the sky but the sky itself doing something, that the ripples in the water are really the water itself rippling, that the curls in her hair are her hair itself curling? The implications of this blunder are more consequential than we may think. For how we think about things (consciously or otherwise) affects how we assign value to them, and how we assign value to things affects how we act in the world. (Readers interested in the role of conceptual metaphor in our lives are referred to the marvelous work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. You won’t be sorry - trust me.) If the aforementioned examples seem trivial to you (and I’d argue that they’re only deceptively so), here’s one that’s not: Homo sapiens is a species that lives in nature. Thus conceived, nature is the container for the substance that is man. Containers, being both separable from and less valuable than the thing inside, can be dispensed with and replaced without changing the precious substance. I’ll take it as given that the error here is obvious -- obvious and, as we now know, tragic. 

Less obvious and tragic, but consequential nonetheless, is the container metaphor as applied to art. For just as the ripples in the water are really the water rippling, would it not be more accurate to say that “content” is no more than form itself contenting? Seen in this way -- as action, as process --“content” is laid bare as altogether the wrong word.  Indeed, it now makes no more sense than trying to pull the ripples out of the water so you can take them home to show your mother. Released into the real world of moving forces, the container falls apart.

If not the container, then, how to conceive of form and content? For again, a la Lakoff and Johnson, most thought is unthinkable without conceptual metaphor. (If you remain unconvinced, try thinking about time without invoking a metaphor.) When asked about the relationship between mind and brain, the great scholar of religion Huston Smith answered that the brain is an organ that breathes mind. The beauty of the metaphor lies in its unstated implications -- namely, that “mind” is a shared phenomenon, not possessed by any one brain, and that it exists not as something fixed and static but as a fluid substance in perpetual motion. In invoking the breath, it also underscores a fundamental interpenetration. For once the lungs fill with oxygen and the oxygen fills the veins, who’s to say where the air ends and the body begins? 

Form as a living body that breathes content: Does this not seem a more accurate picture? For the transmission of content is not a one-way affair; viewer and spatial surrounds bring as much to the work as the work brings to them. It is a dynamic exchange. No longer a fixed substance placed into the form by the artist, content is more like a fluid current transmitted between bodies: that of the artist, the work itself, and the situated viewer. If we must conceive of content as a thing, it would be more accurate to call it “pertent”: a something that flows through things, arousing sensations, emotions, and mental images as it goes. Fundamentally interactive, a form pertents with me differently than it might with you; a current that vitalizes my body might trip itself up in yours, irritating your senses and offending your mind. Conceived thus, an artist can no more control her content than she can tell the air where to go after it leaves her lungs. Relational and participatory through and through, the content of a work of abstract art is the shape this flow takes when a person stands in the work’s presence. 

When I’m asked about the content of my work these days, I often say, with perfect seriousness, “electricity and electronics.” Those who would ask take my answer at face value, looking into my forms for images of circuitry and code, no doubt imagining all kinds of deeply important social narratives. But those who know better would never ask. They don’t need to. They’re already there, participating in the current, shaping it with the contours of their own bodies and minds, receiving, transforming, emitting it back into the air, the work drawing it back into itself and responding in kind, the two engaged in a spectacular, improvisational, electrochemical dance. I dare not interrupt with my words, lest I break the living circuit.

Taney Roniger

February 2021


* Attributed to the comedian Martin Mull: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."