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."