The Living Shore

I just went home for a day to sing with my college Glee Club during my former conductor’s last concert. That was a wonderful experience, where I had the opportunity to sing and talk with a number of my classmates and see how life is treating them. On the plane, I read The Living Shore, which was engaging, inspiring, and sad. It’s encourages awe in the world around us and excites dreams of living our lives better.

living shore book image

Particularly challenging while reading were the passages about the recent success of conservationists in the Gulf of Mexico in creating habitat for oysters (The book was published in late 2009). We are hurtling past the critical point where we need to evaluate how we are shaping the world. Our farms produce more than food, and our factories produce more than products. They create ecologies. At present, they aren’t ecologies which we fit into. The Living Shore presents a past shoreline ecology which we likely cannot return to. Hopefully we will be able to create something similarly robust.

Reading on the bus

non-places book cover

I recently finished reading “non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity” by Marc Augé. The book, recommended to me by Peter Lunenfeld, positions itself within anthropological thought and then uses that position to look at how we encounter, interpret, and analyze space.

My experience of the book was fragmentary; I read sections as I rode the bus, occasionally being forced to stop mid-sentence when I reached the last stop. This seemed like an appropriate way to encounter the material. As I passed through places marked only by signs, I was reading about their demarcation, the way they function as non-relational space. Unfortunately, it prevented me from effectively noting sections of the book; any attempt at writing was thwarted by the irregular vibrations of the bus. I’ll try to piece together some of the elements that interested me while I read, centered around the production of meaning for researchers and individuals.

The early portion of the book is dedicated to how anthropologists define the group which they are studying. Somehow, a relation between all group members must be found through discrete samples. This is no simple task, and takes consideration of the representativeness of sources and their reliability. Augé describes this world-building elegantly:

The field ethnologist’s activity throughout is the activity of a social surveyor, a manipulator of scales … [s]he cobbles together a significant universe by exploring intermediate universes at need. (Augé, 13)

All experience is fragmentary, and all places unfinished. Augé discusses this as a challenge when considering anthropological subjects, for cultures “never constitute finished totalities” and individuals “are never quite simple enough to become detached from the order that assigns them a position: they express its totality only from a certain angle.” (Augé, 22) We encounter the world as individuals, and we can present it to others only from our individual perspective. This presentation is one of the possible roles for an artist or maker. To establish a way for others to see the world from a new perspective, although they will not move entirely outside themselves.

A method for artists to present their world is suggested in the methods ethnologists use to discover worlds around them: the creation of intermediate universes, each of which clarifies some portion of the whole. This creation of universes can be used as a strategy for individual works, or thought of as a way of looking at an established artist’s ouvre. As a strategy for making work, I think it may be useful to consider the exhibition as a “significant universe” and the piece in it as intermediate ones. While the pieces all corroborate some whole, the gaps between them must be inferred by the audience. Viewers essentially study this universe and construct their own vision of what binds it together. I would also like to explore the possibility of creating a series of islands that inform each other, worlds in miniature, that constitute a single piece.

There are obviously many other facets of this short collection of essays. Eventually, I might like to take on the necessity of individual production of meaning as a reaction to the instability of collective reference points. Also, the notion of online locations as anthropological places, and how they exist as dynamic spaces theoretically without spatial borders, is worth addressing. Regarding online places, why is it that social networking sites don’t feel like they have a history when we return to them?

I am left with many questions right now, so I’ll include a few of them here: How do we create meaning for ourselves? How can we create spaces for the production of meaning? Places that are ready to be seeded with memories and relations.

Constructing personal spaces

Creating Spaces

When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. (Solnit, 13)

My current work is a continuous attempt at representing the world as I remember and imagine it to be. It is about the places I have been and the places I wish to inhabit, with plenty of diversions along the way. There is the hope that the experience of the work translates into a similar or new personal meaning for people who engage with it.

To that end, I am interested in creating new personal spaces in our world. Spaces where people can explore. Spaces where people can meditate. Spaces where people can play. Spaces to feel safe in. To bring the mountain vista to the gallery space, the forest trail to the sidewalk, and in so doing create a new kind of interconnected space. I see my work simultaneously running counter to and parallel to Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics. In opposition, I am often using representational elements from my experience; In parallel, I create concrete conditions of possible ways of being. My central concern is not representation, but creation of worlds or, more accurately, their fragments. In order to explore ways of making meaning, I will look at artists creating dream spaces in sculpture, digital media, and hybrid forms.

This idea of making concrete interventions is central to Bourriaud’s argument in support of relational aesthetics. The primary concern of the work “is not a matter of representing angelic worlds, but of producing the conditions thereof.” (Bourriaud, 83) So, rather than giving someone an image of this or another world, we are attempting to create that world in our present space. This creation may be small or temporary, but its existence as a real way of being is nevertheless significant.

What, then, are these angelic worlds?

The angelic worlds that Bourriaud relates are not necessarily the ones I am interested in (or ones I would consider angelic). Perhaps it is better to consider them as alternative worlds, or dream worlds. They are places “where reality and dream form a whole.” (Bachelard, 23) I want the interstitial elements that I create to allow people “to recapture the naïve wonder we used to feel when we found a nest,” to become comfortable dreaming in their daily lives (Bachelard, 93). Different manifestations of these dream-worlds include the man-machine hybrid, technologically-mediated nature, and my interest,

The spaces for reflection and discovery I aim to create are modeled around the spaces where I reflect on and discover the world. They are landscapes and cities of my imagination. They are pieces of music that play over and over in my head, and the places where I learned them.

These, for me, are dreams of interconnectedness and liminal spaces. Dreams of being simultaneously apart from and in touch with the world. I want to create scenarios where we can see the other world and reach out to touch it, experiencing the journey without going far.

I walk often, as it is how I generally form the strongest association with a place. It is not merely that I am walking, or the place that I am in, but the engagement of all senses with that place. The physical exertion needed to climb a mountain bolsters the view in validating its summit. Wandering and discovery are important themes in my work, even as the landscapes themselves are transposed/mediated, made into objects and made portable.

As I wander, I sometimes dream of occupying Bachelard’s image of rootedness and interconnectedness, “the undergrounds of legendary fortified castles, where mysterious passages that run under the enclosing walls, the ramparts and the moat put the heart of the castle into communication with the distant forest” (Bachelard, 20). Not of leaving the world behind, but being in a vast interconnected state. Of being at home, and simultaneously everywhere.

Continue reading Constructing personal spaces

Chen Qiulin: A memory of place

Chen Qiulin at the Hammer

My brother was in town a few weeks ago and we stopped by the Hammer to check out the work by Chen Qiulin. Chen’s work is obliquely documentary; recording some of the now-submerged cities and valleys of Sichuan, China through video of narratives enacted on the condemned landscapes.

Of primary interest to me in Chen’s work is how she presents the landscape as defining the events within it. Collapsing industrial buildings tower over people, shaping the actions they may take. It seems as if all they can do is wander through the landscape, searching for each other, searching for meaning in their actions. Indeed, they can do nothing to shape the land around them, or to prevent its disappearance. And we can only watch as they progress down a linear path.

I wonder how software and installation can be used to represent landscapes as charged as these, how they can engage viewers in ritual similar to those enacted by the actors/demonstrators in Qiulin’s work. Can we guide people through the environment as effectively as the bride and groom in Qiulin’s videos? Perhaps we need some sense of inevitability in our work; to see an the next step coming, even as we aren’t sure of what it is.

In Qiulin’s video, we follow the actors as they walk the path of their fate. In games, we may need a guide to help us, perhaps we are one of the many men carrying peonies to the lake, and so instinctively stay with the group. In an environment, we can limit pathways, like presenting viewers with a staircase leading up to an unknown plane. At what point do these constraints become meaningful, and how do they shape the narrative for the viewer?

This issue of imbuing work with substantive meaning or context is one I will be tackling in future writings. Simply using a dataset to create an image does not make the image about that data. A higher level of transformation is occurring in successful work, a level which I am trying to reach in my own practice.

The Desert: Three Themes

I spent last weekend in Wonder Valley in the Mojave as part of the Mapping the Desert symposium organized by UCIRA and the Sweeney Art Gallery. While there, I had the great opportunity to meet with artists from other UC campuses, and to encounter a number of aspects of the desert. These encounters led to early thoughts on themes the desert elicited from me during my stay: salt, the development of journey as a shareable artwork, and the not-so-serious Zombie Christians or doing what you ought not.

Salt

salt tree

The first thing that struck me in the desert was the salt-tree in front of our campsite. The tree—a tamarisk—had large crystals of salt coating its leaves.

Salt manifests wherever there is water in the desert, and plants growing in oases need to be halophilic to survive. I am interested in systems where halophiles could be operating benevolently on behalf of less salt-tolerant species, and in the exoskeleton that the halophiles produce as they grow under mineral-rich conditions.

Journey

climbing

Scrambling from rock to rock in Joshua Tree National Monument cemented the desire Pete Hawkes and I had to make the journey integral to some of our work. Michael Kimmelman’s essay on The Art of the Pilgrimage brings up how travel to see a work shapes your perception of the work; I think the travel itself could become the work. What better way to share a steep mountain climb than to lead someone on it? Naturally, we would like to have some additional payoff, some tangible work that people who engage in the travel ultimately contribute to. We’re working out the details.

Zombichrucians

cacti

Let’s not forget the crazies who live out in the desert, or the artists who impersonate crazies in the desert. Christmas-tree-like light-up crosses, keep-out signs, and ringing church bells that don’t belong to you. The bells peal loudly in the desert, trailing off into the open space, never bouncing back. Someone else hears and we all scramble for the car. It doesn’t start for a minute that feels much longer, when we finally drive off into the space, becoming a glowing light on the horizon.

More images from the weekend are available on flickr.