Conference Paper: The Illusion of Form, Poznań, 25/10/23.
I will be talking about the title of this conference - The Illusion of Form - and how it has bled into the thinking around a number of my own objects over the past week or two. Specifically; Meteor, Unknown Object, Fetish, Autoportrait and various texts. These are all works in-progress.
The Belly of a Goat
There are many ways in which to divine the future. You can slit open the belly of a goat and read the signs as its intestines spread across the templum. Or you can take in your hand the shining plastic sphere that is Mattel's Magic 8 Ball, and give that a shake to tell you how things will go.
With molybdomancy you pour molten lead into water, and the future is read from the resulting form. Meteor begins here. A lump of lead, scanned and digitised into a 3D model.
That model has some curious properties. The surface appears at first external, but within an instant gravity shifts and that exterior gives way to an interior. Its weight at first underfoot, suddenly all around. From some immense asteroid rolling slowly through a cosmic void, to a vaguely visceral bodily cavity, to a throat or a colon. But despite an interior and an exterior, despite the echo of form, it has no substance and is never an object. Its walls are too thin to be rightly called a skin, but as our closest approximation we use that term anyway. In reality, it is a boundary without dimension that we cannot stop ourselves from calling a form. It has the shape of something that exists, but none of its substance, none of its physicality, none of its reality.
Sculptural objects by contrast, live in the same space that we do. When we encounter them we do so with our bodies. A small object might be held in the hand, something to examine closely, to place or throw. A larger one reveals itself to us as we move around it, the whole body involved. And when the scale increases further, the object becomes an environment within which that body is enveloped. At one extreme is a discrete object, at the other a whole world. The relationship between your body and the object adapts to this scale, as does the extent of your agency and control. And all of this has an impact on how you feel, whether that be curious, thrilled, bored or oppressed.
These are matters of the body. And specifically matters of proprioception, that other sense that works alongside your visual and vestibular systems to create a feeling of your body in a space surrounded by things. Tangible things. That which can be known by being touched.
It is natural to privilege the mind over the body when it comes to thinking. However, Embodied Cognition scientists argue that our mental processes are not solely cerebral computational activities, but are instead distributed across the brain, body and environment. They suggest that cognition is deeply rooted in the body's interactions with its surroundings, and that these interactions are an essential part of how we think.
A Woman Who Knows 1
How you read the surface of that lump of lead varies across cultures, traditions and individuals. Although the usual suspects appear: Bubbles suggest money; broken shapes, obstacles; rings, love and/or marriage. All as you would expect. Animals offer a little more scope, their shape open to interpretation through their specific characteristics. Birds might signify news, snakes betrayal. It is here that the interpretation begins to open to the intuition and insight of the diviner.
It is a human being that is the interface between the divine and the terrestrial, between this sense and nonsense. A human being to discern the difference between the way things appear, and the way things are. There is a body. A wise man. A woman who knows.
The Inuit Sculptor
To the Inuit sculptor the stone before him has a voice. A spirit that guides his hand and chisel to release the memories and stories beneath the surface. They refer to the actual physical matter of the stone as tissue, as flesh.
For thousands of years craftsman have had a similar dialogue with their material. Listening to it. Working with it. The medium itself improving and refining the skill of the artisan. There was something like a reciprocity to the relationship, what Aristotle called poiesis.2
Making Things to Make Sense
Poiesis might be understood this simply, as a collaboration with the material world. But there is a more profound definition: Making things to reveal the truth. Or - if the truth offends - making things to make sense. This is the definition I apply to my own practice, and for that matter everyone else's.
The vortex that spirals around the ambiguous thought and object that is the vague focus for an artwork, those obscure images, half-thoughts and observations... this is a sense-making mechanism. And within it every object, idea or individual is forever in motion.
The E at Delphi
Above the entrance to the temple of Apollo in Delphi were a number of aphorisms. The first - nothing to excess - is relatively self-explanatory. The second - know thyself - was related to hubris and meant something more along the lines of know your place. The third is more opaque to us now, but had something to do with being wary of making promises. Plutarch writes that there was a fourth: the letter E.
No-one had any idea what this E meant. The Athenians had no idea when they replaced the original wooden E with one in bronze. The Romans were just as unaware when they replaced that E of bronze with one in gold.
By Plutarch's time its meaning had been lost for something like a thousand years, but this did not stop him or his companions and colleagues from speculating. The E meant ‘five’ and symbolised the five Wise Men. Or five the most important number in mathematics, physiology, philosophy and music. Or it referred to the alphabet's second vowel, and thus the second planet - the sun - and consequently pointed to Apollo. Or it meant the ‘if’ that was asked of the oracle, or the ‘if’ used in prayers, or the ‘if’ in logic. Or - somehow - it suggested Apollo's immortality.
The E at Delphi had long since ceased to be a letter. It was instead a space to think into. Seeded by a splinter from some long lost thought, seeded by an erasure, by a blur. We fill in the gaps. We join the dots. We trace the outline of our inspiration and invention through the pinholes in the darkness above.
A script downloads a random 3D model from the internet, and automatically reduces it to a single vector and two points. That reduction is manually undone - one vector at a time - until a form begins to take shape.
A wireframe is then extracted from the model, and passed to a Grasshopper definition in Rhino3D that automatically calculates and models the nodes. The nodes are fabricated with a 3D printer. The vectors are measured, and aluminium pipe cut to those dimensions. The pipe and their respective nodes are fitted together into forms that are usually between 2 or 3 metres square.
At no point do I know what the model is or where it has come from.
Bloodshot & Wary.
Karaoke. Anarchy in the UK.
Glasses, Stubble and Grey T-Shirt.
Full Face, No Glasses.
The Mask & Restraint. Perforated. Difficult.
Reddened, Feeding Tube & Weird Eyebrow.
New Glasses. Can’t See a Thing.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Fluid & Formless
With the advent of the mechanical saw and other industrial tools, our relationship to materials and the world around us begins to shift. To paraphrase Dreyfus and Kelly, mechanical saws cut with ruthless unintelligence and through every resistance, often against the grain, and with little regard for the material's natural properties.3
An instrument defines a world. Whether it is scientific, musical or technological, a language or a field of study, a hammer, a telescope or a VR helmet.
With Homer the muses are quite vague creatures, but as the culture matures they clarify and coalesce into the 9 classic muses of Hellenistic Greece. As fully-fledged Hellenes they each possess a role, a name and an instrument. That instrument reflecting the interests, obsessions and capabilities of a people. The muse Urania of astronomy carried a globe; Melpomene, of tragedy, a mask; Polyhymnia, of sacred poetry, the veil. Tools with which to prosecute a discipline, and with which to carve out a world. Tools for architecting spaces and selves.
The same features that enable an instrument also restrain it. Its capacity and limitation trace out a landscape and horizon. This is how our imaginations and insights are facilitated and constrained, this is how structures are overlaid on phenomena. Through our instruments.
The Algorithm Has Bled into the Data
For many of us the diction, definitions and grammar of science have become the language with which we choose to express and define ourselves. Science has bled into our every thought and activity. It defines and delineates the entire span of our lives, as much as it dictates the direction and purpose of our entire species.
Science and reason calculate a brave new world beyond words, and an endless chain of binary pulses constitute this latest cosmos. Our new home is bitmapped. The algorithm has bled into the data, and binary has become the language of the gods and the angels.
The shift away from ideographic writing and true names, to phonetic languages and alphabets, has seeded in us the idea that the world might be decoded. That we might work it out. That rather than unknowable, the universe is simply unknown, a puzzle rather than a mystery.
Too Thin a Foundation for a Life Worth Living
Do you feel that emptiness at the core of your being? Do not ask science to fill it. Technology might distract you for a while - perhaps even long enough for you to die of natural causes - but science itself is utterly inadequate to that task. As the anarchic epistemologist and philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend has said, scientific results and the scientific ethos provide too thin a foundation for a life worth living.4
The universe is speaking to us through our science and technology, and it is suggesting that we do not belong here. That if we want to stay we will have to change, and quickly.
God speaks to me. He speaks to me in binary. He speaks to me in ASCII. He says Z3&?eR¥dheY?!dhq0&^* w.
The pills came in a shrink-wrapped packet. A packet comprised of two columns, each of five capsules. Each capsule blue at one end, white at the other. Their orientation random. One packet, ten capsules. A start bit, the middle eight bits a byte, and an end bit. A packet of pills encoding a number in binary. A binary number encoding a letter in ASCII. An unfinished artwork. Dormant once more, although about a decade ago it started calling itself Fetish.
Hallucinations, Organic & Artificial.
AIs are prone to hallucination, as are humans. We call theirs, bugs. We call ours, reality. Whether organic or artificial, we navigate a world of phantasm and mirage, of shape-shifting and deception, insight and delusion.
An artificial intelligence hallucinates in a further, deeper way. Even if we allow for its models and processes to be thought of as thinking, it would still have no basis for the everyday metaphors we use to communicate. To an entity without a body what could it possibly mean to say it has cold feet, that it is head over heels, or has gut feeling? To an AI these figures of speech are from another universe, full of references to a body that to it is doubly absent. It should of course come as no surprise that an AI possesses just the outline, contour and shell of an existence. That it is all form and no substance, its skin no more than a parameter.
When you pull on a VR headset and step into a virtual world, you flicker between states and spaces. Between presence and absence, substance and surface, bodies and shadows. You are both there and not there, your feet not quite touching the ground. It's as if your whole being has been split in two and occupies some kind of superposition.
The body feels its absence in a virtual environment. The eyes and ears are indulged, but there is nothing - or very little - for the proprioception. The signals are weak, crude and garbled. Virtual environments would prefer that the body be understood conceptually - perhaps even hypothetically - that is after all precisely how virtual beings understand them.
The digital realm, its truth perhaps is its distance and dislocation, its estrangement and alienation. If you want to make artwork that resonates with contemporary everyman, why not split them from their body. After all, they have long since been split from their soul.
There is a convergence between us and our machines. And as much as they have moved towards us, we have moved towards them. The singularity - that moment when machine intelligence exceeds are own - when it arrives, that might then be more of a hybrid future, part of our own evolution as much as theirs.
Born to a Digital Embrace
Rosi Braidotti and others argue that the boundaries between the human and the virtual have become porous, that the alienation of the body in virtual environments is a step towards a posthuman condition where body, technology and virtuality are intertwined, that the extended self in virtual spaces is already blurring boundaries between the self and its virtual existence.5
Perhaps then we are stepping towards some kind of Superhuman, one born to the digital embrace, who can accommodate the flux and thrive in such a fluidity. A fractured self from the very beginning. A self not split in two, but into ten thousand.
Lodestone and Lodestar
As a species our function and purpose shifts, but it does not do so in isolation. It does so amidst a sea and under a constellation. It does so deep in a vast multiverse of coherence and confusion. From such a chaos, we summon a cosmos. The components for a new sense, meaning and purpose lie here, the elements for a new landscape and prospect, the biology for a fresh and vibrant soul. Omphalos and Phoebe. Lodestone and lodestar. This is where we stand and sing the universe into being.6
All of human knowledge was once contained within a body and transmitted by a breath. A Large Language Model has neither. Knowledge once embodied, then extracted and finally abstracted. Frequency and proximity, that is what we know now.
Has our own voice been joined by another? Can these traces and shadows be understood and accepted as other? Phantasm: The words and worlds of the virtual and the artificial, no less turbulent and confused than those of the natural and the real.
1. The Polish term for witch is wiedźma. In modern Polish, wiedza translates as knowledge.
2. See Dreyfus, H. and Kelly, S.D. (2014). All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. Free Press.
3. Ibid., p.209.
4. Feyerabend, P. (2008). Against Method. London [u.a.]: Verso, p.131.
5. Braidotti, R. (2019). Posthuman Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
6. Several parts of this paper are direct quotes from: Magee, P.G.N. (2018). Faulty Instruments, the Sea & the Stars: a Digital Fine Art Practice. [Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London)]. Available at: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10058993/