Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Meaning and the Body

Below: Another email, (inevitably improved in the act of posting) which caused me to clarify ideas that had been much more diaphanous.

Hi Lisa!

Glad to hear you got so much out of your Japan trip! Yes, nothing like traveling on your own to broaden the mind. Cliche, but again, something that has enormity when experienced yourself, especially when quite young. When (and I didn't mean to lead up to this) experienced in/by/through the body. :-)

I'm always intrigued by questions about the point or meaning of an art work, as they are markers, not only about what the questioner believes is are valid points for art to make, but sometimes also about his attitude towards play, and the limits of his imagination. It's a class of question that is there all the time. People who are used to seeing nudes, landscapes and icons ask it when seeing say, cubist portraits, color fields and conceptual art. Ringo dismisses abstract video as eye-candy, social realists don't get the point of art about language. In my case I remember it was a revelation for me the first time I saw Gerry Tan's figurative painting of a bunch of things, (it's in Daisy Langenegger's living room, gotta take you to her place some time) --plates, tape measures, doughnuts, etc and was told by him that it was a painting of "round things." I mean, it was sesame-street obvious as soon as he said it, but it shocked me because I realized that I had been unable to see this because I was looking for some other meaning. I was studying linguistic philosophy at the time and so was very prepared to appreciate art about language and classes when I realized that's what it was (or could be) about, but at the same time had been unaware of the possibility that art could treat of it.

It may in fact be the commonest question asked in the face of an art object. Now that I think of it, I realize that most discourses treat the question as a mistake, caused by "a lack of education" or "unfamiliarity with the discourse" or something like that. The question is treated as a local anomaly, and not as a class of inquiry. When I think of the times I've seen this question asked and been asked this question myself (which, as an experimental filmmaker and builder of art machines, I got asked a LOT when I first started in the late 80's) I realize that that when people asked this question, the most difficult encounters were those when it emerged that it was necessary for them to first become convinced that the point I was making was a point worth making/thinking about/ is funny/fun or that the issue I was addressing was in fact an issue. To illuminate this, imagine having to explain the sentence "This image deconstructs gender" to someone who has no idea of what deconstruction is and/or who is unaware of/does not agree with the idea that gender is essentially performative. On the other hand, sometimes the difficulty is the mirror image of the previous case: the questioner must be convinced that not all art has to do or be about what he thinks it should do or be about. Or, in a more extreme case, that what he thinks art should be about is a specific issue that the artist is attacking or abandoning and that there is some justification to this attack/abandonment. That the questioner, as Wittgenstein put it, needs to unask his question.

So the answer to that question is a specific and tactical one, depending on what positions the questioner and the artist/work occupy vis-a-vis art, what art can/should talk about..

As an example of the mechanic/flow/structure of a tactical negotiation, it is the case that I often run into people from what we call developed countries who think (usually unconsciously) that it is the specific mandate of Southeast Asian art to deal with social issues. They like protest art and feel confused when a Southeast Asian artist deals with technological or abstract issues like virtuality or generativity instead of using tools like sound and video to make social/political comments. However, this type of questioner is usually prepared to accept my answer when I assert that in this work blablabla, I have deliberately decided to abandon political/social issues as I feel that a SEAn has as much right to talk about technology as a European/Japanese artist, blablabla and so on. The answer makes a bridge to a familiar position in their minds. It removes a preconceived notion that had been preventing them from accepting the idea that the artwork was commenting/can comment on virtuality or whatever.

Now, Passage is kind of a departure and also a return in that in a way it's a return to non-ironic fictive/narrative film, (even if everted) which has -- for the last half century maybe? -- been positioned as a dominant discourse, to be combated by "real" art. I have the feeling that things are going to get worse/complicated for me (again), now that I find myself compelled to talk about and consider a work's psychosomatic effects. It takes me into places/ideas which people might not easily accept or understand, to which it might be hard to build such tactical bridges.

The reality is, I do what I am compelled to do, or find amusing/interesting, and often find patterns in retrospect. I suspect that some people might find this hard to believe because I'm so articulate once I get going, but the simple truth is that I'm just good at building linguistic houses structures for/around inarticulate suspicions. Also, sometimes the houses change. My own retrospective ideas of what these patterns are change. This aspect could easily be painted as a kind of cynical story-mongering, a creation of justifications to make my work seem more important. Now that I think of it, it is fair to describe it as story-mongering, but I can in all conscience assert that it isn't cynical. In fact, it might be more accurate to call the act hypothesis-mongering.

Well, one possible story/hypothesis you can tell people is that Passage is part of a large, multifaceted attack/commentary on the limits of film -- essentially the story I told in my talk when I introduced my other works. However, aside from the "Film Rebel" idea, one of my pet hypotheses right now is that what I think can be called "traditional gallery art" acts as if it literally believes that works are only significant insofar as they illustrate theory. Or, to put it in my terms, it appears that art discourse is only comfortable with works that speak in words or speak to the mind. It won't be an easy thing to tell people that I want to speak to the body, or that I think the body can hear. That I literally subscribe to Brian Eno's assertion that "the body is the large brain." They are much more prepared for discourses using pollysyllabics like virtuality or deconstruction or simulacra. I suppose I could soothe them by using words like "somatic cognition" or "extraverbal cognition" but that would be going even deeper into exactly the territory I want to get out of. I talk too much and too well, that's my problem. I should have the courage of Zen and just spout non-sequiturs until people get it, but I'm too impatient.

Fuck it. People WILL insist/persist in recasting/translating that sentence about "talking to the body" into the language of manipulation. "You are manipulating people's reactions." Do you manipulate a person when you raise your voice? Sometimes that is in fact the case. But sometimes it is more accurate to say you got angry. And so for example, I wasn't manipulating people by putting slamming doors in the soundtrack. I came up with the conviction that I should project a door on the wall coming out of sleep at something like 2 in the morning. I had no idea what the image/sound meant. I put it on the wall because it seemed right to put it there, and then later made observations and hypotheses about psychosomatic effects, childhood, and the relationship of hearing to the survival instinct.

Now, after a long journey round, I return to your interpellator's question: what is the point of a work about passages? My answer to him would take the form of a series of questions, as I do not believe the audience has a monopoly on questions, still less that all answers take the form of declarative sentences. And so I would ask: Does nothing occur to you in the experience of such a journey? Does it feel completely devoid of connection to anything in the world or perhaps, in your own life? Do your bones feel no response to a garden behind a locked gate? You don't feel referred to, spoken to? Then perhaps what the work is saying is: "you must change your life."

Or at least, perhaps some of your ideas about art.



PS will definitely link to your blog



Monday, March 14, 2011

PASSAGE: Additional Materials/Documentation

Here I'll be posting links to materials created/collected by my curator, the brilliant and indefatigable Lisa Chikiamco of Visual Pond, who, together with Boots Herrera, rescued the painter Lee Aguinaldo from obscurity, curating a major retrospective on the man and writing the major chunks of the book about him. Lisa is also currently reinventing Philippine art documentation as something to be practiced as multimedia on the net as well as atoms on bookshelves. I'd be the first to admit that the audio of my talk is falls somewhat short of hi-fidelity standards, but that the talk was recorded at all (and, further, that it is up for access on the net) already constitutes better and more proactive documentation than that of most Philippine art institutions. It should also be noted that everything was shot and recorded entirely on her own initiative, with her own equipment. Now I think I should have helped her with it, but at the time I felt it was all I could do to make the work, figure out what the work was and what I was going to say about it. Perhaps I also felt it was a bit unseemly to be too interested in the process of recording my own sound and image. Go figure. Traces of old Catholic school injunctions against self-promotion, self-regard. Vanitas.

At any rate, my talk is up on Visual Pond's youtube channel in five parts here, here, here, here and here. The last part shows me exhibiting iPatch 1: Teddyvision, the smallest and most mobile video installation in the Philippines. I'll be writing that up in another post.

The catalog is available for download here.

Visual Pond has a slideshow up on their blog as well.

Lastly and most interesting is Lisa's own blog here: I really like her move in deciding to refrain from thematic grouping in favor of a preliminary empirical investigation. As there actually is a possibility that the artists here are not doing something that had been forseen by Baudrillard etc.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Notes on Passage, my first solo show

This is a photo of a doorway that I shot somewhere in Hong Kong, during my residency at the Hong Kong Arts Centre back in 2009. I shot it because the doorway seemed like one of those obscure/ sleazy doorways in stories that lead to/camouflage something/ someone alien/magical. The weapons stash of a half-mad exile from Arcturus. A defrocked sorcerer selling hallucinogenic dragon pee to bohemian socialites. The Aleph. Dr. Jekyll's second apartment, etc.

Directly below is a still of the staircase portion of PASSAGE, my first solo show. (documentation video here) Can't believe it took this long, but I guess I'm just one of those late bloomers/slow workers. Part of the reason is that major part of my practice seems to incorporate the process of technological development: Every work is based on or uses some technology or technique I haven't tried before. That I find this fun goes without saying, but it naturally slows down my production speed, as there's a lot of testing, exploration, discarding, revision and so on.

At any rate, the show ran from Jan 15 to Feb 5 2011 at the Pablo Art Gallery in Fort Bonifacio, in Taguig. It was curated by Lisa Chikiamco of Visual Pond as the first show in End Frame 3, her series of exhibitions showcasing the current state of video art practice in the Philippines. I'm looking forward to seeing the other shows, as it promises to look outside conceptual art practice, which had till recently succeeded in equating the conceptualists' use of video as the entirety of video art.

In the case of this work, I was concerned with transforming the gallery into a single work, a space which would enclose people and within which they would have a unified experience. Pablo in The Fort is a very sculptural space, kind of an upside-down L, with built-in cabinets in the back. I've simplified it in my drawing but not by much:

The ground floor is linked to the upper floor by a simple stair without a banister that leads to an open doorway. It seemed pretty obvious that the second floor room should host some kind of revelation or climax, reached by the stairway, and that the first room should host some kind of preparation, or contrast to it.

Memories of magical doorways had been swirling about my head for months since I'd run across the Girl in the Fireplace episode of Doctor Who late in 2010: The Guardian of Forever in the Star Trek episode written by Harlan Ellison. The Time Tunnel. The rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. The wormholes in The Time Bandits. The mirror in Through the Looking Glass, reprised in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The cabinet in Narnia. The doors into other worlds in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and so on. (SF geek.)

I'd been seeing video mapping around the net for months (Essentially, video mapping consists of projecting a video image very precisely onto 3D objects so that perspective cues within the image like foreshortening, keystoning, and so on coincide with the appearance and orientation of the objects, with the result that the images appear to be a property of the object, instead of being something imposed upon it by a projector.) however, it wasn't until I saw the video artist/film editor Edsel Abesames' execution of it at Tujiko Noriko's set at Fete dela WSK last November 19 that I finally decided to try my hand at it.

Seed Ideas

My first idea was to try to make the walls of the upper room disappear, which, aside from the wow factor involved, tickled me for being an inversion of the usual use of video mapping: I would have been using it to eliminate the 3D properties of an object. I wanted to create another green world on the second floor, a forest planet that you could reach by climbing a staircase made of water, which would be the magical space-time-crossing passageway to the planet, and the passage in show's title. Of course, this would have entailed projecting images on most of the five of the six walls of the room, and it didn't take long to confirm that I didn't have enough projectors or the right lenses to do this, so I scrapped that and eventually came up with the idea of keeping the video mapping idea, but using it to make another passageway, this time a door that appeared to punch through the edges and surfaces of the part of the room that had cabinets in it, violating the space of the room, even as it led to another space altogether. I cobbled together the loop of a wind-ruffled flower garden behind an ancient and disused gate, an image that seemed to ring with archetypal ideas. In a way I liked this idea better, as it made it so that the passage didn't end on the second floor. By putting a gate there, the second floor didn't host Fairyland or Utopia or Eden, something which no projection could hope to live up to, but only a gate that you felt you could almost pass through.

On the left is the image of the gate, predistorted so that it would look right when projected on the cabinets in the back. Apparently this technique of predistortion is called anamorphosis and is supposedly described by Leonardo da Vinci in one of his notebooks. Hans Holbein the Younger famously used it to insert a skull/memento mori in his painting The Ambassadors.

The other instance of video mapping in the show was of course the staircase, which I mapped with a loop of water canted so that it appeared to flow upwards, and cropped so that the projection was confined entirely within the surfaces of the stairs. I'd initially thought of mixing science fiction with fantasy and having the words "CLIMB ME" rolling on the stairs in some kind of LED/dot matrix font, but in the end I thought it was too cute, and too obvious a reference to the mushroom scene Alice in Wonderland.

One of the touchstones of the work was the experience of being a child in a strange place. A place filled with looming presences and operating procedures that were beyond anything you knew or were familiar with. This is a state that a young child encounters almost daily, a state whose invocation is perhaps the main reason we read fantastic literature, or even encounter art. The image and sound of a door opening and closing that I projected high up on the wall of the first floor, beside the doorway at the top of the stair came from memories of fantastic literature filtered through the memories of that state. A child's perception of loud and unfamiliar things happening in a distant room. Arguments, perhaps, or maybe just adults yelling instructions to each other, the way waitresses will yell orders in noisy diners, or supervisors will yell instructions to the drivers /operators of large machines. A construction site or loading dock, where everyone except you knows what they're doing and what's going on.

Happy Accidents

One of the things that I hadn't anticipated was the sheer amount of light that would fill the ground floor room whenever the projected door would open onto the image of a white room. The image was brightest at this point, and its light of the image would bounce off the walls, illuminating everything, wiping out the image of water on the stair. However, I found I liked the way the light levels seemed to breathe -- how stair would oscillate between being an ordinary stair and a stair made of water. I liked that people would feel the pull of the illusion again and again in spite of its having been extinguished only seconds earlier.

I also found that the work tended to co-opt the spaces surrounding it, to associate itself with bits of the world outside the gallery, something I discovered while visiting there with my cousin and his wife. On stepping out of the chilled darkness of the gallery, we felt assaulted by bright noon sunlight and the wind gusting on us and had to wait a few moments to readjust. It definitely felt as if we were returning from an interlude outside ordinary reality. The sense of this persisted as we walked across the sidewalk by the vacant lot towards High Street, where I had parked my car, the sense that the emptiness of the space was a bridge, another section of the journey to Fairyland.


Key to the work was my sense of how the elements in it "spoke" to the body, something that I'm relying on more and more when making things. It's involuntary somatic reactions -- eyes darting around, people watching their feet, stopping to listen, microexpressions of fear or searching that I watch out for. Lately I get the sense that people are composite entities and that I'm trying to talk to the submerged half, the mute and muted twin who can only be approached by slipping past the daylight twin's power to put things into words. Sound is effective in reaching this twin, but so (I think) is almost any other stimulus other than words and images. Smells, sounds, tastes, haptic sensations - they all enter through doors most people cannot consciously close. Working in the gallery at night, I found myself time and time again being startled, irritated and/or surprised by sounds I had created and layered myself. Sounds in particular seem to have a very intimate relationship with the survival instinct, causing the body to lurch and hesitate, declare and confess before we know what it's doing. We rely on sound to let us know where we are, who is there with us, what is approaching. Voices and instruments drifting in and out of hearing as doors opened and closed. The sound of water in the corner where the staircase was. Birds and wind upstairs, coming from the direction of the doorway. The writer/publisher Erwin Romulo observed that the work seemed to be a narrative of some kind, an observation that I had some difficulty understanding, as the work contained no human figures or characters, let alone anything like a protagonist. Took me a while to realize that he spoke out of a sense that the work was a kind of everted film, with the character displaced to occupy the body of the viewer, a story with a setting, a sequence, a rudimentary plot of revelation, and --with the viewer's addition -- even a dazed/bemused antihero.