Reviewing Recent Events

On the evening of Thursday 16 March and the morning of Friday 17 March, the Informed Matters Community of Practice (CoP) held two events as part of the University of the Arts’ Research Fortnight, where the community continued to explore its selected themes of complex systems, action and disobedience.

The first event was a panel discussion in which Allan (Parsons), Virna (Koutla) and Amanda (Windle) presented short papers followed by an open discussion with the audience who largely consisted of students from the MA Narrative Environments course at Central Saint Martins. The emphasis of this event was on spatial practices.

In the first paper, Allan contended that the processes, products and outputs of art, design, media, communication and digital practices, the scope covered by the Informed Matters CoP, act. They do not just ‘work’ and they are not just the processes of ‘labour’, to draw on the distinctions made by Arendt in The Human Condition among the categories of labour, work and action.

This contention implicitly assumes what might be considered two different approaches to the notion of practice, the one (i.e. centred on art, design, media, communication and digital modes of practice) emphasises functional purpose, technical making and accomplishment, while the other (i.e. centred on socially-engaged, political and spatial or spatio-temporal practice) seemingly emphasises epiphenomenal, supplementary or incidental effects of practice, rather than being practices themselves.

Allan explored this contention through the example of the cast iron sugar kettle, a socio-historical, spatio-temporal, cultural phenomenon. At first, the cast iron sugar kettle had a clear function in sugar production, while also being an actant (i.e. an element in a more complex and systemic mode of production) in an industrial, slave economy. In more recent times, it had a more general utility, for example as a planter or fire pit, in the context of a post-industrial consumer economy, acting, through being a ‘conversation piece’ in the domestic practices of the everyday. In addition, still in the context of a post-industrial society, the cast iron sugar kettle takes up a role as a ‘conversation piece’ in a different kind of conversation: it acts to recall, i.e. performs a mnemonic act, by being an actant in the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana.

In short, it begins to act otherwise within a different articulation (or diffraction), bringing into existence a different ‘space of appearance’, a different polis, in which the slave, rather than the plantation owner, is centre stage.

Employing Arendt’s Heidegger-inspired distinction between Earth and world, in which it is implied that people live on the Earth and inhabit the world, Allan finally presented a photograph of a water-filled cast iron sugar kettle at the Whitney Plantation which seemed to show the Earth as a simulacrum of Gaia (oceanosphere and atmosphere) being held separate from the world by the rim of the kettle, the world characterised in the natural-cultural, spatio-temporal, socio-historical form of a lawn.

Allan suggested that if the world embodies a pedagogy it does so through humour, or rather by continually presenting us with situations that are paradoxical, such as those explored in Buddhist koans: the world as witty actant. The alternative may be simply that the Earth is laughing at our (humanity’s) expense.

Following Allan’s presentation, Virna drew parallels and contrasts between Hannah Arendt and Samuel Beckett, both of whom had left their country of origin – Arendt under duress and unwillingly, Beckett voluntarily and willingly – and, having experienced the events of the Second World War, subsequently sought to make sense of those events and their roles within them. In particular, Virna enacted a reading of Arendt’s theory of action against Beckett’s teleplay “Quad” in order to investigate resonances, or diffractions, in relation to space and the political.

Thematically, Virna suggested, both writers highlighted loss: the loss of ‘world’, i.e. the experience of ‘wordlessness’ experienced in mass society, in Arendt’s case, leaving men and women rootless; and, in the case of Beckett, the loss of the human capacity to communicate, highlighting the frailty of language which can no longer express what needs to be expressed, dragging men and women into futile conversations and leaving them despairing.

For Arendt, speech is central to action, to establishing a new beginning, after the traumas of the Second World War. Beckett also is concerned with laying to rest that act constituted by that war and marking a new beginning, but he does so through the exhaustion of language, displacing the ability to act, to begin anew, onto the body, such that it is the actors’ distinctive patterns of movement as they shuffle about the confined space of the stage set that opens up a new ‘space of appearance’.

Designers, architects, performers and narrators would do well, Virna concluded, to consider these examples in order to grasp better the relationships among language, action and theory. In the final talk, Amanda made a twofold contribution. Through a feminist reading of Arendt’s propensity toward storytelling, Amanda made relevant her reading of Arendt to the political situation of 2017’s global news, as dispersed through the media.

The second event, a roundtable discussion held at the Royal Society of Arts on the morning of Friday 17 March, re-engaged with the contention that the processes, products and outputs of art, design, media, communication and digital could act, whether indeed democracy is dying in darkness and also, in addition, considered how the work/world of Joelle Tuerlinckx mattered, an example brought to the discussion by Andrew (Chesher).

The debate began with a contrast between a constative, interpretive approach to Arendt’s text, as authorial expression, focusing on what the text says and logically implies, its logical implicature, so to speak, and a more performative approach which considers what, in saying what she did, she might have been trying to do, or deemed to be doing (not express or logically state). Allan laid out in summary the core of his argument presented the previous evening, diffracting Arendt’s concept of action through the more recent concept of the actant. In response, Bob (Eaglestone) impressed on the group that, in a strict Arendtian sense, the processes, products and outputs of art, design, media, communication and digital practices cannot act. Bob’s rigour and his knowledge of Arendt’s text grounded the remainder of the discussion in an awareness of how its premise – art and design etc as forms of action – departed from the letter of that text in this respect: works do not act, and moreover, for Arendt, action is rare and happens only collectively. However, for Allan, Amanda and Andrew the question becomes, how can Arendt’s analytical distinctions be re-articulated so that the particular form of action to which such processes, products and outcomes give rise can be appreciated.

To shift this seeming impasse from contradiction (closed, irremediable conflict) to paradox (open, potential co-responsiveness), Andrew put forward the argument that the value of an art work can be judged according to the extent to which it enacts a moment of undecidability, similarly to the way in which a paradox suggests no immediate resolution or way forward. That is to say, the art work is valuable and worthy of consideration in as far as it forces us to enter into a process of decision-making and judging.

This judging does not concern its appearance pure and simple, i.e. an aesthetic judgement, but rather what it causes to appear, its space of appearance, and how we position ourselves in relation to that space of appearance and the phenomena, mores, conventions, traditions, rules, norms, laws and traditions it cites and brings into play, as well as the hegemonic orders that it thereby puts into question. Are we being asked simply to follow the rules, norms or conventions or to question and disobey them?

It is not, therefore, a matter of ‘making strange’ in a formalist sense, such that familiar objects can no longer be recognised in their familiarity, nor of de-alienating the addressee in an empathic schema, but a process of bringing to awareness the means and methods we use to render familiar in the first place, to make commonplace, in short, the techniques we use to construct and order the world and accept it as real and, furthermore, take it then as if it were token of a pre-existent ‘real’ that speaks to us and, effectively, tells us what to do.

Thus, the art work of Joelle Tuerlinckx causes us to question what are the appropriate codes, rules or conventions to which we should resort in order to resolve the undecidables with which she confronts us. Is her work decipherable as legible? She employs letters and phrases, but what is their status? She employs sculptural tropes only to fold them into tropes of display, and vice versa. She employs gallery space, but does she do so in order to question its framing or to employ its framing as part of the work itself. Where does that leave her in the institution of art?

One issue that wove through the discussion at this second event was what the relationship between stories or narratives and action, in the Arendtian sense, is. This issue had been raised at the preceding evening’s panel discussion, when the view was expressed by Allan that narrative structures may seek to contain or limit the boundlessness of action, by interpolating actions within a telic framework, assuming that narrative implies a beginning and ending and that non-linear narratives still imply causality and telos. In response to the discussion of the roundtable session, Allan wondered whether narrative may be a process of prophylaxis, protecting human identity from the viral and bacterial contamination of boundless action, by seeking to impose promissory horizons on futurity to stabilise its vicissitudes, in a kind of Sloterdijkian immunology.

Allan and Andrew.

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