Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Representation v Illustration

The title of this post brings into focus an issue which has been knocking at my door since I began to identify my principal directions for this project. 'What am I doing and how am I doing it?' never really goes away. Ever. I would like to think (taking into account the broad spectrum of subjective interpretation from any given audience - street or studio bound) that the work in which I am engaged is located within representational practices, rather than setting up my work to simply illustrate my concepts. Yet this is not a straightforward undertaking.

In the latest post 2.7.09 on 'empyre - Participatory Art' -, Renate Ferro has this to say:

'Just yesterday I found myself in a heated debate with a group of humanities summer school students who had just read Balzac's "The Untitled Masterpiece." I was invited by their professor to spend an hour sharing my own work with them as well as other artist's work who had influenced me: digital, participatory, networked, affective, ephemeral. These students just could not fathom how this work could possibly be categorized as "art."

Their questions illuminated their tightly held notions about the nature of what art is. Those notions nurtured during their primary and secondary school educations. How is artwork that exists in Second Life valued in the art market? What beauty is recognized in work that does not exist materially? How can the skills of a video maker be compared with an artist who can render the figure realistically? How do art historians record work where there is no tangible evidence of the work?'

For those of us who are in the business of making art for a living or in arts education, these questions may seem a little naive, but I think they are challenging in their scope for encouraging responses which may be anything other than either, equally tight and limiting or so amorphous as to defy definition.

Ferro adds: 'Perhaps Simon Biggs is correct when he writes "I gave up calling what I do art a while ago. Generally I refer to what I do as creative practices (note plural). In interdisciplinary and collaborative
working contexts this allows you to divest yourself of a lot of baggage whilst ensuring that the most valuable aspects of the "practice formerly known as art" are retained."'

I applaud Biggs` definition here. I think it is an intelligent rendering of what has become of the post-modern (and even the post-post-modern) art-maker. I call myself an 'interdisciplinary dance artist', having spent a life-time in movement, but having an hons degree in fine arts, majoring in painting and nearly 30 years working with and lecturing in a broad range of art and design practices in both two, three and four dimensions tends to make me something of a hybrid entity. I am hardly alone - most people (but not all) I know involved in serious, creative endeavours are now similar in their take on who they are and what they do. Personally I see it as a liberating factor, but it does create questions with regard to the integrity and quality of what we create and where and how that is located within a wider social, cultural and historical context of reference. Much of what artists do (has it ever been otherwise?) now is written off by the 'great unwashed' public, who are all self-proclaimed specialists in everything. Yet it is imperative that we as artists are called to task and take responsibility for what we do, how we do it and what it might mean - not ultimately, perhaps, for the benefit of the public, but for ourselves.

But to return to representation v illustration. The problem with Balzac`s 'Unknown Masterpiece' is that it was rendered in a language of representation known only to the artist himself. Apparently a first foray into abstraction, the people who first came upon the work were ill-equipped to read the work, being thoroughly grounded themselves in art works that were centred on figurative, realistic modes of representation. The story goes that Picasso himself rented the house where the 'Unknown Masterpiece' is set and here produced 'Guernica', itself a masterpiece of alternative representation.

Representation does not require an orientation around realism. Let us look at some dictionary definitions, http://en wiki/representation: 'Representation describes the signs that stand in for and take the place of something else ... it is through representation that people know and understand the world and reality ...' and 'Representation refers to the construction in any medium of ... aspects of 'reality' such as people, places, objects, events ...'

Illustration is: ' a picture that complements text' and 'something that helps to explain something' and 'a visualization that ... stresses subject more than form ...' I agree with the visualization, but not sure that I agree with the use of the terms, subject and form here. I would rather they were reversed - illustration for me is a depiction of form over subject/content/context, although these aspects are of course also covered.

In representation, we are looking at a system, an encoding through signs and signification, of surrogation. Something standing in for something else. Illustration is a depictional prosthetic of something, an extra artifice which is dependent for the realization of an image of that thing, upon the context of that thing but which still remains outside itself . In my own work, the signs, inscriptions and meaning divested in the 'after-life' of my original performing moments, through my video/sound work are stand-ins: representations of the original - surrogate, vicariously realized realities based on past moments. For me there exists a reciprocity. I am not trying to make pictures of my ideas. I am trying to make my ideas as pictures as my ideas. Rather than an objective summation of an aspect after the event, I am trying to render the event itself then, as a lived experience now. Removed, yet immersive.

In ADA`s 'Keynote Conversation , Critical Digital Matter', an international live discussion broadcast between Amsterdam, London and Wellington in Second Life, where I was invited to show my station build and video work last Saturday (27.6.09), the instigators of the event had this issue as one of their subjects under discussion: "Fuller and Ballard share a concern with digital matter, and the employment of things digital in concrete engagements with art. They will discuss the pervasiveness of digital matter, the engagement of art and the digital and address the problem of artists in new media art finding their time taken up with attempts to make their work interesting to contemporary art, creative industries, humanities, etc and forgetting to intensify the work that directly engages the crucial aspects of the field ..."

In-depth engagement. I pointed out to Eric Kluitenburg (Ze Moo), the Amsterdam connection for the event, that this was precisely what I was endeavouring to execute with my station build and the meanings/signification that are inherent in my concepts in SL. It is interesting to note that this subject of engagement with rigorous descriptions of what constitutes the representational rather than the simply illustrative is currently being discussed in other locations around the world.

Within the context of my recent dance and video works, all in the previous post, the 'Departed' series, I have purposely worked my way through stages of representation in relation to content and meaning. The first video work, 'Departed - In the Company of Strangers' was carried out in collaboration with the composer/musician Thomas Feiner. I have long been an admirer of his work and wanted to see if I could create an interaction between my video his piece, 'For Now' which was written, fittingly I thought, by Feiner while on a road-trip, around New Zealand. His sentiments while writing the lyrics, he said to me, were similar to my dance work on Leaving and he related closely to both, my concepts of paradoxical departure/arrival, distance/intimacy and the visual work that I had produced. I was indebted to Feiner for allowing me to manipulate and change/edit his piece and I think for what it is, it was successful. But what is it?

Undoubtedly, the psychoemotional environment for this work was significantly influenced by my time in the UK, in April, with my family and Mother when she passed away. The work was made four days after my return to New Zealand. The result of this was that the work was dominated, unashamedly I must say, by an emotive intensity which I realized in a very literal manner. The dance and camera work was very directional/linear, following a pathway as if we ourselves were commuters, through the station and out to the trains. All of this is acceptable, conceptually and compositionally. The aspect which separates the work from where I really want to take it now is its literal interpretation bolstered by the also literal song 'For Now'. The sound manifests as a 'soundtrack' which immediately brings the work into the territory of a music-video or short film of that genre. Feiner`s track is so iconic and rich that my own work is in danger perhaps of 'illustrating' his strongly lyrical song. However, I am content with making this work for what it represents for me and my family - I dedicated the work to my Mother; 'For Lou' and feel privileged that Feiner would consider collaborating with me. It is a powerful cornerstone for me and my relation to my Mother, who spent a lifetime travelling the world with we children in tow - always leaving and arriving and leaving. Mum, at the age of 93, read my abstract and conference paper and completely understood. Diaspora and a home away from home in the UK, through what was then Malaya and Sierra Leone in the 1950`s was a reality for her for a significant part of her life, with for many years afterwards her children spread between France, NZ and Australia.

It serves also, as a baseline resource for what is now following, which is a searching exploration into more ambiguous descriptions of representation, no less true to the work, but more investigative in its interpretation and use of sound. Following 'Departed - ICS' was 'Departed - Movement 1 - ICS, which was the product of a gradual move away from lyrics-dominated sound into an instrumental. This piece was composed specifically for the work by Mike Beever, a musician and composer from the UK, now living in Nelson, NZ. I had extensive talks with Mike about the kinds of sounds I wanted, which was a piece which I could lie under the station sounds which complemented and added another dimension to the work as an assemblage of feeling. I asked for a range of sound; abrasive, dischordant, staccato, with some lyrical aspects. Mike produced a piece which was not quite like this, but which was very beautiful and I decided to use it as a bridge between Feiner`s very moving but literal sounds and what I wanted to come next, which was a return to the work dominated by station sounds of the everyday.

Mike very kindly produced a range of short, diverse, more abstract sounds which I have incorporated subtly into the latest edit, below, 'Departed - Inscriptions in Time and Place Movement 2 - ICS. This edit is making some headway with combining both, the everyday and the additional sounds. I will live with it for a while, as I continue to develop and edit my ideas. There are three short additions of sound which surface above the station sounds and submerge again. The sounds themselves are still quite emotive - will keep moving toward the industrial/abstract here. The video shown here has a technical focus with Rollo taking us on a walkthrough of some of the station sounds - inscribed traces in the space.

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