Option 4: unknowing, research task, & essay

The first task in this option is one of close reading, a technique that requires conscious attention to a tract of text in its context, the linguistics of it, the rhythms, and the meanings. We have for examination Pippa Gatty’s artist statement from her site in August 2020 (provided in the course materials) and we’re looking for words indicating liminality (edges or borders), and unknowing. For me, this was an exercise in identifying probes – where would I want to ask the meaning of something, for instance? – along with words that suggest containments or areas of leakage through a barrier of some sort. I found a lot. Often I included words with ambiguity or relative values such as ‘dark’ or ‘small’; and emotional ones such as ‘unsettling’ or ‘unease’; because where values are not fixed, there is room for considerable movement – what is small to a Brobdingnagian will likely be huge to a Lilliputian. The emotional ones relate to the speaker – I may not feel the same unease or be unsettled by the same things. These are words I would want to explore, to drill into or expand in terms of what they mean to Gatty with a view to both of us understanding a little more about each other’s perceptions of our world.

Two elements struck me in particular though; the idea of the outcome always being unknown, and that of each work being ‘a series of open-ended questions’. I had immediately resisted those notions but then rapidly retracted and changed direction when I realised what it meant. Some of this came from the video below but its actual landing point was the recognition that this is, in fact, my practice. I have long understood that my writing (often fiction but sometimes not) is driven not by plots but by characters, and while I have a defined start point and setting (although those are subject to change too), the pace and the direction of the story will be largely driven by the people in it.

My painting is no different and while there are tasks with certain parameters to define them on this course, I have never set out with the idea that I will do This Thing in This Way on This Piece of Stuff. More often, I prowl around the task, rumble subconsciously about it, stick something up on the easel and prowl around that for a while, then take myself by surprise by slapping a mark on it.

There is discussion in Fortnum’s presentation below about Freudian influences so I need to make clear that my construction of the unconscious comes from neuroscience and not psychoanalysis. In this more modern understanding, the unconscious is more like a pool of aggregated experience located somewhere around the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex in what’s been called the default brain network. It becomes active when we’re doing passive activities and shuts down when we start thinking. Anyone who has experienced that tip of the tongue loss of someone’s name at the point it’s needed then suddenly recalled it over the washing up hours later, has probably benefited from the DBN. While there is tangential research supporting this position, (see Irish, 2013), the jury is still out on its role in creativity but for me, it’s a far better bet than any number of egos, ids and superegos.

So the rumbling, shuffling of papers, mooching, and peering at my easel out of the corner of my eye, are activities representative of unconscious turbulence, and years of experience with it has led to a certain confidence in the process. It looks undirected because it is and that used to make me anxious, but now I understand it as a build up of unspoken and unknown ideas that, like an angler landing a massive fish, will be thrown up out of the miasmic depths onto my conscious jetty. It won’t be fully formed, it won’t be a fish; it will be an amorphous thing with ambition and my job will be to let it out to show me where it wants to go.

I think now this is what’s meant by liminals and unknowing, and I think I’ll include subliminals too which again are more about how consciousness and the unconscious work together than any kind of verbal slippage in front of the vicar.

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The second task is to either to comment comparatively on two essays from the Kettlesyard symposium of 2020, or to relate the content on one of the essays to an artist or artists I am finding useful in my studio work at present.

I found the papers from the symposium online here. There are no images available and neither is the book so I began with Fortnum’s presentation to Middlesex university in 2014. This is where I began to see, Freud apart, that my views are similar. There is a point where discussion of how art becomes set in its ways, trapped in a cycle of success that demands the same of it over and over again and shapes the way artists make their work (for sale or galleries) and students are trained to make their work. Psychologists call this shaping; a gradual process of smoothing off the edges that ‘don’t work’ and encouraging the ones that do. A game of rewards (better grades, sales, acceptance, for instance) and punishments (lower grades, no sales, no acceptance) that ensures eventual homogeneity of product and an audience that sees itself as sophisticated because it ‘knows’ what it’s about. It reminds me of the writer friend who landed a three-book deal with a publisher. After the fizz and excitement had died down, the grim realisation dawned that she had signed up to writing three more of the same – only maybe in Scotland this time? Or France? She had a paymaster and the paymaster had demands.

There is also mention of the constraining use of studios – or at least I think that was the tenor of it – whereby they become an artist’s safe place (I’m paraphrasing here) so that the chances of anything radically new emerging might be quite low. Nauman (link below) may be right, but I’m thinking it may come from the perspective of having had studio space and maybe choosing to give it up. Those of us, and I don’t include myself here, struggling to make art for this course in under-stairs gaps or the back rooms of cafes would probably trade that for studio space at the drop of a hat. Like being rich, you can only give up what you already had.

Fortnum doesn’t go for it either. In her introduction to the Kettlesyard symposium, she has insightful things to say about the contextual value of studios, and I would add to this the way a given place of work sets the mental frame for work to take place. Quoting (I think) again (definitely) Steven King, ‘If you’re going to rely on a muse, you had better be at your desk when she turns up’, by which he meant writing is a job and investing in inspiration is a mug’s game. Psychology would agree; setting conditions are important in the process of being receptive to work. For some it’s a uniform, for others an office or packing the tupperware into a backpack, saying goodbye to someone at a door.

For creatives, it’s much the same. Some writers have a favourite cafe and a notebook, others need to be in front of their computer or in a contemplative arm chair. I’ve found the setting with my easel and paints in it is the trigger, the mind settling scene, and putting on my apron says work mode.

https://www.diaart.org/collection/collection/nauman-bruce-mapping-the-studio-i-fat-chance-john-cage-2001-2013-023

This is a panel discussion ostensibly about women painters and coming from the view (among male painters) that women can’t paint. I imagine it had the same self-serving purpose and effect as those Freudian-derived ideas that educating women would cause them to become infertile, especially if they studied maths. Lucky for us that Ada Lovelace managed by all kinds of good fortune to become the first writer of a computer programme, and before there was even a computer! (see Winterson, 2021)

These videos made it easier to consider the essays and make sense of their messages.

Essay

I chose to discuss the following two essays:

Pedagogy of the Event – Dennis Atkinson

On the Value of Not Knowing: wonder, beginning again, and letting be – Rachel Jones

Papers presented to the 2009 symposium On Not Knowing: how artists think.

These two papers, both heavily rooted in philosophical thinking (Foucault, Badiou, Kant, for instance), argue primarily for the notion of curiosity (Jones terms this ‘wonder’) and the freedom to break out of established, formulaic practice. For Atkinson, this is the challenge of the pedagogy, the constraining programme of tick-boxes imposed by regulators on teachers and learners alike by external agencies. This, he argues, prioritises knowledge over discovery and precludes what Kant sees as genius – the capacity to work without knowledge (Jones, 2009). Kant would most likely have upgraded his view in light of current cognitive neuropsychology which relates insightful inventiveness to an accumulation of information accessed by an active and extensive neural network (e.g. Wu et al, 2020). Neither inspiration nor exceptionally innovative thought come from nowhere.

In resonance with Atkinson, Jones discusses Lyotard’s views on learning to think which, for him, means ‘letting go of everything one thought one knew’ thereby freeing oneself up for openness and questioning. I would call this curiosity, and in particular I would resist Lyotard’s further argument involving a kind of regression to infantile inventiveness as this disallows an adult perspective on curiosity, something science and mathematics do quite well.

That said, the pedagogy has much to answer for if it cannot accommodate curiosity. Atkinson describes meeting a teacher in a classroom when a young girl approaches, asking for advice about a piece of work. It will be a cage with a frozen cow’s heart in it which, at the time of the BSE* crisis, was remarkably insightful and exploratory. Her question though, was not about the art but about how it would fare in her GCSE exam**.

Atkinson goes then into a discussion of the ethics of pedagogy and distinguishes between ‘real learning’ which involves ‘a leap into a new ontological [state of being or becoming] space; and the kind of learning that is about stacking minds with information (my words). This I liken to the ability to retain details without seeing how they build into a larger picture – knowing where the moon is relative to the earth, how far and at what angle, but having no curiosity about how or why it got there.

Jones takes a similar view, discussing Arendt’s idea of the capacity to act being necessarily lacking full information about consequences. Arguably, this may not apply to task-driven performance skills such as operating machinery or owning a gun.

Both writers support the view of ‘not knowing’ as an invitation to probe the edges of knowing to find the gaps, and to reject the constraints of formulaic teaching. I would agree. To me, ‘knowing’ can be nothing more than cataloguing while wisdom, (Socrates’s term), is the capacity to perceive and to weigh up abstracts of knowing and to see the gaps as spaces for curiosity to seep into and enlarge, the way water does as it freezes in the cracks between paving stones, so allowing seedlings to spring through.

Reference

Wu H-Y, Kuo B-C, Huang C-M, Tsai P-J, Hsu A-L, Hsu L-M, Liu C-Y, Chen J-H and Wu CW (2020) Think Hard or Think Smart: Network Reconfigurations After Divergent Thinking Associate With Creativity Performance. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 14:571118. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2020.571118. [online] Available at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2020.571118/full. Accessed 25th January 2022.

*BSE – Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

**Year 10 school examinations, UK

490 words, excluding references.

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Irish, M. (2013). Daydream Believer: why your brain is wired to wander. The Conversation. [Online] Available at https://theconversation.com/daydream-believer-why-your-brain-is-wired-to-wander-18881. Accessed 24th January 2022.

Winterson, J. (2021) 12 Bytes. How we got here. Where we might go next. Penguin.

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