Things, definitions, perceptions
Last night I read – with keen interest – transmediale’s article called Turtles All the Way Down- Or, Escape from Infrastructure by Fiona Shipwright. This piece has been written after the author had followed the usage of word “infrastructure” during transmediale 2017. “We assume we’re talking about the same things—but are we? Everyone knows that if you repeat a term often enough, it starts to sound absurd”, is said in the introduction, and – by the end of reading – I experienced a moment when I had lost the usual meaning of “infrastructure” installed in my head. Perhaps that was the purpose of the article but I was also curious about the link between infrastructure and tunnels touched in this article through an art project example. Because of “infra-” (meaning “below”) the tunnel is such infra-structure. “Tunnels” have been in my thoughts in relation to my freshly started 3-year postgraduate research project by (exhibition) practice as a concrete place (military heritage island South Channel Fort – that I see as a metaphorical reference to “human structures”) and as an image – allegory. I feel the tunnel as something that leads through different modes of existence, towards the void. The image of the tunnel resembles the image used for the narrative of the article – showing turtles stacked on each other with the smallest on top.
As I progress with my research project I have to annotate a range of relevant sources of literature. There are certain models of “good practice” as to how approach this task. This is based on the principles of critical assessment and relevance to particular research. Yet it may not be unreasonable to take a historic text of interest and interpret the terms by placing into a selected logic – new (present) context, if you like. Such practices are not strange in relation to writing. When we say “writing” the usual assumption is that it means writing down ideas clearly, for others to understand, in the electronic document or on paper. But writing can also mean that you hit the keyboard deliciously to exercise the very act of writing. This kind of writing will be in most cases legitimate experimentation in the frames of training for writing. The academic research field – Media Aesthetics – in Norway is – as I understand – engaged with such analysis – the aesthetics of something. A shape on white background evokes one understanding, but if the background is black – this renders a different understanding of that same shape.
What comes in mind as an example of perceptual perspectives is Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, 1965 (see the image), the famous instance of Conceptual Art. The three chairs are: a real thing, a photographic image and a dictionary definition of “a chair.” Recently, I was in audience for a presentation which was a detailed analysis of this work. All the way it seemed that the speaker maintained a viewer’s perspective based on seeing this work in gallery setting. But why not consider, as part of the analysis, that the audience is looking at a photo image of this piece; perhaps also the fact that this work can be seen in numerous photo versions online upon typing “one and three chairs” in Google search? By using analogy, Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs is like a room with a group of researchers interacting – all use the same words but speak different languages. With different research projects (regardless of whether they are “interdisciplinary”) – are we dealing with different universes, or one? Clearly, both phenomena are happening at the same time.
This pure materialist strategy of looking at “things” by stepping back and further back, and playing with intermedia transitions or view positions seems to produce nothing else but the immateriality. The tunnel reality. Why not look at notions/things with contextual awareness, and the understanding that we are heavily coded on daily basis yet these codes do not necessarily match?
What about “art”? Whenever we use this word it is rather difficult not to imply, in conversational situation, an art object of some kind which is then a widely understood quality of art – the way it appears. This is taken for granted. However, unlike the time when I was a first-time university student, I now almost always view painting works by approaching what I see in terms of a painting (therefore, I always observe frames with curiosity since they seem to be placed in that gray zone between different perceptual modes – is it a part of “art” or not?). Another example to problematize the situation around “art”. From time to time, I get into discussion about “contemporary art” with a lovely friend of mine – a retired man for whom art-making, in particular, creating of sculptures, drawings and paintings is one of his hobbies. Regardless of how much I would try to “broaden the horizons” on the subject of “contemporary art”, he would assert that a pile of some sort of crap (or something similar) would always be a pile of crap – nothing else – not “art”. It seems that my friend would not change his mind even upon suggesting (and referring to Boris Groys) that what makes something “art” is the museum. When I was based in Latvia in 2000s, a new contemporary art organization was set up with the focus on question – what is art? It took the abbreviation for this question in Latvian – KIM? (Kas Ir Māksla?) as its name. My friend’s opinion necessitates to read this fundamental question the second time. And so, to start answering “what is art?” it is relevant to ponder the status and meanings of “is” in this enquiry. We always seem to be dealing with some human “structural” coding in our minds – the case of me and my friend make it obvious.
Art also seems to be an entrapment. It was already decades ago when Jack Burnham wrote about the paradigm change: the transition from the object to the system.  Giving a multitude of examples of art works, he drew attention to how art manifests as a system; it usually only seems to be an object. It appears that Burnham thought of art as systems that magnify systems (actual environment and context). For example, he talked about “art system” noting that it did not need the art object as it was sustained by information. Systems are characterized by data/information flow. The statement about the dematerialization of the art object in the late 1960s and early 70s is certainly in line with the direction manifested by Jack Burnham. But, strictly speaking, from a different angle (and the usual way of treatment), we still deal with art objects. If systems were really systems and not objects – can art be identified? How to position the issue of artistic representation?
 See Jack Burnham Systems Esthetics (1968), https://monoskop.org/images/0/03/Burnham_Jack_1968_Systems_Esthetics_Artforum.pdf and Real Time Systems (1969), https://monoskop.org/File:Burnham_Jack_1969_Real_Time_Systems.pdf.