Walking on tarmac that stretches in all directions. A one-story box building in the distance, long shadows and a slight stick on the soles from the heat. This is the surface that we are used to walking on. The day before it was a field, damp and squishing beneath the feet, little pools pushing to the surface. Before that, it was wood panels, in an air-conditioned court hall now used for public display, each echoed step sounding like it was shyly trying to be as quiet as it could be.
But this is in another place. In a universe of infinite space, and the finite possibilities of life within that, it is more than likely this is several places. At once. An alternative you, the same, or perhaps slightly different on a distant planet very much like this one. A whole range of alternative selves scattered throughout the cosmos. Not exactly parallel realities, but close enough to empathise, to know the whole range of choices they might have made in their lives.
There is an open, unresolved problem: how do we know how we understand the world. How do we know we, you and I are us, that the city is separate from the country, that what we feel as human is different from that of the centipede. As a hardened sceptic like Austrian philosopher Paul Feyarabend pointed out in his book Against Method: all of our conceptions of the real are arrived at via the unreal, via the imaginary. We have to conceive of the real, conjured up like a half-forgotten dream.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty attempted to draw out this question from the phenomenology of Heidegger and Husserl in the 40s and 50s; there’s a seductive openness in his essay on painting, ‘Eye and Mind’: “visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself. Things are an annex or prolongations of itself; they are incrusted into its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the same stuff as the body.” Yeah, we say. Yeah. His notion of a ‘chiasm’ that links our inner experience with the outside world, effectively merging them, is a powerful conception of how we relate, exist, and know the world. It’s no surprise to our proof-laden minds that he was mocked as an idealist; Adorno, ever the Hegelian pragmatist, said the phenomenologists “do not connect to the reality of society.”
But tracing Ponty’s growing influence on culture currently being produced, you can also trace how it endured these criticisms, or rather grew a thick skin by being lumped, merged and conflated with a range of thought developed in the past 50 years. This includes the New Age quasi-Buddhist spiritualism of the ilk found in Ram Dass’s popular hippie guidebook Be Here Now (1971). It also includes modern physics – both Einstein’s general theory of Relativity, which put bluntly casts even time as subjective, and quantum physics, with its invisible particles giving a hazy science that almost mocks Ponty’s interweavings (‘Ew you smelled it?? That means it’s part of you now!’).
What this mix has produced, we believe, is an impasse. A way of thinking that proposed a wider sense of consciousness, a conception of connection to both the human and nonhuman, has instead come to promote individuation. There is the feeling that those caught up in the wonders of the world made flesh are incapable of then actually engaging with this world. It’s no small comment that Caitlin Smith Gilson in her 2010 book on Aquinas and Heidegger referred to Husserl in passing as ‘the man who would be king.’ This is our wider contemporary understanding of this thinking; the individual’s private world is the god-like centre of all experience. In cultural spheres, this is still tiredly expressed through a common mechanism: a one-sided attempt of trying to make the audience aware of their own act of experiencing.
Sensing yourself sensing. This is not enough anymore.
Tucked away in a footnote in her essay for the exhibition ‘The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas,’ curator Johanna Burton noted, “Such self-directed interest has, of course, proven itself in many cases radical…Yet these initial operations of interpellating the body of the spectator have been arguably normalised and…one might consider the possibility that today’s foregrounding of the audience produces not individual bodies with differences, but rather an interchangeable public, or mass.” Nowadays, you might have Olafur Eliasson telling you a work is yours because he’s bestowed the second-person into the work’s title, making explicit the work addresses you, yes you particularly. The experiences he impresses upon you are enveloping and immersive, which at first seem like clever illusions, but no- they are actually deconstructed phenomena, opened up, and re-presented back to us so that we might understand how we see the world around us.
Eliasson’s brand of awareness, and, we would argue, the wider cultural understanding of experience currently being promulgated, is of an inward wondering and revelation. A sort of indulgent swim inwards into our own deep oceans, but with the sense of a blindfold being removed. By someone else. As Daniel Birnbaum described the work of James Turrell, “nothing is revealed- it is revelation itself.” There is the sense in popular proponents of self-awareness that we are meant to be becoming aware of the mediation between ourselves and our environment, and that that mediation is determined and opaque, that actually nothing is as it seems.
Everything. is. exactly. as it seems.
At this point in speaking about installation, interactive, dare we say ‘relational’ works, maybe we can openly acknowledge a mutual relationship without any of the inferiority complex signs of having to speak about dependence, or the way that it has been said that the viewer ‘is’ the work. Neither an audience nor an artwork ‘need’ each other. Each simply is. The context of where they meet might determine some politics, create a sense of hierarchy- ie the museum’s perceived speaking down to the public. Art movements constantly yearn for a relationship away from this perception of authority, for a hierarchy-free relationship where the feedback loop is open and unregulated, but it finds itself constantly stumbled, constrained, held by habits of viewing, by galleries with opening hours and hidden door buzzers.
Despite phenomenology’s critics, the intertwining need not always be a happy one; perception is not just flowing between you, but can sometimes be forced upon you, or indeed confused, indifferent, indirect. Here, sensing, thinking, knowing and being are all are one. So what does that mean for the publicly displayed and communally experienced artwork?
Maybe the most the artwork can do is express its limitations, to attempt to articulate that it is already entangled. To enunciate what timbre and atmosphere that forming relationship might be. To ask you to not just recognise and reflect on this, but to also move within and around it. Maybe we can admit that an equal relationship is, in this context, unrealisable, but insofar as it can be imagined in this space, not impossible. We can suggest impossibilities, to hand them over to the unreality of imagination: the possibility beyond not just sensing yourself sensing, but also to attempt to sense what others- human or not- are sensing. To sense what your alternative selves are sensing.
An essay published in conjunction with the exhibition Feedback: David Beattie, Karl Burke, Chris Fite-Wassilak at the Galway Arts Centre from 2 September to 1 October 2011. Printed as part of a book sleeve released at the opening of the show.