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MADA3 Reflection

Sean Clark
June 2008

Any arts-based research exercise or period of reflection can leave you with as many questions as answers. However, as you progress, I believe that the nature of the questions you ask changes. Increased awareness of your creative context, plus clarity in deciding just what it is you are trying to understand, gives you focus together with the ability to better identify potentially unproductive research directions.

I started with the goal of bringing ‘systems theory’ in to my digital arts practice and I felt I had a fairly clear understanding of how to go about this. To me it was going to be about working out how to build artworks that would behave as ‘systems’. And since I knew a fair amount about systems theory already, the MA would provide the time I needed to engage in this practical exercise.

However, I was to discover that the creation of systems-based digital artworks would actually be the easy bit. What was to be of more significance would be the process of developing a context for my work that would help me understand why the work I was trying to do might be of value.

I began to make progress when I realised that the term ‘system’ is open to massive interpretation. Trying to identify relevant work sometimes proved difficult since writers and artists would refer to a wide range of things as ‘systems’. Similarly, I would discover other artists doing what looked like systems-based work who never used the term ‘system’, or thought in terms of a ‘systems theory’.

Therefore, I decided to think of ‘systems’ as being more about situations ‘in which the relationships between things are as important as the things themselves’. Looking at artists who engaged with this idea instantly brought me in to contact with conceptualism. Indeed, Marcel Duchamp - regarded as the originator of conceptual art - clearly understood how an artwork, the artist and the viewer formed a system when he said:

The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. [1]

But my goal was not just to create conceptual systems, I also wanted to create artwork that behaved like systems in a more physically responsive way - albeit through the use of computer technology. I wfound relevant examples of this in the kinetic art of the early 20th century, then the kinetic sculptures of the 1950s and 1960s by artists such as Alexander Calder and George Rickey.

Additionally, performance art, improvised music and modern theatre all provide examples where the artwork is a result of interactions between artists, performers and audience. In all these cases it is the resulting system that is actually the artwork, it’s not just about the parts, but the whole that matters.

Making sense of this conceptual world also allowed me to understand the ‘systems art’ of the 1960s and 1970s. I initially believed that the main connection with my digital artworks was really only in the use of the term ‘system’. However, it is now clear that the artists working in that area were interested in the same things as I am now.

I am particularly interested in the work of Hans Haacke and Sol LeWitt. In Haacke’s vast body of work I would note ‘Condensation Cube’ as a masterful example of a systems based artwork. The water in the perspex cube evaporating and forming condensation on the side of the cube in response to the gallery environment before collecting back in the reservoir at the bottom.

Sol LeWitt created artworks based on rules and processes he specifically called ‘logical systems’. I discovered this quote by him that summarises my creative interests almost perfectly:

The system is the work of art; the visual work of art is the proof of the system. The visual aspect can't be understood without understanding the system. It isn't what it looks like but what it is that is of basic importance. [2]

Where my practice does diverge with the work described above, though, is in my aim to make the artwork an active and sophisticated participant in the system. Digital technology allows for a far greater range of interactive responses than even the most complex kinetic sculptures. What’s more, digital technology can be made to reconfigure itself based on previous responses and environmental factors in ways that are only matched (and exceeded) by living organisms.

Again, there is historical precedent here. Many artists have engaged with the ideas of ‘artificial life’ [3] and as far back as 1968’s seminal ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’ [4] exhibition artists were experimenting with responsive robots and computer controlled devices.

I do, however, feel that by actively engaging with systems theory, and particular the work of Maturana and Varela [5], I have found a framework that allows me to make an informed contribution to ‘systems art’ in new ways. I am also in the position of understanding the technology needed to build such artworks.

I called my research programme ‘Autopoiesis: Digital Art, Self-organisation and Emergence’. The term ‘autopoiesis’ refers to a particular type of system (such as a living organism) that ‘self-creates’. It is still my aim to create artworks that work in this way and I hope one day to exhibit work that demonstrates this. But I have discovered that it is a complex thing to achieve, both conceptually and physically. My research programme has, though, followed my original plan and lead to a piece of work that is in keeping with my original proposal. In particular, the artwork Autopoiesis is an interactive work that involves the viewer/participant and has the triptych structure I originally stated as being of interest to me.

I am already planning the next stage of my creative development. In the short term I have been invited to submit an ‘artist development’ proposal to my local Arts Council office. I am looking for further exhibition opportunities for my MA piece and it has been suggested that I look to submit a PhD proposal to the Institute of Creative Technologies [6] at De Montfort University in Leicester. I also have many ideas for new work that have come as a direct result of my MA research.

Should I decide to continue my research via a PhD I think the focus will be on the expansion of my idea of the ‘digital art-system’ and my belief that one of the defining aspects of digital art is it’s potential for interactivity. As I said in my introduction, after almost two years of research I seem to have ended up with what seems to be more questions than answers! But that can’t be a bad thing.

[1] Marcel Duchamp, Session on the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957. This is available in written form from a number of Internet sources. I obtained a recording of the session from www.emusic.com/album/Marcel-Duchamp-The-Creative-Act-MP3-Download/11099043.html (registration required).

[2] I initially found this excellent quote by Sol LeWitt at the rather un-academic www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/s/sollewitt355012.html. The original source would appear to be an interview published in BOMB at www.bombsite.com/issues/85/articles/2583.

[3] ‘Artificial Life’ or ‘a-life’ has interested many artists. One such example being Paul Brown (www.paul-brown.com) who I saw speak in May 2008. This work is often presented as images of cellular-like structures that are generated according to rules devised by the artist.

[4] Cybernetic Serendipity was a seminal bringing together of artists working with computer technology that took place at the ICA in 1968.

[5] Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela are Chilean biologists who developed the model of ‘autopoiesis’ to describe the self-creating nature of living organisms. Their ideas have since gone on to influence ‘systems thinking’ in many other fields. See “The Tree of Knowledge” (Maturana, H & Varela, F, Shambhala Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0877736424) for an introduction to their work.

[6] The Institute of Creative Technology (www.ioct.dmu.ac.uk/) is a multidisciplinary research group based at De Montfort University in Leicester. I have been very fortuitous in finding a research group that seems so relevant to my interests ‘on my doorstep’.