(In a Forest of Signs)

1.2 Distant Animals in a Forest of Signs

The art-event exists as a means of foregrounding the potentially obfuscated lines of experience – lines that connect communities to individuals, individuals to their sensuality, sensuality to objects, objects to environments, and environments to their histories.  These lines do not lead linearly from the subject, via the senses, to the objects of exteriority.  Rather, they overlap, double-back, merge and meander - conjoining multiple elements, conceptual, physical, and spiritual, in a single, yet polysemous stroke.  There is no one correct meaning to be wrought from what is sensed.  A subject's experience of the world does not lead to any culminating, final sense of the ways things are, but to an ever-expanding web of potential, and it is this polysemy that defines the creation of art.  The work of art is not a matter of production – the creation of objects or even concepts – but rather of relation, a way of connecting with externality, with an Other that is fundamentally beyond the limit of self.  The tools of art - perception, (re)presentation, critique, signification, communication – are all geared to this very task, a means of extending beyond the individual, isolated sense of the world as it is presented to us by the nervous system.  As such, I believe art can be considered as a means of underscoring the fundamental dichotomy that is community – which is to say, the creative and emergent relation that is neither Self nor Other, but togetherness.  My isolated sense of the world might differ from your own, but this does not imply that it is a solitary sense, with little recourse to externality.   Isolation demands Other – it is formed neither by homogeneity nor by solitude, but by distance.  Isolation is not a continent,[i] a solitary mass, but an island,[ii] fundamentally defined by an Other that is beyond reach.  This presupposes both unknowability – that whatever comprises Other does not fit into the existing epistemological framework available to the self that perceives it; and knowledge – that the self is aware of the limitations this unknown Other provides (in short, that there is both a perceivable boundary and an unperceivable essence beyond that boundary).

The post-structuralist notion of Other championed by Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Nancy harbours a fruitful position in this regard, forgoing generalised[iii] concepts of an exterior ‘other’ in favour of a specific, contingent, concurrent and, most importantly, active Other.  For both Nancy and Levinas, Other is not so much an object as it is an absence,[iv] the experience of total difference by a perceiving agent in advance of any concept or character.  It is this distinction that underpins my artistic position, and its relationship to the community that is explored in this research.  As a practising artist and researcher, it is my belief that art-making is no more concerned with the creation of aesthetic objects than community is concerned with self-contained, pre-emptive relationships to a fixed membership.  Rather, art-making and community are mutually concerned with difference and failure: the writing of difference within a shared space, and the failure of communion - a community experiencing the same thing in the same way - that allows its membership to perceive and celebrate such difference as Other.  Given this mutual concern, an art-form that explicitly places itself at the intersection of the community and its environment cannot help but consider its position as, if not communication, then at least a resonant material that allows for some form of cognitive transference between peoples.

It is in this grey area between sense, expression, and communality, that I aim to position my work – an area that Niklas Luhmann specifically defines as being the domain of creativity.  As a systems theorist, Luhmann suggests that systems, lacking sense apparatus, cannot perceive; conversely, elements can perceive, but cannot communicate.  The community, as a social system, can only feign perception by relying on the senses of its membership.  To further complicate matters, this membership consists of operatively closed individuals, and as such is unable to communicate percepts directly.  An intermediary agent is required for a community’s isolated members to feed their percepts back to the community of which they are a part.  For this reason, the community will often rely on concepts rendered in advance of perception - unified language, ‘common’ sense, ethics, and so forth - utilised to overcome the inherent operative closure that otherwise thwarts direct relation to Other.[v]  The ease of comprehension that these concepts offer, however, comes at a cost – it requires reducing our perceptions to a manageable, easily transferable repertoire of signs.  This inevitably compromises the freedom of perception, reducing the vast potential of what is perceived into a finite number of standardised forms.  To counter this, Luhmann suggests that it is the role of art to return complexity, and thus freedom, to the communicative process - art seizes “consciousness at the level of its own externalising activity” (Luhmann, p.141, 2000) a function achieved by “integrating what is in principle incommunicable - namely, perception - into the communication network of society” (Luhmann, p.141, 2000).  In short, art prioritises difference, as revealed by perception, above sense, as constructed by experience.  Rather than assuming a hierarchical relationship between sense and comprehension, in which the former holds “a lower position in comparison to higher, reflective functions of reason and understanding” (Luhmann, p.5, 2000), Luhmann instead suggests that it is the distance between what is perceived and what is understood that allows us access to alterity, in all its rich, unknowable potential – it is in the failure of communication that art finds “a yet unoccupied field of possibilities in which it can unfold” (Luhmann, p.18, 2000).

For Luhmann, this field is the condition of artistic activity, and it is from this position that I undertake my research.  Within the arts, the nature of this space, and the degree to which it is traversed by its community, is the basis of many of the participatory practices that pre-date my own work.  Some traditional models of participation reduce the resonant complexity of this space, insisting upon a cultural plateau populated by two distinct camps – those who participate and those who do not – a position that arguably risks enforcing a false dichotomy concerning the nature of activity or passivity in the creative domain.  Such models – exemplified by Guy Debord’s notion of the spectacle (Debord, 1984) – have emboldened a desire to redistribute the agency and hierarchy of artistic form, through the creation of artworks that would elevate their audience from the position of a passive spectator to that of an actor, participating fully within their environment.  For Debord, participation is the treatment to the sickness of capitalism, a means of enlivening the disenfranchised and the powerless.  The Artist is not merely a creator of aesthetically pleasing content, but a modern-day shaman, capable of drawing out the life, the resistance, buried within an otherwise listless and apathetic audience.  Art is celebrated because it can restore to the people their agency. However, as theorists such as Jacques Rancière (Rancière, 2009) have noted, such a restoration must first presume agency to be both missing and unable to be restored by the spectator without the help of the artist.  A focus on the redistribution of control among predefined players - ‘actors’ and ‘spectators’, replete with certain defining traits - risks pre-emptively defining the capacity of Other, creating a “distribution of the sensible” (Rancière, p.12, 2009) that simply enforces the very hierarchy it seeks to dispel.  Rather than providing agency, Debordian participation risks transforming those considered passive into a fetishised image of activity. By defining and categorising Other in strict opposition to the self - their passive to my active - this approach polarizes difference, negating the very thing that allows for potentiality in the first place – distance. 

Being apart is not a problem that art should seek to resolve. Rather, it is the a priori values and conditions that would allow anyone to be considered a ‘spectator' in the first place that should be challenged.  By assuming true participants will share a pre-determined position, art trades the potentiality of communitas for the exclusivity of communion.  Its togetherness lacks distance – it is not a community of islands but a continuous mass. Fixed, objectified positions of ‘active’ or ‘passive’, ‘spectator’ or ‘actor’, disallow the existence of the beyond, of a characteristic that cannot be defined in advance: the chasm between a known Self and an unknowable Other that is the raw material of creativity.  It is the perception of the world as a series of fixed, pre-defined objects that is problematic, not the reality of the space between them - “distance is not an evil to be abolished, but the normal condition of any communication. Human animals are distant animals who communicate through the forest of signs” (Rancière, p.10, 2009).

[i] Continent, from the Latin terra continens, meaning “continuous land”, itself from continere, “holding together” (www.etyonline.com, 2016).
[ii] Isolated, from the latin insulatus, meaning “to be made into an island” (www.etyonline.com, 2016).

[iii] If a general Other presupposes or conflates certain attributes, a specific Other implies tangible qualities, unique to this particular Other. And yet, Other, as it is presented by Nancy and Levinas, is akin to the revealing of a photograph of a perfectly captured face we have never seen before - its specificity reveals only the unknown, a clarity that allows us to completely reject recognition.

[iv] From the Latin absentia, “to be away from” (www.etyonline.com, 2016).
[v] “Consciousness corrects, as it were, the operative closure of the nervous system by means of a distinction between inside and outside, or self-reference and hetero-reference, which remains internal” (Luhmann, p.9, 2000).
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