A quick warning: I’m going to go ahead and carelessly wander through some ideas like Individuation (thanks Simondon! And a shoutout to anyone living in Tasmania!), events as something more basic than materials (Go Whitehead!), extension fields (Go Galgois! Go!), mimicry (forgot his name, will hopefully find and insert later), and just for safe measure throw in some side notes on Butoh and Deconcentration of Attention. The whole point of the mashup is to pull together some ideas that I’ve been playing with since I was working in Plymouth earlier this year, and have further been inspired by what I’ve seen since and what some friends are doing around me.
When I was in Plymouth I was working on this project “we were born in order to give birth to ourselves”, where I wanted to explore how objects took on their own personal narrative and the feedback loop that takes place in our creation of purpose in a specific object. My original plan was to make ambiguous objects that would interact with each other through a sort of haptic response and to have participants write journals and take photos documenting their experience with the objects. Then I wanted to turn around and write letters between me and the objects in a Griffin and Sabine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griffin_and_Sabine) sort of way. At the end of the project, objects, letters, journals and photos would all be collected and presented as this narrative from observer and object together. A sort of coming of age story of an object.
The project was not the most successful thing I ever did. I didn’t execute well, I think, and feel a bit regretful that I didn’t pivot the project into something more substantial instead of letting technical hurdles get in my way. Did that last sentence just sound like feedback on a performance review at a startup? Jesus.
But what was successful, in my mind, were some ideas that I was able to collect and bring together into a narrative of their own. So maybe my objects narrative didn’t work, but an ideas narrative did take shape. And it started with a whale. Or rather From The Mouth of A Whale by Sjon.
I read this book a few years back, but there is this part in it that sticks out to me so vividly where the narrator is talking about the history of a hammer and that at one point someone looked at it and became aware that it could be a tool of violence. And what still sits with me so strongly is the thought that that hammer suddenly became a two-way street of definition. The person holding it can categorize it based on their intent with the object, however, the hammer now, being categorized as more than “tool to build things”, has the ability to change how people see the person holding it.
Objects suddenly become a narrative device based on context; they influence the people as much as the people influence them. A man standing in a dark alley at night holding a hammer: violent. A man holding a hammer next to some lumber under a blue sky: working. But change the lighting in either situation, and maybe the roles flip. Or a more potent example being the umbrella revolution in Hong Kong in 2015, where the most ubiquitous of objects suddenly made the holder of it the voice of a political movement.
Most objects start off with a very specific purpose. They are made — at least the mass produced ones — in order to offload some aspect of our relationship with our environment. Need to remember something? Write it down with this pencil. Tired of walking? Use this car to get to where you need to be. These are things specifically made by a human to simplify some exchange with our environment. But these objects then start to shape us in unexpected ways. Like the hammer they can take on new purpose, or alter the way we do the thing the object was originally created to intervene with. As Simondon would say, we suddenly become technicians for the human species.
And what should we make of this feedback with these objects? There seems to be an action that occurs between the object and us, and this action immediately causes a certain amount of information to be transferred between us and the object. In one direction this information results in our conscious individual intent, while the other direction is narrative that the object itself has taken on, along with undertones that culture has embedded in an object, and what that now says about us holding that particular object. And then it comes to be where does the actual object exist in this scenario?
The individuation (Simondon’s word) of self (and I think object as well) is occurring in this process. The action forces a specific realization to be made of both Self and Object. And in the math part of my brain this makes me think of algebraic field extensions (in all honesty, I thought I was going to bring Galois extensions into this, but then realized I’ve forgotten pretty much everything about them, so you can scratch his name out way up in the first paragraph. Dream big, right?) Extensions are basically a way to relate groups of numbers. The real numbers (think any decimal like 2.13124151412312312) are an extension of the rationals (think any number that can be expressed as a fraction, like 3/4), because a function using the rationals as coefficients (remember in algebra in high school when you had a something like 3x = 5y? That 3 and 5 are both coefficients) will have roots (solutions) that are inside of the reals. But as soon as we start using real numbers as coefficients we will get to a place where we need a new field to contain all the roots: complex numbers.
I think of myself a lot like a collection of streams of information. Environmental input through my senses, internal input through a (sometimes useful) running internal dialogue, with lots of overlap between these main two categorizations: a sort of overhead view of some crazy New Jersey offramp situation, where the cars are various pieces of information, and the different highways are channels. I guess furthering the analogy rural roads are internal channels, highways are external channels. And the processing of all of these streams is what makes me, me.
And this is where the extension ideas gives some nice ideas about the Object and Self. Because I think that I have mechanisms to deal with these information streams, functions if you will, that are created through my intentions and goals in who I think myself to be. And objects are the coefficients to my available functions, and if I choose the right objects and right functions of Self, I come to a place where the results allow me to peak into a certain extension of my reality. I actually think a lot about this in the creation of my work; making something that pulls me outside of the field I currently find myself.
I’m not really trying to make a 1-to-1 analogy of my experience to extension fields, but more the quality of the known/unknown that objects will sometimes bring into my life through my interaction with them.
And in this continued push to extensions, it requires that we externalize more and more of ourselves into objects, which makes me feel like that the desire of humans to create objects is actually a path to mimic something very basic about our environment: entropy. Roger Caillois (found it!) has this paper on mimicry where he talks about mimicry as natures way to not to hide from predators, but to dissolve into the environment it has found itself; to disappear into nothingness. Maybe making things is a way to reach maximum entropy. It’s not that we are creating things to help create order, but emptying ourselves of of our own processes. And these objects then end up being in so many more ways in concert with us as they slowly turn to dust.
I’ve always obsessed with the idea of The Middle: a phrase I take from chess games and when they are considered to having been started being played. The Middle is the point of tension we are put under when we are between two points of realization. The beginning and end. The conscious and unconscious. The external and the internal.
The two things that are currently on my mind that seem to really be The Expressions of The Middle™ are Butoh dancing and the practice of Deconcentration of Attention. One deals with, in some ways, the place where movement is both controlled and uncontrolled, and the other deals with the place where focus is unfocused. And, I guess, this relates in my head to the Self/Object dynamic, because holding these practices to the image of Self causes this elevation of narrative of both Self and the idea being held. An object, maybe, is just an idea in process, represented with material goods.