Monday 26 January 2009

15,000 tonnes

Some men have
(over the past three days)
erected scaffolding around the block of flats adjacent to where I live.
This block,
(in 1975)
from light ochre bricks,
seems now
(in 2009)
to have exoskeletal form,
not quite a shell.

It took six designers
six years
(from 1971 to 1977)
to build
(in Paris)
another building with apparently skeletal shell,
(external support or protection?)
of 15,000 tonnes of steel.

Sunday 25 January 2009


The scaffolding went up on the block next door.
Well, when I say,
or rather write,
“...went up...”,
what I mean is that several men
(I omitted to count them)
spent some hours
(how many?)
erecting the scaffolding.

When I write “...the block next door...”
it would be more accurate to write “...the adjacent block of flats”.

I may be alone in finding this scaffolding rather interesting, almost attractive.
It is as though the building,
a rather unremarkable 1970s
(I would guess)
block of flats,
built from a light ochre coloured brick,
has grown an external skeleton, an exoskeleton.

A zoomorphic metaphor perhaps,
but what animal looks like this?

Monday 19 January 2009

Around the Nature Colour Cycle

Abstraction, landscape, colour, and information.

This is an extended version of an essay originally written for the catalogue for the exhibition To Look and To Look by Raul Gomez Valverde

Spring: abstraction
The spring of the twentieth century: high times for modernism, colour and abstraction. This abstraction wants us to think of the sublime while standing in awe in front of a painting, in the presence of ‘pure’ abstraction, as though in common with other non-pictorial forms like, let’s say, music, abstraction has the means to elicit a direct response, bypassing language. Is there not though a semiotics of colour and shape just as there is of music? Can abstraction really resist the organising imperative of language inscribed as it is within a cultural context and the history of the abstract in that context, in culture?

As new and radical pure colour and abstraction might have seemed in the future-heading motor-driven early twentieth century, one of its exemplars in Rothko’s practice was informed as much by age-old mythopoeia, symbols, rituals and like Greek tragedy, driven more to redemption, intending to fill a supposed modern spiritual emptiness.

Away from such neo-religious impulses we find a more secular form of abstraction: first in Malevich, then Mondrian and the De Stijl group where essentials of pure form, line, shape and colour in design were ends in themselves, not just beyond the pictorial but through to the other side of abstracted
representation. Malevich’s Suprematism was a grammar based on fundamental geometric semiotics, in particular the square and the circle, suggesting that such abstraction could lead to “a fourth dimension or a Fourth Way beyond the three to which our ordinary senses have access” (Mel Gooding, Abstract Art, Tate Gallery Publishing, 2001). For Mondrian the non-pictorial was the only way to move beyond the tragic into the world of the synthetic and the un-natural; eschewing the metaphysics of Malevich’s bold colours his work became self-sufficient, painted surfaces appearing to stretch far beyond their borders as though skilfully cut from a landscape. In fact the painting was the landscape. This was considered by De Stijl to be a new utopian ideal of spiritual harmony and order, pure abstraction and the reduction to the essentials of form and colour became metaphysical.

But if we look at a Mondrian painting today do we see universal spiritual harmony? Is our emptiness banished in the presence of a Rothko? Or are these more likely to be seen as signs along the road of twentieth century art history, no less impressive for it but offering little redemption for the contemporary soul? What is the use of abstraction?

Summer: landscape
Landscape, of course, is not the natural world but an idealised, pictorial version of nature. The word comes from the Dutch word
landschap, from land (directly equivalent to the English word land) and the suffix -schap, corresponding to the English suffix -ship. The word was brought into English when Dutch artists were on the verge of becoming masters of the landscape genre.

In the early
nineteenth century Marylebone Park in London was renamed The Regent's Park and John Nash landscaped a huge circular area for the Prince Regent with a lake and a canal. From the terraces of the new royal residence the vista appeared to be that of a country park. The Regent’s Park is an idealised, pictorial version of nature, a representation, a construction following the practice established in the eighteenth century (most famously through the work of the likes of 'Capability' Brown) of remodelling the great estate parks of the English gentry to resemble a tidied up version of nature. The Regent’s Park is an artwork sharing the aims of landscape painting, its romantic appeal to the sublime and human reconciliation with nature.

For structural filmmakers like Chris Welsby and William Raban in the 1970s, questions about how landscape images were produced and the relationship of the viewer and maker to those images became more important than any lingering romantic reconciliation with nature. The form of the films would be determined by the systems of nature, forces in the natural environment. In Welsby’s work the wind, the course of a stream, the position of the sun, played as much a direct role in factors such as the direction or movement of the camera, duration of shot and the overall structure or shape of a film, as any of the direct actions of the filmmaker. In the photochemical moving image practice, landscape representation shrugged off its historical metaphysical imperative and became existential, as much a model of time as space. In Raban’s film Colours of This Time the change in the colour of the natura
l light of a park from sunrise to sunset is captured continuously, exaggerated by using time-lapse, with an open shutter compressing the day into 3 minutes.

Autumn: colour
Photography does not represent or reproduce an image of the natural world but constructs an idealised pictorial version of it, the simulacrum of photo-realism has come to be considered to contain the most verisimilitude as an image of the world. Photographic realism itself is based on a set of assumptions around Euclidean perspective, idealisations of what the world should look like developed from painting. Cinema, being predominantly lens-based and photochemical, inherited this as an early example of remediation, not the least in landscape images. Now we find that the most prized goal of digital moving imaging is definition and resolution, its zenith being to equal and then to surpass film and cinema in appearing more real than real climbing to dizzy heights of super-realism. Whether photo-realistic or synthetic, the aim is for it to be highly pictorially representational and of course in High Definition. How did this happen when computational imaging has such vast potential for sophisticated and complex interpretation of visual input? The essence of digital imaging is not the indexical trace but information processing and so pictorial imaging is but one of many possible options (For a more thorough discussion of the relationship between cinema, digital imaging, graphism and pictorialism see The Virtual Life of Film, D. N. Rodowick, Harvard University Press, 2007, pp.102 – 105.).

Some artists however have worked with abstraction within digital moving image to highly original effect, like the Austrian duo reMI or Dutch artist Bas van Koolwijk, but while the joyous, delinquently noisy and jarring effect of their work is of a different nature to, let’s say, Rothko, they also work pretty much purely on the level of affect as an immediate response to dynamic abstraction. But digital media, with information processing at its very core, also has the potential to work at conceptual and cognitive levels.

Philip Sanderson’s video Fleshtones, while ostensibly concerned with an integral relationship between colour and musical tonality produced an interesting side issue. The piece used pixellated pornography among its source material to provide its eponymous colour palette. The presence of porn survived in the key words Sanderson used on YouTube, resulting in a vastly greater number of hits than one might usually expect for an experimental video work. This as abstraction is as far away from the visual affect/effect of pornography as one can imagine, however much the tonal values and variations might remain, to the search engines it’s still pornography, perhaps much as it might be to visual recognition software; this may be non-figurative abstraction but there representation remains at the level of metadata.

Susan Collins’s Fenlandia and Glenlandia projects abstract through process into non-idealised pictorial representations of landscape A webcam transmitted images from a fixed view of a rural location via the internet, harvesting pixels by the second, each generated image accumulated from top to bottom, left to right in coloured horizontal bands throughout the day. The resulting slowly changing ima
ges are like pixellated digital pointillism, representations of several hours of a view in one continuously changing image. Already we can see how the paradigms might have changed from conventional pictorialism when we can talk of multi-temporality and an image that changes continuously but isn’t a moving image in the cinematic spectacular sense.

Collins’s and Sanderson’s art projects might be seen to bring concern with colour and abstraction into the world of information, leaving the affect behind and moving towards an art of data and information, asking questions about the relationship between the abstract and the pictorial.

Winter: information
Generally speaking graphical information is represented in colour and abstract form. Information design ‘guru’ Edward Tufte, refers to information design as ‘cognitive art’(Envisioning Information, Edward R. Tufte, Graphics Press LLC, 1990, p.9.). His emphasis is on the clarity of reading “colour’s great dominion” and he writes of the diminishing returns involved in using too much colour, too much information. In his world colour is semantic and not naturalistic unless it’s used to distinguish information: to label (colour as noun), to measure (as quantity), to represent or imitate reality (as representation), and to enliven or decode (as beauty)(ibid. p.81.). Tufte’s idea of information design is based on utilitarian principles and the imperatives of communication, as such it is teleological and deterministic, unable to conceive of a graphical form that can be concerned with anything but the transmission of information. It is a formulation that limits the imagination of design and ultimately how design might imagine itself.

Spring: full cycle and change

So how might abstraction be liberated from the competing imperatives of the informational on the one hand and the abstract affective on the other? How might the cognitive, the conceptual and the social qualities of information design drive an art practice that escapes a modernist preoccupation with the abstract idealisation of being? How can an open and generative form of address that employs moving image media, colour and abstraction, not for random effect and the immediacy of affect be forged as a continuous measure of the world without recourse to the purely pictorial? Can the abstraction of integral informational forms resist reduction to reflexive closed loop feedback while being simultaneously temporal and spatial? These are questions that arise from considerations around the Nature Colour Cycle, considerations that might entertain other questions about what visual art is for, if it is not to make us think about the way we see things, the way things are represented visually, the space between those two points and what this relationship means.

Can we conceive of information design that is abstract but doesn’t serve commerce or the information industry? Perhaps beyond modernism on one hand and the commercial infosphere on another, we can conceive of an abstraction of information that is relational, that speaks directly to the experience of space and the (re)-writing of place as a generative and iterative process, while investigating new possibilities in both perceptual and cognitive representation of what we might have once called landscape, through a hybrid of what we might once have called Fine Art and Information Design.

With Nature Colour Cycle Raul Gomez Valverde has gone some way towards realising the possibilities of such a project.
This chromatic animation is based on weather conditions and seasonal changes of The Regent's Park, the circular proportions are those of the original scene photographed in the park at solstices, equinoxes and moon phases throughout a year, transformed into a concentric colour wheel colour changes that graduate chronologically through the seasons.
Projected on the floor in the gallery space in his exhibition To Look and to Look, Nature Colour Cycle forms a perfect circle: dark in the middle shading to lighter on the periphery, it might be said to resemble an eye and we might think of ourselves as being slowly drawn into a mildly hypnogagic state as we look, and to look is to be pulled into the pool of this singular staring pupil with its singular viewpoint. As a visualisation of an environment in which process over time reveals spatial patterns however, it repurposes abstraction beyond abstraction as a means to its own ends. In exhibition Nature Colour Cycle is clearly part of a larger system, surrounded as it is by a variety of descriptions and illustrations of the process and offered as one of a number of possible ways of presenting environment and landscape. By hybridising conventionally distinct disciplines this variety of visual information becomes an experimental art practice that is driven by form and process, but being specific in the context, object and subject of its investigation, it is not allowed to become subsumed by process, reduced only to abstraction or dominated by formalism, rather it suggests the potential for an open-ended process of exploration and interpretation.

To Look and To Look
Del Sol St Art Gallery
Santander, Spain
10 January - 14 February 2009

Thursday 8 January 2009

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Monday 5 January 2009


A walk in Queen’s Wood near Highgate on Sunday afternoon.

We hear drumming.

A Woodpecker, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker.


It flies from tree to tree.

It seems to choose different thicknesses of trunk or branch to tune the sound.

“The drumming sound often heard is the Woodpecker trying to attract a mate by vibrating its bill against a branch.”

Could the Woodpecker's percussive communication be a rare, or perhaps the only, example of non-human communication using a musical instrument?