Thursday, 15 September 2016

Georgia O'Keeffe at the Tate Modern

For the first time in my life, I stood before art and felt I could cry.

The stone as life and author

Read the review I wrote called 'The stone as life and author' on Stuart Whipps's exhibition Isle of Slingers at Bristol's Spike Island. Originally published in Art plus Thought.

(foreground) Marbled Books (Yellow); Marbled Books (Grey); Marbled Books; (Purple); (All 2016); (background) Marble Book; Marble Book (Detail 001); Marble Book (Detail 002)(2016) Tables reclaimed from Birmingham Central Library.

The stone as life and author

British artist Stuart Whipps’s multi-media exhibition, Isle of Slingers at Spike Island reflects a project that brings together, by way of colour coding, three individuals, assigning to each a distinct stone: Edward James, an arts patron primarily of Surrealist work is paired with Portland Stone, designated by the colour purple; architect Sir Clough William-Ellis with slate represented by yellow; and artist John Latham with shale and the colour grey. These united elements are reflected in one instance through landscape photographs of where the stones originated from, attending to questions of labour and class by way of the working of raw materials, (the Portland stone from Pulpits Rock, the slate from Blanenau Ffestiniog, and the shale from the West Lothian)[1]. These gorgeous landscapes undeniably bring to mind the sublime, yet they are not without the allusion to human presence.

On a table, the stones themselves are present. They behave as bookends or a paperweight, which hold still a series of books of various sizes. Separated by their colour, the books are all wrapped in marbled covers reminiscent not only of artisan paper-making techniques but of course, primarily of stone itself. These sculptural assemblages refer to matter and are the actual presence of matter in the gallery space and also recall Latham’s iconic method of using books in his own sculptural work.

Another dimension of this series of representations are the reliefs hung on the walls, again colour-coded. They each comprise of coloured horizontal shafts, composed in such a way that they create different shapes on the wall. Photographs are stuck on them and depict different elements related to the exhibit: stones, details of marbled paper and of a marbled book, a piece of slate and an architectural arch. With each new series of representation, the stones themselves are abstracted anew. If the landscape photographs are designed to contextualize the stones, their use and presentation as objects with a function (stabilizing the books) abstracts them from their status as a natural resource, transforming them into tools for servicing human needs. Moreover, the stones are hinted at in the reliefs, yet some do not even picture them at all, rather only refer to them and to their corresponding human matches with an intentional distance.

The exhibition includes a video of a man beside a projection of a photographed stone onto a textured wall. The image is muddled and often unidentifiable as a result of the three-dimensionality of the wall, until the man places pieces of smooth stone on a table, carefully curated so that each are a different shape and size, in front of the projection so that the image becomes increasingly clear with every placed stone. Once the image is sharply projected onto the stone, the performing man, William Bracewell, proceeds to position his body as a mirroring response to the photographed and subsequently projected stone. There are several mediations at play: not only is the image of a stone projected onto an actual stone, but Bracewell adopts the position of the stone so that the stone is anthropomorphized. More interestingly perhaps, is that in turn, Bracewell’s body, by way of his choreographed meditation becomes the stone.

Whipps’s work in this show is an acute reflection on the artistic mediation of materials in a variety of forms that play with dualisms such as 2D/3D, material/immaterial, nature/culture, human/nonhuman. He responds to the stones’s distinctive agencies not only to represent three men, but also to be represented by him and to be performed and laboured by Bracewell in such a way that it becomes unclear who the true director of these artworks is. Is Whipps encouraging a shared authorship between himself and the stones? Whipps here asks important questions about representation and the distance that occurs when materials become artworks or practical objects and invites us to consider the labour of turning raw matter into instruments as well as the ways in which raw matter are themselves labourers tasked at the will of humans.

We might thusly be encouraged to ask the following questions: Who is the owner of these stones? Are they there for humans? Why is it important to be aware of where matter comes from? What are the possibilities for non-human or non-living subjectivity and who allocates this agency or authorship?

Isle of Slingers is showing at Spike Island in Bristol until 18 September 2016.

[1] Spike Island, exhibition guide.

Monday, 5 September 2016

A sexist encounter

Today I experienced my first instance of sexism in an academic setting. I went to a talk by a leading scholar in Artificial Intelligence on how it is to change 'everything'. The room was mostly men but there were some women. I found the talk interesting and while there were certain technical concepts I did not understand, there was a lot I was able to follow, especially in terms of connecting Machine Learning to the human brain.

When it came time to ask questions, I was the first person to raise my hand and nonetheless was the fifth person to have the microphone handed to. When I got the microphone I asked a two part question, the first about morality and ethics with regard to self-learning robots (making specific reference to points he made in the talk), giving an example about drones and automated decision making. The second part of my question was about robot agency and the posthuman and if he thought this kind of AI work would have positive social implications and effects with regard to gender and race.

The first thing he did when he answered was ask me if I had any children. When I said no, he said 'well, you will soon'. The audience laughed. Then he offered a pedantic allegory about how teaching robots to be moral is like teaching children to be moral and gave the example that if a child is burning ants, you teach him that is this wrong. He answered no part of my question. No one said anything and the Q&A continued as normal.

While it may be true that my question was too long and perhaps too 'Humanities' for this context, I thought it was nonetheless a worthwhile question and that scientists who work on this kind of research should be capable of answering questions about the social and cultural impact of their work on the world. I felt this especially deeply given that Art History, amongst other subjects have begun to make an effort at introducing interdisciplinary approaches and bridging gaps between the arts and sciences.

I am convinced that had a man asked this question, he would not have asked him if he was a father. Moreover, there are several more interesting, more intelligent and more respectful ways he could have addressed my question some of which include notions of subjectivity and morality, the possibility or impossibility of controlling robots, how he expects life will be like if and when we live amongst robots as equals, etc. I am truly disappointed by this exchange and sincerely hope that people within the technology and science fields are having important discussions such as these both amongst themselves and with scholars in the humanities and that this was an isolated instance of a paternalistic individual who lacks an open mind.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Ernö Goldfinger re an encounter with Adolf Loos

Goldfinger re Loos: 

“one time we were sitting in the Dôme and a young Austrian architect came up: ‘Master, I have achieved a fabulous thing. I am going to work for Le Corbusier.’ Loos says: ‘My dear boy, when you come to Paris you come to learn French, not Esperanto.’ He hated Corbusier’s architecture, just as I hate his ‘Kasbah’ architecture – all the white stuff” [1].

[1] Stamp, Gavin and Goldfinger, Ernö. “Conversation with Ernö Goldfinger”. Journal (Thirties Society), No. 2 (1982), pp. 19.