THE ART OF IMPOSSIBILE COMPLETION. (or, art for nothing)
The title, The Art of Impossible Completion, frames this piece of writing in a way as to almost pre-empt a beginning. Without a beginning there can be no completion, but as completion is not an end, this experience of writing, to which you bear witness (post hoc), will be, for convenience, considered an interlude somewhere between remembering, forgetting and becoming - a pause.
As a protagonist I will assemble some thoughts, which through a complex history of inter-subjectivity and reflection, I have come to associate with cultural identity and personal ontology. The first proposition is that I am my art and that ‘art’ is a verb. It is therefore more appropriate to speak of ‘arting’ rather than making art, art practice, artist or the art object. Arting has been a useful term for other artists to articulate a similar understanding, examples being Jay Koh who founded in 1992 a group called arting (Kester 2004 102), and Kil-Young Yoo, who presented a paper outlining his idea of arting to the Chimera Conference organised by Synapse Art Initiatives in 1994.
Art in this sense is a way of knowing, a way of being, a philosophical attitude. It is a dialogical engagement that is performative and which blurs the boundaries between personality, behaviour, product and role. Arting is discursive and is a way that gives not certainty or completion, but the provisional truth of transformative self-knowledge demanded by an exacting task of re-negotiating the complexities of experience, while guided by a finely honed ignorance. This state of un-finalised informed un-knowing is what artist Vera Frenkel (in conversation Vancouver 1980), calls benign ignorance; a state arrived at by travelling through knowledge to the other side. This travelling is an open-ended dialogical journey of encounter.
Arting is an open condition of trusting in creative processes that make it possible to operate with fuzzy logic, beyond linearity, with the wisdom of uncertainty in a system premised on change. This resistance to closure may be a form of un-knowing that is a necessary condition for the cognitive flexibility that creativity requires. It includes a rational irrationality not inconsistent with the enlightenment agenda of progress that has continued to inform strategies of cultural production since modernism, including dada and the Situationalists (Bourriaud 2002).
The impossibility of completion is reflected in theories of dialogical aesthetics, which, while stressing open-ended contextural and relational dynamics as generating meaning in art, privilege the social, historical and political over the psychological, in particular goalless creativity, or play.
Barron and Ogilvy, as interpreted by Charles Hampton Turner (1981), describe creativity as a heterarchial, multidimensional, polycentric equilibrium of contradictory virtues where doubt, disorder, anxiety, intuition and openness are as necessary as the seemingly contradictory traits of certainty, order, ego-strength, rationality and closure. Herbert Moulderings, (Tucker 1986 17) expresses it more succinctly – ‘The deepest confusion is the threshold of insight’.
What is assumed here is the association of clarity and conclusion with completion, whereas completion may be the achievement of complete or partial confusion, even if ephemeral. Such a state could be the catalyst for further forays into flux.
The artist Richard Nonas in describing the cognitive traits that underpin his work refers to vitality in uncertainty, as well as to the metaphoric and transformative reality revealed in the “neither one thing nor the other”. In Thump Thump (1980) he writes:
for what I sense is not just confusion, ambiguity, flux as the way the world is, but
rather that that kind of complexity is one constant aspect of the world.
Is one overpowering characteristic of the world which I must acknowledge constantly.
So what I search for are the boundaries of ambiguity, the edges of change.
The ball at the top of the curve.
What I want is to whittle ambiguity down to a fine edge.
What I want are the flashpoints of change, where an object, an idea, an activity is
neither one thing nor the other, but something in between.
What I want is almost clarity about not-quite-confusion.
Reading rooms, playgrounds, littoral zones, ecotones, potential spaces, are all real as well as metaphoric arenas where provisional meaning is unfolded thorough a relational interplay of context and internal dynamics. They are templates for strategies of art that come from a play aesthetic; an aesthetic which has ethics at its centre, i.e. a philosophy of relationship where the relational process requires no completion. As Marcuse says, the language of art is song and the work is play (Marcuse 1955).
[The psychoanalytic theorist, D W Winnicott defines potential space as a paradoxical third area of experiencing that is neither phantasy nor reality. It is an envelope-like space mediating between subjective and objective worlds. Winnicott also discerns a continuity between the realm of play and the world of art.]
[The ecotone is an ecological transition zone, an area across which ecological boundaries advance and retreat in response to major climatic changes.]
Time dances: Nature plays,
Between dreaming and waking: Nature Plays
Nature makes me laugh.
A place to play
A place to imagine
A place out of time to conjure with
But this place, this time, this unfolding,
makes me laugh.
In 1994 at the Littoral Conference at Salford University, Synapse Art Initiatives (founded in 1993 by Neil Berecry-Brown and Adrian Hall, and currently incarnated as browns Cows art projects) was presented as an example of an art that is now included within the dialogical/littoral/relational aesthetics model of practice. While there are differences between the various theorists who use these terms, they all emphasise unfinalisability and ethical processes. Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes 2004), in referring to dialogism in Joyce and Baktin points to there being ‘no last word’, and of artists (Beuys is the example used) letting one work emerge out of another. Bourriaud (2004) writes of relational aesthetic practice as art ‘presented as a period of time to be lived through, like an opening of unlimited discussion.’ Grant Kester (2004) elaborates, claiming that the ‘indeterminateness’ of a discursive aesthetic is not simply the condition of open-ended dialogue, it also refers to the ab ility to think beyond or outside the existing constrained horizons of neo-liberal discourse.
To add another rung to the dialogical/relational aesthetics/littoral lexical Monkey Bars, at the Salford Conference Synapse was described as a ‘polyvalent’ social dynamic supporting open-ended speculative and improvisiational activities. To quote from the conference paper:
The maintenance of this dynamic is a creative engagement requiring the development of syntonic relationships between individuals and the group and an ecosyntonic meshing with the social context. Polyvalence is defined by relationship, and its effectiveness depends on the qualities of many different constituent relationships and actions. Synapse is a model of engagement in which actions are generative, organic, altruistic and reciprocal. They are premised on mutuality, trust, tolerance and respect. (Neil Berecry-Brown)
[Polyvalence is a term from linguistics or chemistry describing a capacity to link or bond with many other entities, e.g. poly valent verbs can link or bond with many noun phrases; polyvalent atoms or groups can combine with many hydrogen atoms in forming compounds.]
Polyvalent practice, as it was posited in 1994, was described as existing with the same ideational frame of blurred boundaries, ambiguities and contradictions described by Richard Nonas, and as being multidimensional and inclusive rather than dualistic, thus allowing an accommodation of meanings emerging from both “multiple registers of meaning” and “formal immanence’. This is a dichotomy in Kester’s model of dialogical theory observed and critiqued by Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes.
At a functional level polyvalence refers to a dialogical strategy of interacting with a wide range of constituencies of interest within and outside nominal communities of cultural production, which would include Kester’s politically coherent communities (Kester 2004 P 147). The emphasis is on process not outcome. To the extent that art is purpose driven, and completeable, (leaving aside incompleteness as a purpose), it forecloses on its essential capacity to be a state of encounter, to open spaces in human relations (free areas and time spans) whose rhythms contrast with those structuring everyday life (Bourriaud 2002). The model of sociability and exchange most relevant here is that of art as ‘gifting’. This is an ecological ethic referred to by Wright The Moral Animal 1996, as reciprocal altruism, and like all emotions as having a genetic base.
Art is gifting for no reward – arting for nothing, for no purpose. This positions action outside the prevailing systems of exchange, particularly if the artist, as agent, is anonymous or choses a role as catalyst as apposed to protagonist. Both anonymous gifting and play are transgressive in that they allow, in different ways, for operating at a different “rhythm’, so inviting speculative and aberrant experience.
Purposelessness – the requiring of no outcome or completion, runs counter to the socially worthy or remedial practices that have been a signature mark of much dialogical work, and also of government arts funding policy which increasingly regards (and funds) art as a balm to ameliorate social ills.
Punctuated equilibrium; a point of change; of meaning; of inflection.
A pause; a silence.
A between. A space between silences.
A place to listen. A state of becoming, where ends are resting places; commas,
Like a garden which exists as a state at any one time, but is encountered as an experience in time that extends beyond the knowledge of anyone who engages with it or lives its moment.
Potential spaces (Winnicott again, with worrying hints of art as being actualising and redemptive and therefore useful)
A space to reflect upon philosophical understanding of metaphysical paradox. Life (arting) is both a koan and an absurd response. Impossible questions and irrational answers. A place where the emotion of significance can float. Significance here is regarded as an emotion, which like most others has a genetic base. Like love (or fear etc.) it is an emotion that is transferable to different ‘objects’ but can also be experienced in a ‘free’ or unattached form.
This space could be called an art-based playground to encourage observation and speculative thinking. It helps us to remember that art is also a place to play. Where art is somatic, emotional and cognitive, intellectual and purposeless, and has no need for completion, indeed is negated by goal orientation.
‘Whether designing gardens, arranging flowers, building houses, serving tea, …the person is an artist not just inn the sense of doing it beautifully, but in the sense of playing it – whatever they do they dance it.’(Watts 1961 209)
The impossibility of completion, or an art of impossible completion, is not to deny consummation but to understand it as a serial phenomenon. ‘Contemporary art’s form is a linkage of elements, a principle of agglutination (Bourriaud 2002 ).
An artwork is a dot on a line’ ……………………
A recent collaborative work (with Korean dancer Lee, Ji-Eon) at the Terminus Project in new Zealand (refer to Web Links), used a musical language to orchestrate opportunities for ‘multiple registers of meaning’ and ‘formal immanence’ to play together and generate a time of encounter that modelled an unfolding understanding of relationship. Its leitmotiv was ‘the ball at the top of the curve’.
Elements: dance, installation, talk, performance, theory, un-signaled behaviour, ten days and many miles.
Mobius has now morphed into something else but, in the words of Wallace Heim (Enterchange Essay greenmuseum.org Accessed 24.8.2005), ‘there are no certainties, no guarantees that any change will happen. There is no gauge for change-evaluation. It is a potential, an enlivening, a necessity to be invited and entered.’
Bourriaud, Nicholas, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presse du Reel, 2002.
Hampton-Turner, Charles, Maps of the Mind. London: Mitchell Beasley, 1981.
Kester, Grant, Conversation Pieces, Berkeley and Los Angles: University of California Press, 2004.
Heim, Wallace, Enter Change, greenmuseum.org/c/enterchange/essay/ Accessed 6.10.2005.
Lerm Hayes, Christa-Maria, Joyce in Art: Exhibiting Artwork on Word and Image Boundaries, in www.art_design.herts.uk/ocs/viewpaper.php?id=52 Accessed 10.11.2005
Marcuse, Herbert, Eros and Civilization, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
Nonas, Richard, ‘Thump Thump’, Art Forum, April 1980.
Tucker, Marcia, Choices: Making Art of Everyday Life, New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986.
Watts, Alan, Pyschotherapy East and West, New York: Pantheon Books, 1961.
Wright, Robert, The Moral Animal, London: Abacus Little Brown and Co., 1996.
Yoo, Kil-Young, Wandering Between Cultures: Constructing and Deconstructing the Truth In/Through Language, Subjectivity and Primordiality. Unpublished Paper, 1995.
This paper was originally published in Z/X, Volume 2, Under Construction.
Journal of the Manukau School of Visual Arts. 2006.