Distracted, undependable and drifting: 3 artworks evading meaning in the eye of the viewer.

Art is a distraction, or at least it can be. Not necessarily in the sense that it diverts attention from the important business of life, but that distraction can be a critical strategy on the part of the artwork, a lack or excess of information which allows for a particular quality of encounter. Whatever this strategy is, it has something to do with the way in which a piece of art holds the viewer’s attention.

Sensory perception is a fickle thing. And vision especially so. In his book Action in Perception Alva Noë shows that vision is not the primary means by which we create and maintain our high-definition, full colour picture of the world around us. Human visual perception, he suggests, is actually very poor, uneven and largely in black and white. It is also bound up with attention. Stare intently on the thing in front of you. Can you really distinguish objects in your periphery? Can you tell what colour they are? More strikingly, studies have shown that people can miss dramatic changes that occur in the centre of their vision, if their attention is focused elsewhere. A famous example is that of a study in which participants watch a video of a basketball match and are asked to count how many times the team in red take possession of the ball. After a minute or so a person in a gorilla outfit appears, walks into the centre of the screen, and does a little dance. Concentrating on the ball, participants uniformly fail to notice the gorilla even though it is large, moving and in the centre of the visual field.

What else are we missing? And how might this impact on the processes of viewing art? How would a piece of art distract, and from what?

Let’s take a concrete example in the form of a film by iconic British avant-garde filmmaker Jeff Keen Marvo Movie (1967) recently released in a DVD boxset, GASWKX the films of Jeff Keen, BFI. Marvo Movie is indicative of the style of filmmaking Keen developed throughout his career: fast paced, frenetic, a mixture of footage of action overlaid sometimes three or four times, stop-frame animation, collage and painterly effects. Watching this film is something of a visual onslaught. And it is very difficult to keep your attention fixed, because of the fast succession of imagery. There is also no fixed way in which the film invites the viewer to watch it, it is hard to tell where one’s attention should be focused at any one time, and this quality makes the film very much about the experience of watching. Writing in 1965, Raymond Durgnat maintained that his films depended ‘more on movement than photographic texture’, meaning perhaps that the depictional content of the film is secondary to the way in which this material is played with. But texture is also an important part of the work and the great varieties of surfaces and colours that scream across the screen. Whereas mainstream cinema, in most places, seeks to underplay the material qualities of the medium, preferring instead to focus attention on the interior depictional world of the film narrative, Keen’s films play heavily on the medium’s thickness and viscerality. Thus the many textures of collage and paint, the continual overlaying of material (often done in camera by winding the film back and re-shooting), the spluttery rhythms of stop-frame, all thrown together at rapid pace lend themselves, I would suggest, to a far more immediate, sensorial, experience of film itself, rather than a considered, or involved reflection upon the filmic content.

It is often acknowledged that different viewers see different things in a work, but this is usually thought of as a matter of interpretation: what people see in a work. However with Keen’s frantic paced imagery the real question arises of whether different viewers have in any way the same visual experience. One might be focused in the top corner at a patch of swirling colour and miss the large collage Superman which appears to another viewer in the opposite corner and so on. It could be that viewers have markedly different visual experiences of the work, to such an extent that one may see a film of a basketball match, another a person dancing in a gorilla costume.

What we have here is a deferral of meaning caused by the distracting up-closeness of the medium, but also a very real suggestion that what is seen may be very different from person to person and from viewing to viewing. It may in fact be possible to claim that there can be no singular viewing of this film. No completeness or wholeness to a film which cannot be taken-in in its entirety and which obstinately refuses to let our gaze settle.

Writing in relation to the sculptures of Rebecca Warren, Barry Schwabsky writes:

When the artist makes something that seems to point back to itself rather than the bull’s eye of significance that it at first seemed to be indicating, the viewer may feel frustrated by the thing’s undependability or delighted by its artful hocus pocus, but in either case will have been made more aware of his own desire at work – which just might be the work’s ulterior subject. Scwabsky B. 2009: ‘Fragments’ in Rebecca Warren, London: Serpentine Gallery /Koenig Books

This undependability then becomes a deliberate strategy on the part of the artwork, similar to a distracting of attention. Every time the viewer begins to settle on a stable interpretation the artwork presents a complication, an element that does not fit, or simply the object sits silently and refuses to be definite enough in any of its qualities to allow a stable meaning to settle over it. Rebecca Warren’s sculpture series We Are Dead I-VIII (2008) may be a good example. Like much of her work it is not figurative, but maintains a flirting relationship with the figurative. We Are Dead is made up of a number of roughly sculpted blocks of unfired clay sitting on pedestals. It is hard not to imagine this work as a group of figures, but the blobs themselves have no recognizably human (or animal) attributes. They are impassive bulks bearing the finger marks of seemingly rapid production. Up-close the swirls and marks of the sculpting lead the eye to rove endlessly over the clay surface. As Schwabsky suggests the unfired clay gives the work an unfinished quality which again points to an openness in the way the work is read. The tension in Warren’s works perhaps comes from a contradiction: that the works are simple, solid and impassive, yet they evade easy signification. Distraction becomes deflection. Or, the distracted gaze becomes the deflected interpretation.

The ‘bull’s eye of significance’ might also be related to the moving image, and in the case of Keen, by continually knocking us back to the surface of the projected image he continually reinforces the conditions of viewing and the constructed reality of the film. The Glass Parallax (2009) by sculptor and filmmaker Sam Dowd operates an almost reverse strategy. The slow pace of his film differs markedly from the frenetic pace of Keen’s oeuvre (although it perhaps bears a similarity to the silent impassivity of Warren’s work.) There is, however, a similar deferral of meaning at work.

The measured pace of The Glass Parallax, the lingering shots of modernist architecture, slow pans across crystalline, geometric objects and the odd presence of four silent figures, walking as if in a daze combine to create a calm, but unsettling feeling reminiscent of Bergman or Goddard. Dowd speaks of the film as a stimulus for daydreaming, as the attention of the viewer shifts away from the image. Installed with the objects from the film the work has a similar impassivity to Warren’s sculptures, with the inclusion of the rattling of the projector. The space of the exhibition then seems to extend the filmic space and the potential for the viewer to drift within it.

This is coupled with a feeling that something is being deliberately obscured from view. That there is some meaning which evades the camera and which sits perpetually on the periphery of one’s vision. It is as if something is left perpetually unsaid, frustrating the viewer’s attempts to make sense of the filmic content. A content which is tied as much to material considerations as Keen and Warren: Dowd is playing on the black and white widescreen film image and its power for nostalgia and dreaminess, giving the entire piece an aesthetic, rather than realistic, character. The lines of the horizon crisscrossing the lines of architecture and object make this work as much about a painterly geometry as an exploration of the photographic image. Here distraction becomes deferral becomes drifting.

Whether it be Keen’s Visual overload, Warren’s stubborn silence, or Dowd’s peripheral drift, a singular reading will not settle in, on or around these works. And this is the pleasure and beauty of them in all their differences. For every viewer there will be a difference perspective, not just of interpretation but of the very act of seeing caused by the work’s playful pointing back to itself: its material, construction, and situation of encounter.

GAZWRX the film of Jeff Keen, (DVD) BFI, 2009.
Rebecca Warren at the Serpentine Gallery until 19th April 2009
Sam Dowd The Glass Parallax in Lost Horizons at the Towner Gallery Eastbourne until 7th June 2009.

Noë, A. (2004) Action in Perception. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
Durgnat, R. (2009) Flyweight Flicks in GAZWRX the Films of Jeff Keen booklet. BFI:London, pp.30-31
Scwabsky B. (2009) ‘Fragments’ in Rebecca Warren ,London: Serpentine Gallery /Koenig Books, pp. 39-49



• noun 1 a thing that diverts attention. 2 a thing offering entertainment. 3 mental agitation.

He was at his letter-writing again in the morning. The little desk at the window was black, rivaling the blackness of his fire escape, those rails dipped in asphalt, a heavy cosmetic coat of black, rails equidistant but appearing according to the rules of perspective. He had letters to write. He was busy, busy, in pursuit of objects he was only now, and dimly, beginning to understand.
(Saul Bellow Herzog, Penguin Modern Classics, 2007, p. 102)

Revolve Mock Up

I'm going to start a magazine caller 'This is Useful'.

It's going to be all stuff that helps you do art. Whether your an artist, writer, viewer. A cross between a practical do-it-yourself, self-help guide, review and critical journal. It'll have lots of pictures.

Negative Appreciation

Boris Groys talking about art criticism...

They [readers] absolutely didn’t respond to what I wrote, be it description or evaluation, and they absolutely couldn’t distinguish between positive and negative evaluation. So if they saw, for example, a long text with illustrations on the first page, and it was a negative review, everybody perceived it as a positive review.

If you mention them [artists] it makes no sense to criticise them, because it’s obvious that whatever you say is an advertisement for them. If you don’t like them, you just don’t mention them; if you like them, you just approve them. So the system excludes the phenomenon of negative appreciation: something that has a very long tradition… So today’s criticism mostly does not function as critique.

A critic creates a search engine for the reader; fundamentally he just says ‘look at this!’ Whatever is said beyond this will be perceived merely as an explanation or legitimization of the advice to look.

Interview with Boris Groys, Frieze 121

Is this an attitude of an art world dominated by the market? Of consumer consciousness, where time is short and not to be wasted? Where going to see something becomes a question of 'is it worth my time, do I need to see this?' Rather than a general or genuine curiosity to experience and form opinions about cultural stuff (I nearly wrote products, which perhaps betrays the way in with which current language use is bound to consumerism.)There is an expectation here that the critic will do the work for the gallery goer, somethign like a personal shopper. Letting them know what they should go and see and what they should miss. The reader/viewer is thereofore, not in the position to make decisions for themselves. That is not what is expected of the art encounter.

As an artist then, getting 'into' an art magazine or journal is all important (and this is the same with having shows at 'recognised' galleries and the like). Getting mentioned and the exposure it brings is constitutive of your status as artist within the economy of the visible artworld. Without this representation (from galleries and critics) you effectively do not exist. In this sense, the critic can do nothing but reinforce the dynamic. And because the value of the writing, what is visible about it, is quantitive rather than qualitative (ie. more about column inches and jpeg dimentions than about the critical analysis itself.) The engagement between critic and artist becomes much the same as between critic and viewer and presumably artist and viewer. These relationships become based on quantitive values, with a presumption that art can be easily valued, more in terms of its visiblilty (as an object within a system of comercial relations), than as an object of interest within itself, or within a meaningful, personal and individual encounter.

Negative appreciation (deppreciation?)would only be possible if the critic had nothing invested in this dynamic. But how can their writing be divorced from this context? As Groys says, if it appears in an art magazine it will not really be 'read'. But if the writing is taken out of this context it will lose its visibility, no one will read it. So the critic, like the artist, is caught in a bind. Within the 'professional' world the output of both writer and artist is reduced merely to its visibilty, its position within the field. The possibilities of what the art or writing can do is radically reduced. All it can do, in fact, is take a position. They are visible, but silent.

Basically, what's the fucking point right?
Today I came across these:

I get sent a vast amount of press material each day, almost all of which employs a strikingly similar tone of voice. Most common is the one of academic solemnity infused with a barely veiled aggression, as though art were engaged in some cultural ‘war on terror’. Words such as ‘forcing’, ‘interrogating’ or ‘subverting’ occur with incredible frequency. Boundaries are ‘broken down’ and ‘preconceptions challenged’ so often as to make subversion and radicality seem like a mandatory daily chore rather than a blow to the status quo. They perpetuate old-fashioned notions, such as that of the artist visionary liberating the masses from mental enslavement by bourgeois values. Overuse has made these words sounds strangely toothless, for what’s at stake in the art is often less important (but not necessarily without value) than the language suggests.

The seductionsof jargon affect artistic production. A word you hear many artists use today when describing what they do is ‘practice’ (or ‘praxis’ – urrgh!), much as you might describe an architectural or doctor’s practice. Occassionally prefaced with the phrase ‘research-based’, the word has faintly scientific, academic and conventional ‘professional’ overtones, suggesting fixed methodologies with quantifiable outcomes. Perhaps originating in the 1970s’ Conceptual artist, it speaks of the rationalist flipside to the old-fashioned model of artist-as-licenced-transgressor, positioning the artist alongside applied artists, philosopher, sociologists or community workers.

Quotes from ‘A Serious Business’ by Dan Fox
in Frieze 121, March 2009, pp. 108-113

I think I use this sort of language all the time! It was sort of mandatory at art school, and it's also influenced by the type of governemtal rhetoric that you have to employ when writing an arts council proposal. Justificatory, quantifiable, methodical... all the things making art is rarely about, at least in my experience. How about, vague ideas, moments of clarity quickly fading, unhealthy obsession with detail, fear, panic, mistakes, something seeeming to go well and then completely fucking you, mad rushes toward deadlines, never getting as far as you'd like, tears of frustration, recrimination, embarrassment, or at least that slight feeling of shame when suddenly all these people are looking at somethign you've made, reading stuff, looking at pictures, going for walks, getting headaches from paint fumes, dust and 12 hours of sitting under striplights, getting drunk, getting up late, not getting much done, looking at the same thing over and over again trying to see it in a different light, trying to see the problems, the potential solutions, then becoming blind to it all, anything could mean anything, I've been on my own for too long, I need to get out of here. I've gone strange.

Narrative, psychology and economics.

I've just read my way through the the latest edition of ArtWorld and patterns are emerging. It has a slightly more fresh and funky, down to earth style than something like Art Forum, or even Frieze. The interviews all start with the same question about the artist's name and end with 'If you could live with any artwork, what would it be'. Not particularly enlightening perhaps, but with articles about Valie Export and Ceal Floyer, both of whom changed their names for arguably artistic resons perhaps the name question does serve as a good opener. Art, one could surmise from this magazine, is very much about personality. Features tend to be mainly biographical in content, with references to psycology, politics, historical context and aethetics trends.

What every article does, and perhaps one could argue that this is a quality of much writing about art, is draw a narrative through an artist's work. Even when a piece starts out declaring the ideosycracy or disparity of an artists practice, the basic drive of the writing will be to create a coherent storyline to the work. And why not? A good piece of art criticism of this kind will forground the artist's biography, will make some claims as to the coherent progress of the work as a dynamic oevre, will find some juicy pschological justifications - Franz West's mother, for example, was a dentist in the days when dentists were to be feared, and thus his works might be read as embodying this pschological trauma - or a particular series of works may have been painted at 'a bad time in the artists life' as I recently read in the notes to the White Light/White Heat exhibition at Hauser and Wirth about a piece by Joan Mitchell. They will also place the work within a certain art historical context, 1970's Vienna dominated by the actionists for West, the Lower East Side for Dan Colen, and use this context to compare and contrast with the artist's output. There may also be thrown in a bit of politics, but usually only if the artist is seen as overtly 'political', in which case (as with the current article on Valie Export in Art World) the writing will be dominated with the works political concerns. These concerns, however, will be written through with biographical detail: because she was a woman, living in Vienna.......

It would be easy to point to the fact that articles such as these are reductive of what maybe seen as far more complex work. Much can be made of divergence, disparity, fragmentation, the sort of rhetoric that was banded around in the heady days of Postmodernism. And indeed it is true. An article can only do so much. The sort of overview which is common in Art World could be argued to give a distorted view of an artists work, but this is a necessary factor of writing about art at all. And perhaps points to the point, made by Nicolas Bourriard in the catalogue to Altermodern, that people just don't care about these issues anymore. We know we can't trust the media to fully represent the world, so let's just get on with it. Reviews and articles may alway partial, but in their partiality they can be enlightening, exciting, and give you access to work you may otherwise not have seen, or enable you to engage with work in a new or unexpected way. Articles also have a job. They have to fill the pages of their respective magazine, be the flesh of editorial strategy. They may also bring an artists work to the fore, serve to strengthen or establish a reputation. This may seem cynical, but in this respect the article plays an important role in the interconnected sphere of contemporary art and in this respect the writing, and editorial, may be seen to be highly skillful.

More importantly for me, and the main reason for this writing here, is that the creating of narrative is perhaps fundamental to the artist themselves. In a cynical way of course, the contemporary artist is expected to do exactly what magazine articles do. Write for themselves a narrative in which their work gains coherence, import and reputation. This may happen though a variety of means including shows and exhibitions, artist statements, interviews, chit chat and may also be augmented by outside sources such as gallery press releases, critcal commentary and so forth. But more importantly than this, and speaking as an artist, the construction of narrative is fundamental to the day to day practice of making and living. Narrative in these terms is something like a strategy, a constant assessment of what the work has been, what it is now and where it might go. Without this sense of grounding, making decisions about the work can be very difficult. How does one diferentiate between was is wanted and what is not, what is genuinely interesting and what is a failed attempt. These strategies will naturally differ depending on the approach of the artist. And a certain amount of accident must accompany any creative process. And surely making art can be a terrifying experience, there is alway a sense of uncertainty when one is trying to breach new ground, which is embedded in the prevailent idea that art should in some sense always be dynamic and forward looking, even in an age when appropriation, borrowing and reworking are all fairly well established forms. Because art-making is largely self-directed, and not purely driven by economic concerns, an artist needs to have a sens eof purpose and direction. In my experience new works can often come to be realised in surprising ways snd following these moments a time of taking stock is often needed. Some time to work out how this new work fits in with the old. What new directions it may suggest. How it will be looked back upon as part of the narrative of my work as a whole, whenever the whole may be reached.