Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Pollution, art and making pigments

I have been asked to work with first year studio 'P' students to look at some pretty basic questions concerning 'what' people paint with. One of the issues I have touched upon in this blog is sustainability, so as well as asking students to explore where and how different paints come from and who is involved in their manufacture, I am highlighting the fact that the process of investigating these things is as much about art making as anything else, and can lead to a much better awareness of the relative carbon footprint of different approaches to art making. This also helps to question the position of painting within the art canon and to open out a dialogue with other ways of making meaning. Painting perhaps being just one element in a practice that extends to engage with relational practices, video, photography and other art forms. 

John Sabraw using a glass muller  to grind his own paint

The artist John Sabraw makes his own pigments, including strong yellows and reds made from the oxidized 
sludge of abandoned coal mines in Ohio. I was interested in this because he is embracing pollution, seeing it as something to engage with and not just moan about. The paintings he makes with the paints could have been totally abstract as far as I'm concerned, it was the thinking process that led him to work with others to make new pigments, that I thought was the most interesting aspect of his practice.  

Pigments are everywhere. Natural pigments can be sorted into three categories: those obtained from plants, those from animals, and those from minerals. Every bit of ground is a collection of various chemical compounds and minerals, some already in powder type forms and others needing ground down. Sometimes you need to heat them to intensify the colour and before doing that you would also wash them, which strengthens and also intensifies the colour.  Some artists use natural found colours very directly. Every sand drawing is done in whatever colour the sand is. 

Vanuatu sand drawing

Australian aborigine sand drawing

Look at how the difference in colour intensity changes the way we read similar approaches to making images. Even at such a basic level, colour is operating powerfully, but is this painting? As this is a blog that centres on drawing I could easily argue that it is coloured drawing or drawing in colour, the reality is that it doesn't matter and this issue over whether something is a drawing or a painting is actually a problem with how words work. (Read the first paragraph of this old post)

herman de vries, (he never uses capitals when he uses his name) is a Dutch artist that travels the world collecting soil samples. The concept he works with is that all nature is art, therefore putting capital letters in front of our names signifies that we think we are more important than other things. I like the way that he follows through his ideas. 

From the earth: herman de vries

A typical herman de vries installation consists of an array of collected soil samples from various parts of the world, they are simply used as pigments and samples put down that are always the same size and which are then archived in special boxes and then brought out at different times for exhibition purposes. (This post on documentation describes the process in detail)

Yusuke Asai

Yusuke Asai also searches out earth pigments. He talks about making images with dirt and mud, making installations using coloured soil collected from the area local to the places he works in. His work is much more to do with the illustration of folk tales than a simple documentation of the soil colours he finds. 

Detail of the surface of one of Mark Bradford's paintings

Everything is though nature. We are of nature and the environments we make are also part of nature, we might like to think of nature as an idyllic other thing over there that we have not sullied or dirtied up with our pollution, but we are actually one of nature's animals just like all the others. Therefore Mark Bradford's collecting of street papers and other detritus and use of them to create paintings, is just as environmentally sound as herman de vries' work. There is a detailed post on Bradford's practice as part of this post's reflections on collage, however he says of himself, he is an artist that paints with paper. 

Whatever you use to make an image with will carry some sort of meaning, but we sometimes forget that this is the case. Compare these two images made using various pigments.

Vic Munoz ‘Valentina, The Fastest’ The Sugar Children’:1996

Vic Munoz made this portrait of Valentina using sugar, sugar a substance which for girls like Valentina is both a future and an existence. (Read about this in more detail here).

John Singer Sargent had a remarkable ability to draw with a brush. Because of this he was the painter of choice for many of the rich and famous of his time. Typical of his work is this portrait of 
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.

John Singer Sargent: Lady Agnew of Lochnaw

Gertrude Vernon was born in 1865 and married Sir Andrew Agnew, 9th Baronet of Lochnaw Castle, in 1889. The public success of the painting apparently endowed her with additional notability and prestige. It still still hangs in its original antique French rococo frame. It is painted in oil on canvas and measures 50.0 × 39.8 in. At the time Sargent would have obtained his art supplies from companies that you might well still recognise the names of, such as Winsor & Newton and Reeves and some of their archives still survive. The beautiful soft tints whereby he was able to subtly modulate the appearance of light reflected off various surfaces were mixed using lead white. Several painters have historically been known to have succumbed to lead poisoning including Rembrandt and Goya, but the workers who made the paints in the 19th century were exposed to much heavier doses of its toxic fumes than an individual painter. A blue-purplish line along the gum, was a typical trait of the intoxication, and mental disorders often resulted from ingestion of even minute amounts of lead. Because its effects were often at their strongest when young children were exposed, in the UK, children were finally forbidden to work in white lead factories in 1878. Neither Sargent nor the Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, would have been worried about the conditions of the workers that made lead white. 

Human lives and the material substances that go to make up the world are always inextricably entwined. 

See also:

Friday, 24 January 2020

About paper, about mobile phone screens and fingertips

Up close it's easy to see why paper is good at holding on to the grainy bits of charcoal or graphite as they break off. 

Rag paper

Cartridge paper

A pencil leaves its trace on paper

The fact is that a micro-world is going on all the time whilst we are drawing but is usually just below the levels of our perceptual awareness. Whatever we are doing, our consciousness of what is happening is very limited and we are therefore unaware of many of the consequences of our actions.
However we don't use pencils as much as we use our mobile phones in present day society, so I have decided to look at the contact made between the human fingertip and a mobile phone touchscreen. But before I do that I think its important to remind everyone that in many ways using our fingers to make drawings on our mobile phone screens links us back to a time of drawing with our fingers in mud or sand, the brush and the pencil being less sensitive devices that we are learning to do without. 

A close up view of a finger and a mobile screen

Touch relies on some pretty sophisticated physiology. 
Using a mobile phone requires using your fingertips to do lots of swiping and sliding (haptic tasks), therefore an awareness of how touch works is important if you are to begin thinking about what is happening just beneath the everyday surface of your consciousness. Touching something else is central to the process of change, it is contact that forms other things; for instance as wind blown dust touches a rock it slowly and inexorably begins the process of erosion, or if you want to get technical, aeolian processes are at work.

This sandstone outcrop has been carved by the wind

Contact can be rough and sudden, a bullet cuts into a wall as its force is spent, or slow and gentle, as the tiny shards of shells of micro organisms drift down through sea waters and settle to build up what will one day become chalk deposits or spasmodic, like the breaking off of flakes of charcoal as an artist makes a drawing on sheets of paper. 

Think of those things that you or others have touched over and over again, the polished toe of a venerated statue, the handle of a door that has been used for many years, you don't notice a change at the time, but something always happens when one thing comes into contact with another. 

The polished toes of a statue of bishop Grgur 

Touch shapes things, both the thing being touched and the touching finger is shaped by the contact. But we hardly notice what happens. It takes thousands of touches to polish Grgur's toes and each of those touches would have knocked a few cells off the end of someone's fingertip. Each stroke of your fingers across the screen of your mobile is also making things happen, a very complex series of changes are taking place, and you are being changed by the contact, so lets see how.
Human fingertips can feel the difference between a smooth surface and one with a pattern embedded just 13 nanometres deep, or about a human hair width. Epidermal ridges on the surface of our fingertips allow us to differentiate between a wide range of textures, materials, temperatures, and pressures. We all have a unique pattern of these fingerprints but the pattern is not crucial to the function. Their importance is that just underneath the ridges are mechanoreceptors that respond to tactile stimulus. Friction caused by movement of the fingertip along the surface of the computer screen stimulates these mechanoreceptors, which then transmit tactile information to the brain. Your skin has three layers and receptors that let the body sense touch are located in the top two layers of the skin; the epidermis and the dermis.

The epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, also provides a waterproof barrier and creates our skin tone. The dermis, beneath the epidermis, contains tough connective tissue, usually hair follicles (our fingertips are hairless) and sweat glands and the deeper subcutaneous tissue (hypodermis) is made of fat and connective tissue. 

The epidermis has itself five different layers. Stratum basale, stratum spinosum, stratum granulosum, stratum lucidum and stratum corneum and if you look at the diagram below you can see how the shape of the cells allows the top layers to flake off, (dead cells) providing an ever changing and very interesting surface that is central to what happens when we touch anything. We in effect leave traces of ourselves on whatever surfaces we come into contact with. Just as the charcoal is flaked off on contact with the drawing paper, we are ourselves being flaked off as we drag our fingers across the surface of our mobile phone screens. This is an on-going process, new cells being formed at the junction between the dermis and epidermis, which slowly work their way towards the surface of the skin ready to be released in a process that constantly replaces shed skin cells. 

The epidermis

The receptors in our fingers are all part of the body’s somatosensory system, a huge network of nerve endings and touch receptors. This system is responsible for all the sensations we feel; cold, hot, smooth, rough, pressure, tickle, itch, pain, vibrations, and more. The four main types of receptors are; mechanoreceptors, thermoreceptors, pain receptors, and proprioceptors.
Different receptors collect different information, for instance a rapidly adapting receptor can respond to a change in stimulus very quickly, which means that it can sense right away when the skin is touching an object and when it stops touching that object. However, these receptors can’t sense how long the skin is touching an object. Slowly adapting sensors do not respond to a change in stimulus very quickly. These are very good at sensing the continuous pressure of an object touching or indenting the skin but are not very good at sensing when the stimulus started or ended. Both rapid and slow receptors respond to changes in pressure as you push your fingers across the surface of your mobile phone, these are ‘mechanoreceptors’; receptors that respond to sensations such as pressure, vibrations and texture and their only function is to perceive indentions and vibrations as they effect the skin. The four types are; Merkel’s disks, Meissner’s corpuscles, Ruffini’s corpuscles, and Pacinian corpuscles. The most sensitive being Merkel’s disks and Meissner’s corpuscles. Merkel’s disks being slowly adapting receptors and Meissner’s corpuscles rapidly adapting receptors, enabling your skin to perceive both when you begin touching something and how long the object is touching the skin. Therefore that moment when you first touch your mobile phone screen is signalled to the brain by your Meissner corpuscles, Merkel’s disks then take over telling the brain that this is a continuous activity and when you take your finger off the screen, Meissner corpuscles signal the change. This is all going on in the epidermis and outer layers of the dermis and located deeper in the dermis and along joints, tendons, and muscles of your finger are Ruffini’s corpuscles and Pacinian corpuscles. These mechanoreceptors can feel sensations such as vibrations traveling down bones and tendons, rotational movement of limbs, and the stretching of skin. These are helping you control that finger and apply changes in direction and pressure to it as you decide to do the things you need to do with your phone. However that is not all that’s happening, the screen might be warm or cool to your touch, depending on perhaps how the system is working, for instance a flaw could be causing the device to overheat and you will be made aware of the danger by ‘thermoreceptors’; receptors that pick up sensations related to the temperature of objects the skin feels. They are found in the dermis layer of the skin and they are divided into hot and cold receptors. 
Your phone’s screen may however be broken, and if so you might prick your finger on one of the edges of the broken screen and in this case ‘pain receptors’ will come into play; these are the nocireceptors. They can detect pain that is caused by mechanical stimuli (cut or scrape), thermal stimuli (burn), or chemical stimuli (poison from an insect sting).These receptors cause a feeling of sharp pain to encourage you to quickly move away from a harmful stimulus such as a broken piece of glass or a hot stove top. They also have receptors that cause a dull pain in an area that has been injured to encourage you not to use or touch that limb or body part until the damaged area has healed. 

There are other receptors that are vital to your holding a phone and these are the ‘proprioceptors’ or one’s own awareness-of-self receptors. They sense the position of the different parts of the body in relation to each other and the surrounding environment. Proprioceptors are found in tendons, muscles, and joints. These cells detect changes in muscle length and muscle tension, i.e. without them you would be dropping your phone all the time because you would become totally uncoordinated. 
While many receptors have specific functions to help us perceive different touch sensations, you never find just one type active at any one time. When using your phone, your hand can perceive many different sensations just by holding it.

Mechanoreceptors can sense that your hand is stretching around your mobile, whilst at the same time sensing that pressure is being exerted to both hold the phone and push your fingers around the phone's screen surface. 
It’s also important to remember that when your fingertip touches that screen, the mechanoreceptors that are activated begin a chain of events by signaling to the nearest neuron that they touched something. This neuron then transmits this message to the next neuron which gets passed on to the next one and on it goes until the message gets to the brain. Now the brain can process information received about the surface that your hand touched and send messages back to your hand via this same pathway to let the hand know what to do next in order for the brain to carry on getting more information. 

Your brain though gets wildly disproportionate information about touch from different parts of your body. The fingers you are using are packed with sensors, but other parts of your body, such as your back, have very few, reflecting the fact that we have very different relationships with various parts of our body. 

How touch sensors are represented in the brain

The part of your brain that processes touch information has embedded within it a very distorted map of your body. It over-represents areas that have lots of fine touch receptors (like the face, the lips, the tongue, and the fingers) and under-represents areas that don't have many receptors. This ‘map’ is constantly changing, because areas of the touch-sensing parts of your brain that you use a lot tend to expand and take over neighbouring territory. Therefore the area of your brain that processes information from fingers used to control your mobile, will expand the more you use them. 
This relationship that we have with the mobile is very important because there is another system at work, the emotional touch system, which is mediated by special sensors called C tactile fibers, and it conveys information much more slowly. It's vague in terms of where the touch is happening, but it sends information to a part of the brain called the posterior insula that is crucial for the development of socially-bonding touches; such as a hug, holding hands, or sexual foreplay. 

This is where it gets creepy; the touch screen of your mobile is looked at with the same intensity as you would look at a person that you were sexually attracted to, when you brush your fingers over the touch sensitive screen, it is exactly that, touch sensitive, just like those people who we have intimate relations with. The screen is made in layers just like human skin, it’s smooth texture is very like skin, it gives slightly as you touch it, just like skin, its slightly warm because you keep it on your person and most importantly you have built up an emotional relationship with it just as you would another human being. Therefore unlike most other objects, engaging with your mobile can cause C tactile fibres to be triggered. You adjust the speed of your finger as you stroke, so your vibrational senses are able to detect slippage and friction, but you are not just seeking surface change, you are adding in an emotional feeling as you would when relating to another human being. This sort of makes sense because the mobile is mainly used to communicate with other humans, but because we invest so much of our emotional energy in this device, we have little left for other humans. 

But what about the thing being touched? The mobile phone screen often gets pretty battered in the contact improvisation dance it has with human beings. 

A detail of Duchamp's large glass

Formally the broken glass is reminiscent of Duchamp's 'Bride Stripped Bare' which was also broken by accident, and the results finally embraced as a chance action that seemed to be an acceptable part of the work's journey. An example of contact improvisation, where  the artist accepted that the elements outside of his control were giving as much to the work as himself. 

However, the screen is not designed to be broken, it is designed to be touched and there are various ways that designers have come up with to make sure that when you touch a screen the information is transmitted to a phone's operating system. 

The touch screen on a mobile phone is a display that can locate the presence and location of a touch within the display area. It needs a minimum of three components to be able to get information to the phone's operating system, a touch sensor, controller and software driver. 

I was still at art college when the first touch sensor was developed in 1971 by Sam Hurst at the university of Kentucky, so you are working with technology that is already 50 years old. 

The touch sensor is usually a clear glass panel with a touch responsive area, this is placed over a display screen, so that the responsive area covers the viewable area of the screen.  I.e. if you can see an icon you can touch the touch responsive area above it.  An electric current is made to pass through the touch sensor, this carries signals which are changed when pressure is exerted on the screen and the change in a signal is used to determine the location of touch on the screen. The controller connects the touch sensor to the computer operating system in your phone. It takes data from the touch sensor and translates it into information that the computer can understand. 

A controller component, in this case a MPR121, is designed to work with the specific technology that the screen uses to collect data and has lots of pin connections because of the need to connect up a complicated array of sensors all collecting information about where your finger is touching the screen. In this case the technology is capacitive, which is the system an I-Phone uses. 

Diagrams showing typical connections and links to electrical power supply 

Before I move on to look at the workings in more detail, it's I hope worth reminding you how important drawing is to coming to an understanding of all this complex information, the diagrams above are both beautiful and informative, and cross over disciplines. 

The software driver allows the touch screen and the computer to work together. This is very like what happens when you add a new printer to your PC, you always need to install new driver software in order to get access to the printer. The driver ensures that a touch on the mobile screen operates the same way that clicking and moving your mouse operates in relation to a computer monitor.  It tells the mobile phone’s operating system how to interpret the touch information event that is sent from the controller. 

A capacitive screen such as that used on an I-Phone, consists of an insulator like glass, coated with a transparent conductor like ITO, (Indium-tin-oxide). Touch then distorts the screen's electromagnetic field, which is measured as changes in signal intensity along both x and y axis. More than one layer is used so that separate information can be collected from each axis and then coordinate points plotted. 

Projected capacitive panels have multiple sensors, which means that they can detect more than one pressure difference at the same time, i.e. you can use more than one finger at the same time. 

When a fingertip comes into contact with a capacitative touchscreen, it uses the electrostatic conductivity of the human body as a means for input. Unlike resistive type touchscreens, electrostatic capacitive touchscreens are highly responsive, but if you turn your finger over and try and use your fingernail, you will find that nothing happens. This is a good way to test out what sort of screen technology your phone uses, it also explains why I-Phones are so sensitive to wet conditions. 

So if you are making a drawing on your I-Phone, your own body's electricity is being used at the point of contact. Capacitive touch-screen technology means that you aren't limited to simply pressing the screen in one place. The iPhone can detect the difference between your pressing the screen with one, two, three or four fingers. It can also detect gestures such as swiping or pinching. This sensitivity gives you a much wider range of controls for each individual application. It also helps make the user interface much more intuitive. For example, programmers can map your finger swipes to scrolling through a long page, or pulling two fingers apart to zoom in on an image. However for drawing purposes when you might want more pressure sensitivity a resistive type touchscreen could be better. Going back to that graphite pencil point breaking off onto the surface of the paper, its H or B grade could be seen as analogous to whether the touch screen is capacitive or resistive. 

Just as your internal sensing system uses a variety of inputs to determine what is happening at your fingertip, the mobile phone is using a variety of inputs to determine what is going on at the point of contact, so when you draw on your phone, as with all media, it is partly you and partly the media that shapes what happens.

Technical drawing of an I Phone

However the I-Phone was once an idea in someone's mind, and as such this was realised as a technical drawing before it was manufactured. Therefore you might want to think about its fascinating 'thing' history in more detail, especially as information begins to become entangled into a knot of correspondences. For instance indium-tin-oxide (ITO) a material that is used in mobile phones because of its electrical conductivity and optical transparency  as well as the ease with which it can be deposited as a thin film, is also very expensive. The high cost and limited supply of indium is a real problem, as well as the fact that during the process of mining, production and reclamation, workers are exposed to it. It is mainly mined in China, Japan, USA, the Republic of Korea, and Canada. Indium lung disease is developed through contact with indium containing dusts and there are several proven cases of workers coming into contact with indium, developing conditions such as pulmonary fibrosisemphysema, and granulomas. As I drag my fingertip across my phone's surface in order to make a small drawing in its note application, at the same time a mine worker is developing granulomas when his or her immune system attempts to wall off substances it perceives as foreign but is unable to eliminate because their body doesn't usually have to ward off long term exposure to indium. 

A granuloma

As usual with these long posts I'm beginning to ramble, but hopefully the point has been made. As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, our consciousness of what is happening is very limited and we are unaware of most of the consequences of our actions. Drawing on a mobile phone is no different to drawing with a pencil, both are about the contact made between one thing and another, both are media specific, both on contact with something else cause change to happen at a macro and a micro level and our awareness of all these things is always partial. Pencils have long chains of conditionality* behind them and so do mobile phones and as people that use both of them, the more aware you are about what goes on the more choices there are as to how and why you might use them. 

* In Buddhist thought Pratityasamutpada means 'dependent origination' or 'conditionality'.  It can best be understood as the interconnectedness of all existence or each and every action has a consequence. 

Friday, 17 January 2020

Embrace insignificance

It turns out that roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest - everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter - adds up to less than 5% of the universe. Come to think of it, maybe it shouldn't be called "normal" matter at all, since it is such a small fraction of the universe. If you take these statistics as facts and add to them the issue that like most of my peers, I enjoy the illusion that everyone cares about what I am doing; you have a paradox. The conundrum being that self consciousness works in such a way that it causes me to believe that I am very important. This makes it hard to even think about how insignificant I actually am and makes me respond immediately to any situation that tends to suggest I am actually doing something of significance. Therefore I don't just 'like' likes on social media, or in everyday exchanges with others, I can begin to crave for them. 
I have in an earlier post pointed to the research done by professor Yi Zhou, who discovered that, "just one standard deviation increase in narcissism, (size of an artist's signature) increased the market price of a work by an average of 16%, and increased the auction house estimates by about 19%". A fact that further reinforces the feeling that if we are not seen to be significant players, if we don't believe in ourselves, we are literally 'worthless'. 
This situation can reinforce in the majority of us a feeling of low self-esteem, whereby our self conscious selves are torn between the reality of insignificance and the illusion of seeking some sort of fame or recognition for what we do. I would argue this is where drawing can be really useful. It allows us to embrace insignificance and use it to communicate to others how wonderful the world is. As we do this, it can also help us to get past those desires for affirmation from our peers. 

I have already looked at how drawing can be used to help develop a state of mindfulness. Five posts were put up that were designed to be worked through one after the other, as a way to achieve some sort of harmony with the world, but you do need to dedicate a fair amount of time to the suggested activities if you are to get any benefit from those posts. This post is an attempt to look at the issue of mindfulness in another way. 

Anonymous (late 15th century) St Jerome in Penitence, after Antonio Pollaiuolo  
Estimated sale price £80

I think the print above is really fascinating. You have an actual landscape, represented by ships and a harbour entrance brought together with an imaginary scene from the bible, of St. Jerome in a desert wilderness. The two spaces, real and imaginary, being pushed one against the other, with no attempt to suggest. gradual change. Various scales of representation are used within the same image, size constancy being more to do with importance than perspectival spatial location. The invention of graphic signs for things such as grass or water or hair, is a very important aspect of the image's texture and again there is little attempt to account for differences in foreground and background texture. Powerful gestures are used to highlight the emotional state of the main character; St Jerome's distress, is echoed in the figure of the crucified Christ and the lions fighting. Compositionally everything revolves around the figure on the cross, its strong vertical stabilising the visual rotation. You can spend quite some time with this image and the longer you do the more you can sink down into its self enclosed world, a world with its own laws, but ones that the more you engage with them, constantly reveal new possibilities. 
The fact that we don't know who the artist is does no harm to any appreciation of the image, in fact it helps us to see past the 'great artist' barrier. I used to teach engraving on copper plate and so I am also very aware of the craft behind the making of the plate from which this image was printed. The 14th century German theologian Meister Eckhart stated, “When the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.” You can step into this image and become fused with Saint Jerome and his desert experience, you can get lost in the various ways that the artist has built this image, an image that slowly engraves itself into memory; its formal impossibilities making the mythic possible; kneeling in the company of lions, being no more difficult than sailing the seas or reading a book.
There is a rhythm to the work of engraving, as you rock and twist the graver, a rhythm is built into the spacing and arrangement of the lines that are cut; look carefully at the angled marks that are clustered together in order to make tonal patches and you will be able to imagine the plate engraver pushing the graver over and over again into the copper, until enough lines have been cut to hold the ink that creates its dark patches. Cutting an engraving is hard work and in order to have the necessary level of control, years of practice are needed. In looking closely at the print, gradually the ghost of the engraver emerges, we feel the presence of its making, each line a frozen action, each image a thought form. A human being is affecting us from a distance, this small piece of paper holding within it something of great spiritual worth, of far more value than the £80 it was put on sale for. 

A long time ago I was awarded an art prize at school and I asked for and received for the prize a book on Indian Painting. In that book I learned that the compositional structure of certain paintings was based on how ragas were composed in Indian classical music. This opened a doorway for me that I have ever been grateful for and since that time I have had a fascination with Indian Art and have realised over time that it has many other doorways into understanding the world, perhaps even more so, than Western art forms.

In the 17th Century in Rajasthan abstract Tantric paintings were made in response to certain religious texts. Painting was at this time and place regarded as a meditation exercise and once made these abstract images were often given as gifts. Their function was to help others also meditate. In this respect they could be seen as operating in a similar way to the icon, except they didn't need to be housed in or sanctified by the church, or they could be looked at in comparison the the work of the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, who worked hard herself to develop a body of work that could be used as a doorway into spirituality.  

Hilma af Klint's notebook

These images below are all taken from the publication 'Tantra Song - Tantric Painting from Rajasthan' and they are both beautiful and yet rather insignificant in their modesty. We will never know the names of the people who made them, and the people who made them would not expect anyone to acknowledge them. They are gifts to the world, small fragments of meditation on paper, made by people who were mystics rather than artists, people who embraced their insignificance and offered their thoughts on paper as a courtesy to others.

17th Century Rajasthan Tantric paintings

Hopefully this introduction to the work of Tantric artists will inspire and help contextualise an alternative way of thinking about art, especially for those of you who have worried about the meaning of your work and whether or not it can effect change. Anonymity is not the same as uselessness, your quiet meditations and small drawings may for others be an entry into something wonderful. 

See also: 

Indian aesthetics
Uncertain certainty
Drawing and spirituality 
Artist's signatures
Abstraction, mathematics, metaphor and creation
The anonymous drawing project

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Quantum entanglement

Tyre tracks encounter each other and the road surface. 

I have posted before on lines and their entanglement and how nets can be used to think about interconnections. I have also posted on quantum theory and how this can be used to help us think about the fact that everything is constructed of different patterns of vibration or interconnected energy fields. By linking quantum theory to object orientated ontology, it could be argued that we can move towards a more 'flattened' or non hierarchical way of thinking about reality. If so, any event could be a drawing, but conversely the idea of defining something using a particular word becomes redundant. This is very counter intuitive and it is in opposition to all those theories that put human rationality on top of a pyramid of importance. One conceptual model that can be derived from a coupling of OOO with quantum theory, is one that could be used to think of a world without  'conditionality', something that would be quite disturbing if you are a Buddhist. Buddhists have a word 'pratityasamutpada' which means 'dependent origination', which suggests that because existence is dependent on previous or connecting factors, it is conditional on those factors. 
'He who sees the Principle of Conditionality  sees the Truth. One who sees the Truth sees the Buddha'.  See
The important issue here is that Buddhists and many other religions and philosophies look at the moment of now as being conditional on all the infinite number of things that have happened before. For instance I would not be here to write this if my mother had never met my father. But I would also not be writing this if mammalian evolution had not taken place in the way it did and a different set of creatures had filled that particular evolutionary niche left open after a meteor collision with the Earth served to extinguish most of the dinosaurs. 
I have previous looked at the Northern European concept of the Wyrd, one that is centred on an image of a thread that is wound around and between an individual and all the events and things and people that that individual encounters during their life span, a thread that is 'cut' on death. This image also suggests the interconnectedness of everything. Conditionality suggests that there is an underlying cause and effect for everything and that therefore one thing follows another. However in a universe where stones are no more or less important than Greta Garbo or a dandelion or this computer on which I'm typing, or a dog or a cushion or an idea, such as Batman, each entity is simply a particular configuration that happens to be in that configuration at one particular moment and which at any other moment might be part of something else. The interactions these things may or may not have will depend on their relative space time positioning and whether or not they affect each other will depend on their individual time and spatial properties. But what if some things can happen in two places at once or if time as we think of it, i. e. a situation whereby one thing follows another, is not the way things work, time being simply how we as a species have built an idea to help us navigate and understand our local space time experience. Conditionality has recently become even more questionable because it would appear as if there is no such thing as a single point in time to hold on to. 
More things interacting with stuff, visualised by other things interacting with stuff

If everything is more like a wave than a thing, then as waves occupy multiple places in space all at once, anything and everything can occupy multiple spaces at once. This is called "quantum superposition" and recently scientists have observed a molecule made up of 2,000 atoms occupy two places at the same time. We are now aware that bacteria are influenced by magnetic field changes at a quantum level and as our bodies are made up of approximately 50% bacteria, it is becoming apparent that we are, like everything else, interacting with quantum fields much more than we ever realised before. 
Because entangled particles remain connected in such a way that actions performed on one affect the other, even when separated by great distances, we can perhaps intuit other ways beyond the human to think about conditionality or cause and effect. The phenomenon "spooky action at a distance" depends on elemental particles or fields existing in all possible states simultaneously. Our previous mental picture of these things suggested that there was a boundary between the ordinary and the quantum world, but what if there isn't? If a molecule of 2,000 atoms is subject to quantum superposition there is no reason to expect that there's a limit to the size of quantum effects. It has recently been theorised that bacteria can become entangled with light particles and it has been seen that some birds can navigate the Earth by responding to bacteria that are themselves entangled with the Earth's magnetic field. All sorts of areas of thinking are affected by quantum entanglement. For instance; if our memories are simply patterns of chemical and/or electromagnetic connections, these patterns may, like those of the bacteria in our stomachs, become entangled with other electromagnetic fields. Our perceptions consist of recorded changes in chemical and/or electromagnetic connections, so at some base level, a memory, an idea and a perception all exist in a similar electrochemical format. Percepts, perceptions, sensations and reality all entangled together at a quantum level in ways previously unimaginable. 

A drawing made with graphite on paper, encounters computer software and because of the implications of the encounter, the idea is further adjusted to suggest imaginary encounters with a library of quantum effects

So where are we going with this? If I am a thing like any other thing consisting of a series of interacting fields that interact with other fields and I am interacting with stuff just like everything else is interacting with stuff, my drawings can be seen as the result of a certain type of material entanglement, and the materials I engage with, are at the same time engaging with me, neither being more or less important than the other. I am in effect the subject of my drawing materials' engagement, just as much as an idea I might have. It could be argued that I am an idea implied by the way certain materials are coming into new formations. 

This might not be as weird as it appears. It has been pointed out that quantum mechanical effects are key to the ability of green plants, through photosynthesis, to almost instantaneously transfer solar energy from molecules in light harvesting complexes, to molecules in electrochemical reaction centres. As photosynthesis is vital to our existence on this earth, I would suggest that we are entangled with this energy transfer at every level. When we eat food and release the energy tied up in plant and animal cells, are we not re-entangling the quantum mechanical effect of photosynthesis into ourselves and as far as the sun is concerned being just another localised twist in the entanglement of its long time energy release. 
As far as the sun is concerned we are in effect no different to the paper and the charcoal with which a drawing is made. You could well now argue that I was back using another version of 'conditionality', first of all the sun then the leaf etc. 

However in order for me to make sense of my nowness I need an idea such as conditionality in order to make decisions that suggest that what I do now will effect what is going to happen in the future. Conditionality enables me to navigate 'local' conditions, therefore I/we need it as an idea to remain sane.

I have referred to Graham Harman's diagram before when reflecting on Object Orientated Ontology, but it is worthwhile revisiting it in order to look at how quantum entanglement can be seen as part of the way we could think about the state of things as they are. 

Harman argues that in the day to day we deal not with real objects, but with their sensuous surrogates or manifestations. We fail to recognise the difference between real objects and sensuous objects because we live amongst a particularly localised set of entanglements where sensuous qualities have become associated with our particular sense organs' abilities, thereby rendering us blind to what is in reality hidden (to our sense organs that is) within objects. 

I think of this in a slightly different way. If I encounter a mountain, I can never actually experience it, I can only have a series of small encounters with the bits of the mountain I come into contact with. However from my tiny bit of information I can deduce all sorts of things that allow me to survive. For instance I may experience a certain coldness because of the mountain's height and may therefore respond to this by putting on warm clothes. So yes I don't ever encounter the 'reality' of the whole mountain because it consists of what feels like an infinity of possibilities, but I do respond to aspects of it, such as whether or not snow covers it. 

I try to open this issue out in another post on the limits of language and would argue that Harman is like so many other philosophers tied down with words and that his sensual object/real object distinction would disappear if he had no verbal or written language to refer back to. I would argue that we would simply interact with whatever is happening, the enactment on contact being some sort of exchange dependent on degree of touch and length of time tho two elements are entangled. 

Gravitational fields, electromagnetic fields, weak, and strong nuclear fields all mediate the four known fundamental forces. These fields interact by exchanging particles, which is their mediation or effect. 
This is how the four forces are described:

If one existed, a unified field theory would bring these four interactions together into a single framework. (Carlo Rovelli suggests that we now have an answer to this in terms of information theory, but even so, he would argue that as new information comes into a system, part of the previous information becomes irrelevant). We might not be aware of them at our day to day human scale but they are what previously scientists took to be the reality that underpinned our existence. Now however we are told by scientists that this is only about 5% of 'reality' and the other 95% consists of dark matter and dark energy, things we can at the moment only guess at as to what they actually are. 

I am as an artist going to suggest that what is important here is the moment of 'exchange' between one thing and another. Whatever dark matter is it will have an infinity of possibilities, and it will be possible that some things will be able to respond to certain aspects of it, and how they respond will be the imaginative possibility of the situation. 

So how does all this impact on drawing? There is a book on architectural possibilities, 'Siteless: 1001 Building Forms' by François Blanciak. If you haven't come across it before do look it up, because it is a wonderful example of how visual thinking can be far more powerful than traditional linear, written or verbal thinking. The book is a response to the imaginative possibility of a series of situations.

As you can see from the images above, what Blanciak does is to provide us with what have been called by Ian Bogost, 'visual ontographs'. These are speculative encounters between possibilities of forms. They remind me of an exercise we used to set students on the Leeds foundation course, which was to explore how many variations of interacting basic forms you could draw. Blanciak's forms, drawn freehand (to avoid software-specific shapes) from a constant and consistent viewing angle, are presented twelve to a page, with no scale, order, or end to the series. In many ways they reflect the flattening of hierarchy that I believe happens when a unified field theory is implied. No one thing is more important than another, but each encounter raises possibilities for future actions. (As new information comes into a system, part of the previous information becomes irrelevant). The fact that all of Blanciak's drawings are the same size reinforcing the fact that no one encounter is more important than another. 

This is interesting because it also points to a specifically aesthetic phenomena. In this case objects are not reduced to their sensuous manifestations, but are all speculative. The imaginative begins to occupy the same status as the real, both being types of encounters between things rather than being things in themselves. As I pointed out earlier, stones are no more or less important than Greta Garbo or a dandelion or this computer on which I'm typing. But in this case it is about an encounter with the qualities of Greta Garbo, the 'Garboing' or the 'dandelioning', the action rather than the object. My role in this being that of a bricoleur, someone who is making the most of what is at hand.

In my work for a recent 'Library Interventions' project I imagined that as I walked through the library I could be guided just as a bird could by some sort of quantum level interaction. All I had to do was leave myself open to its influence. A decision to stop and draw was an unquestioned instinctive one, one that could have been predicated by light bouncing off book titles and entering my field of vision and at some point getting entangled with some memory electrons. A type of speculative theory. 

My encounter with the bookshelves was diagrammed via an old drawing process that I used to use, centred on measurement and an awareness of my location in relation to the shelves I was looking at. (I'm reminded of this by Mike Croft's previous guest blog post, whereby he takes on the implications of this sort of perceptual drawing and pushes it to a particular limit). 

Initial observational drawing

The initial drawings were annotated with the names of specific texts that could be found along the central axis of vision. More drawings were then made from the ones made on location, this time allowing for 'speculative' encounters to be as important as encounters with sensuous objects. These speculative encounters were implied by book titles found. The drawings were then processed using computer software and a geometry of targeting applied to clarify the sighting process.


Aesthetic phenomena in this case allude to the domain of real objects beyond their qualitative manifestations in sensuous objects, this in effect freeing me from any form of being trapped in 'actualism' where objects are reduced to their sensuous manifestations. This is why making and drawing are much better ways of dealing with these issues, they leave the imagination to material inventions rather than ones predicated by words. My equivalent images to Blanciak's being ones where ceramic invention is linked to thoughts about library books as if they had organs for perceptual encounters, such as eyes, noses, ears, fingers and tongues. A book about Islamic pattern, may encounter one on cowboy boots, and as it does the imaginary taste of leather shapes a new formal logic. Initially images were simply about how things might emerge from rough lumps of clay, but as these images merged with possibilities coming from both drawings and clay shaping, new hybrids emerged. 

Drawings and ceramic objects made from the drawings

Once I began making these ideas changed again, my encounters with clay revealing something that was pushing back very forcefully and making its own demands as to what it should or could be. The drawings were about what pen and ink can become, not what clay can do. 

Objects made from an encounter with clay

From one position this object looks like a set of books, from another a pair of armoured knight's boots. This was an idea of the clay's rather than myself, I had set out to make a pair of cowboy boots thinking about books, but in the making process things changed. Clay, books, boots, ideas about the possibilities of what clay can look like, the word 'movement', the word 'time', all possible events within a wider range of events such as an exhibition, or a studio production, or an artist's work. As the clay began its own dialogue with my hands there was a point when I wasn't sure which of us was doing what. The same material dialogue, but perhaps to an even greater extent, then takes place during the glazing process. There is no way I can intervene in the kiln firing, I just have to trust that my intuition as to whether flow rate, eventual colour, surface texture etc. is right and that I have enough experience to predict the outcome. However the variables are so wide that there is always something that happens that I'm not expecting. As I have pointed out already, as new information comes into a system, part of the previous information becomes irrelevant. I. e. the traditional approach to art making or any form of planning or academic research, is to set out a question or set of issues to work with, that lead to a pre-determined set of procedures that you then can reflect upon as to whether or not the actions taken were successful or not. However working in this way things just happen. 

This not being in control is very important as it reminds me that other things have agency in this series of conversations. My interest in object orientated ontology leading me to foreground these issues and to hope that as I try and reduce my human centred awareness and acknowledge alternative non human realities, I can persuade others to try some other alternative modes of thinking. Our present systems of thought seem to have brought us into difficult and dangerous waters, so as an educator and artist it would appear to me that one of my roles is to point to other possibilities and suggest frameworks for thinking that might help someone come to terms with a world that seems to be out of kilter with the way we inhabit it. 

An illogical relationship

The fact that we don't know what 95% of the reality that we exist within consists of, suggests that our very limited perception of reality may well be very like the experience of a line in Abbot's 'Flatland'. A line could not conceive of a three dimensional solid, therefore if a line was picked up and moved through a space beyond the 2 dimensional world it existed in, it would in effect disappear and only reappear again if it was placed back into its own flat world. The three dimensional world would also allow for a view of where a line was to be seen as a series of positions that were possible points for reinserting that line back into its own space, therefore it could be reinserted at a point of previous existence, i. e. breaking the causality chain of time. For the line conditionality would therefore be questioned. 

A film has now been made of Flatland, and it is worth watching if you have never encountered Abbot's work before. The movement between 2 and 3D thinking is something fundamental to imaginative thinking and the position of drawing as a major game player in this process is vital. 

The artwork that relates to these ideas was exhibited in the Leeds Arts University gallery as part of the Library Interventions series of artist's responses to the university's library. 

See also:
Quantum theory and drawing
Mike Croft's post on the observation of perception
Drawing as entanglements of life

To read:
Abbott, E (1992) Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions New York: Dover

Bryant, R. L. (2011) The Democracy of Objects Michigan: Open Humanities Press

Capra, F. (1997) The Tao of Physics London: HarperCollins (I first read this book back in the 1970s and it influenced my work then, I have since revisited Capra's writings and find him still relevant)

Rovelli, C (2017) Reality is not what it seems London: Penguin