The disruption of the understanding of meaning
by Petran Kockelkoren
Dr Petran Kockelkoren is a philosopher. From 2001-2011 he held the named chair in Art & Technology in the Department of Philosophy of the University of Twente. From 2003 to 2007 he was also Reader in Art & Technology at the ArtEZ Hogeschool and was attached to the Enschede Art Academy. From 2001 to 2007 he was chair of the jury of the Witteveen+Bos prize for Art + Technology. Among his publications are Technology: art, circus and theatre, NAI Publishers, Rotterdam, 2004, and Mediated Vision (ed.), Veenman/ArtEZ Publications, Arnhem, 2007. Since 2011 he is an Emeritus Professor and writes on art as knowledge and art as research.
The disruption of the understanding of meaning.
Meaning, of what?
People are different from animals by the fact that they distinguish themselves from animals. That may look like no more than a quasi-profound statement because it clearly rests on a tautology, in others words, the same thing is said twice without explaining anything, but appearances are deceptive. Something definitely is being claimed, namely that the human being is the only animal that does not want to be an animal. The fact of not wanting to be an animal is the distinctive characteristic of humanity. If you say ‘I am not like that’, that also means that you are standing next to yourself and have to name the world and its contents from a distance. Because of our ‘excentricity’ (our innate position as outsiders vis-à-vis ourselves) we are doomed to search for meaning. Amid the animal kingdom, human beings are the great signifiers. That is what keeps us going.
People are tempted to see meaning everywhere. If two disparate events occur in their surroundings, they will readily suspect a connection. The basic metaphor for understanding the world is a coherent text. The world is legible. As soon as a semblance of regularity can be found, any arbitrary row of dots or dashes, loops or angles is immediately regarded as a decipherable text. If sign-like figures are arranged in horizontal or vertical columns, there is no holding back: there must be a message, if not an intention, behind them. We shall read them and discover their meaning!
The artist Alexandra Roozen plays with this ineradicable human property in her drawings and graphic work. With her black pencil she draws endless repetitions of what look like letters. Is there a hint of meaning there? She does not start out from the premise that the world is a priori full of meaning and that all we have to do it to track it down. Instead, she takes the human hunger for meaning to its limit, balancing on the edge of incomprehension or even turning into doubt. Perhaps there is just chaos everywhere. A revealing similarity throws more light on our urge to signify.
There was a period in interior decoration when people painted grained wood and applied marble patterns with a brush. The paint layer that was intended to imitate wood was applied and spread with a comb. It called for a large degree of skill in imitating natural structures, but the step from ‘genuine’ wood patterns to deliberately non-existent types of wood is a small one. It takes just as much skill to ‘imitate’ types of wood that do not exist. Such artificial grain patterns confuse the eye and confront the brain with puzzles, without your being able to pinpoint directly exactly what is wrong. Alexandra Roozen produces a similar disturbance with her semblance of text. All the same, this confusion of the faculty that seeks meaning is just one layer in her artistic quest; there are more layers in her work.
When it comes to drawing and painting letters or repeated patterns, even if they border on chaos, the recognisable signature is an important clue for legibility. The signature is supposed to be an inalienable property of the author, while at the same time the author has no sovereign power over it. It is rather that the author’s presence is betrayed by it, in spite of herself. The signature smuggles an extra – more performative – layer of meaning into the text. The text may be arabesque or severe, but in any case this extra dimension suggests the deliberate communication of meaning since there is apparently an author behind it. If in her artistic quest Alexandra wants to push the field of signification to the limits of comprehension, she must eliminate the revealing signature as much as possible. The question is: How do you distance yourself from this performative layer?
An obvious solution is to depersonalise the signature by subjecting the act of writing or painting to a semi-automatic process. To remove intentionality, you can delegate the drawing process out to a typewriter or computer. It is also important that the supposed letters are placed at random, but with the intrusion of a deceptive regularity here and there, because otherwise not even the semblance of text appears. Alexandra Roozen has sought and found her own methods to deal with this dilemma.
After a long period of drawing dots and dashes by hand at the limit of legibility and signification, she took an important step in the direction of the eradication of the author by passing her drawings through a shredder. What remain are metres of ribbon with arbitrary series of signs. The next step was to paste the one-line strips below one another in the same format as the original drawings, so that once again what looked like a text emerged, this time without an author from top to bottom. After the drawings this procedure yielded a second series of works in which the author was eliminated with the help of the violence of a machine before lovingly pasting her back together again, this time without a pre-given coherence. All the same, in spite of the prior iconoclasm, there is still a creative artist’s gesture latent there. Even if she is hidden in a corner, the author still holds some kind of sway as composer. Until she had discovered how to remove that thorn in the flesh, Alexandra had not yet reached the end of her explorations.
Artists can practise philosophy by other means, in image and in sound. In the meantime philosophers devote themselves to the same themes in a parallel universe. In 1968 the French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote a trail-blazing article entitled ‘The death of the author’, (reprinted in Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath, Fontana Press, London, 1977) in which he argues that a text can never derive its meaning from the author. The author is taken to be prior to the text, it is true, but the conferral of meaning is in the hands of the readers, a process that is never finished because there will always be new readers with the perspectives of their own times. When all is said and done it is also the readers who project the authorship behind the text. So the author is an epiphenomenon or product of the text rather than being anterior to it. Even the author herself is misled by that idea. We just concoct authorship post festum and attribute far too much authority to her regarding the meaning of a text.
Michel Foucault gave this standpoint a radical twist by talking of ‘the death of the subject’. We believe that we are the subject of our actions, but the same is true of that illusion as of the illusion of the author of the text: the sense of being a subject is also based on retrospective prompting. We do all kinds of things and only later construe ourselves as the deliberate agent. The ideas of authorship and subjectivity are closely connection with language usage. Friedrich Nietzsche, by whom both French philosophers were inspired, attributed self-awareness to ‘the phantom pain of language’. Because we conjugate the verb in accordance with the person, and thus start practically every sentence with ‘I’, we consider that there must also be an instance inside us that expresses itself in language as an agent. But you might just as well ask who is involved when you say ‘It’s raining’; that ‘it’ is nowhere either. Authorship and subjectivity are other social constructions to which the same weight is not always attached at all times and in all cultural circles. They form above all the centre of gravity of modern thought. Of course, this philosophical excursion has major consequences for how we view the creativity of the artist, for there too the idea of original, authentic authorship still holds sway. By calling that authorship into question and putting it at risk, Alexandra Roozen’s work gravitates not only towards the limits of the intelligibility of meaning, but also towards the limits of the modern view of what it means to be an artist. How autonomous can you be vis-à-vis your own work?
Author, but how?
If you want to make work that is free of the promptings of authorship, you have to adopt mechanical procedures. On the conventional view of technology, mechanical writing must be the most subjectless, because there is no mind in the machine itself and its operator is out of range. The operator only sets the conditions and then retreats in order to allow the machine to do its work by itself. But are things really like that? What may we expect of technology with regard to its influence on the subject or – to be more precise – on the position of the so-called autonomous artist?
The major philosophers of technology of the first generation – Martin Heidegger in Germany, Jacques Ellul in France, Lewis Mumford in the United States – joined in lamenting the alienation and uprooting that the massive spread of technology would bring about. This first generation of philosophers of technology based their ideas on the assembly line mass production of the time and on the arms race that culminated in the atomic bomb. The loss of the subject was their major concern. On their view, technical devices replace human intentions by anonymous processes that proceed on their own. A new generation of philosophers of technology, including Don Ihde and Bruno Latour, has adopted a different view. Certainly, all kinds of technologies put the subject at risk, but they make by no means every form of subjectivity impossible. On the contrary, their supposed corrupting influence only concerns the modern form of subjectivity, which assumed a sovereign and unassailable agency, but that was a philosophical fiction anyway. Naturally, this vision also undermines the derivative idea of the autonomous artist.
In the meantime new technologies are enabling all kinds of new forms of subjectivity. For example, take the different successive text and image editing technologies. If you experience your life as a book, you will arrange events in temporal succession, while film enables flashbacks and anticipations of future events. The digital media such as Facebook mix text, image and video streaming and a search operation reveals unexpected relations between the variants that have been stored. A person’s life story displays a different pattern each time, depending on the media that provide the format for it. A person’s subjectivity changes in the process. A neologism has been coined to label that form of technological influence: ‘mediation’. Technical devices often open new approaches to understanding the world and in the same movement bounce back on the subject like a boomerang, who comes to relate to the world in a hitherto unprecedented way. So through its operation every technology installs its own type of author or user.
It is much more interesting to investigate the positive counter effect of technological mediation rather than just to moan about the death of the modern subject. From then on, autonomy, in the modern sense of pure self-determination, is at most replaced by a constructed autonomy that has to be won from mediatory instruments case by case. How does the technologically mediated genesis of the subject go about its work? That is the third layer that is artistically explored in the work of Alexandra Roozen presented here.
Through their use, technological devices become extensions of our bodies. The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty was the first to investigate and chart this systematically. He gives the example of how the blind find their way through their surroundings with a stick. In the same way we can feel from the stirring spoon whether the soup is sticking to the bottom of the pan. According to Merleau-Ponty, from and through its ‘incorporation’ the stick mediates between the body and its surroundings. We can replace that stick by a good many more complex mediators. For instance, dentists feel their way through our teeth with the drill. Alexandra explored the phenomenon of the incorporation of technology in her third series of disruptive works Ruis/Noise. This consists of graphic imprints of what look like pages of text in which the letters, or what seem to be letters, have been made using a drill in an etching plate that serves as the matrix for a single impression in ink. At first sight the three series – the pencil drawings, the shredder collages, and the drill graphic work – resemble one another to a large degree as fascinating pseudo-texts, but the involvement of the artist in her work is changed by the different procedures and mediators used. The ‘maker’ (in other words, the person including the extension with its own properties) appears each time in a different light. The role of the artist changes according to the different mediations. And yet…, if we bear the dentist in mind, the artist’s signature can still remain in her use of the drill. She may be so skilful in deploying her instrument that there is little difference between a pencilled signature and one made with a hand-held drill. Can the maker not be driven even further away from her creation? Can she not simply be eliminated?
A drawing machine?
Alexandra Roozen is certainly not the only artist who plays with the relation between the maker and her work, often in opposition to the Romantic picture of the artist as creator. There are more artists who want to abandon the idiom of the maker. They aim at self-generative art, i.e. they just set up the conditions in which art works can be generated by themselves. Alexandra’s work has more than a superficial relation to such movements in contemporary art.
Her latest ambition is to develop a drawing machine, a device that can place deceptive letters autonomously in lines, alternating inside and outside the stage of regularity, so that the resulting image is once again situated in the twilight zone between legible and illegible text. So by means of a backward turn of the cog the artist has finally managed to remove herself from the work. But does it really work? Though out of sight, the artist is still stumbling around in the wings as the maker. After all, she places work like this under her own name in the context of her oeuvre, while that oeuvre has precisely the intention of increasingly abolishing the maker. What is at stake in this paradox?
Let us return to the metaphor of the painter who paints meandering, non-existent wood grain on an imitation parquet floor. The same confusion with regard to a supposed text can be seen in Alexandra’s work. In a second layer of meaning – or its supposed absence? (after all, we are constantly thrown off the track) – the individual signature is on the receiving end. In the third case the sense of authorship is called into question. The artist retreats from her work. Or is she still present in it in spite of cocking a snook? The author is never entirely absent from her work. In spite of everything, the mediatory instruments deployed produce a certain type of author.
The drawings and graphic work of Alexandra Roozen are not just about the legibility of text, but also about the deceptive forms of appearance of the author. The question is not just: Are we looking at ‘real’ text or not? It is also: If the author is an artist, what kind of an artist is she? Is she present in her work as self-expression, or has she abandoned her creation as a deus absconditus? These enigmas are the crucial questions that dominate the current discussion of art. The artist carries out research at a meta-level on the conditions for the existence of her work. This results in intriguing works that are aesthetically satisfying in more than one sense. People experience an aesthetic excitement if their obsession with conferring meaning is addressed, especially if the visual form in which that takes place is so compelling. But aesthetics is also the doctrine of sensory perception in all its degrees of mediation, and at that level too the works of Alexandra Roozen open up new worlds.
Translated from the Dutch by Peter Mason, Rome