Emma Cocker becomes an increasingly interesting researcher-artist for me to have a dialogue with. For her, research about practice and practice itself are one and the same. She uses her practice to experiment with ideas about artistic labour and process, which I find exciting. I guess a tool used to examine itself is in general a little loopy and exciting – or rather, it is exciting that such a looping investigation is possible.
Side note: I am thinking all of a sudden of the Douglas Hofstadter book I recently read, “I am a Strange Loop”, in which he suggests that the “I” with which we all identify ourselves is a strange loop: A feedback loop, by being a thing which is by nature of its very addressing itself – and a strange loop, in that each loop occurs on different “levels of organisation”, including everything from primitive neurons, up to fully fledged concepts, desires and beliefs.
Cocker is involved in a lot of interesting work, such as the weird drawing book edited by Nikolaus Gansterer “Drawing a Hypothesis”, where I first enjoyed some of her remarks about drawing. Here she wrote a very nice article in which she suggested drawing created an expanded space of conjecture, (which, incidentally, she claims is very hard to maintain over time). Conjecture, hypothesis, questioning “what if?” with a venturing mark is described as an “ascending” mode of thought, whereas their natural counterparts in other fields (testing, validation, conclusion: the “then” to the “if”) are descending – bringing one back down to earth, so to speak. Hypotheses made in art take centre stage and ascend to airy heights until they form their own orbit (like Paul Klee’s cosmic curve model). Indeed, isn’t this mental lasso a wonderful trick for exploring the unknown – that precarious fuzzy static beyond our current linguistic knowledge? I imagine it like the digital lasso in image editing software, an ephemeral fishing line, dotted along its borders, impregnated with ambiguity, permeable to new emerging thoughts, yet fit to burst at any moment (hence difficult to “maintain”).
Cocker’s writing makes me feel brave as an artist, and provides me with an explanation for the uneasiness I feel when I am “doing art”. What a vocation – fishing for notions that have managed to evade the grasp of humanity since we started looking – yet indeed, there is not even any substance to these meanings before we have begun attempting to locate them and pin them down. I guess artists are like midwives for culture: we don’t make the meaning, nor do we seek it out from a latent spot, but we tether it, assist it to inexplicably and awkwardly tumble into existence: to suddenly arrive from the muffled and mysterious land of minus-age, into crude, flailing, screamingly obvious entities right in front of everybody’s nose, and so immediately familiar, as if it had been there all along!
I got a bit carried away there. But in this same article she goes on to talk about drawing in particular, in a manner I identify with and refer to with the word “empathy”. I like the idea of empathy a lot: I think just as fictions and stories make up a profound bulk of human existence besides our material environment (think financial systems, ethical codes, language) – empathy is central to how expanded our experience is compared to those of other life forms. I see empathy as our ability to shape shift, to be many, instead of one. Perhaps this shape shifting is metaphorical, but no less so than is our monetary system, which, albeit having no material truth to its function by way of depending on tokens, seems as “real” as could possibly be relevant to the average human person. Empathy is likewise not to be underestimated. Where stories play the part of ingeniously malleable virtual commodities, empathy facilitates their mediation by forming connections between brains – and, as I would argue, things. I am not sure I agree with theories of panpsychism (I have yet to read more on this), but I would say that our ability, or tendency, to empathise with unconscious entities is caused by the nature of our perception in general, which I hypothesise is at heart, an empathetic affair.
This is where things get interesting in terms of art, which many have argued has a lot to do with formulating perceived truths in some locally realised way. Cocker describes drawing as “the kairotic event of creating an adequate epistemology simultaneous with the experience it attempts to describe, the restless instant where naming and the thing named attain co-existence (in time)” (pg. 105). She goes on then to say that in drawing, the skin ceases to segregate self and world, and that the two begin to merge: “Within the drawn hypothesis, internal and external realities are conceived as a continuum, where the body’s skin no longer keeps the individual distinct from the world but rather is considered a precarious threshold through which they emerge, becoming inseparable” (Gansterer, p.106)
I’ve come to enjoy the work of Lucas Blalock, who creates photographs from staged still-life scenarios in his studios only to use this visual information and Photoshop to “draw” in post production. In fact, this manipulation of digital tools manifests itself in a surprisingly painterly fashion, as the artist embarks on rethinking the camera as “a drawing machine”. Drawing he describes as the “sympathetic magic of copying or describing pictorially”, going on to say that “the ‘bad copy’ of photography is what makes it a work of sympathy, not merely likeness” (Art21 interview, 2015). A curious connection might be made here to my notion of empathy, although my empathy is not always as kindly as sympathy, but rather a neutral tool.
I like the photos in which he erases objects using masking tools (typically used to retouch models’ faces), so that they leave an impression of interference on the background. He shifts aspects of the image, or blends their outlines to create more ambiguous but still somehow logically sound compositions. He looks to Brecht when he thinks about “exposing the labour of production” within the piece itself. In this, the work lends itself willingly to mediation through empathy. I probably like this work because I can feel what it is like to be its maker through marks left behind: I find myself thinking that I enjoy Blalock’s touch. I enjoy how this artist pulls digital technique (by reputation inhuman and alienating to handle) closer to the tactile, intuitive world of drawing. Simultaneously there is in the work embedded a consciousness about art history, in particular referencing renaissance still life paintings and the American pop art movement: a curious juxtaposition, where the former suggests softness, craftsmanship, considerate observation and patience, and the latter suggests automation, non-art, economic mass-production and detachment between artist, tool and subject. These images seem to suggest that our age heralds a time when the gap between cutting edge technology and organic, human intuition is closing, as the two merge.
More reference to empathy in his Art21 interview, Blalock talks about “the drawing of a relationship to the object pictured beyond the narrow confines of its role as a commodity… I’ve been writing on drawing’s dematerialised or disembodied space in relationship with my own embodied self”. Drawing as a tool, transforms a subject from a commodity (a thing closed off from others around it) to a thing the artist can go into. He even goes on to describe the role of screens (in the process of his digital manipulation of photos) as “bodiless”: “I’m interested in seeing if I can find a way of addressing the space behind the screen nervously and bringing that space of the picture into a direct relationship with my haptic or sensual experience…” This calls to mind an image of Blalock rewiring his nervous system with the wires of the computer machine, forming, through practice and empathetic assimilation between his body and his tool, a seamless experience of being, between his intentions and the reality of the object he manipulates. By submitting to the terms of the medium, one gains access to a new body, as when Neo bends the spoon in The Matrix – not by grabbing the object and executing an action upon it, but by bending himself.
Drawing: the empathetic lubricant between being and perception. The medium therefore, whether pencil, video, choreography or digital image editing, is interchangeable so long as it affords this bridge between artist and subject. The skill, linguistic repertoire and consequently style of the artist is characterised by the manner in which she assumes the cloak of her subject, and the degree of investment involved in this shape shift. Artistic embodiment becomes an epistemological tool, or “a visual knowing through bodily imagination” (Art21 Interview, Junte 2011, New York). He makes in this earlier interview by Art21 a curious reference to Grillet’s Why I Love Roland Barthes, in which, apparently, the author speaks about his habit of memorising whole passages – even entire volumes – of Barthes’ works, as a form of close reading that is so close, that reciting them (as he goes about his daily routine: taking a bath, preparing dinner) lets “a text speak through him, as if they were his own thoughts”. Though this example is humorous by being taken to that literal degree, I think it is an experimentation in the power of imitation. Even when the imitation endeavours to be faithful and simple, unoriginal and obedient, embodiment of the thing imitated is irresistible and extends transformative consequences. How authentic is that transformation? This is what interests me in the practice of imitation that permeates many artist’s work: whether through unconscious re-appropriation of marks from admired artists, or conscious reenactments of observed phenomena. To what extent is art, seen as an aspiring, imitative or embodying practice, really a transformative tool. My inkling is that it is transformative enough to extend the vocabulary of our memory and experiences as human individuals and communities.
Helena Hauff is a Berlin based DJ. I include her here simply because I have become infatuated with jealousy for her while watching her operate her set at a Boiler Room event. Like Blalock, she has become infused with her machinery, and with this prosthesis, like another being.