2020 September: Determinism and Agency

Time Off. Video, 4 min. 2020.

I’ve typically regarded A Ritual Resuscitation of Eternal Lovers to be an old work, and a good, but discontinued experiment. But recently I’ve filmed about four new performances, and gained a renewed interest in the aims of the text: to find freedom in determinism; that is, if I can call a script and its performance a deterministic system, maybe that in itself is up for debate. In the introduction to Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett warns that terms like ‘determinism’ are often incorrectly conflated with other notions, and his project is precisely to take issue with the (he argues) false assumption that determinism is inextricably linked with ‘inevitability’, a world in which an agent has no way of navigating freely by choice. Furthermore, Dennett sets out to reexamine what we mean in the first place by ‘freedom’, in the sense of free will. Freedom is not after all, achieved by the absence of (option-restricting) rules – and neither would such a world probably be desirable – I imagine it would be senseless. It’s something else, but what is it? The ability to ‘choose’; but what would a free choice really mean – is it a decision ungoverned by the historical precedents that give sense to who you are? Again, such a choice would be senseless.

Frankly, as I write I feel ill-equipped to broach this subject. I feel myself quickly snapping to this or that assumption, even when I am open to challenging the status quo and following Dennett on his interesting-sounding postulation – that freedom (as in free will) is not a faculty pre-ordained by the laws of physics, but like ‘money’ or ‘music’, a human invention, which by virtue of being invented by humans is an invention of evolution as a whole: Freedom Evolves.

What is My PhD About?

I guess it’s better late than never to ask such an embarrassing question, but the truth is that I am now going into the second year of my PhD wondering what it is about. I feel I know intimately what my practice is about, and could conceivably write a book about my various thoughts on my practice. But my PhD proposal was centred on a narrower ‘research question’, that wasn’t necessarily meant to encompass all my art practice.

The question was at first ‘is it possible to write a person?’ and I was thinking, is it possible to create general AI (artificial persons) in the realm of literature/art, if we posit that persons themselves are in some critical sense ‘fictional’? I thought the space of art was ideal for asking such ludicrous things, in the hopes of uncovering knowledge in the process of trying to achieve something apparently impossible. I wondered whether the fictional characters I was creating could ever be, or even come close to, real persons, if it just had the right ingredients. And this is definitely something my practice has been flirting with for a while (in Rosa and Lawrence, Pseudo and Anomaline in particular.).

A secondary interest, related to this question, was to study the history of such attempts by other artists, or to encounter fictional stories about the project of creating artificial life (like Frankenstein’s monster) – especially creating artificial life in an artwork or text (The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera has an element of this).

I think the question then morphed into another, more abstract question, at a later stage in writing my proposal. It was, “What does it mean to ‘run’ or ‘play out’ a script, whether that script is a performance, genome, or algorithm?” In other words, I was interested in the difference between a code and the performance of that code – and how these two aspects of ‘the same phenomenon’ (e.g., a play as both script and performance) often exist on entirely different material ‘grounds’ (e.g., a script exists as text printed on paper and a performance exists in the live movement of the bodies of performers, props and effects). I suppose the powerful capabilities of this dichotomy were made clear to me in the playing out of biological dramas as much as theatrical ones, for all living things follow biological and even social scripts. This parallel between life forms and fictional beings is a seductive line of inquiry for me.

Putting these two questions aside, I’ve also been thinking about the way in which I think art practice works as a mode of inquiry. To me, it’s a special characteristic of artistic inquiry that the question doesn’t necessarily precede the method, as in traditional scientific enquiry. My feeling is that more often than not, in artistic inquiry, methods give rise to questions, and that one of the virtues of art practice is that it is especially good at generating questions, maybe even original questions. This has led me to wonder whether there was actually any point in starting off with a ‘research question’. Maybe my research should start with the methods.

Of course, ‘start’ is not really the correct verb; I have been practising for a while and the methods have already generated questions. Indeed, the two questions I’ve mentioned seem to have grown out of my artistic methods. But maybe in formulating my research to others, I should also start with method, and lead to question. Maybe the research question is the ultimate product of artistic inquiry.

The reason I’m having this conversation with myself, by the way, is that, when you look at the two research questions I started with, they seem to relate to many other interesting disciplines, such as psychology, AI and philosophy. For example, I am now reading Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett, a popular science book explaining how a deterministic universe is, contrary to common intuition, compatible with agents in possession of ‘free will’. I’m enjoying it immensely, and it does relate to my research questions because I have been curious about the relationship between the (deterministic) script and the (free) agent I hypothetically imagine being able to write in fiction. But reading research from philosophy, psychology and AI, while interesting, makes me feel a bit disoriented and a little severed from my own identity as an artist, because I worry that I am not spending enough time practising my artistic muscles. I did not, after all, come to do a PhD in art to then suddenly take on the mantle of a philosopher or an AI scientist. And it would be out of my depth to consider directly contributing to any of those disciplines. At the same time, although doing a PhD in Art means contributing to Art, I still think my work has the potential to indirectly influence researchers in these other disciplines, which is an exciting possibility. But while I want to engage in these other subjects as best as I can so as to not treat the subject matter too naively with reference to them, I cannot possibly offer a direct contribution if I am to remain an artist. I guess I may have been tempted to spread myself too thinly across these various domains, and venturing down that path has alienated me slightly from practice. But not irreparably so. I am perhaps at a point where I feel I want to return to what I am in a better position to talk about – art – whilst better defining what my relationship to these other subjects is, because that relationship seems necessary to my art work.

There is the idea that an artist is necessarily a dilettante of some kind, always dabbling in something beyond their own domain; applying their expert art methods to subject matter in which they are not experts. I am increasingly thinking about spending time handling materials from other disciplines within the language of my practice (specifically, my novel and my performance practice). This is a methodological suggestion; that my practice is a mode of processing theories, stories and ideas from other disciplines. But both the common themes and methods of my practice seem relevant to these research questions.

In terms of ‘artistic processing’, I have been thinking about taking more seriously a suggestion I made in my proposal, but haven’t really followed through on: to make performance videos that process themes close to the research questions. To basically digest my reading material (such as this book by Dennett), through the prism of fictional characters. It’s a unique method in that it allows me to escape my ‘self’ in a very concrete way, and examine texts through a range of perspectives.

I like:

  • Talking about my practice and what it does.
  • Using practice (methods) to generate research questions (that often point to issues outside of art).
  • Reading into other fields of research and using this research playfully (processed via the practice) and maybe also on its own terms (theoretical connections). These are two quite different modes of engaging the same source material.
  • Experiencing other artists’ purposeful treatments of ‘philosophical’ source material.
  • How art practice itself allows me in some ways to ‘go beyond’ what theorising and reasoning can. How I often derive theoretically relevant points after the fact of making art.

Extrapolating a research path from these interests might look like:

Start with a work of artTalk about the work of art → Connect the artwork to ideas from other disciplines (using theory on its own terms) → Derive the questions the artwork asks → Ask how the question can further be explored via the artistic methodology → Make a work of art

As you can see, I imagine this to be a cyclical process. Because on thing I realise, is that my practice seems to offer me several different elements to a process of enquiry:

1. My practice is a question-generator

2. My practice is a playful-processor

3. My practice can perform experiments

In one and the same system, I can get my question, my method and my experiment. A further point to add about this, is that this is perhaps made possible by the fact that “I” am the medium of my work, and “I” am also the subject of my work. My practice uses a person to ask questions about persons.

To an extent, I enacted something like the research process outlined above, with my work Pseudo. I started with the performance video, and then talked about it in various conversations with other people. A key theme in that work is how the performer mediates the fictional character, who cannot be conscious without the performer lending the character her mind and body for this purpose; or how the performer acts as a ‘medium’ (with all the various associations that word lends: spiritual, physical, something to do with ‘the middle’). That artwork gave rise to a more theoretical treatment (theory on its own terms) of the subject of ‘artist as medium’ in a thesis chapter, and as a presentation to my colleagues. By the way, I like this notion – ‘theory on its own terms’, which places my ‘academic writing’ in opposition to the ‘playful’ treatment or management of ideas in my art – ‘theory not on its own terms’. This is where the mischief of art comes in; it doesn’t play by the rules of the disciplines that give rise to the ideas it takes interest in – artistic methods maltreat these ideas, or invoke them unfairly, but by handling them more roughly in this way, I think art can stretch the limits of a theory more absolutely than is possible by examining it on its own terms – a bit like shaking a delicate object to see what noise it elicits, to learn more about it: it’s not unequivocally the best strategy (and risks misconstruals of the thing), but it provides a different kind of approach and set of discoveries to the more gentle, educated approach.

Anyway – to return to the research path above – I then could have used this examination of Pseudo and the question it raises, to stage a second ‘art experiment’, this time perhaps more concertedly than I did when I made Pseudo. I could take up some of the things I learnt and questioned in writing about the ‘artist as medium’, to stage that second experiment. That I haven’t quite done yet; not in this strategic manner.

Agendas and Agents

The proposition that my practice can be used to stage ‘experiments’ is a bit newer than the first two (that my practice is a question-generator and a playful-processor). I haven’t really committed yet, into putting that part into practice (except perhaps, Personal Metrics was an experiment – though it was not clear exactly what was being studied). What I mean to say is, it’s rare for me to approach an artwork with an agenda. It’s something I tend to intuitively avoid, although, it’s not unprecedented for me. Rosa and Lawrence (or, A Ritual Resuscitation of Eternal Lovers) for example, was more or less a direct experiment. I knew what I wanted to experiment on before I wrote the text – I wanted to see if the dual process of scripting/reading could be in some way exploited to provide a loophole for the characters in the story to come, in some way, alive. Putting the definition of ‘aliveness’ aside for the time being, the idea was to investigate whether self-referentiality in the text, and repetition through multiple bodies over time, could produce a certain special attachment to the characters in the human readers, because of the characters’ will to life, as well as achieve a kind of ‘foregrounding’ of the characters against the backdrop of numerous ‘inadequate’ representative readers.

Often, the reasons behind my desire to perform are perhaps comparable to why somebody might want to go into psychoanalysis. To find out what is cooking, latent in my mind. To find out what is in me, that I was not aware of. So I’ll get in front of the camera, and wait and see what comes out. The pleasure in this is simple – I act in front of the camera, and later when I rewatch the recording I can spot familiar motifs combined in an unexpected unity, many of which come from sources I can easily identify: something someone said to me recently, how they said it; a phrase in a book I read or a film I watched; the environment in which I am situated at the time of performing. That’s why it’s possible to call my performance practice a kind of mode of processing.

Over the years, the main things I discovered from performing in this way were:

  • There is a geat deal of pleasure in temporarily playing at copying – appropriating, even – fragments of others, whether their mannerisms or their ideas. The pleasure seems to come from the fact that the imitated gesture affords my own person with a prosthetic enhancement of sorts – a power of a kind I don’t usually have access to. It’s surprising how a certain distinct foreignness can come to fit like a glove – and this too is pleasurable; the fact that I myself am convinced of my own ‘integrity’ as an other, and as I don behaviours and phrasings that typically don’t feature in my daily behaviours and interactions with others. The better I succeed in suspending my own disbelief in my performance, the more powerful this naturalistic feeling of ‘fitting the foreignness’.
  • When I am in the flow of the performance, and when my own disbelief in my roleplay is suspended, even for a short while, I find I am capable of – not only exhibiting unfamiliar behaviours – but capable of having unfamiliar ideas and thoughts. The practice of pretending to be someone else seems to be quite a potent way of thinking things you’ve never thought of before. For instance, in my latest work (Time Off, see image above), in the guise of the character I was playing, I had the idea that maybe revolutionary leaders should invest themselves wholly into the task of the revolution, but – once the authorities are overthrown and a new order is on the horizon – they should step down and go away, someplace nice, on holiday. I don’t necessarily really think this is a great idea, but it’s an idea that fascinates me! Usually, once the revolution is won, the leader of the movement and their entourage becomes de facto the new establishment. Not always, but certainly stereotypically, this second phase is known to turn the revolutionary leader into a darker reincarnation of what was not long ago so eagerly overthrown. Instead, what if the revolutionary leader admitted that that was their job done, and passed the baton on, to even take a well deserved holiday? There is of course, absurdity here. The revolutionary leader, satisfied with the job done, on the beach in a bikini. But at the same time, there seems something almost worthy of consideration; the hypothesis that ‘revolutionary leadership’ and ‘established leadership’ are best kept apart. So at any rate, the performance practice allows me to think things I haven’t thought of before. And the theory is that this has to do with temporarily pretending to be somebody else.
  • Yes, the most exciting theory raised by the performance practice so far, was the hypothesis that ‘character’ (conceived of as a pattern of behaviour that represents a ‘person’, and many different characters can be inhabited by the same person) – that character is a factor in the generation of thought. Or, in other words: characters make some thoughts thinkable, and others not. It ‘tilts’ the landscape of the mind in a certain direction. The character you inhabit at any given time frames your world view at that time and opens you up to certain thoughts, whilst closing you to others. Given this, it would be no wonder that roleplay would lend itself as a good vehicle for ‘creative thinking’, such as brainstorming. This was what gave rise to my ‘tutorial’ on self-estrangement as a brainstorming strategy.

I suppose this last hypothesis could be turned into a third iteration of my research question: Can performance art / acting show that roleplay (both the kind we do automatically in the daily practice of living, and the more deliberate kind), in the sense of ‘taking on a character’, be a factor in the discrimination of ideas, or a factor in ideation?

I hope I’ll come up with a better way of asking that question, but that is not a bad question. The thoughts one has (and is capable of having; or determined to have, in Dennett’s terms) seems to me a key part of what we conceive of as persons. If ‘character’ plays a significant role in defining the landscape of thoughts open to a person, then ‘character’ (as a pattern of behaviours – a (fictional) unit of personhood) brings to bear on the person.

Now, there’s a question of what to do with this hypothesis. Should it be put back into the practice in some way? Should I give my next character a clearer agenda, that could act as a point of departure in the improvisation?

By the way, I finished my empathy drawing of the horse!


I am currently trying to write Anomaline. As is my habit, and whether or not that is actually a good idea, I start from the beginning.

I am pleased with how I’ve over the past couple of days managed to restore some of A’s early character traits into the second chapter, in which she is astonished to find herself restored, and astonished to experience her own ‘staying’, or continued persistence in space and time. Previously the chapter sounded a bit too savvy about the concept of the novel itself, and I have tried to reintroduce some of her naivety. Now what happens is, in the first chapter we have a bit more of a hazy, dreamy perspective of what’s happening to A. She is sort of passively being buffeted about by the events of the story in a half-conscious sort of way. In the second chapter, she awakens much sharper, and a bit hyperactive. Now the second chapter is filled with her active thinking, rather than things passively happening to her. Despite her active contemplation of what’s going on around her (specifically, her insecurity about her own ability to ‘stay’ herself, or to persist without blacking out, and her fraught wonder at the luxury of universe with both time and space), despite this active thinking, we find at the end of the chapter that she has not moved the whole time, and so is still, in some way inert, or aspects of her are still paralysed or altogether absent. The two ideas that were already in the chapter remain: the assumption that someone else inhabits the house and has taken care of her, and the realisation that the space is actually not as rich as it first seemed; in places it is richly detailed, but large parts of the scenery are hugely generalised and carelessly depicted (something you only take notice of if you consciously regard it).

Now, going into the third chapter, an interesting shift will occur – A will unquestioningly assume that of course this is her house, of course no one else lives here, and realisations such as the fact that there is no one else living in the vicinity, will not come as a surprise.

I think the first four chapters are set. I think it’s set up well that we can now bring in the naive chapters. In chapter three she accepts herself as sole occupant. The naive chapters are chapters in which she is just living. More dreamy, again.

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