Impressions

Points of Reference: Embodied Memory

Recent notes on memory, navigation, and embodiment.

I love thinking about embodied cognition (how our mental life is shaped by the physical roots of experience). Recently, a spate of articles has me thinking about where memory lives in the brain, and how the body moving through space is tied to recollection. It’s interesting to consider what impressions you’re embedding physically or mentally. Maybe you’re an art viewer noticing how your eye “moves” through a picture. Or, you’re an art handler “walking through” an exhibition design in SketchUp. Perhaps, you’re an artist envisioning how people interact with an installation or your participatory artworks. I wonder about the many ways in which aesthetic experience is one of navigation, envisioning, recording, and recall.

 

Through the DOT's Adopt-a-Highway program, artist Katarina Jerinic utilizes a parcel next to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway as land art for site-specific interventions. Katarina Jerinic, PSA for Passers-by #2 (video still), 2014, digital video, 57 seconds. // Source: KatarinaJerinic.com // HT: The Center for Book Arts' Map as Metaphor lecture series.

Through the DOT’s Adopt-a-Highway program, artist Katarina Jerinic utilizes a parcel next to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway as land art for site-specific interventions. Katarina Jerinic, PSA for Passers-by #2 (video still), 2014, digital video, 57 seconds. // Source: KatarinaJerinic.com // HT: The Center for Book Arts’ Map as Metaphor lecture series.

 

Kim Tingley’s “The Secret of the Wave Pilots” (NY Times, March 17, 2016) is a fascinating look at a Marshallese form of seafaring using knowledge of waves only. She writes beautifully about the neurological and social ties between memory and navigation, as well as the fascinating history of the Marshall Islands. I highly recommend the entire article. My favorite passages to think about for art practice follow.

On how we know where we are in space, and how that shapes who we are and our social relationships:

“[Psychologist Edward] Tolman hypothesized that humans have cognitive maps…, and that they are not just spatial but social. ‘Broad cognitive maps,’ he posited, lead to empathy, while narrow ones lead to ‘‘dangerous hates of outsiders,’ ranging from ‘discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.’ Indeed, anthropologists today, especially those working in the Western Pacific, are increasingly aware of the potential ways in which people’s physical environment — and how they habitually move through it — may shape their social relationships and how those ties may in turn influence their orienteering.”

“…our ability to navigate is inextricably tied not just to our ability to remember the past but also to learning, decision-making, imagining and planning for the future.”

Though journey and destination can be clichéd metaphors (not to mention signposts, road maps, off the beaten track, forge your own path), what Tingley seems to suggest is that these are fundamentally human concepts. It’s part of our evolutionary legacy to think and understand in terms of physical journeys, because we each have this kind of brain in this kind of bipedal body.

On the connections between mapping and memory:

The cognitive map is now understood to have its own physical location, … in the limbic system, an evolutionarily primitive region largely responsible for our emotional lives — specifically, within the hippocampus, an area where memories form. … [neuroscientists] found that our brains overlay our surroundings with a pattern of triangles. Any time we reach an apex of one, a ‘grid cell’ … delineates our position relative to the rest of the matrix… [an] ‘inner GPS’ that constantly and subconsciously computes location….”

“…a new unified theory of the hippocampus [imagines] it not as a repository for disparate memories and directions but as a constructor of scenes that incorporate both. (Try to recall a moment from your past or picture a future one without visualizing yourself in the physical space where that moment happens.)”

I’m always amazed by the peculiar concreteness of dreamed environments: the fully rendered qualities of light, the verisimilitude of prioperception. How awesome that this takes dozens of AI specialists and servers to re-create, and yet our brains achieve this when we’re literally not even thinking about it.

Exploring the world through our bodies is the root of imagination and creativity:

“[Others] hypothesized that our ability to time-travel mentally evolved directly from our ability to travel in the physical world, and that the mental processes that make navigation possible are also the ones that allow us to tell a story. ‘In the same way that an infinite number of paths can connect the origin and endpoint of a journey,’ Edvard Moser and another co-author wrote in a 2013 paper, ‘a recalled story can be told in many ways, connecting the beginning and the end through innumerable variations.’”

Nobutaka Aozaki, From Here to There, 2012–ongoing, questions, various pens and paper, 10' x 3' 2" / dimensions variable. // Source: NobutakaAozaki.com

A series of hand-drawn maps made by strangers upon request of the artist, who posed as a tourist and refused directions via app. The installation approximates a map of Manhattan. Nobutaka Aozaki, From Here to There (image as of June 15, 2012), 2012–ongoing, questions, various pens and paper, 10′ x 3′ 2″ / dimensions variable. // Source: NobutakaAozaki.com // HT: Nobu is a fellow Center for Book Arts 2016 resident

“…people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost … has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective.”

That’s a good reminder: Be where you are. Don’t worry about the fastest route. Learn about your environment and build up your mental map.

The same can be said about the creative process. I need reminders to stop over-valuing productivity, and to experiment in the studio. This is partly my nature, and partly not—as Barnaby Drabble points out, “the increasing application of time and resource management methods to our personal lives”* is symptomatic of larger forces like neoliberalism, and the conditions of immaterial labor, etc.

Furthering the connection between exploring space and imagination:

“All maps are but representations of reality: They render the physical world in symbols and highlight important relationships … that are invisible to the naked eye. If storytelling, the way we structure and make meaning from the events of our lives, arose from navigating, so, too, is the practice of navigation inherently bound up with storytelling, in all its subjectivity.”**

Maps are subjective, and could be more transparently so.

“Many of our [mapping studios] students began the semester enamored with the sublime, totalizing visions afforded by exhaustive data-sets and sleek visualizations. Yet by the end, nearly everyone’s mission and values shifted – from a pursuit of ‘accuracy’ and ‘exhaustiveness,’ to an interest in the personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative. They sought to find ways to express ambiguity, to insert cartographic ‘buts,’ ‘ifs,’ ‘howevers,’ and other qualifying statements to convey the ‘interpretative nature of the mapping process.'”

—from Shannon Mattern’s excellent slide lecture at Maps as Metaphor at the Center for Book Arts. It’s posted online on her equally excellent blog, Words in Space.

 

These subjectivities can work for us. Memory palaces, for example, exploit the connection between memory and environments. It’s a memorization technique of:

“associating the ideas or objects to be memorized with memorable scenes imagined to be at well-known locations (‘loci’), like one’s house (‘palace’)”

Austin Frakt’s “An Ancient and Proven Way to Improve Memorization; Go Ahead and Try it,” (NY Times, March 24, 2016).

I’m most fascinated by how the physical and conceptual interact and influence each other. How we walk the earth shapes our cognitive metaphors, and they imbue the memories that inform our identities. At the same time, we use mental powers to traverse real and imagined spaces, even constructing new spaces to expand our abilities. These interactions blur the boundaries of what is permanent and real:

“[Es Devlin, set designer,] is an architect of temporary space, making images that can survive only in the minds of the people who see her shows. ‘I do all this work and nothing physical remains,’ she told me. ‘So what I’m really designing are mental structures, as opposed to physical ones. Memories are solid, and that’s what I’m trying to build.’”

Andrew O’Hagan, “Imaginary Spaces: Es Devlin and the psychology of the stage,”New Yorker Magazine, March 28, 2016

This resonants with the core of why I’m an artist. I make objects and exhibit them for a few weeks at a time. While a small portion exists in people’s homes, most are squirreled away or no longer exist. I continue to make objects because I believe that  art experiences “live” on as viewers’ memories of firsthand, physical experiences (and secondhand, virtual images on the Web). This speaks to my immense faith in the power of aesthetic experience—a process of viewing, thinking, and feeling—to enrich human experience.

—–

*Barnaby Drabble, “On De-Organisation” in Self-Organized, edited by Stine Hebert & Ann Szefer Karlsen, London: Open Editions / Bergen: Hordaland Art Centre, 2013

**Digression: Here’s an example of how much place and memory are tied. Brandon Brown’s “Limited Access: Art and Gentrification in the Mission” (Art in America, March 30, 2015) mentions Artist’s Television Access and The Lab, two venerable alternative art organizations a few blocks apart in San Francisco. Reading his descriptions of places—even on a small screen, in a noisy gym—flooded me with memories: my first visit to ATA, as a high school student at a Sick ‘n Twisted shorts fest; trading sketchbooks with Erik Drooker at Muddy Waters, where he drew speech bubbles making fun of my slang; as a young art student, viewing Barry McGee’s mural in the labor building; the time I was on a panel with Boots Riley at ATA (and I think Chicken John?) that got hijacked; the doc on Humboldt County tree-sitters; the palpable discomfort of a friend from out-of-town when we met him at 16th and Mission to eat at Taqueria Cancún; Intersection, and how often I’d run into Kevin Chen right in front of the building, day or night, wearing yellow glasses and having a smoke… What makes a space a place are the meanings assigned to it. Personal experiences—pleasant or not, juvenile or formative—are part of what makes San Francisco’s transformation potent.

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Research

notes on things: politically incorrect maps

This week’s Ethicist column (“Map or Menace?” by Chuck Klosterman, New York Times, July 5, 2013) offers an interesting opportunity to consider the neutrality of objects, via a vintage map of Germany in 1937 for possible display in a living room.

I would argue that the artifact itself should be neutral, yet its display is freighted with associations that are not. How much meaning is imparted by the artifact, and how much by its display?

Consider the paradox:

There’s no ethical responsibility to avoid offending people who manufacture personal meanings.

I appreciate that Klosterman acknowledges that meanings are superimposed by viewers upon objects here, echoing artist Haim Steinbach’s The Object Lesson course centered on show-and-tells of the same objects every week (The Artist’s Institute describes how students learned that “analysis hinged on their own projections and desires”).

Yet:

If you deliberately present an image that is prone to misinterpretation, you have to accept the consequences.

…perhaps presenting an opportunity to map an overlap between the home’s “symbolic ecology” (as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and group social relations. The symbolic ecology reminds residents of who they are, what they’ve accomplished, and what they aspire to do, yet it also conveys these identities to visitors. What we own and display tells others about who we are, even from within the safety of our own domestic museums of the self.

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Citizenship

Repair Cafes

Love this idea, from the New York Times (“An Effort to Bury a Throwaway Culture One Repair at a Time,” May 8, 2012):

At Amsterdam’s first Repair Cafe, an event originally held in a theater’s foyer, then in a rented room in a former hotel and now in a community center a couple of times a month, people can bring in whatever they want to have repaired, at no cost, by volunteers who just like to fix things….

“I had the feeling I wanted to do something, not just write about it,” [Martine Postma, repair cafe founder] said. But she was troubled by the question: “How do you try to do this as a normal person in your daily life?”…

“The value of the Repair Cafe is that people are going back into a relationship with the material things around them,” [architect William] McDonough said.

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Research

Post-Minimalism for All

In yesterday’s New York Times, Roberta Smith champions painting, and states a formal history of–and argument against–the idea that painting is dead (“It’s Not Dry Yet,” March 26, 2010).

This is a positive follow up to her negative opinion, “Post-Minimal to the Max,” (NYTimes.com, February 2, 2010), in which Smith takes aim at the current slate of exhibitions at NYC’s major museums. Exhibitions of the work of Gabriel Orozco, Roni Horn, Urs Fischer, and Tino Seghal

…share a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note. After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand.

…Instead [of individuation and difference] we’re getting example after example of squeaky-clean, well-made, intellectually decorous takes on that unruly early ’70s mix of Conceptual, Process, Performance, installation and language-based art that is most associated with the label Post-Minimalism. Either that or we’re getting exhibitions of the movement’s most revered founding fathers: since 2005, for example, the Whitney has mounted exhibitions of Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, Gordon Matta-Clark and Dan Graham. I liked these shows, but that’s not the point. We cannot live by the de-materialization — or the slick re-materialization — of the art object alone.

Smith put it rather bluntly (I don’t think we could live by expressionistic painting alone, either), and I relate to feeling bored by monotony in exhibitions. At the same time, however, I take issue with her points, and my reaction is grounded in my identities and environment.

First, if the post-Minimal programming of New York’s art institutions sync up, who cares? In the end you still got to see the Tino Seghal show at the Guggenheim, and the Urs Fischer show at the New Museum. The phrase “embarrassment of riches” comes to mind.

Second, this is a generational and coastal difference, but I never really perceived any serious threat to painting. San Francisco’s unique history in conceptual and performance art is known amongst specialists, but many more know about Barry McGee, and the San Francisco Mission School of painting that he helped to popularize. I found the arguments against the death of painting fatiguing in my studies–along the same lines as eye-rollers like “So what is art?”–so I find it perplexing that Smith would take up arms for painting now.

To state the obvious, painting’s not going anywhere. The Everyman still considers “painting” and “art” synonymous, to the exasperation of non-painters everywhere. Most art museums house room after room of paintings. Most art stores feature a prominent aisle of paints and brushes. Ask people to draw the idea “art” and I guarantee that three of the top 10 responses you get will be: a palette with paints (you know, the round one with a hole for your thumb), gilt picture frame and canvas on an easel. Extending “pictorial history” is just not my priority, nor should it necessarily be curators’.

Third, I’m reminded of something the artist Paul Chan enigmatically said in his SFAI lecture, about “those who’ve been left behind by Modernism” — subcultures who are developing their own Modernisms, not to speak of tackling Post-Modernism (or Post-Minimalism, for that matter). I think that if thousands of tourists and students get to see the retrospectives by Roni Horn (the only female artist on Smith’s lists) or Gabriel Orozco (the only artist of color and person from the Global South; not splitting hairs about Gordon Matta-Clark, OK?), good for all of them.

Smithson, Matta-Clark, Graham and Weiner form like a board of directors of Post-Minimalism, and though I’d wonder what makes a Weiner show urgent or necessary, I’d guess that scores of art students and artists are grateful for the chances to see Smithson’s, Matta-Clark’s and Graham’s work in person, a small ameliorative for the feeling of being born too late to see Earth works and site-specific interventions of the 1960s and 70s. Smithson and Graham are significant influences for young contemporary artists, especially when you look at the resurgence of cheeky Romanticism in the curatorial work of Lawrence Rinder, the earthy Transcendentalism of shows like Alchemy at Southern Exposure and the emphasis on viewers in social/relational art.

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Research

Criticisms

I think what’s incredible and incredibly maddening about the art world is its openness, its idiosyncrasy, its nebulous criteria. The lines between art, non-art, craft, kitsch, high art and low art, are all blurred—yet, people like what they like and defend their tastes. So be it.

I read art reviews to learn about exhibitions, but I’m always aware of critics’ subjectivity. In fact, my favorite critics, like Holland Cotter of the New York Times and Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine, balance descriptive exposition with opinions and a discussion of praxis—helping viewers see how artists put theory into practice. The feeling I get is that they aren’t writing because they have a deadline to meet, but because they have something they want readers to know.

Some critics, though, are primarily descriptive, revealing their own position only implicitly. I thought this was the modus operandi of East Bay Express staff writer, DeWitt Cheng, so I was surprised to read a recent review:

The comedian/actor Will Rogers once dismissed communism as “one-third practice and two-thirds explanation.” One might similarly criticize a fair amount of contemporary art that is conceptual rather than visual in its orientation, thus requiring some explanation on behalf of viewers. The idea that priorities are askew is especially problematic when the verbiage seems unsupported by the artwork, or inflated.

DeWitt Cheng, “Tangible Modern Art,” East Bay Express, December 23, 2009

I think when critics articulate their positions, it’s fantastic. I’m for transparency in the art world. Having a position explains why critics review some exhibitions or venues and not others. It also suggests to readers and young artists who may not know any better (poor things!), that critics are not objective, do not speak for the art world as a whole, nor are they authorities whose opinions are exempt from questioning.

These institutional structures that we kneel and bow and defer to are not inviolate institutional structures…. They’re not entitled to exist without challenge…. So you have to put yourself in a position where you are capable of knocking them off the position they occupy, because we are not bound to defer to anything that exists. Everything is available for critique—and also displacement….

—From Kerry James Marshall lecture at SFAI (via podcast)

Furthermore, readers would be well advised to seek out multiple critics, including ones of different critical positions. In this case, critics whose interests in visual art extend beyond art with “visual orientations” could make the East Bay contemporary art print journalism more balanced. (Some places to start: Artopic, ArtPractical).

My position is well documented on this blog (the world’s most rambling critical statement?). Another way to sum up my boosterism of art that is not primarily visual in orientation might be articulated in Lee Johnson’s recent interview with Ryan Gander:

LJ: Has your artistic practice i.e. the aesthetic of your work, been effected in any way by the turbulent economy?

RG: Not really, in the beginning I worried about it, but it had no effect. I don’t think the type of collections that buy my work stop collecting, people don’t buy my work for investments, they buy it because they want to own it, share it with others, or take care of it. They are collecting and preserving art history in the making in some way. I guess it would have more effect on artists that make things that sit pretty in people’s homes. The things I make are a bit beyond that, very little of what I make looks good, the things I make are by-products of the idea, so the Collector has to fall in love with the idea, not the thing.

LJ: Your practice draws on multiple layers of fact and fiction, and you work in a variety of different media including photography, printed word, film, performance, intervention and sculpture. Is it vital for your life-force and inspiration that you mix things up in the way you do, and keep surprising people?

RG: Its the nature of art making, it is in fact the only way of making art. I don’t trust anyone who starts everyday knowing they will make ‘a photo’, or only ‘a painting’ to be an artist. Art has to precede craft otherwise it isn’t ‘art’, its ‘the arts’. I love painting, it makes me sincerely happy, but I can’t do it everyday! I am an artist and I have a job to do, and the process of painting doesn’t fit every idea and starting point (in fact very, very few – only really ones that talk about the history of painting itself). I see being a painter, or a photographer in contemporary art like masturbating a bit, just pleasing yourself, really selfishly, but sharing nothing.

“Lee Johnson talks to Ryan Gander at Frieze Art Fair 2009,” White Hot Magazine, November 2009.

Gander makes his position undeniably clear. It seems grounded in a belief shared by many conceptualists: that the art medium has to be appropriate to the idea; that to work in a visual medium because the artist is most interested in its visual orientation, without considering its appropriateness to the idea or content, is conventional and inexcusable, perhaps even willfully ignorant. I don’t include Gander’s comments to knock our dear, much-maligned painter friends and uni-disciplinarian artists, but to help explain that art of a visual orientation, too, is subject to criticism, and can fall short when you consider different criteria.

Finally, two other ideas to explore—to know one’s position as a critic might be to also recognize the limits of one’s subjectivity. I am a young writer, and writing intelligently about work I don’t like or understand is challenging. Further, to take a position as a critic is to identify the work you’d gravitate to, as well as that which would leave you unaffected. But the third kind of art—arguably, the reason we keep looking and writing—is that which surprises you, and challenges your assumptions.

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Art & Development

Getting Excited and Making Things, Part 2

Marketers have been selling “experiences”* for several years now, so it’s cute to read about American consumers turning to free or low-cost experiences. It’s clearly due to the recession, though perhaps popular psychology has made some inroads into mainstream culture as well:

Quietly but noticeably over the past year, Americans have rejiggered their lives to elevate experiences over things. … Psychologists have been saying for years that shared experiences like vacations lead to more long-term happiness than the latest bauble.

Damian Cave, “Americans Doing More, Buying Less, a Poll Finds,” NYTimes.com, January 2, 2010

[*Here’s an example of “experience” marketing gone bad: my head nearly exploded a few days ago, when I sat down at a P.F. Chang’s and our server demonstrated mixing a special sauce out of three condiments, including Chinese mustard. Yuck. That’s like making Thousand Island dressing out of ketchup, mayo and relish, only worse because the diners get a whiff of ethnic experience, and it’s being repeated thousands of times over in franchises around the country. It offended me, and probably would have offended my family.]

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