Interconnections: Art and Reflexivity

This is the first in a series of posts in English as part of the blog commenting on the 2010 Postgraduate course in cultural innovation at the Universitat Oberta De Catalunya. The Interconnections series will present philosophical reflections on the material discussed there, drawing connections between the different observations brought forth and cutting across the various disciplines involved in the analysis of the art, digital media and popular culture of our time.

My name is Brendan Maloney. I am a doctor in philosophy and am currently a member of the team at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijón. LABoal is the co-organiser of this postgraduate course, alongside the UOC, promoting cultural reflection and helping provide the tools needed to better understand the tendencies and issues that affect the production, interpretation and dissemination of contemporary art. It is part of the purpose of the Interconnections series to draw links between the questions discussed in the postgraduate course and the programmes at LABoral Centro de Arte, which is not only an exhibition space, but an activity centre dedicated to the multidisciplinary and experimental projects being carried out by individual artists and collectives as part of the socio-cultural network of industrial creation. LABoral is the embodiment of this abstract idea, a physical space in which these concepts find realisation. In Interconnections, LABoral will serve as illustration for the theoretical discourse.

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By way of general introduction, I would like to point out that the mere existence of such a postgraduate course reveals a high level of reflexivity. By this, I mean the traditional, philosophical sense of the word, where thought turns back upon itself, becoming both the subject of action and the object of contemplation. In so far as artistic creation is a thought process, an academic study of its personal and cultural machinations turns this subjective action into an object of research. By developing into a sustained and intersubjective examination, the study of cultural innovation allows artists themselves (alongside other cultural agents) to take these debates and discussions into account, thereby giving artistic innovation a fully cyclical structure, feeding upon its own observations. Through a course such as Cultural Innovation, contemporary art becomes keenly self-aware.

This high level of awareness leads to what renowned sociologist Anthony Giddens has called Life Politics: the reciprocal influence of cultural/social parameters and the realm of private action. The unique ipseity of subjectivity cannot be severed from the intricate socio-cultural context in which its thinks and acts; artistic creation cannot be understood without considering the conditioning external factors that are not only its means of possibility but often its inspiration.

Life politics is the politics of a reflexively mobilised order – the system of late modernity – which, on an individual and collective level, has radically altered the existential parameters of social activity. It is a politics of self-actualisation in a reflexively ordered environment, where that reflexivity links self and body to systems of global scope… [L]ife politics concerns political issues which flow from processes of self-actualisation in post-traditional contexts, where globalising influences intrude deeply into the reflexive project of the self, and conversely where processes of self-realisation influence global strategies. (Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and self-identity. 1991)

Every action has two levels of interpretation: that of agency (on the micro level) and society (macro level). The social cycle of our times allows sociological concepts (such as those discussed in this course) to be publicly disseminated and reach individuals, changing or inspiring their actions. Those actions (such as creating an influential work of art) have, in turn, the power to permanently change our sociological concepts.

Take, for example, the exhibition recently held at LABoral: Habitar (May 27 to November 8 , 2010). This was a selection of projects by artists, designers and architecture studios dealing with the urban landscape of the 21st century. In every piece selected for the exhibition, new technologies are used to visualize information about the city in innovative and revealing ways. The reflexive purpose is evident: artistic projects are meant to influence the way we see, understand and act in the urban world. “Representations of usage patterns and mapping the life of the city amplify our collective awareness of the urban environment as a living organism,” writes exhibition curator José Luis de Vicente, underlining the importance awareness plays in the culture of contemporary art.

I offer these three examples from the exhibition Habitar for your consideration:

  • Real Time Rome. 2006. (Carlo Ratti, Assaf Biderman, Burak Arikan, Francesco Calabrese, Filippo Dal Fiore).

Data aggregated from cell phones, taxis and buses are used to visualize movement flows throughout the city.”By revealing the pulse of the city, the project aims to show how technology can help individuals make more informed decisions about their environment.”

Video taken from a high vantage point is used to learn about the movement of crowds in public spaces. The work explores “ways in which individuals or small groups of people in movement could become their own producers of representations of what they do, in an aesthetic sense… [P]eople as their own algorithms, by virtue of their occupancy of urban space… Not augmented reality but productions of realities.”

Video processing visualizes crowd flows outside the usual linear time line, showing past, present and future simultaneously. Semiconductor “explore the material nature of our world and how we experience it, questioning our place in the physical universe.”

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This reflexivity can be observed throughout  high modern culture. But it is of great significance that, in our case, this reflexivity is coupled with artistic practice.

Art has always been a privileged object of philosophical interrogation. In this tradition, Interconnections will prioritize philosophical discourse as we ponder the art of our times.

In this connection, one could cite almost any great thinker. A brief review of any major aesthetic philosophy would serve to demonstrate how rich the fabric of artistic practice is with the texture of philosophical thought. However, the close coupling of art and reflexivity first brings to my mind the Idealist philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831).

In Hegel’s philosophy, art is a necessary dimension of the historical process by which human thought gains ever-greater awareness of the fundamental truth of all reality – a truth that can be found in the Reason of thought itself. For Hegel, art is a manifestation of the Weltgeist: self-determining human freedom expressed through material media, the world as spirit. Artistry is material speech that fulfils its purpose only when heard. By appreciating a work of art, we do no less than realise Truth itself, albeit in a sensuous, experiential fashion. In Hegel’s philosophy, by enjoying art, we enter into a specific state of self-conscious enjoyment, one that reveals to the mind a new a truth about itself.

[W]e are in a general way permitted to regard human activity in the realm of the beautiful as a liberation of the soul, as a release from constraint and restriction, in short to consider that art does actually alleviate the most overpowering and tragic catastrophes by means of the creations it offers to our contemplation and enjoyment. (Hegel. On the Arts. 1820)

My point here is not to defend the philosophy of Hegel but merely to highlight how any serious reflection upon aesthetic experience naturally leads into a philosophical discussion. If you are not of the Hegelian school that links art so closely with contemplation and Reason, preferring, rather, the Dionysian categories of passion and the Will, for example, you will still find important philosophers who prioritize art when dealing with fundamental questions. Hegel’s greatest rival of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), opposed everything in German Idealism, emphasizing irrational impulse over reason when discussing the arts. Nonetheless, he gave art even more importance than his predecessors.

For Nietzsche, existence and the world become meaningful not as objects of contemplation – knowledge – but as artistic experiences. According to Nietzsche, the purpose of art is not determined by the larger context of life (i.e. as a function of the Weltgeist), but, rather, life can only be given meaning through artistic expression. “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified,” Nietzsche famously wrote in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, in 1872. A proper consideration of art, for Nietzsche, leads to no less than a call for a revival of primordial creativity and a complete European cultural transformation. Art becomes the principal task of life.

Whichever side of the argument you place yourself on – reason or passion – the position you hold on art will have consequences for your ideas about self, truth and the very meaning of existence. In the spirit of high modern reflexivity, we must make a conscious effort to incorporate these philosophical considerations into our study of the dynamics of artistic production.

This is the ambition of the Interconnections series of this year’s UOC postgraduate course in cultural innovation.

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