Spontaneous, Intimate and Aware!

The attainment of autonomy is manifested by the release or recovery of three capacities: awareness, spontaneity and intimacy.


Awareness means the capacity to see a coffeepot and hear the birds sing in one's own way, and not the way one was taught.

It may be assumed on good grounds that seeing and hearing have a different quality for infants than for grownups, and that they are more aesthetic and less intellectual in the first years of life. A little boy sees and hears birds with delight. Then the 'good' father comes along and feels he should 'share' the experience and help his son 'develop'. He says: 'That's a jay, and this is a sparrow.' The moment the little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing.

Father has good reasons on his side, since few people can afford to go through life listening to the birds sing, and the sooner the little boy starts his 'education' the better. Maybe he will be an ornithologist when he grows up.

A few people, however, can still see and hear in the old way. But most members of the human race have lost the capacity to be painters, poets or musicians, and are not left the option of seeing and hearing directly even if they can afford to; they must get it secondhand. The recovery of this ability is called here 'awareness'.

Awareness requires living in the here and now, and not in the elsewhere, the past or the future. A good illustration of possibilities in American life, is driving to work in the morning in a hurry. The decisive question is: 'Where is the mind when the body is here?' and there are three common cases.

1. The man whose chief preoccupation is being on time is the one who is furthest out. With his body at the wheel of his car, his mind is at the door of his office, and he is oblivious to his immediate surroundings except insofar as they are obstacles to the moment when his soma will catch up with his psyche.

While he is driving, he is almost completely lacking in autonomy, and as a human being he is in essence more dead than alive.

2. The Sulk, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with arriving on time as in collecting excuses for being late ... He, too, is oblivious to his surroundings except as they subscribe to his game, so that he is only half alive. His body is in his car, but his mind is out looking for blemishes and injustices.

3. Less common is the 'natural driver' , the man to whom driving a car is a congenial science and art.

He, too, is oblivious of his surroundings except as they offer scope for the craftmanship which is its own reward, but he is very much aware of himself and the machine which he controls so well, and to that extent he is alive.

4. The fourth case is the person who is aware, and who will not hurry because he is living in the present moment with the environment which is here: the sky and trees as well as the feeling of motion. To hurry is to neglect that environment and to be conscious only of something that is till out of sight down the road, or of mere obstacles, or solely of oneself.

A Chinese man started to get into a local subway train, when his Caucasian companion pointed out that they could save twenty minutes by taking an express, which they did. When they got off at Central Park, the Chinese man sat down on a bench, much to his friend's surprise. 'Well,' explained the former, 'since we saved twenty minutes, we can afford to sit here that long and enjoy our surroundings.'

The aware person is alive because he knows how he feels, where he is and when it is. He knows that after he dies the trees will still be there, but he will not be there to look at them again, so he wants to see them now with as much poignancy as possible.


Spontaneity ... means liberation, liberation from the compulsion to play games and have only the feelings one was taught to have.


Intimacy means the spontaneous, game-free candidness of an aware person, the liberation of the eidetically perceptive, uncorrupted Child in all its naiveté living in the here and now.

Usually the adaption to Parental influences is what spoils it, and most unfortunately this is almost a universal occurrence. But before, unless and until they are corrupted, most infants seem to be loving, and that is the essential nature of intimacy, as shown experimentally.


For certain fortunate people there is something which transcends all classifications of behaviour, and that is awareness; something which rises above the programming of the past, and that is spontaneity; and something that is more rewarding than games, and that is intimacy.

But all three of these may be frightening and even perilous to the unprepared. Perhaps they are better off as they are, seeking their solutions in popular techniques of social action, such as 'togetherness'. This may mean that there is no hope for the human race, but there is hope for individual members of it.

[Eric Berne]
Games People Play, p.158, 159, 160, 162


Another consequence of the nature of the intellect of animals, which we have discussed, is the exact agreement of their consciousness with their environment. Nothing stands between the animal and the external world; but between us and that world there are always our thoughts and ideas about it, and these often make us inaccessible to it, and it to us.

Only in the case of children and of very uneducated persons does this wall sometimes become so thin that to know what is going on within them we need only see what is going on around them.

[Arthur Schopenhauer]
The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, p.61


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The Attainment of Autonomy

Parents, deliberately or unaware, teach their children from birth how to behave, think, feel and perceive. Liberation from these influences is no easy matter, since they are deeply ingrained and are necessary during the first two or three decades for biological survival. Indeed, such liberation is only possible at all because the individual starts off in an autonomous state, that is, capable of awareness, spontaneity and intimacy, and he has some discretion as to which of his parents' teachings he will accept.

At certain specific moments early in his life he decides how he is going to adapt to them. It is because his adaptation is in the nature of a series of decisions that it can be undone, since decisions are reversible under favourable circumstances.

First ... the weight of a whole tribal or family historical tradition has to be lifted ... then the influence of the individual parental, societal and cultural background has to be thrown off. The same must be done with the demands of contemporary society at large, and finally the advantages derived from one's immediate social circle have to be partly or wholly sacrificed.

In essence, this whole preparation consists of obtaining friendly divorce from one's parents (and from other Parental influences) so that they may be agreeably visited on occasion, but are no longer dominant.

[Eric Berne]
Games People Play, p.161

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TRANSFORMER | Introduction

TRANSFORMER: Art Gallery in Disguise
The Contemporary Art Gallery as Breaking Machine


Within our culture the term ‘art’ is used to cover a variety of experiences, and this breadth is reflected in the various potentialities of the art gallery. This text hopes to explore one of these potentialities, namely its capacity to act as a space for transforming experience.

TRANSFORMER | Becoming Mindless

Becoming Mindless


We are born into a world that offers countless possibilities, and are quickly, through a process of socialization, taught to narrow these down. Psychologist R.D. Laing offers a description of this process: “We act on our experience at the behest of others, just as we learn how to behave in compliance to them. We are taught what to experience and what not to experience, as we are taught what movements to make and what sounds to emit … As he is taught to move in specific ways, out of the whole range of possible movements, [the child] is taught to experience, out of the whole range of possible experience.”1

Whether this process is a ‘natural’ or necessary one is a discussion for another place; what matters here is that this process happens, in some form or other. It is from this assumption that we shall continue.

We quickly learn to label experience, and in doing so to draw invisible borders. Something becomes a ‘dance performance’, another thing becomes a ‘theatre production’, and another a ‘live music event.’ Our ways of experiencing the sights, sounds, and ideas of the world are categorized, and are seen and understood through the conventions of these categories. And so, theatre brings with it the ‘theatre world’, art the ‘art world’ and so on - all with their various conventions and assumptions.

In boxing experience we risk becoming mindless to the breadth of possibilities that being alive offers; our continued socialization can make us forget the ‘countless possibilities’ of the world that we were born into. Psychologist Ellen Langer refers to this forgetfulness as being ‘mindless’ - “The mindless individual is committed to one predetermined use of the information, and other possible uses or applications are not explored … When our minds are set on one thing or on one way of doing things, mindlessly determined in the past, we blot out intuition and miss much of the present world around us.”2

Much art is concerned with combating mindlessness. We can look to the work of Bruce Nauman for examples of this approach; “Raw Material Washing Hands, Normal” is a looped video of someone washing their hands. In examining this everyday act, Nauman offers us a chance to re-assess our assumptions - to stop and consider an act that, for most of us, will be near automatic (and by extension one that we may have become mindless to). We are invited to ask; ‘What is this?’ ‘And why do we do it?’

Whilst the merits of asking these questions about an act as banal as hand-washing may escape some, through work like this Nauman is pointing towards a general notion of mindlessness. He is asking us to consider the assumptions that we make on a daily basis, and to consider whether we are comfortable with making them. In doing so his work allows us to consider the limits of our experience, and whether we want something different, or something more.

Mindlessness is often unavoidable however, and in many ways it can be seen as an adaptive device, inasmuch as it allows us to conserve time and energy – to ‘get through’ the day, without having to stop and consider the possibilities inherent within every act. It allows us to focus our energies on the things that we consider important, such as projects, activities or commitments. The danger is in becoming too mindless, and in forgetting too much.

TRANSFORMER | Sites of enchantment

Sites of enchantment


It is easy, within the daily flow of events, duties, and commitments, to become oblivious to the many moments of enchantment that are available to us. This isn’t to say that our lives are entirely devoid of enchantment; just as our ‘work’ time is characterized by delineated necessity, our ‘play’ time can be equally as plotted. We are offered a variety of conventional sites of enchantment, from the surround-sound wonder of the cinema, through to the poetic poignancy of the sunset; society points us towards these experiences, and we become accustomed to their value as sites of enchantment.

Yet the potential for enchantment resides within the humblest of things, something we are often reminded of through the sensitivity of the photographer, the painter, or the poet. Things we touch and experience every day; a door-handle, an elevator, an escalator, a lobby, a busy street, a darkened room, an empty building, a handshake, a hug; our own beating hearts. If we wish, we can find small wonder in most places. It needn’t be show stopping, or life changing. But this world – it’s smell, its feel beneath our fingers – is here for us, if we want it.

Children often revel in this ability to appreciate small wonder, blissfully ignorant to the various disillusionments of maturity, that promise to dull their senses. Laing comments, “As adults, we have forgotten most of our childhood, not only its contents but its flavour; as men of the world, we hardly know of the existence of the inner world: we barely even remember our dreams, and make little sense of them when we do; as for our bodies, we retain just sufficient proprioceptive sensations to coordinate our movements and to ensure the minimal requirements for biosocial survival - to register fatigue, signals for food, sex, defaecation, sleep; beyond that, little or nothing.”3

In adapting to society we become mindless to the many potentialities for enchantment – we have “tricked ourselves out of our minds, that is to say, out of our own personal world of experience, out of that unique meaning with which potentially we may endow the external world …”4 It is perhaps because the scale of experience that is available to us is so frightening and seemingly unmanageable that we choose to delimit it through various categorizations and assumptions.

“Just as mindlessness is the rigid reliance on old categories, mindfulness means the continual creation of new ones. Categorizing and recategorizing, labeling and relabeling as one masters the world are processes natural to children. They are adaptive and inevitable part of surviving in this world. Freud recognized the importance of creation and mastery in childhood:

Should we not look for the first traces of imaginative activity as early in childhood? The child's best-loved and most intense occupation is with his play or games. Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, re-arranges the things of the world in a new way which pleases him?

The child's serious re-creation can become the adult's playful recreation.”5

As children we are adept at creating our own worlds, an ability – and an idea – that many of us eventually relinquish in adulthood. Yet the benefits of re-creation should now be clear; we are able to create new sites of enchantment, to see things differently and, perhaps, to appreciate being alive more.

TRANSFORMER | Breaking Machine

Breaking Machine


It is the art gallery’s potential as a site of re-creation, or transformation, that we are interested in. But, in the spirit of mindfulness, let’s examine our assumptions. Firstly, let’s jettison the label ‘art gallery’ for now, and see what happens. What are we left with? We have a building, one with special properties. When we place things within it they appear changed; or rather, the way we view them has the potential to become altered – widened.

In this sense our building can be seen as a machine – a breaking machine. It contains a vacuum, devoid of assumptions or associations, and when something is placed within it the vacuum strips it of these things. It is in this sense that the machine becomes a site of re-appraisal.

Anything can be placed within the machine – its context-breaking properties work on most things, from the most mundane to the most esoteric and complex. Because the machine strips things of their context (and, by extension, the assumptions that we make which are related to context) they can be seen in a different way to how we may normally see them.

Let’s try an object in the machine, something that most of us probably encounter on a daily basis: a tree. We enter the building and are faced with this tree. We wonder why it is here, and examine it to see if it contains any clues – perhaps it is different from other trees, and we may try and discern this difference. Eventually we may come to the conclusion that it appears to be a normal tree, much like all of the other trees that we see outside on a daily basis. We decide to stop looking at it, and move on.

What has the machine offered us? In removing the tree from its normal context – as an adornment in a city, or a feature of the countryside (amongst other things) – we are able to look at it afresh. This new context has allowed us, if only momentarily, to become mindful to this everyday object.

The machine also works with experiences; what if we were to place a gig inside? Or a fight? A kiss? A planetarium?

TRANSFORMER | Conclusion



The machine – the gallery – has the ability to become a place that encourages mindfulness. It recognizes how easily we can slip into mindlessness, and how various pressures can force us to lead lives that are dulled to enchantment. Its project is to shake us from our sedation; to confront us, with the assertion that, ‘in this space you will not be allowed to be mindless.’ This is the contract we enter, and a contract that we should be aware of.

At best it hopes that this experience of re-creation will remind us of our own inherent ability to re-create, and to remind us of what we once knew: that the original, and best, breaking machine is us.




1. Laing, R.D. The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.51
2. Langer, Ellen. Mindfulness, p.118
3. Laing, R.D. The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.22
4. Laing, R.D. The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.61
5. Langer, Ellen. Mindfulness, p.63

TRANSFORMER | Post-script

It may be that to have this space of transformation is only ever a concession to the uncompromising vision of the world sought by the likes of Dada and the Situationist International; in which the gallery system would be exploded, allowing the transformative effects of the gallery to flow out into their natural place: our everyday lives in the world at large.

In this vision, all spaces would be potential spaces of transformation, within a societal system that encourages mindfulness.

Where language ends and art begins

I am really interested in the different ways that language functions. That is something I think a lot about, which also raises questions about how the brain and the mind work. Language is a very powerful tool. It is considered more significant now than at any other time in history and it is given more importance than any of our faculties.

It's difficult to see what the functioning edges of language are. The place where it communicates best and most easily is also the place where language is the least interesting and emotionally involving - such as the functional way we understand the word "sing" or the sentence "Pick up the pencil." When these functional edges are explored, however, other areas of your mind make you aware of language potential.

I think the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs.

Roland Barthes has written about the pleasure that is derived from reading when what is known rubs up against what is unknown, or when correct grammar rubs up against nongrammar. In other words, if one context is different from the context that was given to you by the writer, two different kinds of things you understand rub against each other.

When language begins to break down a little bit, it becomes exciting and communicates in nearly the simplest way that it can function: you are forced to be aware of the sounds and the poetic parts of words. If you deal only with what is known, you'll have redundancy; on the other hand, if you deal only with the unknown, you cannot communicate at all. There is always some combination of the two, and it is how they touch each other that makes communication interesting. Too much of one or the other is either unintelligible or boring, but the tension of being almost too far in either direction is very interesting to think about.

Art is interesting to me when it ceases to function as art - when what we know as painting stops being painting, or when printmaking ceases to be printmaking - whenever art doesn't read the way we are used to. In this manner, a good piece of art continues to function, revealing new meaning and remaining exciting for a long time, even though our vision of what art is supposed to be keeps changing. After a while, however, our point of view as to how art can function changes radically enough that the work of art becomes art history. Eventually, our perspective is altered so much that its functions just aren't available to us anymore and art becomes archaeology.

[Bruce Nauman]
Please Pay Attention Please ('Talking With Bruce Nauman: An Interview, 1989')

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What's your position?

A position is a simple predictive statement which influences all of the individual's transactions; in the long run it determines his destiny and often that of his descendants as well. A position may be more or less absolute.

Positions are taken and become fixed surprisingly early, from the second or even the first year to the seventh year of life - in any case long before the individual is competent or experienced enough to make such a serious commitment.

It is not difficult to deduce from an individual's position the kind of childhood he must have had. Unless something or somebody intervenes, he spends the rest of his life stabilizing his position and dealing with situations that threaten it: by avoiding them, warding off certain elements or manipulating them provocatively so that they are transformed from threats into justifications.

[Eric Berne]
Games People Play, p.42

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... if Peter is prepared to make sacrifices for Paul, so Paul should be prepared to make sacrifices for Peter, or else he is selfish, ungrateful, callous, ruthless, etc.

'Sacrifice' under these circumstances consists in Peter impoverishing himself to do something for Paul. It is the tactic of enforced debt. One way of putting this is that each person invests in the other.

[R.D. Laing]
The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.76

Status Quo

Disagreement shakes us out of our slumbers, and forces us to see our own point of view through contrast with another person who does not share it. But we resist such confrontations.

... our intolerance of different fundamental structures of experience. We seem to need to share a communal meaning to human existence, to give with others a common sense to the world, to maintain a consensus.

But it seems that once certain fundamental structures of experience are shared, they come to be experienced as objective entities.

A social norm may come to impose an oppressive obligation on everyone, although few people feel it to be their own.

[R.D. Laing]
The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.65


Hillman: I know I'm interrupting you, Stan, but that's the whole point. Two people talking is, at least conceptually, open to the community. Open to interruption.

Passy: Are you saying that's a function of community?

Hillman: We see it as interruption, as annoying, but the interruption takes you out of yourself, out of what you're doing, breaks the rhythm, breaks the isolation. So interruption has a value, is important, because getting taken out of yourself is important; it lets air into a stuffy room. That's part of writing-as-dialogue, the important interruptions each makes into the other's thought, the sudden turns. So the page is more alive in that it's more like life, it moves like life.

[James Hillman]
with Stan Passy
We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World's Getting Worse, p.186


Last year I tried to get out of the Schreibstube, that closet of introversion, sitting and writing and practicing. I went around America, talking and listening to questions.

The questions forced me to think new things, say things. Things came right out of my throat, and I was fascinated listening to what was coming up, like the throat could say new things and different things than what comes from my hands when I'm writing.

[James Hillman]
Inter Views, p.1


And there's a second reason you are convinced that you're more yourself when you're alone: because it's more familiar. You are in a habitual, repetitious rut. "This is me, because I'm in the same pattern"; it's recognizable. When you're with another person you're out of yourself because the other person is flowing into you and you are flowing into them, there are surprises, you're a little out of control, and then you think you're not your real true self.

The out of control - that's the community acting through you. It's the locus that you're in acting through you.

[James Hillman]
We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World's Getting Worse, p.41


Dr. Laing noted that the obvious can be very difficult for people to see. That is because people are self-corrective systems.

They are self-corrective against disturbance, and if the obvious is not of a kind that they can easily assimilate without internal disturbance, their self-corrective mechanisms work to sidetrack it, to hide it, even to the extent of shutting the eyes if necessary, or shutting off various parts of the process of perception.

Disturbing information can be framed like a pearl so that it doesn't make a nuisance of itself; and this will be done, according to the understanding of the system itself of what would be a nuisance.

This too - the premise regarding what would cause disturbance - is something which is learned and then becomes perpetuated or conserved.

[There are a number of these] enormously complex systems or arrangements of conservative loops. One is the human individual. Its physiology and neurology conserve body temperature, blood chemistry, the length and size and shape of organs during growth and embryology, and all the rest of the body's characteristics.

This is a system which conserves descriptive statements about the human being, body or soul. For the same is true of the psychology of the individual, where learning occurs to conserve the opinions and components of the status quo.

[The society in which the individual lives] is again a system of the same general kind.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('Conscious Purpose versus Nature'), p.435-6


It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

[Upton Sinclair]


Another reason that class has become less visible even as it's become more determinant is social networking. The internet has allowed us to filter our contact with others to such an extent that we're seldom likely to encounter anyone who thinks or feels significantly differently online -- unless we consciously seek them out. And why would we do that? To "challenge our own values"? Because "it's good for us"?

From Click Opera, here.


We've seen time and again how the identity politics movement of the 60s and 70s was about making class conflicts visible, bringing them to the surface, whereas the PC inheritors of those same conflicts, in the 80s and 90s, tended to want to hide and bury them by policing language and appearances.

Now, a lot of class struggle -- not to mention education, foreign aid, progressive taxation, charity and activism -- is precisely about people from more privileged positions helping people from less. One class or group helping another is not necessarily "condescension", and "condescension" is not to be confused with mistrust.

In classic Marxist theory, for instance, the intelligentsia can be "in league" with the proletariat, pressing their smarts into the service of the workers. Is that "condescending"? Should it stop? Difference exists, in cyberspace and in meatspace. To acknowledge it is not to shaft anyone. What matters is what you do with that.

From here: http://imomus.livejournal.com/473409.html?thread=18687553#t18687553


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Teaching Absudities

A skilled teacher sets up many situations in such a way that a negative attitude can be construed only as treason. The function of questions like, 'Which one of you nice, polite boys would like to take (the observer's) coat and hang it up?' is to blind the children into absurdity - to compel them to acknowledge that absurdity is existence, to acknowledge that it is better to exist absurd than not to exist at all.

In a society where competition for the basic cultural goods is a pivot of action, people cannot be taught to love one another. It thus becomes necessary for the school to teach children how to hate, and without appearing to do so, for our culture cannot tolerate the idea that babes should hate each other. How does the school accomplish this ambiguity?

Boris had trouble reducing 12/16 to the lowest terms, and could only get as far as 6/8. The teacher asked him quietly if that was as far as he could reduce it. She suggested he think. Much heaving up and down and waving of hands by the other children, all frantic to correct him. Boris pretty unhappy, probably mentally paralyzed. The teacher quiet, patient, ignores the others and concentrates with look and voice on Boris. After a minute or two she turns to the class and says, "well, who can tell Boris what the number is?" A forest of hands appear and the teacher calls Peggy. Peggy says that four may be divided into the numerator and the denominator.

Boris's failure has made it possible for Peggy to succeed; his misery is the occasion for her rejoicing. This is a standard condition of the contemporary American elementary school. To a Zuni, Hopi, or a Dakota Indian, Peggy's performance would seem cruel beyond belief, for competition, the wringing of success from somebody's failure, is a form of torture foreign to those non-competitive cultures.

Such experiences force every man in our culture, over and over again, night in, night out, even at the pinnacle of success, to dream not of success, but of failure. In school the external nightmare is internalized for life. Boris was not learning the arithmetic only; he was learning the essential nightmare also. To be successful in our culture, one must learn to dream of failure.

[Jules Henry]
Culture Against Man, p.27, 293, 295-6

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Silent Violence

We begin with the children. It is imperative to catch them in time. Without the most thorough and rapid brain-washing their dirty minds would see through our dirty tricks. Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high I.Q.s if possible.

From the moment of birth, when the stone-age baby confronts the twentieth-century mother, the baby is subjected to these forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father have been, and their parents and their parents before them. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities.

This enterprise is on the whole successful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves. A half-crazed creature, more or less adjusted to a mad world. This is normality in our present age.

We act on our experience at the behest of others, just as we learn how to behave in compliance to them. We are taught what to experience and what not to experience, as we are taught what movements to make and what sounds to emit. A child of two is already a moral mover and moral talker and moral experiencer. He already moves the 'right' way, makes the 'right' noises, and knows what he should feel and what he should not feel.

As he is taught to move in specific ways, out of the whole range of possible movements, so he is taught to experience, out of the whole range of possible experience.

The Family's function is to repress Eros: to induce a false consciousness of security: to dent death by avoiding life : to cut off transcendence: to believe in God, not to experience the Void: to create, in short, one-dimensional man: to promote respect, conformity, obedience: to con children out of play: to induce fear of failure: to promote a respect for work: to promote a respect for 'respectibility'.

The family is, in the first place, the usual instrument for what is called socialization, that is, getting each new recruit to the human race to behave and experience in substantially the same way as those who have already got here.

Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiosity, dreaminess easily. You have to love them to get them to do that. Love is the path through permissiveness to discipline: and through discipline, only too often, to betrayal of self.

[In adjusting to society we have been] tricked and [have] tricked ourselves out of our minds, that is to say, out of our own personal world of experience, out of that unique meaning with which potentially we may endow the external world ...

[R.D. Laing]
The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.49, 50, 51, 55, 57, 60, 61

Image: 'Silent Violence' by Yoshitomo Nara

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A sense of ownership

Anonymous: I share much of this perspective but it concerns me that you would so easily desert the 'black flagship'. Earlier you remarked that you lack the time or inclination for hacking the infrastructure and it occurs to me that perhaps this is a problem in relation to the 'creative class', specifically here in this city.

The international artists, musicians, writers et al, that choose to live here, enjoying Berlin's relatively cheap rents, liberalism and cultural diversity (and I count myself amongst this group) can easily exist in a bubble, indifferent to local concerns and politics and contributing little. Don't like the neighborhood, city, country? - Move.

There is never any need to take responsibility for the consequences of gentrification by culture - just keep one step ahead, so long as the rent is cheap. After all, the city, society, the world, exist for no other purpose than to facilitate our needs, provide a backdrop for our fabulous creativity - and isn't it great that everyone speaks English as well?

krskrft: As long as these people are paying for whatever they require from the culture (food, housing, etc), I don't see the big problem with it. After all, it could be investment bankers filling their places. I would agree that sometimes a creative culture can begin to border on (or wholly become) obnoxious, touristic, and cancerous to the culture at large, but as long as that's not the case, I don't see why it should be treated as an evil.

imomus: We are the new Jews, and when we're not in our creative ghettos -- which resemble each other wherever they are, with their (synagogues) synth gigs and colourful markets -- we're wandering. No, we're not rooted in blood and soil. Yes, we do usually add economic value, even if it's not always guaranteed to make us popular.

Anonymous: Is this not a false and self-serving dichotomy between nomadism and 'heimat'? I don't think the fetishisation of authenticity is an exclusive property of place - nomads also have strong traditions of self definition, inclusion and exclusion. To to be rooted 'in blood and soil' is patently undesirable but the question here relates more to the opposite pole, 'rootlessness'. My question is, WHO benefits from the value we add?

imomus: Well, essentially there's a "town and gown" division in Berlin between people excited by Knut the polar bear and people excited by the Art Biennale. There was a town and gown split in Aberdeen when I was a student, and there's basically the same split now I'm an expat artist here in Berlin. It's something I'm used to, and I think attacking it does invoke criticism of "rootless cosmopolitans".

That phrase is a euphemism for "Jews" dreamed up by Stalin when he thought his Jewish doctors were trying to poison him, by the way. Stalin didn't want to evoke Hitler's anti-semitism, so he came up with "rootless cosmopolitans". I won't say the creative class add as much value as doctors and lawyers and all the other things Jews have tended to become, but we may possibly be ministering to your spiritual health. We're certainly not trying to poison you, anyway.

Anonymous: It's this division that I am skeptical about, just who are the 'them', who the 'us'? I would think that at the very least these two sets intersect, if not exhibit co-dependency. In the interests of disclosure (livejournal won't recognise my ID for some reason) I could also be regarded as a member of the 'creative class' (though strangely this term makes me itch in much the same way as 'hipster' does you). When it comes to 'spiritual health' both the Knut fans and the Biennale audience have contributions to make - though when it comes to culture I'll take my poison neat.

Dialogue taken from Click Opera.

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Tasteful Distance

The Silence is the Source

If there are no meanings, no values, no source of sustenance or help, then man, as creator, must invent, conjure up meanings and values, sustenance and succour out of nothing. He is a magician.

In our 'normal' alienation from being, the person who has a perilous awareness of the nonbeing of what we take to be being ... gives us in our present epoch the acts of creation that we despise and crave.

Words in a poem, sounds in movement, rhythm in space, attempt to recapture personal meaning in personal time and space from out of the sights and sounds of a depersonalized, dehumanized world.

Their source is from the Silence at the centre of each of us.

Wherever and whenever such a whorl of patterned sound or space is established in the external world, the power that it contains generates new lines of forces whose effects are felt for centuries.

The zone, the zone of no-thing, of the silence of silences, is the source. We forget that we are all there all the time.

An activity has to be understood in terms of the experience from which it emerges. These arabesques that mysteriously embody mathematical truths only glimpsed by a very few - how beautiful, how exquisite - no matter that they were the threshing and thrashing of a drowning man.

[R.D. Laing]
The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.37, 38

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Worthy beliefs

Watch the way you're acting

There seems to be no agent more effective than another person in bringing a world for oneself alive, or, by a glance, a gesture, or a remark, shrivelling up the reality in which one is lodged.

[Erving Goffman]
Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction, p41.

The physical environment unremittingly offers us possibilities of experience, or curtails them. The fundamental human significance of architecture stems from this. The glory of Athens, as Pericles so lucidly stated, and the horror of so many features of the modern megalopolis is that the former enhanced and the latter constricts man's consciousness.

Personal action can either open out possibilities of enriched experience or it can shut off possibilities. Personal action is either predominantly validating, confirming, encouraging, supportive, enhancing, or it is invalidating, disconfirming, discouraging, undermining and constricting. It can be creative or destructive.

In a world where the normal condition is one of alienation, most personal action must be destructive both of one's own experience and of that of the other.

[R.D. Laing]
The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.28, 29

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Creative Partnerships

What is your phantasy?

Phantasy is a particular way of relating to the world. It is part of, sometimes the essential part of, the meaning or sense implicit in action.

Phantasy as encountered in many people today is split off from what the person regards as his mature, sane, rational, adult experience. We do not then see phantasy in its true function but experienced merely as an intrusive, sobotaging infantile nuisance.

Phantasy, in short, as I am using the term, is always experiential, and meaningful: and, if the person is not dissociated from it, relational in a valid way.

Two people sit talking. The one (Peter) is making a point to the other (Paul). He puts his point of view in different ways to Paul for some time, but Paul does not understand.

Let us imagine what might be going on, in the sense that I mean by phantasy. Peter is trying to get through to Paul. He feels that Paul is being needlessly closed up against him. It becomes increasingly important to him to soften, or get into Paul. But Paul seems hard, impervious and cold. Peter feels he is beating his head against a brick wall. He feels tired, hopeless, progressively more empty as he sees he is failing. Finally he gives up.

Paul feels, on the other hand, that Peter is pressing too hard. He feels he has to fight him off. He doesn't understand what Peter is saying, but feels that he has to defend himself from an assault.

The dissociation of each from his phantasy, and the phantasy of the other, betokens the lack of relationship of each to himself and each to the other. They are both more and less related to each other 'in phantasy' than each pretends to be to himself and the other.

Here, two roughly complementary phantasy experiences wildly belie the calm manner in which two men talk to each other, comfortably ensconced in their armchairs.

[R.D. Laing]
The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.27, 28

Learn, to be mindless

The relevance of Freud to our time is largely his insight and, to a very considerable extent, his demonstration that the ordinary person is a shrivelled, desiccated fragment of what a person can be.

As adults, we have forgotten most of our childhood, not only its contents but its flavour; as men of the world, we hardly know of the existence of the inner world: we barely even remember our dreams, and make little sense of them when we do; as for our bodies, we retain just sufficient proprioceptive sensations to coordinate our movements and to ensure the minimal requirements for biosocial survival - to register fatigue, signals for food, sex, defaecation, sleep; beyond that, little or nothing.

Our capacity to think, except in the service of what we are dangerously deluded in supposing is our self-interest, and in conformity with common sense, is pitifully limited: our capacity even to see, hear, touch, taste and smell is so shrouded in veils of mystification that an intensive discipline of un-learning is necessary for anyone before one can begin to experience the world afresh, with innocence, truth and love.

And immediate experience of, in contrast to belief or faith in, a spiritual realm of demons, spirits, Powers, Dominions, Principalities, Seraphim and Cherubim, the Light, is even more remote. As domains of experience become more alien to us, we need greater and greater open-mindedness even to conceive of their existence.

This state of affairs represents an almost unbelievable devastation of our experience. Then there is empty chatter about maturity, love, joy, peace.

Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal.

[R.D. Laing]
The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, p.22, 23, 24

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Fighting in the streets

Tinku is a form of ritual conflict practiced by local people in Potosí, Bolivia.

Tinkus occur "between different communities, moieties, or kin groups." They are prearranged and usually take place in the small towns of southern Bolivia. Tinkus are very festive, with an audience of men, women, and children, who bring food and drink. Alcohol is also brought and sold along with food during the tinku.

The tinkus can become very violent, and people do get injured and even die. But, the deaths can be seen as good omens for good harvests.

Tinkus have been a tradition of Andean culture since before they first had contact with Europeans. Some anthropologists hypothesize that Ancient Andes culture would have tinkus instead of battles. This would help curb aggression between different groups, and allow for entertainment, similar to football games in the United States. There are some anthropologists that believe the tradition of the Tinku dates back to the time of the Moche culture, where neighboring tribes would annually fight one another.

Taken from the Wikipedia entry on Tinku.

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Everything is connected

In New Guinea, Bateson had been observing the different behaviour patterns of men and women among the local people. The more the men were exhibitionist and boastful, the more the women became quiet and contemplative. It was clear that this reciprocal process was potentially dangerous: competing with each other to show off, the men became extremely aggressive, while it sometimes seemed that the women risked sinking into catatonia.

Bateson called his book Naven after the series of bizarre rituals that he came to see as "correcting" this behavioural process and guaranteeing stability. In these complex ceremonies men dressed up as women and vice versa. The women assumed the traditional behaviour of the men while the men were abject and passive, even submitting to simulated rape. Crucially, Bateson observed, no one was conscious of what the social function of the ceremonies might be. For the participants, the rituals had religious significance and that was that. Where competing behaviour patterns could push people to extremes, Bateson concluded - and he mentioned such things as the arms race and sadomasochism - corrective influences would very probably be doing their work unacknowledged. It might in fact be important that people remained unaware of what was happening.

Dreams, religious experience, art, love - these were the phenomena that still had power, Bateson thought, to undermine the rash/rational purposeful mind. Of these four, art enjoyed the special role of fusing different "levels of mind" together: there was necessarily consciousness and purpose in the decision to create, but creativity itself involved openness to material from the unconscious, otherwise the work would be merely schematic and transparent.

Discussing a Balinese painting that at the most immediate level shows a cremation procession, but can also be read as a phallic symbol (the tall cremation tower in the centre has an elephant on each side at the base) or as an account of Balinese social organisation (the etiquette and gaiety of the funeral crowd smoothing the turbulence of grief), Bateson remarks that the painting is profound because not "really" about one or the other, or even all three, but about their connectedness. "In a word, it is only about relationship and not about any identifiable relata."

Similarly, a novel whose characters develop in a mutually defining play of identities, each changing in response to the others, expressing together a collective ethos of which none is fully representative - one thinks of the Karamazov brothers and their appalling father - undermines the notion that anyone can grasp the overall pattern of which they are a part. So, quite apart from any political content, narrative can induce a contemplative respect for the mysterious interconnectedness of the world, something that, hopefully, might lead to more cautious behaviour and a little less enthusiasm for dramatic intervention.

[Tim Parks]
Everything is connected, article about Gregory Bateson published in The Guardian. Can be found here.

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Culture Clash | Introduction

When the contemporary art gallery fails to be engaging


This text is a disquisition on some of the problems that face the contemporary art gallery. It is interested in the relationship between the gallery and its visitors; in particular those visitors who fail to engage with the experiences that the gallery offers.

It is motivated by a concern that many visitors are unable to engage, and intends to explore why this might be. It will consider what, if anything, the gallery can do to increase engagement, and reflect on the implications of any potential remedies.

In examining the problems that visitors have in engaging, it may also be useful to look at the conventions of the contemporary art gallery, with a view to identifying mindless and un-useful assumptions.

To reiterate; our concern is the visitor who, for whatever reason, is unable or unwilling to engage with the experiences that the gallery offers.

This text does not believe that a sea change in attitudes is possible, but it believes that small and incremental change is. It believes increasing the odds of engagement, not in revolutionizing the statistics.

It is based upon one person’s experience working as a gallery attendant in a single contemporary art gallery, and as such it does not aspire to provide a comprehensive overview of the areas that it explores. It has been written in the spirit of exploration and hopes to, at best, provoke further debate about ideas it considers to be interesting and relevant.

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Culture Clash | Experiential expectations

Culture Clash | Experiential expectations

Experiential expectations


One of the chief problems that the gallery faces is one that it may not have had a hand in creating. Most visitors will have preconceptions about art (and in particular ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ art) and pre-formed ideas about what they are going to experience within the gallery. Preconceptions - at their root an adaptive device - are often unavoidable, yet when it comes to an art gallery they can severely limit a visitor’s experience.

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Culture Clash | Experiential expectations | What the visitor expects

Culture Clash | Experiential expectations | What the visitor expects

What the visitor expects

Each cultural form has rules of engagement that they honour and that we mostly take for granted. Because we can expect a certain amount of fundamentals, we tend not to question the environment when engaging with these forms; it exists to accommodate the actual experience, which may be a film, a play, or a band. Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule; we may prefer certain cinemas to others, and certain music venues may annoy us because of their acoustics, or architecture. But generally we accept these things because they play by the rules - they fit into our expectations.

When we visit the cinema, for example, we are confident that we will be seated, and that the room in which we watch the film will be dark. We can also expect the film to be projected onto a large screen, and for the sound to be relatively loud. These are all things that we can confidently take for granted prior to arriving at the cinema. If any of these conditions were to be different – if, for example, we were asked to stand for the duration of the film – then we would probably feel unsettled and may come to view the experience as an unsatisfying one. Our lack of satisfaction arises from how far the experience has differed from our expectations, expectations that are built upon previous experience or knowledge. If we’d come from a culture in which viewers are expected to stand whilst at the cinema, then we may feel uncomfortable being asked to sit. Expectations are adaptive, in that they allow us to go through life without fearing what each experience will bring; they allow a fluidity of experience, and give us confidence in our environment.

This isn’t to say that to have expectations, or to have them fulfilled, is always preferable – there are of course many benefits to not knowing what to expect – rather, expectations in themselves are largely unavoidable; you can, after all, expect to not know what to expect. It is this not-knowing – what Keats termed ‘Negative Capability’, the ability to tolerate uncertainties - that is a potential site of tension within a person, and, as we shall see, how they deal with this can determine how they interpret their experience.

When it comes to expectations, the contemporary art gallery can often be a site of not-knowing, and by extension a site of tension. On one visit we may have seen a film in a dark room, and may have been seated much like in a cinema. On another we may have seen a film, yet this time we may have been asked to sit on the floor, or to stand. The room may not have been dark, or the sound may have been too quiet, or too loud. Perhaps we saw a sculpture and were allowed to walk through it, or beneath it; maybe we were even allowed to touch it. Yet, on our next visit there was a barrier erected to prevent us from touching the work.

Contemporary art galleries are constantly confounding our expectations, and often the most we can expect is to not know what to expect. This lack of surety creates tension because it doesn’t allow the adaptive comfort of prior knowledge.

When we know what to expect, what the rules of engagement are, then we know how to form an approach to it. When we go to a cinema we unconsciously prepare ourselves for the experience; whilst we may not know what the film will be like, we know that it will be a film, and it is this basic assumption that allows us to tolerate the unsurety of not knowing the content of the film. Whether the film itself plays by the rules is another matter, but we can be sure the experience will; something will be shown, its duration is fixed; it will start, and it will end. We will use our eyes and our ears to apprehend it. These are all things that we are allowed to take for granted and that ease the tension of not-knowing.

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Culture Clash | Experiential expectations | What is expected of the visitor

Culture Clash | Experiential expectations | What is expected of the visitor

What is expected of the visitor

Whilst we have ideas about what to expect of the experience – what it will provide us with – we will also generally know what is expected of us, as participants or viewers. When it comes to the cinema we know, for example, that we are expected to sit, to remain silent, to keep our eyes open. Once the film has finished we are allowed to talk about it with others, or to ruminate upon it ourselves. The experience of the cinema is one that is widely understood within our society; the simplicity of its rules, and the passivity required in experiencing it, contribute towards its popularity amongst a wide variety of people.

We can contrast the often-passive experience of the cinema with the more active experience of the lesson. Let’s say we take an evening class to learn a language. When we attend the class we know that the expectations placed upon us will be quite different from those of the cinema (we could, of course, find many similarities between the two areas, but it is the differences that interest us here). We understand the process of learning, that it requires a level of engagement and effort from us; we will be required to think: to remember; to analyse; to reference, and cross-reference. Whilst lessons can be entertaining, their intention isn’t explicitly to entertain, and we prepare ourselves for this prior to the lesson – we prepare ourselves to learn.

What about the experiences offered by the contemporary art gallery? Where, between these two relative extremes, do they fall? Often they can vacillate between the two; some exhibitions will require the visitor to engage with them in the way that they would a lesson, to be active and use thought in the ways described above; other artworks may prefer the visitor to background their thoughts, and engage their emotions.

Whilst the film will often entertain or offer rich audio and visual stimulus whilst it educates, the artwork may not. Through stripping away the attractions (or distractions) of the cinematic experience, it approaches the explicit learning environment – the mindful environment - of the lesson. The gallery asks of its visitors to be prepared for either of these experiences, and everything in between, which begs the question: are its visitors prepared for what is expected of them?

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Culture Clash | Experiential expectations | Expectations leading to an approach

Culture Clash | Experiential expectations | Expectations leading to an approach

Expectations leading to an approach

When it comes to cultural value, film is mostly a known commodity. Films are assessed in a number of ways in order to determine their value; how well they entertain us; how much they made us laugh; how thought-provoking they were; whether they moved us or not - the list goes on. Through years of watching, reading and talking about films, our society has learnt the part that they play within it. This isn’t to say that this part is fixed or limited; but film, as one of a variety of cultural experiences, has firm foundations within society. For now, we know what it is and how to approach and apprehend it.

At this point it is important for us to ask; can the same be said for art? One reason why visitors may leave the gallery feeling dissatisfied is down to the fact that they simply do not know how to approach the experiences that are on offer: they may know neither what to expect, nor what is expected of them.

This situation is comparable to someone with no prior knowledge of cinema being shown into a screening with a group of other uninitiated people. They are pointed to the door and told to go in; they find a large room, a sight that immediately fills some of them with wonder, some with a vague sense of fear. There are rows of what appear to be seats, although they may not be. Suddenly the lights go out and a deafening sound erupts from somewhere. Some of the group panic and immediately leave. The more intrepid among them stay for a while longer and explore the space. A large moving image has materialized on one side of the room. The image stays there for a long time, showing people much like themselves, talking about something or other. The sound remains loud. At some point it all ends. The remaining few leave, all bewildered, a few enraptured.

Whilst the experience may sound attractive to some, it cannot be said that these people experienced the film itself in the optimal way (that is, in a way that was true to the intentions of the director, or the requirements of the film), and it would be unlikely that they managed to get much from it. This isn’t a seamless analogy, but it approaches the experience of many who attend the contemporary art gallery. They often don’t even manage to assess the film (the art), because they are too busy attempting to decipher how to apprehend it – that is, if they haven’t already closed themselves off to the experience due to frustration, confusion or fear.

As an aside, it is worth noting that frustration, confusion, or fear may be the intended outcome of the experience, but this isn’t always the case. It is those instances where these reactions are un-useful that this text is interested in.

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Culture Clash | Approaching contemporary art

Culture Clash | Approaching contemporary art

Approaching contemporary art


So why is it that many visitors do not know how to approach contemporary art? We’ve already considered that a visitor may not know what to expect from the gallery, and what may be expected of them, and have looked briefly at why this may be. Let’s consider some other reasons that may be hindering an approach.

Evolution of art

Like most cultural forms, art has evolved over time, and it has evolved in many ways. The definitions of the term have changed significantly throughout its history, along with the ways in which it is experienced. Many other forms of culture have evolved whilst maintaining a similar experiential structure (consider cinema for example), yet art has undergone a series of radical changes that have challenged and altered our perception of what it can be, and how we can experience it. Like most other forms of culture it has had a facelift every now and then, but in addition to this it has also had the odd face-swap - not to mention a few limbs removed and a few added on. As such, it appears unrecognizable to some, compared to what it once may have been.


Narrow art education may have slowed adaptation to these changes. Schools often seem to endorse a traditional idea of art, art that consists mainly of painting and sculpture and that has its values firmly rooted in the Renaissance. This is the art that largely exists at the centre of our popular consciousness. Traditional art also fits more comfortably into our understanding of value, in that it allows people to look for and recognize the things that they have been taught are ‘valuable’ within society; attributes like skill, talent and beauty. These values are shared in other areas of cultural experience, and can also spill over into ‘non-cultural’ experience (i.e. we may be able appreciate a skilled plumber, or a talented stock-broker). Much contemporary art can be seen to disregard these values, and in doing so it highlights its departure from the more traditional forms.

Popular Media

Certain forms of media can further the narrowing affect of our limited education, through reinforcing a limited outlook on art. When contemporary art is written about as a laughing stock - as it often is - a prevailing attitude develops that allows people to retain the distance that they already feel from it. In laughing at or deriding something we do not have to risk challenging our current mindsets - yet we also risk remaining ignorant to potential value. We tell ourselves, “it simply isn’t worth understanding,” often not stopping to think about whether this may really be the case.

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Culture Clash | Is this art?

Culture Clash | Is this art?

Is this art?


The debate over what art is or isn’t is a useful and interesting one, inasmuch as it allows us examine various assumptions; at best, it may give us permission to see the world in new ways, and potentially enrich our experience of life. At worst, the debate can negate its own ends, becoming an end in itself – to define your values is to make a statement about the self; through definition of what we see as art we communicate our vision of the world, and our values, and as such are able reinforce our own sense of self. The debate, like many of the other popular sites of conflict (“Do you like watching TV?” “Do you watch Big Brother?”) can become a device for communicating values and defining self. It becomes less a debate than a personality acid test.

We’ve seen that not knowing how to approach contemporary art can lead to an unsatisfactory experience. However, this may not be the only factor preventing engagement. We should also consider the mindset of the visitor. As we’ve seen, many people’s preconceptions about what art is will be based on a limited field of knowledge, perhaps due in no small part to poor education and the constricting effects of popular media. We’ve also seen that when we engage in an experience it is natural that we should want our expectations about the experience fulfilled to a certain degree - this is how we know that we’ve had a particular experience, and how we form future expectations. We can, for example, say we’ve been to the cinema to watch a film because we (amongst other things) entered a darkened room, sat down, and watched a projected image for a few hours, after which we left.

We go to a cinema, ostensively at least, to see a film. Are we then correct in assuming that when we go to an art gallery we will see art? This is undoubtedly what most people expect prior to visiting a gallery. They may expect many other things, but at the very least they expect to see some form of art. It is from this expectation that confusion and disappointment can arise.

A common question to be heard within the contemporary art gallery is, “is this art?” - a useful question, if the person is willing to be have their ideas and opinions challenged and modified. However, it also functions as a defense, in that it allows the visitor to keep a distance between themselves and the experience. To ask about the nature of the experience is to remain on the outside of it; it is to examine its exterior, to work out what it is, instead of finding out what it can offer.

When a visitor asks if it is art, they are telling us that the experience is confounding their expectations; if the experience was as they expected, if it conformed to their idea of what art is, then there would be no need to question it. They would take it for granted that it was art, and would see no need to examine its exterior to ascertain this fact; instead they would move within the experience, and find out what it could offer them.

So with much conceptual art we find ourselves getting stuck at the first stage of an experience, the exterior stage, when we ascertain what the object is before using it. Its use – the experience itself – would come after, and could be seen as the interior stage. Asking the question “Is this art?” is a sign that a visitor is finding it hard to move beyond the first stage.

Again, this exterior experience may be the one intended - there may, after all, be value in confusion and unsurety. Our concern here is with where these feelings are not useful.

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Culture Clash | Uses of language

Uses of language


How do we remedy this situation? Whilst it may not be able to provide a better education system or a more balanced media, there are still things a gallery can do, if not to remedy the situation entirely, then to at least provide visitors with greater opportunities for engaging with the experiences on offer.

So what can it do? We’ve seen that many people find it hard to move beyond the idea of art, and what it should or shouldn’t be. When they come across an experience in a gallery that confounds their expectations it produces what psychologist Anthony Storr refers to as ‘basic, cosmic anxiety.’ Storr says, ‘For the average person, the undermining and destruction of a cherished vision of reality can be a shattering experience. Such an upheaval is comparable to the disturbance a man suffers when a person in whom he has had ‘basic trust’ turns out to be unfaithful or untrustworthy.’ 1

To have expectations, and to want to protect and preserve them, can be seen as a natural defense against basic feelings of anxiety. In confounding expectations, the gallery is potentially exposing its visitors to a situation rife with anxiety - how they handle this will rely on a variety of intrapersonal factors.

We touched upon the idea of Negative Capability earlier, a concept that was defined by the poet John Keats. He described it as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” 2 Negative Capability will differ from person to person; some are able to tolerate uncertainty, and may in fact relish the imaginative possibilities that it allows (Keats being a prime exemplar of this attitude), whilst others may find it extremely uncomfortable.

Psychologist James Hillman had in mind a similar concept when he wrote of ‘entertaining ideas:’ “That word “entertain” means to hold in between. What you do with an idea is hold it between - between your two hands. On the one hand, acting or applying it in the world and on the other hand, forgetting it, judging it, ignoring it, etc. So when these crazy things come in on you unannounced the best you can do for them is to think them, holding them, turning them over, wondering awhile. Not rushing into practice. Not rushing into associations. This reminds of that: this is just like that. Off we go, away from the strange idea to things we already know. Not judging. Rather than judging them as good and bad, true or false, we might first spend a little time with them.” 3

Clearly not everyone has the will or the fortitude to develop their negative capability, or to ‘entertain ideas’. Should the gallery be concerned with these intrapersonal factors? Is it the gallery’s role to compensate for an unsatisfactory education system, or the destructive effects of certain forms of media?

In a perfect world, greater education would ensure that people would not have such narrow expectations about art. In time, the art that mobilizes feelings of anxiety today may assume a place within the common consciousness, along with what we currently call more traditional forms. However, this does not alter the situation that the contemporary art gallery currently faces, and it must ask itself whether it can, and whether it should, be doing more than it currently does to help people get beyond their fear of anxiety and engage with potentially rewarding experiences.

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Culture Clash | Uses of language | The term 'art'

Culture Clash | Uses of language | The term 'art'

The term ‘art’

As we’ve seen, many visitors dismiss the experiences on offer because they do not conform to their idea of ‘art.’ Art is a troublesome word; it can mean many different things to each person, and we may not necessarily agree with each other on what it is, should, or can be. In the gallery, it is a word that is used time and again to prevent engagement; it allows a quick dismissal of what is on offer.

Let’s suppose a person questions an experience within a gallery, asking him or herself whether they consider it to be art (as, of course, it should be, seeing as it is within an ‘art gallery’). Let’s say they decide that it is not art. Now, if this experience is not art, then what is it? Because, whether it is art or not, the experience remains; it is still there, and is still an experience that may have potential value to the visitor who just dismissed it.

Here we see words, definitions, getting in the way of a potentially useful experience. We see a person that has allowed a dismissal of something because it failed to conform to a pre-conceived definition.

A child has a box with various shapes cut into it: a circle, a square and a triangle. The child has a pile of objects that are designed to fit through these various holes, objects cut into square, circle and triangle shapes. This child is transfixed on the idea of circles and it attempts to pass each object through the circle shaped hole. Some fit, but most don’t. Those that don’t are thrown away, because, to the child, if they aren’t circles then they have no value.

What do we mean when we call something art? Is the word losing its use as a description/definition? Art is an extremely broad term, with countless narrow definitions. It is susceptible to being narrowly defined because of its history, because of what it has been at various points. Throughout time ‘art’ has assumed many forms, and has meant different things to different cultures. Some of these forms have stuck in the popular consciousness, and have come to define the term, regardless of its current incarnations. As we’ve touched upon, for many the idea of art as exemplified by Renaissance artists – master craftsmen – has stuck as their idea of art. This art has been canonized over time, and has been shown to be not only culturally significant, but also a primary example of important societal values – values like talent, beauty, and skill.

It can appear that the term ‘art’ is now being stretched to its limits. As a result of its radical reinventions, the various experiences that it has been used to describe may seem to bear little similarity to each other. When one form is held as a paradigm, then all other incarnations will be tested against its shape, and it is this testing that the gallery faces on a frequent basis - the visitor refers to his or her paradigm, and if the art that they see before them does not fit its shape then it can be dismissed as something other than art.

In calling a building an art gallery we imply that it contains art. When the experiences within the gallery do not conform to our idea of what art is, we are faced with a choice; endure the anxiety of this conflict or reject the gallery’s idea of art and reinforce our own paradigm.

It may be useful to attempt an analogy. Let’s say we visit a hat shop wanting to buy a hat. We enter the shop, the largest and most reputable in the area, only to find the shelves stocked with shoes. The salesman approaches and asks if we’d like to try on a hat, to which we reply that we don’t see any hats, only shoes. The salesman assures us that what they see on the shelves are definitely hats, not shoes. At this point we are faced with a choice. We can believe the salesman and take his word that these items are in fact hats, and not shoes, an option that would require a radical redefinition of some long-held ideas. We may venture to try one of these ‘hats’ on, but perhaps we would be suspicious of whether the salesman, and the shop, are just part of some kind of elaborate joke, and the situation has been orchestrated to make a fool of us. Even if the salesman did manage to convince us that his intentions were honest, and that his belief in these hats was genuine, we would still have to brave the outside world, and the preconceptions of others, both friends and strangers. We would not be blamed for seeing this first option as a challenging one.

There is a second option. We could reject the salesman’s interpretation of a hat, and insist that what he is selling are in fact shoes. We could leave, confident that we are right in this matter, and that the salesman is clearly mad, or has been brainwashed.

It may be a positive thing that the term has grown to encompass so much; that we can value so much experience as ‘art’. But popular consciousness may not have grown along with the term itself.

Just as a currency, in the process of becoming more and more inflated, has less and less purchasing power, so words, through an analogous process of inflation, through being used less and less discriminately, are progressively emptied of meaning. 4

Whether ‘art’ has been emptied of meaning is a discussion for elsewhere. It is useful for us to consider here whether the term has become a problematic one for the gallery, and whether it is a hindrance to its aims.

To spend a day as an attendant is enough to be afforded a glimpse into the conflict and confusion that the word ‘art’ can cause. Instead of engaging with the experiences on offer, regardless of whether or not they are art, many would rather argue over a matter of semantics, and in many cases allow the ins and outs of a definition to prevent engagement with an experience. Regardless of how absurd this situation seems, it is one that the gallery is faced with on a daily basis.

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Culture Clash | Uses of language | Breathing space

Culture Clash | Uses of language | Breathing space

Breathing space

One way to get around this transfixion on language would be to change the words that we use. If people were expecting to see art because they are in an art gallery, then what would happen if we no longer called it an art gallery? Is there another word we can use, one that would allow all of the experiences within the gallery to exist without the danger of them being compared unfavourably to a pre-existing paradigm?

A gallery may not be able to allow every visitor engage with the experiences that it offers, but is it not worth considering tactics that would increase the odds of this happening? A change in language could be one such tactic. If the term ‘art’ has become a hindrance to the experiences within the gallery, then is it worth considering an alternative that may allow more breathing space, both for the work and the visitors?

A name like ‘Experience Centre’ may be approaching something more suitable. The amorphousness of the name would be a clue – a prime – as to how a visitor is to approach what awaits inside. They aren’t here to see art, although they may apprehend things that they wish to label as such. Rather, they are here to have experiences.

What are the benefits of this name change? Primarily, the visitor would no longer be looking for ‘art’. The question “is this art?” – a question that so often stops an experience before it can even begin – would become redundant. The nearest question available – the nearest defence against experience – would now be “is this an experience?” The use of a capacious term like this would allow for the breadth of experiences that the modern art gallery offers; the language would better prepare the visitor, and experiential expectations may have less of a chance of hindering experience itself. A term like this could work in the gallery’s favour, not against it.

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