St. Francis as Cyborg

After he found that people would not listen to him, the Catholic saint, Francis of Assisi, preached to the birds instead. Iconographically in Catholic art he is often represented with birds and / or with a wolf. His hand and his temples are also usually depicted as displaying the bloody evidence of his stigmata. The image above is actually based upon an iconic image of St Francis (which I found on the internet through a Google search, but cannot for the life of me find the author!). I have always been attracted to images of St. Frank. Although I am aware that this is not entirely rational, part of this attraction has to do with his relationship to animals - he seems compassionate towards and, of all of the saints that I am aware of, more in touch with 'nature' (by which you could read a more progressive characterization such as 'the larger ecosystems of which he is a part', if you like, but saying things like that gets so damn awkward). This painting wants to address the issue of how our changing relationship with technology changes our relationship with 'nature'. Embedded in this is also a question about representation and how it relates to power and control, which is why I chose to also include the photorealistic representations of animals alongside my rather rudimentary acrylic sketches.


On the Utility of Images

(The Anatomical Theatre of Leiden, by Swanenburgh, 1616)

Over the years people with severed corpus callosums have taught us a lot about how our brains work. The c.c. is the part of the brain that connects the left hemisphere [the notoriously more analytic and linguistic part of the brain] with the right hemisphere [the part of the brain that handles emotions, images and intuition]. People whose two sides of their brains don’t talk to each other thus provide very useful information on how the two hemispheres are specialized. I was recently reading about a study for instance that had some very interesting implications for understanding the process of post-rationalization. In this particular study, conducted by Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California at Santa Barbara, a subject was shown the word ‘walk’ directly to his left eye, connected to the right hemisphere of the brain. Suddenly he got up and started to walk off. When asked why he had got up, he answered, ‘oh, I wanted to get a coke’. The left brain, which had seen the word, was incapable of producing any kind of justification, while the left brain, which had no idea about the command, was given the task of producing an explanation, and immediately did so. The subject fully believed his own story.

I find this weird and unnerving. It raises the possibility that maybe the part of me that I know best, the logical and linguistic side, is actually only making things up to cover the real intentions brewing in my right brain. Is this possible? Given this framework, it indeed could be that this ‘self’0 that I understand, that navigates life based on a series of logical and reasoned decisions, is actually a fabrication devised to ground whims that are in fact unbeknownst to me.

Which lends, does it not, an interesting aura to any discussion of zeitgeist, or any other residual meme of fate, religious determinacy, and the Hegelian Spirit? Think for instance of the visionary painter, following his instinct, creating masterpieces that seem to flow forth from him. Years later, people will look at the painting and see things moving in it which relate clearly to other aspects of culture and to cultural manifestations yet to emerge. In their spontaneous creation, artists often seem to be channelling something deep and important to their era, something that probably could not be articulated in a medium suited to analytic thought (such as the philosophical essay, for instance). Within this framework of hemispheres sketched above it is possible to conjecture that the painter’s right brain was in touch with a larger cultural ebb of non-verbal ‘information’, or maybe it’s better to say emotion, that his left brain was clueless about. Perhaps in addition to the dominant narratives through which understand our epoch there is a parallel non-verbal cloud into which we are also tapped, similar to a zeitgeist. I’m not presenting this in any way as the truth of the matter, but rather just pointing it out as an interesting way of thinking about things that is incidentally opened up by this bi-cameral model of cognition.

I am however interested in the utility of both image-creation and the discussion of images. In Bachelard’s introduction to his wonderful Poetics of Space, he says a couple of things that have stuck with me in this regard: first, that, ‘the poetic image places us at the origin of the speaking being’; and second, that, ‘poets and painters are born phenomenologists’ (a line that originates from Van den Berg). I think this is inspirational, and has inspired me increasingly to try to work with images in my own explorations. Perhaps this is a sign of an overactive left brain here, but for me this kind of talk provides a legitimation of image-play. For me these two observations of Bachelard’s open up image-play as a legitimate way of thinking.

Now maybe this sounds totally na├»ve, but I find it very useful to change my thinking around so that image-creation is a justified counterpart to analytical inquiry – to think that they could co-operate without one dominating the other. In the past, my love of art has often been centrally focused on what I could squeeze out of it: how many different ways I could think about it or how many different interpretations I could construct out of its material. The realization here is said better I think by Mark Kingwell when he comments that art ‘is never reducible to its mere propositional content – thinking so marks one of the ways we do violence to the aesthetic’ and continues to say that it ‘carries substance of a kind that could not be carried in any other way.’ [Opening Gambits, 2008] Thinking about art as the support of analytic inquiry or as somehow incomplete without it is to denude it of its rightful majesty and to deny that there is any sort of thought which cannot be expressed in the language of the philosopher, bureaucrat or scientist, which is just not true. Art doesn’t just serve thought, it is a form of thought.
Personally, I want in my approach to have a closer affinity to the artist than to the scientist. By this I mean that I wish to rely more heavily on internal rather than external observation. The artist (like the phenomenologist) believes in the usefulness of personal exploration – which of course requires a belief in the overlap of selves, a belief in the commonalities between us. The scientist, in contrast to this, relies on external observations of others to arrive at their conclusions about humanity. In this sense, in my work, I would like to take the stance of the artist and look within, in full recognition of my subjectivity, rather than review things from an ‘objective’ external observational standpoint.

Which is not to say that I reject that standpoint. I think the scientific method has produced and will continue to produce an absolutely astounding quantity of profound insight into our various human predicaments. As has the analysis of art, too. In fact one of the amazing things about art is I believe its capacity to provide for a wide diversity of thought. In fact as Kingwell has written elsewhere, ‘aesthetic success hinges on how much the work opens up, rather than closes down, the spaces of thought and wonder.’ [Monumental/Conceptual Architecture, 2004] In this sense art does in fact serve thought. It stimulates and encourages thought on a wide variety of important subjects.

Which all goes to explain why I am focusing much of my energy right now on the creation of images. The thesis document that I’m thinking of producing I hope to see as a sort of ‘table’, a bit like an operating table, but also like a coffee table. On this table I hope to place a series of images so that they can be seen in juxtaposition to one another and against a common background. I also hope to place narratives on this table, and myths, as well as facts gleaned from others’ scientific investigations. And then I’m going to mix all these things about, and flip them over each other and smash them into each other! And through these ‘table operations’, I hope to create a useful appraisal of my subject-matter that furthers our understanding of it and our capacity to act thoughtfully and intelligently with regard to it.

(Still Life With Skull, Paul Cezanne, 1895-1900)

Working Abstract and Title for Thesis

Revised: October 14, 2009

Between Technological Flesh and the Technological Field
a phenomenology of the interior


In a time of swift and radical technological change this thesis seeks a re-appraisal of the phenomenology of the house. Canonical phenomenology has been notably technologically averse and the phenomenological appraisal of the house, as offered by philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1958) and architect Juhani Pallasmaa (1994), has left technology out. This thesis asserts that neither the technologization of the flesh nor the field can be ignored. Upon asserting the importance of both technology and the house to our Being, the thesis proposes some basic principles for understanding technological change. A re-appraisal of the phenomenology of the house is then initiated, starting with a selected series of behavioural and symbolic foci: the hearth, the toilet, the table, the bed and the window. These are discussed with regard to their historical importance in the house and speculated upon as they become increasingly technologized.

This thesis takes the form of a book. It is a synthetic and removed work, navigating the overlapping zones of a number of disparate discourses. Its perspective is situated in the midst of many complex and interconnected metaphors. It is part historical description, poetical observation, philosophical conjecture, curation, and design.


Shape and Size

A poem! This relates directly to the last two posts.

I see myself in everybody else;

my face is in their face,

my eyes are in their eyes.

Blue skies and white,

beyond, my soul;

I feel my blood in

the veins of trees;

I have mountain shoulders.

And yet

so much solitary

in this solidarity.

Out we come

from earth and flesh

in so many shapes and sizes;

this is my shape and size.

This is my shape and size?

reflected in a mirror or in a stream

or a storefront window,

this is my face?

this is my nose?

this is my voice?

that’s what my eyes do?

Don’t you know that

I AM the world?

on a clear day,

the sun is in my chest;

I feel rain under my skin;

my tears stain the sky.

The world is a tortured mirror;

I am so big small.

Body Deconstruction Chamber

This is the second of two projects (the first is here) dealing with body image and sense of 'self'. This project proposes that it is better to have a solid sense of individual subjecthood in the privacy of your home, but when you leave your home you should let go of this, becoming plural and flexible. The Body Deconstruction Chamber is thus an anteroom that attempts to facilitate this gradient. All of those squiggly lines in the room are mirrors, of different shapes and sizes and contortions. When leaving the bedroom the first thing you are confronted with is a large ordinary mirror, but then as you move through the room, this solid image of self is morphed and fragmented. Similarly, approaching the room from the other angle, you begin with a distorted image and by the time you actually enter the bedroom you are accompanied by a solid, simple reflection.
As usual, click on the image for the full thing.


perspective sketch

Body Image Construction Tryptic

This as well as the next post display images from a couple of recent design projects I have completed - this one is called the Body Image Construction Tryptic. The idea is really simple, that a room, a bedroom in this case, is fitted out with cameras that display images of what is going on in the room on a couple of lcd screens mounted on (or in this case in) the wall. It is an extension of the notion of having a mirror in your room so that you can inspect what you look like to other people. Thus, beside your direct reflection are displayed two images of you from other angles.
Foucault speaks in his
Of Other Places lecture (pub. 1967) of how a mirror, 'makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.' He also speaks of the act of 'reconstituting' yourself where you are, the mental act of positioning yourself.
I find it fascinating how the mirror can take you out of yourself to see yourself from another perspective, a perspective that is simultaneously objective and impossible. I also feel that looking in a mirror is interesting because in it you are related to your context in a way you otherwise wouldn't understand.
Besides this, three other points of interest lead to this design. First is the fact that people who suffer from anorexia actually see themselves as fat even when they are painfully thin. Second, I find it fascinating how a person suffering from phantom limb syndrome can ease the pain or itch in their missing appendage by holding a mirror in front of themselves so as to trick their brain into seeing a limb where it is not. Third, I find the ability of actors, dancers and other such performers to be in complete control of how they appear to others to be amazing. The tryptic, which I feel is actually kind of perverse, is designed to increase body awareness and to construct a stable image of self in relation to context.

plan, tryptic at bottom

elevation of tryptic

Cyborg Headset and Robotic Hand Studies

The following are imaginary renderings of what a cyborg headset and a robotic hand might look like. I've made them as preparatory sketches for a painting I am currently working on.


A Record Quarter for Television

The New York Times is reporting today on the persistence of television watching despite the collapse of other forms of what they are calling 'old-media'. I'm not sure if anyone else feels this way, but personally I've gotta say that I find the description of any means of communication and entertainment that is not somehow connected to the Internet as 'old-media' gives me a bit of vertigo!

Apparently, according to Nielson, in the quarter that ended September 30th, 2008, Americans watched an average of 142 hours per month, up 5 hours from the previous year. And that's the summer, too! Meanwhile over the same period Internet use averaged out at 27 hours monthly, up an hour and a half from the previous year.

And why are we so "smitten with screens"? Apparently it is because print takes too much thinking, and "because the text mode is now used so infrequently that it can feel like a burden". Instead apparently the population is leaning more and more over to video - even on the primarily text-based Internet people are tending more and more to prefer their content in the form of moving images such as provided by YouTube. This is why, then, according to the article, newspapers and publishing houses are suffering (as old-media companies) but television is not. It remains an easily accessibly 'immersive experience'. And this is apparently what we want, not to visit our media with a polite objective eye, but rather to bathe in it.


Mixed Reality on Main Street, Cambridge

Above (click here for a larger image) is an illustration of what might be referred to as 'mixed reality', a reality in which the distinction between the informational models, traces and shadows of the world (as found on the internet) and the world itself (physical phenomena) begins to erode. What does it feel like when information begins to be layered over our phenomenal experience of the world? Smart phones are getting more and more applications that blend these realms. Their abilities to be located spatially using gps, to record light using their 'camera' chips, and also record sound greatly increase their usefulness at linking up things in the physical world with things in the digital domain.
A San Francisco based subsidiary of Yahoo! called Fire Eagle offers a service that seems to epitomize this sort of blending. Either you intentionally input your spatial location into their system or you set up some device associated with you (like your smart phone) to do this automatically. Once your location is registered in their system, it updates the applications you have decided to use (on your smartphone or your laptop, etc.) which allows them to provide you with the sort of spatially-appropriate information that you are interested in. As of right now Fire Eagle has 61 such applications available for download from their 'gallery', mostly for social-networking purposes, tourism, etc.



4 personal observations:
When I used to sail boats one of my favourite sensations was of standing up while working the tiller;
when I go hiking I relish the experience of standing high up on a rock and looking down over a landscape (not unlike that famous painting by Caspar David Friedrich);
I am a cartophile – I love reconciling my phenomenal experience of space with the abstract world that is delineated on a map;
finally, when I arrived in Rome last spring I made a concerted effort to avoid maps, entirely navigating the city by landmarks and their perceived relation to my body – it was fun, often disconcerting, and frequently stupidly inefficient.

I like to navigate, I like to look out to and down at the world, and I like to piece things together in my mind. Successfully working my way through a foreign city using a map gives me great pleasure, reconciling the real space with the diagram, recognizing the major monuments and formations, and finding my way amongst them.

Reading Roland Barthes’ brilliant commentary on the mythic dimension of the Eiffel Tower, I was recently reminded of all of this and how the image of Apollo has helped us to talk about these feelings. Apollo, sungod to both the Greeks and the Romans, saw the world from above, a perspective both similar to that afforded by the Eiffel Tower (a truly extraordinary perspective in 1889) and by a map. In Greek mythology, the birds’-eye perspective was only available to gods looking down from Olympus and by Apollo soaring through the sky. Because of this, the view from above has often been referred to as the Apollonian view. When man attempted to move in on this territory, in the form of Icaraus, he was punished, his waxen wings melting and himself tumbling down. Maps have allowed man to approximate Apollo’s perspective without leaving terra firma. And what a feeling it must have been, drawing that first map – discovering how to represent a vast territory in miniature. From this Apollonian perspective, things are seen ‘objectively’, laid out as objects in clear relation to one another. Apollo was thus associated by the Greeks with the analytical, understood in contrast with the emotional, which they associated with Dionysus, the god of earthly pleasure.

Barthes says of looking down and out from the Eiffel Tower that it inspires decipherment, a process of moving your eye across the panoramic view searching for things and reconciling it with your other phenomenal experiences of space. He speaks of a reconstitution of Paris in your mind; looking down over the city, we recreate it in our mind in a new form. This is a very powerful position to be in. Reconstituting an entire city in your mind is a very powerful act, the act of a god even. It is also a highly intellectual act, and in his text Barthes goes so far as to even say that, “in a sense, that is what intelligence is,” implying that somehow this act of reconstitution is very close to the primal roots of how intelligence itself operates. But it is also a very particular type of intelligence, the type that was coming truly into its own with the historicist, acquisitional, and adventurous mindset of the 19th century, the time of the great all-encompassing scientific and philosophic theories, the museums of artefacts from all over the world, and the burgeoning fascination with flight. As Giedeon has pointed out, it is no surprise that “Santos-Dumont chose to circle about this tower on his spectacular flight in his airship.” In the 19th century the spirit of Apollo was in the air and was very much appealed to both by the tower and by the possibility of flight.

But what is of interest to me here is how all of this differs from the experience of being on the Internet. The new ‘networked’ perspective is very different – the perspective of the internet flaneur is far more like being inside of something than looking down upon it. While controlling a web-browser can seem quite similar to captaining a ship sometimes, it lacks some of the authority of what we might call the Ahab or Odyssean Perspective, standing high on the poop-deck battling through the waves of stubborn fate. It is perhaps more like being in some sort of control-room, and I’m thinking here of that sort of control room depicted in Hollywood movies where there are hundreds of ‘monitors’ – this association between power and the ability to see many things at the same time. But again, the experience of being IN cyberspace, or ON the Internet, lacks the sort of detached authority that this image would suggest.

Using tools like Google Maps, there is definitely a flavour of the Apollonian, but there are two qualities to the experience that alter this. The first quality is the very real vastness of the information at hand and its apparent infinity. The overwhelmingness of this ocean of data surges up in the face of our confident seamanship – it takes on a mythic dimension: a lurking Poseidon in those unseen 13,541 search results! The ability of Google to give us so many results is nothing short of a brain-fuck – the results are simultaneously quantifiable and unfathomable.

The second quality that counteracts, or at least noticeably adjusts the Apollonian view is the virtuality of digital information. On Google Earth you can crawl the surface of the world, which of course seems like a very godlike think to do – but wait! it’s not the real world: ce n’est pas un pipe, madame! This is intangible, placeless, disembodied data. You may feel like you are bigger than the earth, scrolling around it like it were a toy ball, like with little more than an idle thought you can see and understand things that are massive, complex, and completely outside of your habitual sphere of exposure, influence and interest (anything you want to know about explained in 2000 words, thank you Wikipedia). You may feel that way, but then the power goes out and you’re sitting at home alone in a dark room. The universe that you were a master of was a fake.

So it remains an open question for me, what is the experience of being on the Internet like? If the image of Apollo is useful for understanding the intellectual exercise of looking down, deciphering, and ‘reconstituting’ the world, what image could describe the webgaze? Is it Dionysian? Is the Internet a labyrinth, or maybe an ocean? Perhaps the image of Ahab battling through the waves in search of his Moby Dick is useful, but then again isn’t the association between the Internet and nature pretty problematic? It’s something to think about anyways.