Jondi Kean’s Perception Lookout

Thu, 20/06/2013 - 21:58 -- damien
Towards a Practice of Affect

Jondi Keane's installation Perception Lookout: The east and west of self-organisation, shown at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, during October-November 2002, was a subtle and thought-provoking environment which induced a multi-dimensional visual field. Ordinary and ordinal visual signifiers (tools, lines, diagrams, planes and shapes) were arranged intensively into a diagram of cues - continually referencing direction and depth, orientation and circulation, position and movement. The work was a life-size map--but not, as one might first think, a cognitive map for the mind, but rather, after experience and reflection, a perceptual field for the body.

In Brian Massumi's recently published book Parables for the Virtual, he grapples with what has become the overwhelmingly central motif in cultural theory (and contemporary art practice), namely the body. Massumi is determined to explore the body in the many complex dimensions of the physical as having a force in its own right, without recourse to essentialisms and biologism (though at times he leans quite close to these positions). He borrows from scientific research and theory in order to steer away from a purely phenomenological and philosophical understanding. Massumi is fascinated with the physiology of perception, believing we need a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of how we see, move and feel in order to better understand why we are shaping and being shaped by the media, architectural, and technological environments of contemporary society. Jondi Keane's Perception Lookout echoed this same fascination and motivated similar lines of questioning through the experimental logic of its visual field. In this article I will explore Massumi's thinking as it relates to Keane's work.

There seems to be a growing feeling within media, literary, and art theory that affect is central to an understanding of our information- and image-based late capitalist culture, in which so-called master narratives are perceived to have foundered. . . . The problem is that there is no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect. Our entire vocabulary has derived from theories of signification that are still wedded to structure even across irreconcilable differences . .. In the absence of an asignifying philosophy of affect, it is all too easy for received psychological categories to slip back in, undoing the considerable deconstructive work that has been effectively carried out by poststructuralism. (Massumi, 2002, p.27)

Similarly, over past decades there has been considerable deconstructive work undertaken in the visual arts, interrogating not only visual language (iconoclastically dismembering sign from signifier) and visual economies (puncturing and diverting chains of consumption), but also art itself, foundationally releasing objects from their objecthood. The persistent interrogations of site-specific installation, temporal and performative work, media arts and experiments in interactivity are in danger of becoming undone as we continually slide back into the comfort zone of the gallery. The white box which replicates itself invisibly and virally in our global villages obstinately refuses to challenge the parameters of its purpose. As a blind and hyperactive institutional apparatus it continues to perpetuate the received categories. Like Massumi's call for a theory of affect, Keane's work calls for a practice of affect and a re-interrogation of notions of expression and action.

Upon entering Perception Lookout one was immediately aware that the proper object of inquiry for Keane is the viewer's body. The installation demanded a conscious positioning. The sparse installation elements charted the gallery carefully, and one could not help but read them as relational devices rather than art objects. Many (now conventional) installations work to make the gallery itself into an art object, in an enhanced seduction of form, making cohesive aesthetic statements for the viewer/subject. In Keane's installation one consciously worked to chart a course through the space, to 'get a handle' on an environment that seemed to expand and contract in subtle resonations. Keane's aesthetic was inseparable from this act of practical positioning, and one became aware of one's body as object within the environment (not subject for the environment) and of the environment as a subject for the body, its sensory-perceptual field. This field was not subject for interpretation but for experience.

There was a central gazebo structure indicating north, south, east and west, so one was always aware of the compass, the earth's magnetic field. An invisible line ran through the space at 600mm off the ground - columns, pendulums, and plumb bobs were suspended to this height - producing the sensation that one was wading through a clear substance. I was aware that

I was not looking at Jondi Keane's work as much as I was immersed in it, part of it, resonating with it. My body was another relational device and another dimension, bending space and time in this field of complexity.

For Massumi, the body is a zone – gathering sense data through multiple interfaces (the skin, the eyes, the ears, etcetera), full of sensation, incoming and outgoing continuously in feedback loops of information. Most of this is not happening at a conscious level - indeed, for a sensation to be felt consciously it has to be prioritised, registered, and then 'felt'. Feeling, in this manner, is not immediate, but highly mediated. Consciousness then is derivative, a limitative function, registering a set of feelings from a body over-full of sensation. Continually looping back on itself, it is as if we are always that which escapes us.

The body is as immediately virtual as it is actual. The virtual, the pressing crowd of incipiencies and tendencies, is a realm of potential. In potential is where futurity combines, unmediated, with pastness, where outsides are infolded . . . For out of the pressing crowd an individual action or expression will emerge and be registered consciously. One wills it to emerge, to be qualified, to take on socio-linguistic meaning, to enter linear action-reaction circuits, to become a content of one's life- by dint of inhibition. (pp.30-31)

The continual ability to 'make sense' of one's environment effectively propels the body forward through time. By feeding back on itself the sensory information it collects, the body creates strata, nodes, lines, impulses, etcetera, in fractal patterning, through which the human organism (intelligence or the mind if you like) emerges. The spontaneous production of a level of reality having its own rules of formation and order of connection is what Massumi terms self-organisation. Keane's use of the term in his exhibition subtitle 'the east and west of self-organisation' could also be understood in this way. In Keane's work, the over-coding or meta-discourse that is art or aesthetics, must be read as an emergent system, a 'reality' which was locked in resonance with other strata (layers of temporal and spatial organisation), recapitulating events (particularly the event of seeing) in divergent ways. The spatial dynamics of the gallery itself, the body of the viewer, and the magnetic and gravitational force fields of the earth were all intrinsic to this art experience. Time unfolded within the gallery through two video projections which depicted sunrise and sunset, filmed from the roof of the Arts Centre and projected onto the corresponding walls of the gallery. The work dawned on itself in an artificial realisation and then was undone in its own twilight zone.

Self-organisation is an autonomic functioning - the 'taken for granted' white noise of the sensate mind/body working continually to see, feel, orient, balance, move, and so on. It is a fractal ontology – not concerned with a bounded isolated entity but nevertheless forming a singularity within a field of complexity. The evolution of its structure (our movement through time and place, our ageing and our trajectory) follows a non-linear causality. Massumi calls the 'turning points ' of this causation affect.

Affect or intensity in the present account is akin to what is called a critical point, or a bifurcation point, or singular point, in chaos theory and the theory of dissipative structures. This is the turning point at which a physical system paradoxically embodies multiple and normally mutually exclusive potentials, only one of which is 'selected'. (pp.32-33)

Keane is also concerned with complex causation. In Perception Lookout he integrated elements into a visual environment- the installation, like the body, was also a singularity. It had its own logic or level of reality which drew the viewer into itself. The gallery space was carefully lit so that lines of shadow fell across painted wall surfaces. The body was drawn in closer to determine what was painted and what was not, but the gaze was then drawn across the wall as one followed cast lines of shadow, and the body moved again orienting the void behind.

In the installation environment of Perception Lookout Keane conducted a series of 'live responses'. Jondi Keane and Vanessa Mafe (of performance group Co. M-S-K) invited a group of selected artists from a range of practices (musicians, actors, writers, dancers, and visual artists) to make live responses to the possibilities and associations produced by the installation. The sessions were initially structured by Keane and Mafe who proposed exercises as entry points followed by discussions of the various interpretations and their possible development. Participants were invited to propose exercises or investigate structures. Some exercises were devised to allow each participant a tum at directing the group efforts while other exercises focussed on particular aspects of the installation. These performance sessions were held during gallery opening hours and were open to the public for viewing.

These loose performative experiments further activated the installation environment, adding more layers of physical positioning, densities of matter, visual and sonic interference patterns. From their stark abstraction and acute internal logic emerged a 'play' that was site-specific. Perception Lookout resonated with the hollowness of the Institute of Modern Art, of the gallery environment, its vibrations willing a challenge of purpose and design. The interdisciplinary anti-theatre of these low-key exercises might be understood as a force field for the emergence of implicit form. Flooding the gallery/body with sensation, the actions and reactions that occurred and recurred, traced patterns of causation- sustaining, echoing, fading, murmuring to an invisible infinity, and 'on the way' making works of art.

A germinal or 'implicit' form cannot be understood as a shape or structure. It is more a bundle of potential functions localised, as a differentiated region, within a larger field of potential. In each region a shape or structure begins to form, but no sooner dissolves as its region shifts in relation to the others with which it is in tension. There is a kind of bubbling of structuration in a turbulent soup of regions of swirling potential. The regions are separated from each other by dynamic thresholds rather than by boundaries. (p.34)

The structures of the performance exercises guiding the 'live responses', like the structuring of the installation space, was not the form to be appreciated (as in conventional art or theatre or literary consumption). These structures, or instructions, needed to be played out in order for form to emerge. Structure, when utilised as potential, infolds function (bundling together bodies, objects, gases, etcetera) and then unfolds itself in three-dimensional space and linear time. This playing out or extension was an actualisation. The actualisation for the participants was their expression. Expression then can be understood as a limit to a field of emergence. The singularity which was Perception Lookout involved participants within its structure who resonated within its field and further expressed its reality. The limits of Perception Lookout lay in its actual expression. In the same way the (ordinary) viewer who entered the installation space, navigated and orientated within its environment, expressed the work as a limitation.

What Massumi seems to be articulating is a notion of pure relationality - that there is an incorporeal interval of change between bodies and things, a kind of measureless gap, a time out of space, which is the in-itself of transformation. But what this leads to is a non-biological understanding of physicality-that such an interval of change must be a communicative complexity (more than just a two way street) of which the nerve endings of the body play only a small but vital part. Sensing one's environment involves a zone not only immediately external to the body, but also a zone below the skin. Proprioception is defined as the sensibility proper to the muscles and ligaments. It is a synthetic sensory practice- that is, it involves and combines all the immediate sensory-receptors of the body (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste). Proprioception resides in the cumulative zone of posture- the body's memory habits of being in accordance with its environments, tasks, and will formations.

Proprioception folds tactility into the body, enveloping the skin's contact with the external world in a dimension of medium depth: between epidermis and viscera. The muscles and ligaments register as conditions of movement what the skin internalises as qualities: the hardness of the floor underfoot as one looks into a mirror becomes a resistance enabling station and movement; the softness of a cat's fur becomes a lubricant for the movement of the hand. (pp.58-59)

The body's positionings, emergent through proprioception, are perspectives of the flesh, vectors of corporeality. The eyes, registering onto this plane, do not 'see' anything. Proprioceptively speaking, the body does not have an image. Images, like thought, are part of consciousness and thus are derivative – a conscious 'selection' from sensorial white noise. In order to form an image the body must be still, or in other words, the body must also have an image-vision effectively interrupting itself. Proprioceptively, the eyes nevertheless refer information through what Massumi terms movement-vision. Vision, the flexing of retinal muscle, is a mixed mode of perception, registering both form and movement. The eyes are indeed back holes - beams of light passing through the centre flow in straight lines, registering empirical/ Euclidean space, while those which bend around the pupil rims are reabsorbed into the flesh, topologically mapping folds in sensorial space-time.

The repeated motif of the oval, painted directly onto the gallery walls at regular intervals in Keane's installation, abstractly signalled the event-formation of an image - that is, the mirror. It is the mirror which enables the body to form an image (and an image of itself necessarily which becomes the passage for any 'other' image). On one wall, the ovals were positioned within a painted and illuminated grid of grey and white, following a line of shadow. This symbolic image-event of the subject-object body is another horizon (repeating and transforming the sunrises and sunsets of the video projections) – light bending around the planet/body, eclipsing the self.

The fact that we have an image-code, a symbol, for the mirror again folds back the movement of perception. Through the sophisticated and particular meta-discourses of seeing/reading (art, architecture, design, poetic language, or even identity) we see ourselves seeing. For Keane and for Massumi, this is not simply a philosophical absolute, a condition of being, but a physiological process which is dynamic, adapting and adaptable. For Keane it is the creative target for a practice of affect, generating interference patterns for experimental purpose. In Perception Lookout Keane pasted a paragraph of his own written text over one of the video projections, and a diagram of a cube over the other. Drawings and signs, letters and directions, tools, objects, and pictograms, all converged with one another in a space which continued to intensify the longer one cared to inhabit it.

Plumb bobs were hung at regular intervals a couple of meters out from another gallery wall. Viewers walked behind this implied curtain, as if down a corridor, and the gallery echoed with footsteps. When one of the suspended weights was swung, walls came alive with shadow pattern, and the space was cut with more directional lines. A line of tools rested against this wall, painted white from the 600mm mark, so that their handles partially disappeared. If you leaned against the wall with them, adopting that posture so natural and informal, you found one of the few spots for disappearing in this hyper-conscious space.

Despite, or maybe because of, this over-conscious mapping and signalling, the experience of orientation in the Perception Lookout installation, the east and west of self organisation as it were, became an effort and a challenge. The usually effortless actions and reactions of orientation, one's tendencies and habits, became visible and unusual, while the objective modality of cognition (the reading of the visual as configuration) became formalist and 'meaningless'. One does not have to orient one's self in a white box - or does one? This tension caused a delightful displacement of 'art', pronouncing the subtleties of installation as understood in Keane's practice.

It was found ... that the brain's ability to orient increased the emptier the space. The conclusions were that humans orient more by the 'shape of the space' than the visual characteristics of what's in it. But what is the shape of empty space? Indeterminate-except for the rhythm of movement through it, in its twistings and turnings. The studies were suggesting that the proprioceptive self-referential system - the referencing of movement to its own variations - was more dependable, more fundamental to our spatial experience than the exoreferential visual-cue system. Self-referential orientation is called 'dead reckoning', after the nautical term. It is known to be the basis of many animals' abilities to orient. It is a key element, for example, in the homing pigeon's well-known feats of navigation. Its role in human orientation has significant implications for our understanding of space because it inverts the relation of position to movement. Movement is no longer indexed to position. Rather, position emerges from movement, from a relation of movement to itself. Philosophically, this is no small shift. (p.l80)

For Keane, the precise purpose of the white box is to exercise orientation, and this is a creative act. Through proprioceptively apprehending the gallery, we may empty ourselves into its vacuous continuum, and understand it, not merely as that incubator for the presentation of visual language, but as a force for the interruption of vision. If art and its institutional apparatus teaches us to see, then we must unlearn its discourse. In Perception Lookout, Keane has traced paths of movement through the white-walled space, ways in which the body might attempt to 'free itself' from the confinement of its solidity, its windowless silence, beyond the narcissism of 'Art'. Keane's act of dead reckoning was a restless pacing, the struggle of wading through an invisible asignifying sea. The positions viewers adopted were affects of their presence, erupting from the smooth incessant scanning of alive senses. The white walls marked the limit of acts of continual approach. Approaching - drawing in and drawing out. When coming close to the video projections, dying to touch the untouchable image, only to momentarily become part of a screen for its automated play of light, the body triggered another light overhead and everything was washedout in its brightness.

notes: 

All quotations are from Massumi, B., Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Duke University Press, Durham & London, 2002.

Live response participants were Jondi Keane, Vanessa Mafe, Rebecca Youdell, Russell Milledge, Steve Gration, Stephen Starfield, Lindsay Stafford, Andrew Chan, Nicola Turton, Nardja Williams, Sophia Dunn, Suzanne Boutler, Joanne Chang, Nazinah Shah, Haya Cohen, Christina Smart.

Jondi Keane is a Brisbane-based artist. Beth Jackson is a free-lance writer and curator living in Brisbane.