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Motives: Methods for Experimental Practice

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Abstract

This lecture was presented at Hangar Labs in Barcelona, as part of the Paratext series, and will be published in a print edition in 2019. The lecture discusses a hybrid methodology for creative research, applied to modeling systems of communication, meaning generation, and agency, using one of the author's past performances, "MOTIVE," as an example of this methodology at work.
Motives: Methods for Experimental Practice
a lecture by Alicia Champlin
July 12, 2017
Edited for:
Paratext Vol. III
Barcelona, Spain, 2019
(pre-press preview)
When I talk about my art practice, I talk about a research based experimental practice
(rather than a creative practice, a studio practice). This breaks down into 2 main
concepts: Research and Experiment. It may be helpful to think of these two as
Methodology and Method.
In terms of Research, I’m using multiple formal research methodologies to inform my
work: humanities-based inquiry, to find primary & secondary sources; social science
methodologies like interviews & observation; and finally empirical (scientific) research for
things like data analysis, or identifying quantitative outcomes of my work.
From the scientific method, let’s go back to the idea of the Experiment. To design a
proper experiment, you must align it directly with your hypothesis, and allow all decisions
like those regarding the design & the materials to be made by the demands of the
inquiry, not personal aesthetics. The method also must be iterative and incremental; and
lastly, the outcome should be unknown: you design a system, and the system creates
the product.
More briefly, I’m combining a hybridized research methodology with experimental
methods to arrive at this systems based generative art, which is what I would call my
medium. A recent project (Motive, Dec 2016) illustrates these thought processes at work,
and how using this iterative, systems-based approach has offered me a bit of clarity. This
project had its beginnings when I encountered a painting by the postmodernist Yves
Klein in the Guggenheim in Bilbao. (Large Blue Anthropometry, 1960) It’s just one of
many - a whole period of work by Klein. They are made by models (women) covering
their nude bodies with his patented blue paint and then rolling around on the canvas. He
said this helped him to remove himself (his arbitrary aesthetic decisions) from the
resulting work. Here he opened an ongoing question about the place of authorship in art,
essentially arguing that he could play a neutral role. Incidentally, the primary theme I’ve
been interested in for a long time is the way language influences identity, and
subsequently, the way media influences language. I firmly believe there is no such thing
as neutral in this system, especially not for cultural producers. We are all in play; we are
all connected by a networked system of emergent meaning that defines who we are. In
fact, YOU are a feedback loop; observing and reacting, reading and reposting. Klein’s
‘neutral’ approach and this question of authorship really resonated for me and I started
researching the work.
What I found was compelling, but also quite controversial - far from neutral. For good
reason, this work has a long history of feminist backlash. But I couldn’t let go of the
original idea. I wanted to re-test Klein’s hypothesis, but improve on his hideously
insensitive execution. So I applied strict experimental methods to design a system that
might generate the answer for me. Distill the fundamental problem, select only the
materials in keeping with the hypothesis, and avoid variables or symbolism that might
skew the outcome. Strip everything away until all that’s left directly supports the
question. Since the question was one of neutrality, I had to come up with a hands-off
way to get paint, via a neutral body, to the canvas in a way that could generate some
kind of record that was (as Klein said) both iconic (representational) and indexical
(literal), and I wanted to do it without objectifying women the way Klein’s work arguably
did. Eventually I had a bare mechanical system designed to get paint onto a canvas,
mediated by a neutral body: a 5m tripod supporting a bucket of blue paint on a rope and
pulley, with nothing between it and the canvas underneath but the artist. Nothing left but
to test it, to see if the system could speak for itself.
Most of those who saw the first performance were just confused by it unless they knew
the context of Klein’s blue period, and the resulting feminist issues. The physical output
of this generative system itself was something less than the expressive, articulate result
I’d hoped for. In fact, the plastic coverall I wore got far more attention as a document of
action painting, as a representation of the objectified body, than the ‘painting’ on the
canvas did. This was not at all the outcome I expected. But unintended results can teach
you a lot about what you are doing. This is why we iterate. Underwhelming results, and
work that doesn’t articulate what it’s meant to, these are actually really good feedback.
Every failure is an opportunity - these details about what didn’t work, they allow you to
map the terrain a bit better each time, until you can see enough of the pitfalls to be able
to navigate a bit more confidently. What I saw through this experience, was that this
representational and literal barrier (the hazmat suit), which was meant to keep separate
the author (meaning both myself, and Yves Klein) from the process, ended up being the
most expressive and least neutral component in the whole system.
But back to the methodology. When scientists get unexpected results from their
experiments, they tighten up the controls of the experiment, to try to find out why. You
learn everything you can from the results you got. You do your best to remove external
or unintended influences. And you improve on what was effective.
So I ran the performance again a few weeks later, making adjustments in the visual
vocabulary, the staging, and the language leading up to the event. The second outcome
brought similar physical results, but with better production value, thanks to a little more
attention to the details. I deliberately included time for discussion afterward, and there
was a wider debate this time about the intent of the work and what it managed to
articulate, visually & conceptually. This was still centered around the question of
objectification, but it was a critique of this performance’s ability to effectively demonstrate
neutrality, rather than a response to male authorship of the female form. We argued the
differences between neutrality and passivity, and the merits of creating symbolic barriers.
What ended up becoming fairly clear to me in the end is that there is likely no way to use
the body as a neutral agent in a system, without accepting that a body is already by
nature a semiotic heavyweight, an icon in its own right. More than almost any other form
in our visual vocabulary, “body” nearly always evokes objectification - it is sexualized,
politicized, and truly quite articulate (both in the physical and linguistic senses) whether
we intend it or not. It’s probably one of the oldest entries in our human lexicon - just think
back to cave paintings, or imagine how expressive even a stick figure can be. To use the
body metaphorically or literally is to invoke all that comes with it symbolically.
This has become a foundational lesson for me as I take on other projects which look
deeper into the nature of networked communications and self perception. I am still
curious about the idea of a fundamentally neutral vocabulary, but now I can be sure that
even the so-called neutral body is a major force in visual media and mediation. Further, I
still see neutrality in authorship as an open question - a question that seems to beg for a
strict, systems-based, generative approach to cultural production. I can now also focus
my overall research (regarding the networked perception of language and identity) with a
stronger conviction that as individuals we must acknowledge our participatory role in
Communication, no matter how passive or how neutral we think we are. Going forward
as I have into digital and data feedback projects, these analog lessons continue to be
the touchstones of my practice.
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