Humans tend to think a lot of themselves, believing that perception, understanding, and knowing are squarely lodged in their fumbling grasp. Humankind is the fulcrum on which all the world pivots. This is an unfortunate way to go about existence; unfortunate in its dramatic repercussions and in the reduced field one is left with after each and every thing has been instrumentalized. The world as we know it—defined as animals, rocks, wind, bees, telephones, and any stuff that exists external to our immediate bodily boundaries—was subjugated through Humankind’s naming, categorization, and assigning of meaning. These are our mechanisms of control. These semiotic stations where all things are expected to stay remain a testament to our arrogance and myopia.
The pejorative categorization of “Materialist”—someone who is preoccupied with impermanent superficialities—is a distorted categorization. People are not engaged with material. Humans, in actuality, are Abstractionists, as we have no real sense of material or the web of relationships that our bodies are inextricably tied to. Everything we come into contact with has a life prior to and after our interaction with it. The various processes, substances, and workers that go into the production, marketing, sale, disposal, and eventual decomposition mean that even if something is out of sight, it is never truly out of mind. People are porous. Stuff passes into, out of, and through us, as it does with all other things. Visual art is an exceptional tool for reexamining these relationships. The visual arts afford us the opportunity not to solely look and assess but to listen, to wait, to witness.
Wayne Koestenbaum is correct in his book, Humiliation:
The lives of people … are filled with scarlet-letter moments. In these moments we … come to terms with our own vulnerable selves … even as we acknowledge the universal, embarrassing predicament of living in our own bodies.
We must come to understand our perceptions as limited and contingent.
In his book, I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own, the anthropologist Michael Taussig implores us to treat our senses more carefully, more slowly, and ultimately as inadequate as he attempts to reconstruct through his own humble faculties an event he’s just witnessed out the window of a taxi cab.
It’s a difficult prospect as the eyes, in particular, are enacting a cerebral sort of violence on the world, informed by gender, racial, class, and species bias. This culturally composed male mode of looking requires constant interrogation and dutiful suspicion to disempower its source and mitigate resultant impact. It’s a tough, often oppressive condition, for both the looker and the looked at.
The thing is, all sorts of people see with these eyes and they look at all sorts of things. They even believe they look at everything.
Seeing is an entirely different task and the complexities of the world don’t unmask themselves easily. So you wait. You look. You are silent and the world eventually will tell you, or it won’t and the most important thing we can do as a species is be OK with the silence.
How does Art and the rest of the material world live outside of human contact? Human contact is: eyes that look, hands that touch, mouths that taste, ears that hear, and suspicions that never cease.
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own might be just the place for this infinite extra-anthro world to call home. Woolf wrote of practical freedoms for women but also, and equally as important, she described a space for liberated consciousness, identity, and agency where women, and in this case the things of the world, would be free to roam, imagine, exist.
The boundaries and segregation I mentioned must be dissolved. Most importantly, what must be realized is that the boundary never really existed in the first place and that our perceptions are ultimately provisional. Art also enables another relationship, one that resists language’s firm grip. There is mystery, works can be evasive, and avoid penetration.
Once a work is described it can fall apart, its most vital purpose lost to abstraction. Words are drugs, they paradoxically lead us down paths of truth and further out to sea.
Truth: another abstraction.
One need only pick up Rebecca Solnit to hear how hazy real can be and that distance is as easily measured in color as it is with units of length or time.
Language is spectacle and it will hoodwink You. Before you know it, you’re in real trouble and the imperial machine with its proprietary componentry—nouns, verbs, and adjectives, has lulled you into submission and quieted the surrounding world. Here’s the thing, the world is still as loud as ever; it’s just that what’s being heard is muffled. So, how do we go about thinking if we disregard the pull of language, of semiotics? Is there a way to suspend such analytical tendencies?
The eye is yet another implement of abstraction. The human eye consistently forces its gaze onto the world to assess, to define, to lay claim. The eye rarely allows in but more often projects its own culturally derived brand of seeing.
How can our senses become more receptaclelike and do less acting on the world?
Norman Bryson writes about art similarly when he proposes that images aren’t necessarily submissive things that wish to be decoded, to be interpreted. This decoding tends to block our understanding of how pictures are more than just structures of information or ideas. Bryson says that pictures also work affectively projecting entire worlds that we may or may not have access to. Instead of asking, “What does it mean?,” we might be better off asking, “What do you want of me?”
We’re not sure. We could never be.
So why not listen, observe, receive?
This same question of the eye as Passive Receptacle and not Assertive Intruder is explored by the artist Noah Doely.
Noah entrusts ancient mollusks with the task of unlocking the secrets of looking, at a time before and potentially after our existence, or even when we’re not in the room. Noah’s work examines image-making or more specifically truth-making, and the inextricable, inter-influential dependence of the human eye and the camera. There is more out there, and the infantile state of our own looking has restricted what is actually seen. Before both the human eye and its bedmate, the camera, came into being, the Chambered Nautilus—a living fossil having retained the same morphology for 400+ million years— accepted the forms, movement, and rhythms of the world through a primitive eye. This aperture was and remains lens-less, with no cornea, just an open hole that allows light into a dark chamber within the body. Without the lens, it has limited control over what enters and exits. The nautilus has little choice but to bear witness to the world that materializes and dematerializes under its own locomotion. The nautilus’ eye, in contrast to the human eye, is a receptacle and, unlike humans, the nautilus is audience to it all, unable to censor. The eye functions under the same basic principles as the pinhole camera.
Noah’s practice interrogates fact and its murky relationship with fiction, ultimately questioning where the beginnings of these basic problems lie and seeking a fundamental history of everything.
About his current body of photographs Noah says:
I started to imagine views of dark distant places captured through the lens of a pinhole camera. Through this imagery, I’m contemplating a history of the camera and the eye as one that stretches deep into the past: naturally occurring obscura projections transmitting images through cave walls for billions of years, the chamber of a primitive nautilus eye receiving images of underwater landscapes long before humans first appeared, images that exist in the collective memory of the material world but never seen by human eyes.
I created these photographs by casting and arranging rocks into cavelike formations, submerging them in a large water-filled glass tank, lighting these aqueous dioramas from a single light-source and then photographing them with exposures ranging from twenty-four hours to several days using a pinhole camera in an otherwise darkened room. The resulting images are formations much like the nautilus’ eye and pinhole camera: light entering through a simple open hole into an otherwise dark space.
What does the world see with its collective vision and what images existed before any eye was able to apprehend imagery?
Surrealism at its core and The Uncanny both deal in part with the unfamiliar and ambiguous. They are essential tools to pacify a world that is more mysterious than recognizable. They are also necessary in allowing some element of trivialization to creep into our own sense of visual and experiential authorship. By defining them with such terms, we cast a net over those facets of the world, but the net is porous and effectively an ineffective mode of possession.
A real misunderstanding and hubristic tendency of artists is to think Socialization only occurs between people and only through direct communication. In fact, linkages are unending, and more often than not it is impossible to speak or listen to one singular voice, similar to Rosalind Krauss’s assertion that nothing is original in her book, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. To speak to anything means you necessarily communicate with others, the past, the animate and the inanimate. Nothing is linear, by god.
And finally, I visit the terrifying surge in gun-related deaths in the U.S.: A dire situation that is perpetuated in large part by our Country’s unwillingness to acknowledge the vibrant materiality of the weapon. I approach the horrifying semi-reality again, the abstractionist’s world, where firearms are silent tools by which maladjusted individuals carry out terror. In contrast, the exchange that happens between the body and things outside of it—art, objects, images, etc.—are the same influential forces at play when a human clutches a gun.
I am careful here to not excuse shooters from their shooting and am not willing to arrest responsibility from the murderous individual. I am, however, positing that there is a certain amount of complicity on the part of the weapon. The gun enables, it beckons, and is even promiscuous with its desires. The fact that is has been labeled “weapon” is to deny it any other purpose. Gun is always gun and never flower or horse. As a direct consequence, its intended use is shooting and intimidation and nothing else. Protection is just another form of ham-fisted aggression. Maybe what I’m really talking about here is empathy or even an ontology that is oriented toward the thing. As Raymond Van Over states in Unfinished Man:
Rather than empathy with what I might imagine a snake or frog [or in this case a gun] might feel, I was sufficiently absorbed in snakeness and frogness [and gunness] as to wonder vaguely how the humans around me might feel.
Maybe when brandishing a weapon you are not merely holding it but holding with the gun—again, an exchange.
Other peoples believe or know, depending on your perspective, how powerful the external world is. Things have powers, things are agentic, and they most definitely impact us.
The Way of the Gun because the gun does have a way and even a say.
Mike Calway-Fagen is an artist from Nashville, living in Bloomington, Indiana.
*Some writers, thinkers, movies, artists, musicians, ideas to look into:
Alan Watts, Jane Bennett, Graham Harmon, Jenny Hollowell, Bill Brown, Kenneth Gross, Michael Taussig, Jan Verwoert, Pontypool, Duende, Punctum, Sublime, The Uncanny, god