Sophia Dacy-Cole interviews artist and theorist Erin Manning on her keynote ‘For a Pragmatics of the Useless’ at the Transversal Matters conference, Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, September 2015.
10.1 focuses on Russian theorist Boris Aratov’s concept of the co-worker: the idea that objects are not merely inert, but have some autonomy. In this framework, we co-compose the world alongside objects. The concept of the co-worker would have been at home in the 2015 New Materialisms conference at the VCA. Particularly in your keynote ‘for a Pragmatics of the Useless’, which focused on the infrathin, or ‘the most minute of intervals’. The infrathin affirms the autonomy of the material world because it exists only in the moment of becoming: the instant where things show how mercurial and indeterminate they are. Both the concepts of the co-worker and the infrathin assert the agency of materials and undermine the traditional subject/object dichotomy in Western thought. Your lecture helped me to think about my own changing understanding of materials and becoming. My research exists between affect, studio practice and my experience of activist direct action. Recently, I’ve begun to feel that there’s a flourishing that happens when one doesn’t try too hard to control the outcome of an artwork or an action, while still remaining completely engaged in it. In casting particularly, which is central to my studio process, having an open approach allows one to work with the inevitable accidents of the process — learning about and adapting to the materials, rather than working against them. I’m hoping to draw out the concept of the infrathin as you understand it, and to begin to understand the consequences that such a concept might have for studio practices and for political engagement.
: You follow French artist Marcel Duchamp’s line that the infrathin cannot be defined, but only communicated through examples, could you please start with some?
: It’s important to emphasise that it’s not a concept that Duchamp theorised about, it’s a concept that existed in the midst of his making. From what we understand, these were simply little pieces of paper that he composed sentences on. There are somewhere around 34 and as you said, he says that the infrathin can only exist through examples. Here are a few of them: ‘the warmth of a seat which has just been left is infrathin’, or ‘the subway gates, the people who go through at the very last moment – infrathin’, or ‘velvet trousers, their whistling sound in walking’. ‘The brushing of the two legs is an infrathin separation signalled by sound, but is not an infrathin sound’. Or, my favourite: ‘the difference between the contact of water and that of molten lead for example, or of cream with the wall of its own container moved around the liquid. This difference between two contacts is infrathin’. So, those are some of the examples, but as you can see, they are all very much in the situation and there seems to me to be a really pragmatic element to the examples, which encourages you to try it out. To what degree does this example activate something like the infrathin?
: Are there any examples of the infrathin in your own life that you’ve noticed recently?
: For the past decade or so, my own work has been very invested in how perception works and its relationship with movement. I spent a lot of years thinking about modes of perception that complicate, slow-down or alter our relations to categories of existence, such as objects. For example, I’m really interested in the ways in which autistics articulate their experience of perception and the way that they explain how perception for them doesn’t have a tendency to, in their words, chunk around objects. So, if you begin to engage with a world outside of, or before the chunking happens, you’re in the midst of the infrathin, inevitably. And I think that it’s probably part of the instruction in any art scenario, or any movement scenario, that there’s going to be a search for qualities of the infrathin. For me the day is made up of infrathin examples because I’m on a lookout for all of the varieties of infrathin-ness that compose with those chunks of perception that we normally understand as what is actually visible in the world: the cars, the street, the buildings, the metro and so on. The infrathin would, in my understanding of it, always be an accompaniment to those chunks, objects, appearances. But the infrathin in and of itself would also remain un-namable, because it’s not an object, it’s a quality of perception that accompanies them and has a kind-of qualitative intensity.
: You described the infrathin as calling-forth the ‘fourth-person singular’ using the example of
(it rains) where the action is happening with neither subject nor object. I thought that this might be a good opening into discussing the relation between art and the infrathin, as art, especially contemporary art, works to undermine the idea of viewer as subject and artwork as object. This fits in nicely with your assertion that ‘what art can do is create the conditions for another way of perceiving’. How do you think that art moves us towards a perception that might notice the infrathin?
: These ideas were built on the proposition that we might think art in its medieval definition as ‘the way’. So, in thinking about what art can do, I’m not necessarily thinking about what an art object can do. Though, of course as an artist, I’m also thinking about what something called an artwork can do. But I’m always in that double-articulation of art as a kind-of gesturing toward other modes of existence and art as the work itself. What I like about the idea of art as ‘the way’, or ‘way’, is that it emphasises that art involves a particular relation to materials. In some cases the materials are very obviously material, like paint or stone or wood or paper or a pen, et cetera. In other practices, they can be more immaterial, like in performance practice, but they retain a certain quality that I would put on the side of the material. And so the question for me is: to what degree does art’s interest in the material as a mode of thinking take us into a realm that allows different things, experiences and different qualities of experience to come into expression?
And in my work, I’m equally interested in how this happens without a human intervention so I think about what I call the artful in contexts that don’t involve the human, the contexts, for example, of the turning of the leaves in the Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere and the quality of the air, I think that’s artful. It proposes a shift in perception that is deeply felt, that has affects, but that is not simply the sum of its parts. You can’t reduce it into a zero-sum game. So, on the side of the artwork, I would say that in those rare occasions where art really does its work, that’s what it’s doing. It’s refusing to reduce to the sum of those materials, the sum of those thoughts or to the sum of those concerns. It’s managing to activate a shift in how the instant expresses itself.
And this perceptual shift is not necessarily a shift that has to happen in the duration of the time of a viewing of a work, it might have other kinds of durations, and that leads to the question that so many artists have asked, which is how do you know when an artwork is doing its work? And I don’t think there’s a general answer to that. I think you have to ask it again and again and again, but the very fact that the call is there to ask that question suggests that art can do that kind of work. So what I’m trying to do is to ask that question again and again through artworks as they come into encounter, to my own work as it’s unfolding. To ask whether it’s performing a gesture that it knows how to perform? Or whether it’s actually opening something up? And if it’s opening something up, are the conditions there for a follow-through of that opening up? In my experience, it’s rare that they are. Certainly as an artist, it’s rare that I feel like I’m capable of following those through. But I think that at least for me, that’s what makes art-making as rich as it is, that it carries that potential for that carrying-through, and in the carrying through, something like infrathiness comes to perception and appearance and they make themselves felt, and out of that there’s a shifting in experience. And there’s the political valence of the process-feeling.
: The theme of this issue of un. is ‘co-worker’: Boris Arvatov’s idea that objects are dynamic, agental and contribute to the socio-political landscape. I think the concept of the materials in the artists’ studios as co-workers parallels your discussion of the infrathin in studio practice, where the indeterminate infrathin affordances of the materials make the studio practice relational — the agency is neither entirely in the object or the maker. I liked, particularly the quote you took from Paul Chan about studio practice: ‘What art ends up expressing is the irreconcilable tension that results from making something, while intentionally allowing the materials and things that make up that something to change the making in mind’. How do you understand the relationship between the concepts of co-worker and the infrathin? And how do you understand their relationships to studio practice?
EM: So tell me a little bit more about how co-worker is being articulated in the issue.
: This is how it’s discussed in the callout: ‘two key tenets of Arvatov’s original concept seem particularly pertinent now, the acknowledgement of material things as having autonomous, productive force along with an interest in how such dynamism can be harnessed to activate and draw together divergent subjects, as the service of a shared vision or goal’. And some of the questions are: ‘What new narratives might we forge in relation to things? What connections and processes do these activate? Can inanimate matter be seen to have its own force, agency or being? Does such a concept allow us to seriously consider things as potential co-workers to human practice, as a force for social change? What would it mean to shift our conception of the material object or artwork from that of a commodity to that of a co-worker?’
: That gives me a sense. For me a concept really takes a while to take shape, and I have to understand how it does its work. The co-worker is the newer concept for me, so it’s a little vague to me as a concept. The reason I hesitated around it is that my first instinct toward it is to think about it in relation to work and then in relation to human work, but I think it’s being theorised in another way. I suppose what I would say is that the infrathin is not something that does work
. It’s something that appears in the midst of a complexity, that in A N Whitehead’s vocabulary, has a quality of negative prehension. In perception, there’s a constant backgrounding and foregrounding of what we perceive, so we don’t perceive something like a landscape painting where you have certain things in-focus and certain things out-of focus. Perception is constantly moving and with this movement, there’s a constant realigning of how things are foregrounded and backgrounded. And in that foregrounding-backgrounding of experience, there are tendencies that activate, complicate and nuance what it is that appears in perception. I’m just using visual perception in this example, but you’d have to then push this into all modes of perception, when I’m thinking about the infrathin, I’m not actually usually thinking about visual perception, I’m thinking about a whole complex of perception where it’s moved to more the amodal realms. But however you conceive of it, the infrathin is something that becomes perceptible or felt under certain conditions. The question is always whether the conditions are there for it to be perceived, and so it doesn’t seem to me to have the quality of a co-worker. Though, I think that a technique of co-working might be a really good one to activate the conditions for the infrathin.
With regards to the studio, it’s been clear to me in the last little while, how varied our understanding of studio practice is. Some of us, like me, have a place we go to, where we experiment with materials. Other people work intermittently on a computer, or in the world. So, the studio practice writ large might be the attention paid to practice and the honing of that practice. And in the honing of that practice, sensitivities are also honed that allow the complexity of materiality, or immaterial materiality to come to the fore. And I think it’s probably fair to say that in order for that to happen, all kinds of rituals are set into place and they’re, in a way, rituals for blurring that strong relationship between foreground and background. Studio practice, however we name it and however we do it, is a certain commitment to feeling, looking, sensing differently. And in that sense, perhaps the studio practice is a site where that example of co-working happens. In my case, I’m working on material for an exhibition, and where the material in my apartment might be a piece of clothing that I put into the closet and don’t really spend time with, the material in the studio becomes a much more complex proposition. There, I’m able to engage with its own potentials, its elasticity, its quality, the quality of the weave, the strength of the warp and the weft, et cetera. Here, the material takes on certain tendencies, and the making, or what we call ‘art’, is about following those tendencies, which often leads us to failure. I had one of those days in the studio last week where I worked fourteen hours and it really was a disaster and I think I probably knew very early on that it wasn’t working, but one of the interesting things about a practice is that it does have its own duration, and you actually have to follow it through to see whether it’s doing the work or not, continue putting the paint on the canvas, or follow-through with the movement proposition, or in this case, with the textile proposition. But when it really fails, there’s this sense that I knew all along that I was not attending to the tendencies, that I was forcing them to do something that wasn’t necessarily productive or interesting. So I think that if you take the idea of the co-worker really seriously, you’d have to also bring in the question of how the material, or how the environment, or how the event space doesn’t necessarily facilitate an easy encounter.
Sophia Dacy-Cole is an MFA candidate at Monash University. Her research concerns the co-mingling of process philosophy, contemporary art and grassroots activism.
Listen to the full interview with Sophia Dacy-Cole and Erin Manning as part of un Extended 10.1.