THE ART OF CREATING MOMENTS OF STILLNESS IN A VOLATILE WORLD

15 01 2009

by DEW HARRISON and BARBARA RAUCH

INTRODUCTION

As researchers and practicing artists we are currently collaborating in an area where our interests merge – the associative thinking apparent within the dreaming and the conscious mind.  With Rauch as Ms Dream and Harrison, Ms Real, we have explored a conceptual co-joining into one mindset through a number of projects, including Physical_Chat 1 and 2, and are currently working on Physical_Dream, which involves the possibility of ‘flocked’ thought trails and dreamscapes. We are interested in weaving together the conscious and the subconscious, the rational and the emotional, the awake and the dreaming brain using computer technology in our attempt to compound a creative mind.

Contemporary understandings within our separate interests have enabled us to meld these binary mindstates via the interim position of the ‘daydream’, in which one is neither awake nor asleep. We see daydreaming as the dovetailing of dreams and real-take into an holistic understanding of a compound thought arena. It is a conceptually suspended duration of time, a liminal space at the threshold between consciousness and unconsciousness. A stillness of being, an interruption in our daily life flow of focussed activity that can be paralleled with Virilio’s ‘moment of inertia’ and state of ‘picnolepsia’. We would like to put to you that the techno-daydream is a ‘stillness of duration’ and argue that it could be a necessary and positive attribute to modern life in our volatile world. Specifically as a safe, convivial place for an artist to engage with an audience.

MS DREAM AND MS REAL

Within our research collaboration we are exploring the extent to which new technologies allow us a space of consciousness where we can meet and engage with our audience in an unthreatening arena of activity, the free-associative liminal state of the techno-daydream. The daydream can be seen as an in-between position where thinking is liberated and allows for free-form connections. The body is awake and active but the mind is open to drifting dream-like thoughts on the threshold of being fully one or the other. Neither dreaming nor awake the ‘daydream’ is a state of consciousness where the awake and dreaming mind can meet and allow for leaps of thought which maybe unobtainable through logical thinking and computer programming. Both the associative thinking of the awake mind and the thoughts of the dreaming brain are non-linear and can therefore be sustained through digital technology.

We are currently working in partnership with the Virtual Landscape Theatre at the Macaulay Institute, to create a daydream experience. Individually we continue to follow our own specifics. Rauch (Ms Dream) researches into the neuroscientific model of the unconscious brain and the non-linearity apparent within dreaming narratives and has recently been morphing 3D scanned facial expressions marrying the emotive sleeper to the awake and rational. Harrison (Ms Real) remains interested in holding complex inter-connected ideas electronically in line with the human mind, which stores concepts through the semantic association of idea and thought. This has elicited a preliminary contribution to the daydreamscape research for ‘Physical_Dream’ of 3 digital non-linear films dealing with the memory of daydreaming through a spectator sport. The next work currently underway takes the form of a moving painting of self-organising ‘flocked’ thought trails around a specific subject, offered for contemplation and deep thought with minimal physical action required of the viewer.

The first section of this paper, ‘Associative Thinking’, goes some way towards positioning the techno-daydream as a valid space in which such art can happen with reference to the ideas of Virilio, and Adorno’s understandings of leisure or ‘free’ time. The second part, ‘Emotional Thinking’, takes a deeper look at what the mindstate of daydreaming is, a combinatory area of emotional and rational thought.

ASSOCIATIVE THINKING

Technology is reconfiguring our relationship with the world and our own sense of being and consciousness, our thinking. Harrison & Rauch prefer to work with collative methods, often collaborating to find an interstice within the formally constructed social spaces where art can happen and engage with its audience. The daydreamscape should proffer such a space. According to Nicolas Bourriaud “The Aura of contemporary art is a free association” (Bourriaud 2002, 61), he is referring here to Relational Aesthetics and so makes a case for social engagement within an art practice. This free association is a wider contextualisation outside the gallery spaces and into the everyday which can be seen as “Parachuting artists into given situations.” (Doherty 2003), a conditional result of the globalisation of art. The free association can also be taken as an extension of the semantic net-worked artwork continued out into the daily lives of its viewers. New technologies can come into play here and position artists within social niches and specific sties to find new audiences. However, our audience may now be looking for us the artists in unobserved places as a way of participating in Guy Debord’s “free creation of events” (Debord 2002, 244) thus finding the escape route within their free time. Ms Dream and Ms Real  aim to meet them in their constructed daydream space where they can rest, still for a while at their own leisure.

Within this project ideas of daydreaming have arisen with regard to Paul Virilio’s work on inertia and picnolepsy. His argument for the acceleration of modern life, the immediacy of information and an understanding of distance as time, led him to the statement “Now everything arrives without any need to depart” – “Polar inertia” (Virilio 2000, 20). Virilio observes that the arrival of dynamic vehicles carrying people or information such as the car, has been replaced by the arrival of multimedia items into static vehicles. Telecommuncations have brought in the era of “staying on the spot” or “housebound inertia” (Virilio 2000, 22). This is reflected in car design where speed is a selling point even when over the lawful limit. Within racing car performance the ultimate extreme, according to Virilio (Virilio 2000), is to make the starting and finishing line coincide, and this can be paralleled with the idea of teleportation into the architecture of the intelligent home. It is this understanding of “movement without moving” (Virilio 2000, 25) facilitated by new technologies within our ordinary everyday life, which has informed the making of the three digital non-linear films.

They are films of social sporting activities, cricket, swimming, cross-country ski-ing, representing the leisure time of a small community in rural N.E. Scotland without access to a cinema or theatre.  As a spectator, there are moments of concentrated focus on the event, on the action, and lapses of interest where the eye meanders around the scenery – daydreaming ensues until brought back to the action.  The films exist as faithful memories of events where leisure and daydreaming are encouraged as legitimate forms of time out and therefore allow us a “disappearance” (Virilio 1991) from the everyday. They are part of a series of Digital Action Paintings comprised of digital looped films which remain more painting than film in that they are each seen all-at-once and projected at painting scale in painting positions. Each film is a collation of over-lapping still environmental images incorporating two QT movies of human action, all of various transparency levels combined into one piece. The collage effect is enabled by new lens technologies and combinatorial software for the interweaving of moving and still images. The work therefore bridges new media and traditional practice in that they are digital but address the conventional values apparent within flat surface picture making designed to move the eye around the canvas.

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Figure 1: Green. Digital Action Painting No: 2. Copyright: the author. 

Our leisure or free time is our official stillness from our everyday activity of work but continues to be organised for us by the culture industry, now firmly in the hands of global corporations. Corporate globalisation rather than art or philosophy determines our culture and lifestyle and also directs our everyday life by designing our work patterns and allotted free time. Theodor Adorno’s pessimistic predictions on the culture industry’s goal of homogeneity (Adorno 1991) still play out today and in particular with regard to the phenomena of free time or life outside work, our work-less time. His critique addresses the work ethics of wage labour with its distinct work and free time, and highlights the dilemma within “And yet, in secret as it were, the contraband of modes of behaviour proper to the domain of work, which will not let people out of its power, is being smuggled into the realm of free time.” (Adorno 1991, 164) He focuses on the inanity of leisure activities and in particular the hobby supplied by the leisure industry for profit while keeping people as amateurs. If labour power has become a commodity then the expression hobby amounts to a paradox where “Organized freedom is compulsory.” (Adorno 1991, 165)

We are given time for leisure and relaxation in order to work more effectively afterwards, without distraction or the need to lark about, but we are then provided with activities to prevent total inaction which would lead to boredom and objective desperation.  Those activities are never too demanding i.e. Sunday cricket, or they would become work, can be essentially passive i.e. watching T.V., or quasi-active i.e. recent spectator sports which, according to Henri Lefebvre, (Lefebvre 1991) allows the supporter to attend, participate and play sport via an intermediary.  Lefebvre sees leisure and work as the interlocked elements of everyday life and insists that we cannot step beyond or escape the everyday in its entirety “the marvellous can only exist in fiction and the illusions people share…And yet we wish to have the illusion of escape as near to hand as possible.” (Lefebvre 1991, 39) However, leaving us on a more optimistic note, Adorno suggests that individuals will continue to resist contrived free time and find ways of approaching freedom proper (Adorno 1991). To some extent more flexible working hours and changing lifestyles are merging work and social time allowing for shorter, more frequent pockets of free time. Computers in the work place allow for gaming and online social interactions under cover of work and although we may feel constantly under surveillance in our Big Brother world, we are aware of deviant ways out. Employing daydreaming as a private method of escape from work is commonplace. Extending this through art and the constructed techno-daydream experience offers a means of disappearance from even officially allotted leisure time and in so doing may offer true stolen episodes of stillness in the chaos of contemporary life.

EMOTIONAL THINKING

The second part of this paper offers insights into the mindstate of daydreaming and how this usually considered leisure time is in fact also the time for positioning diverse thoughts. In particular, it seems, the brain carries out an emotional balancing of various thoughts. New connections are probably being made during the daydreaming process.

Research into daydreaming has relied on retrospective reports and reflective introspection. Like with dream reports, this is a backward recall of thoughts where one verbalises a stream of thought as it occurs. Daniel Dennett does not refer directly to the term daydreaming but he explains how human beings developed a habit of “’replaying events in [their] minds’ over and over” (Dennett 2005, 169). He suggests further that this behaviour provides the important source of episodic memory and cannot be considered wasteful or useless at all: we rehearse, repeat, train, to later recall the lesson or episode. This instant replay and reverberating, he explains, is needed to store episodic events. Furthermore he elaborates that this explains “infantile amnesia” where the child was too young to use verbal language to replay events. This act of self-conditioning that relies on self-stimulation is not available in animals. Dennett explains this condition as “echo-capacity”, a situation that facilitates long-term episodic memory. To finalise this thought train: replay and rehearsal mean reflection on several levels. In this respect, it relates to a methodology explained by Alvesson and Sköldberg as reflexivity. (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2000)

As explained above, while daydreaming offers replay and rehearsal under conscious conditions, the dreaming brain has been theorised as its unconscious counterpart. Antti Revonsuo (2006) elaborates a Threat Simulation theory (TST) for the function of dreaming; a theory that the world-simulation we know as “dreaming” is specialized in the simulation of dangers and threatening events. In Revonsuo’s analysis (2006, 111) these mental fictive worlds are what make us understand the real world, and even assumes that this function might go back to early stages of human development. He also argues that a model representation is needed for matching real and imagined memories and details. He argues that creativity and flexibility are required in the brain to find possible answers to match old ideas with new incoming data/ experience so as to rebuild the model of the “world-for-me” (Revonsuo’s expression [Revonsuo 2006, 182]). Threat simulations in dreams are activated mostly when they are needed, i.e. when something threatening or stressful has been perceived. In these circumstances we construct an artificial situation within which to rehearse for emergencies. This is to practice, in advance, for any potential threats in the real world. Revonsuo claims that the “world-for-me” is primarily a “navigational device in the brain”. With this theory, Revonsuo offers an understanding of “reality as an illusion” made entirely by the brain. The human body is understood as an interface which delivers a model of this “world-for-me”. He further proposes that a personal view of the world exists in the brain as a model with which we can rehearse dangerous situations, including obviously also social threats; he points out that we are in the end social animals (Revonsuo 2006, 418/9).

Revonsuo (2006, 237) insists that this natural virtual reality model is also used to navigate real situations since we cannot, every time we encounter something in the outside world, reinvent the experience itself. It is easier to build on our existing model as representation of the real. This model, of course, is constantly being updated and I suggest that daydreaming plays a part in the process of updating our model of the world. My research into the dreaming brain (Rauch 2005) led me to the issues of emotion. Dreaming is driven by the forebrain system of the brain, and, as Hobson justifies, it is primary emotion that seems to shape the dream plot. The limbic system and, in particular, the amygdala shown in PET-scans are hyperactive, causing emotional direction in dreaming (Hobson 2001, 77). One of the leading figures in emotion research is Antonio Damasio.

Damasio discusses the error of the Cartesian view wherein scientists studied only the body, while matters of the mind were left to religion and philosophy. Only recently have cross-disciplinary approaches emerged in the area of brain/mind study. Damasio’s concern about this mutually exclusive dualism, where the brain and mind are seen as separate entities, is of interest for consciousness research. “The organism constituted by the brain-body partnership interacts with the environment as an ensemble, the interaction being of neither the body not the brain alone.” (Damasio 1994, 88). Although consciousness arises within the brain it is still questionable whether this therefore situates the mind in the “physical realm” of the brain (Damasio 1994, 94/95).

According to Damasio, mind is an integrated function of an advanced organism arising through evolutionary selection. The developing brain, when it became complex enough, produced mental responses (i.e. thoughts and daydreams) that may have contributed to survival. As he states, “the minded brain minded the body” (Damasio 1994, 230). The survival mechanism can be thought of as a greater appreciation of external circumstances, with a “prediction of future consequences by way of imagining scenarios and planning actions” (Damasio 1994, 229). If, further, we take on board that rationality and emotion are interlinked, and that there is no split between body and mind, we enter Damasio’s hypothesis of the “somatic marker” (Damasio 1994, 173): a dynamic representation of what is happening in the body. The signals given by the body are of emotional value to the person and any future decision-making, even if not consciously acknowledged. “Somatic markers may not be sufficient for normal human decision-making since a subsequent process of reasoning and final selection will still take place in many though not all instances. Somatic markers probably increase the accuracy and efficiency of the decision process. Their absence reduces them.” (Damasio 1994, 173)

Our brief discussion of daydreaming has concerned an outer and inner view of it as a discrete, still place of dynamic thought. We suggest that it exists as a bridge between the rational and the emotional mind, between the awake and the sleeping brain, as a coming together of conscious and unconscious thought. We hope to apply the concepts of daydreaming because it can be argued to be a necessary and positive attribute to modern life in our technocratic culture in that it encourages moments of stillness and inertia.

Bibliography

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  6. Adorno, Theodor W. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge, 1991.
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  13. Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. London: Papermac, Macmillan General Books, 1994.

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