By Susie Marcroft
Southern Cross University, Australia
Metaphors such as ‘to walk in another’s shoes’ become so embedded in the vernacular as clichés that they lose traction. But now more than ever we need to probe such metaphors for insight. My creative research titled Strange Little Attractors is one such imaginative probing. It explored how the notion of taking an-Other’s perspective might be experienced within artistic production if such dichotomies as mind/body, self/other and subject/object could be collapsed during the act of making. And following from this, could I develop creative strategies for my interspecies hybrid sculptures to act transformatively in the world through their affective qualities?
This project arose from a critique of reductionist epistemologies that discouraged subjective responses to phenomena by positioning the agency of enquiry at a distance to the object of investigation, and the ethical implications of not taking both objective and subjective dimensions into account. Physicist Karen Barad (2007, 185) coined the term “onto-epistem-ology” for this subject-object blended methodology, also recognising that our “intra-actions” in the world carry ethical responsibilities, perceived through our empathetic responses to being in the world.
Artistic or aesthetic ways of knowing do combine thinking and feeling through an oscillation between the subjective and objective dimensions within creative research, and can reveal ethical imperatives. Artists often juxtapose and blend contradictory concepts and see patterns in otherwise disparate elements. Therefore, creative research can be understood to have an epistemological dimension and is a means of re-perceiving through the processes of artistic production.
In seeking ways to explore how a subject-object merged mind-frame might translate in an art practice grounded in the animal, I tended to other disciplines in my attempt to resolve the mind/body and body/body dichotomies, speculating that consciousness might be unbound.
I once experienced a profound perceptual shift as a teenager after losing control of my horse while riding bareback at a downhill gallop. Perhaps the fear of a fatal fall triggered this sense of bodily merging with my horse. I perceived her legs striding out in front as mine (although there was no way of knowing if my horse also perceived herself as having merged with me).
The work titled Appaloosa Luna that depicts a child happily upside-down on a horse’s back, expresses this sensation, not as a fearful experience, but as a joyful or playful one. Could it have been that my rational mind, recognising such a dire predicament, relinquished control to my knowing body that was then able to rescue the situation and bring the ride to a safe conclusion? It is interesting to note that when I retell this story through language I recall it as a fearful experience, yet the body’s retelling in the tacit1 handling of the clay expressed it as a joyful one. Not only was the division between self and Other not fixed—such as in this experience of feeling bodily merged with my horse and in having smelt horse sweat while making this piece—but through my artistic production, alternative understandings emerged.
For example, random decision-making in the studio not driven by logic allows me to combine unresolved and otherwise unrelated clay pieces. In this work I placed the arms, legs and head of a child onto the horse’s back, the main focal point. So in this recombining of both human and non-human appendages, two resolutions arose: the horse was given legs (albeit a child’s) and I found a purpose for other cherished but unresolved pieces. In a later reflection on this work I recognised the perceptual experience of bodily merging with my horse.
I witnessed another embodied relationship between my two-year-old niece and her soft-toy ‘animals’. Each morning she would let out curdling screams after experiencing a separation in leaving them behind in her cot. I perceived this perceptual orientation to her soft toys as similar to the one I experienced riding my horse. From this, child-animal hybridity became a useful trope within my art making, beginning with a hybrid sculpture of a child and soft toy bear in the work titled Leche y Miele. Claws taken from the road kill of a small fox were offered to me as a late addition, ambiguously blurring the divide between soft toy and real animal.
These perceptual shifts, and a personal experience of expanded consciousness2 (in which I rose above my body, moving upwards through the roof to what I perceived as cloud level), underpinned my notion of a reality in which the subject/object divide was collapsed and consciousness was free to roam outside the personal boundary of skin, conventionally considered the physical barrier of the self. This led to the development of an important conceptual creative tool.
Conceptual Process as a Creative Tool in the Studio
To research an experience of undivided reality within this creative project required circumventing what philosopher David Chalmers (1996, IX–X) called, the “hard” problem of consciousness or first-person experiences. As the subjective nature of consciousness eludes reductionist understandings, this required taking a speculative position on consciousness as being enfolded within the interconnected life-field, which although external to me, enfolds me within it. I associated this notion of a conscious, dynamic life-field with what Karen Barad (2007, 181) termed the “spacetimematter manifold” where space, time and matter are mutually constituted through the dynamics of iterative intra-activity.
I drew upon innovative science and post-human critical thinking to develop a non-dualistic conceptual process of making. I followed strands of similar thinking within biology, human-animal studies, neuro-psychology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of physics.
Rather than thinking of the external world as separate, I imagined it interiorised under the scrutiny of my own subjectivity through emotional and sensory responses, then imaginatively externalised through my art objects, and thus open for further processing by a viewer. In this way I saw myself as enfolded in the external world and it enfolded in me. Therefore, concepts, ideas, forms and the like were in a constant state of becoming, through a continuous oscillation between inner and outer realms.
Reflecting on this oscillation between inner and outer dimensions brought to mind two metaphors of ambiguous movement within a system: the Klein bottle (Fig. 1), a three-dimensional topological metaphor of the interconnectivity and “interplay of subject and object” in a self containing life-world (Rosen 2008, 562); and the Ouroboros (Fig. 2), commonly reflecting infinity as one continuous balancing movement between two opposing forces. The dynamical, continuous flow I imagined between oppositional poles in the Ouroboros became a useful representation of the oscillation or processing between my inner and outer realms, thinking and making in creative research, and between subject and object in an empathetic experience. With each turn in the oscillation came a novel shift in the becoming of the creature I was making. This involved a to-ing and fro-ing between an unconscious or intuitive mind-frame, or what I termed ‘conscious suspension’, and a rational, analytical mind-frame. Each informed and influenced the other in an ongoing, intra-active game play.
This conceptual model of consciousness became a tool that allowed for rhizomatic connections to the life-field that I viewed as a novel feedback loop. Importantly, any creative decision-making through rational thinking would be drawn from ideas and concepts already known. I regarded the brain as a mediator of consciousness, not a generator of original thought. As I came to trust and commit to this process, I sensed the life-field respond increasingly through serendipity and synchronicity3, arousing my perceptual and emotional responses, as I will soon reveal. My efforts centred on playfully interpreting the myriad of entanglements I had with the life-field through the act of making, speculating that traces might somehow become embedded in these little creatures as affects.
Using consciousness as a ‘tool’ for finding novel connections is perhaps best represented in my work titled The Tribe’s Language Remained Largely Meaningless, which depicts a small boy’s upper torso and head that sprouts a vine-like branch. The boy’s eyes are closed as though he were mindfully elsewhere. In the meantime, an owl printed on his t-shirt has emerged from the two-dimensional plane, and in an attempt to catch a mouse, rips off its tail. The mouse also greedily feasts on its own tail in competition with the owl. The elements featured in this work emerged from responses to the life-field that were random and/or non-linear in nature. For example, in this work, hearing an owl call while producing this piece and having a random memory recall of some years prior finding two bush mice caught in a bucket, one appearing to have chewed on the head of the other. When nature attracted my attention or a memory was evoked through some perceptual response to being in the world, I took this as a cue for making, afterwards finding the work to be metaphorically compelling in ways that offered multiple readings.
Using a non-linear approach to consciousness as a tool was risky. Rather than controlling the creative process rationally, I had to trust in making decisions rhizomatically from my responses to the life-field, as serious yet creative play. One method I developed to remain open to this ‘language’ was by watching relevant Youtube lectures and listening to podcasts. This suspended my conscious decision-making by keeping my mind engaged elsewhere, while my hands were free to make through a tacit knowing of their own. I felt this was the only way to produce anything novel, as my rational mind could only direct the making along known (either conscious or unconscious) neurological pathways already psychologically laid out.
The conceptual process that I termed ‘conscious suspension’ became a major tool in the studio. Drawing from those radical schools of thought within innovative science and post-human critical thinking that allowed for expanded consciousness, I was able to find novel connections within what I perceived as two interconnected oscillations: one inner, between my rational thinking and bodily knowing; and another outer, between the life-field and me.
Strange Stirrings and Somatic Responses
This process led to perceptual shifts in the studio difficult to describe: lumps of wet clay under my hands transformed into real muscle; I had an experience I can only describe as an unpleasant moment of mind paralysis in which I was unable to form a mental construction or discern one thing from another; and I experienced the smell of calf’s breath, cow dung and horse sweat while modelling those animals. Just as the perceived boundary between my horse and I had collapsed, during making the boundary between my strange little creatures and I was also not fixed.
Clay is a particularly suitable medium in aiding my process of embodied making due to the direct, visceral contact between clay and hand. In printmaking, for example, the technical processes involved creates a disconnect between printer and page. Conversely, clay is immediate, tactile and immersive to the point that forms under its surface appear in my mind’s eye seemingly suggested by the clay itself. I considered this a “becoming with” (Haraway 2003, 35) the clay, articulated in the making of my creatures. At other times I would feel a particular form under my hands rather than see it under the surface of the clay.
While modelling He Gave the Rest of the World a New Sense of Meaning, although consciously aware that in the dairy industry male calves are sent to the slaughterhouse for veal, I wasn’t focusing on this while making the head of the calf. Rather, I was experiencing fond memories of orphaned calves sucking on my fingers while hand-feeding them as a child, and while forming the mouth I experienced the smell of calf’s breath. In approaching the body of the calf, the wet clay under my hands felt like meat, so I followed this sensation, forming it into a butcher’s cut. It seemed that my bodily responses were simultaneously presenting to me a perception of meat alongside sweet calf’s breath. Were my knowing hands sending messages to the brain reminding me to keep on track with the purpose of commenting on dairy farming practices, or was I merely experiencing an oppositional tension between a memory and a sensory experience? I was also later intrigued at a response when picking up this work completed: I found I had intuitively formed the calf to a scale and form perfect for cradling and comforting in the manner of a human baby.
Another somatic response came in a form I perceived as auditory. While modelling Puppy Love IV: Mastering Second Position (from a series of works about small dogs being carried around as accessories), I was struggling to find a gestural position for the legs when the ready-made term ‘mastering second position!’ arrived forcefully in my mind. Was the body’s knowing, through the handling of the clay, somehow communicating with the brain, bringing the term to my conscious attention, or was this an insight from elsewhere? When reflecting on this term, I recalled that it was a position of the feet in ballet. This resolved a creative gap in this work, as I was led to form the legs of the dog into ‘second position’ and to dress her in ballet tights. Intriguingly, the term ‘mastering second position’ also offered a double-entendre perfect for a title, as in this situation small puppies are hierarchically in ‘second’ position to their humans, not having a choice in where they go.
Within the same series, Puppy Love III: When the City was Otherwise Utterly Still, I associated another auditory connection; a friend was having problems with a raucous bat colony near her house. In response, I installed a Chihuahua I had been working on at that time by ambiguously hanging it like a bat. (At this point, I ask the reader to take note of the title of this work for recall when I explain the process I developed to title the works non-rationally).
I sensed I was drawing upon a vastly more novel source than when making purely rational, creative decisions. The body had its own knowing, a knowing of “more than you can tell” (Polanyi in Grene 1969, 131) and it seemed as though each of my physical senses (other than taste) had been aroused; I had seen and felt forms buried within the clay, heard terms in another voice in my mind, and smelt odours of those real animals for whom these strange creatures stood in. This was a pleasant experience that took me back to my childhood of living and being with animals on a daily basis, and I found these somatic experiences contributed to my empathetic responses to my little creatures. This raised feelings of heart-felt connections between the knowing body and the rational mind resulting in seemingly creative interconnections.
Outside cognitive recall, I wanted to experiment with a more expanded consciousness. After periods of embodied sculpting, I randomly selected a title for the work by blindfolding myself and fumbling through the hundreds of texts in my library. When a term or word under my finger felt right—similar to the sense experienced when you know a piece of art is finished—I selected it, referencing the source.
As an example of how surprisingly successful this was, the term Chopping Board and Colander came from an Ikea kitchen catalogue. At first I thought this was disconnected to the art object, which depicts a hybrid form of a pruned and bleeding tree with human feet, and a head (or apple) that has fallen to the ground. But then I remembered agonising over the decision to fell a camphor laurel tree in my back yard and having a reconciliatory thought that it might live on as chopping boards. I then recalled a time when I spontaneously imagined myself as a kitchen colander, as a visualisation technique to release emotional pain during a heightened state of distress over a personal issue.
Synchronicity arrived unexpectedly as serendipitous occurrences during my conscious states and as haptic responses while sculpting, and required a particular attentiveness. This could be described as a decision made to pay attention to things in my field of perception that would ordinarily go unnoticed as unimportant. After expanding my awareness in this way, I soon began to sense that things mindfully vied for my attention. It became a two-way interplay that I associated with Barad’s (2007, 181) notion of “intra-action” that accounted for the way in which things were either included or excluded—a form of chance in which convergent events, emergent thoughts and perceptions directed the project toward one of many possible outcomes.
For instance, a chance attendance at an academic presentation by Dr Jane Bone of Monash University drew me to Bill, the deceased bull and ‘ambassador’ of the Australian ‘live export’ protest campaign. This resulted in the work Bill’s Trip North Landed Him In Heaven.
Bill emerged from the studio as somewhat diminutive and gentle, not typically how one would think of a large beast. I used the skeleton-like limbs of a dead tree outside my studio to emulate Bill’s butchered bones, installing them as fruit-bearing branches of bones that may hint at a conundrum: the survival of one species—plant or animal—can be predicated on the death of another. To reconcile Bill’s traumatic death as a victim of the live export industry, I had re-perceived him in a much better after-life. While working on this piece I had an important epiphany: while veganism considers the conscious lives of some living creatures, it does not take into account the conscious lives of plants. Humans at this evolutionary moment need to eat to survive, so I resolved that our ethical responsibility, therefore, is not that we kill other species for consumption, but that we manage those practices with great respect, humility, gratitude and reverence to the animal or plant sacrificed. And without any disrespect to my own religion, I questioned that as a Catholic I was taught to pray to a God in gratitude for the food at my table, rather than the animal or plant that gave it’s life.
Other synchronicities I experienced were more playful although persistent. For example, butterflies constantly appeared in various forms: as a metaphor in a paper I researched by Kathleen Vaughan titled Mariposa: The Story of New Work of Research/Creation, Taking Shape, Taking Flight; butterflies consistently fluttered about me during the project; I found them dead on the ground or trapped inside books that I opened; in print media; in paintings I came across; a busker in our street was singing about them; then using the key word ‘mariposa’ during a file search for Vaughan’s paper on my computer, a photo of my three-year-old Spanish-speaking niece (and muse in this body of work) wearing a ‘mariposa’ outfit opened before my eyes. Butterflies imposed themselves upon the work and became symbolic of the slippery nature of consciousness. Vaughan’s paper and the continuous appearance of butterflies led me to an insight around The Butterfly Effect4 in Chaos Theory, or Lorenz’ Strange Attractor. Trajectories on the attractor bifurcate forming the shape of a butterfly, yet importantly remain novel, never repeating the same pathway. In this way the system is open although bound within the limits of the attractor. Open yet closed. This was how I perceived my own creative process, open to wild and unfettered intuitions, synchronicity and rhizomatic connections in informing the work, yet kept in check by having to rationalise and channel the research through a scholarly explication of the project. I also, through a visual association, linked this butterfly-shaped attractor with the polar oscillations in the Ouroboros.
I adopted butterflies into my making, associating them with a rite-of-passage feeling of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ or emotional excitement newly experienced. Since childhood ‘butterflies in the stomach’ have recurred for me as visceral sensations of heightened possibility. This thinking led to Puppy Love Series I. After completing Whatever the Critical Silence I was amazed to find I had unwittingly secured the butterfly to the form of the body using a wire coil (the only wire I could find at the time), which surprisingly enabled the butterfly to ‘flutter’ when touched.
I continued with another Puppy Love Series II but this time in response to a media report about a small litter of puppies found in a soggy hessian bag by a river. I had a strong emotional response to this, and through making these works I was able to re-imagine the puppies as human ‘puppies’ after associating this act of intentional drowning with human abortion or infanticide. This became reflected in His head, Carried Off Down River Continued to Sing (again, this title was randomly selected!)
Another work arose from my emotional response to an account of a farmer who once tied a long line of ostriches to a single rope to make his job of slaughtering them easier. He progressed along the rope cutting off their heads one-by-one with a machete, while the remaining others stood witness. The last ostrich stretched its neck and gently rested its head upon the farmer’s shoulder.
When modelling Well Then, Your Life Wasn’t a Total Waste, Was It?, the ostrich’s neck emerged as a female human arm that reaches behind to a baby buried in feathers on its back. This anecdotal account of witnessing the brutal deaths of conspecifics for the sake of expediency was repugnant to me.
Some comment on the violence apparent in my work and turn from it. But so are butcher shops violent, where animal parts are displayed as prized cuts and any dignity toward the animal is flagrantly disregarded. Must we turn from the violence in art as well as in life? A way of staying with it in an artwork is to suspend the repulsion, allowing time for the psyche to reflect on the paradoxes and contradictions. Cuteness can soften or veil those more disturbing elements, allowing for this suspension.
Bearable Whiteout is a good example in which a girl-child is pierced front to back by a polar bear. While this might appear repellent, she seems comfortable with this collision. Small children in their delight of puppies or kittens, almost squeeze them to death, as though they want the animal inside them, to merge with it. The longer I spend with my creatures, the more they reveal of themselves. For example, the contradiction that a child could be relaxed during the experience of such a bloody merger, begged a more in-depth contemplation of the work and our complex entanglements with non-human animals.
Some of the contradictions I reflected upon were for example that we love animals, yet kill them; they intrigue us, yet we fear them; they’re cuddly, yet bite; we want them as companions, eat them and campaign to have them set them free. From these reflections I am now closer to understanding why my Strange Little Attractors are both endearing and repellent. I termed this an ‘empathetic unease’, a response of being simultaneously drawn into the work, yet wanting to run from it.
While modelling The Structure of Another, I reflected on my childhood experience of trying to cuddle newborn piglets. In cradling them upside-down like a human baby, they would wriggle and kick vigorously to be put down. This work first emerged with both piglet and human baby snuggled together in an upside-down position. But as the work progressed through stages, it took unexpected turns. During a walk through our village, I noticed a life-sized ceramic pig in the butcher’s window, which drew me into the store. Inside, plastic lettuce leaves were used to merchandise pork sausages. I was curious at the disconnection between the cute pig in the window and the pork sausages under the counter. I borrowed the lettuce leaves from the butcher for my installation. This left an uncanny smell of pork as viewers moved in closer to capture the gaze of the pig reflected in a mirror. From a charming interior memory to a disturbing exterior experience, this piece emerged simultaneously cute and confronting, bearing the hallmark of empathetic unease common in my work, and with contradictory metaphors that insisted on a resolution or re-perceiving.
The Logic of Oppositional Tensions in Novelty and Affect
If a metaphor is not generative then it is a closed or recursive system. I was only interested in generating novel metaphors through which a viewer might see anew. The way a generative metaphor acts psychologically and bodily can be found in the affective qualities of an art object. Interest aroused by the surprise in delight or displeasure in novel contradictions can activate what Art Historian Susan Best (2011, 511) called the “push–pull of objectification–identification” or the embodiment of some qualities and distancing of others. She claimed oppositional forces produce a kind of ambiguity or “suspension between these two states”, which could be perceived as a state of non-being. I associated this with a condition of being at the intersection of the inner subjective and outer objective realms and related this to my momentary experience of mind paralysis.
The work titled Author depicts a young girl with a small mammal emerging from her shoulder. After wrestling with the contradictions in this work I recalled a harrowing memory of accidentally trapping an antechinus. I found her dead on the floor alongside her live, wriggling foetuses. There was a moment of inertia between oppositional impulses to either save the foetuses (although impossible) or kill them humanely. Correspondingly, within my reading of this work was an air of suspension around the child perceiving the animal as either of her, or outside her.
While modelling the forms, there was a distinct threshold or moment of conception in which I began to empathise with my strange little creatures. This was the point at which the emerging art object became imbued with affective qualities.
I found that through transdisciplinary research I was able to develop a mind-frame of ‘suspended consciousness’ as a major creative tool in the studio. My process of conceptually traversing such oppositional binaries as mind/body, animate/inanimate, self/Other, gave rise to novel re-perceptions and generative metaphors that underpinned the affective qualities of my Strange Little Attractors.
Imagining consciousness as unbound allowed for non-linear, rhizomatic interconnections within the nature-culture of the life-field, via my emotions, perceptions and synchronicity. This process allowed for contradictory, generative metaphors in my interspecies creatures, which set up oppositional tensions that insisted on a psychological resolution. Reflecting over time on these contradictions and other affective qualities in the art objects suggested new understandings or alternative ways of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ with Others, human and non-human, animate and inanimate.
There is no way of knowing how transformative my Strange Little Attractors might be to viewers in time, but the intimate relationships I formed with them—talking to them, stroking them and caring about them—has transformed me. One collector who purchased He Gave the Rest of the World a New Sense of Meaning (bobby calf), was so affected by the piece and its backstory, that the next day she drove to another gallery some distance away where its ‘mother’, She was a Born Agitator and Rebel—All the More Reason to Hope (dairy cow) was on show. The gallerist called to inform me that the young collector had purchased the cow, stating that she wanted the calf to be reunited with its mother.
Finding strategies in this project to engage both head and heart translated as perceptual shifts during the act of making, which resulted in more felt understandings of the inextricable entanglements between ‘things’. I now carefully consider how these inanimate objects that stand-in for real animal Others might be presented to the world, and often privately reflect on the likelihood of a collector to empathise with them.
- Michael Polanyi’s notion of ‘tacit’ or body knowledge, for me, is notably experienced when touch-typing; my fingers somehow ‘know’ which keys to hit before I can construct a location for them in my mind.
- I use the term ‘expanded’ referring to consciousness that is extended beyond mind-body confinement, such as an ‘out-of-body’ experience.
- I refer to synchronicity as those chance connections that seem meaningfully interconnected or significant as coincidental or recurring events.
- Artist-researcher, Kathleen Vaughan (2009, 171) pointed out that in ancient Greek the word for butterfly is psyche. She recognised this motif as an opening to the richness and depth of cross-disciplinary possibilities in her creative research practice. In mythology the butterfly symbolises transformation and metamorphosis, as it emerges from its protective cocoon. After reading Vaughan, the term ‘strange attractor’ randomly entered my conscious awareness. Research revealed its association with the ‘Butterfly Effect’ in Chaos Theory. In simplistic terms, Lorenz’ Strange Attractor can be described as two coordinates mapped in close proximity to one another that follow a similar mathematical trajectory until a bifurcation point is reached and the new trajectories form the shape of butterfly wings. What results is an irregular, persistent oscillation that never repeats yet remains on the attractor. I see this system as both open and closed, similar to ambiguous forms such as the Ouroboros and Mobius strip that were important metaphors to my thinking. http://www.stsci.edu/~lbradley/seminar/attractors.html (viewed 14 July 2014).
Another connection I made from this was that affective art objects might also work in the same subtle way as ‘a butterfly flapping its wings in Korea might lead to the development of a hurricane in the USA’, to paraphrase a common metaphor used to describe the Butterfly Effect. Through empathetic responses to art objects, a stirring in the psyche of a single viewer might shift and spread over time in ways that might be transformative to a society at large.
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