April 2007

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I spent last week at the Ad:Tech interactive advertising and technology conference in San Francisco talking to people about where they see the Web heading and what life online is going to look like in a few more years. The range of future views I heard was, as expected, diverse. While I do not have a clear idea of my own about how all the plethora of possible scenarios will play out, what did emerge was the distinct view of this space as a potentiality, an undefined, nonlinear, anything-is-possible vortex. I kept being reminded of A Thousand Plateaus, the mindblowing, rhapsodic “book” (hard to call it that) by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A few salient quotes:

The principal characteristics of a rhizome: unlike tress or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states.

A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.

Unlike the tree, the rhizome is not the object of reproduction: neither external reproduction as image-tree nor internal reproduction as tree-structure. The rhizome is an antigeneaology. It is short term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.

Once a rhizome has been obstructed, aborified, it’s all over, no desire stirs; for it is always by rhizome that desire moves and produces.

The wisdom of the plants; even when they have roots, there is always an outside where they form a rhizome with something else–with the wind, an animal, human beings.

Write, form a rhizome, increase your territory by deterritorialization, extend the line of flight to the point where it becomes an abstract machine covering the entire plane of consistency.

We have lost the rhizome, or the grass. Henry Miller:…”Grass is the only way out.”

Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don’t sow, grow offshoots! Don’t be one or multiple, be multiplicities! Run lines, never plot a point! Speed turns the point into a line!

The parallels for creative thinking and making in this rhizomatic model go without saying…

I found a wonderful blog about all things Aboriginal–Will Owen’s Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye. He’s been at it for some time, so there is a lot of material to review and well worth the time.

In a recent posting Owen reviews a new book by Jennifer Biddle, Breasts, Bodies, Canvas: Central Desert art as experience. From his review:

Although Biddle’s investigations rely on close examination of the works…she does not offer readings of them, or attempt to decode the symbols used in them. Her extensive analysis of paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Kathleen Petyarre, and Dorothy Napangardi likewise tells us nothing of the Dreamings of the yam, the thorny devil lizard , or Mina Mina. Instead, Biddle tells the reader early on that such translation of iconography is quite antithetical to her purpose, and suggests that the women themselves are now reacting to the practice of translation by refusing to give titles to their artworks or to provide more than the most rudimentary stories. She suggests that our eurocentric emphasis on reading–the interpretation of men’s paintings as maps with specific, knowable geographical locations embedded in them, for example–has blinded us to the true nature of these paintings. That nature is best located in the physical being, in the marks of their making that are a mimesis of the ancestral actions of the Dreaming.

Biddle wants us to turn our attention away from an intellectual analysis of the art towards an appreciation of its affect, by which she means a more visceral and pre-analytical response to the work. Such a reaction is one that is grounded in sensation, in the perception of the thickness of paint, in the visible but also palpable traces of the artist’s body in the object. This perception takes us not only to an appreciation of the artwork’s origin in body painting and scarring, but also to an appreciation of the physical connection between the artist’s brush and the canvas, or the touch of the painting stick on a women’s breast as kirda (owner) and kurdungurlu (manager, and in this sense painter) prepare for the ceremony.

Owen then goes on to say:

If we are capable of penetrating to this level of understanding through direct, sensual engagement with the artwork, then we are better positioned, even as outsiders, to appreciate the it from an indigenous perspective, to understand the power embodied in it.

There are so many ways to approach this work. Earlier on this blog I have posted a variety of viewpoints–from anthropologists, art historians, ethnographers and artists. I’m enough of a pluralist to be curious about all these points of view, but I buckle against any programmatic and proscribed determination about what the non-Aboriginal viewer can and can’t see, what we can and cannot understand. Excluding the “made for tourist” art that you see in Australia which has no intentionality beyond serving as a travel souvenir, these works have an intrinsic power. Access where and how you will.

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One more excerpt from Fred Myers’ Painting Culture:

Myers highlights the distinctions between the paintings of the Pintupi tribe and the art from Balgo, just south of the Pintupi land:

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Pintupi culture

valorizes some dimensions of painting–a painting’s truth in relation to the Dreaming, the right of expression as part of one’s identity–but gives no particular discursive support to…the aesthetic function.

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In Balgo Hills

a different dimension of ritual painting practice has become critical; the element of touch as transferring spiritual essence…a continued emphasis on the haptic, or tactile, quality of painting, with the deployment of paint on the canvas more closely replicating the painting of bodies, focusing on the penetration of colors into the surface.

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Both of these impulses–the mystical, unspoken connection with something larger than life as well as the body-based ritual and sacred gesture–speak powerfully to me.

More on the topic of Aboriginal art through the eyes of Fred Myers:

In Painting Culture, Myer quotes Nancy Munn who describes the Aboriginal relationship to their country as

an objectification of ancestral subjectivity. Places where significant events took place, where power was left behind, or where the ancestors went into the ground and still remain–places where ancestral potency is near–are sacred sites.

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Myers goes on to say:

The country is not the only objectification of such processes. Other parts of Pintupi life are likewise thought to derive from the Dreaming. Pintupi understand that the Dreamings left behind at various places the creative potency or spiritual essence of all the natural species and of human beings. Thus an individual is said to “have become visible” (yurtirringu)–in reference either to “conception” [quickening in the womb] or to actual birth. The place from which one’s spirit comes determines one’s Dreaming; he or she is an incarnation of the ancestor who made the place. This understanding of personhood makes place a primary component of an individual’s identity…people are determined to have come from a particular country, literally to share its essence, for this “consubstantiality” is the primary basis for owning a sacred site. It is one’s property in an inalienable sense.

Makes complete sense to me.

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One of the leading anthropological experts on Aboriginal art and culture is Fred R. Myers. His 2002 book, Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art, explores the Western Desert Aboriginal painting movement through a lens that is more culture based than visual or aesthetic. Myers, a Professor of Anthropology at NYU, spent time in Australia during the 1970s as the painting movement was beginning to gain momentum. His insights add another witness to the mystery and power of these paintings.

Here are a few excerpts from the book:

The painters insist that these representations or images are “not made up,” “not made by men,” but “come from the Dreaming”. In this sense, they are described in the same fashion as are persons, customs, and geographic features—all of which are said to have originated in the Dreaming, or as Pintupi people regularly say, “Rjukurrtjanu, mularrarringu” [from the Dreaming, it became real.] They are therefore more valuable than anything humans might invent.

And this, his description of the Dreaming:

It would be inadequate to conceive of the Dreaming simply as a philosophy, as an explanation of what there is, or as an explanation of “the landscape.” The Dreaming is not the landscape itself or principally even an explanation of it, although that is one of its qualities. The landscape instead is how the Dreaming has been materialized, how it has been experienced, a manifestation of it, but it is not an account of what it “is”.

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This description–more what it is not than what it is–is reminiscent of some of Western mystical/metaphysical traditions as well as writings about the Tao and Zen Buddhism. It does suggest a liminal zone–one of those in between places that I always find welcoming.

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Frequent Slow Muse commenter and friend Elatia Harris has written yet another memorable piece on 3 Quarks Daily. Her topic this time: Saffron. And because she is both a writer and an artist, she has woven the history of this delicate spice with an image track of beautiful prehistoric paintings, a few sampled here.

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Here’s a teaser:

Throughout the early 1970s the ruins of Akrotiri, a Bronze Age settlement on the Aegean island of Santorini, were dug out from under several hundred feet of volcanic ash, where they had been preserved from human intervention for 3600 years. One of the rooms that came to light was a large frescoed chamber showing an exquisite goddess and her saffron-gathering cultists. I had been wanting to write about the history of saffron, including its ritual aspect, and when I saw these paintings, I knew this was where I would begin. Before the Bible and the Vedas were written, before the building of Troy, before the objects in Tutankhamen’s tomb were dreamt of, there was heart-stopping painting on Santorini, found in houses of such sophistication that they were plumbed for hot and cold water. Also, there was saffron. And thereby hangs a tale…

Not to be missed.

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Michael Benson is a filmmaker whose spent hours parsing through the thousands of black & white and color images taken by NASA space probes and landers. In his book Beyond: Visions of Interplanetary Probes, he has painstakingly pieced images together to create a view of space that takes my breath away. Looking at the images in this book takes me up and out. (Note: This is viewed as a good thing.)

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“I still can’t believe that some of the pictures I found — which were frequently lost among tens of thousands of others in the Voyager and Viking archives — aren’t as well-known as that famous Apollo ‘Earthrise over the Moon’ shot,” Benson added, referring to two NASA deep-space missions launched in the 1970s. “I think they are just as capable of changing our sense of our situation in the universe. When I spotted certain Viking shots of the Martian moon Phobos suspended over the deserts of the Red Planet, or Voyager images of Jupiter’s bizarre moon Europa hanging over that planet’s immense spinning storm systems, I could scarcely believe my luck.”

The book has been out for a few years, so finding a copy online isn’t difficult.

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I Am Still Thinking About This Crow

I am still thinking
about this crow
that with its pair of black scissors—
by two brisk swishing sounds—
cut an aslant arc

on the matte paper of the sky
over the toasted wheat farms
of the Yush valley;
I am still thinking
about this crow
that facing the nearby mountains
said something—
with its lung’s dry cawing—
that the mountains echoed it, baffled,

for such a long time
in their rocky heads.

Sometimes I ask myself that at high noon,
flying over the toasted farms of wheat,
to cross over a grove of poplars,
what that crow—
a crow with such stubbornly sable color,
with such rigid, definite presence—

could have said
with such fury and bawl
to those old mountains—
those slumbering pious hermits—
that they, in the midday of summer,
would repeat it over and over
for such a long time?

Ahmad Shamlu
(translated from Persian by Parviz Omidvar & Iraj Omidvar)

Ahma Shamlu (1925-2000) was an Iranian poet, playwright and novelist.

The article in the New Yorker by John Colapinto about the Amazonian Piraha tribe (also referenced in the April 17 posting below) is provoking thinking from a whole variety of viewpoints. A Google search produces a range of responses to the article from linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, generic bloggers, and even Taoists. What seems to have captured the imagination most is the claim by Dan Everett, the focus of Colapinto’s article and the leading authority on the language of the Piraha, that their language structure uniquely reflects their cultural proclivities.

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Colapinto writes,

The tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Piraha do not think, or speak, in abstractions – and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word “xibipio” as a clue to how the Piraha perceive reality solely according to what exits within the boundaries of their direct experience–which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Piraha say that the person has not simply gone away but “xibipio”–”gone out of experience,” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light “goes in and out of experience.”

To Everett, the Piraha’s unswerving dedication to empirical reality–he called it the “immediacy-of-experience principle”–explained their resistance to Christianity, since the Piraha had always reacted to stories about Christ by asking, “Have you met this man?” Told that Christ died two thousand years ago, the Piraha would react with much as they did to my using bug repellent [which made no sense to them]. It explained their failure to build up food stocks, since this required planning for a future that did not yet exist…It explained the Piraha’s lack of original stories about how they came into being, since this was a conundrum buried in a past outside the experience of parents and grandparents.

Specifically regarding the name of colors, Colapinto reports that

the Piraha have no fixed words for colors, and instead use descriptive phrases that change from one moment to the next. “So if you show they a red cup, they’re likely to say, ‘This looks like blood,’” Everett said. “Or they could say, ‘This is like ‘vrvcum’ ‘–a local berry that they use to extract a red dye.”

This full tilt “immediacy of experience” approach is fascinating but also seductive, especially for those who seek to achieve full awareness of the present (i.e., artists, writers, meditation students and Buddhist practitioners for example.) In addition to the “state of mind” angle, Colapinto’s article touches on the third rail issue that is being played out in the linguistic community between “Universal Grammar” Chomskyans and the resurgence of a more culturally-bound view of language. While not privy to the full esoterics of that discussion, I have an ongoing interest in the language/living interface, particularly as it applies to visual expression. Certainly a number of authors are plumbing that vein including Leonard Shlain (The Alphabet vs The Goddess), Alfred Gell (Art and Agency), and a number of writings about prehistoric cave art. More about this in future postings.

Howard Morphy is a leading authority on Aboriginal art and the director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at The Australian National University. In his article, Seeing Aboriginal Art in the Gallery, he explores a number of issues that I have been writing and thinking about. Here is one idea excerpt:

The theory of a universal aesthetic is intertwined with a theory of viewing that opposes the art gallery to the museum. In this theory works of art should be allowed to speak for themselves. Thus they need their own space for contemplation, and though their meaning and impact will be affected by their relationship to adjacent works, and to the hang as a whole, it is desirable that the act of viewing should take place in space as uncluttered as possible by supplementary information. While the density of hangs varies, as does the amount of information provided, these broad principles apply in art galleries around the world. Museums, on the other hand, are often defined in opposition to art galleries as places where objects are contextualised by information, by accompanying interpretative materials, by dioramas, and by being seen in association with other objects. I think that it is desirable to distinguish the Western concept of ‘seeing things’ as art from the presumption of a universalistic aesthetic and indeed to separate ‘seeing things’ as isolated or decontextualised objects from ‘seeing things’ as art.

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Aboriginal art installation at Victoria Museum in Melbourne

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