A Review of Process as Concept (“I is another”)

A Review of Process as Concept (“I is another”)

Jennifer Lee Hallsey, MA Candidate, Jewelry + Objects, Savannah College of Art and Design

November 2014

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. […] One must never forget that in the drama of existence we are ourselves both players and spectators. – Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (1958)

Sometime within my second term of my MA candidacy I began to look at my making practice not as a means to an end, but instead as a constant, on-going practice of a larger whole. One piece was not simply born of a single concept or aesthetic ideal and then constructed and concluded; instead I began making forms that exist in a continuous state of flux.

I stopped looking at my work as jewelry. I rarely use the word ‘jewelry’ or similar words such as ‘ring’, ‘brooch’, ‘necklace’, or the like to describe pieces because I find them limiting. When words such as ‘ring’ or ‘necklace’ are used to describe work they place too much emphasis on function as opposed to the object itself. The only time I use such words is when it is necessary to describe a piece’s function, and this is rarely an imperative in an artist statement. Instead I prefer to use words like ‘form’ or ‘object’. I actually prefer the word ‘text’, but I regret that this is too confusing for a general audience.

[A] text is any object that can be “read,” whether this object is a work of literature, a street sign, an arrangement of buildings on a city block, or styles of clothing. It is a coherent set of signs that transmits some kind of informative message. This set of symbols is considered in terms of the informative message’s content, rather than in terms of its physical form or the medium in which it is represented.[1]

I dislike the use of artist statements and explanatory text, but they are necessary and even required, particularly at the graduate level. Through process I have become aware of the words that I use while discussing my work. I have evaluated, through the use of text analyzing software, my artist statements over the past year. This has given me insight into the way I write for an audience. For example, out of the artist statements analyzed, I know that ‘piece’, ‘language’, and ‘process’ were the third, fourth, and fifth most used words (after ‘I’ and ‘my.’)

My artist statements tended to be quite short. I only used 1,018 words to discuss my work in a one-year period. I often used definitions of words or quotes because I don’t believe that it is my place as the artist to tell the viewer exactly what my piece is about. I would much prefer to write about process if I have to write, but writing about intent is a requisite of the MA candidacy.

Intent is ever-changing and often personal. Post-rationalization is also a large part of my process. When working, I often can’t see the forest for the trees. Everything that seems fixed will change. Thus, speaking of intent is imposing a limit. Whereas speaking of process is an open-ended discussion in which a viewer is able to bring meaning and read the piece without my overt influence. French literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote, “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.”[2]

Painter Gerhard Richter has spoke similarly on this notion, stating:

“Theory has nothing to do with a work of art. Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures. A picture presents itself as the Unmanageable, the Illogical, the Meaningless. It demonstrates the endless multiplicity of aspects; it takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”[3]

In 1871 French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote in a letter, “Je est un autre” (“I is another”). Soshana Felman describes this seemingly incorrect use of grammar as a “violent and rigorous deconstruction” of the Cartesian ego.[4] Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (I am thinking, therefore I exist) can only attest to the existence of his mind, but not his body or anyone else. “Je est un autre”, similar to Baudelaire’s “moi c’est, tous, tous sont moi” (“I is everyone, everyone is I”)[5] suggests one is both the player and the spectator simultaneously.   In the 1970s Barthes built upon these sentiments: the viewer has an essential role in adding meaning and completing a work of art, as well as dismantling the myth of the Author[6] set forth by French Rationalism.

It is undeniable that my research and writing about critical theory and semiotics informed my processes as well. The simple theme of making and destroying became my driving concept. I developed this into construction / deconstruction / reconstruction. As stated, I began making forms that exist in a continuous state of flux.

This practice started out rather small. Outside the studio I engaged in unconscious or automatic making with non-precious, common materials. Inside the studio, I began with the scraps remaining from one project and rearranged them, reconstructing the parts. After this success I began specifically making forms to be taken apart, throwing the “scraps” into a plastic bag. I would pull parts from the bag and rearrange them to make new forms. Parts marred or scratched would not be discarded but selected often for their artifacts of process. Forms once made would be later added to or cut apart again to be put back into the bag. The technique is a reapplication of a process used by the Dadaists and Surrealists, more fully developed by Brion Gysin in the 1950s, known as ‘the cut-up method”, in which fragments of text are rearranged to find new or hidden meanings. Writer William S. Burroughs, who employed this technique, wrote, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.”[7]

The entire ‘life-cycle’ of one of these forms may be weeks or months and I would work on many pieces simultaneously. The resulting formal qualities (form, texture, finish, etc) have arisen out of the inherent characteristics of the material, techniques, and processes used. During this process I would document through photography the stages of the forms.

In his book Camera Lucida, published in 1980, Roland Barthes wrote, “I am the reference of every photograph.”[8] As a viewer, his life experience adds meaning to every photograph he sees. By photographing and documenting my work, I get to experience my work as both creator and spectator. My three-dimensional work is now two-dimensional; the work’s self-referential cycle of 3D to 2D back to 3D continues to no end, and there is a push-and-pull of subjectivity and objectivity.

It is debatable, at points, what my work actually is. Is it the object itself in reality, or the photograph of an object, which may or may not exist in that state anymore? For many of these pieces the work is the totality of the transitions from one point to the next, which is why documentation is critical and carefully executed. However, there is also a value to the photographs themselves. Barthes wrote, “Painting can feign reality without having seen it. […] In photography I can never deny that thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and the past.”[9] The photograph attests to that which was, to existence itself.

Through the lens of photography, digital reproduction, and photocopying my work, I have explored and continue to explore concepts of authenticity and aura[10], value, degradation and entropy. When these objects are “in flux” I do not think of them as a commodity and it has never been my thought to do so. It is important to note that there is a point of finality, it seems, and that is when a form “steps out” of flux and becomes fixed, becoming jewelry or object in the more traditional sense. However, this point is most often reached to fulfill a course requirement or for a competition. The same can be said for my stance on writing traditional artist statements, though I do write extensively about theory and how it relates to my own working methods and process, rarely do I write purely about intent, unless it is requested of me.

Maker Manfred Bischoff states that he has little control (or care) if the wearers/viewers understand the premise of his work. He says: “I have no way to force people into my way of thinking […] I give them an entrance, possibilities, and sometimes confusion.”[11] If one knows the process and historical context of Factum I and Factum II (1957) of painter Robert Rauschenberg they have an ‘in’. Otherwise, these two pieces can read like examples of abstract expressionism, medium specificity, and collage, when in fact these pieces are comments on these practices; they are reactionary.[12] Of course one can still view the work without knowing the process or the history, but does one understand the point of it? Does it matter?

I must reiterate that explanations (superfluous artist statements) are contradictory to my own beliefs on authorial intent and inhibit a pure reading of the text by the viewer. It is the viewer (an individual of the larger audience) who completes the work. I am aware, and battle with the fact, that this is not always possible with conceptual work. Sometimes, a viewer must be given an entrance.

I have felt very little drive to make ‘wearable jewelry’. My work exists as a discussion of and about process; metal fabrication is only fraction of the ongoing discourse. I am not a jeweler. I am an artist who works through the totality of my process (writing, reading, thinking, and making) who happens to have a portion of said process that falls into the realm working with metal. I read, I write, I think, I make. I read. I write. I think. I make. I am not a jeweler. I do not make ‘jewelry’.

I must acknowledge my own inconsistencies and contradictory approaches to the act of making and thoughts on making; I simultaneously hold antithetical and ever-changing beliefs about the importance of authorial intent, wearabilty, and objecthood. More important is the notion of what is real or what is the work. Simply put, ‘jewelry’ is boring. I realize this statement can be confusing, and possibly even insulting to many, since I work with metal and am enrolled in a program dedicated to jewelry education.   I must clarify that the word ‘jewelry’ as defined by popular dictionaries to be made of precious metals and contain gemstones is boring. Developing works to be a commodity and in relation to market viability is uninteresting. To designate oneself into the schools of craft, art, or design, simply so one may be more easily understood is limiting and tiresome. It promotes an insular understanding and relationship to the world.   The act, the process of making, and documenting, thinking and writing, is the work – regardless of medium.

[1] “Text (literary Theory),” Wikipedia, last modified October 24, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Text_(literary_theory)

[2] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 1977.

[3] Gerhard Richter and Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007 (London: Thames & Hudson 2009), 32-33.

[4] Svetlana Boym, “Death of the Author” in Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991) 99.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author.” In his paper “The Death of the Author”, Barthes discusses the notion that the Author is a modern-day construct born of French Rationalism and the Protestant Reformation. Prior to this, the responsibility of the narrative would have fallen to a shaman or mediator, “whose ‘performance’… may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius’.” Barthes states “the Author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it. […] The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it.”

[7] “Cut-Up | Brion Gysin,” Brion Gysin, Accessed November 13, 2014, http://briongysin.com/?category_name=cut-up.

[8] Roland Barthes, Camera lucida: reflections on photography, Pbk. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Miriam Bratu Hansen, “Benjamin’s Aura.” Critical Inquiry 34, no. 2 (2008): 336-375, accessed September 25, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/529060. Benjamin had multiple definitions of aura that contradict each other. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was written in 1936 and in it he argues that the authenticity of an object’s aura is linked to its place in time and space and is unique only to non-mechanically reproduced objects: the authenticity of aura cannot be reproduced. Aura is site-specific. In other works, such as Little History of Photography, 1931, Benjamin has a different stance on aura than that found in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin wrote: (1) Aura is understood as “a strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance [apparition, semblance] of a distance, however near it may be” (or, “however close the thing that calls it forth”); and (2) aura understood as a form of perception that “invests” or endows a phenomenon with the “ability to look back at us,” to open its eyes or “lift its gaze.” These definitions differ slightly, particularly the second, from the definition of aura in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. When using the terms aura and authenticity in this paper, I am speaking of Benjamin’s definition of aura that is a phenomenology possible in all works of art – even forms that have no original (photography, film), rather his definition which is, as Bratu writes, “in mere opposition to, the technological media.”

[11] Manfred Bischoff, interview with Roberta Bernabei, Contemporary jewellers: interviews with European artists (New York City: Berg, 2011) 64.

[12] Johnathan T.D. Neil, “Factum I Factum II”, “Factum II Factum I,” Modern Painters, December 1, 2005, 76-77, accessed October 15, 2014, http://jonathantdneil.com/pdfs/MP/Factum1Factum2.pdf

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