In the coming months Metropolis M will introduce several of the key note speakers of Now is the Time, the extensive lecture series on the topic of 21st century art and theory. The first is Laura U. Marks, a media theoretician from Vancouver with a pronounced interest in Middle Eastern culture, who wil speak in Amsterdam on October 3rd.
Well, those are very broad terms! I suppose what holds them together throughout my work is the hunch that knowledge arises from experience, which is necessarily embodied; even doing philosophy is an embodied experience, hence all the philosophers who write about their chairs, desks, windows, and pipes. Because I started out writing about experimental film and video art, it was important to describe my experience of these works rather than impose certain notions on them (though I did that too), and a method emerged from this practice.As it turned out, I was participating in what some call the “embodied turn” in contemporary scholarship. But there’s a ricochet effect whereby each generation of thinkers and artists reacts to the previous one. Presently it seems to me that the “embodied turn” has become a reactionary movement that borders on the anti-intellectual, and I am unhappy to see my work being instrumentalized in this context. So what has changed is that, while embodied experience is still very important to me, I am placing more emphasis on that precious part of the body, the brain.
Smell is precious to me personally and also intriguing intellectually, because as neuroscience shows it is less amenable to codification than other senses, and even politically, for it seems to be the sense most resistant to instrumentalization, e.g. by marketing. (we can see olfaction is a marketing growth area!) Again my method is to begin by describing experience in which olfaction as part of a sensory constellation that varies with (cultural, temporal, individual) context.I used to do olfactory performances, making “montages” of smells with images, sounds, or stories, using smells not to augment the meaning, but to create divergences from it, for each person responds to smell in a private way. As I’ve written lately, smell can create a pocket of affective experience, a memory or shock that briefly opens a window to the virtual, and this I think might help people hang on to life when so much of our experience is deadening.
Great question, and one I know you think about a lot too. We’ve both remarked that artists in the Arab world have many people looking over their shoulder: foreign audiences who are seeking something authentic, and “resistant” to what they perceive to be political oppressions in the Arab world; and local audiences who are anticipating the reactions of foreign audiences. Under this kind of pressure to represent, Arab artists and filmmakers don’t have much breathing room.
Responses I’ve seen include absurdity, opacity, lush romanticism, very local stories, private narratives that are not meaningful to others, or a clear distinction between the instrumental and the “meaningless” halves of an artwork. I’ve written recently about how such strategies allow a film or artwork to remain “enfolded”; to stay under the radar of instrumentality. This is not a good long-term strategy for someone who wants to make political change, but it’s an important tactic to resist being “unfolded” in ways that simply confirm expectations. Just to name a well-known few, Akram Zaatari, Mohamed Soueid, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Lina Saneh and Rabih Mroué, Ghassan Salhab, Nadine Touma, Hassan Khan, and Yousry Nasrallah each employ some of these strategies.
When you refer to a colonized visual expectation, I think you mean that some artists from the Arab world who circulate internationally are starting to make “biennale-style” art: working in the international style (conceptual, installation), with a modicum of intriguing local or ethnic content. (I’m not thinking of anyone in particular, but this seems to be a general mode.) The tactics I mention above can themselves become clichés in this kind of art.Meanwhile, some artists are incorporating traditional practices like music, poetry, textiles, calligraphy, and pattern; sometimes this work is embraced in the West as confirmation of difference (cf. the “Word into Art” show at the British Museum), sometimes it is synthesized in less digestible ways. On yet another hand, there are some art practices in the Arab world that are quite ignored on the international circuit but exhibited locally, especially painting, drawing, and sculpture. Mediums taught in academies in the Arab world just as they were being abandoned by Western artists. I’m interested to see how these relatively despised art practices will fare as the biennale fashions shift.
Whenever I teach a class on visual culture, I have my students read “Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes” (2004). The conceptual difference you draw between “optical visuality” and “haptic visuality”, where in the former the object of vision (what we are looking at) and subject of vision (the viewer) are disconnected, in the latter there’s a blur, an identification.Lately I have felt that only the visual hyperbolic (in graphic design, art, etc) can engender the experience of the haptic: the representation of a reality needs to be completely amplified in order for us to sense it at all. What’s your take on this, and how do you teach your students to look through different lenses, the haptic, being one of them?
That’s an interesting take on the haptic question. Yes indeed, advertising and graphic design immerse the viewer (and listener) in sensuous images, which sometimes are so pleasurable that they exceed their instrumental purpose. I wouldn’t say that haptic images or haptic visuality invite identification, which occurs across distance in an idealized space; rather, they narrow the distance between viewer and viewed, so there is a kind of merging or intersubjectivity that occurs before identification. This is the pleasure and danger of haptic images: they infringe on our separateness, they suspend the making of meaning. In teaching, I invite students to suspend meaning in order to experience that affective and sensuous state, and then to try to give words to the experience.
What is dismaying about the instrumental use of haptic and other kinds of sensuous images (such as smells) is that, in that vulnerable moment of intersubjectivity, meanings are imposed. This is a rather old example, but I felt this most strikingly in the execrable movie The Passion of the Christ (a movie, incidentally, that is extremely popular in the Arab world), which used haptic and sensuous images to make us feel vividly the embodied experience of the tortured Christ, only to suture this experience to anti-Semitic codes.Lately I’ve been exploring another form that invites a shared being without identification, namely the abstract line (haptic space and abstract line are the forms Deleuze and Guattari associate with “smooth space” or non-signifying space). Some of the Islamic artworks I’ve been looking at spin out abstract lines of pleasing and baffling complexity, and I think these abstract lines undo subjectivity in the act of contemplation much as haptic images do.
This is a delicate question. The thing is, most non-verbal experience is still coded, as semiotics shows. In the A/V course I taught, students did indeed make wonderful, “smart” works, drawing on their rich knowledge of non-verbal experiences that were both coded (e.g. visual codes) and relatively uncoded or experiential. In retrospect, I think the distinction is not between verbal and non-verbal, but between coded and experiential. The former can be read by those who know the codes; the latter has to be approached more poetically. So in writing too there is a poetic dimension, sometimes dismissed as rhetoric, that is a rich repository of embodied and relatively uncoded meaning. A lot of art is entirely coded, as in conceptual works that you can entirely appreciate just by reading a description of them; a lot of writing is not entirely coded.In my own writing I try to use description and playful or poetic language in a “haptic” way, to bring the reader close to the thing I’m talking about, whether it’s an artwork, an experience, or even a concept: I think it’s possible to feel and taste concepts and I hope to bring that to readers. Meanwhile, I’ve had the great good fortune to work with a designer named Raegan Kelly who understands the (almost anthropomorphic) expressiveness of a line, for an interactive essay where lines, more than words, make the argument.
Yes, the transcendental worlds of religion and mathematics do seem to be frameworks too rigid (though sublime) to usefully analyze the lived world of contemporary media art. But your comment about interpretation and glitch is exactly to the point, for both of these are examples of how the transcendental frameworks are brought to earth in particular, personal, and material experience.
Basically, I hit upon the comparison of Islamic art and new media art when I realized that both are aniconic, i.e., images are relatively unimportant, or are subordinated to code. From this, a survey of the many historical varieties of Islamic art suggested a big handful of fascinating concepts with corresponding visual strategies, such as atomism (9th C Iraq), Neoplatonism (many places), interpretability (Shi’i Islam, as you note), which I think can shed light on the ways new media art produces images. Since new media art is still so young, and Islamic art so old, it seems helpful to look at Islamic art for precedents and tips for new media art.Of course, as you suggest, the comparison has its limits. One of the main stumbling blocks is that Islamic art refers fundamentally to God, and new media art does not have any such unifying concept, nor should it. However, I propose that instead of God there is an immanent infinite, a deeply interconnected, non-dualistic experience in which we are immersed, and to which our contemporary art may sometimes refer. Another problem is that Islamic art is very warm, inhabited, and embodied compared to the cool algorithmics of software art. One solution is to consider the human production of software art, the lives of programmers and artists that become part of the work, and also to consider that networks are haptic spaces, if not as physically present as the hand-made Islamic artwork or the peaceful space of a mosque.
I’ve been working on what’s called for now Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art for seven years. The learning curve has been extremely steep, because I’ve had to study the history of Islamic art, philosophy, and theology, as well as Arabic, while trying to keep up to speed with contemporary media art. I’ve been offered a contract by MIT Press and I hope it will be out next year.
In the book I propose that Islamic art and its related concepts are real historical precedents for many aspects of modern art, such as haptic space and abstract line, and that it is even more particularly relevant for contemporary media art for reasons I mentioned earlier. The questions I’ve been exploring for so long, about how one can be touched, one’s very subjectivity changed, by interacting with non-figurative images, come together in this book.
A couple of chapters trace the historical Westward travels of Islamic art and related concepts, in moments including the luxury trade of the twelfth century, the carpet trade of the fifteenth century, the Orientalism of early modernists such as Matisse and Klee, and even the psychedelia of the 1960s. The rest of the book focuses on shared properties of (some) Islamic and (some) new media or algorithmic art, such as atomism, autopoeisis, artificial life, the encouragement or discouragement of interpretation, and the rare case of iconoclasm. I look at the historical context of each of these properties in Islamic art, draw out the Islamic concepts that informed them, and use these concepts to “explain” new media art. Given the deep historical continuity between the classical Islamic world and the modern West, the connections are often close and convincing; and when they’re not, they’re still pretty darn interesting!I think it will be a nice book, and I hope it will interest not only new media scholars and artists and a few scholars of Islamic art (many I suspect will not like it because of its unorthodoxy) but also people generally interested in visual theory.