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Tine Melzer tijdens de openbare presentatie van het onderzoeksproject aan de University of the Arts Bern, 30.May 2018

In a new series, artists tell about their work-in-progress projects. After an earlier conversation with Curdin Tones on his project ‘crear in comunanza’, Nim Goede speaks with artist Tine Melzer, who is currently working on a project about ‘aspect seeing’, the ability to see one thing in multiple ways.  

Nim Goede: Can you give a short introduction to your current project called Shifting Images: Aspect Change in Art Practice and Teaching

Tine Melzer: In my current project at the Intermedialität department at the University of Arts Bern (HKB), I collaborate with artists and scientists from Switzerland and the Netherlands to collect, explore, use and publish methodologies of shifting images. Perhaps the most well-known example of a shifting image is that of the duckrabbit, an image that can be perceived as either a duck or a rabbit. These two interpretations of the image constitute two aspects of the same image. My project revolves around the concept of aspect seeing, a term borrowed from Ludwig Wittgenstein and reapplied to modes of perception and estrangement in the arts. It is a polyphonic project in which theory of perception, philosophy and media theory, literature science, cognitive sciences and art practice bundle their perspectives into a central focal point: practicing aspect change.  

Duck-Rabbit-illusion Joseph Jastrow Ludwig Wittgenstein

As I see it, aspect seeing is at the core of our efforts to understand and make sense of what we perceive. Aspect seeing departs from taking subjectivity into account productively; it does not hide the fact that every individual has its own particular perspective on things. This means that a single sentence, object, or image isn’t limited to a singular meaning. It is central in understanding our relation to the world to realize that all images are in fact translations.  

The key motive for this project is the urgency to thoroughly understand and share the mechanisms of mediation. We are increasingly confronted with mediated realities, yet our awareness of the mechanisms that underlie these mediations is underdeveloped. The aim is to counter the idea of something having merely one meaning, although at the same time it should not be confused with relativism. The images delivered by our perception and interpretation depend on our point of view, they are based on both an understanding and mastery of what makes our world view. The project connects written reflexive modes of research with practice-based activations, like the workshop I’m giving at the Y Institute at the HKB, which shares and examines the most fundamental methods of aspect seeing. 

Tine Melzer WAVES, SCALES, THEATRE, CURTAIN in Taxidermy for Language-Animals

NG The relation between word and image and how the two shape one another appears to be an important element in your work. Could you elaborate on this? 

TM ‘The project collects a set of prime examples of how image and text interact. Take for example the work WAVES, SCALES, CURTAIN, THEATRE (2015). The meaning of an image shifts depending on the title that accompanies the image. Interpretation makes use of the fact that we are trained to make connections, to see the whole as something. This relates to two key concepts brought up by Ludwig Wittgenstein: the ability of seeing-something-as-something as well as the distinction between saying and showing. To elaborate on the latter, on the one hand there are things that are shown to us, images we perceive and that are non-verbal, and on the other hand there a things that are said and that use verbal signs and codes. We are always in this in-between to understand an image and to understand what is said, and the moment these two levels meet there’s this particular interaction going on: the Aha-moment, the bliss of understanding. Today’s research in neuroscience, philosophy of the mind and psychology supports the claim that aspect-seeing constitutes a key mechanism in how different modes of mediated information (i.e. image and text) meet. 

Plaatsbepaling Frans Oosterhof

A prime example of aspect seeing is the work Plaatsbepaling (1994) by Frans Oosterhof (who is one of the collaborating artists). In this work, it seems to me, you can observe yourself moving from one interpretation to the other. You feel that your attitude is changing while you test this image with the different ‘titles,’ as you try to make sense of them together with the image. You realize by experience how a specific word alters your interpretation of the situation, showing you a different aspect of it. So for instance, the title “the picnic” elicits a reading of the image as a love couple that meets in the woods, while on the other hand the title “the trap” elicits the feeling of some lurking danger. You look at the same image, but you see something different and this is provoked or channeled by these words. You change position in regards to the image, shift to another aspect of the same image.  

We are sense-making animals, our brains are made to connect perceptions to make sense of them. So when I see two elements of information together, for instance an image and a line of text, I shift the multiple possible meanings until it clicks. We see something similar in jokes. The feeling of not getting a joke makes us feel really awkward and stupid, and not only from a social point of view, but you actually feel like you have lost a form of access to the world. Not getting something is an intrinsically traumatic experience for us humans, it’s like a death sentence to no longer be able to read your own environment. Perhaps this feeling dates back to our early hunter-gatherer ancestors that had to read signals in their environment in order to anticipate potential dangers. Aspect seeing as discussed in Gestalt psychology are ways of extrapolating the whole figure from a fragment of an image, filling in this image through habits of seeing and interpreting. 

Simple everyday examples are part of a preparatory phase of the research. Throughout we include models of perception and interpretation from other disciplines (philosophy of language, cognitive science, media theory, literature science, linguistics), and explore gradually more complex cases of aspect seeing. Some examples use and display habituated codes as we know them from subtexts of objects and their representative meanings as in history of art, i.e. painting. An apple, for instance, hardly ever points out the fruit alone. It functions as a gate to a heap of things we connect to this fruit. We want to order the heap into straws of unnoticed associations in order to abstract aspect-seeing as a general yet specific process. One important goal of this project is to collect this information for publication and to order it in categories of complexity. It will result in a bundle of models of what aspect seeing is, but will also serve as a general introduction to aspect seeing and its role and urgency in the arts today.  

NG How would you describe the relationship between perception and interpretation? For example, do you think that there can be such a thing as a “pure” percept or is perception per definition colored by interpretation? And how do you integrate this into your work? 

TM ‘I am not interested in the pure percept, because that is the world minus the human perception of it. The human part of it is the interpretation of perception. Perception is a practice. The observer is subjective. Where is the line between perception and interpretation? I do not think that there is such a line separating the two, but how does the transition between perception and interpretation take place? My hypothesis is that every perception is made by modes of interpretation. Where do the two terms traditionally overlap, when are they just technical terms and where do these terms help further a discussion? We want to sustain the wording of concepts with examples of exercising practice-based models.  

In my book Taxidermy for Language-Animals, I describe the discussion that took place between Richard Rorty and Umberto Eco in the early 1990s.1 They disagree on the level of responsibility an author has in relation to an utterance. Who is the producer of an interpretation? How does the content reach a viewer, reader or listener, if not based on each individual’s background knowledge and framing? Wittgenstein has introduced a metaphor in which words are compared to tools and language to a tool-box. Rorty and Eco quarrel over the possibilities of a tool in a user’s hand or a word in a speaker’s mouth. Who is responsible for their ‘meaning’? The author or the viewer/reader?2 The dispute between Rorty and Eco addresses a core dilemma in explaining how interpretation happens in a correlate of activities and modes. Today’s cognitive scientists allow themselves to speak of perception as action, as something we productively do.3 Aspect shifts and change of perspective are part of the game. In this regard, the importance of Wittgenstein’s notion of the language-game is obvious: the language-game is not only useful in understanding what language is, but also in understanding the practice of playing with language. Human language practice embraces the idea of the homo ludens. Understanding the game, seeing how an image or a sentence is constructed, makes it possible to change the game or to shift its meaning. If one is oblivious to how an image is constructed, one is incapable of seeing the potential other aspects of an image. The moment you realize that an image is always a construction, you’ll be able to observe its structure, its rules and its methods. Then you can play with it.’  

NG So could we say that this is the didactic aim of your current project? 

‘I do not think this work is didactic, but instructive. The aim of this project is to show the construction of the games we play while aspect-seeing. The workshops aim to show to professional image-makers in different fields of art practice that the construction of an utterance counts. One cannot just ignore how something is made. I’m not just concerned with perception, interpretation and seeing, but with seeing that you see, and knowing that you know. It’s about taking a step and becoming aware of your own habits and modes of framing. This is part of the instructive workshops with students and of the publication. On the other hand, I collaborate with colleagues – i.e. as a guest researcher at the University of Amsterdam – on sets of meetings, so-called elicitations, through which the research material is commented and augmented. 

One of the problems noted by Wittgenstein is that, generally speaking, many of the philosophical problems we have had in the past we owe to the fact that we are not careful enough with the words we use. We often take words too literal, or too rigid. We seem to overlook that words are always already charged by so many different people using them before us, so we cannot at all times insist on the definition of a single word, nor its definitive meaning. Thus the poetic shift is one of the issues we study: a reading of a word can shift from the literal meaning to a poetic meaning. This poetic meaning does not necessarily have to be related to poetry, but it points to a metaphorical meaning or a meaning that is not habituated.  

Wittgenstein’s statement about the sloppy use of words in philosophy is also applicable to art discourse. Not all artists, curators, theoreticians and art historians seem to always be aware of the fact that their interpretations are a result of aspect seeing. It is worthwhile knowing the relationship between the author, modes of interpretation, subjectivity and mediation in order to enhance the possibility of understanding and valuing artistic practices and utterances, for as Wittgenstein mentions in his Philosophical Investigation #129: “The aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden, because of their simplicity and familiarity one is unable to notice something because it is always before one’s eyes.”4 

Tine Melzer, Aspektsehen,  2017 Foto Mathias Zuppiger 

Tine Melzer, Protest, 2017 Foto Mathias Zuppiger

An iconographic example of this is the work called Aspect Change (2017). This image of the apple does multiple things. First of all, the apple is a very plain and common thing, at least for people who are familiar with apples. It is an object we put into our mouths, edible world. It is also the letter A, the first word in the lexicon, so it is very basic. In addition, it’s an iconographic fruit that refers to nature, the Bible, fairytales, the apple of your eye, René Magritte, and so on. Moreover, in viewing this particular image, people immediately assume that they know what they are looking at: just an ordinary apple, yet in actuality they are looking at two apples. They recognized the object, but they forget to actually look at it. The cut allows the viewer to see the object from two sides at once, front and back. This is therefore an iconic image of what aspect seeing entails: you recognize the object, you think you know what you see, you collect your knowledge about it, and ask yourself: what does it stand for? What is the right reference? The simple manipulation of the apple reminds us of the visual and cognitive traps, which aim to simplify the multitude of meanings around us.’  

More information on Tine Melzer:

1 On Interpretation, in: Tine Melzer, Taxidermy for Language-Animals, Zürich: Rollo Press, 2016

2 Umberto Eco, Stefan Collini, Jonathan Culler, and Richard Rorty. Interpretation and Overinterpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992

3 Raoul Schrott and ArthurJa cobs, Gehirn und Gedicht, Wie Wir Unsere Wirklichkeit Konstruieren, München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2011

4 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations #129​, 1951.

Nim Goede

is promovendus bij ASCA (Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, UvA)

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