color Beyond Kandinsky: Apr 1, 2011


The year 2011 marks the centennial of the publication of Wassily Kandinsky's classic text, On the Spiritual in Art. Inspired by this anniversary, this project set out to explore the place of the spiritual in contemporary art and to propose a challenge to the current devaluation of the inner life that prevails within the art world in our market-driven era.

Beginning on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011, a ten-day virtual symposium moderated by Taney Roniger and Eric Zechman was held in this forum. The symposium closed on the evening of Friday, April 8th. Below is the full record of the proceedings.

Panelists invited to participate were: Suzanne Anker, Laura Battle, Connie Beckley, Anney Bonney, Deirdre Boyle, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jeff Edwards, James Elkins, Max Gimblett, Tom Huhn, Atta Kim, Roger Lipsey, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Joseph Nechvatal, Daniel Siedell, Charlene Spretnak, David Levi Strauss, Alan Wanzenberg, and Pawel Wojtasik. For participant biographies and other project details, please visit our site: www.beyondkandinsky.net.


SYMPOSIUM SCHEDULE

March 30th–April 1st: Session I: The Spiritual Then and Now

April 2nd–April 3rd: Session II: The Changing Shape of Art

April 4th-5th: Session III: Art and Its Audience

April 6th–April 7th: Session IV: The Artist in Society

April 8th: Conclusions


CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD COMPLETE SYMPOSIUM TRANSCRIPT

Friday, April 1, 2011

Transcendence and new technologies

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Some of the talk about digital media, virtual reality, and transcendence that’s woven though the threads in this symposium has led me back to a question that I’ve wanted to consider ever since the symposium started. (In particular, I’ve been thinking a lot about Taney’s post on immanence and transcendence, Joseph’s post on electronic proliferation, and Eric’s “Defining the Spiritual, further” post.) What comes below is an imperfect and very incomplete riff on an incredibly complex topic, but it’s one that interests me a lot.

Transcendence is another one of those terms that’s hard to pin down, not only because it means different things to different people, but also because it changes meaning according to context. It means something very different in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (where it refers to the basic, everyday relationship of the individual for-itself to the objects of the surrounding world) than it does in the context of nondualist meditative traditions such as Advaita Vedanta (where it represents almost the opposite, in that the final goal is to surrender one’s identification with the ego in favor of a merger with all-that-is).

Rather than look for an overarching definition, I prefer to deal with transcendence on a case-by-case basis, not only because it’s a more practical approach, but also because I think there’s a lot of value in keeping the differences visible and considering what they mean.

Since the symposium started, I’ve been thinking a lot about Taney’s questions on transcendence, digital technology, and our changing view of nature. It seems to me like the three are very closely related, particularly in light of what’s happened with cutting-edge developments in electronic media since the 1990s.

Between the late 80s and late 90s, there was a lot of very utopian discourse going on about the potential for new technologies to change the way we relate to one another, and to radically change the world itself. A lot of that had to do with virtual reality and the freshly minted idea of cyberspace, but there were other buzzwords too, many of which are still floating around: technoshamanism, technopaganism, transhumanism, extropianism, cyborg theories, and so on. I remember a lot of optimism in the early 90s about the potential of these rapidly developing technologies to transform the world and our place in it. If you were an avid reader of Mondo 2000 (an edgier cyberpunk precursor to Wired), it was hard not to get caught up in gushing, gee-whiz accounts of how different the world would look in the 21st century. We were all headed for a 24/7 world of virtual reality, direct-neural-implant access to the information superhighway, and the opportunity to either replace our faulty and imperfect bodies with superior prosthetics, or chuck the whole thing entirely and upload out minds into an electronic cosmos where we would be assured of virtual immortality.

It took me a few years after the turn of the millennium to notice that all of that had disappeared, and a lot of the people behind the manifesto-speak had become pretty quiet. There were good reasons for that. Slow development of some of the technologies I’ve mentioned put a damper on things, forcing people to put down their pens and get to work on actually figuring out how to actually make them work. A lot of that work is still underway, and will probably take a while to bear fruit.

As for virtual reality: early heavy users of VR environments started reporting that they were coming back to the real world radically disoriented for long periods (a situation now called VR sickness). As a result, a lot researchers and engineers shifted their focus from the virtual toward the areas of pervasive computing (adding information processing capability to physical objects scattered throughout the everyday world), and augmented reality (adding virtual features to the physical world, as in Terminator-style visual displays that seamlessly graft an overlay of information into one's field of vision).

More recently, pervasive computing and augmented reality seem to be converging within handheld devices (like the iPhone) that make the whole data processing and information overlay package portable and extremely flexible.

(For a brief but good overview of the history I’ve just related, I recommend the essay “Augmenting Reality: Pervasive Computing, Spatial Practice, Interface Politics” by Luke Skrebowski, in the book Did Someone Say Participate? An Atlas of Spatial Practice, edited by Markus Miessen and Shumon Basar [MIT Press].)

The history (and failure) of VR interests me a lot, particularly because of the way that VR has sometimes been used to argue for a new kind of transcendence. A great example of this was two pieces of virtual reality art by Char Davies called Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998), each of which allowed a participant to experience a nature-like virtual world as a sort of disembodied presence, using only body tilt and breathing to navigate the different spaces. As of now, tens of thousands of people have experienced these two works, and Davies has reported that many have come out of them with a radically altered sense of self-identity, consciousness, and their own relationship to physical reality. The data are fascinating, but I’ve also wondered if/how things like novelty, sensory disorientation, and VR sickness come into play, and also whether the irony of using a computer-generated “natural” VR environment to give people an immersive experience of nature muddles things too much.

We’ve always existed with images and language as interpretive overlays that stand between us and external reality, but I’m wondering if things like pervasive computing and augmented reality are going to change the way we conceive of and relate to the physical world. When I first began to look into augmented reality and learned about things people were doing with it, I had brief visions of matter haunted with quasi-personified virtual presences, and of a shattering of the barriers between the physical and the virtual. Even something as simple as a mirror in a Toys R Us that reads the bar code of a Lego box and places an animated 3d model of the assembled toy on top of its reflection can be a little spooky the first time you see it, if it’s done convincingly. It seems like the ideas of consciousness uploads and fully immersive virtual reality are on the back burner for the time being for some very good reasons, but I wonder if these other, newer technologies are opening the door to some other type of radically transformed world.

I don’t really have an answer to this, but I’m wondering what some of you think, and also whether/how this relates to other things that now stand between us and the people around us, including online quasi-virtual worlds like Second Life or more pedestrian things like Facebook.

Alex Grey on mysticism and entheogens

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One of our readers, Alex Grey, has made a significant contribution to this session with his comments. Because he brings up a number of issues not yet addressed by the rest of us, and because his views have sparked some interesting dialogue/debate, I'm reposting some of his comments below followed by some of the comments on his comments.

Alex says:

Before an artist can make authentically spiritual art they must have a mystical experience. This would explain why we see so little spiritual art, the mystical experience is a rare phenomenon. Same with critics, dealers, curators, historians - how can they identify or comprehend and "re-evaluate" the spiritual in art without a profound encounter with the Numinous? Once a person has such an experience, it changes their perspective on everything.

The qualities or categories of a mystical experience are:

Unity. There is a dissolving of ego boundaries and a feeling of oneness with the Cosmos. Self is experienced as pure vast network of awareness.

Transcendence of Time and Space. There is a loss of usual references of time and space. Time seems eternal or even that one is "outside of time". The infinite becomes visible, palpable.

Deeply Felt Positive Mood. There are feelings of blessedness, joy, and peace, and a sense of unconditional love. The uniqueness of these emotions is in the level to which they are elevated, the intensity of the experience.

Sense of Sacredness. There is an intuitive sense of wonder and peace, a sense of special value, and a feeling of the holy and divine.

Subjective Nature of the Experience. The knowledge seems conveyed not through words, but through the experience itself, and there is a certainty that this knowledge is authentic and direct.

Paradoxicality. When attempting to explain the experience to others, there are frequently logical contradictions in explanations, such as emptiness in which one simultaneously feels full and complete, or a dissolution of self in which something of the individual remains to experience the phenomenon. There is both separateness from and unity with the surroundings.

Alleged Ineffability. The experience seems to be beyond what words can define. Logical descriptions or interpretations are incapable of accurately describing the experience, partially due to the paradoxical nature of the phenomena. This is why art and music have been the language of mysticism for all religious traditions.

Transiency. The actual time spent in the mystical state is temporary. A return to the everyday surroundings occurs after a short period, whether through sudden awakening or a gradual shift of awareness to the immediate environment.

Persisting Positive Changes in Mood and Behavior.

There are now scientifically proven, repeatable means to accessing the Mystic Experience, but not until we have significant numbers of people in the artworld visiting those realms will things change much.

From Atta Kim, one of our participants

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(Atta Kim sends his regrets about being unable to participate in the live conversation here due to his traveling to Africa for the installation of his work. In lieu of a live appearance, he has submitted the following essay, which was translated from Korean by Joyce Kim.)

Travels of the Point

In August 2010, NASA released a photograph. It was a picture of the Earth taken from 100,008,300 km away in space. Taken on May 6th, 2010 from the Messenger spacecraft, the earth looked like a bright, white dot in the pitch-black darkness of space. The moon looked like a small animal feeding in the arms of its mother. I laughed the moment I saw the picture.

Around 330 BC, Euclid defined a point as that which has no area; it simply indicates a position. Points connect to create a line. Those lines meet to create a plane and between that plane and another plane is space. This is the simple logic that defines dimensions in Western aesthetics.

In 1926, Kandinsky, at age 60, published his book, Point and Line to Plane, and stated, "The geometric point is an invisible thing. Therefore, it must be defined as an incorporeal thing. Considered in terms of substance, it equals zero."

Instead of commenting on the topic of the Beyond Kandinsky Symposium, Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, the reason I am commenting on Point and Line to Plane is because Point and Line to Plane addresses the physical and spiritual elements of Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Furthermore, Kandinsky’s definition of a point is similar to an Eastern understanding of the world.

There is a logic to all phenomena on Earth. Water must freeze to become ice, ice melts to become water, water evaporates to become rain and snow, which cycles on Earth to become flowers and life. All phenomena are built from the point and breaks down to the point. This is the basic cycle of nature. The point builds to a line, plane, and space, and all events and history are produced in space. Space is structure and daily life. If this every day space is broken down, we return to the plane, and the lines that produce that plane, and the point that makes up the line. That is why the point is the beginning. The "boundary of difference" between big things and small things, this or that thing, is the role of the point and line. The Earth looks like a small point from space. However, if we looked at the Earth from the moon, we would not call the Earth a point. Nor is the Earth called a point from the Earth. It’s difficult to define the boundary of a point and line, but we know for sure that the line is a point’s connection. That is why the point is reborn as a line and the line is reborn as a plane. The plane cannot be built without the functional death of the point and line. The point and line’s functional death becomes the line and plane, but the identity of the point or the line does not die. The location of the point and line’s functional death becomes the boundary between the point and the line. The place of the line’s functional death becomes the plane. However, the point and line and plane’s identity never dies and is inherent within space. Space’s inner energy is the life of the identities forming space, and it can be the action of the physical energy inherent to the space itself. Therefore, paradoxically, three-dimensional space’s physical and spiritual requisite is the point. Furthermore, the identity of the point is not just a rule that governs the point, line, plane, and space, but it is applicable to all phenomena and existence and events in the world.

The problem is that when the size of the point is not visible to the human eye or when the point shrinks to such a small nano/micro scale that we are unable to measure it, the point’s function and definition is unclear. In other words, the point’s function dies to become the line, but there is no physical boundary limiting understanding and analog measurement. Euclid and Kandinsky both do not talk about the boundaries of the point’s smallest unit. When Kandinsky says, "it is not visible to the eye, but it is an essence, incorporeal and zero," he means transforming a physical analog into an immaterial thought. This is the true value of Kandinsky’s idea. Identities and ideas have no mass or volume and have no limit on size.

All objects have a mass and volume, and volume is another word for space. Broadly speaking, space is another word for time. [1] That is, what is between time is what is between space. What is between emptiness is time. Time clearly exists, but we cannot hold it in our hand. The past has already passed; the future has not yet come. But it’s not as if we can hold the present either. If we multiply 1 second by 10 to the negative 43, we arrive at the most basic unit of time called Planck time. We cannot conceive of exactly how long this unit of time is because it is so small, but it is not true that time does not have volume. It is only that we are unable to measure it. That is why we are unable to live even one day ahead of time or one day behind time. We cannot separate space and time, and if we transcend space and time, we do not exist. However, time clearly has its own face. Sadly, although the foundation of life as we know it is based on time, time cannot reveal its face by itself. Through the existence of others, time is able to show its face. That is why all objects in existence are a face of time. It is true for rocks, trees, you, and me. Time is the space (or the volume) of a moment. Thus, time as a concept has physical substance with mass and volume.

Now I’ll come back to Euclid and Kandinsky’s definition of a point. "...It must be defined as an incorporeal thing. Considered in terms of substance, it equals zero," means that just because we are unable to measure on the nano/micro scale, the essence of the point does not disappear. The essence contains the substance and the identity together. This is similar to the 21st century’s digital awareness and mode of thinking. The digital’s most basic unit of the byte has no mass or volume. Only in the output does it become a physical object. Kandinsky’s definition of the incorporeal essence ultimately refers to things that have been transformed into an identity and ideology that has no mass and volume. Kandinsky transformed the physical energy that is the point into inner energy. Identity and ideology have no volume or mass but in the output, it is able to finally have shape and form. That is art’s alpha and omega. For example, a sculptor can take a rock in its natural state, exactly as it is, and create a statue of Buddha or a cross. Then the rock’s form becomes completely different. Nature’s rock becomes an icon according to the identity of the artist. When we encounter an icon in life that matches the concept of an icon in our minds, we start to pray and say our hopes and desires. But we do not direct prayers toward a rock in nature. But the rock already had all shapes and forms. That is why the rock in nature is concrete and becomes abstract when it has an intangible ideology. At last absolute concreteness becomes absolute abstraction. Abstraction is inherent in absolute concreteness and concreteness is inherent in absolute abstraction. This is the same process by which a point builds into a space and a space breaks down into a point.

In Buddhism, all objects, or in other words, color and matter are another word for space and space is another word for color. All objects can become one according to the concept of "all matter is emptiness" and the process of breaking down is called "emptiness is form." In particular, Hua-yen Buddhism’s teachings of "one is all, all is one" is a physical analysis of how points build to space and space breaks down to a point. Buddhism’s "all matter is emptiness" does not mean a lack. I will use my work as an example.

My ON-AIR Project’s Indala Series (Indala is another word for Indra’s net, which refers to the concept of the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. New York, Washington, Moscow, Tokyo, Paris, London, Venice, Berlin, Athens, Seoul, Delhi, and others, comprise the 14 cities that are a part of this project). For the project, I took 10,000 photographs of New York and superimposed them to create one final picture.

The completed picture appears to be nothing but a blurry, gray image, but there are physically 10,000 photographs within it. Those 10,000 photographs of New York streets, buildings, people, and events were vividly captured over the course of several years, lovingly, with proper photographic technique. I’m not Buddhist and I didn’t do this project with the intention of explaining the concept of "all is emptiness," but this is similar to that concept of emptiness. If one penetrates into the gray image (as in Heidegger’s concept of entwurf, or the mental process of absorption in something), one is able to meet again the countless events and identities melted into the 10,000 cuts. This process of disassembly is "emptiness is everything." If one physically dismantles an analog picture, one is left with the particles that make up analog film; in a digital process, only the pixels are left. In the final gray image of the Indala project, those 10,000 photographs have become one and each has lost its function but their identity is not gone. Just like how my DNA contains all of humanity’s genes, identity does not disappear. This is similar to how the point’s identity is inherent in space. Ironically though, the final gray picture of one city composed of 10,000 different superimposed photographs is digitized and has no mass or volume; it only has form when it comes out.

I have practiced Zen for about 20 years. Through meditation and Zen, I sought the true nature of existence and trained myself to experience life. This process has allowed me to live life and become enlightened. One ordinary day in 1998, I was deep in training when I saw a small rock perched on top of a big rock twice my height. This is a common sight that one can easily see anywhere. I spent a long time training myself to look for the logic of the universe in everyday life, and the key point of that image training was "dialogue." Through dialogue with objects, I can contemplate, devote, and disassemble life into new experiences. So naturally, I started a dialogue about the connection between the big rock and the small rock. On that windy winter day, I sat in front of the big rock all day and started a dialogue about the connection between that big rock, the small rock, and me. I wrote down the things they told me in a notebook. The rock’s connection showed me the world beyond what I had known before—it was like looking at a panoramic picture. Toward the end of the afternoon, as I was about to fill the entire notebook with all I had written about the connection between the little rock and the big rock, I picked up the small rock with my hand. I was startled the moment I lifted the small pebble. There had been a leaf under the pebble. The whole day I had sat in front of them, and it had never occurred to me that there might have been a leaf underneath that small rock. Again, I started to record the connection between the big rock, the small rock, and the leaf. I set out to search for the connection between the heavy rock and relatively light leaf, and to search for the leaf’s story. The sun had already set behind the western mountain and as a shallow darkness started to fall, I picked up the leaf that had been underneath the small rock. I was shocked again the moment I picked up the leaf. On the underside of the leaf, there was a white spore attached to the leaf. I couldn’t have imagined such an event. That moment, the spore that was about 1 cm small felt to me like a great ball of life. I was touched. The big rock and the forest and the trees, the flowing river and the rocks on the riverside and all things surrounding me felt like a ball of life. The darkening valley transformed into a festival for the life of living things. That small, single spore led me to the place of DNA—life’s smallest unit. This all happened in an instant. It’s natural that from the mineral rock to the spore, it all unfolds from DNA. All things that exist are connected, like the double helix of DNA. Ultimately, life’s smallest unit of DNA is also an identity of the point. And although human eyes cannot see DNA, it has a mass and volume. This was the starting point for my "ON-AIR Project."

Euclid’s definition of a point and Kandinsky’s "immaterial essence" are only possible when they have a position, a location and this is when the point necessarily has a mass and volume. However, the point’s physical energy is free from mass and volume when it transforms into an identity or ideology. Kandinsky liberated the point from matter.

Earth looks like a small dot when seen from 100,008,300 km away. No other words of description come to mind. In this place, humans advance history and evolve. Euclid and Kandinsky lived here, and 21st century humans continue to live in this place.

I have deep respect for Kandinsky, who discerned the logic of art and the logic of the world through the identity of the point, line, and plane 100 years ago.

My explorations about the point are an Eastern philosophical analysis of the world that sees the earth and people in terms of the microcosm. I ask the understanding of the panel in my subjective analysis.

March 10, 2011
Atta Kim


[1] Note: The Korean Chinese character for “space” is made by combining the character for "empty" and the character for "between." The Korean Chinese character for "time" (as a general concept) is made by combining the character for "time" (as a single point in time) and "between."

Immanence and Transcendence

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As our first session draws to a close later today I thought we might do well to summarize a few of the key points we've been over. There's been a good deal of talk about transcendence and immanence, and several participants have posed very strong cases for the dismissal of transcendence as the *sole* model for (or approach to) the spiritual for our times. It seems clear that our first step in moving beyond Kandinsky is one in the direction of immanence rather than transcendence, but since we're also challenging the dualism inherent in Kandinsky's metaphysics and the Modernist project in general, I'm wondering if there is a third term that might signify both immanence and transcendence together (i.e., not either/or but both/and)?

4 comments

Alex – I like very much your description of the qualities of mystical experience. I, for one, experienced ‘numinosum’ for the first time while engaged in the process of making art, focused in a particular way in the studio, This was not prior to making, rather occurred as a result of my engagement. I do question the phrase “authentic spiritual art” because it may be for one person (artist or viewer) and not another. I can in earnest say that my lifelong commitment to being an artist is in large part the result of the transformation that I experience as I wholly connect materials, eyes, mind with the moment. Nothing else has even come close. (You can use your imagination as to what ‘nothing’ refers to.)

I experienced such transformation one night spent atop the great pyramid of Cheops in my late 20’s, and now in front of a great deal of art (by others), but by-in-large my relationship to spirituality has everything to do with the artistic process.

I would be very interested in hearing from the other artists here about their own experience as makers in this regard.

Laura Battle