This conversation took place in the studio of artist Rebecca Partridge in advance of her exhibition Notations at Kunstverein Springhornhof and has been published as part of the exhibition catalogue earlier this year. Partridge suggested that it might resonate with themes that are regularly discussed and may be of interest to readers of, and researchers on, our platform. We agreed.
Partridge and Verwoert here discuss their mutual interests interests in the dynamic relation between environmental qualities, perceptions and states, taking tours and detours through neuroscience, vibrant matter, minimalism and embarrassment, curiosity and uncertainty, leading to the question of the vivid yet unverifiable… is it there or isn’t it? [note from the editors]
JV: So, what are we looking at?
RP: What are we looking at… It’s quite hard say because the work has emerged slowly over fifteen years or so. Something that is at the heart of what I’m doing is synaesthesia. I have grapheme- colour, sound –colour synaesthesia and a heightened perception of certain geometric percepts. I used to have repetitive dreams of vast white spaces. Shapes would appear, three triangles for example, and slowly start moving about rhythmically, it was all very calm at first but then they would speed up and spin into a black vortex. At this point I’d panic, it was quite sinister. There were variations but always on these basic structures. However, I don’t seek to illustrate the particularities of such dreams. I’m much more looking at the condition of synaesthesia as a general model. Neuroscience interests me a lot, particularly the psychedelic and mystical element to it.
JV: And what does neuroscience say about synaesthesia?
RP: Basically, synaesthesia occurs when the stimulation of one sensory modality triggers a response in another modality. You hear a sound and see a colour. Such relationships can remain stable over time or arise in many different constellations. Earlier the condition had been dismissed as merely subjective, but now many neuroscientists are returning to it, although they don’t know its full significance yet. What they do say, is that synaesthesia may be the foundation of metaphor. Vilayanur S. Ramachadran (one of the leading researchers in the field) gives the so-called ‘booba kiki’ example: You have two shapes, one round, one spiky. Which is which?
JV: Well, the spiky one is kiki?
RP: Yes. This is the metaphorical dimension they are talking about. The theory is that, in the earliest stages of us developing in the womb, all our neural networks are interconnected. Within three months they start to separate. Synaesthesia occurs when some of the networks have not separated, in a way it’s a case of arrested development. Yet, on some level all of us are synaesthetic, we have a bodily knowledge of what these cross overs and metaphorical correlates are. Everybody experiences them. Do you know about Heinrich Kluver? He was a child psychologist working in the 60’s. He noticed that in small children there was a common occurrence of geometric repetitive dreams. Correlating these findings with research into mescal hallucinations, he built a visual alphabet of geometric forms which he called ‘form constants’. Apart from Synaesthesia, these forms also appear in other states of altered perception, migraine headache, epilepsy: grids lattices and vortex patterns. I like the idea that early modernist utopian geometry wasn’t not so far out after all… but actually came from the body. The abstract paintings I was doing before had a relationship to this sense of an inner visual grammar, then a big shift came a few years ago when I thought: What happens when I put the inside outside..? That’s the very long way of coming to this painting… of a tree!
JV: If we find the mental images on the inside, what is the outside?
RP: Nature for me is simply the outside, its external. With these images, it probably happens twice a year, if I’m lucky, that there is a moment of recognition, or resonance, when something I experience in a bodily way, I then also experience outside.
JV: That’s a good way to think because in that sense we are not talking about the representation but the resonance of nature.
RP: Yes, so this image has not really got anything to do with painting a tree accurately.
JV: It’s about finding what triggers the resonance. The painting is the medium of that resonance …
RP: Exactly. It is literally a mirroring inside the image. In her book Vibrant Matter , Jane Bennett, a ‘new materialist’ thinker, writes about how matter has energy. She also wrote a great essay about hoarders. She said if we (falsely) bracket off any notions of psychopathology, and assume that hoarders are exquisitely sensitive to something that is actually in the object, we can perhaps reveal what is happening in object relationships. We could say the same about synesthetes: that they have a heightened sensitivity to a network of relations that we all experience on some level. That’s somewhat how I look at what I’m doing.
JV: So, when I approach the constellation you build between the tree paintings, the sea paintings, the dark paintings on wood and the geometric objects, yeah really like a set of stimuli, I feel that together they configure a horizon of experience, of qualities and states, that you want me to enter…
RP: For a long time, when I was making the abstract works, working on paintings felt like spinning into a vortex. But now out of this vortex a network is emerging, a network of modalities that cross over: grapheme/ sound/ time/ spacial perception/ the calendar system/ colour it goes on… I have thought about this in terms of polarities (real/ abstract, 2d/3d, night/day, body/landscape inside/outside etc) but I like ‘qualities and states’. Out of that network anything can emerge which is really exciting because it allows the work to keep expanding in intuitive ways.
JV: It makes sense. So in that sense we are not looking at works that represent things in the traditional sense but which render something tangible that reverberates. Yet, while they operate like stimuli in the overall constellation of the work, they are also very painterly paintings, carefully built up in layers, layers and layers.
RP: I think of them now as compass points, generating resonances between things, and I’m like a conductor. So it’s really important to me that there is an intimacy with the works. Not only with the paintings, also with these spheres. I sit and make them. Somehow they are also comedy characters…
JV: Yes, it’s tangible that the works are charged with a different kind of feeling than, say, Bob Morris’s perceptual experiments in minimalism. I am very suspicious of Morris, he is telling me he wants to test my senses and that there is some higher phenomenological truth to be gained from it. When actually, the only thing he does is manipulate the conditions for seeing work in a gallery space, so as to make things more effective. He gives me the experience of having an experience in a white cube by looking at white cubes. A game of zeros. Very economical. My father studied art in the 60s and when I recently asked him about Morris, he just said one sentence: ‘The minimalists wanted the space’. Period. It’s like,‘yep, that’s pretty much it’. With Morris there’s a military logic to organizing a perceptual field by staking it out, with a few territorial markers. There’s no surplus. Nothing exceeds the functional logic of manipulating perception. It makes his work incredibly unembarrasing, because there is nothing to be embarrassed of.
RP: Where as this work could easily be embarrassing!
JV: Yeah, you address basic phenomena of perceptions, but in doing so you deal with experiences that modern rationality disavows as unverifiable. You go beyond the positivist rationale of ‘what you see is what you get’: cubes in a cube. Although the works may be stimuli, their making makes them more than just triggers.
RP: Yes. It’s this attitude of really getting to know every part of the thing that you are making. Because that’s how the resonance starts kicking off itself, how it starts to circulate, it feeds back to me what I put in. Time matters. The tree paintings come out of a really long term project. The tree is in Spain. I am repainting it every three years. This is the second one. I went back to Spain and re-photographed the tree. Ideally I’ll live in to my 80’s, and in time there will be like fifteen of them!
JV: Yes, you get this sense of experiencing one’s own experiences resonating, bouncing back from the surface of the work. Also with the landscape paintings. There is something strangely tidal about them.
RP: In them I’m thinking about synthesising different rhythms, in a simple way, like night and day, real, yet abstract, black and white, the rhythm of the sea. They are called Notes on the Sea because I want to evoke a relation to musical notation and sound. I understand this form of rhythmicality as being deeply rooted in the body. So in that sense I’m putting the inside on the outside.
JV: Yeah, true, it’s a funny sense of connecting to something. Adorno tries to address it in his Aesthetic Theory. He argues that imitation of nature can carry art beyond the modern regime of representation into a zone of mimetic relationality, in which mimesis, really mimicking, becomes a form of ‘collusion with nature’, as he calls it. In mimesis, you collude with the thing, you become its partner, share its condition, as you ‘linger with it’, he says, in the process of taking it in. Taking the canvas, sketchpad or camera out there would be a way of literally translating that into a modern practice. But that’s not the only way, no? Caspar David Friendrich apparently never travelled. He got sketch books from travelling artists and collaged his nature scenes together from sketches of the Alps or Norwegian wilderness and so on. He did this picture of himself painting in a studio with only a tiny window under the roof. He seems to be in a state of summoning the spirits of nature in the studio space. In a sense you do something similar, you do take your camera out, but then the main thing is to make the sea come in, you are generating something very ocean-like, in the studio…
RP: Again I think it goes back to not actually having that much to do with sea! I was brought up near the Yorkshire Moors and sometimes when I was out walking a fog would descend which leaves you completely disorientated. It also plays with your spacial perception, blurring the boundaries… so there is something that intrigues me about creating a space that’s boundless or formless… hmm bringing the sea into the studio…
JV: Something ocean-like, the fog… so what reverberates in the mimetic experience is not so much a literal rendering of a seaside or moor scenario, but a bass line of the experience touched on here in the studio… how would you describe that experience?
RP: This is the stuff that is hard to articulate. It’s a calm, something grounded and expansive at the same time. Let me show you two films. The first one, Silence and Change is partner to the tree painting, The second, Wave (I) is light on the water in a particular place, where at a certain time of day, the contrast is so strong, that things really look black and white, it’s the language both of external and internal landscape. I originally painted it but it didn’t do anything so I realised it had to move… Now the film really activates the other works, the ceramics, like little characters… that really is the inside on the outside.
JV: So what renders the mimetic nature of the experience tangible is what the different works do together in space, isn’t it? How would you describe this experience?
RP: Ideally, there is a resonance. They activate each other so that something comes alive. If I were to mention another artist, whose work does that, it would be Tomma Abts. When you look at her paintings they are alive! That is what I’m trying to do. But for me it happens between works and how they relate to each other and it’s very difficult for that to happen. When I make the work, and get the feeling of generating that energy — and it’s hard to say whether I’m generating it or it’s coming from the work or whatever is happening — its quite transformative.
JV: Transformative in the sense of?
RP: In the sense that you are kind of clearing something, its a kind of clear out…
JV: I like the expression. There is a moment of clearing in the work. Heidegger talks about a clearing in the wood as a place where you feel how things open up and come into being. But in the case of your work, this notion has little to do with a sense of order or balance restored, no? The relation you build between the objects and paintings is precisely not characterized by symmetry nor order. In this sense you avoid what makes some new age stuff so hateful, that it is about dispelling conflict, aligning forces, re-instating cosmo-fascistic order. That death-drive towards symmetry and order is absent in your work. Instead, there is kind of a crooked factor. A clearing that does not give you a sense of order…
RP: Yes, exactly.
JV: … but a sense of relations. Relations established across a divide or by the recognisable difference of the media. That the sculpture is not a painting and the painting is not a sculpture. The geometrical shape is not a solid ball.
RP: That is something that I have been thinking a lot about, how to navigate around a gestalt idea without getting drawn into this reductive sense of order. It’s tricky. Well, I’m convinced that works related to experiments with perceptual experiences get an unnecessarily hard time: ‘Its hippy. It’s new age.’ This kind of dismissal. Actually there is still a lot to draw out. Which is what I’m trying to tackle without being clichéd. It’s such a tight rope.
JV: I have to say I like work that actually goes to places where the risk of embarrassment, as we were saying, still exists. I rather mistrust people who play the radical and go to the limits of perception, but who, at all times, make sure they stay on the safe side, within the parameters of accepted rational. What I hate about the ‘speculative realist’ thinkers and their ‘object-oriented ontology’ is that they talk about the secret life of things in, but with a pronouncedly scientific tone, that is, in an outright denial of how close their theories are to animist thinking. Anthropology doesn’t help that much either, as long as it treats animism as just another cultural phenomenon, to be studied and interpreted in this or that way. When the vital question may be: What does it mean today to experience things in that key? And if and how that would even be possible from a modern perspective? I like Michael Taussig because he faces up to these questions. You said for you art is about works becoming animated. What’s key to thoughts about animation, is that they put quality at the centre of thinking, rather than quantity. It’s the crucial difference between modern science and alchemy. Science quantifies. Alchemy qualifies. It understands the world in terms of relations between elementary qualities, between the wet, dry, hot and cold. Even when it comes to measurements, alchemical recipies, like for cooking up paints, apparently didn’t specify the actual quantity of, say, spoons of pigments you should put into the mix. They say ‘seven spoons’ because the number exemplifies a particular quality, in numerological terms. So people knew how to take recipies with a grain of salt. I find it fascinating to think that understanding matter in terms of resonances and reverberations could actually make us address the horizon of existential experience in qualitative terms, that is, in terms of how qualities like the hot, the cold, the wet and the dry clash or resonate in particular ways.
RP: Well that would be my proposal, that is exactly what it is. That is the framework. Thinking about animism is not how I arrived where I am, but from my understanding of it being relational, then yes, animism could potentially be considered as an approach to the network I’m trying to describe, as an outward expression of the relationality and qualities of synaesthesia. In the beginning, I was reading about alchemy and mystical practices, but at the time there seemed to be no room for it within a critical discourse. To engage with Neurology was to find a way of talking about what I was doing. I don’t think science is any threat to it being mystical in any way. I love this piece by Susan Hiller, that she made last year, ‘Channels’. She discusses the brain being like a tv set receiving and filtering information. Actually a lot of neuroscientists entertain this idea, many of them are really open. Science doesn’t detract from simultaneously thinking in another way. The questions just get bigger, don’t they?
JV: The questions just get bigger. What I love about Susan Hiller though, is that she has a way of returning science to the point of the unverifiable. She shows how so many scientific theories that present themselves with the authority of the irrefutable actually pick the point of departure for their investigations in precisely those experiences that resist criteria of verifiability. Hiller, for instance, writes about how Freud so insistently seeks to give psychoanalysis the authority of a proper science because he is dealing with phenomena traditionally associated with madness and using techniques like hypnosis or suggestion associated with witchcraft. So if we don’t look at the scientific in terms of its authority claims but in terms of what called the questions that just get bigger, where does that get us?
RP: In the end it may lead us back to philosophy. In my research, I came across the neuroscientist Michael Persinger. He invented what he called ‘The God Helmet’. The helmet generates relatively weak magnetic stimuli, directed at the front temporal lobes. Reports from people wearing the helmet in tests ranged from ‘no effect’ (Richard Dawkins said he felt nothing, he wouldn’t would, he) to full blown mystical experiences of feeling interconnected with everything. The majority at least recounted sensing another presence in the room. The argument is that it’s all in the mind. But still I found it really exciting. As Susan Hiller suggests, if the magnetic impulses open up a receptor, when you watch the television, the film may not only be made in the TV. This creates a huge opening to questions we can be asking.
RP: Well my question has always been: Is it there or isn’t it? Are there energies moving between things or are they simply empathetic responses? That is the metaphysical question.
Both: And we will never be able to answer it.
RP: Maybe most importantly it reminds us that we just don’t know. It puts us in a position of curiosity and uncertainty.
JV: In writing about Susan Hiller I ended up calling the phenomena she is dealing with experiences of the vivid yet unverifiable. The agony of not knowing, I think, is so well captured in that line from the lyrics of Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast ‘Can I be sure that what I saw last night was real and not just fantasy?’ That is question the vivid yet unverifiable poses. In her pieces, in a sense, Hiller works towards establishing this condition as a truth criterion in its own right. It is an intrinsic characteristic of the experiences she points to (including that of watching, or rather, receiving images and messages from the TV) that they are made in the key of the vivid yet unverifiable. It lies in the nature of these experiences (art, love, religion, sensing other people’s feelings, revelations of truths…) that they might as well be true or in your head. That condition defines there reality. So, taking these matters seriously, is, as you said, a tight rope walk. What’s the risk?
RP: What’s the risk? Well, it’s not so mush a philosophical as a practical risk, you risk not being taken seriously or being embarrassed. A certain sincerity concerning these matters is still considered naive.
JV: The risk is to be not taken seriously. So what are we arguing for? For the validity of letting the uncertain be what it is? Is it even the right question? Are we arguing for anything?
RP: Yes of course we are arguing for something. I’m arguing an intelligence of the body, I’m arguing for, I guess, the possibility to talk about something transformative or clearing, about a love which is intelligent, for an optimism, a curiosity and openness to uncertainty…
JV: One the one hand such bodily intelligence, as a faculty, would be almost timeless. On the other hand, historically, it points to a knowledge that has either been violently suppressed, in the horrors of the witch hunts at the dawn of modernity, or appropriated, fetishized and exploited for all the wrong reasons by modern cults.
RP: Well its difficult to talk about these matters because the twentieth century really screwed up the concepts that existed for doing so. Somehow we have to reconstruct a language out of the rubble.
JV: Including concepts that would allow us to talk about nature in a non-essentialist manner. When we speak about your work and describe what comes to pass between its different parts as resonating with a relation to nature, what notion of nature are we dealing with?
RP: Well it’s what we were talking about in the beginning, isn’t it? I would usually hesitate to use the word ‘nature’. I am not talking about nature in the conventional sense, nor am I making any grand claims about the nature of things. For me to explore particular experiences and relations through making works is a matter of curiosity. Bringing the sea into the studio is a simple act of bringing what is outside (outside of ourselves, external) close… It’s a way of rendering an externality which, without being abstract in the traditional sense, defies cultural readings. The sea, or the fog, or the tree, is simply an outside, an other. If we understand mimesis as a way to enter into an embodied relation with the other, and we go along with the notion of nature as outside, then you could say that, by bringing nature into the studio, I blur the boundaries between the inside and the outside. The inner sense of bodily rhythmicality is externalised in the work. At the very same time, the work brings the external and distant close. Exploring this boundary is like moving along an edge… I suppose this is why going to this edge feels expansive, like a form of clearing. It somehow describes the work to say that what comes to pass between these different objects is an exchange which makes them feel animated. Like in a natural environment. So it feels like I’m evoking something, or trying to, that is alive.
Images: ‘Notations’ exhibition views, courtesy Rebecca Partridge. Film: ‘Wave I’, courtesy Rebecca Partridge.