This conversation between Leah Beeferman and Tuukka Kaila also exists as a book — If you show me what you know, can I tell you what I see? — published by Rooftop Press, Helsinki, 2022. It was included in the Grams exhibition at Kosminen, Helsinki, in January 2022.
Tuukka Kaila (1975, FI) is a Helsinki-based contemporary artist operating in the expanded fields of photography, knowledge and publishing. He is a co-founder of the artist-run publishing initiative Rooftop Press and founder of the nomadic artist’s book gathering Bookies. Tuukka maintains Värinä, the artists’ co-op colour darkroom, and runs Vallilan Risopaja, an open-access micro press.
Leah Beeferman (1982, US) is an artist based in Providence, US. She uses photography, video, digital image-making and text to explore the interplay between observation, documentation, information, and abstraction. Leah has exhibited and published her work internationally, and was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant to Finland (2016-17). She teaches at RISD and Brown University.
TK: Before beginning a collaborative work, I’m always terrified of the initial contact. It can be very defining in terms of the process and the final outcome. I’m worried about saying too much too early and thereby restricting what it could become. I’m also scared of approaching the wrong person and spending potentially a long time in a working relationship that I either don’t enjoy, or I don’t believe in.
LB: I like collaborating. I wish I did it more, but the situation doesn’t present itself too often these days. I talk and exchange ideas with artists quite regularly, but actually collaborating is different. I often think about how sound artists and musicians work together all the time, in both performances and recordings. I guess it’s different for visual artists if the goal is to make a singular object, since visual art feels so proprietary by comparison. Sometimes I envy the freedom that sound artists and musicians have to collaborate, but I have similar reservations as you, which is why I rarely do it. Or I’m just too focused on my own work.
TK: Exchanging ideas and sharing thoughts is definitely something different I think. Like opening up your practice for others to comment and influence, but restricting authorship of outcomes to yourself. When I’m working together with someone towards a common goal, I’m generally hoping to share a certain curiosity with them. I also think it’s a nice way of experiencing, in practice, some of the ideas that I’m interested in: like how we come to know the things we know, or how we can share those things through art. I find the open horizon at the beginning of a collaboration very exciting. In my experience this is particularly true of publishing. Publishing other artists’ work is like making friends with ideas and thinking that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
LB: Publishing is an ideal space for visual artists to collaborate, I agree. I worked with a wonderful artist book publisher a few years ago, run by two artists. My work took a somewhat different shape than I would have come up with on my own, and the book itself was a much more interesting object thanks to their expertise and input. It was great. New forms then lead to new ideas. I spent many years co-publishing (or co-producing) online artworks for other artists on a site called Parallelograms. That taught me how beneficial such collaboration can be for the publisher, too. I learned so much. Rather than prescribing what the resulting object or “product” might be, you create a formalized space in which to explore ideas, connections, thoughts and processes together. It’s wonderful to see where that evolves.
TK: Yes, precisely. The indeterminacy that I feel is so essential for artistic thinking can also be tricky in this context though. How do you keep the roles and goals open enough, and at the same time sufficiently defined, so that outcomes can grow from the process, and everyone feels involved in defining the space you describe? Collaboration also expands the scope of what’s possible by providing a potentially unlimited skillset and knowledge between those involved.
I like what you said about collaboration between sound artists and musicians. And I think you’re right that in visual art collaboration is perhaps understood as something different.
Hanna Kuusela (Kuusela 2020) writes about different modes of participation in the creation of an artwork. She identifies three levels of collaboration or co-authorship as: conscious, contributory, and involuntary. In conscious collaboration, all participants can have equal say in planning the working process and defining its objectives. In the contributory model, the participation is voluntary but each contribution is subjected to an overriding goal set by a signatory mastermind. In the case of an involuntary collaboration, the contributors’ work is appropriated by the author with or without their consent. Kuusela is critical of the emphasis that collaborative art projects tend to place on method over outcome, while at the same time making only the outcome available to an audience. So in a sense, it’s a question of whether these are essentially exclusive processes, where the main audience of the work consists of the participating authors — who are the only ones with access to what’s often described as the main focus: the process. When you say you like collaborating, what does that mean to you?
LB: I like collaborations where my ideas meet another artist’s ideas, and together we produce a situation in which both of our work thrives in a new way. For me, personally, this makes more sense than creating specific images or objects together — but I haven’t done that recently, so I can’t really speak to it. For example, back in 2011, I did a short two-person show with a friend, Pierre Le Hors. We displayed our work flat on two long tables, layered atop one another. My work was primarily laser-etched translucent plexi. His was mostly photographic prints. You saw many of his images through my pieces and it was impossible to see many of mine without also seeing his. It was clear that there were two different artists’ work in the show, but you couldn’t separate them because of how they were displayed. I learned a lot from that experience, seeing juxtapositions between what I had made and what he had made.
TK: I think in my case producing images or objects together could be a bit forced, except perhaps as an exercise in trust, sharing control and learning new ways of working. And while it might be very rewarding for me as a participant in the creative process, I think that Kuusela is right about the results not always sharing that process with an audience.
LB: I think many artists’ processes are more collaborative than we’d care to admit. Studio visits, shared ideas, suggestions, feedback, etc., all play a huge role in the work we end up showing and calling our own.
TK: I suppose it’s a matter of defining the term, and perhaps doing that each time we’re creating that space for exploring ideas together, as you suggest. I think collaborations are inherently curious about the entanglements between process and outcome. I often think back to an enjoyable collaborative process I had around a book and a show called Golden Age of Chaos and Clusterfuck a few years ago. As a way of working and being exposed to other people’s ideas and references, the experience was, and still is, very dear to me. During the process I also thought a lot about the tipping points between facilitating and restricting. Sometimes what seems like an arbitrary practical task can actually have important implications on how you work together as a group and what can be achieved. Being clear about expectations and actively working towards a flexibility of roles within the group is, I think, very important. I’m also very fond of Celiné Condorelli’s (Condorelli 2014) notion of friendship as the primary product of a collaboration. That while working together to produce something, what’s actually being produced is the friendship between those involved.
LB: Yes, I agree. I’ve made so many friends with artists with whom I have common ideas, questions, and concerns. If we’ve all found each other through our work, it’s very likely we share values, interests, and perspectives. Of course friendships can develop beyond artistic values, but it’s a logical and wonderful place to start, especially when those artistic values suggest larger world values.
TK: In our case, I think we both share an interest in what information, knowledge, and research can mean for artists and artworks. I’m thinking about different ways artworks can participate in conversations and impart knowledge without compromising their identity as artworks. The György Kepes (Blakinger 2019) book you mentioned to me a couple of years ago made me more aware of the historical entanglements between art and science.
The element of research often has a strong presence in your own work, and you’ve experimented with different ways of making your findings available through art. How do you feel about the implicit/explicit nature of knowledge or information in artworks?
LB: That’s a good question, and it’s one that I’ve been wrestling with ever since I started graduate school in 2007. I came to realize that there are certain types of information that images or artworks can offer, and other kinds we need language to explain.
One of my goals as an artist is to make work that can engage, equally though in different ways, those who “know nothing” (who have no context) and those who “know everything” (who do). formal details — what you can see — are a major part of my work. I often use text in artworks too, but I only use language that I feel broadens one’s experience of that work, not closes it down. This is really important to me.
TK: I’m also interested in the question of whether art making can be thought of as research in itself — in other words, as a way of producing knowledge — and whether artworks can communicate that knowledge. I agree that these are all different things, although overlapping to various degrees. I also believe that visual art should have some sort of initial lure or intrigue about it, because you might be asking quite a lot from your audience if you want to share abstract thoughts or emotions with them through art. That can be demanding. If the work does not offer sufficient appeal, it’s unfair to expect an audience to engage in an in-depth exchange with it.
LB: On some level it depends how you define knowledge and information, right? These terms are elusive. regardless, I absolutely think that art-making can be thought of as research in itself. But does it produce knowledge as hard facts? I don’t know, often not. Knowledge as experience though? Knowledge as heightened sensory engagement and response? Knowledge grown from a retold, re-contextualized narrative? Maybe so.
TK: I think this is a crucial point, what you just said. I’ve argued elsewhere that art can be a hospitable environment for cultivating diverse ways of knowing (Kaila 2019). Not necessarily the justified true beliefs of science, but the kind of knowledge that you are describing, context-aware, familiar, situated, tacit, and so on.
LB: I should define my own use of the term “information” which itself is very evasive. I am usually talking about one of two things. First, there is the information that an artwork actually provides, directly, for the viewer. This could be visual, sonic, abstract, scientific, textual, emotional, etc. Second, there is information that “explains” an artwork, or provides backstory or the circumstances of its making.
Artworks have lives of their own, and as you say, they need to draw us in. For some works, if you give too much backstory or context, a viewer could feel like there isn’t enough intrigue to lure them in. For others, it might be necessary. It’s such a hard line to find, and to draw, and it really depends on the piece. I have found one for myself that generally works, but I like to play with exactly where it falls, too.
TK: I’m not sure I’m very clear about where mine is. I could appreciate one work for its precise, matter of fact presentation of well-articulated concepts, and another for its poetic open space. And then find yet other works uninteresting for the same reasons.
LB: Funny how it’s so specific, case-by-case, isn’t it? There really is no formula for dealing with this. Sometimes I feel that every artwork has its own needs, and it is the job of the artist to identify them and make them happen. Where do the stories and information stop and artworks begin? That’s such a fascinating question.
TK: It is! And sometimes that external information just needs its own space. as much as I can enjoy learning about an artist’s thoughts and inspirations from conversations or critics’ written responses to their work, I don’t always want that information next to the work. I think it has something to do with the long term relationship I might have with someone’s work as well. How the understanding of it evolves gradually over time — a bit like a friendship, or an energy field, where different things resonate with each other in unexpected ways. Of course, the availability of information in this way requires an outside support structure, like publications, formal gatherings, or some other kind of discursive spaces, where that stuff can circulate. And the artist needs access to this structure in order to have a voice there.
LB: You’re right, there’s a lot of access involved. But all things being equal (which they’re not), what you describe seems like an ideal model for an artistic practice. I think a lot of artists work this way: thinking about the practice as a whole, across many kinds of projects, rather than needing to answer every question within every artwork. Roni Horn is someone whose practice I find really inspiring in this way. If you want to know the why of her work, you can always look elsewhere and find clues. This way, the work she exhibits remains mysterious and experiential. I have thought about her work for a long time for many reasons, but this is a big one.
I have long been interested in the idea of making information experiential. This was a focal point for a video I made recently, The Elements, which includes a voiceover where I read both scientific facts/figures and poetic observations in a rhythmic, lyrical way. It was also a goal for some recent digital prints, where photographic images are inserted directly into pieces of text I wrote. There’s so many ways of merging information and experience, and I’m always eager to find new ones that make sense for me. My requirement, though, is that it never closes down a viewer’s potential to experience and react to an artwork for themselves —that information doesn’t equal explanation.
TK: There’s a certain generosity in that approach of giving space to the viewer that I like a lot. I also like to think that artworks deserve the respect of our trusting them to carry meaning without accompanying explanation. What you’re describing as experiential information seems central to how art functions, inspiring emotion and relying on affect, rather than communicating directly and unambiguously, even when sharing the knowledge the artwork embodies. Juha Varto, a scholar of artistic research, writes that where science needs to prove, art needs to convince (Varto 2017). I think it’s so important when experiencing art, that it appears sincere and convincing. You don’t expect to find any proof.
LB: Convince is such an interesting word here. It suggests that the artwork is making an argument. But really, if I’m understanding it right, the artwork is meant to convince a viewer that it is worth engaging with, is that what you mean? As a starting point?
TK: Yes, that’s very important too. But what I’m trying to say is that the artwork should appear convinced of its own integrity. And that that conviction should be contagious. Not necessarily an argument, more like an honest proposal.
LB: Right, that it conveys its need or desire to exist. An honest proposal. I love that.
I like to think about the different forms that information and knowledge can take: visual, textual, sonic, experiential, scientific, poetic, didactic, etc. When I’m working with text, I find it important to create an environment in which a viewer can really take it in. In other words, to structure the text into something experienced — and felt! — rather than something that’s just meant to be read or learned.
I made a performance-screening-event in 2015 called Empty Space. It had visual, textual and sonic components shown in sequence. The text, which explained the scientific concept of empty space and my relationship to it, was a challenge for viewers; not everyone enjoys reading about scientific concepts, especially in silence and in an art gallery! But friends told me that my physical presence — paging through the projected text one screen at a time — kept them interested. with this piece, I learned that the conditions of an experience — or rather, the time created around that experience — are crucial variables in how something is received.
TK: I haven’t thought of it in that way, or at least not in those words. I think it’s a beautiful idea, treating time as one of the raw materials we’re working with, persuading it to be on our side. When sharing a text with an audience, I think the importance of time as an element becomes a lot clearer in events with a live component, like public readings for example. When encountering a written text in an exhibition setting, the initial experience of time might be the amount of time the text seems to demand in order to be read, so it can appear wanting instead of offering.
LB: I very much like your point about offering, rather than wanting. What a nice way of articulating that. This brings up the question of how an artwork can be generous — but again, without giving away too much. Befriending an issue is also really different than trying to represent it, and that’s exciting. One other thing I might offer here is the potential for artworks to be catalysts for discussion. It’s amazing how artworks can open up strings of ideas, associations, debates, without being explicit. Humans love to draw out meaning.
TK: Karolina Rybačiauskaitė (Rybačiauskaitė 2020) writes about artworks as sites where ingredients from different sources can gather together, and of exhibitions as events where we can meet the gathered. This way artworks can sensitise us to be receptive to something that isn’t necessarily present in the work itself, create the circumstances where we feel inspired and cared for. I love that idea, but then I also have mixed feelings about art as inspiration. In the art/science conversation, art can be instrumentalised and treated as mere inspiration. And this brings me back to the question of knowledge and research in the arts as well. What forms do they need to take — or be presented in rather — in order for artworks to be valid and autonomous participants in the wider discussion? How can art and science meet and mingle on equally beneficial terms? I like to think of artworks as articulations of unfinished thinking, to borrow Henk Borgdorff’s expression (Borgdorff 2012). And I sometimes wish they could be more audible participants in public conversations, like texts are.
LB: I think a lot about artistic, as compared to scientific, research. Scientific research is meant to be reviewed and concretely built upon by others, whereas artistic research is typically not. So whereas scientists are working collectively — even if competitively— to build a collective descriptive system of the world, artists are building individual descriptive systems. Sometimes these systems clearly relate to other artists’ systems; I’m thinking of the German Expressionists for example. Sometimes they’re quite unique, only loosely relating. Regardless, most artists aren’t thinking that other artists are going to come along and directly build upon their descriptive systems. So this feels substantially different from science. It makes scientific research useful — because it’s collective and has a purpose — in a way that art can never be, thankfully!
TK: I love your idea of collective and individual descriptive systems. Do you mean that the individual descriptive systems of artists aren’t expected to supplement or expand preexisting systems, and that they don’t need to open themselves up for further elaboration by others? I’ve been struggling with what I’ve interpreted to be a demand for the results, methods, and processes of a research-based artistic practice to be made readily accessible. By this I mean both transparency regarding how the research resulting in the artworks was conducted, and the availability of the findings through experiencing those works. Scientific research is available in writing through various archives so others can build on it. Most art isn’t accessible in that sense. You can’t just draw it out from a bookshelf in a library for example, and if you could, the experience of it would still be very open-ended and inconclusive. The technical process of trial and error, the experimenting, thinking, discussing, and deciding is not “readable” in an artwork. And I’m not suggesting I wish it was.
LB: I think artworks are definitely meant to be built upon, but not in the way scientific research is. Artworks can give permission for future artworks to exist, or for other modes of thought and feeling. They open up doors. But they open up doors for links and tangents among other individual systems rather than building more concrete models.
Access to an artist’s research — whatever form it takes — does help provide viewers with a fuller picture of what the artist is thinking about. But there are different kinds of artists: those who want to leave a mystery, those who want to offer context, and those who are somewhere in between. And then there are different kinds of viewers: those who are happy to imagine an artwork as the tip of an iceberg — to wonder about and imagine the rest — and those who feel like an artwork is incomplete without knowing its background. How do artists and institutions respond to both kinds of viewers, especially since different artworks have different needs? It’s such a hard question.
I was briefly in touch with a researcher here, and we traded a few questions about complexity in seeing. He prompted me to articulate something that feels useful here. Which is that, if we are looking at something complex that we know we don’t fully understand, how can we allow that complexity to exist without knowing every detail? Still appreciate what we see, and get something from it, but know that we can’t know everything? If we are only allowed to be expert viewers, like scientists with scientific images or doctors with medical images, then our viewing experiences will be very limited. For me, art creates the very important space where one can be a curious viewer without knowing everything. That’s kind of the point, on some level, isn’t it?
TK: I absolutely agree. What you’re describing sounds to me like the beauty of inexhaustibility that’s so rewarding. The chance to return to something again and again and be surprised every time. And I think that it takes a certain degree of practice as a viewer to allow yourself to be absorbed and inspired without the need to know. I think art and science are both curiosity-based systems. But whereas science has a natural outlet in text to describe its findings, art does not, or at least it’s not as simple as that. The research results of an artistic practice can take any form whatsoever, or none, as it were, when they remain in the background never explicitly expressed as such.
LB: But maybe it’s good to think that art does have a natural outlet — it’s just that the findings, if we’re calling it that, are typically emotive or experiential and not immediately verbal. I love seeing artworks that don’t prompt a linguistic response. More broadly, I like to think about experiential information: layers of being, and layers of the world, which come before language or sidestep it directly. Text nearly always takes precedence over this kind of information, and I might argue that it shouldn’t.
TK: It’s a tricky thing, isn’t it? I agree with you that we shouldn’t always prioritise text over other ways of communicating. Sharing knowledge experientially is a great example. I guess it’s a question of the type of knowledge being disseminated and finding the best ways of doing it. It isn’t always written language, but sometimes it is.
That makes me think of photography because of its indexical manner of representation. A photograph of a tree and the word tree — what do these two things have in common, and how do they differ? In some ways photography has become redundant as a representational tool, like painting in the mid-19th century. Any kind of image can be built from scratch. And as more and more platforms allow images to move, there’s less and less patience for letting them stay still. I find nonfigurative experiments in the darkroom interesting because of the strict limitations of the medium, and liberating because there’s no more need to pretend that photographs are directly linked to what they’re supposed to be of. There’s a freedom for photographs to be conceptual instead of literal.
Jan Kaila (Kaila, 2002) talks about shifting away from showing a photograph of something and instead just showing the actual thing, by-passing the representational intermediary. I would like to think of photographs that aren’t of anything in a similar way: not as representations, but as concretist works freed from “the burden of representation” (Tagg, 1990). But I find that as viewers we have a hard time granting photographic works that freedom. We look for representation where there is none intended.
Stephen Wright describes what he calls full-scale practices as “both what they are, and propositions of what they are.” (Wright, 2013) Similarly, one could think of non-representational, analogue photographs as simultaneously autonomous visual objects, and propositions of the process of becoming through exposure to something external.
LB: What you say for your work makes a lot of sense, asserting the thing-ness of the photograph itself. But would you also say that part of the thing-ness of the photograph — in its ability to capture light — is its ability to make a partial record of an object or a space?
TK: Oh, absolutely. For me light sensitivity as a phenomenon is so ingrained in the idea of photography that I can’t ignore it. I do think that these cameraless photographic objects cannot escape reflecting the circumstances of their own creation. This could be due to our historical understanding of what photography is. And that interpretation may eventually disappear — or is quickly disappearing already — as the reality of visual media drifts further away from that history.
LB: I suppose that since darkroom photography is a chemical process, it is always some kind of record of its own process of making. Cameraless photographic objects encourage the viewer to reflect more on that process, while representational photography will distract from that process and move into subject matter more explicitly. Would you agree?
TK: Definitely. Among Kodak’s many contributions to photography was making it easier for us to believe in the truth of photographs by hiding the backend processes of developing and printing, so that we can be conveniently oblivious to them.
Jason Evans, my former teacher and an artist whose work I admire a lot, has said that he’s not interested in photographs as objects (Evans, 1997). I think for me it depends on the photograph. Some exist on a more ephemeral level with no need for a fixed physical form, whereas others, I think, cannot be understood as separate from their material qualities. Curiously though, now that you mention it, I’m not sure if I relate this to whether the subject matter is recognisable or not. I think it’s more complex than that. Does all this have any significance to you in your own work?
LB: Definitely, but in very different ways. I work digitally, primarily combining drawing and photography/video. I often make prints which are objects, and sometimes I make videos for screens or projections. Regardless, my current work nearly always includes photographic material of some kind.
Certainly most people now understand that photographs are not able to fully represent anything. Still, I think it remains easy for us to be fooled by photographs, simply because they mimic the way that we see so well. It’s easy to fall into the understanding that what we are seeing in a photograph is a real thing.
I have come to think about a photograph more as an incomplete document of some things I have looked at at a certain moment in time and under particular conditions. I draw with my photographic images to make that point more clear; I do not want to suggest that my images are complete records in any way. So in that sense, I think about images more as a drawing tool rather than a photograph in a traditional sense. Of course my images are native to digital space, not darkroom/analog space, so our concerns differ in that way.
Regardless, I’m interested in dissolving boundaries between a representation of something and my perception/record/experience of it. I consider this to be a question about abstraction in many ways. Ultimately, my artworks present a version of the reality pictured within them. And in turn the artwork is also a thing to look at, form a relationship to, try to understand or articulate, etc. I like there to be that slippage between the thing and the experience of the thing, whether it is a plant in a remote landscape or an artwork on the wall. How does this play out for you, working so abstractly with photography?
TK: In a sense, I’m not sure there always is a “thing” preceding the record of that thing in my case. On some level, as I understand them, my darkroom manipulations are records of the circumstances of their creation: the event of the exposure, the infrastructure, and economic conditions necessary for the continued availability of light sensitive materials, and so on. This is an industry built on a very different volume of demand compared to what we have now, and it doesn’t scale down easily. As a practitioner, I’m keenly aware of all this, but I don’t imagine it plays much role in most people’s perception of my work, nor should it. These concerns are not consciously made accessible through the objects themselves. A nonfigurative image made in the darkroom and the first-hand experience of whatever it shows seem such different things that it’s hard to think about dissolving the boundaries between the two. It sounds like an ontological question, doesn’t it: in what sense are they photographs?
LB: I enjoy these ontological questions about photography, partially because some of my older work, which wasn’t photographic in nature, was regularly shown in photographic contexts. I was laser-etching compositions I made from found scientific graphs into aluminum and plexiglass. Eventually I realized why these pieces were being grouped with photography: because I was using an intermediary tool as part of the process. Not a camera but a similar operator, something that mediated, translated, or transformed an image or a gesture. One thing I read at the time that helped me make sense of all of this was Aperture magazine’s Curiosity issue (Aperture 2013). It included a conversation between Peter Galison and Trevor Paglen that was very influential for me, and I think it’s still quite relevant. It dovetails nicely with your question about intermediaries and representations.
Otherwise, this might be a loose connection, but perhaps it can serve as an open-ended response: I had a formative moment in 2012 when I was on residency in Svalbard. I was standing next to one of our polar bear guards (yeah, I know) on a shoreline, somewhere very remote. We were both looking out at the water. I remember thinking that she — who studied geology — and I — trained as an artist — were looking at the same landscape seeing very different things. Similar, perhaps, but still totally different.
Some of my ideas about landscape as abstraction grew from this experience. Simply put, even in a place with so few cultural signifiers, humans transform and interpret what they see based on their own experiences and knowledge. I think this is pretty old hat in terms of philosophy, but discovering such a personal version of it was very important for me. It started to guide the way that I work. Karen Barad’s writing about quantum physics helped solidify this idea: “the nature of the observed phenomenon changes with corresponding changes in the apparatus.” (Barad 2007)
LB: Parts of Barad’s book had a huge impact on me. She helped me better understand quantum physics and realize that my camera was its own type of measuring device, capable of seeing the world in a particular way and only in that way. And yes, to your point — and perhaps most importantly — the book made me realize that because I point the camera at things, I am a substantial, active part of this measurement.
Barad explains some of the most technical aspects of quantum physics and then uses it as a metaphor for how to see the world: seeing with the world, not looking at it. It’s a generous and responsive way of looking. Can you imagine high school physics presenting that worldview instead of absolutist Newtonian laws? Barad’s use of scientific observation — as a model — allows us to consider how we look at the world. It is not the only lens through which we can do so. This is fundamentally important.
TK: It really is, I couldn’t agree with you more. The way you describe your experience in Svalbard of looking at the same landscape and seeing different things sounds very relatable to me. It reminds me of the popular idea of a skateboarder looking at a cityscape and seeing possibilities of movement and flow invisible to anyone without the physical experience of skateboarding (Borden 2001). It’s a very concrete experience to me.
LB: What a great analogy. That makes so much sense, it’s all about seeing different potential in a space or landscape, and being open to it.
TK: The Galison/Paglen conversation (Aperture 211, 2013) that you mentioned made me think about the question of knowledge production again and the position of art in relation to it. I thought it interesting how the text begins by suggesting that perhaps images are doing more than showing. I often wish that art was given the freedom of being rather than doing. And I’m of course unfairly reading the text in a very different context than what I imagine it was written in. But it often feels as though in order to be accepted into the discussion on knowledge production, art is expected to produce falsifiable knowledge and provide flawless documentation of its processes. This bothers me because it’s essentially framing the artist as a failing knowledge worker. It includes the suggestion that art has to succumb to the scientific tradition and methodology to be regarded as having anything more than a strictly instrumental value in terms of knowing. Demanding this kind of methodological transparency is “asking the wrong questions, somehow”, as Lucy Cotter puts it (Cotter 2019).
The other thing that I find disturbing in this is that it can put pressure on funding bodies to demand measurable outcomes as a condition of art funding. How many people attended, how were they affected, how can we harness an artistic production to verifiably increase the audience’s well-being, and so on. This is eerily close to the idea that artists should justify their existence by actively generating financial value in a creative economy.
On a related note, there seems to be some concern over the prioritisation of quantitative over qualitative research in the field of humanist sciences too. This is perhaps a different conversation all together, but on the whole I have a feeling that art and the humanities share an uneasy relationship with measurability. The knowledge produced in artistic practices is typically not measurable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be valuable and shareable.
LB: I was struck by that point too, about scientific images being asked to do. I think, though, that sometimes the scientific images Galison refers to are products of the data/research rather than the final research product in itself, but it really depends. Even then, they do get interpreted, so they are still doing.
Also, your qualitative vs. quantitative measurement point goes back to what we were discussing earlier: that there can be different kinds of information, not just textual or numerical. Experiential, which would by nature be qualitative, should be valued just as much. But for some reason, it isn’t.
TK: That’s interesting about the different location of images in the course of a scientific process compared to an artistic one. Maybe visual artworks could be similarly seen as a way of approaching something rather than an indication of arrival. They could be the building blocks of a reality other than the one available to us, or the occasional above-ground mushrooms of a vast hidden rhizome of Borgdorff’s unfinished thinking.
Another thing that caught my attention in the Galison/Paglen conversation was the privilege given to vision in relation to knowing, even if that’s a fairly new occurrence, historically speaking. While photographs have rapidly been losing their credibility as evidence on all fronts, they’ve shown remarkable resilience in many scientific applications, albeit as tools for manipulation rather than documentation, as described in that text.
Jos Jansen’s artist’s book Universe (Jansen 2018) makes the link between seeing and knowing very visible. It also demonstrates what specific kinds of knowledge one needs to have in order to extract the intended information from scientific images. I’m thinking of your experience in Svalbard of looking at the landscape. When I’m looking at the images in Jansen’s book, what I’m seeing is clearly something very different than what the people producing and using the images for scientific purposes are seeing, which I’m assuming is partly what the artist is telling me.
LB: It is an interesting juxtaposition: the immense trust we have for scientific images, and the lack of trust we have for every other kind of image. Jenna Garrett points out that when we look at Pluto, we are seeing a machine camera’s view of it, not the (demoted) planet itself (Garrett, 2013). Still, we place a lot of trust in those images. I also want to recommend Seeing Like a Rover by anthropologist/sociologist Janet Vertesi. Vertesi discusses how the same images taken by the Mars rovers can be manipulated via different software processes to provide many views of the same subject, each view interesting to a different type of scientist (Vertesi, 2015). Here again is image as raw data rather than finished product. I like thinking about how the team of Mars rover scientists inadvertently end up with many moods of the same image-data, and can learn from them all. It’s so artistic, even if it’s scientific.
To play with this a bit, I love looking at scientific images from an artistic perspective… thinking that even if those images are supposed to be doing something, I can still look at them “just” as images. To remember how much I don’t understand, to experience looking at something I can’t recognize, to see what its qualities are, to see how it makes me feel and what it makes me think about. To most scientists, though, I think this seems like a pointless pursuit. Because if an image is made to do something, and they aren’t reading what it’s doing, what is its purpose? Why should it exist? I would argue in response, that these images are so interesting on their own — how can you not look at them for what they are?
TK: This makes me think of the first image of The Earth from orbit taken by Explorer VI in 1959. It’s unrecognisable for what it is, just fuzzy white lines on a dark surface. But the mere fact of its existence inspired very poetic and existential reflections of our place in the universe. And these responses, combined with their modest-looking inspiration, is in turn what I find so wonderful.
LB: I love that image. And I wholeheartedly agree with you about wanting art images to be left to be what they are, and not tasked with some sort of conclusive messaging. Society is so obsessed with metrics, with measuring; creating value from measurement, but not from things that don’t have a quantifiable value or use. Can we value experience, uncertainty and complexity, in measuring spaces? This is an idea I like to play with in my work.
I guess some people have a hard time with artworks or images which can’t be quantified or put “to use”. So we have the art market — which, even if an artwork is “useless” in terms of what it communicates, still carries financial value — and we have counting attendance at museums and openings and such, as you mentioned. And we have artworks asked to directly tell stories or provide information.
TK: Your mention of reading images in contexts that differ from what they were intended for makes me want to pay attention to my own frames of reference. My education in art emphasised semiotics: reading images, behaviour, and culture in general as language, to express this in very simplified terms. Barad and Haraway’s suggestion of thinking with rather than of, offers so much more sympathy towards the world and a much more symbiotic relationship with it, than what the semioticians were/are offering. This makes me think that, given different reading lists as a student, my experience of the world around me would’ve been very different.
LB: Definitely! The ideas we learn in school can have a huge impact on how we see the world. I’m sometimes envious of my students, because they are gaining these broader perspectives some 15-20 years younger than I did. In general, too, worldviews are so much more open today than when we were in school.
Still, I think Barad and Haraway present and emphasize these worldviews; I doubt they entirely created them. after all, they both were surely influenced by many thinkers, of course! Ultimately, I am certain that many people from different cultures throughout history have had similar ideas, just not presented as critical theory. Regardless, such justification remains important even if the ideas do have history.
A good friend of mine once remarked that he believed theory was mainly useful to artists to validate an idea you’ve already had, rather than the other way around.
TK: I like that. I guess that as artists we’re often quite solitary and vulnerable with our own descriptive systems, so finding theory that seems to validate or articulate the concepts our work engages with feels reassuring.
LB: I recently went to a great talk by the experimental writer Thalia Field. She suggested all artists make a list of the people in your life who help you give yourself permission to do what you do and think what you think. I love that idea. Encountering an idea in a theoretical context can often be just that: a permission to see the world in a certain way and act accordingly.