Nina Rodin>Writing> Duplicata Symposium




Duplicata Symposium

date > July 2015
where > Rye Creative Center, UK
what > Symposium to accompany solo show

> Symposium program:

> Notes for talk on Reproducibility and Empathy in Art

> When I first walked into the BA studios at Camberwell it was my first time back in a university after walking out of a science lab a couple of years earlier. And I was really struck by the crowd of different personalities elbowing each other in the confined space of the painting studio. This is the first painting I did there:

It is a painting of my colleagues in the school studios, each of them painted in the style of their own painting.

Everyone seemed to be trying to claim a style but on average it all looked very much the same to me as it had in the foundation course. I had a strong sense of deja vu and these individualities seemed rather lost in the crowd.

It was also a real shock to hear everyone so utterly engaged with their own ideas, wanting to communicate their view of the world to everyone else on the course and to as wide a public as possible. Without any of these ideas being particularly objective vehicles of Truth. In Science, by contrast, or so it seemed to me, you need absolute certainty about some idea, some experimental result. You try to narrow down to a few variables. In Art, the number of possible variables seems to explode. This sense of crowding stayed with me for a long time. It was very noticeable to me how the process also didn’t have the necessary scientific repetition for verifying a result. I went from n = 10 or more in the lab to n=1, the one of the artist unique perspective, a discourse where ’I’ takes center place.

And it set me thinking about how what I started doing then was different from what I used to do in the lab. In both there was a certain amount of experimental tinkering and creativity needed to recombine the elements of the world into new ideas. And creativity, whether in the lab or in the studio, operates much in the same way in that it is about creating new associations between hitherto non-associated elements of our experience.

This set me thinking about a notion of delimitation. Basically, though our experience of the world is a continuum, most of human activities consist of separating something out from that background noise. We can’t stop thinking or experiencing, our brain changes state continually, and our experience of the world is in constant flux unless we are dead.

Deleuze and Guattari’s write about of territorialisation. Derrida talks about framing, James Joyce writes about apprehending the art object against a background of all that is not it. Lucian Freud talks about making a small part of the ordinary memorable. In fact Art theory texts are replete with references to some sort of delimitation and it’s a notion I have found that artists I speak to can relate to quite easily.

The artwork is a finite delimitation from the continuum of conscious experience. Fine, but so is Science or Philosophy or Business, for that matter. We focus our attention on a small part of our experience which we develop in depth. So what’s the difference?

Well, I think it is helpful to think of science as a delimitation of that which is reproducible, philosophy as a delimitation of consensus and art as a subjective delimitation. Let me explain… So Art is this ideally subjective take on the world. Is absolute originality actually possible? Well, from a neurophysiological point of view yes. Our state of mind changes continuously and it turns out our brain is sufficiently complex that no two individuals are or ever will be in the same state of mind.

(short explanation here of the structure of the brain, and how the understanding of its extraordinary complexity has evolved in the last couple of decades)

We will never be in the same state of mind twice in our lifetime. Obvious. Less obvious perhaps is the fact that no two people will statistically ever have been in the same state of mind for all of humanity’s history nor will there ever be in the future. In fact, you can calculate that the number of different states that the brain can be in exceeds the number of particles in the universe.

So there seems to be plenty of scope for absolute and complete originality. We only need to be aware of the ways in which our minds are different from those around us.

Yet, that is easier said than done. We are conditioned to be alike. Language whether spoken, sung or visual only functions insofar as we have a shared usage of it. A visual reference only works because we have a large reference library of common visual references. Someone who invented a completely original language would not be able to use it at all. There is evolutionary pressure to be alike, to fit in.

But there is worse at play, when it comes to us fully owning our own individuality. There is a part of our brain that doesn’t distinguish at all between our selves and others. A subset of neutrons called mirror neurons which fire in exactly the same way if say, I move my hand like this or you move your hand in the same way. They were discovered when studying phantom limb pain (explanation of basic experiment). In principle it means that if someone laughs, some of my neurons think I am laughing. If someone is being tortured a small part of me is traumatised. So they are also called empathy neurons as it is thought that it is this inability to distinguish between self and other that makes us able to feel empathy and compassion (in the sense of being able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes emotionally and feel what they feel).

And I think this is extremely interesting in terms of art and our sense of touch…

(Anecdotes about why we are so disappointed when a Van Gogh is not a Van Gogh and about the experience of holding Darwin’s letter in my hands).

Thus if I see someone painting, there is a small part of my brain which feels exactly as if I was painting myself: touch by another is experienced like touch by myself. By extension, I believe that when I look at Fiona Rae’s latest paintings, for example, the excitement I feel is to do with the illusion that I might have painted them myself , the memory of an illusion of touch, and it is all I can do to stop myself running a hand over their surface.

There is a sense of cheating when it turns out the object hasn’t been touched by the person we thought had touched it or that it wasn’t touched by someone with those emotions or at that time. There is a disconnect there for the mirror neurons….

But perhaps also what explains our desire to reproduce or mimick something we perceive as pleasurable. If a certain touch has produced a certain painting, that painting produces in me a pleasure similarly to having held the brush myself. A painting that is completely flat and gives away nothing of its making (eg a digital reproduction) gives me less pleasure than one where I could run my hand over its surface and re-enact the touch of someone else myself.

So my intuition is that our problems with fakes (beyond the obvious ones of fraudulent monetary value being attached to them) is that it leaves our mirror neurones feeling cheated of something fundamental. Empty through touch, empty of touch.

The real artwork on the other hand, that highly subjective delimitation, the genuine connection with another individuality, produces a bridge between us and the artist. There is the possibility of resonance through empathy but also always a part that remains tantalisingly outside our grasps.

Because the artwork is a delimitation of a subjectivity which by definition is always different to ours. We may feel a connection, recognise an emotion or a part of our own continuous experience in that chosen by the artist but total overlap between our consciousness and that of the artist is impossible.

In summary, science should be reproducible, good art is not. And when we copy, make a fake or plagiarise, I believe the main problem is that we break this empathy link that art can produce by giving us a window into someones unique individual take on the world. Nina rodin, July 2015.