thoughts on self-reflexivity: personal narrative, biography and identity construction

 hypergiant series // 12'' x 12''  made for original swimming party's album hypergiant

hypergiant series // 12'' x 12''

made for original swimming party's album hypergiant

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As a participant in contemporary society, it feels near impossible to escape a self-reflexive perspective upon our own experiences in reality. Extending Lacan’s mirror phase, we have more ways than ever to catch reflective glimpses and alternate perspectives upon the events and experiences that comprise our lives. It has become easier and easier to create degrees of distance from these experiences that allow us to see them in vastly different ways without becoming entirely detached. We are presented with technological advances which allow us to capture, store and represent documentation of our experiences, images and video clips that stand in for and supplement our memories. Where emerging technologies and social media connect with our lives we find a near continuous interrogation and presentation of our past, present, and anticipated future. Our biographies or personal narratives are in a constant state of self-construction (there also exists a shared, accessible communally constructed biography as well, but this is ultimately editable by us too).

Our memories can now be externally encoded in spheres of greater autonomy and control. I believe, we have always shaped our own self-image. I’ve always viewed memory as the architecture of our identities. All memory formation is susceptible to biased encoding, solidifying within us from our internal perspective of the events of our lives archived in our minds with all of the emotions, sensations, and cognitions that we experienced in those moments. I’m very interested in the ways in which we not only present our own identity constructions, but also the ways in which we participate in other’s active self-constructions— both in our in-the-flesh daily experiences and in our virtual, digital interactions via an increasing plurality of social media outlets. 

In my own life and practice, I find this self-reflexive identity construction ever present. I am watching my teen daughter develop in this culture. I hear her discuss and understand her interactions on her phone as her social life, a facet of her experience that has equal weight with her tactile interactions. My participation in any version of an art world represents a willful desire to interrogate these things more deeply and through a very specific set of lenses. Is it too simple to say that all of this is a means of agency production? The lines between life and practice blur when it comes to the rigor and research into my thoughts, memories, beliefs, aesthetic motivations  that seem to never cease. There is a nagging desire to understand the origins and evolutions of events from my past, a desire to  trace the forces of influence at work in the shaping of what I understand as a self. A self that is increasingly fragmented, parsed out and published for consumption.

In my thinking balancing is a constant state of being, an active and responsive state of being that cannot ignore the forces that threaten it. But to be balancing is also not to be entirely stable, it s the acting of moving through and closer to one’s center in order to increase stability. So maybe it is through an understanding of the center of our own being, our consciousness, that we can understand our place in space and time, or relation to events outside our bodies and the universe at large and the new, ever-present digital-social gaze.

For me, the act of drawing is a way to engage  in this self-reflexive dialog. I am still seeking the a way of engaging social media that feels authentic and in balance with my life and practice.
 

connections

Last year I had the opportunity to collaborate with Original Swimming Party to produce a series of drawings that would correspond with their album, HYPERGIANT. A Hypergiant is a luminosity class 0 star that has an enormous mass and luminosity and that is showing signs of a very high rate of mass loss. It is a star with a brightness is a result of a push towards the limits of what holds it together. For this series of drawings I worked with China marker on tarpaper to make drawings that were self-reflexive, where one half was made without thought and the other would be rendered as its reflection. Each drawing for this series would begin degrading immediately after it was made, the white china marker would begin to leech the dark tinted tar from the tar paper and tinge it with a copper brown hue, reducing the contrast between the mark and the field over time. The luminosity of the marks that make these drawings begin to degrade within days after being rendered. This fit with the idea of the Hypergiant and the tone of the album, secondarily these works are all analog/digital hybrids— what you see in these images does not exist any longer in physical form and only lives on a digital file. This is in parallel to the way music is produced, what was a live sound exists for us only as a recorded digital file, and yet through this file we can still connect to the original intent.

 hypergiant series // 12'' x 12''  made for original swimming party's album hypergiant

hypergiant series // 12'' x 12''

made for original swimming party's album hypergiant

Comment

Kevin Townsend

Kevin Townsend is a Boston-based artist and professor at School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA) and Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). Townsend’s work explores and exploits a range of drawing ontologies, engaging drawing as ritual and vessel that occupy and encapsulate space and time. --- I MAKE. I TEACH. MY STUDIO PRACTICE AND MY WORK AS A TEACHER ARE NOT DEFINED BY AN EXHIBITION OR AN INSTITUTION, THEY ARE DEMANDED BY MY PERSONALITY. FOR ME, ARTIST AND EDUCATOR ARE NOT SIMPLY PROFESSIONAL TITLES, THEY ARE WORLD VIEWS— WHICH AT THEIR CORE REQUIRE FRAMING, DISTILLING, CONDENSING AND ESTABLISHING CONTEXTS FOR IDEAS, INFORMATION, AND ABSTRACT CONCEPTS IN ORDER TO ENGAGE AN AUDIENCE IN DIALOG. THESE MINDSETS DO NOT DISSIPATE WHEN I LEAVE THE CLASSROOM OR THE STUDIO, THEY PERSIST THROUGH EVERY FACET OF MY LIFE, UNIFIED BY THEIR DEPENDANCE UPON SYNTHESIS— SEEKING EVIDENCE OF GROWTH THROUGH PROCESS.

perhaps a proper introduction is in order...

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Endless snarls of words, sometimes twisting into meaning, sometimes into nothing at all, frequently breaking apart, always branching off into other pieces I’d come across later—on old napkins, the tattered edges of an envelope, once even on the back of a postage stamp; everything and anything but empty; each fragment completely covered with the creep of years and years of ink pronouncements; layered, crossed out, amended; handwritten, typed; legible, illegible; impenetrable, lucid; torn, stained, scotch taped; some bits crisp and clean, others faded, burnt or folded and unfolded so many times the creases have obliterated whole passages of god knows what—sense? truth? deceit? a legacy of prophecy or lunacy or nothing of the kind?, and in the end achieving, designating, describing recreating—find your own words; I have no more; or plenty more but why? And all to tell—what?
— HOUSE OF LEAVES, Mark Z. Danielewski

obsession

We all have our routines and find a degree of comfort in these sets of cyclically repeated actions. In our daily life, time appears to pass at a normal pace and we use markers like the start of the workday, weekends, meals, waking and sleeping times gauge the rhythm of things. The alarm goes off and we walk dutifully across the floor to the shower before dressing for the day. We eat our breakfasts, check our phones, read status updates, glance at the headlines and drink our coffee. This matrix of scripted actions provides a structure and sameness to the chaos that accompanies each new day— they function as a set of fixed points, moorings in the flow of time. For some, other rituals emerge, become more rigid, layered, complex or compulsive and insistent. At the outset of this project I intended to interrogate the pathology of obsession, its symptoms, its history as a diagnosis and its relation to my life, and examine its potential origins in childhood trauma. 

Through my research I learned that specific content of obsessions can be influenced by events that occur in a person's life, and this can be seen in cross-cultural studies of OCD. These studies reveal that those who have suffered trauma or endured stressful life events before the onset of OCD are more likely to experience compulsions. This phenomenon is often assumed to be an attempt to impose a degree of order in a world previously and increasingly filled with unpredictability. “Although negative life events, such as a psychological trauma, can be the catalyst for the onset of the disorder, psychological exploration of these events is not curative for OCD.”

In pathological terms, obsession centers around a compulsive or irrational preoccupation, often viewed as an unhealthy fixation on a single idea or idée fixe. The German psychiatrist Karl Westphal defined obsession as “thoughts which come to the foreground of consciousness in spite of and contrary to the will of the patient, and which he is unable to suppress although he recognizes them as abnormal and not characteristic of himself.” Clinically obsession is linked to Obsessive–compulsive disorder, OCD, and Obsessive–compulsive personality disorder, OCPD. In each of these conditions, obsession is joined by disorder, casting the term as the cause and definition of an ailment. Through its constant association with disorder in clinical circles, obsession is discussed in terms of disruption, distraction, confusion, randomness and abnormality that leaves little room for alternative manifestations of obsession. Therapy culture and clinical terms define away the possibility of obsession as a positive or desirable force in one’s life.

Conversely, casual uses of the word obsession have been steadily increasing. In everyday language, obsession is used to refer to our binge-watching habits, passing intense interests and trendy habits. A quick Google search reveals headlines like:  23 Things You'll Only Understand If You're Low-Key Obsessed With MAC Lipstick, 6 reasons why we're obsessed with 'This is us',   The Science Behind Why We're So Obsessed With Bacon,  or the VOX article that explores the idea that America is obsessed with happiness. Each of these, and many more just like them, cast obsession as little more than an intense, yet passing, time-syphoning diversion or distraction that comes and goes like a storm in March .  

In her 2005 book, Monomania, the flight from everyday life in literature and art, Marina van Zuylen makes a case for a return to an alternate term for obsession: monomania. By definition, monomania refers to an exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for, or preoccupation with, one thing and, as a term, was conceived as single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind. Van Zuylen suggests that the word monomania transcends the contemporary and pathological weight of terms like obsession or compulsion, illuminating instead aspects of single mindedness that hinge upon an ‘intensity of purpose’, ritual, repetition and “a religiosity of spirit” that is not solely driven by fear or simple fixation. Van Zuylen’s book proposes monomania as an antidote to the increasingly alienating rhythms of modernity. Despite its cleaner, elevated meaning and Van Zuylen’s recent use of it, the term monomania has no currency in contemporary culture. 

I am not a scientist; I am an artist. It is from this vantage point that I work, make, research and write. However, the rigors of a contemporary art practice and those of the scientific method are not as different as one might think. According to Luis Camnitzer the ‘real work’ of a contemporary artist is not wholly bound up in the object or event produced and instead resides in the practice and labor of its creation. 

Art thinking is much more than art: it is a meta-discipline that is there to help expand the limits of other forms of thinking. Though it’s something as autonomous as logic might be, and though it can be studied as an enclosed entity, its importance lies in what it does to the rest of the acquisition of knowledge. With a little pomposity I like to say that science is a mere subcategory of art. Science is generally bound by logic, sequencing, and experimentation with repeatable and provable results. Mostly it presumes that there is something knowable out there that can be instrumentalized and represented. Art is all of that, plus the opposite. It stays in both modes simultaneously. It creates itself while it allows the play with taxonomies, the making of illegal and subversive connections, the creation of alternative systems of order, the defiance of known systems, and the critical thinking and feeling of everything.
— Luis Camnitzer, E-flux Journal 56th Venice Biennale

With my experiences, one of my favorite books (there will be a whole post dedicated to this next week) and a bit of research butressing me, I am proposing a new signiconic version of this term, obsession , that defines a phenomenological time-space, a storm of attention, an antidote to the increasingly polychromic experiences of our present and a means of agency production in contemporary art practice. Obsession , in deep pink and marked, run through with a line —— the trace of a negating thought across its letters like a scar— marks a new definition upon this term that brings with it the weight, risk, power and therefore surrender bound up in our contemporary understanding of it. On these pages I present obsession under erasure, sous rature. The term sous rature is the name given to a strategic philosophical device originally developed by Martin Heidegger and extensively employed by Jacques Derrida. Sous rature involves crossing out of a given word within a text, but allowing it to remain legible and in place. When a reader is confronted with a word under erasure, it is an indicator that a particular signifier is inaccurate, incomplete and not wholly suitable for the concept it represents, but must be used as the constraints of our language offer nothing better. To write under erasure is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both word and deletion. For Derrida, sous rature offered the possibility of a discourse which borrows from a given signifier the elements necessary for both its deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction.

On this website and in all writing exploring these ideas, obsession will be used to visually signify this redefinition— its hue chromatically distancing it from black-clad-obsession, its shocking pink proclaiming its place in the present, its appearance anticipating and pulling a readers attention, mirroring obsession's pull. Negating the most superficial connotations or trivial associations of its contemporary usage, this new form of obsession distances itself from the negative clinical connotations of a disorder— aligning it instead with aspects of last century’s monomania while claiming the dissonance suggested by such a negation. Struck through, the term becomes porous, maintaining degrees of its clinical, pathological weight addressing the “fixity and concentration of ideas” necessary for producing a sense of artistic agency in an art world where anything goes and the word art artificially privileges anything produced in its name from the moments of its inception. This typographical expression and definition for obsession seeks to identify this term as a site of flux within a text, where its use suggests an intentional negation, a self-undermining, blurred and paradoxical relationship between obsession’s roots, its common usage and its proposed re-definition as a catalyst in contemporary art practice. Further, it is my assertion that obsession functions as a respite from our current, polychromic and fragmented experiences of time. When fused with art-thinking, obsession's tidal gravity and insistent, recurrent thoughts function as catalyzing and empowering force. In the context of a contemporary art practice obsession is capapble of fostering “a real aesthetic movement, one that is biographical, autobiographical, personal — the art of the first person.”

connections

In these few pages (above), the seeds for my current body of work were unearthed— they didn't come at the beginning, they were found after the work had developed. These kinds of drawings, a personalization of some DaDaist game are a regular part of my practice. They are a way for me to escape my own language and patterns when describing or thinking about my own work. They are a tool that pushes me away from jargon and towards poetry by using words and sentence fragments found in the collected words of someone else in service of something else. This is a spontaneous practice that unbinds my thinking and allows me to see things through new eyes. Language is a tricky thing, first, it frames our thoughts and before long the words become the thoughts.  This ongoing series is called: in others words  (2013-present).

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Comment

Kevin Townsend

Kevin Townsend is a Boston-based artist and professor at School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA) and Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). Townsend’s work explores and exploits a range of drawing ontologies, engaging drawing as ritual and vessel that occupy and encapsulate space and time. --- I MAKE. I TEACH. MY STUDIO PRACTICE AND MY WORK AS A TEACHER ARE NOT DEFINED BY AN EXHIBITION OR AN INSTITUTION, THEY ARE DEMANDED BY MY PERSONALITY. FOR ME, ARTIST AND EDUCATOR ARE NOT SIMPLY PROFESSIONAL TITLES, THEY ARE WORLD VIEWS— WHICH AT THEIR CORE REQUIRE FRAMING, DISTILLING, CONDENSING AND ESTABLISHING CONTEXTS FOR IDEAS, INFORMATION, AND ABSTRACT CONCEPTS IN ORDER TO ENGAGE AN AUDIENCE IN DIALOG. THESE MINDSETS DO NOT DISSIPATE WHEN I LEAVE THE CLASSROOM OR THE STUDIO, THEY PERSIST THROUGH EVERY FACET OF MY LIFE, UNIFIED BY THEIR DEPENDANCE UPON SYNTHESIS— SEEKING EVIDENCE OF GROWTH THROUGH PROCESS.

acceleration, fragmentation, and absence

Our present experiences in time often draw us out and away from ourselves. Dividing our attention and creating gaps in our perception; we experience disruptions “between our presence in the world and the various levels of a certain anesthesia in our consciousness that, at every moment, inclines us to see-saw into more or less extensive absences.” 1  In his essay The Endless Structure of Recollection; On Chris Marker, David Levi Strauss writes “the first amnesia machine was writing” 2 rapidly followed and joined with other technological advances like photography, cinema, the Internet, computers, tablets, and smartphones. These image-capturing, making and storage devices have become memory vessels and are embodiments of acceleration and speed that moves faster than thought.

This acceleration is not unique to our current moment. As Jonathan Cray writes in the forward to Virilio’s  Aesthetics of Disappearance, every historical epoch “is understandable in terms of speeds, forms of motion and stasis, and their possibilities of modification.”  3 The thing that is significant however is that, over the last decade, we’ve seen an “intensified accumulation of overlapping technologies and networks.” 4 Through these systems and their multiple, external productions of speed, absences in human perception (gaps) are created, supplemented and distributed, multiplying their occurrence. 5 Both barriers to and catalyst for our perceptions, these technologies alter our interactions by becoming intermediaries. Their shallow spaces contain, create and distort time, further dividing our attention and sensations, creating a polychronic division of our consciousness. “Critics of acceleration maintain that accelerating patterns of life are the reason for a commonly voiced sense of unease— the feeling that one is not ‘really’ living. Everything is done all at once, faster and faster, yet no personal balance or meaning can be found. This implies the loss of contact with one’s own self. We also no longer feel ‘at home’ with ourselves and find it difficult to persist in any given activity because we are available at every moment.” 6

We find ourselves surrounded by a growing quantity of time containing devices and time flows each flow moving at its own speed and in its own direction. As our consciousness moves between these flows, lingering, briefly within them, we lose little bits of our memory. This phenomenon is neither inherently good nor inherently evil; as our consciousness connects to more and more time-fields its effects can foster a greater feeling of connection and inclusion in some cases while illuminating a divided, fragmented or disconnected experience of reality in others. Virilio refers to this experience as picnolepsy—“For the picnoleptic, nothing has really happened, the missing time never existed.” 7 In these gaps our external senses still function but don't receive or register any stimulus, in each of these episodes, without realizing it, little bits of our lives escape; disappearance has become part of our experience. I am not claiming this to be an entirely new phenomenon, like Virilio I believe that our experience of time has never truly been linear, has always been capable of being fractured 8 and has often been desynchronized with time’s external flow.

 

 

 

Comment /Source

Kevin Townsend

Kevin Townsend is a Boston-based artist and professor at School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA) and Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). Townsend’s work explores and exploits a range of drawing ontologies, engaging drawing as ritual and vessel that occupy and encapsulate space and time. --- I MAKE. I TEACH. MY STUDIO PRACTICE AND MY WORK AS A TEACHER ARE NOT DEFINED BY AN EXHIBITION OR AN INSTITUTION, THEY ARE DEMANDED BY MY PERSONALITY. FOR ME, ARTIST AND EDUCATOR ARE NOT SIMPLY PROFESSIONAL TITLES, THEY ARE WORLD VIEWS— WHICH AT THEIR CORE REQUIRE FRAMING, DISTILLING, CONDENSING AND ESTABLISHING CONTEXTS FOR IDEAS, INFORMATION, AND ABSTRACT CONCEPTS IN ORDER TO ENGAGE AN AUDIENCE IN DIALOG. THESE MINDSETS DO NOT DISSIPATE WHEN I LEAVE THE CLASSROOM OR THE STUDIO, THEY PERSIST THROUGH EVERY FACET OF MY LIFE, UNIFIED BY THEIR DEPENDANCE UPON SYNTHESIS— SEEKING EVIDENCE OF GROWTH THROUGH PROCESS.

the new now

Fragmentation, complexity, multiplicity, turbulence and chaos could be used to discuss and define the state of social experience, art, aesthetics, culture or politics in our current moment. These changes in our modern life have given rise to new perceptions regarding the concept of time and our experience of it. Moving between the multiplicity of time flows that surround us has an eroding effect upon our consciousness, an effect that, I propose, can be counteracted by the monomaniacal intensity and focus that accompanies obsession. In our present we face “no permanent obstacle to vehicular movement of any planetary dimension.” Due in large part to technological advances, all times past, and present, are available concurrently; the traces of history, modernity and post-modernity are all simultaneously accessible in our present. We can electronically traverse the distance between two geographical locations in the same time it takes to take one step; accessing a 200-year-old painting can be accomplished in a few scant ticks of a clock.  For artists, “at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the domain of sculpture includes Taino art as much as Paul McCarthy’s mechanical stuffed animals, Donald Judd’s installation in Texas as well as the temples of Angkor. The internet is the privileged medium of this proliferation of information, the material symbol of this atomization.” The new now is a world in motion, comprised of multiple flows, each with its own properties, speed, and material character, the impact of which renders our experiences in time both fluid and fragmentary.

Comment

Kevin Townsend

Kevin Townsend is a Boston-based artist and professor at School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA) and Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). Townsend’s work explores and exploits a range of drawing ontologies, engaging drawing as ritual and vessel that occupy and encapsulate space and time. --- I MAKE. I TEACH. MY STUDIO PRACTICE AND MY WORK AS A TEACHER ARE NOT DEFINED BY AN EXHIBITION OR AN INSTITUTION, THEY ARE DEMANDED BY MY PERSONALITY. FOR ME, ARTIST AND EDUCATOR ARE NOT SIMPLY PROFESSIONAL TITLES, THEY ARE WORLD VIEWS— WHICH AT THEIR CORE REQUIRE FRAMING, DISTILLING, CONDENSING AND ESTABLISHING CONTEXTS FOR IDEAS, INFORMATION, AND ABSTRACT CONCEPTS IN ORDER TO ENGAGE AN AUDIENCE IN DIALOG. THESE MINDSETS DO NOT DISSIPATE WHEN I LEAVE THE CLASSROOM OR THE STUDIO, THEY PERSIST THROUGH EVERY FACET OF MY LIFE, UNIFIED BY THEIR DEPENDANCE UPON SYNTHESIS— SEEKING EVIDENCE OF GROWTH THROUGH PROCESS.