a survey exhibition
October 11 - November 9, 2013
Mercy, installation view
Mercy, installation view
Mercy, installation view
Mercy, installation view
Mercy, installation view
Four Acts, 1971
photo-silkscreen on canvas
72 x 113 inches
two gelatine silver prints, painted chair
exh. Art Gallery of Ontario, 1975
Fire and Sausage: Small Mercies, 2009
Excerpts From A Description Of The Universe, 1986
A concise survey is the best way to describe Mercy, an encounter with several periods over the decades of Tom Dean's practice.
Over the long haul I've developed an abiding interest in Dean's work that started with my many encounters in the 80s Toronto art scene and which led to his inclusion in the group show Body Is A Loaded Word in 1989 while I was director of Evelyn Aimis Fine Art, On The Surface Of Things in 1995 at my alternative space 100 Yonge St and most recently with Revelations this past summer.
FIRE AND BRIMSTONE
The only one who could ever reach me
Was the son of a preacher man
The only boy who could ever teach me
Was the son of a preacher man
Yes he was, he was, ooh, he was
(John Hurley / Ronnie Wilkins)
It was during a conversation over coffee in the gallery a few weeks ago with Tom and local collector Herbert Bunt that a few things fell into place.
We were reflecting on the fact that Herbert was turning 90 in a few days and then Herbert, son of a preacher man that he was, allowed for a sumptuous pause in the conversation and then took us through his hardscrabble childhood and teenage years in Toronto and the southern Ontario circuit. Dean could amply contribute. In that instant I recalled his moment representing Canada in 1999 at the Venice Biennale and the retiring presence of Dean's father, who himself was a minister and whose early southern Ontario existence echoed that of Herbert's. I've carried that conversation into the latter stages of assembling this exhibition.
THE FRUITS OF LABOUR
You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.
(Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
Meandering in an artist's studio has always retained its privileged atmosphere of incipient captivation for me. In the case of an archeological dig of a forty-year practice I was aided by longtime proximity to the holding rooms that have housed or played host to the production of thought in the many forms that Dean's work has taken. However, there is always another print drawer, another crate and another roll of canvas until, together, we watched the penny drop as the canvas The Four Acts (1971) was unrolled. There are moments when you marvel at a work's ability to reach out over time and bring everything that follows along with it.
THE CARNAL AND THE RIGHTEOUS
Does the body rule the mind
Or does the mind rule the body?
I don't know...
In my mind, Dean's Excerpts From A Description Of The Universe (1986) is legendary, the sections of sculpture and text a canon. Sections of it reside in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario. A third section was included in the group show Heavy Mental that Philip Monk curated at the Power Plant in 1995. In Mercy we are devoting a room to this period of his work. Its philosophical depths are palpable.
The present is a place between the future and the past, the future the siren that draws us on like a sucking drain, the past the demon-memory that jealously possesses us.
EXCERPTS FROM A DESCRIPTION OF THE UNIVERSE - Tom Dean, 1986
There are many places, inequitably distributed matter and energy forming an elastic array through homogenous space. The parts are drawn to the uniformity of space, falling toward its faceless ubiquity. There is an elastic force between the parts, acting with the fatal certainty of an algebraic equation seeking balance, unwinding toward equilibrium and stillness like a spring or a clockwork, as though we were all part of one thing that has been stretched to an enormously complex disequilibrium, not so much a duality as a tension, an endless granular zoo of elastic relations.
All things are rushing to stillness. The fall occurs through time, so that we are always in passage, from the past through apocalypse into the future. The future confronted with the past bursts into the apocalypse of presence, the mortal place. Like the wake of an invisible ship the object in passage through time appears out of nowhere in the present. Memory, photography and other recordings provide threadbare evidence of the ship.
Or the past, the object of history, enters the objectless future to create the shock wave and flame of the present. We are a driven power. The present is a place between the future and the past, the future the siren that draws us on like a sucking drain, the past the demon-memory that jealously possesses us. We exist on a hurling plane between memory and anticipation, pulled apart as though drawn by two horses straining in opposite directions, or really more as though we were being dragged by one galloping horse into the future while dragging another that's dead and chained to our feet.
Everything was falling, but tangles and knots formed, impediments to decay. Things clustered around their centers, making spherical places. These places, though centred, were entangled with one another, forming orbits and spirals, so that their passage traced a circular place, and a rhythm.
A place, passing another, was attracted, and fell toward it, but its own momentum acted in counterpoint to gravity's attraction, and perfectly balanced it. Its momentum at right angles to its falling motion impeded a thing's falling.
It fell into orbit, its directional inertia coaxed by another's gravity into a circular path, a still place.
An orbit is both an eternal fall and an eternal Sisyphean journey, cyclic and interminable. Passage became a place. Free fall became a Sisyphean motion.
The falling labyrinth became the circular labyrinth, by which motion traced a redundancy, repeating itself. This pattern, this holding-in-formation, was a code that persisted, intact through time, conveying an authority that formed us. Against this still ground deviation was visible and meaningful, empowered and historical.
The universe was in free-fall, orbits and spirals providing the precondition, the still point, for life. There was light, then dark, then light, then dark. The orbiting place joined the power of falling to the predictability of stillness. Experience comes to have utility, when patterns are present, and power entrenches itself. Knowledge is power. From the still space, it is possible to distinguish patterns, and then to create them. It becomes possible to generate surplus, and accumulate wealth and power.
Patterns build on the backs of patterns, and the Sisyphean knot elaborates.
This still place, this patterned turbulence, a cycle of light and dark, and a cycle of seasons, constructed around its stillness a dependent form, fit an offspring to the form of its womb.
Biological form occurs as an eddy in decay, a backwash, a hoarding and inertia. That inert place is active, and muscular, resisting the flow of decay. That inertia is Sisyphean. The inertia by which we fell became the inertia by which we resisted falling, a stillness that both requires labour and ends the fall.
We are an inertial form, a chauvinistic form that is able to fortify its own inertia by consuming energy and matter, monopolizing and draining resources from its environment.
We form a Byzantine eddy in the flow, a self-preserving arrangement of matter, a tangle in the flow of decay that has learned to leech on its environment, channeling decay through itself in order to preserve its integrity. We take the radiance of decaying matter and store it in ourselves. We create a local decrease in entropy by accelerating decay through our bodies.
They used to say that if a shark stopped it would die. It required the flow of water over its gills. The most primitive life form passes time by passing material through itself. Its survival depends on metabolic processes, and that involves a flow of material and energy taking place through time. Even before it takes its first step it's in passage, caught in the tangled devices of its own success. To really stop would be to die, so we found ourselves in passage, the domain of winds and rivers.
But there is a stillness around the form itself, that sails along intact through time on the shoulders of its own metabolic unrest, like the wake of a motor launch that remains the same despite the chaotic flow of water through it. This stillness is the stable message we carry, the bundle of information that, hurling itself by some helpless success down through time, accumulated the fabulously unlikely lard of our bodies and culture.
That complex still-form is made possible by atomic and subatomic processes which take place on a scale and at a speed we cannot comprehend. The physical cataclysm that takes place in the brain with every apprehension could not be reproduced at a visual scale. The subatomic world was only able to accomplish consciousness at the price of an enormous sacrifice in speed and an enormous increase in scale. It's as though the human race organized itself into centuries long tasks, for the sake of bare turn of thought in a creature of another scale.
The price of knowing is the prolonged passage of time. We are in slow, slow motion, relative to the atomic particles, a kind of skidding, slowed almost to stillness, like the hour hand of a clock. The price of all-knowing would be a further slowing, to the extent of time.
Places retreat from one another, centering on themselves. In space, or in the sea, or at a minute scale, that retreat forms a sphere. On earth places form that are vertical, rather than spherical, centering not around a point but a vertical place, a line aligned with the earth's radius. On earth a place is a circular place, and a vertical place. Being vertical on earth is a way of being centered.
Because a thing on earth is in relation to the enormous mass of the earth, it evolves asymmetry on its vertical axis. It centers not only on itself but on the earth, facing the other by differentiating top to bottom.
The vertical place was a mountain, which one climbs, or a depression, a valley, into which one falls. The mountain by its peak defines a singular presence, and absence is exterior to it. Its muscle erects itself. The view from the mountain is outward, multiple and promiscuous. The valley, or lake, is singular but inward, defining an absent interior. Its muscle contains another. While the mountain excludes its own absence, the valley contains its own absence, like a house, or cave. It is a bowl form, a descending cave, surrounding a volume defined by gravity.
The peak is one of gravity's favoured forms. Erupting vertical forces aligned with the radii of the planet pile up rubble that gravity pulls back to itself as it can, the peak just balancing on the topmost of a series of progressively broader shoulders beneath it, down to a pancake at the bottom that has the inertia and horizontal stability of a puddle. Its base is a support and its peak privileged. A mountain is a pile of successively smaller puddles up to a little puddle-peak at the top, the top-most spectacular for its balancing act, featured and honoured by the singular accident of its place.
Trees and many plants make efficient use of a space and light by arranging themselves around a vertical center. Living places extruded toward light and heaven, away from solid mass, at odds with gravity, balanced in gravity, aligned from the radii from the center. Under crowded conditions, trees and architecture extrude vertically. Human verticality might not be the result of crowding, but it is a retreat to a tower, the most centered place.
THE BEAST WITH A BACK AND A FRONT
A plant sets itself up on a vertical coordinate, aligned with the earth's radii and directed toward light, with radial symmetry on the horizontal plane. An animal uproots itself and aligns itself at 90 degrees to gravity, tangential to the earth's radii. It tends to be bullet shaped, and tends to evolve bilateral symmetry, and a back and a front as well as a top and a bottom. It evolves asymmetry on the axis of its motion. It faces not only the always present other of the earth but an elusive shifting other before its eyes. The mobility and uprootedness of animals results in the beast with a back and a front, and allows it choice and loss.
The vertical is singular. The horizontal is multiple, a plane comprised of infinite paths. Of these we can travel one at a time, and so are frustrated by choice and loss. From each place on earth there are any number of horizontal choices, but only one vertical, where choice is between a simple duality, up or down.
The mobile creature's defenses and sensors become directional. A slower animal is sometimes more place-like, having 360-degree defenses, like the porcupine, or an armoured animal, or a skunk. In the nutrient-rich atmosphere of the sea, many creatures can afford to be still, and circular.
You'd think a creature with a full circle of sensitivity and defense and mobility would have an enormous advantage. But circular creatures were slow. The roving creature generally won over the sessile, choice and loss over the still place. The eyes and teeth on a swivel proved more practical. Maybe it was cheaper to produce legs than a fixed circle of defense and surveillance. It's like a single gun or spotlight rotating on a turret rather than many guns around the fort. Mobility means you may turn to face your enemy, or object of desire, rather than maintaining a circle of defense and appearance, as does a rosebush with thorns. The animal's mobility allows the head to form a kind of scanning palisade or circle of defense, with the genitals at the center.
Perhaps the psychology of a creature with 360-degree vision would be unsuited to life in passage. The blind semi-circle behind is as necessary as the visible semi-circle in front. Perhaps directed vision is a kind of blinker system, a method of concentration that allows us to be willful and goal oriented. The concentration on what's ahead becomes obligatory and absolute, unlike the voluntary and uncertain directional force of the ear.
360-degree perception implies a still creature rather than a thrusting. I imagine such a creature distracted, immobilized by constant choice, or becoming too thoughtful, uncommitted to the horizontal labyrinth. We have directed vision so that we may believe in progress. Our whole body is written by thrust, our passion is in thrust, and so we are wholly behind it.
Whatever its function, the blind semi-circle swinging around behind the head can feel like an immense counter-weight, a presence so much heavier than the view before the eyes that the world is hardly noticed, every time you turn your head that big lead fly-wheel swinging around behind you feels like its momentum's going to wing it out into your cone of vision, you keep glancing back over your shoulder, but it moves like a shadow, all ten tons of it.
We are a vertical place, in passage, and we divide from that place. The house forms when a place goes out for a walk, leaving its shell behind. A house is a place left by a place in passage. A commuter divides from his place, climbs into his thrust, and goes to another place, his place of labour.
Animals that carry their home around with them are slow, or immobile, like the snail or turtle. There is advantage to separating home and body, making the home a still place, traveling out from it light and mobile. Armour was shed in favour of mobility and effective weaponry and a safe-house, a protected place, separate from the body.
We moved and we left a place behind. In leaving a house behind, an architecture, some historic phase of culture begins. A culture begins with the building of a house, when by splitting passage and place we mediate the world with still places, in our image. The cave becomes an erection. The still place was vertical, and centered, perhaps circular, defended or hidden. It shared our vertical asymmetry and by its entrance reflected our bilateral symmetry, and our asymmetry on the axis of our motion. We leave behind a cultured place, in our image. We ascend to it. At night it is a lighted place, by day it is a dark and hidden place. We have intercourse in it and reproduce in it, and it becomes the seat of domestic government.
The domestic place is defended against the itinerant; the prowling, the homeless, the hungry, the covetous. The adventurer, untied to a place, is a romantic but socially inadmissible figure. He is often depicted as a strong and vital character, and is often the villain to the domestic situation.
THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS
Because we are directed we can form a still place by facing another place.
Creatures are like semi-circles that when joined form a circular place. Because we have a back and a front, when we face one another the so-formed beast presents an uninterrupted back to the world. Our directedness allows the insularity of the beast with two backs, the intense privacy surrounding the couple. The two beasts lose their thrusting form and evolve a symmetry between them, on a vertical plane at right angles to their bilateral symmetry. If our bilateral symmetry is on the X co-ordinate, we suddenly acquire bilateral symmetry on the Y co-ordinate. A powerful horizontal connection forms, to compete with the lonely singular vertical.
The beast forms a nuclear place about it, a domestic place. A place forms like a precipitate and settles over them, a nest, which they then inhabit and furnish.
Kissing, like having your mouth full of food, makes you speechless. Those mucous membranes pressed together form an osmotic and almost surgical union, as in sexual joining, but with a more perfect symmetry. The lip membranes join and a mirror image grows from the mouth, intestinal tracts joined gate to gate like siamese tubes. The consuming mouths meet at a luxurious impasse, forming a kind of Rorschach blot of the flesh. Hunger abates and for a moment we're allowed the luxury of dropping the consumer role. We become a creature without a maw, no longer oral, no longer a consumer and no longer hungry. One is no longer a thrusting creature, no longer a consumer and a wanderer, but a place in which consumption and passage abort, each body fluting off from the mouth-impasse suture-point, together forming an elegant symmetry, a fan-wake. It can only last for a moment, of course, before the mouths remember themselves and become ravenous and vocal again.
In a couple, when eyes meet, the wide field of vision collapses into the tunnel of vision joining the eyes. The arc of vision collapses into the other, and you're left with a creature with two backs and no front. When lovers face, they may seem to form a perfect symbiotic creature joined at the eyes by an invisible tunnel between their eyes through which body fluids flow freely back and forth. You don't want to move them too quickly because there's every chance they'll forget to let go and you'll rip their eyes out.
Sometimes a still lake forms between the facing eyes, a calm, as though the sluices had opened wide and in a turmoil the facing lakes leveled, and calmed, and they could stare forever, you know that moment of love we speak of forever when the world whirls up to heaven and the heart fills, eyes so joined in the beast with two backs that a phantom forms between them, the beast forming an island that mistakes itself for the universe when in fact it's more like a pumping station on a strand of the tangled and many-forked labyrinth, and their light is illuminating just for a moment a short segment of an infinite corridor, a corridor disappearing into the darkness behind and by faith before them, and far down the corridor behind and before them are other lights, where the corridor's thrust, the passage of time, is generated by other illuminated islands, beasts, vortices in the stream where a place forms to labour for the stream, where the beast again cleaves.
PASSAGE TO A VERTICAL PLACE
At any rate, we're not a still place. We are driven. Our asymmetry front to back embodies our compulsion to act, our directedness. We are free to go left or right but compelled to go forward. We couple and domesticate, and yet are only briefly still. We're not a still place but a wandering place, and we're deeply committed to that wandering.
Our journeys end in a vertical place. When we are in motion our horizontal component is most evident, but when we stop the vertical begins to emote. When we're in motion we take the form of the car and the road, and when we're still we become more like architecture, or a tree, or a mountain.
Mythical journeys are often to a mountain, or a city, or a castle, all of which share that vertical thrust. When we go home we are going to some sort of vertical architecture. In our traditional homes the roof is an inverted V that seems constantly to be recommending ascent. We ascend to the place where we live, perhaps by a few steps, or by elevator, the emancipator of high places.
Often a road will lead to vertically aspiring architecture or monuments. Boulevards in cities are sometimes designed as causeways or vistas leading to a spired church or monument or building of state. At a distance the converging lines of the boulevard merge with the inverted V of the spire, completing that receding arrow that always points away, implying that every journey is ultimately vertical, ending at this place, squatting under the peaked cap of its own deferred passage. The journey's end is deferred to an inaccessible place above and beyond us. No earthly place is admitted as a final goal. The far tip-end of those converging, horizontal lines snaps up at right angles to form a vertical peak, a discrete deferral of unattainable horizontal ends to a vertical place, making that ever-receding tip stand still long enough so you can catch up with it once in a while, stop and lie down and pretend you're home.
STILLNESS AND VERTICALITY
When we're in motion the world narrows to the horizontal cave of our passage or activity. When we are still, like a tree or a mountain, we are more informed of our verticality.
When we are still, we form a place and tend to dramatize or even overstate our verticality with architecture or monuments. When we are still, we acclaim our vertical thrust because it goes nowhere and cannot. The sky is safe from our spoiling bodies. We proclaim our vertical thrust because our journey is so dreary, the spoils of our horizontal journey are so meager and unrewarding that we look to the journey that is absolutely impeded, and so never discredited.
With its horizontal component in idle, the half-beast recalls its vertical component, and tends to make a vague arrangement with the sky, a vague sense of completion by deference to all that's elsewhere, conveniently represented as being above and therefore beyond us; a moment of deference, and an acknowledgement of the large world.
The half-beast is comfortable so long as it's in motion, forming a whole and insular beast with its intended goal. But when we stop we begin to feel a little uncomfortable with our halfness. The bachelor half-beast gets home, cracks open a beer, and has vaguely unsettling thoughts. Wherever you're going, it seems, when you get there you look around and say, this can't really be the goal, it looks a little tawdry and thin to be the pot of gold, I'll have to keep going, but while you rest the journey and the goal are deferred to a cloud-place situated vertically above you, an inaccessible dome-place that follows our form around like a puppy, quite out of reach and not even on the road map, there are no buses, no flights, no freeways or throughways, it's just not on the terrestrial agenda.
The half-beast breaks with its completing goal and finds that it must now partner with the dome-space it occupies, that follows it everywhere like a dogged shadow or one of those hat umbrellas, its untouchable apex always directly above the head. It's an admission of scale, or rather an intimation of scale. It's like waking to find you're not in a tunnel but a dark wood and a vast world, and most of it is above you, or like waking to find you're under a vast blue sky instead of in a labyrinth. When we are still, the scale of things encroaches on us and makes us small, and so we make deference to that abyss above the head, the sea of stars or endless blue that trivializes our little motions.
Maybe it's less a dome than a vertical tube whose circumference is the horizon line around us that fades into a vague and troubling pit above our form. The horizontal component goes into abeyance, the lid blows off and there's this column of space disappearing above the head, an abyss there's no chance of falling into but it leaves the head reeling with a touch of vertigo anyway, deference must be made, and some, finding their horizontal journey tawdry and inconclusive, will say that the only significant journey is vertical, and the true goal is above, available to spirit and mind rather than flesh.
Stillness and darkness are similar in that they both act to neutralize the perceptual world, and so shift us from the sensational to the cerebral, the insubstantial place. This place is potentially spherical, not being tied to gravity by the flesh, and we are always at its center. It is like an anthropocentric vision with oneself at the center of a spherical world-place. But mind is so informed by body that I imagine the imagery it occupies still tends to be the earthbound model, the dome-shaped space associated with life on the ground. Mind and spirit occupy available imagery. Fishes might live in spherical spaces, or flying saucer or cigar-shaped spaces, or an inverted dome whose ceiling is the water's surface.
At any rate, in stillness and darkness, substance loses authority and mind and spirit take over, and they're not held by gravity but naturally occupy those places which, like stillness, are not substantially occupied.
This still place is luminous, because it is dominated by mind and spirit, and its luminosity is most notably vertical because it has nowhere else to go. Mind and spirit are freed in stillness and darkness, untied from the labyrinth body. The mind and spirit can be heard in stillness and darkness because the loud-speaking fast-footed body is in abeyance and doesn't drown them out.
It's sometimes recommended that we form a still place, letting the past fall away without regret and receiving the future without anxiety, that we live in the present as a calm and still place like the flame of a taper in a draughtless room, and that we practice an economy of gesture that belies the rush of time. The ascetic attempts to occupy this still place, an eddy, drawing only breath and a minimum of food, a bare treading of water.
The meditative stance withdraws the head and genital like a turtle, like a snail's eye, the body becoming not frontal but spherical, its symmetry more like a tree than a person, perhaps more like a lake than a tree, or perhaps more like a stone than a lake. The face puckers in on itself to form a still point, a place fixed rather than in passage, though the intent of course is that this turning inward passes through to form a still point as through the eye of a needle, to emerge on the other side in a luminous place where paths are irrelevant and the labyrinth is a pathetic relic lost in the supra-linear radiance of the void.
But this would seem to be at odds with the form's intent. Our passion and intent and purposefulness are all embodied in this biological arrow, all the magic of thrust in the horizontal asymmetry of our form. In this compelled form, stillness comes only by determined effort, or by the extreme of death.
[from FILE Megazine #27, Spring 1987)
A place both contains and excludes. A container may be significant for its exterior, or for its interior: significant because is excludes, or because it contains.
Sometimes a place becomes significant because it is hollowed out, to form a valley or lake, or bowl or vase, or bag or wallet, or box or cave or burrow or house. The significance of living places was achieved by becoming a container, a stomach and a womb, a ribcage and skull and an enclosing skin.
In life forms a flow of materials generates a place. There is an osmotic traffic between exterior and interior. A life-place is sieve-like, a leaky and hungry place, a hollow-form, a container for traffic, pierced by entrances and exits. Entrance and exit may converge in a single orifice, to form a cave, or may separate, to form a tube.
Biological form extracts material from the environment by drawing material through itself, some absorbed and some expelled. In primitive organisms the stomach is a cave, one orifice both oral and anal. We separate oral and anal functions to form a tube or donut, a flow-container. Mouth and anus are separate but coextensive, each with its distinct psychology and passions, one decorated and one hidden.
We are pierced by the cave-form of the lungs with their distended osmotic interior, the osmotic root like cave of the urinary track draining to a cloistered exit, and also by the perceptual inlets, the eyes and the ears and the nose.
The entrance is guarded. To be a place is to be defended, and chauvinistic. A place resists the encroachment of other places. Much of the law is concerned with right to place, the inviolability of the body, and also the inviolability of private property, particularly the home, the place where we live.
A place is closed, and transgression is centralized in the orifices, where it may be overseen and governed by the commonwealth of the body. The skin or surface acts as a screen between exterior and interior, controlling commerce between the two. Materials, voices and apprehensions are channeled through the orifices.
Pleasures and anxieties hover around the orifices and the sensations converge on them, distinguishing the mouth and tongue and the eye and ear, the penis and anus and vagina, and also the diffuse and porous skin, with its fear of penetration and love of touch. Orifices group consumption and production with pleasure and anxiety. The orifices are hidden and decorated, cloistered and touched. There is excitement at the border, where the terms of separateness are negotiated. That excitement ignites at the orifices, where we ingest and expel, and apprehend the exterior world.
Our pleasures linger at the gate, savouring the inducements there, fearing the border guards. Will that sensual sphincter close up like a fist or open like a rose? What will we hear? What will we say?
Our separateness is abridged by the orifices. The topological wonder of reproduction begins with a literal but fleeting transgression. We're allowed to insert this bit of flesh, put this small sausage of flesh inside, this finger, through that tight elastic gateway that stretched to its very limit might allow the passage of a soft newborn child. Between this peninsula of flesh and that hauling sphincter to the other side, blessed anonymous desire constructs a relentless and unfailingly hopeful gravity. We're not allowed in, but this is the tease, here, we'll let you put a finger through to the other side, the tip of that finger dissolving in an abyss so deep the body feels itself being sucked inside out by its vacuum, the top of the head sucked down through the backbone, a bug-eyed confusion of flesh scrambling like an army in retreat. The whole imploding confusion is sucked inside out clear down through the curve of the nerve canal to the base of the spine, hauled through like a rag, down to where a balloon of flesh is scrambling to be swallowed by that muscular wet gate, like an eager frog in the throat of a toothless snake; down to where he knows he'll be happy as a cat in a bag.
Somewhere down in that cave, I've heard, there's another; a dark animal stirring, an immense black animal yawning and stirring in its heat, swelling huge, an immense prowling black abyss, pawing and heaving and hungry, breathing in your ear, too big to see now, as big as the whole night sky and blotting all its stars, an immense black claw in the night sky.
IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
A surface first contains a place, defends it against its environment. We are each a place, in competition for space and defensive of our own. When places evolved a perceptual apparatus it became necessary to evolve a response to the perceptions of others. Living things evolve the means to be selectively hidden, or to appear selectively. We developed camouflaging devices for defense against our enemies as well as distinguishing voices to attract the desiring mechanisms of our allies. If a place is thought precious it may be clothed, enclosed, or hidden, sometimes in physical defense but also in perceptual defense, in order not to be molested by the other's eye; or, it may be dressed to attract the desiring mechanisms of the other. The house-cave censors the eye or the appearance, causing things to disappear not by absence but by a perceptual veil. Walls are built to control, and thus commodify, visual access to a valued sight, for instance a baseball game. A curtain provides dramatic control to the site of the stage, and clothing puts a perceptual veil before the object of desire.
The topology of theaters and clothing allows the commodification of appearances, forming a commodified interior that you pay to enter or a veil you pay to remove. With prostitution, access to a sight and an interior is commodified. The most efficient theaters, like sideshows and world fair exhibits, are torus formed, tunnels with a front and rear door, expelling the processed audience like waste.
With the eye, attention settles on the surface of things. Appearances are literally superficial. Our skin becomes an internally controlled appearance that filters the gaze, manipulating access to its own interior. The entire surface, to the eye, is not only a screen but an orifice, censoring traffic between exterior and interior. This orifice that is the surface of the body opens widest in the face, which negotiates an enormously complex visual traffic through its features.
The surface becomes scaffolding for an appearance as well as a defense against the intrusions of others. The body becomes both sanctuary and display, and that display migrates to the surface of the body and to its cloth container, or to the exterior walls of the house. Each perceptual veil in turn gathers signs.
Clothing is a skin without a body, a form reduced to a surface. Clothing creates a portable appearance, detached from its interior. That hollow-form gathers signs, to become a prophylactic appearance, a hymen that appears.
Eyes have made our surface an orifice; an articulate surface that provides guarded entrance to its own interior. With painting and writing, as well as with clothing, an appearance is peeled from the material world and made portable, onto a thin veil that is a scaffolding for images and marks, the skin of an animal or the bark of a tree, a woven cloth or pulp pressed flat to form paper. An appearance is peeled from the wall of the cave, a surface peeled from the surface of things. A significant part of reality may be represented on a plane, and this record is favoured. From the smoke of the voice, a fleeting appearance, came an object, a tablet, a message held on a plane. Information was delayed on a surface, given the weight and substance of an object. That weight is minimized, not reduced to a point, a single place, as might be hoped, but to a plane, many places, where an ordered multitude is possible, a portable wealth.
A person's surface is mediated for and by its own interior; or more precisely, by the interior in response to the exterior, its audience. In the case of text or painting or photography the gaze takes control: it lifts the appearance from its material or contextual support. The information held on the compacted surfaces of a book is independent of its scaffolding, the matter beneath the signs. The interior of this appearance is the audience/creator, like a painted woman in the eyes of a man. The audience/creator constructs a dense portable orifice into the fiction of his or her own choosing. Things lose their power to their audience, which makes an object of its perceptions and does with it what it will. Text or pictures on a surface are independent in content of the material thing they are suspended on. The surface serves only as a ground, a matrix-support on which to arrange a two-dimensional display. In photography and painting an object's visual mediation of its own appearance lifts free from its substance and presence. We take control of our own skin: but the gaze lifts an appearance right off its substrate, and usurps that control.
An appearance, skin deep, was peeled from its object. This skin-deep appearance peeled from the physicality of things proved enormously powerful. It freed things from their weight, like language, but maintained their objective endurance. This idolatry became the vehicle and medium of an enormous wealth of written and pictorial knowledge, voices substantiated and commodified. Paper money too is an appearance, information and value secured through time as an appearance on a surface, a floating plane, its value established by a strange consensus of minds, pressed by labour and desire.
The surface acts as a ground, a planar medium that suspends a spatial order. That plane may almost disappear, but not quite, it must maintain that order, and significance dissolves as the plane dissolves. Information is held on a barely present surface. That surface that barely exists is scaffolding for significance, a syntax-support for words, pictures, and signs
At the surface there was a mix-up of things and voices. First a voice parted from a thing, the fleeting voice or appearance parted from its substantial source, in order that it might have an effect at a distance. Appearances, subverting the inertia of objects, make the world fluid. Then an object is made of those voices, with writing, with photography and painting, and also with paper money, an object made from labour and desire. This object mixes the voice's lightness with an object's endurance. This voice is empowered, light and enduring, and an ideal commodity.
[from IMPULSE, Winter 1989)
There are things, places, each separate from the other, and they are all in passage. There are places and passages. Places are in passage through space and through time, and also there is a conversation between things, so that every thing's separateness is constantly eroded at its peripheries, and throughout its texture. A place is radiant, and also it is affected. A place is both limiting and generative. A place is constantly influenced by rules, which seem to exist apart from things but also between and through them. Each place is constantly influenced, its independence compromised, obedient to all the others and barely itself. A place becomes significant when it is perceived, and persists.
Places are communicated, down through time, in a modulated radiance, the physical world modulated and coerced by the rules of space, the voice of something or other that mediates reality. It is a voice because it carries information. It carries information because it follows rules. We make it a voice by perceiving it. Some people think that it's all voices out there, or one voice that has become many voices, and that this is the world of voices.
From the one voice came the many voices. Symmetry fell to little islands, knots, each self-modulated, not just going along with the one voice but falling into a fixed orbit-modulation of its own, a self-modulated form, a mediated radiance or voice, modulating its own body through time. We fell down to contained, partly closed systems, nebulae, or planets in a solar system, or voices in a commonwealth. We fell to orbit-places, down to materiality and consequence and flowing information. We fell into obedience.
Between two there was a third. This third was a friction, a temporal displacement between things, a spacing, and a kind of delay, or inertia, in things. Between two there was a space, a limiting of their intimacy. This spacing made everything a fiction to every other thing, each place having only partial, dated, and unreliable knowledge of every other place.
Around the centre-place, that radiant and affected place, the machinery of presence appears, evolving apparently in response to its own displacement, its out-of-presence from other things, and the elastic communion between it and the others.
A thing is not so much present in its place, constrained to a place, as controlled from a place, centralized. The machinery and bureaucracy of a place, its molecules and forces and surfaces, is the machinery of over-powerment, a hoarded gathering of information held in a knot against the constant tug of decay. It has an effect outside of itself. A place that persists is then an agent of influence in the world, exerting a force, which becomes historic rather than entropic.
Things persist. That victory, the persistence of each place, carries a wake of effort behind it, a force of victims absolutely tied to the need to be effective, and to enforce a trail of cause and effect. The inevitability of a moment, an instant of presence, is stretched and distended into a long chain of inevitable events. At the threshold of our perceptions, where we cease to perceive the moment, or particle, that chain flickers, and doubt becomes a visceral part of the world.
Out of somewhere came this code that persisted. It seems to be pure theory, a mathematics, a code out of nothing-we-know that forms all things. Inside of all that, from matter itself there evolved a code that also persisted, in the life form, and the life form invented another code-that-persisted, in language. Language is ruled by a grammar, and we are obedient to another grammar, and all matter is obedient to another.
Material casts itself down through time by decay. Fire is a rapid decay, becoming by its destruction an agent of influence, or power.
Decay tied itself in knots, and discovered patterns that could hold information by siphoning material and energy from their environment. Life found a way of arresting decay, establishing a local equilibrium by separating an empowered place from the rest. There, in that still place, the biological knot elaborates on its success, becoming finally a vehicle of a bewildering array of Byzantine wills. Time may even weave that decay into words.
Information, persisting, is a form that not only stopped decay in its tracks but affronted chaos with language and history, that by conveying patterns found a loophole in death, and began an information explosion. This rare, rare loophole in decay is a code that forms patterns, and gathers to itself, and sets traps for more sophisticated patterns, a kind of sieve mouth, straining useful gems of noise from the environment, 'til it gathers up in architecture, and culture.
Information makes specific and useful bits from the froth of all possibilities. A fragment from chaos is distinguished, imperialized by a successful pattern, into a pocket of knotted information, a hypothesis that got stuck. That field of white noise is its medium, its syntax and ground, an enormous non-specific memory that can be drawn from, highlighted or catalogued or earmarked, becoming a sign of the persistence of things, retrievable as history, or a memory. Memory constitutes a delay, a part of the inertia of things.
Information conveys an effect, an over-powerment. Information is the substance of passage, and rules are the substance of information, requiring a certain condition as a result of other conditions. A rule creates a statistical leverage between various parts of the world. This relating of things is an anti-entropic device, constructing metaphors, patterns and redundancies throughout the world, by which one part may be predicted by another.
An empowerment, a voice from a place, disciplined a territory. Information allows us not to cheat thermodynamics but to persist, and finally make history by capturing and organizing territory. Territory is captured and disciplined, patterned after ourselves. Territory is captured by disciplining one place to mimic a voice from another place.
An organism is an obedience that dominates and becomes historical by presence.
The code that persisted had time on its hands, and chance, the time-dwelling lottery, piled its fanciful moss on the place.
Life is a waxing place that appropriates material and energy from its environment and therefore increases. The place that ordered its exterior into its own image became historic by acquiring real estate, and occupying time, by increasing its temporal and spatial scale.
The time-dwelling code, this imperializing obedience, not only persisted but multiplied, expanding while retaining the scale of each unit. By multiplying but retaining its scale, empowerment found its device, a terrible vacuum that drew success and history into itself, a device that transcended the limits of any particular scale, entering history by multiplication, rather than inflation. A pattern, its scale and its power limited, gained power by splitting, by breaking in two. A pattern emerged that effected mimicry from its exterior, its environment. Unable to enlarge itself it occupied its exterior with siblings. That pattern didn't want power; it got it. Power is an effect of mimicry.
The time-dwelling code occupied history. Power and thus history was not made by the expansion of the place but by the multiplication of the place, a subdivision of obedience, an order multiplied.
That imperializing place acquired power before desire. The code that persisted had time on its hands, and invented desire as a device of power, because power is an effect of desire.
The limbs extend by desire, to seduce, or to discover, or for pleasure or gain or defence. Desire also makes efficient use of material by mobility, occupying a large space by moving a small dense and sophisticated place through it.
Around its centre, the place forms a body, with limbs extending out from the place that empower that place by increasing its presence, by increasing its surface area or its reach. Desire extends the body-place in vulnerable limbs that control its immediate exterior, and also provide a complex and sensitive and powerful relationship with the world, the extended limbs and also the interior limbs, the deep inlets, the lungs, or the clever torus-donut of the stomach and intestinal system with its villae, an enormously distended interior surface by which to absorb and exploit vital parts of the exterior. That interior comes to be served by the toothed and ravenous mouth, and the clawed and grasping limbs. Beyond the limbs the place is empowered again by an appearance, and a voice.
We buttressed our lineage with perceptions, and with mobility, and also with voices, appearances, sounds, touches, scents and tastes. Life began to have meaning. We became a radiant array of information, leaving behind residues, footprints and ordure and the world manipulated, hurling debris from the planet-self, social radiance and cultural radiance, emitting sounds, odours, vibrations, creating artifacts and architecture, leaving not only marks but meanings on the environment, evolved as well as devolved debris.
A signal constructed itself between individuals and between things and individuals, first perhaps between ourselves and a dark place, or a bright place, so that by responding to light, or the lack of it, we ourselves become an illumination of a place, a recognition or response, an embroidering.
The creature began to use its sensitivity to light to interpret the form of the world around it by the manner in which the world reflected light back to its eye. The eye chose the frequency range it did because the hard world is opaque at that frequency. A sensitivity to light was turned to the perception of the hard world, by interpreting the manner in which physical things reflected light. That sensitivity to light became a tool of foraging, and defense, and procreation, and a mechanism by which we face one another.
The function that evolved for the seeking of light (or its avoidance) became a device for interpreting the meaning of reflected light, and then for the perception of purposefully reflected light. As the eye began to interpret that reflected light, other living things shaped themselves to reflect light meaningfully, or usefully. A place is the source of its own image. A living place exploits its image. The world became a stage.
Substance decays, in its communication through time. For inanimate matter, every effect is affected by decay. Each thing's self-representation down through time is at the price of the fall of its substance, down towards entropy. Things are eaten by their own voice. Influence requires decay. Smell, in which a part of the other is inhaled, is in fact an apprehension of the decay of the other. We see by the decay of the sun.
When a living thing perceives, a part of the thing apprehended is removed, split from its presence by a strange mimicry, to the eye of the beholder. The apprehension is a kind of decay, an effect, of the thing apprehended. Something of the other is taken away, and yet the other is no less for it. Information persists in a sea of decay.
All perceptions displace certain qualities of a thing into the presence of another thing, into the apprehension and memory of another thing. As that information from the exterior is conveyed to the other's interior, it is fictionalized. The exterior is the part that has been fictionalized, by being apprehended. The interior, the apprehension, we fictionalize by language.
Both memory and language transport a part of a thing away from its substance, or away from its origin, through time and space. A memory communicates itself down through time, and travels with the substance of the brain.
With language we represent that thing not by itself, or its appearance, but by a sound, and the sound in turn is given a visual sign. The message source, apprehending, spits out a sound symbol, or a visual-symbol, spits out a little slug-token of apprehension and evolves a syntax around these sounds and symbols that can serviceably represent an apprehension and allow it to be transported, by sound or by visual symbol, by light, through space to another apprehender.
A part is detached and eaten. In text our thought is reproduced and consumed, wrenched from us and consumed. A part of our presence is detached, reproduced, and consumed. In text our words are represented, not even our voice but our bare words, so-much-out-of-our-presence, no sound, no appearance, but a conception somehow transported, communicated by a visual coding of an aural code. This barely recognized idolatry is esoteric even now to most of the world.
Image making, at one time, in some measure required a skilled and concentrated attention, but the camera requires only a glance and a fat finger to snap an appearance from its place, Niagara Falls' or a female's. That appearance, no longer necessarily under the control of the thing appearing, and no longer carrying its contents with its appearance, may then empower its exploiter rather than its source. An image, unencumbered by the clumsiness and complexity of the thing's physical presence, simplifies a thing. The simplified image may enter the economy, a person or thing's severed appearance profiting whomever markets it. The image is then recomplexified by the conditions of its own presence, perhaps acquiring a value or content or notoriety the thing appearing never had.
Media is something in the middle, the part between, and the means of conveyance. It exists in the spacing between places, and between moments. Media is the entire mechanism by which power is conveyed between places. The parts of nature that we mediate, down through time, become culture. In particular, we refer to media as the part of culture meant to be read.
Media intercepts our voices and appearances, and delivers them. The voice is collected, manipulated, distributed and consumed. Technology, multiplying the voice, not only empowers it but takes it away, far from our presence. When media is cultured, and an industry, its values are very aggressive, not only empowered but self-serving.
We are fodder for media, food consumed. If culture is the world mediated, by man and woman, then all culture is media. Culture consumes us in a way that nature never did. We are culture's fuel, its resource and energy source. It consumes and demands our labour. Culture and media consume us once in their creation, and then again by consuming our attention. We are consumed both as producer and audience. Culture commands your attention not only by its presence but by its aggression, its familiarity, being specifically designed with humanity in mind, or perhaps some empowered strata of humanity. Culture is aimed.
In a book the author, the source-place, makes a cultured residue, a voice that fragments from the place and is duplicated and distributed far from the author's presence. The author's chosen voice is fixed and empowered, a sudden multiplication of presence, like the daily newspapers, a lightning-swift deployment of authority. The body's substantial authority is suddenly given to the passing smoke of the voice, and multiplied. The ghostly voice is given an inviolable physical presence that engages with its audience in a relationship suddenly empowered by persistence, by success, the miraculous survival through time, apart from the vehicle of any person, of a voice, an encodement and representation, a communication somehow embodied and dispersed from its source-body with the swiftness and accuracy of a virus, or of light. The voice is first disembodied and then embodied apart from its source.
The book, the substantiation of the voice, is recognized as a part of the body, and therefore is sometimes allowed the same rights of passage and place, dissemination and content, considered inviolable in democracies. At the same time the book is feared, because it is a part of the body unnaturally empowered. It is not singular like a human, and is not so readily confined. Its presence is easily and precisely multiplied, like a virus-agent from the imperialist body.
The basic human right to place, the inviolability of the self, is blurred by the voice that softens the edges of the place. When the voice is embodied, preserved and distributed, it is empowered, at the very least insofar as presence is empowerment. With the book and the media, the empowered voice, a right to global empowerment is not clearly distinguished from the right to self. The temptation is for the state to maintain some control over that voice empowered out of all proportion to the natural scale of an individual presence.
The past holds no water. Memory forms a cloud of faint, conflicting points of view, hovering around an absent objective past. We can only speculate on what has happened. Writing embodies the faint past, streaming off from the hand in a tortured looped and tangled line, heavy with coded meaning. The objective past is still absent, but in its place is a substantial representation. Humans, by the media, by symbolism and representation, may embody and empower and substantiate the past, the absent.
This writing, or image-making, comes not only from the hand of the speaker, the idolater, but sometimes from a machine or technology that he controls, and sometimes from another's hand whose motions he controls, as the priest controls the idol-maker's, or the boss the secretary's. The voice of the empowered streams from the hands of the overpowered. Where once the will could be thrown only with the voice, out to its fading, the distance of a shout, or by means of an imprecise, unreliable, and subjective intermediary, now there is an objective and precise and obedient artifact, and a presence conveyed by the labour of others, an order multiplied.
The voice is embodied, empowered and substantiated, to stand beside the other faint speculation, the hypothesizing memory. The time-dwelling code occupied history.
The media generates an empowered memory. There are other traces left, bodies, charred buildings, or a lingering touch. But the media is the text, the once that is read, and distributed, and becomes objective by being an object, empowered by default. No one can contest history, because it is written. The unwritten is absent from history.
(from RUBICON, Number 7, Summer 1986)
Text: © Tom Dean. All rights reserved.