William Kherbek, Me & Cherabino, 2016
Interview. with. the. artist. Claire. Zakiewicz
Cherubino: As the process of making your drawings is highly physical, could you speak about the ways you view the relationship of embodiment to your work? Do you view the works as existing in an essentially physiological relationship with your body, or do you see them as fundamentally conceptual works that contain a performative or temporal component?
Zakiewicz: My works are fundamentally conceptual and contain performative, temporal and physiological components in relation to my sensory experience of the world. That said, perhaps this statement describes what all hand drawn images fundamentally are. I've been exploring and deconstructing both the physical and conceptual elements of my earlier drawing, performance and sonic based practice in order to build a vocabulary of signs, forms, actions and objects with which to create my current paintings. Paintings and drawings have a cultural and commercial value, which I am aware, complicates the conceptual aspect of the work as well as their role in contemporary culture.
I'm very interested in science and philosophy. In particular perception, phenomenology and also how we conceptulise. My practice involved a lot of reading and discussions with friends in scientific fields. In his book 'Splendours and Miseries of the Brain', neurobiologist, Semir Zeki presented his examination of the power of ambiguity or the unfinished on our imagination. Considerations of ambiguity or unresolved impact the methods and shapes in my works. Sometimes the shapes are as ambiguous as Rorschach ink-blot tests and other times I allow the forms to take a more obvious shape. We read shapes, lines and colours according to our physiognomic perception. This relates first and foremost to our relationship with human faces and bodies and then to the objects and shapes in our physical world. Shapes have metaphysical associations that have been prevalent throughout our cultural history and can be explained by our physical experience of the world, which our conceptual metaphors are based upon. For example vertical lines are read as energetic and relating to cities or tall trees, horizontal lines as calm and relating to land or seascapes. We conceptualise circles as being representative of life, zigzags can be angry or dangerous like teeth or lightening. The most basic and immediate associations are with the human face. For example, a happy, curly line or a sad downward line can all be easily read as emotive.
Cherubino: You have spoken of the centrality of interdisciplinary aesthetic research in your work in other contexts. Could you elaborate on the ways in which such interdisciplinary engagement has impacted your recent work, particularly the musical, aspects of your research?
Zakiewicz: In 2008 I was invited to the Contemporary Arts Centre, USF in Bergen, Norway as a contemporary sonic artist and DJ for a one-week residency exploring improvisation and non-traditional musical approaches. During that week we played around with drawing sound - kind of like a reversed graphic score.
This led to a drawing project that has mainly involved drawing what is heard rather than seen. As such I've developed methods that include drawing as a response to sound with eyes either open or closed, many variations of movement of the fingers, hand, arm and sometimes feet or other parts of the body while drawing. I've developed strategies based upon controlling or restricting movement or marks, while also exploring intentionality and chance happenings. Attention to the breath or other countable pulses are sometimes used to set a tempo for the gestural movements of the drawing. Attention to acting methods is also considered and also various qualities of movement. Time or sound is used to measure the amount and density of marks and movements used. Gestures include spontaneous, beat, iconic, or metaphoric gestures, all of which I explore in my work. Some gestures are more physical, while others more conceptual. The difference being whether they are used during the planning or during the live performance and are therefore either spontaneous / intuitive or otherwise intellectual / worked out through composition, choreography, planning or analysis.
When drawing sound I might use music or the work of sound artists, spoken sounds, narratives, poetry, sounds within particular spaces or streets, recorded sounds and silence - or rather the idea of silence, because obviously we can't escape from the sounds of our breath, heartbeat and, when in an anechoic chamber, the high pitched sound of our central nervous system, as John Cage famously wrote about in his book 'Silence'. More recently I've been particularly interested in animal sounds, the sounds of shamanic rituals, people talking in tongues or when in a trance. The drawings might be types of automatic drawing or writing, circular forms, scribbles, lines or stripes, they might be within a frame or set of frames or they might be animated film projections. I didn't use representational images in my earier studies but my most recent work, which uses acrylic and oil media, allow for more layering, and as such I've realised that theories of entropy, emergence and narrative are other relevant areas of exploration.
Basically, my work has been built upon researching the physical and metaphorical relationships between sound and drawing. These relationships include affects, gesture, perception, pictorial functions, space and time. All of these have strong relationships to the human body as well as our experience of tangible and non-tangible objects in time and space.
Physical relationships between sound and drawing are explained by psychologist Daniel Stern's 'vitality affect contours'. They are what he describes as rushes of feeling. These are how we experience the world as babies and enable us to be able to attune to our mothers via multi-modal dynamic objects. Later in life, these patterns of feeling play a huge role in our experience of artworks - adding a dynamic and communicative aspect to the emotional experience of them.
We experience vitality affects as dynamic shifts or patterned changes within ourselves as well as in the behaviour of others through the process of attunement. Affective experiences enter the intersubjective domain through affect attunement, primarily in the mother/infant dyad but also in many other communicative experiences, for example through dancing. Attunements occur across sensory modes. If an infant's expression is vocal, a mother's attunenment is likely to be gestural or facial, and vice versa. In fact, for attunement to work, different behavioural expressions occurring in different forms and in different sensory modalities must somehow be interchangeable. If a certain gesture by the mother is to be 'correspondent' with a certain kind of vocal exclamation by the infant, the two expressions must share some common currency that permits them to be transferred from one modality or form to another. That common currency consists of amodal properties. The three particular dimensions of attunement are intensity, timing, and shape. Other qualities or properties held in common by the modalities of perception are motion and number. These qualities can be abstracted by any sensory mode from the invariant properties of the stimulus world and then translated into other modalities of perception. For instance, a rhythm, such as 'long-short' ( ____ _ ), can be delivered in or abstracted from sight, audition, smell, touch, or taste. For this to occur, the rhythm must at some point exist in the mind in a form that is not inextricably bound to one particular way of perceiving but is rather sufficiently abstract to be transportable across modalities.
While infants can have a non-conceptual, pre-linguistic bodily experience of sound and drawing, adults are fundamentally shaped by conceptual metaphors. Philosopher Mark Johnson uses Stern's work to explore how the flow of meaning in music is grounded in our bodily experience, these give rise to the metaphors 'music as language' and 'music as movement'. Johnson analyses how the structure of the music can covey a striving to reach a goal through a felt sense of inner drama, tension, energy and resolution. This is achieved by sonic structures, pitch intervals and temporal flow (rhythm changes) and variations of intensity (loudness/softness). He claims that in any musical work these structures are analogous to felt patterns within our kinaesthetic bodies.
The philosophy of time helps us to understand how relationships between drawing and sound can either be or intellectualised or experienced in duration, and the temporal aspect to my work has these two parts. Intellectualised time is the conceptual sequencing of parts or events whereas real time is the experience of these sequenced parts. As opposed to duration, the intellectual process of making a visual image or composing a piece of music involves spatialized time. Thinking treats space and time, which are containers for being, as the structural categories of coexistence and sequence. Both of these categories can be represented in the spatial medium of visual patterns.
The performative aspect of my work, where I explore intuition, improvisation, spontaneous gesture, chance and many other things is possibly more physiological than conceptual. The present moment is the dividing line between experiencing the world directly and indirectly - as the world symbolised, talked / thought about. It is our window to the experience of life.
According to the philosopher Henri Bergson, real time exists in duration, which is the flow of time. It is the only form of time that can actually be experienced. Bergson identified the present moment as a time span framing perception, which has been estimated to 2-4 seconds - the length of a breath and thus the length of a phrase. Since the perceived moment has some expansion in time we can perceive movements and actions as a process. And, in fact, we can perceive time itself as durations.
Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl talked about consciousness being spread out over time and explains felt meaning within this durational, experience. Being aware of small movements in the workings of the body, such as breath or the heartbeat, is a tool used in meditation and yoga as a means of focusing on the present moment. This brings our attention to what is in our field of consciousness, taking thoughts away, internalization and being aware of what is being perceived through the senses. In meditation one usually focuses on the breath while musical improvisors focus on the music.
What this means in my practice is I keep the two forms of time seperate. The durational aspect is the work I do when not thinking and attention to something in the present moment is best. It might be when I respond to sounds through vitality affects, spontaneous or intuitive gestures or a flow of pre-learnt or improvised patterns. The intellectualised sequencing of parts would be my plans, rule-sets, instructions or scores for performances, choreography of the movement and the composition of drawings and animations as well as my analysis and synthesis of ideas.
Cherubino: The notion of the framing edge is something your work complicates in some ways. The works on paper often have variegated edges created by the black ground on which the drawings rest, yet they retain the rectilinear white edge of the paper support. Is this dynamic a conscious dialogic structure or critical response to the notion of the "work on paper" as being "suitable for framing"?
Zakiewicz: For most art students over the past half-century, a central concern has been to challenge the prevailing notion that Art must be painting or sculpture. As such, throughout my career and studies I've been encouraged to question the practice of drawing or painting within a contemporary art practice. My recent return to painting is often challenged, especially by my peers, encouraging me to question my arguments for every line and shape placed onto the piece and the method by which every line and shape is placed.
The series of drawings that you are referring to was made when I arrived for a residency at PointB Worklodge in New York in December 2013. In my earlier performance pieces the value of the drawing was in the performative aspect and as such the actual drawings were thrown away or painted over, at PointB, my work began to re-explore the value of the drawing as object.
As per the temporal considerations I explained in the last question, I'm concerned with real-time process as well as the conceptualised sequencing of contained parts. The paper represents a spatialized representation of time - a time container - and as such it seemed right to pay attention to the edges of the containers. In essence a drawing on paper is a shape with an edge, which contains drawn content made up of movements of the hand/arm and drawing implant played out in real time according to a specific rule-set.
I had previously explored the notion of the picture frame in my performance work. There is a scene in my performance Engastromyths, Quakers and Shamans (2011), where the backdrop of the performance has sensors around the edges. When I move towards the edges the sensors trigger tin cans to rattle around the perimeters of the room. At that point of the performance I am exploring this background as the canvas in which to move, with eyes closed and the tin cans indicate the edges of my space. My work has a concern with intuitive gestures, which make use of muscle memory and embodied patterns, thus this notion of the frame is one that keeps reappearing throughout the works within the dialogic structure of 'works on paper'. It's suitability for framing is in accordance to the value of the work as an object.
For the first drawing I made at the residency, I painted downward strokes across the page, each brush stroke in time with each outward breath and covering the length of the page and stopping at the edge. As the brush moved down, the ink ran out and the bristles moved apart leaving the white vertical lines of the paper.
In analysis, this drawing evoked the city of New York with its vertical lines, active as they rebel against gravity implying energy and growth. The overall shape of these drawings also referenced the paintbrush as the object used to make the piece.
The durational aspect of the drawing is in the connection between the brush stroke and the attention to breath. My subsequent drawings were sized according to the size of my body and arm movements. As the images became more layered, such as the next image, I also used other drawing methods relating to duration such as lines that were drawn in response to sounds using pastels over the top of the inked background. The colour considerations were made either in process or conceptually through a planned order but each within a given pre-considered rule-set, which explored various themes.
Cherubino: Building on the notion of your works as physical objects, could you speak about the way you see the increasing digital turn in relation to both the production and display of visual art in relation to your practice? As images proliferate freely in digital space, is the historically fetishised scarcity of the painting or drawing as an object - particularly, as discussed in the previous question, an object that stands in a specific relationship to the hand of the creative artist - increasingly becoming a hinderance in terms of reaching audiences or in finding audiences receptive to the arguments the works make? Are you ever concerned that material aesthetic objects are increasingly infused with a sense of nostalgia which, though perhaps not the intention of the artist, will be read as such in the wider critical discussion?
Zakiewicz: Digital technological advances are having a huge impact on human evolution, which is speeding up at an ever increasing rate. The digital turn in the production and display of visual art enables us to consume and analyse culture, information, and data faster. We conceptualise the world wide web to be a metaphor for the human brain - or even based upon the mechanism of the human brain. Phenomenologist Vilem Flusser talked about this in his book, 'Towards a Philosophy of Photography' written in 1984, where he explained his concern for society, which he believed to have become a slave to technology since the invention of more complex tools, such as the camera, as opposed to being in control of the simpler tools we buit for ourselves, as extensions of our bodily organs.
Now that we have invented the internet, computing and robotics, with complex neural networks - an extension of our brain - how are we going to subvert this control, is it even possible and what will be the effects of not subverting it?
We now experience ourselves living in a digital as well as a physical world. The digital turn has changed our conceptualisation of once tangible units to non-tangible data. The digital turn has us wondering what and who are we as human beings as opposed to or in relation to machines and artificial intelligence. This explains the nostalgia you mentioned for the material art object. The human hand-made aspect of traditional craftsmanship seems likely to become ever more fetishised.
I've just recently become familiar with the work of leading cosmologist Max Tegmark (professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), who recently published 'A Mathematical Universe' in 2014, which presents his hypothesis that our physical reality is actually a mathematical structure.
Neuroscience, information technology, artificial intelligence, robotics and engineering are at the forefront of contemporary thinking and are central to the concerns within my most recent work. The questions I've been asking myself are; when thinking about life, what is our physicality? Is our life based on carbon, silicone or can life and the world be broken down into numerical data or is it something else? What do we find when we deconstruct ourselves and our consciousness? What is a physical and what is a non-physical object? Our understanding of life has gone from carbon based to silicone based to wondering about forms of life that are not yet discovered or recognised.
A collection of essays was recently reviewed in New Scientist Magazine called 'What to think about machines that think', the majority of the essays were written by psychologists, cosmologists and musical composers such as Brian Eno. None of the essays were written by painters and I found this very interesting.
Data is now a powerful force. Governments, banks and other social platforms are employing data experts to help revolutionise their systems as they realise the impact the collection and analysis of data is having on our social-structure. The co-founder of the Open Data Institute in London, Gavin Stark, is a cosmologist and he recently started an annual artist's residency programme. The first artist chosen was sound artist Alex McLean. Sound art lends itself particularly well to an exploration of our conceptual understandings of data and where it can lead society. The basis of musical sound can be described mathematically and elements of music such as its form, rhythm and metre, the pitches of its notes and the tempo of its pulse can be related to the measurement of time and frequency, offering ready analogies in geometry. Cosmology is the study of the universe - which we understand conceptually and according to mathematical patterns / structures as well as through observation though complex apparatus. Complex apparatus and mathematics are at the forefront of our post industrial, post internet culture. Images have become ever more technical as our apparatus becomes ever more complex. However, as our conceptulisation of our own living bodies merge more with our conceptualisation of machines / technology, then perhaps images that come directly from our body, without use of apparatus, such as writing, drawing, poetry and dance can also be described as technical / mechanical and can also be part of an exploration of our conceptual understandings of data and where it can lead society.
However, to many, the physicality of a painting practice can be considered as belonging to a pre-internet world.
Artists have been challenging traditional, craft-based art methods for decades and ideas have been given precedence over object. In spite of that I find that paradoxically, my most conceptual practice is my drawing and painting practice. This might be due to the immediacy of drawing, which enables us to tap into that real-time, intuitive creative process as well as being an ideal tool for the conceptual development of the works.
At one time Art was painting, then Art was almost anything but painting, now painting is chosen by a contemporary artist if they wish to choose it. This act of choosing is something new and as such, I personally think it's an exciting time for painting.
Many of the creative practitioners I work with, particularly those who teach, discuss with me how the younger generation seem to be losing the ability to use their imaginations and think creatively. They tend to put this down, in part, to mobile technology.
However, I think our education system is another part of the problem. At school we are not encouraged to think creatively or find creative solutions. For that we need to learn how to fail and to have an experimental practice for the sake of itself. Instead schools promote following patterns, memorising cognitive systems, getting correct answers, being confident, looking good and being successful. Basically we learn at school how to be good workers in the rat race. Something else crucial to being creative that has really disappeared from our post-mobile culture is having time to sit, get bored and let our minds wonder.
I'm hoping that a new concern for the imagination and the creative impulse will lead to a new wave of understanding and research. Bridges are being built between the arts and sciences and as such we are understanding the creative impulse in a new way. Combined arts and science courses are are being added to curriculums and programmes in leading art schools.
Our social structure is changing to one where creative thinking has more value. We can see that when we look at the power of start-up companies. Big companies are also investing in coaches who teach their staff creative thinking. In fact, I'm working with executive creativity coach, Dannie-Lu Carr, who has been working in this field for a long time, has written a book and given a Ted Talk on the subject of the current climate of creativity. We are about to offer training programmes together entitled 'Making Bad Art: The Permission to Fail'.
Cherubino: As an artist who has travelled extensively and exhibited in a number of countries, could you speak about the role physical geography plays in the creation of your work? Do any specific geographical locales have added meaning for you? Are there places you feel mentally more able to work than others? If so, why do you think this might be the case, e.g. perhaps different art historical traditions or cultures of exhibition and production?
Zakiewicz: The spaces we inhabit shape our thoughts, memories and dreams. A change of geography is energising and movement is good for stimulating ideas. A home provides illusions of stability and appeals to our consiousness of centrality. Home for me is London but I work hard to keep my life minimal so I can be away for extended periods.
During my teenage years onwards I travelled througout Europe, India, South-East Asia, Senegal, Kenya, Morocco, Brazil and Cuba while also settling down and making a home in London. Every place I've visited has informed my practice and I could go into details about wabi-sabi, zen, Indus Valley, Biennales, Inhotim in Brazil and many other influences, which I'll write about at some point.
For now, writing this while still in New York, where I've mostly lived for just over three years now, it seems the most significant influence was my time at PointB Worklodge in Brooklyn, which taught me a great deal about being a “work traveller”. The founder, Mark Parrish, has a practice that involves analysis of movement, portability and systems of living. It was his intention to set up worklodges across the globe as the internet made it more possible for people to take up this lifestyle as part of their profession. There were two particularly significant aspects of the international worklodge. One was the cross-pollination of cultures and practices, made possible via the monthly open studios and presentations. The other was the design of the live-work spaces themselves. The time and space there enabled me to to look more deeply into my personal interests. They inspired me to improve the structures within which I create my work and also provided access to rewarding collaborations and friendships. Mark Parrish designed a space in which I was more focussed and productive than anywhere I'd worked before.
Inspired by PointB, I remodelled my home, studio and storage in London. This has made it possible for others to use the spaces more easily while I'm travelling as well as making these spaces easier to work in myself.
Jean Lescure said, 'An artist does not create the way he lives, he lives the way he creates'. For me, the work of an artist is to continuously develop and explore methods of creating - methods of living.
To be based in a city with a strong and diverse contemporary cultural scene, while also spending time nature and having the ability to travel is the ideal. It's a lifestyle luxury that I'm aware, especially as a woman, is still rare on a global level. It's also something that needs to be learned logistically and psychologically through trial and error. Gaston Bachalard talks about the concept of home as being fundamentally a geometric container in space that can also potentially transcend geometry. He writes in his book 'The Poetics of Space',
'an immense cosmic house is a potential of every dream of houses. Winds radiate from its center and gulls fly from its windows. A house that is as dynamic as this allows the poet to inhabit the universe. Or, to put it differently, the universe comes to inhabit his house.'
Ultimately our physical bodies are our true homes and the digital turn is complicating this, both physically and psychologically. The dream homes of our future are better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past - much bigger than geometric objects. Immensity lies within ourselves - in the infinity of our daydreams - in our imaginations - in our consiousness - within the neural networks of the internet - the mechanical extension of the mechanics of our brains.
Bachalard believes that intimate space and exterior space encourage each other in their growth. If that is true then it makes sense that the further we explore the intimacy of our consiousness, the better we understand the universe, hence why cosmologists star so prominantly in books such as 'What to think about machines that think'. I see this visually in my Entropy and Emergence series of drawings, which are multi-layerd and developed following methods relating to duration, spacialization, perception and imagination. For this work, conversely, all I need is a corner and stillness to make work that explores infinity and movment.
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