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Category Archives: Neo-Materialism and Art

FaceALeslie Shows ‘Face A’ 2011

While the geological turn has been accompanied by a return to realism and materialism, drawing on the speculative and the scientific, it seems that this turn continues to prioritise human agency. This turn could be seen as a movement toward geological emergence independent of human minds, however it has remained human centred. How could the anthropocene be anything other than anthropocentric? Rather than a turn toward the geological, we seemed to have circled back and elevated the human into a new domain. No longer just superior species but now also a geological force. No longer just comparable to other mammals, organisms, biology’s, but also now it seems invading the categorical realm of the inorganic, mineral, cosmological. The anthropocene is posthuman in that it is a viral migration from singular biological host to an expanded multiplicity of geological, industrial, informational territories producing radical morphogenesis.

Recent philosophical expression has formulated various responses to the problem of geophilosophy and the anthropocene. These include Negarastani’s theory fiction, Timothy Morton’s ecological thought, Ben Woodard’s dark vitalism, the recent publication ‘Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life (Ed Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse), the research project ‘Art and the Anthropocene’ by Gabo Guzzo and obviously Manuel DeLanda’s geologically oriented theory of emergence.

These expressions of the geological are linguistic excavations. These are thought machines that burrow into the geological only to resurface within the realm of the anthropocene. Linguistic expression is an inevitable component of any thought and is of course the primary tool for doing philosophy, however, I’m interested in how philosophy can be expressed in non-linguistic forms. Specifically, I want to explore how the geological can be expressed from within itself, how the forces of the geological can be siphoned at the source of its immanent materiality and then filtered into the immaterial and informational realm. The form of non-linguistic expression that most closely relates to the geological is painting. Even in representational forms, painting is the engagement between surface, condensed spaces and temporalities, flatness and semblance, however it is the material component of paint that overlaps with the geological.

Onya McCausland - Artwork © Mark CocksedgeOnya McCausland ‘Blue Blue’ 2012

Pigment emerges from the geological strata as mineral. The alchemical practices, both human and non-human, emerge and impinge over the geological to produce refined materials of sensation. Colour is first manufactured in the earth over millions of years, it is then activated as a technology of expression through the organic sphere. Painting becomes a reconnection to the geological materiality of pigment. This relation infers immanence to the emergent capacities of the earth, within the ritual and performance of painting.  Painting that engages with geological materiality bypasses the modern materiality and the industrial effects of synthesis. Where the industrial manufacture of synthetic colour is the attempt to re-activate dead matter, to homogenize and standardize, geological pigment is active and self-organizing, in flowing mixtures, where the organic is tangled up with the inorganic.

SeanaReillySeana Reilly ‘AtramentalMain’ 2011

Three painters exemplify the tendency of painting as a non-linguistic philosophy. Leslie Shows, Onya McCausland and Seana Rielly are painters that draw on a range of materials, processes and expanded practices, such as research projects, that engage and relate non-representational painting with geological emergence.

Leslie Shows’ recent painting takes the mineral pyrite as a starting point for large-scale paintings. Using ink, acrylic, mylar, Plexiglas, metal fillings, crushed glass and engraving on aluminium, Show’s constructs materially complex paintings of the geological. In one sense the paintings might feel like representations of minerals, however if encountered as more than just representation, they become abstractions that compose processes that are both measured and contingent, they are material expressions of structure generating processes born in deep space and time. These processes are revealed in the both the productions of the natural and artificial world.

Onya McCausland takes an equally unique approach to the materiality of painting that avoids the dead matter of industrial pigment, instead McCausland sources pigment and colour directly from the landscape. The use of materials from the earth and the historical research into the landscapes that produce theses materials are refined into a painting practice that reveals the expressivity of geological materiality through the sensation of pure colour.

Seana Rielly’s flow paintings are made using liquid graphite, that leak’s and flows across the painting surface, finding the path of least resistance. Her paintings draw on the same forces that drive geological processes. Gravity, fluid dynamics and erosion produce images that are contingent, open and self-organizing. While the artist sets the restrictions and boundaries of the picture plane, the material produces an image of itself, it exists in its own sphere as material carbon distributed in patterns of information to be decoded as geophilosophy in the age of the anthropocene.

In David Cronenberg’s recently released film adaptation of Don Dillio’s ‘Cosmopolis’, a 21st representation of abstract expressionism is the frame to a now almost familiar posthumanism. The opening credits shows a Jackson Pollock drip timelapse, while the final credits show cropped fragments of Mark Rothko’s colour fields. Cosmopolis is the story of Eric Packer, a billionaire through freakish financial genius or through chance access to a language of zeros and ones, who takes a journey across Manhattan in his customized limousine. But as the references to abstraction allude, the journey and the man are more then narrative devices. As the limousine makes its way through a frenzied Manhattan, the level of abstraction intensifies. Human qualities are liquified and a machine like intelligence grows behind the flesh of expressionless faces. Packer meets with his advisors in sporadic chance meetings across the city.

One interlocutor reveals to Packer that a Mark Rothko painting will soon come to auction and that he should buy it and fullfill a long term desire. In response Packer calculates that instead of a single Rothko, he would prefer to purchase the entire Rothko Chapel. Rather than just owning a mere Rothko object, Packer wants to own the abstraction of the spiritual experience that others feel in the chapel itself. He wants to own the affect that emerges from art, the affect that he can no longer feel from the sensual world. He can only desire to own desire but not desire itself.

‘If they sell me the chapel, I’ll keep it intact’

Another dialogue reveals that, just as historical painting lost its narrative, so to has time and the contemporary condition become pure abstraction. Money is talking to itself. The advisor theoretician claims to know nothing of this strange abstraction even as it concerns her every thought. She reveals how shameless she is in the presence of anything that calls itself an idea. While the focus for science and philosophy has been the extraction of knowledge for humans, so to has art left behind a concern with objects and their materials, for a conceptualism that places human trauma in discursive and coded systems, to be reformatted and archived  for future generations.

‘Cyber capital creates the future’

In a third reference to abstract painting, a rougue artist / activist attacks Packer with a cream pie, and claims that he is an action painter. He is remaking the action of abstraction into a slapstick gesture of ironic humiliation. The expression of abstraction is further distilled into a spasmodic twitch between the non-meaning of the absurd, and the desire to escape meaninglessness and to activate art into a tool for social change.

‘I cremed Fidel three times in six days when he is in Bucharest last year. I am action painter of creme pies’

These leakages of meaning flow from the histories and metaphors of abstract expressionism and seep into the ‘real’ worlds of information, money and desire. These contemporary expressions have for decades been reduced to code. There is no longer any signifier in this system, only signs in and of themselves. To cut this repetition short, the algorithmic code no longer has an endpoint where decoding takes place. Instead the code feeds it own autocatalysis, slowly erasing all other extraneous referents. In the end Packer seeks out and is confronted with his nemesis. He is faced with an obsolete model of human, who failed in his attempts to meet the requirements of code. All that is left is for the obsolete, desperate human to kill Packer and his practices of finacial abstraction.

In Cosmopolis, abstract expressionism reflects the transgressive states of mind in a posthumanism that is constantly attempting to replace the human back at the centre of all meaning. The desire for spiritual solace, the evaporation of objects into the black-hole of desireless coded information and the re-assertion of old legacies into moments of extreme bodily convulsion will be recurrent themes unless a posthumanism where ‘rocks and winds, germs and words, are all seen as different manifestations of this dynamic material reality… they all represent the different ways in which this single matter energy expresses itself’.

Manuel DeLanda’s neo-materialism is a philosophy of matter that not only speculates a ‘machinic phylum’ or ‘non-organic vitality’ but also develops a rigorous theoretical framework for the processes of morphogenesis in all types of systems whether they are of geological, social, economic or psychic nature. These speculative and rigorous qualities draw on the ‘flows’ of matter-energy as they move through phase transitions from solid, liquid and gas forming structural territories like geological strata or static institutions while also deterritorialising structures like social relations or the effects of hallucinatory chemicals on the psychic structures of the mind. While DeLanda’s ontology is broadly concerned with social, technological and scientific systems, it is my claim that his philosophy of matter can also be formulated towards, ‘an aesthetics of emergence’. I’ll be working on this theory for next few months, and will post some more detailed statements here, but for now I want show some contemporary painting that I think can be seen to philosophise matter through an aesthetics of emergence, which performs what I call ‘a geophilosophy of paint’.

Keith Tyson’s ‘Nature Paintings’ from 2006 offer real emergent qualities. Medium to large-scale works of mixed media on acid primed aluminum or mirror are dependent on chance, material viscosity, behavioral gravitational pull, ambient and local temperature, and on patterns that are created by chemical reaction. The artist sets up the parameters from which random and chaotic flows mix matter into weird oil and pigment ecosystems. Reminiscent of ‘nebula, histology plate, rock formation or industrial outflow’ Tyson’s nature paintings expose the forces and process of systems far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Tyson’s other projects, including the ‘History Paintings’ series evokes time, geography and randomness, the ‘Large Field Array’, cubic sculptures named after a linked telescope project in New Mexico as well as the ‘Artmachine’ project which uses computer algorithms to generate proposals for art works, offer a strong associations with DeLanda’s ontology of non-human agency and the ‘machinc phylum’.

Two other artists in the contemporary context offer equally engaging but differing approaches to painting’s materiality and emergent capacities. Jacob Kassay makes medium sized silver monochromes, the generative process of which is a literal chemical process. After preparing the canvas with gesso and silver paint, the works are coated in chemicals and exposed to the process of electrolysis – a direct electrical current drives a chemical reaction to form pattern and mirroring qualities on the surface. This self-organizing process shifts the meanings of painting yet again into new industrial and scientific domains. Daniel Turner is another artist whose practice employs the chemical and material qualities of matter itself. In one installation, an iron oxide stain on the gallery floor alludes to the base mineral matter from which paint was originally derived. The emergence of minerals in the early formation of matter in geological processes is brought into the gallery space as an accidental stain of iron oxide drawing us closer to the possibility of conceiving of a world beyond the socially constructed mind – world correlate of idealist philosophy. Instead, a ‘speculative realist’ or ‘neo-materialist’ philosophy of art can lead us out of our current anthropomorphic fog.

‘This emergence insists on the power that things have in and over our lives. The banalities, oddities, or necessities that occupy space, also make it possible to leave that space altogether.  Objects all hold the endless capacity to estrange us from the comfort of the given; to evoke what remains unseen, or previously unthought.  An object can do this on its own, but it can also do it as a series working together’.

From ‘Appoggiatura’ by Jacob Kassay and Ajay Kurian.

Colour acting upon the nervous system, upon the sense organs, creates a sensation that is prior to thought, a sensation is the ‘action of invisible forces on the body’ (Deleuze, 2003 p.41). Bacons painting captures the invisible forces and movements as they manifest through the folding in of the external and a folding out of the internal. A violent spasm, or rhythm vibrates through the levels of sensation, moving through the sense registers, connecting the senses through the visual. Deleuze asks how can one make invisible forces visible? The answer emerges in Bacons painting through demonstrating the forces that affect the body as isolation, deformation and dissipation. For Deleuze, as for Bacon, sensation is the folding of the object and subject into a ‘pure vision of a non-human eye, a haptic-eye whose vision constructs matter at the same time as perceiving it’ (Zepke, 2005 p.204). This haptic eye is a convergence of the tactile and of the visual. It is a being in the material world, while also constructing it through a colouring sensation. Modulating colour is the key to the logic of sensation; ‘sensation is paintings way of thinking a haptic thought’ (Zepke, 2005 p.204).

‘The diagram is indeed a chaos, a catastrophe but it is also a germ of order or rhythm’ (Deleuze, 2003 p.102). Francis Bacon’s diagram is composed of colour patches and line-traits, explored by Deleuze, as the random marks and cleanings that scramble the logic of thought into the logic of sensation. These random or involuntary markings and unmarkings insert a ‘vitalist non-organic life’ into the place where the figure attempts to evacuate itself, a shifting and bleeding between the mental/optical and the material/manual registers. ‘The Diagram is thus the operative set of asignifying and nonrepresentative lines and zones,’ (Deleuze, 2003 p.101), ‘from which something must emerge, if nothing emerges it fails’ (Deleuze, 2003 p.159). The diagram, then, is a kind of machine that negates or erases the accumulated clichés of art history to create the new.

‘The body is living but non-organic, the organism is what imprisons life. The body is completely living, and yet non-organic. Likewise, sensation, when it acquires a body through the organism, takes on an excessive and spasmodic appearance, exceeding the bounds of organic activity. It is immediately conveyed in the flesh through the nervous wave or vital emotion…the body without organs is flesh and nerve; a wave flows through it and traces levels upon it; a sensation is produced when the wave encounters the forces acting on the body, an “affective athleticism”, a scream breath’ (Deleuze, 2003 p.45).

We can further define the Body without Organs in Manuel DeLanda’s essay ‘The Geology of Morals: A Neo-Materialist Interpretation’, in which the BwO is a ‘special state of matter-energy-information, a flowing reality animated by self-organising processes constituting a veritable non-organic life’. DeLanda’s quotes Deleuze where the BwO is ‘that glacial reality where the alluvions, sedimentations, coagulations, foldings and recoilings that compose an organism occur’ (Deleuze, 1989 p.159). This strange non-organic life in which is evident for Deleuze and Delanda ‘the flows of lava, biomass, genes, memes, norms, money (and many others) are crucial for the emergence of just about any stable structure that we cherish and value (or, on the contrary, that oppresses and slaves us)’ (DeLanda, 1995 p.10). This flow is evident in the formations of painting as an ontological and aesthetic formation, painting as a ‘non-organic life’, the same sedimentations and coagulations, foldings and recoilings that DeLanda sees in the BwO, are present in the material, manual, optical and mental systems of painting.

Deleuze says, in Bacons painting, the figure attempts to escape from itself, from its body it is drawn out by the forces affecting it into a becoming animal, non-human or inorganic. This ‘zone of indescernability’ between human and animal comprised of emerging forces shows how, unlike the phenomenological approach, sensation is not immanent to the subject but to the twitches of a non-human vitalism. Flesh matter no longer relates to any figure but only to a collapsing rhythm, fall or flow.
‘If everything is alive, it is not because everything is organic or organized, but, on the contrary, because the organism is a diversion of life. In short the life in question is inorganic, germinal, and intensive, a powerful life without organs, a body that is all the more alive for having no organs’ (Deleuze, 1989 p. 499).

DeLanda, Manuel. The Geology of Morals: A Neo-Materialist Interpretation 1995. Presented at the Virtual Conference 95, Warwick University, UK.
Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981) 2003. Continuum London New York
Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1987. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London.
Zepke, Stephen. Art as Abstract Machine: Ontology and Aesthetics in Deleuze and Guattari 2005. Routledge, New York, London.

The slow accumulation of historical processes, the emergent patterns of becoming, the stratification and subsequent de-stratification of assemblages are concepts that are both real and metaphorical. Manuel DeLanda interprets the ontology of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari as a new materialism or geophilosophy. An example of this re-configured ‘philosophy of immanence’ from Manuel Delanda’s ‘A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History’ might help to illustrate the powerful collisions between the real and the metaphorical, and in so doing, help to construct the apparatus for the mining of the illusive worlds beyond our man-made façade. The following quotation explores the process of mineralization,

“In the organic world, soft tissue (gels and aerosols, muscle and nerve) reigned supreme until 500 million years ago. At that point, some of the conglomerations of fleshy-matter energy that made up life under-went a sudden mineralization, a new material for constructing living creatures emerged: bone. It is almost as if the mineral world that had served as a substratum for the emergence of biological creatures was reasserting itself, confirming that geology, far from having been left behind as a primitive stage of the earths evolution, fully co-existed with the soft, gelatinous newcomers. Primitive bone, a stiff calcified rod that would later become the vertebral column, made new forms of movement control possible… and yet bone never forgot its mineral origins: it is the living material that most easily petrifies, that most readily crosses the threshold back to the world of rocks. For that reason, much of the geological record is written with bone fossil. About 8000 years ago, human populations began mineralizing again when they developed an urban exoskeleton, bricks of sun-dried clay became building materials, stone monuments and defensive walls. This exoskeleton served a purpose similar to its internal counterpart, to control the movement of human flesh in and out of the town walls.” (DeLanda, 1997, p.26-27)

The term ‘mineralization’ has multiple applications and so meaning is not static. Soil mineralization is the result of chemical compounds in organic matter decomposing into plant accessible forms. In geology, the process introduces metals into rock as well as the process by which sediments replace organic material in the body of an organism that died and been buried. In biology, the term relates to the process where an organic substance is transformed into an inorganic one, when, as DeLanda says, soft tissue becomes bone, or when bacteria eats the organic matter and leaves behind the minerals to produce a fossil. All of these attributed meanings are understood to be part of the process of production of things, and so contribute to the material production of ‘reality’, however much we are denied access to it. DeLanda uses this realism to inject the abstract concept of emergence with a reality, when he says that the mineral world was re-asserting itself in reaction to the organic through the production of bone. But more interesting here is the transition of the use of the term mineralization in real terms into what seems to be the metaphorical use of the term. DeLanda says that humans began mineralizing again in the production of an ‘urban exoskeleton’ through the use of minerals in the form of building materials and thus producing control over its fleshy counterpart. He goes still further by saying that the process of mineralization is evident in the building of stone monuments.

In the coarse of one paragraph, DeLanda sees the internal biological process of the mineralization of tissue into bone, as analogous with the human construction of objects of tribal worship. The resulting materiality of mineralization becomes an apparatus from which visual technologies and representation emerge. Minerals such as ochres or iron oxide enable the performance of analogues which eventually become the aesthetic surfaces or objects we engage with through the legacies of modernist abstraction (although the modern period is based on the industrial production of synthetic colour – more on this is a later post). It seems that the re-assertion of the non-organic world over the organic through the production of bone or millions of years later through the enclosure of the organic behind in-organic stone walls, tells us that we are not mere observers of a world from which we are denied access, but we are instead caught up in the very processes of emergence we seek to de-code. We are the material flows of matter and energy as well as objects that deny access only to present a surface for consideration.

The formulation of art as a kind of process of fossilization that is embedded, from the very beginning, within the autopoietic machine that evolved into the embodiment of consciousness with flesh and bone re-articulates assumptions around the legacies of modernist abstraction. As Bruno Latour has long since recognized in the claim that we have never been modern because we have never really made a split between human and world, the reality and the metaphor of art and mineralization allows for the legacies of modernist abstraction to be open to the perturbations of the non-modern world and not the abstraction that ‘rules in a void, pretending to be free of time’.

From bone emerging from soft tissue, to the construction of walls and monuments and still further to the creation of objects of tribal worship and idols that perform representation to the abstract reduction of forms to surface and the self-referentiality of modernism, we are fully immersed in a kind of ‘speculative sublime’. All artworks, as well as other types of things not yet ‘classified’ as artworks, are a process of fossilization. They are traces of emergence and the remains of autopoietic machines that have been swept up and deposited by the flows of matter and energy. The remains are left behind as new forms emerge within new relations and systems of reference to be carried onward into the continuous remaking of old fossils. In this context, it seems that the process of emergence is only ever traceable through its discarded remnants, as relics of an endless entropic perishing and re-emerging.

The reality of this metaphor within the context of the legacies of modernism is easily associated with the work of Robert Smithson. Works such as Spiral Jetty – Great Salt Lake, Utah 1970 or Partially Buried Woodshed – Kent State University, Ohio 1970, or a proposal for a reclamation for s strip mine site 1972 are just a few amongst a body of work that constantly pushed the concept of entropy into the social sphere. The relation of a slow geological collapse toward a state of equilibrium with the perceived collapse of the modernist project was a reoccurring theme until his death. Smithson’s art is part of the wider speculative metaphor of the geological and biological processes of mineralization. Just as the process of mineralization destroys the organic leaving behind complex structures of the inorganic, Smithson’s works attempt to engage the dialectic relationship between strip mining and land reclamation, leaving behind earth works that are real man-made fossil monuments to the non-human world. In a sense Smithson’s medium, is the combination of a system of scientific references with the tired ruin of geographic, social and cultural entropy, the works that emerge from the overlap are relics and impressions of the petrified remains and irreversibility of collapsed time.


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