Tom Friedman tells how his practice evolved from his early confusion at art language and terminology. In response he meticulously cleared everything from his studio to create an information-free space, a space that allowed focussed contemplation and reflection on the nature of a series of everyday objects (Friedman, 2008, 7:00).  Feeling that in our pluralistic world any aesthetic departure point might be valid, he sought to ground his departure from nothing.   There’s a broad sense in which my practice has taken a similar path over the past year. Fundamentally, I’m interested to explore underlying structures in the nature of the world, particularly in our perception and understanding of the world, and how we then “construct” this world.  Like Friedman I’m interested in assumptions we make about the world, and I’m curious about realities that are not available to us.  Many of these assumptions are embedded in the ‘Illusion of Explanatory Depth’ principle, first described in elegant psychological studies (Rozenblit and Keil, 2002) and evidenced consistently since.  The Illusion of Explanatory Depth says that, as humans, we feel that we understand the world and things in it, far better than we really do.  It is only when our assumptions and understandings are closely questioned that this illusion becomes disquietingly evident.  So with the benefit of some recent ideas about perception, I’ve been stripping things back to consider the limits of our empirical lives; what might be beyond our assumptions, and what might be our ground zero of perception?

The practice evolved from a ceramics system of clay making and clay firing. In contemplating the process of making ceramics, much is hidden, and understandings may be vague.  Like the world, the closer one looks the more elusive comprehension can become.  Originally porcelain, as both a clay and a vitreous, fired material, was central to my interests; perhaps mainly because of its whiteness (and hence ability to transcend the ready earth-related associations of stoneware and terracotta), but also because of its long and hidden history (Thomas, 2018).  In part, the initial enquiry was framed to look at the limits of the material; what might be present in material “on the edge” that might not otherwise be evident?

From this premise a series of works investigated porcelain in unexpected settings: as physical transducers of sound at vibrational limits; as spatial ribbon forms precariously extended at and beyond the physical limits of the materials; as stacked paper-thin porcelain sheets audibly and visibly responding over time to their collective weight; as lichenous sheets awkwardly balanced; as thin sheets and extrusions—hovering between status as objects and debris—arrayed to be walked on.  Through this an evolving understanding of the material occurred, but was perhaps constrained by pre-existing associations with porcelain, by utilitarian questions.

In response to this, the composition of porcelain became of interest to me.  Crucial to its whiteness and translucency are qualities inherent in the mineral kaolin, a main constituent of porcelain that is produced over geological time through slow hydrothermal action.  In the firing process fluxes within other components of porcelain clay, but absent from kaolin alone, reduce the melting point such that a vitreous end product results. In The Space Between at Whitecliffe in September 2018 I juxtaposed kaolin and porcelain items, focussing on the nature of the surface; what it reveals and hides about what’s within.  Again exploring materials at their limits, elements of The Space Between included: thin columns of compressed kaolin powder at and beyond limits of gravitational stability;  wheel-thrown forms made of a pure kaolin “clay” that had been dried and fired as if they were porcelain clay (resulting in a form that was non-vitreous and severely cracked with an eggshell-like surface); algal growth and clay surfaces responding to dessication. This was contrasted with source materials (quarried kaolin rock) and utilitarian concepts (simple porcelain vessels).

One million years and 8 minutes Kaolin 2018

In making the kaolin “clay” with which to fashion the kaolin forms the creamy, hyper-smooth nature of the kaolin and water mixture became evident, along with changes in state of the kaolin as the water evaporated.  As a further enquiry I tested various kaolin and water slurries to examine the nature of this apparently simple interaction.  At this point I started to wonder not only about what was hidden from understanding, but what might be limits in the exploration.

Enlightenment philosophies of the 17th and 18th centuries in Western Europe established the power of reason as a means to understanding the world. In a recent debate the philosopher Julian Baggini, the metaphysician Amie Thompson and the post-realist philosopher Hilary Lawson looked at claims on truth and ask whether the Enlightenment is over (Baggini, Lawson and Thomasson, 2019).  Baggini’s position is that Enlightenment was the start of a continuing project in which absolute certainty has been replaced by empirical knowledge, and the recognition that empirical knowledge cannot penetrate into the deepest levels of reality and is only ever provisional; we continue the project with benefit of contemporary knowledge (Ibid 2:50).  For Lawson the modernist fantasy that we are gradually uncovering real understanding of the world is over, there is no single point from which we can see all of the world, it is radically perspectivised (Ibid 6:15), so there is no way to reach through to some ultimate. Our language and theories are tools to enable us to intervene; they are categorically not descriptions (Ibid 7:40).  We should give up on aspiring to a Real and a Truth.  For Thomasson there can be no one final statement of the Truth, or how the world is, but different languages serving different purposes, and within each of those languages there are truths and falsehoods and different standards for objectivity from framework to framework (Ibid 8:45).

They conclude that although there may be no single overriding Truth, there are truths within systems and perspectives, and that we still want some sense of objectivity.  Lawson suggests that just as Enlightenment gave up on God, we should give up on Reality and Truth; we can continue to make better narratives or accounts in order to achieve things, but these have no correspondence with the world, they are not descriptions but tools. And because everything is within specific frameworks, and within each framework there’s always more than one way to get from A to B, there are exciting, open and challenging opportunities outside of wrapping ideas up in terms of any ultimate rightness.

This debate offers a starting point to explore what our empirical lives—with faculties selected through an evolutionary process—lead us to believe.  How might the variation, selection and retention processes of evolution shape our view of the world? Are there truths revealed by our perceptual framework?

In his Sketchbook I: Three Americans, Willem de Kooning suggests, “when I’m falling, I’m doing alright; when I’m slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting!” (Gayford and Wright, 1998).  de Kooning goes on to talk about slipping into that glimpse and, of the glimpse “I get excited just to see that sky is blue; that earth is earth. And that’s the hardest thing: to see a rock somewhere, and there it is: earth coloured rock, I’m getting closer to that.”  Closer to what?  What does de Kooning imagine he is glimpsing?

I’m currently falling, I’m slipping, I’m peeking at something I really don’t/can’t understand – perhaps one of Lawson’s open and challenging opportunities.  I’m intrigued by the ideas of Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at UCal, Irvine, who doesn’t believe there are any truths revealed by our perceptions.  He advances mathematical support for the idea that, like all products of evolution, we have been invariably and inevitably selected for perceptive systems that do not reveal any truth.  That our sense, our perception of what is real is totally misguided (summarised in Hoffman and Prakash 2014), that our evolutionary history means that the tree or rock that you contemplate, hug or climb, merely serves as some sort of symbol that crucially, bears no relationship to their unfathomable, ineffable reality.

So I’m interested in the proposal of denying the material as observed, trying to imagine something beyond it, something that I, as a product of evolutionary forces, am not equipped to see.  To put my practice in some kind of perspective I’ll touch on some examples of how art and artists consider their engagement with reality, and elaborate on Hoffman’s ideas.

Attention surface tension 2018


The term Umwelt, coined by the German Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), is a vehicle for expressing the role of biological heritage in the use and function of signs (Deely, 2001). The Umwelt of each species, by virtue of this heritage, “is suited only to certain parts and aspects of the vast physical universe”.  In particular, where this “suitedness to” is the act of cognition, then only objects that fall within the realm of the senses are made present physically and cognitively.  So a species is aware of only a very limited aspect of the environment.  Uexküll described this as an invisible bubble that is inhabited by each species, such that each individual within that bubble creates and inhabits its own lifeworld, executed by the use of signs.

The French artist Pierre Huyghe has, in the last few years, been looking at complex systems, ecosystems comprising multiple coevolving elements, each with its own Umwelt.  These systems are, by the very nature of the complexity of their internal and external interactions, unpredictable and may go beyond the ability to be understood (Obrist and Huyghe, 2018).  Huyghe gives each embodiment of his complex systems considerable thought, with around 100 pages of notes for the creation of Untilled(Kassel, Germany, 2011-2012) and 200 pages for After Life Ahead  (Munster, Germany 2017) (Katz F, 2018).  His aim is in part to create public experiments exploring notions of porosity and prospects of change and shift without the artist being involved (Obrist and Huyghe, 2018).  Through various incarnations of this approach including Untilled and After Life Ahead, he arrived at Uumwelt (2018, Serpentine Gallery, London), an exhibition I visited recently.

Image captured at Pierre Huyghe’s Uumwelt, Serpentine gallery, London.  October 2018

I entered through a chain curtain into the dark gallery; at the same moment, just overhead, a bluebottle lazily departed the gallery.  Within, images that often felt close to organismal were constantly being created to jitter, flicker, evolve, dissolve, stop, start, in a strangely hesitant yet precise process on large, floor-standing LED screens.  Via sensors feeding into the network, the process of image creation was influenced by local climate, visitor numbers, light, humidity… Juxtaposed with these insistent images were bluebottles, brought in by the thousands as pupae and sequestered in a large central architrave to hatch, fly, sit and crunch underfoot.  Add in 1) the presence of odours 2) a low, halting, asymmetrical sound derived from brainwaves, like something random heard at the end of a very long tube and 3) gallery walls that had been abraded (a repeated Huyghe motif) to reveal paint from previous exhibitions going back 20 years to the last major refurbishment.  In one instance of this, an entire wall behind one screen had been abraded to generate a map-like quality that resonated with the images generated on the screen; the dust created had been left where it lay to mingle with the bluebottles and cling to feet soon to move beyond the gallery.

Image captured at Pierre Huyghe’s Uumwelt, Serpentine gallery, London.  October 2018

What Huyghe proposes here in Uumwelt is something perhaps quite startling.  Uumwelt rather than Umwelt, the extra U signifying negation of the concept of Umwelt (Obrist and Huyghe, 2018). Something NOT self-centred, something suggesting that the invisible bubble that limits our human and individual understanding might be bypassed.  Here, in seeking agents that adapt, create, generate, agents that might break through Umwelten, to share imagination, he’s used digitised MRI/brainwave patterns from subjects looking at images, a partial “capture” of moments of consciousness, and passed them through multiple neural networks.  These networks contain a massive, generic, unbiased bank of images, thereby creating in Huyghe’s view a coproduction/collective between two intelligences.

Although Huyghe suggests that this multisensory environment provides a strong pull to viewer engagement, he also believes that because the images (and presumably flies) evolve and respond to environmental stimuli day and night, exhibition open or closed, the work exists beyond the exhibition (Obrist and Huyghe, 2018).  In fact, to Huyghe the work is indifferent to us, it needs no public, it’s not made for us or even addressed to us, it needs no gaze to exist and bypasses the need to present itself.  It can live its life without that need.

In contrast, my practice has involved reduction of complexity, looking at simple materials and simple processes.  I’ve want to explore how systems of apparent reduced complexity have hidden layers; hidden both with respect to physical things in the world and the mental constructs we bring to bear on them. I’m interested in creating works for contemplation, works that invite reflection on a materiality beyond the apparent, beyond the assumed, beyond our Umwelten.  The depth of process by which the work reaches each instantiation is of interest in potentially providing glimpses beyond the known, the understood. As described above, I’ve arrived at kaolin as a core material in this enquiry.  Kaolin was also used by Manzoni (Harrison and Wood 2003, p723) as “uncolour” in his Achrome series, used specifically in order to remove any reference to narrative, including colour.  His aim was to create an artwork that was without any content beyond its immediate materiality.  In a translated catalogue from 1960 Manzoni states “My intention is to present a completely white surface (or better still, an absolutely colourless one), beyond all pictorial phenomena, all intervention alien to the sense of the surface.  A white surface which is neither a polar landscape, nor an evocative or beautiful subject, nor even a sensation, a symbol or anything else: but a white surface which is nothing other than a colourless surface, or even a surface which quite simply ‘is’”.  He ends, “There is nothing to explain: just be and live” (Harrison and Wood 2003, p723-4).

By focussing on processes by which my work achieves its brief (in a geological sense) end-stage of equilibrium with the world I’m asking whether this deceptively simple process, indeed the vary fact that it is “simple”, might make it possible to get beyond prior knowledge, prior assumptions, ready metaphors, to explore what might lie beyond the veil of our perceptions, beyond our Umwelt. In contrast to what Manzoni seems to be suggesting, I’m suggesting part of just being and just living is interrogation, is explanation.   What is this white? Why is this white? What might it be beyond its whiteness? And so on. The painter Robert Ryman bears further study for me, as he spent much of a lifetime exploring painting, primarily by use of a palette restricted to white “The white is just a means of exposing other elements. White enables other things to become visible” (Smith, 2019).

So, are there ways to glimpse what Carl Rovelli has called “a world stripped to its essence, glittering with a strange and arid beauty” (Rovelli, 2018)?  The material world seems to be getting exponentially weirder and more wonderful. As a few random examples: we’re used to thinking of quantum effects at the subatomic level, but very large molecules alsoexhibit wave particle duality (Arndt et al 1999); photons do not experience time (from their perspective they leave some distant star and hit your retina at the same instant) (Siegel 2016); time may go backwards under some circumstances (Lesovik et al,2019); humans sense earth strength magnetic fields (Wang et al2019).  And so on.  The work for me is all that happens in the absence of being seen, as Huyghe suggests, it’s in the agency of the material and transformational processes, but it’s only that if it is also seen, that it affords contemplation, reflection, consideration of its nature deep beyond its face value. Is there a pathway to get beyond language, beyond assumptions, to a sense of what might be hidden behind Lawson’s tools?

microdecisions Kaolin 2019


One of the weird properties in the world is consciousness, the understanding of which David Chalmers has famously called “the hard problem” (Chalmers 2007).  In What is it Like to be a Bat? Thomas Nagel proposes that an organism has consciousness if we can intuit that there is something that it is like to be this other organism (Nagel, 1974).  Nagel suggests that no matter how deep research goes, it will remain impossible to “experience” another being and know “what it is like to be them”. Nagel’s argument uses the echolocation of the bat as a sense we have no conception of, no tools to deal with and it’s interesting to consider whether Huyghe’s Uumwelt is proposing tools to imagine beyond our own bubble?

Consciousness needs data, so what is available to us? To come back to de Kooning’s rock, why does it look that way to him?  Most of us are trichromats, with pigment peak sensitivities in the blue, green and yellow-green parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Our sense of colour vision derives from an integration of the differential sensitivities of these pigments and seems to have evolved to be tuned to detect variation in social signals (Hiramatsu et al 2017).  Our vision is attuned to less than a trillionth of this spectrum – all that potential colour out there.  But, crucially, to humans it is unimaginable colour.  With technical aplomb we convert those infinitely variable waves, cosmic-, radio-, x-, ɣ-, micro-, and so on, to speak to our visual system, to our limited wavelengths.  False colour images of, for example, infrared (such as the image of the Horsehead Nebula shown here) provide what might be called visual metaphors for the vast electromagnetic spectrum beyond our senses.  What we see is not it, it’s an imposter, but how else to get even close to an understanding?

Horsehead Nebula in Infrared: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STSci/AURA)

In this respect David Eagleman is doing some interesting research acknowledging in just how far human senses limit our reality, our Umwelt (Novich and Eagleman, 2015).  As he says (Eagleman 2015), the brain is in darkness, silence, it’s just electrical signals and neurotransmitters and doesn’t know or care where it gets data from, whatever comes in it figures out what to do with it.  The senses are peripheral input devices and different classes of organism use different peripherals attuned to different external stimuli.  Eagleman has been looking at the potential for sensory substitution, for stimuli we are not aware of to be channelled, via a transducer of some form, to senses we are aware of.  Thus people have “seen” through their tongues (Bach-y-Rita, Collins, Saunders, White & Scadden 1969) or in his current incarnation, can sense the state of systems such as the stock market, or a specific environment, via a vibrational jacket (Eagleman 2015).

Huyghe, Eagleman and others seem to be suggesting that there are broadening perspectives for human consciousness adapting pathways we have to access wider experiential streams of information, giving us better insight into the world.

These and other investigations into the nature of consciousness and our view of reality—and the flexibility we may need to allow in that view—perhaps take us further from a naïve realism view of the world.  They do however still permit us to believe that—although it may be a very, very thin window we have onto reality—what we see is in some real sense, real; that it tells some truth about the object being seen. But what is the essence of that experience?

Donald Hoffman, cognitive scientist at UCal Irvine, has looked at what evolutionary theory might tell us about the relationship between the brain and conscious experience. Evolutionary theory, based on fitness concepts, has been a powerful tool in understanding the complexity of life.  The general interpretation flowing from the theory is that accurate perceptions, called veridical perceptions, are fitter perceptions, and the more accurate the perception the better the survival chance (Palmer 1999).  Bayesian inference (statistical processes by which new data is combined with prior knowledge) is central to current models of perception. As Hoffman puts it “The conclusion that natural selection favours veridical perceptions is central to current Bayesian models of perception, in which perceptual systems use Bayesian inference to estimate true properties of the objective world, properties such as shape, position, motion, and reflectance. Objects exist and have these properties when unperceived, and the function of perception is to accurately estimate pre-existing properties.” (Hoffman and Prakesh, 2014).

Hoffman notes in an interview that, from the neuropsychological perspective, the tiny spectrum of electromagnetic radiation we are privy to requires one third of the brain’s cortex to process (Hoffman, 2018).  Yet there are only a proportionately tiny number of neurons in the retina actually “gathering” this data.  So what’s the need for commitment of this vast processing power?   Current ideas, summarised by Anil Seth (Seth, 2017) suggests that it is there to “create” what we see, to predict and in effect hallucinate a reality.  Hoffmann has been working with evolutionary algorithms to come to some startling conclusions. He’s used the algorithms to rigorously test whether natural selection favours perceptions that are true reports of objective properties of the environment (Hoffman & Prakesh, 2014). He finds it does not, in fact there is a cost associated with truth in perception, and this cost is overwhelming.  “Rather, (natural selection) favours perceptions that are fast, cheap, and tailored to guide behaviours needed to survive and reproduce. Perception is not about truth, it’s about having kids”.

So organisms that see all truth or even partial truth of their environment do not survive in the face of competition from those organisms that perceive only fitness.  Despite our modern knowledge of the realm of visual illusion, we still intuitively feel that our perceptions have use because they are true, that they give us a window on reality, and it’s perhaps troubling and counterintuitive to imagine otherwise.  What does it mean if indeed we are purely shaped with tricks and hacks that keep us alive, that our interface with the world hides reality and guides adaptive behaviour?  Hoffman’s claim is that a perceptual experience I might have, of say a potato, or a brain or neuron, or a train or a snake is an interaction with reality, but that the reality is none of these things, and is nothing like any of these things.  If his model is right, his mathematics show that the chances that our perceptions are reconstitutions of any part of that reality are zero.

Hoffman provides an analogy as what it might mean to say that perception might be useful, but not true.  As I’m writing this essay an icon for it sits on my computer screen. I am seeing a small rectangular white icon on the right hand side of my screen.  But does the colour, shape and location of the icon in any way represent the actual properties of the file?  The actual file doesn’t have colour or shape and is likely variously distributed in each instance across my hard drive, my external back up and the cloud.  As Hoffman states “to even ask if the properties of the icon are true is to make a category error, and to completely misunderstand the purpose of the interface. One can reasonably ask whether the icon is usefully related to the file, but not whether it truly resembles the file.”

In fact, the icon has a critical role to hide the overwhelming layers of stuff that comprise the file. The icon allows me to interact without awareness of the nature of the file, and with a misguided sense of causality in any operation I’m engaged in.  If I move the file to the trash, as Hoffman points out, this is also a fiction.   The apparent movement of the file icon causes nothing to happen in the computer, it just serves to guide me in operating the mouse.  It’s this that triggers a causal chain within the computer that is completely hidden from me.

Hoffman’s idea is that natural selection has given us what he terms “perceptual systems” (Hoffman 2015) that reveal nothing of the truth, but serve very well to allow us to survive and reproduce.  Space and time are the desktop of the computer, and three-dimensional objects are the icons on that desktop.  To the rejoinder if it is merely an icon, grab that snake, he replies that while he might not take the icons literally he does take them seriously.  Although the file is not literally white or rectangular, a lot of work will still be lost if it is moved to the trash.

So Hoffman’s claim is that all of our perceptions of time, space, object, are a species-specific mode of perception and not a window onto objective reality.  It’s an impenetrable, ineffable fiction we create that bears no likeness to whatever really is there.

The Open Book of Porcelain Pages With Barely Discernible Text (IV): Porcelain


Bertrand Russell is widely quoted as suggesting that philosophy starts with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and ends with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it; it seems reasonable to me that this extends to arts and science.  I’m looking for ways to slip between the rock and the hard problem:  to seek an inchoate glimpse of this unsettling, dissolved world beyond limitations of perception, behind daily assumptions we make about the world.  To see beyond the tricks and hacks of perception.

The nature of our interaction with, and our recognition of the world is a core element of artistic enquiry, sometimes direct, sometimes tangential.  I was drawn to Tom Friedman’s practice by my first encounter with the “simplicity” of his 1,000 Hours of Staring (image below) and Untitled (two identically wrinkled sheets of paper).  He characterises his practice as discovery from within (Friedman, 2008, 17:30) identifying thoughts that give a sense of what the world is that he sees.  He’s concerned to make it a mutual experience between object and viewer, with no intervening power structure.  I find the contemplative opportunity afforded and invited by much of Friedman’s work particularly alluring, and valuable.  He doesn’t think about construction of meaning, which is too concrete, but about creating a catalyst for thinking to enable the viewer to think in different ways, and often does so by juxtaposition of unexpected objects (Friedman 2008, 29:30).

Image 27-03-2019 at 11.14
1000 Hours of Staring (1992-1997) Tom Friedman. Medium: Stare on Paper (86.2cm x 86.2 cm)  Moma Gallery © 2019 Tom Friedman

Ralph Rugoff (Rugoff 2008) suggests that Friedman’s art takes us away from binary considerations to provide a tolerance for an essential relativity of beliefs and values and notes Friedman’s ability to decontextualize, to transform everyday stuff into “unanchored sign” the interpretation of which reveals “the extent to which our perception of an object, and the identity to which we assign it, is shaped by contextual factors external to the physical thing itself.”  He describes Friedman’s practice as “akin to an artistic laboratory where hypotheses are modelled, developed, and tested-and where… we are simultaneously researchers and subjects, observers and participants.”

For Friedman unlearning is important – dealing with assumptions and identifying them getting past or accentuating them in some way.  He has “consistently pointed up the small print that distinguishes what we look at from what we should actually be seeing” (Viveros-Faune 2014).  Friedman’s not after meanings, but after opening up thought processes, art is “a context to slow the viewer’s experience from their everyday life in order to think about things they haven’t thought about, or think in a new way” (Friedman 2010), something I feel very closely aligned with.

So my practice is currently concerned with creating opportunities for contemplating materiality beyond what is perceivable, beyond ready assumptions.  I fear I really don’t know how to do this, but recall de Kooning, “when I’m falling, I’m doing alright; when I’m slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting!”  From looking at material limits I sense that within the susceptibility/vulnerability of materials, objects and perhaps systems there may be ways in.  I suspect my practice is largely about attempts to do this, the discovery from within.  As Friedman succinctly puts it “I want to propose an ongoing process of investigation with no conclusion” (Friedman 2010)Arthur Danto (Danto 2008), trying to get a first handle on the logic in Friedman’s art, says “he sometimes vested his objects with meanings more or less available to perception”, and that only the wall text will reveal what that might be.  I’m not intending to vest the works with meanings, but do have a sense that my proposition to allow “simple” things to do “simple” things and interrogate them, in process, in language, in immanence, requires reference points. Based on my own experience of the juxtapositions between porcelain and kaolin, and the revelatory power in the way both Friedman and Huyghe use juxtaposition, it’s an avenue to pursue in the future.

As a final reflection on the hidden, in Kafka on the Shore (2005) Oshima says “everything in life is metaphor…. and through that we grow and become deeper human beings.”

Detail from: The Open Book of Porcelain Pages With Barely Discernible Text (IV): Porcelain


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