Art changes its skin: points of indiscernibility in expression
The first and unique law of artistic creation is that the composition be able to support itself. In What is Philosophy?, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari identify the most difficult task of artists with the capacity to create a work that ‘stands by itself’. For the two philosophers, there is a pictorial possibility which does not have anything to do with physical possibility, and which gives to the most acrobatic postures the strength to be ‘balanced’. Many works cannot stand for even one instant. For an artwork, to stand by itself does not mean to have a top and a bottom, nor to stand upright, but it is only the act through which a composition preserves itself, as a monument, which can also be made of a few lines or traits: a few traits, but very solid!
This paper explores the notion of artistic solidity beyond its representational meaning, and also beyond a conventional perfection based on technical or semiotic functionality (intended as autonomous sets of rules). At the same time, we cannot say that a presumed spontaneity, or phenomenological relativity, are able to explain the solidity of a work of art. Which is the reason why Deleuze and Guattari would say that children’s, mads’ or drugged people’s drawings can’t be looked at for too long, because they are too fragile.
In this discussion, the solidity of art will be explored in relation to three main concepts: rhythm, sobriety and indiscernibility, as fundamental aspects of artistic creation. The potential implications of these concepts for an artistic environment which has become almost totally monopolised by new digital technologies, manifest themselves immediately. From this point of view, I will just shortly hint at the importance of a notion such as rhythm, which Deleuze and Guattari theorised as intensity beyond or between codifications (or trans-coding), in a world where every image, movement or sound has become binary coded. Secondly, the notion of artistic sobriety, in the sense of getting rid of representational detail in order to get to the intensive core of experience, seems to contradict the search for extreme precision and richness of detail, the realistic verisimilitude usually characterising many technological experiments (such as with Motion Capture). Thirdly, the notion of indiscernibility can perhaps make us think of scientific technological research as an important intrusion into the world of art (where does the lab finish and the art studio begin?), at the same time reminding us that maybe we are still experiencing the initial moment of inflection of a not-yet realised technological curve. The controlled, ordered codifications of digital technology might one day open up new chaotic landscapes of experience, rather than mere changes of pace and scale. And we know how much chaos is needed for a work of art to emerge!
First concept: Rhythm.
Art cannot do without either order nor chaos, distinctness nor vagueness, the marks left by Apollo and Dionysus on the skin and the flesh of the artist; or, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, a co-existence of Milieus and Rhythms in every artwork. Stroke by the Dionysian, chaotic forces of thought, artists grasp and incorporate a glimpse of them, and get lost for endless moments of what for many art critics is inspiration, and which for them is nothing else than a bare encounter with the world; nevertheless, they are always able to find their way back home, a safe, linear and tidy path allows them to recognise themselves and their work, despite the many changes happened to them in the meanwhile. The unpredictable differentiation brought about by wandering (rather than the cadenced repetitiveness of return) is what we define as rhythm. It is in this sense that Deleuze and Guattari conceptualise rhythm as a differentiation emerging in-between the steps, the units, the poses or positions, the geometrical structures of every form of expression in its linear milieus of spatio-temporal evolution. A musical piece, a dance or a painting are delimited and structured by their own milieus of beats, steps, figures, drawing a safe territory and avoiding dangerous wanderings in the dark realm of chaos. Every inorganic or organic body is actually characterised by an articulated structure (and here, Spinoza’s definition of a body as an agglomerate of affects and particle-forces allows us to consider the artwork as a body, but also the human body as an artwork with its own biological, anatomical, sensori-motor levels of formal composition). The bio-molecular and genetic codes, the cellular organisation of the organism into different tissues (bones, organs, muscles, skin) and the physiological configuration of the body’s perceptual function into six main sensory avenues, constitute the codified milieus of the human body, the architectural structure supporting its throbbing liveliness. Nevertheless, this formal, or coded, organisation of the body must not be intended in hylomorphic terms, as the mere imposition of a hierarchical organisation to an otherwise random and free matter. Rather, bodily organisation and functionality or, in more generic terms, the taking form of sensible matter, is the result of a material process of actualisation of virtualities that are inherent to matter itself, stratification being the indispensable counterpart, the parallel pre-requisite for all simultaneous crumbling and pulverisation. An example of this simultaneous process is given by the stratified structure of the dermal surface into different tissues which allow the skin to continuously de-foliate, losing its inert stratum of dead cells (so similar to the rigid texture of bones) and revealing a fleshy, nervous, burning sensibility which puts it in intimate contact with the internal and external world. The vibrations and sensations rhythmically distributed across the skin are like the agglomerates of an un-differentiated, chaotic energy (not-yet hormonal, not-yet electrical, not-yet sound or light, not-yet consciously registered): rhythm crossing the body before the first step is moved.
As argued by Brian Massumi, one of the main findings of Albert Michotte (a Belgian experimental phenomenologist of the middle 20th century) was that the sensation of movement has the capacity to 'self-abstract', because movement is in itself an abstraction. In other words, we can abstract the feeling to see something moving (or rhythmic sensation) from the actual sensory input corresponding to the object in movement. Among the conditions of emergence for this rhythmic feeling, there is a privileged something which never consciously figures in perception: the energetic flowings and condensations, the background activity of the perceiving body which, according to William James, is "not exactly in the body: it is in the body in direct, unmediated connection to its material environment - as absorbing into itself the vibrations of matter - the oscillations of light rays - transducing them into its own bustle and jitter - which is in the body in connection." The level of the body in connection is a level of open potentiality, or connectability, of a body rhythmically crossed by energy and rhythmically relating with an infinity of other bodies, a modulation of the body’s malleability, or elasticity, or capacity to adapt and establish links. Through this modulation, the sensation of rhythm can be ‘abstracted’ or ‘isolated’ from the perception of an actual displacement, as a bodily registering of energetic variations and potential motions across the body’s connection with another body in movement.
Second concept: The Sobriety of Flesh.
Using the term exfoliation, Jose’ Gil describes the way in which the body adapts and establishes links with other bodies or, in his own words, ‘opens into the spaces it can occupy or articulate with'. In this sense, exfoliation is the way in which the body ‘turns onto’ things, its form and space being affected and shaped by energetic connectivity: according to Andrew Murphie, “Through exfoliations, the body is diversified as a volume in perpetual state of disintegration and reconstitution.”Each exfoliation is relatable, or connectable, to other past and future exfoliations, allowing a translation and a production of symbolic substitutions (for example the association of the bodily sensations of lightness and heaviness, flight and fall, distension and contraction of body-space, with feelings like joy and sadness). What these different exfoliations share is the same ‘abstract form’. Exfoliation as a formal constitution, or moulding, of the body-space is what integrates information (about the body's relations, connections) at a high level of abstraction, at an energetic level, and what creates concrete configurations after the emergence of 'abstract figures of relations', the forms of relations between forms, or abstract forms. With their de-coding action, the abstract forms of the body-space allow us to move from one figure to the other, from one posture to the other, and this continuous passage (and re-emergence of forms) constitutes rhythm. In this way, we can say that the exfoliating space of the body, like the surface of a canvas, is a 'rhythming' space, a space which rhythms, through its abstract forms and postures, the actual forms and postures that are to appear on it as definite gestures: again, the body as artwork.
As argued by Josè Gil, rhythm can only be the rhythm of the appearance and disappearance of forms and figures. Abstract forms (or emerging forms of relations) come into being on a surface of expression (a canvas or a bodily space as rhythming spaces) through a process of ‘abstraction’, a sober removal, a disappearance of representational features and accessory details from figuration, so that there is less and less of representation and more and more of the reality of the thing, the form, the figure, the structure, in its genesis, for example in both painting and dance. Painting (but also dance, and art in general) implies thus the same abstraction as that of Zen archery and Chinese martial arts or practices of bodily meditation: the de-stratification, de-squamation, or elimination of everything that is of an accessory nature, with the result of concentrating energy on the spatial plane, an energy linking the body to a particular point in space, so that the point belongs to the body and vice versa, in a relation of mutual in-formation.
Exfoliation, and the emergence of the abstract form, implies thus a double loss: first, a continuous desquamation (de-coding) of expression, and its becoming-flesh. For example, less representation and more sensation in painting and dance. Second, a loss of phenomenological re-appropriation of sensations, and a bodily abstraction. In this sense, sensation (as in early phenomenological research) becomes the unity of sensing and sensed bodies, the flesh liberated from the lived body-perceived world structure, a flesh revealing sensations and becoming, as Deleuze and Guattari define it, their thermometer.
It is Michael Hardt who gives to this becoming-flesh the meaning of a bodily abstraction beyond phenomenological re-appropriations, the exposure of a fleshwhich might seem precarious and too weak, but which in fact affirms the plenitude of the material and of its fullness. What Hardt defines as the divinity of flesh with an electric vitality, the divinity of the body, is exactly the overflowing of the body with emerging abstract forms, a rhythm which preserves it from chaos.In this sense, flesh is the condition of possibility for the qualities of the world to emerge, both a foundation and an immanent transcendence, beyond reality-appearance or depth-surface dialectics: flesh as the superficial depth of matter.
Third concept: Indiscernibility.
In its becoming-flesh, the body loses its clear differentiation from animal, vegetal or mineral forms, caught in a turbulent zone, a material process of de-formation of the body’s superficial depth. The exfoliated space of the body’s flesh is a continuously folding, or curving, surface. Exfoliation happens through folds, or curves.
For Deleuze, the ideal, first genetic element of the curvature, or fold, is the inflection. Geometrically speaking, inflection is the true atom, the elastic point, the (metaphysical) critical point where the radius 'jumps' from inside to outside, and a curve ‘feels itself’. In other words, every line (or curve) is the path of a point that changes direction at an inflection (or folding) point. If, as Whitehead reminds us, Plato already identified the essence of existence with the capacity of being a factor in agency or, in other words, the capacity to make a difference, in The Fold Deleuze operates a geometric transduction of this concept, and tells us how Paul Klee defined inflection as the genetic element of the active line, or what makes a difference in a curve: the point-fold as the object of differential calculus and, in its developments, of topology.Bernard Cache defines this point of inflection as an intrinsic singularity which is not yet related to a development of coordinates and, like every solid work of art for Deleuze and Guattari, is neither high nor low, neither on the right nor on the left, neither in progression nor regression, because it is in absence of gravity. Thus, we can say that the solidity of the artwork begins, or is founded, on its point of inflection. It is the pure event of a line or a point, virtuality, ideality to be actualised into a well-defined curve, a form, a gesture. In itself, inflection is not in the world yet: for Klee, it is the locus of 'cosmogenesis' (cha-os-mosis), a non-dimensional point between dimensions, an event waiting for an event to happen.Cache made a topological classification of three possible transformations of inflection:-the serpentine line: vectorial or symmetric transformations operating according to logical laws and transforming inflection into a point of regression, or a cuspidal point (for example in the twofold, the ogiva, the circle). -projective transformations defined by hidden parameters and variables of potential allowing for infinite variations. We can see these types of inflection in nature with membranes like cells, shells, horns and all surfaces of minimal tension.-lines or planes with infinite variations, or infinitely variable curvatures, fluctutations from fold to fold, enveloping a spongy, cavernous world, more than a line and less than a surface (Mandelbrot's fractals, as non-dimensions). Turbulences, in this suspended inflection, generate other turbulences, and the spiral follows a fractal model: dissolving its contour, turbulence ends in foam. Inflection becomes vortical, and its variation becomes fluctuating. It is the locus of vortices, sponges, mazes, meanders and labyrinths.An inflection point, for example in a curve or a labyrinth of curves, can only be sensed, and therefore it is opposed to recognition. As a differential quotient preceding an accomplished curve, it can be identified with what Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition, defined as "the imperceptible ... imperceptible precisely from the point of view of recognition." Contingent imperceptibility of the too small or too far for the empirical exercise of the senses, is different from the essential imperceptibility of inflection, because inflection is that which can only be sensed from the point of view of a transcendental exercise of sensibility. Not a simple sensible being, but "free or untamed states of difference in itself; not qualitative opposition within the sensible, but an element which is in itself difference, and creates at once both the quality in the sensible and the transcendent exercise within sensibility. This element is intensity, understood as pure difference in itself, as that which is at once both imperceptible for empirical sensibility which grasps intensity only already covered or mediated by the quality to which it gives rise, and at the same time that which can be perceived only from the point of view of a transcendental sensibility which apprehends it immediately in the encounter."For Deleuze, intensity is an aleatory point enveloping differentials of sensibility and, consequently, of thought and of the other faculties, the imperceptible, or the unthinkable, designating the highest power of sensibility and thought, i.e. the inability to sense and think empirically. But how does the passage of intensity between the different faculties happen? All begins with sensibility: it is always through an intensity that thought comes to us. A violence strikes the body and is communicated from one faculty to another, from sensibility to memory, from memory to thought, from thought to language, endlessly…: "an impulse, a compulsion to think which passes through all sorts of bifurcations, spreading from the nerves and being communicated to the soul in order to arrive at thought." In other words, an idea. Every creative process starts when we have an idea in our mind working as a variation of intensity, a point of inflection, or attraction, starting our thinking process and our expressive faculties. In life, perception, or art, these points of attraction function as differential quotients, substitutes for traced-out curves: in other words, expression and experience are mostly based on variations of rate and direction, on tendencies and attractions more than accomplished actions, gestures and steps, and terminations are only rarely fulfilled. According to James, our experiences are almost always ‘unterminated’, or anaccomplished, perceptually, and "we commit ourselves to the current as if the port were sure. We live, as it were, upon the front edge of an advancing wave-crest, and our sense of a determinate direction in falling forward is all we cover of the future of our path." A sense of direction, as a knowledge 'in transitu', is a 'pure experience', an unqualified actuality still undifferentiated into action and thought, a knowledge based on the indiscernibility of ideas and sensations, on the edge of their actualisation.
The sensation of the becoming-expressive (or becoming-art) of a contingent fact, perception or gesture, is a point of indiscernibility, a virtuality in which the form to be actualised as a form of artistic expression is still only a tendency, a tension not-yet formed (or consciously conceived, or conceptualised), an idea that pushes the body to act (terminus). The form of expression is not-yet intellectually discernible, and at this level contingency and artistic expression cannot be easily distinguished. The indiscernible form is only an inflection, the point of inflection of a curve (in Gil’s words, a ‘micro-gesture’ of the hand where chance precedes the conscious thinking of a pre-conceived form). Inflection thus is the critical moment of incipient creation and indiscernibility between the expressive brushstroke of the painter and the contingent trace left by the hand on a sheet of paper. An urge of the artist who, ‘sensing’ the appearing of the expressive form and its incumbent fading, preserves it in an attitude with no definite beginning nor end, the inflection of the …shoulder-wrist-brush… open assemblage which makes the form emerge on the white surface of the canvas, as a pure expressive form squeezed through the tip of the brush acting as one element in a long chain of connections. We might even see it through Francis Bacon’s eyes, the painter’s body trying to escape through the prosthetic tip of the brush and join the plane of material composition (canvas). At the same time, this plunge, or escape, can only be performed by the artist after she has scratched away the whole cliched surface of the canvas and has made it emerge as an energetic plane of rhythmic composition. The becoming-expressive of the emerging form on the canvas is provoked by forces (such as water and its rivers, air and its clouds, earth and its caves, light and its fires, what Deleuze defined as the infinite folds of El Greco’s painting), forces to be made perceptible. Forces create signs on the canvas, brushstrokes as the indelible marks of a taking-fire (or a taking-flight, or a drowning, or a sinking deep down into the earth) of the artist, and the becoming-expressive of the form is related to the simultaneous non-human becoming of the figure emerging on the white surface. For Deleuze and Guattari, painting needs something different from the ability of the painter to trace resemblance: we need the potency of a background which can dissolve forms and impose the existence of a zone where we do not know anymore, for example, what is animal, vegetal, mineral and what is human, and where the triumph or the monument of their indistinction delineates itself...
But art can be said to always follow a Baroque principle, that of a total art, or a unity of the arts, by extension. Every artistic expression tends in this sense to prolong itself, and to realise itself in the successive one, which surpasses it. Artistic forms touch and con-fuse themselves at points of indiscernibility, or inflection points, where the form is not yet actualised. Art itself survives in these zones of indetermination, as soon as the material passes into the sensation ...
Sometimes painting goes out of its frame and actualises itself in a sonic field. The point of micro-gestural inflection of the hand becomes scratching, or the rhythmic rubbing of the vinyl in a percussive way. This process determines the passage of a different, acoustic material, into the same sensation or inflection point, the same micro-gesture of the hand. It is a passage which gives to djing and sound composition a textural effect, de-codifying the metric dimension of music and introducing a rhythmic process of emergence of new abstract forms and intensities. In Kodwo Eshun’s words, becoming, “That’s what skratchadelia does. It’s this unstable mix of the voice and the vinyl. It’s this new texture effect. You could say the voice has phase-shifted into this new sound.”, a point of indiscernibility just before the voice finally becomes a new sound, the moment when you suddenly get a glimpse of the human, and then it flashes away again, “as 2 surfaces in friction literally converge and then shoot apart at fantastic speeds.” With scratching, it’s all in the inflection of the hand leaving its mark on a flow of sound, the micro-articulation or micro-gesture which is able to capture the whole body (the dj’s body but also the dancer’s body), making it become-sound and pushing it to move.
Only one more step, or gesture, and we are already in the force-field of dance. If the rhythm of movement cannot be reduced to a measurable and linear passage from point to point but corresponds to the relation between critical moments in which the body imperceptibly deviates and changes, every movement becomes a spiral, a swirling of incipient, emerging inflections hidden behind a surface of repeated gestures and steps. Continuously generated in a mutating molecular body (rather than originated by an immobile one), movement is distributed between parts (for example joints or limbs) and beyond the direction of a central entity (consciousness) guiding it according to anatomical and physical laws. At the same time, the thought of movement does not separate itself from the body and does not situate itself in a different point, as temporally delayed, but becomes indiscernible from movement in the same moment (the ‘act’) of its appearance (and of its sensation): movement becomes in this sense ephemeral and abstract, or unintentionally thought. As Brian Massumi points out, sensation and thought are two vectors running in opposite directions: one, sensation, as a bodily tendency which can only be felt, the other, thought, as the thinking of alternatives for the active realisation of what had been only in tendency. The concrete event of bodily movement emerges at the inflection point when the two (‘sensational’ and thinking) paths cross. A moving body is also always imperceptibly, rhythmically becoming; not becoming something, but simply becoming (i.e. thinking, sensing).
For Antonin Artaud, the abstraction of movement grasps the sensibility and thought of the body at the point when its molecular composition starts to dissolve, when only one gesture (or micro-gesture) separates it from chaos. The body enters a state of trance, caught by the cosmic forces pressing on it, and expresses itself through movement, as if waves of matter superposed their own crests one on top of the other, in order to take place in the infinitesimal portion of a jerk. The dancer’s gestures de-foliate a surface of subjective feelings or conscious ideas, through a mental alchemy which transforms a sensation into a gesture, and dance becomes an unfolding of volumes, a production of space (spatialisation, exfoliation in Gil’s sense of the word), through a deflagration of gestures. Every sensation (and every exfoliation of body space) has a point of irradiation, of support, which is emphasised through respiration, in an energetically charged flesh that dance manages to expose while the body in motion can stand as a work of art. And after dance, what else?
Thus, we identify art with the continuous actualisation of a point of inflection along what Cache defined as a serpentine line of transformations, because it possesses "The wonderful ability of the serpent to slough its skin and so renew its youth, [which] has earned for it throughout the world the character of the master of the mystery of rebirth ... Dwelling in the earth, among the root of trees, frequenting springs, marshes, and water courses, it glides with the motion of waves.."
Dis-connected afterthought on technology:
Having discussed moments of connection and indiscernibility of the micro-gesture in painting, sound and dance makes digital technology, with its potential for universal re-codification, become the apparently ideal instrument for artistic creation. At the same time, Massumi’s notion of the actual form as an appearance (what is countable and measurable) and of the potential, or the virtual, as the image of its apparition (what is rhythmic), dis-connects the open potentiality of rhythm from the limited combinations and possibilities of the binary logic of 0s and 1s, where the actual has always already appeared. Digital technology can reveal thus its rhythmic side only in the moment of ‘apparition’, through the perceptual process, or through other processes of machinic encounter.
In other words, echoing Deleuze and Guattari, we can say that a code (in this case, the code of the digital machine) encounters and receives fragments of a different code (for example, the code of the dancer’s movement, as in Motion Captured dance). The pixellated screen actually implies that all kinds of coded sequences and movements may be transduced into the binary code of the computer: it is as though the computer acted as a universal transducer, or de/coder, potentially containing all other codes in its memory. And this implication can be reciprocal, all the different stratifications in nature partaking of that coded, patterned character which bends them to the microscopic action of digital modulation. Once more, it is the encounter or, as Deleuze and Guattari would call it, the counterpoint between the two patterns, between body and computer as technologies of codification, that gives us rhythm, digitalisation being related to rhythm through the differentials emerging between two different calculations (the choreographic pattern of the dancer and the digital algorithmic calculation of the same movement). As if, as if, a digital spider contained the pattern, or code, of the dancer-fly caught into its net.