ANOBIUM: Is art just an exercise in temporality, and would it really be a bad thing if it was?
GUY LARAMEE: I’m not sure how I should take your word “exercise.” Is life an exercise in temporality? Would you seriously consider your life as an “exercise?” And if so, what meaning would you give to the word “exercise?” What would be an exercise?
Your question brings forward the following one: do we have any choice in this business, and if the answer is yes, what is it?
I wake up in the morning and I go to the studio. I have a vague idea what I am going to do there, but I never really know. I try to stay aware, to “use” this time the best I can, but again, does the “I” has anything to do in all this? Maybe the real escape from time is death and do we really want this? So it seems that art, as life, is indeed a manifestation of our imprisonment in time, and so what? Maybe time is not the problem. Maybe our relation to it is the problem. To live as a human being is to experience this thing we call time. And then what? Is there an outside to it? “The way out is the way through,” as Albert Low said.
A: Part of what I was getting at with that question was the so-called difference between ‘experience’ and ‘experiment.’ That is, we do such-and-such a thing to create an experience (or arouse the memory of that experience), but in this way, an experience could also be said to be an experiment, such that you’re not assured that the thing you’re trying to arouse will indeed be aroused. In other words, I wonder if art might be said to be a type of experiment, and the practice of it could be something like exercise for the sake of constantly trying to improve the quality of ‘experience’ aroused by art. I guess my question might be rephrased as: is art an experiment with time?
GL: To answer your question, I’ll have to go in a rather oblique manner:
When I was a student in anthropology, my thesis director was David Howes, the champion of a new field in anthropology (the anthropology of the senses), a field which he somewhat founded with his wife Constance Classen. The main argument of this field is that each culture favors a sensorium, and to really understand this culture, we have to understand which senses this culture privileged over others. For example, the Euro-American cultures are biased toward vision, and to a certain extent, hearing. In our cultures, smell is seen as inferior, primitive, etc. We are intellectual cultures and we give precedence to the senses which allow for a distant observation. For this reason, we cannot understand cultures that use the proximity senses, such as smell, taste, and touch.
At the time I was his student, he was organizing an international conference which included artistic presentations from artists who deal with the “other” senses. While in class with him, I challenged his views by asking the simple question: “With what senses do you know the senses?” He laughed out loud because he knew my question was a good one. There is something “on top” of the senses that allows us to know that this is a sound, this is an image, this is a smell, and it is not to be confused with another. His views on the mechanisms of ethnocentrism influenced me deeply, and I guess I modestly I had my hand in the development of his anthropology of the senses, because he came out with a book on the sixth sense a couple of years later.
Anyway, the point here is that I went even further with my challenge to him by saying that, to me, the purpose of art was not to provide sensations. I thought that this view of art led directly to the endemic sensationalism that we now find in each disciplines. He retorted that there were certainly many definitions of art around, and he was right. However, during the preparatory stages of my thesis, I offered my own definition of art. This included what seemed to me to be a gross scheme of the different domains of the human patrimony. At that time I struggled to fit this model into the basic dichotomy of the West: Being versus Knowing. It goes like this:
Natural sciences: KNOWING BEING
Social sciences: KNOWING KNOWING
Arts: BEING KNOWING
Spirituality: BEING BEING
My whole point here – that art is not about providing sensations – could be translated into the terms of your question: art is not about providing an experience.
It is very hard to grasp that there is a life outside “experience.” It is the same problem as giving credence to what is outside of consciousness. We can call the source of knowing and being “awareness,” “presence,” or even more precisely, “non-reflective awareness”.
To me, ultimately art is about that – non-reflective awareness. This is the source of all experience. Experiences are infinite. The more you have, the more you want, the more you need. As Agnes Martin said: “You’ll never find the meaning of life through facts.” (Or through experiences.) So why are we doing trying to re-organize the content of our mind – by removing this, adding this, etc.? Wouldn’t it be better to see the whole of mind ?
So to go back to your question: You wonder if art might be said to be a type of experiment, and the practice of it could be something like exercise for the sake of constantly trying to improve the quality of ‘experience’ aroused by art.
I would say yes and no. To me, improving the quality of the “art experience” means going beyond experience altogether. In this sense, nothing needs to be added – no new development, no new tune, no new song. Of course, these things will happen by themselves. But to make progress the goal of art is not only a dead end, it is the symptom of a profound and very damageable distortion which has been responsible for the collective madness we are caught in in the West (and now everywhere else, it seems).
The question could be answered more simply by an analogy: do you think that the shepherd who sings a song while watching the stars really cares if the song is from him or not, or if the song is “new” or old? He sings the song the best he can. Seeing creation through the lens of interpretation – in the sense given to the word in preforming arts – could be one of the antidotes to this Cult of The New.
Finally you ask: is art an experiment with time? Again I’ll give you the same answer: it certainly is an experiment and it certainly deals with time. But at best, it should deal with going beyond time altogether. Time is the main ground of experience. When you challenge the infinite collection of experiences and question their endlessness, I think you might end up questioning “time” itself, as a phenomenon, a concept, and even as an indubitable reality.
A: Coming back down to Earth a bit, what are some projects you’re currently working on?
GL: There you are talking! The real, concrete stuff! (Here comes the real exercise in temporality, if I may.)
I just finished collaboration with WIRED, the UK edition. They sent me a year and a half of their publication and I dug a piece in it. They will photograph the piece and publish the photo in their pages. I then might buy a pile of this issue and dig another piece in it… I decided to inscribe this collaboration in my Black Tides project. This project is in fact a sub-project of The Great Wall, my archeology of the future about the 100-volume, Chinese encyclopedia about after the fall of The Great Wall of America. One of the volumes is entitled The Immense Black Tides. In this project, I cross the frontiers between the naturalist “real” and the psychological “real.” Natural disasters (the black tides following the fast climatic changes) are seen as metaphors of psychological disasters (collective neurosis, depressions). This is also a comment on the actual deluge of information through the anecdote of the “liquefaction of inks,” a mysterious phenomenon that occurred in 2154.
Beside this, the usual business: a collective show this Spring in NY with the artists of Slash; the MAD Museum’s show on paper cutters; a small retrospective this summer here in a small museum-like space, followed by the publication of a bilingual book on my work; a solo in Seattle this summer; plans to give a workshop in Switzerland next year; a collective show at the Halsey Institute in South Carolina next year; collaboration with private galleries and dealers in NY, etc.
I would like at some point to go back to the great dioramas. I’ve had a piece in mind for a year now, a white on white piece, glaciers in fog. Let’s see if I find a venue to do this. That’s a lot of work. And of course, I want to go back to my painting, which suffered from the last wave of interest about the book works.
Now here comes the exercise: tell me, do you really think that the last description is more real that my previous philosophical dissertation?
It’s all dream world! Letters on paper! Images in our heads! Where is the reality in this? There is a reality here, but where is it?
Albert Low wrote, “The dream is the dream that the dream is real”.
We can’t stop the dream, we are dreaming creatures, but what do we do of that dream, in that dream?
I’ll conclude by telling the story that is found in the book of Alexandra David-Neel, With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet. At some point she describes the “traditional” training of a lama. The apprentice goes into a retreat where he (there’s no “she” in that world…) receives the instruction of his teacher. He is first to concentrate on an external object with all his will. Then the object is removed and the apprentice must recreate the same vividness with his eyes closed. When this is achieved (after months, years), he must open his eyes and recreate again the same vividness with his eyes open. He must see the object in front of him, as if the object was really there. After years of doing this, the last stage of the training is the following: his visualization must be so intense that he can make others see the object too! Not too far from art-making, is it?
When I was in my magical thinking phase, this all seduced me tremendously. I dreamt of doing this with art. Magic!
Here’s the rub: When the training is complete and the apprentice is able to make others see “for real” (3-D) what the apprentice has in his mind, the teacher then asks him, “Okay, now, is this really real?”