[ISEA2009] Paper: John Russell – Picturing ideas as art: the visualisation of philosophical and political ideas using computer-generated imagery


My presentation evaluates the critical and aesthetic implications of the ‘picturing’ or ‘visualisation’ of philosophical and political ideas, using computer-generated imagery. In particular, examining how might the contemporary virtuality and dematerialisation of the image, and the mutability of digital form relate to the ‘virtual’ nature of philosophical ideas? This will develop from an assessment of an ongoing AHRC funded project (with the same title as this paper) which has involved the production of a series of digital images visualising Deleuzean remodellings of pre-existing philosophical and political ideas, culminating in the presentation of a large-scale backlit print at the EAST International exhibition at Norwich Gallery (July 2009) and an artist’s project published in Frieze Magazine (September 2009). The project has also involved dialogue with specialists in the fields from which the ideas are drawn, as well as artists and theorists concerned with ideas of mental imagery and visualisation.

To describe the context of this research two points should be emphasized here: Firstly, the suggestion that ideas might be ‘visualised’ is obviously contentious. Within the fields of philosophy, cognitive science and psychology there is an extended debate regarding the ‘imagist’ potential of ideas and the role imagery plays in thought processes, in particular, whether it provides the semantic grounding for language or whether the idea of mental imagery, ‘seeing with the mind’s eye’, is merely a ‘theoretical-folk’, habit-formed-assumption. My research draws upon these debates and contemporary theorising of expanded conceptions of visualisation and imaging, for instance Lyotard’s theorising of the ‘figural’, and Deleuze’s concept of the ‘diagram’.
Secondly, the idea of ‘virtual’/’virtuality’ (see the second sentence above) is not used in the sense of ‘virtual reality.’ That is, as a less-than-real but rather in relation to the distinction Gilles Deleuze draws between the ontological categories of existent/possible and actual/virtual. Whereas the possible is opposed to the real – and requires ‘realisation’ to become real, the virtual possesses a full reality by itself. There is only the real, and every (conceivable and inconceivable) element or relation subsists within it. The notion of possibilities, of possible worlds or events, is refigured as unactualised worlds or events, which are distinguishable only insofar as they have real effects in this world (whether in the territories of dreams, fiction and speculation, or in those of mathematics or quantum physics). This, in turn, has art historical  resonance.
The idea of virtuality might be connected to the ideas of ‘dematerialisation’ proposed  problematically in the 1960/70s where, playing on the supposed immateriality of ideas, the claim was made that the art object could be replaced by ideas (as art). This move involved different performances and configurations of art-as-idea. To give two examples, Joseph Kosuth’s artwork One and Three Chairs (1965) involves the presentation of a photograph of a chair to scale; a wooden folding chair; and a photographic enlargement of dictionary definition ‘chair’, comprising three different representations of the object. The idea being that ‘chair’ is an ideal meaning that is equally well signified in linguistic or visual signification. Here ‘idea’ is positioned as ideal (and ‘meaning’ linguistic). Lawrence Weiner’s work however presents a different performance. In his ‘Statement’ works his use of language is precise; the use of the past participle is significant, allowing simultaneously, for the conclusiveness of the  descriptions as well as the prospect of their future realisation. For example: MANY COLOURED OBJECTS PLACED SIDE BY SIDE TO FORM A ROW OF MANY COLOURED OBJECTS (1969). Although not seeming to convey an ideal conception of ‘many coloured objects placed side by side to form a row of many coloured objects’ (in the manner of Kosuth above) Weiner’s language also seems to suspend the localisation or actualisation of the obje cts indicated, avoiding specification of a particular (predicted or author-designated) historical instance of many coloured objects placed side by side to form a row of many coloured objects. It is in the sense of Deleuze’s conception of virtual/actual that Weiner’s language seems to have sculptural existence. His statements exist as virtual as opposed to possible sculptures (as an event of sense). If, as Weiner suggests: the sculptures could be actualised (depending on the viewer’s intentions) *) but they are no less real or material or sculptural in their linguistic or conceptual form (and as, for instance, paint on the wall). The question here is where is the sculpture located? What form does it take? And in the context of this paper what (or how) does it look like?
This paper revisits these ideas in the context of digital imagery. As D.N. Rodowick (after Deleuze) proposes (Reading the Figural, 2001), within the contemporary context of globalised electronic and digital communication, where ‘the analogue has been replaced by the digital,’ there is the possibility of a dynamic figurality that cuts across the visible and the expressible and disturbs the ‘collateral relation’ that divides figures and text, visibility and expressibility into two separate realms. Deleuze describes it as an ‘audio-visual archive’ – a dynamic field in perpetual movement that calls upon the resources of both text and image, but is reducible to neither. This paper asks whether these conditions suggest new forms of production and reception as art (and non art) which contest the binary oppositions of ‘content’ versus ‘form’ and ‘linguistic’ versus ‘visual’ which continue to dominate (and set limits upon) the discourses of contemporary art.

*) 1 This relationship between production and reception is precisely given in his famous ‘Statement of Intent’ (1969) which was intended to act as a guideline for the operation of his work:

  • John Russell