I once discovered a curious “way of seeing” in the resource library of a University Art History Department. It was the kind of academic space littered with dozens of filing draws full of slides of art, architecture and assorted objects and entities we would recognise as “art” by any standard definition. Much of the spare time of a first or second-year Art History student was indeed devoted to browsing and memorising images (of images), dates, Artists, Schools and Movements.
The Department had been fairly excited to receive its first (excessively expensive at that time) laser disc machines and assets, the discs themselves being about the size of the 12″ vinyl records that those of us of a certain vintage were familiar with and long before their revival and reincarnation as tools of contemporary DJs. I was also fairly excited to play with this new and (then) disruptive technology; the amount of information stored on these discs although meagre by current standards was a revelation of magnitude at that time. So I found a quiet afternoon to experiment, popped a disc into a machine and watched a visual history of art, design and architecture unfold before me.
I actually had absolutely no idea how to use the remote control or the direct interface of the device, a kind of sophisticated DVD player. Consequently, everything I tried to look at displayed itself as a rapid chronological sequence of style, function and visual-communicative affectation. The rapid sequence of images created a certain fluid experience of evolving design and style over years, decades and centuries. The main context was European art and architecture and the experience of rapid display of sequences of images generated a peculiar sense of fluid momentum and dynamic evolution, in some sense akin to the visual effect of a deep dive into the Mandelbrot set.
It is difficult to describe the full effect of this visual experience for me at that time; each image appeared for only a fraction of a second – just long enough to register in awareness before switching to another frame. What I found revelatory in this was that the overall feeling and emotive impact of contour and design as it evolved over time was one of organic process and unfolding metamorphosis. Granted, the specific visual vocabulary was largely arbitrary and limited to the concept of “high art” as opposed to common or ubiquitous cultural artefacts but as an unexpected educational experience and powerful historical intuition I found it to be a profound moment.
The History of Culture as taught to me in that University was a mesh of threads and categories woven into a grand synthesis reflecting syllabus, lecturer or professor specialities and the acquisition of that knowledge demonstrable of certification or degree of attainment, personal investment and aptitude in any particular area. Seeing visual history through the laser disc device in a rapid-display sequence of organic imagery introduced me to the fundamentally fluid and evolutionary nature of design, style and indeed (in architecture) of the expression of mathematics in engineered matter, light, space and aesthetics.
Consider the Late-Baroque period of Rococo. It is characteristic of this period for the decoration, design and the detail to become intricate to an extreme extent. What we see here, as we see throught the history of art and design, is the incomplete logic of a referential and representational system which at first (in most cases) turns inwards upon itself. The internally extensible sensibilities of any school or method of seeing or representation tend to turn inwards to explore all possible variations, representational logics, contours and forms available within the rules and assumptions of their era and broader cultural and historical context before moving on. This internal extensibility reaches something of a crescendo in the hyper-Baroque period. There is a concept and principle of information or vommunication mass-density and critical complexity in this kind of view of historical change and material culture.
I am not here attempting to explain how or why this happens, just observing that it does happen at all times and in all places where communication and representation, or mapping and comprehension find themselves explicitly recorded in material artefacts. Art is really just a happy placeholder for a broader comprehension of cultural and historical-systemic function and metamorphosis. It doesn’t matter so much to draw the particular strands of this or that style, movement or manifesto-driven school of thought as it does to recognise that the liquid warping and complex metamorphosis of design and style is in itself an instance of a broader symmetry and principle of global systemic self-reference.
What is being represented in art, design and material culture is not only a specific and historically-located affectation or intuition and translation of that form and flow of thought endemic to those people and cultures. The foundational element in this system of representation and replication is not even solidly anchored in either the individual artist or the broader cultural context. The elementary process which is unfolding is that of the replication of the process of replication itself; the mapping of mapping and the meta-logical generation of new cultural algorithms, heuristics and theorems of recombinatory conceptual metamorphosis. The process of replication (and representation or aspiration-to-communication) is itself what is being replicated and communicated. We so often mistake the particulate instance and individuated, isolated node and artefact as key when it is really little more than symptom of an underlying symmetry and process.
These are the things I saw in that accelerated laser disc monitor and liquid visual history of art and artefacts, shaded and coloured in retrospect as it must inevitably be from my current experience and historically-located moment and personal frame of reference. I was unfortunately not able to articulate these concepts within the contemporary and formal academic vocabulary and grammar of the time.
My problem was, and pretty much always has been, just how to introduce, articulate and successfully communicate new concepts of representation and comprehension when the paradigm and assumptive frameworks of conventional wisdom fight tooth and nail against novelty or deep (i.e. axiomatic) conceptual, methodological and theoretical innovation ?