Saturday, 1 October 2016

A Brief Introduction To My Research




The following is an introductory text produced for an exhibition of research staff currently teaching at Gray’s School of Art.

Throughout my career as an artist and academic, I have always been interested in the theory as well as the many practices of representation. During the last 5 years this interest has developed to the point that my research has become wholly devoted to the theory of representation and its wider implications, most especially as it pertains to perception, communication and consciousness.

What is representation? By "representation" I mean precisely what we commonly mean by the term in ordinary language. Representations are stand-ins. Even political representatives act as proxies for the people whose views they represent. In short, representations are useful substitutes for the things they represent. The means by which representations function might seem to be extremely varied, because they are produced by so many different techniques. But in fact representations can be divided into three distinct categories (vide Donald Brook 1997, 2013), two nonverbal and one verbal. The two nonverbal strategies of representation rely on two importantly different sorts of resemblance, whereas verbal communication relies upon the capacity to accept absolutely anything as a symbolic substitute for absolutely anything else. This is an extremely sophisticated skill, almost entirely restricted to most humans.

It is my view that our prodigious skill in the use of symbolic communication is the result of a long history of tool use and especially of practices of social exchange in which objects and behaviours become interchangeable due to socially negotiated attributions of value that are ascribed to them. It is this process—this technique—of value attribution that I regard as such a vital factor in the emergence of practices of symbol-use and the ascription of meaning.

It will be clear then, that I regard meaning as an exclusively human invention because meaning is fully dependent upon the capacity to treat objects and circumstances as having significance or “content” that is not a measurable or quantifiable property of them.

Returning to nonverbal representations, we find that language enables us to treat even these as verbal constructs, but it obviously does not follow that it is always appropriate to do so; to treat them as messages, signifiers, descriptions or signs. They are just useful substitutive tools and behaviours that also happen to be extremely apt for conceptual interpretation, not least as products of intentional action.

There is another common confusion that my research seeks to disentangle. Images, for example, do not resemble things in the same way as models. Models, copies, replicas, reproductions, re-enactments, and exemplification etc. all function because they share features in common with the things they represent. These shared features may be approximate to various degrees, but they do not rely on our taking a particular point of view to maximise the effect. Images, on the other hand, are only fully like the things they represent in certain ways and under certain conditions. In other words, depictions can sometimes be mistaken for the things they represent, but such mistakes rely to a very significant degree on the particular circumstances of presentation or encounter (i.e. the level and evenness of light, our point of view, our level of attentiveness etc.).

So to sum up, to say that an image is a description or that a description is a picture or that a picture is a model or that models delineate the world etc. is to talk in circles. My research is intended to show how the theorisation of philosophers, researchers and sometimes even scientists goes awry when they confuse, misunderstand and mischaracterise distinct categories of representation.

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