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Fields Of Consciousness: The Ghost In The Machine

by Mark Gisbourne published in:

Mark Gisbourne, Fields of Consciousness: The Ghost in the Machine in Photography and Culture, Vol 5, Issue 1, March 2012, 53-76.

Fields of Consciousness - Gisbourne, 2012


The contentious debate as to an aesthetic relationship between mind-mechanism-representation has not gone away, that is in spite of scientific researches in physiology and neurophysiology that have recently dressed matters up in terms of mapping the brain and a causal bio-chemistry. Yet given a recent return of somatic dominance there nonetheless still remains much to be said about the mental role of a creative culture in the living biochemistry of modern being. This is not to argue that nineteenth century Driesch-ian derived ideas of ‘vitalism’ and its legacy, can any longer offer a non-materialist hiding place for theories of mind and consciousness.(1) Theories of mind have largely been reduced today to two areas, namely the biological sciences and/or experimental cognitive psychology.(2) It is the discursive and interactive relationship between biological science and the different psychologies of consciousness, that for the most part frames the current debate. In areas of cognitive consciousness the emphasis is now firmly placed upon the ’embodied’, that is to say in living conditions of ‘being’ that foments representation: to represent means quite literally an embodiment of signs that are brought to mind only in and through reflective consciousness as lived experience.(3) The subjective Cartesian formation of the mind-body question, and its many subsequent philosophical interpretations, has been increasingly side-lined somewhat ironically (given Descartes mechanistic view of the body), by an extension of materialist mechanisms (scanning machines), and the explications of neuroscience that accompanies their use.(4)

But how the brain works and the related questions born of how representation within consciousness takes place, remains a vexatious territory that is still fundamentally unresolved. It is clear that the representation of the world through sign and symbols is a given and everyday reality, but to what extent can it be said that consciousness and its physiological component can be altered by the sensory experiences of the world through the changing conditions of cultural representation? It leaves open the question whether consciousness is nothing more than an extension of structural physiology with a purely biological foundation (that is to say pre-determined by brain chemistry), or whether there is a spectral or non-definable hermetic substance that changes the conditions of consciousness through interactions with numerous sensory experiences in the world, something that shapes, sharpens, and thereafter alters the physiological arguments of pure mechanism? Put another way does the visual language experience of representation (I use the word ‘language’ advisedly) alter in any way the simple physiological processes of working consciousness? If it is the first question posed, this leaves aesthetics and discussions as to the aesthetics of consciousness in a perilous position. If the second the representational aspects of aesthetics remain open and in a continual state of change and development. And as an aside in simple historical terms this also questions as to whether there could ever be a fixed ‘cultural canon’ of those conventional but shifting representations through artistic experience, as either expressed or implied by continuous transformations of states of cultural consciousness.

In more conventional aesthetic terms it touches upon one of the oldest of philosophical-aesthetic concerns, namely whether different material forms of representation take on the appearance of change (merely as a sort of repetitive cultural and pictorial mutation), or conversely, that cultural change is a continuous and changing condition of appearance as those successive temporal representations take place.(5) In short in what ways does living culture alter and/or expand upon the aesthetic aspects of our consciousness? How do representations through perceived experiences in and of the world effect interaction between consciousness and the body? And, where do representations stand in regards to the return or ‘eternal recurrence’ of images and ideas that daily saturate our lived experience? The artist Warren Neidich has long been concerned with these contentious issues, and has also written a related book of essays which concentrated on these issues, emphasising different cultural effects on neural networks as they relate particularly to experiences of film and photography.(6) I intend in this essay for the most part to concentrate on Niedich’s photographic and film/video-based work, incorporating aspects and use of his different performance-experience-experimental contents that consistently appear within what is a challenging and diverse body of art works.

It is quite clear that photography and film combines aspects of mind and mechanism. The camera has the status of a tool in terms of representation and visual language, a tool that has a use value that mediates representations through applications of mind as consciousness. But it is commensurate to argue that pictorial representation is a continuous visual language that sculpts and shapes our ongoing perception of the world. The bi-focal aspects of the mind and mechanism are grounded as a necessary form of mutuality that are ineluctably manifested within lived experience. Neidich’s work in recent years has concentrated on two vital concerns. (7) The first I will discuss is a large and developing series of the artist’s work he has called Blanqui’s Cosmology (1997-2005), a work that investigates questions around issues of origin as regards the modern subject in photography, and specifically ideas as it relates to repetition and recurrence. He asks what are the meanings exposed (as simile) by repetition and recurrence? The second area of discussion will be Neidich’s diverse series of conceptual works in different media that investigates the History of Consciousness (1996-2010). Their analogous relationship is self-evident as both the inside and outside (perception and perceived) of mind and mechanism, cosmological projections of consciousness (consciousness fused with mechanism) on the one hand, and the internal assimilations that forms a fluid creative state of sensory consciousness on the other. As applied to culture and the history of photography, mind and mechanism is always in a state of confrontation with resistance.(8) Among the myriad aspects of cultural objects and their conditions of experience in the world, the state of their resistance to any singular assimilation or interpretation is well established. It becomes the basis for arguing that the conditions of consciousness are shaped by any number of provisional interactions.

Blanqui’s Cosmology (1997-2007)

The role of the camera as mechanism in capturing the conditions of culture at a given moment is neither uniform or singular, but always subject to the prevailing provisional and historical states of consciousness. This is not to say that they cannot be mapped, but at best used only to define a transitional state of apparent reality at a given period of time. The role of resistance in culture and the objects of culture (born of ‘intentionality’ as origin) is encoded in such a way so as to make them take on the hidden visible of photography. It is not surprising therefore that the corollary of the ‘negative’ has been essential to the historical development of the photograph and of film, a mechanistic inversion that expresses itself through the obverse image.

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