perception / disruption / anticipation
‘In such a society as ours, the only possible chance for change, for mobility, for political, economic, and moral flow lies in the tactics of guerrilla warfare, in the use of fictions, of language’
I often find myself revisiting this incisive quote by the postmodernist writer Kathy Acker (1947 – 1997), her words acting as a reminder that embracing a solitary creative process within my studio is a legitimate path in life. It's an articulation of the conviction that within the fabric of societal constructs and established norms lies the potential for transformation—brought about not by sweeping revolutions, but by the subtle insurgency of ideas, narratives, and expressions. Acker’s writing has taught me that I too can be radical.
When asked about my practice, I often say that it is an attempt at understanding why do we think the way we do. I am interested in researching moral codes, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality, the medicalisation of the human body and methods of institutional control. How do all of these relate to psychophysical perceptive responses?
Over the past year, my academic background in medicine and neuroscience has become more relevant to my working process. As a result, three interrelated treads emerged: largely figurative narrative sequences (large-scale oil paintings); smaller-scale works that incorporate traditional and experimental mediums (steel, pigment and silicone casting) and site- specific spatial interventions with sound and installation. A commitment to disrupt innate perceptive interpretative responses, in particular anticipatory responses, is the underlying guiding principle that binds these strands together. This stems from an interest in engaging on a ‘practice of the self’, or ‘askesis’, a concept introduced by the philosopher Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984). According to Foucault, askesis is "an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought"; it implies that in order to challenge social and moral constructs, one must reflect on the hierarchical structures that dictate our mode of thinking (Foucault, 1988). Disruption in the context of an artistic practice could then act as a strategy for understanding the social construction of interpretation, self, and difference through discursive positions in visual culture (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009). In the context of postmodern and poststructuralist theory, the term ‘disruptive’ refers to a critical dismantling of structures. This arises from concerns regarding the analytic methodology associated with institutional structures (Norris, 2002). Structuralism assumes that underlying structures determine the language and practices of social and cultural phenomena (Leitch et al., 2010). From this point of view, the moral code to which present day society conforms is the product of a system of hierarchies dictated by the context we find ourselves in. I am interested in the act of questioning those moral codes, ‘why do we think and perceive the way we do’. For instance, categorisation of sexuality is a fairly recent concept. It arose from the need to ‘medicalise’ the body, i.e. to attribute an ahistorical categorisation system to sexual behaviours and identities. This was an important step in the advancement of sexual rights, however, it also perpetuated the marginalisation (othering) of all non-heteronormative sexualities. More specifically, it led to the creation of diagnostic categories, such as homosexuality being labelled as a mental disorder until 1973 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Drescher, 2015; Foucault, 1978). In Foucault’s view, power structures cannot be escaped; in History of Sexuality he states "where there is power, there is resistance and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power" (Foucault, 1978). Concurrently, he mentions that acknowledging the disciplining nature of such power structures would be the first step towards forming one’s own individual moral code(s) (Foucault, 1988).
The work of Kathy Acker can be regarded as an example of a disruptive practice. Acker’s work has had a significant impact on my development as an artist, to the extent the titles of my works are indirect references to her writing. She is known for her deconstructed writing style that reassembles narratives, blending genres, voices and textual sources to create a collage-like effect. This is appreciated in her novel "Blood and Guts in High School" (1984), where she combines autobiographical elements, punk aesthetics, and feminist perspectives to explore themes of power, sexuality, and identity. Through characters who defy societal expectations and engage in unconventional relationships, Acker explores the fluidity and complexity of these constructs, disrupting binary categorisations and encouraging readers to question and reimagine established norms (Kaplan, 1991). In my work, there is a constant indirect reference to Acker, and to her views on the need to defend one’s ideology, the use of “tactics of guerrilla warfare”, fiction and language in order to affect change. The idea of the artist as an activist is explored in the work defence incessant (2023). Here, I depict two entities sitting on white plastic chairs, clad in military-green clothes, directly facing the viewer. A shadow looms from the edge of the canvas, denoting an unseen presence. They are framed by a succession of doors, some of them leading to dark rooms and staircases. In this particular work, I reflect on the idea of the objects extending beyond themselves; how the background acts as a presence that is as relevant as that of the human entities. It is a reflection on guardianship and the possibility of unconventional moral codes being perceived as menacing.
As mentioned earlier, I have been exploring neuropsychological perceptive mechanisms in visual and auditory compositions, more specifically the notion of anticipatory imagery and its relation to perception. Anticipatory imagery refers to the cognitive process through which individuals generate mental representations of future events, experiences, or outcomes in order to facilitate preparation and goal-directed behaviour. It involves the activation of perceptual, sensory, and affective components in the absence of immediate sensory input, allowing individuals to mentally simulate a future scenario (Kosslyn et al., 2001). Perception itself can be influenced by anticipatory imagery. For example, studies have shown that prior expectations or anticipatory imagery can influence visual perception, altering the way individuals perceive and attend to stimuli (Soto et al., 2005).
The work 'Automated Rapture' (2022) is a 5-audio channel sound installation that incorporates fragments from multiple soundtracks with the aim to induce an anxious response in the listener and in turn act as a reminder of the profound effect of neurobiology on our experience(s). The selected excerpts contained the moments in the soundtrack that led to a peak or climax (but did not include the actual climax). Further to this, a series of digitally-manipulated sounds based on the Shepard tone were introduced in the composition. The Shepard tone is an auditory illusion and musical concept that creates the perception of a continuously ascending or descending pitch sequence that seemingly never reaches a final endpoint. It is characterised by a series of overlapping pure tones, each separated by an octave, that are carefully arranged to create an auditory illusion of a perpetually rising or falling pitch. It was first introduced by Roger Shepard (1929 – 2022) in 1964, and explores the psychoacoustic phenomenon known as the "missing fundamental". Despite the absence of an actual continuous increase or decrease in pitch, the listener perceives a never-ending ascension or descent due to the way the individual tones are arranged and superimposed (Deutsch, 1991). When listening to 'Automated Rapture', the listener’s anticipatory imagery response is constantly challenged – the mental prediction of ‘anomalous’ sounds leading to the activation of emotional and physiological responses associated with anxiety.
Disruption as a means to highlight the neurobiological nature of our perceptive responses stem from a personal interest in the work of the philosopher and neurologist Antonio Damasio (1944) and the philosopher Catherine Malabou (1959). In his seminal work, ‘The Feeling of What Happens”, Damasio proposes a theory of consciousness in which emotions are regarded as the product of neurological connections. He posits feelings are the source of consciousness, manifesting as temporal or causal relationships between neural states (or neural patterns). Damasio argues that our conscious experiences are influenced by the emotional responses that are generated by our body's interactions with the environment, and that these emotional responses play a crucial role in shaping our conscious experience (Damasio, 1999). Catherine Malabou is known for her thorough engagement with neuroscience. She embraces the perceived deterministic rigidity of science and uses neuroscientific concepts to challenge fundamental, well-accepted assumptions in philosophy and psychoanalysis (DeBakcsy, 2016). She expands on Damasio's theory of the tripartite nature of the biological self by establishing a parallel with the work of philosopher Jacques Derrida, the Father of Deconstruction (Malabou, 2012). According to Derrida, the act of trying to grasp our own existence is perpetually accompanied by an elusive quality, whereby our attempts to engage in self-dialogue or allow our internal monologues to unfold merely involve interacting with hastily constructed perceptive constructs (Derrida, 1978). Malabou asserts that this notion finds resonance in Damasio's concept of the multi-layered self, which she believes provides further support for her argument (DeBakcsy, 2016). According to Damasio, at the core of every individual lies the proto-self—a fundamental entity responsible for maintaining bodily homeostasis and chemical equilibrium. Strikingly, we lack any introspective awareness of this proto-self, rendering it an elusive stranger with whom direct engagement is impossible. Paradoxically, it serves as the bedrock upon which the entirety of our self is constructed. What we perceive as our self is, in fact, an amalgamation of constructed entities and interconnected processes that rely on the proto-self as their foundation (Damasio, 2010).
The piece 'neurosystem 1' (2023) acts an indirect translation of Damasio’s concepts, in particular the stages of human consciousness. The work responds to his notions of emotion, feeling and feeling a feeling. Emotion is described as an unconscious neural reaction to a stimulus – referenced as a patch of silicone reminiscent of human skin which at the same time is a reference to the concept of the proto-self as earlier described. Feeling is seen as sensing of a particular body state – foliage is depicted, painted in grey tones, which alludes to neural networks (brain connections). Finally, core consciousness or feeling a feeling (what emerges when one detects a change in one’s body state) is depicted as two bars of blue pigment that on close inspection resemble the surface of velvet. The relationship, both temporal or causal, between these stages of human consciousness is further accentuated by the long and narrow steel framing, which at the same time acts as a reminder of time and the fragility of the human body.
A tutor once told me Acker had a magnetic presence, she was an intimidating figure that would render a room silent with her words. Through Acker I have learnt that fiction is power; my personal challenge hereon is to keep making work that feels radical, timely, urgent and ultimately, personal.
Emanuel de Carvalho, PhD
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