Q&A Eightfold Concrescence

Set-up

My creative work is personally concerned with seeing, perception, constructive sensation, serendipity, complexity, reflection, randomness, improvisation, consciousness, intuition, assembly, patterns, pattern-making, symbols, cognition, archetypes, mystery, ad hoc narratives, self-awareness, pure experience, epiphany, spontaneous apprehension, underdetermination, pareidolia, abduction, 2nd order cybernetics, enantiodromia, learning, unlearning, yin/yang, enaction, and neurophenomenology, and other stuff.

Over two decades, my research and studies have come to be primarily organized around experiential learning, adult development, 2nd order social cybernetics, serendipity, enactivism, and, Analytical Psychology. All of these concerns either inflect or are woven deeply into my creative process.

 


Several associates were invited to submit questions to the artist.

Mai:
What kind of message would you like to communicate to your audience through your art projects?

Holly:
What message are you hoping to deliver through your art?

Stephen:
Each piece is designed to evoke a meaningful experience on the part of its so-called receiver, or viewer.

Allow me to set the background. A usual expectation of the viewer is that he or she is to receive a meaning encoded by the author in, or into, the artwork. The artwork is definitively about this meaning, or, it contains authorized messages. Although the viewer’s approach to the experience of meaningfulness is not required to attend either solely, or firstly, or predominantly, to liberating the author’s message from where this message is, in effect, encoded and potentially operationalized, the conventional way of understanding what the viewer may choose to do is: the viewer is to decode the message, or messages, sent to the viewer by way of the vehicle, the so-called unified object, constituted by the artwork.

This is only part of what I understand is the normal way of explaining what are the central purposes of a piece of art, when it is a given that the artwork’s author hopes to convey messages which the artist originates An artwork also reflects the concerns of the artist. Additionally, those concerns are always tangled up in rich arrays of contexts. For example, it is often the case that a piece of art is socio-culturally engaged, and such pieces almost are required to align their coded messages with specific cultural concerns of the artist. Both of these commitments are further contextualized by their coming about in a particular time and place and with an import situated by this place and time.

I do not create and produce art pieces for the sake of sending explicit messages that I have authored.

There is no intentional coding of such messages. There are no opportunities for the viewer to annunciate that he or she has successfully uncovered or discovered any such authored messages of this explicit kind.

In addressing this, I speak hardly at all about about meaningfulness rather than messages. My artistic intention is paradoxical in that I both do not create art to be the vehicle for intentionally encoded types of messages, yet, I do create art to be evocative, to be meaningful, to repose meanings. We would have to go off the map of the current question were we to try and make a go of grasping this paradox. One hint is: there is lots to be decoded in my images.

Because my aim is meaningful experience, in principle, any time a viewer tells me about their experience, and about their apprehension of meaning from their subjective experience, I affirm that what they have captured is true for them, and, critically, is true for the piece. I cannot negate someone’s experience in the most typical way, which would be to answer a viewer’s query, “Is what I see here, what you intended for me to see?” by responding, “No.”  I do not intend for the viewer to see anything on my account.

Yet, I do have concerns. These multiple concerns, in turn, are entangled in further concerns, and all of these are additionally made more complicated as a matter of relationships between both concerns and between contexts. This interplay of concerns and contexts are about who I am and what interests me. My art work intentionally refers to many of those concerns, or interests. For example, clearly I’m interested in the nature of human experience and development. These concerns are in my art but these aren’t, also, a concern of my art. This is the paradox in a nutshell.

My essential aim is not to try to determine how my concerns can better come to be reflected in my art. It is not my central aim to transmit these many concerns to the viewer. Primarily, I am unconcerned with whether or not a viewer discovers what are my concerns! Secondarily, shared concerns are always fascinating to me.

Holly:
As you view a photo for the first time and before you work your magic, do you have an intention in mind?

Yes. My concrete intention is to generate choices from which a final choice will be made. My initial artistic intention is that the possible choices each capture a sufficient conjunction of chaos and complexity. I’m aiming to cause a possibly worthwhile pre-assembly of complexity.

There is an alliterative heuristic I have come to devise and use to represent my creative process. The first three elements are concerned with making a choice which will lead to the next phase of the process.

Capture
Cut
Choose
Coordinate
Concretize

I capture a lot of photographs. I throw out the technical failures. I iterate numerous occasions for the two-fold or four-fold cut. I choose at least one of the cuts, and, sometimes, I will choose several cuts. Once I make the choices, the piece, or pieces, have been delivered into the concrete realm.

My intentions throughout these procedures all aim to coordinate processes. There can be secondary intentions that refers to symbolic or pattern language or specific cultural forms that are part of the set-up for the photograph. For example, in Four Observers, there is a metal sculpture from Thailand. My secondary intention never is precisely articulated, yet, in the example of this piece, I am well aware that my secondary intentions have something to do with choosing the small asian sculpture and setting it into the set-up, (or still-life,)  that will be photographed.

Drafts or rehearsals or preliminary versions constitute the concretization of an artwork from out of my artistic practice.

Stephen Calhoun artist

Kay:
Do you get specific inspiration about content, color, etc, to make a plan or is it more like improv? How do you choose all the elements included in a work?

Stephen:
Improv, yes!

There are two basic states of my ‘feel’ for an element. First, is that I discover an element out in the wild, say at a garage sale or a leaf lying on the ground, and I immediately feel this element will really play an important role. or be the element around which a piece is centered.

In this first kind of feel, I go about collecting elements and archiving these for future use.

The second kind of feel has to do with pursuing trial and error for the sake of guiding a complex assembly, through a series of iterations. This is especially true for generative pieces. Generative pieces start with me choosing the three to seven source photographs that will, in effect, feed into the programmed tunable routines of the generative application. Those choices are all about predetermining to some extent what content and colors will likely work their way into successful iterations.

When I am working both types of feel at the same time, I am largely intuiting and feeling and recursing via trial and error through arrangements of various elements.

In the background of my current process is the way that my increasing experience also supports more effective intuitions. This reduces the error aspect of trial and error. 

The most common occasion for planning is when it becomes necessary to re-shoot a set-up–for any number of reasons–and in this redoing, plan not to make the same errors a second time.

Mai:
How do you usually get inspiration for your artwork?

Stephen:
I start to play around.

Besides the feel, which arises when I come to possess an element which suggests itself as a centering object in a photograph, the most usual means for coming to inspiration is simply playful imagining, experimenting and messing around. I try out stuff and push into and through little miniature tests and, even sometimes, subjecting set-ups or generative schema to routines.

Two examples of routines are: swapping, and, inverting.

One nifty trick I play on myself is to archive objects and then, upon revisiting the object, to also revisit the original feeling of inspiration. Two objects present a possible synthesis out of their different original inspirations.

Each finished piece is the result of it going all the way through the entire process. Some of the stages of that process are inspiring, others are not. Post-production is a slog that challenges me to sustain high standards and be tenacious about technical details. This is a good point to bring in more of the C-based alliteration.

Capture
Cut
Choose
Coordinate
Concretize

Coalesce
Create
Consummate

These last three aspects often begin with an inspired choice, yet, soon enough the work is being fashioned by doing the chores implicit in coalescing, bringing together the technical requirements; creating, referring to finalizing enlargements and various proofing documents, consummating, producing both proofs and editions.

Kay:
How long does it take you to produce a piece like the ones in your show?

Stephen:
It varies. If one takes into account the discovery of, and management of, resources, then most photographic pieces would encompass the time spent collecting and archiving elements. This time also gets sunk into the photos which underlie generative pieces. I have no idea what this number is because these inventory management tasks are ongoing.

Working backwards, post-production is 2-20 hours per piece.

Iterative time means all the time spent in trial-and-error mode after the assembly of the set-up. In the realm of photography, this is very variable on a per piece basis. 1-5 hours is a likely range. On the generative side, 1-10 hours. I suppose I need not count all the time spent on the 90% of projects that end up in the trash, yet, those provide the necessary learning from mistakes and from retired trials which go into every future piece,

Figuring out the set-up and shooting photographs is 1-3 hours per shoot. I log challenging shoots for the sake of documenting camera settings and environmental factors.

Photographic pieces take somewhere between 4 to 30 hours. The shoot for the various pieces Dave’s Buddhist Tree Stump took fifteen minutes, and the photos were superb and the cuts were plain to see. Eightfold Marian Anthropology took over thirty hours.

Stephen Calhoun

Mai:
Could you share a story about a time something unexpected and/or interesting happening amidst a piece’s creation, which then changed the piece?

Stephen:
There are so many such stories. Very small unexpected events may have very large consequences. This is something I always knew as a cyberneticist, but it has really been thoroughly hammered home as learning given in my experience of my creative process.

Much of what I manage in my creative process has to do with narrowing and reducing possibilities without also erasing the opportunity the unexpected presents. The singular tonic in noting this is that the actual field of possibility is infinite.(*) This is the principal context for my being open to the unexpected.

When I shot set-ups in the antique green glass I call Shiva, I had no idea the chaotic surface of the deteriorating asphalt driveway–upon which Shiva was placed–would so enthusiastically be integrated into the photographs. Our asphalt driveway has found its way into many finished pieces.

For over a year I would simply iterate symmetries given the orientation of the photograph. Also, I would limit dropping the dividing plum to a small number of options given by only the center of photographs. By accident I warped a photo off the center plum, and realized instantly that this opened up a large field of new symmetries. Where the cut is made always implicated it being anywhere along a dimension of the image, but I was so absorbed in the overtly obvious choices that I ignored the covertly obvious possibilities! This accidental finding soon led me to significantly expand the geometries I previewed and subjected to various test cuts.

This finding also underlies related technical innovations too. One builds upon the other, but first one has to make the fruitful error!

Kay:
What was the biggest surprise you experienced with the work at the show?

Stephen:
Pieces are proofed in my studio at a size no larger than 19×13 inches. My system is calibrated, so I can zoom in and spy details on the computer monitor. This allows me to work at the pixel level.

My printer produces small proofs for the purpose of deciding what medium will be utilized to reproduce final pieces. It is the common practice of fine art photographers to proof at full size using the medium the final edition will use. I don’t do this.

My production printer and I work well together. I sometimes ask for small proofs and slices printed to different media to see what aligns with my sense of a final piece.

Given the chicken-and-egg of my first show, I couldn’t produce full size proofs, and, instead produced full size slices/excerpts. Slices showcase small sections of pieces at full scale. I use a slice to confirm color matching, and, printed resolution.

When I pulled the trigger on production of the fifteen pieces in the show, I knew going into it that when these were delivered to the gallery, that I would be seeing the full final pieces for the very first time.

The biggest surprise came when I helped unwrap the pieces at the gallery and flipped them over and saw the faces for the first time and realized my modest (circa autumn 2015,) post-production skills had been up to the task of, for example, taking 14×9” originals up to 70×45” installed pieces.

The large scale of the pieces amplified their engaging qualities. This proved my fundamental hypothesis: that the goal of my work being evocative was well served by the work being large, rather than small. When I unwrapped the largest pieces, even I was overwhelmed!

Seeing my finished pieces for the first time a few days before each was to be hung, permits me to indulge a first social hypothesis: my art’s aim to inspire evocative, meaningful, positive experience will be confirmed by its viewers.

Holly:
Is there a particular audience you are hoping to connect with through your art?

Stephen:
Yes, I’m hoping to connect with the audience able to easily view the pieces and spend the requisite time fully engaging each piece. As the Sufi aphorism puts it: time takes time.

My art is democratic in that my intent aligns with anyone of any age or any quality who is willing to be drawn into their own experience of my art. This is different than the transactional, and often intrasemiotic alignment between a person able to decode on their own the specific messages coded into the piece by the artist. My pieces are built to resist anything like an authoritative interpretation.

It is both a common fact and a remarkable fact of my own intent that I discover unintentionally coded elements in my art long after the piece has been completed. There is literally a psychology of the unconscious and a psychology of experience operating in the background.

One broad theme, and it really is what I would class as a meta-theme, is that the qualification of rewarding experience made possible by my art is the result of the kind of meta-intention that allows me to intend not to intentionally code message or meaningfulness into my work. There is a great deal implied by my intending not to intend.

Still, the concomitant of this paradoxical thrust of this artist is what comes back from a viewer’s receptivity to grasp and work through and willingness to complete the art piece with their own unique, and contingent, and novel, and correct-by-whatever-principle, embodied experience.

From the viewing subject’s perspective, their own paradoxical situation is brought forth by how it the case that their experience is in no way advantaged by their being able to decode and conceptualize tacit, third order contextual themes. This kind of decoding and its ‘reading into the artwork’ is not, paradoxically, caused by my artwork. This kind of decoding reflects an approach, it brings its map to the territory of the artwork, but it is not possibly privileged as against any other experience in the territory of the experience of the artwork.

Rather, it is my hope that the viewer’s open consciousness will playfully engage the question imposed by the piece, even when, and perhaps especially because, the singular question isn’t knowable and cannot be asked; have I got your meaning right?

This kind of experience is accessible by anyone. This kind is a mystical kind.

Holly:
Will you share a story about what people have seen in one of your pieces?

Stephen:
I wish I could record the experiences of the viewer! It would be neat to have more opportunity to hear reports about experience. Any report promises to take me on a fresh tour of the art work.

Sure, I have learned about what literally popped into somebody’s mind. Someone’s sons wanted to touch the pieces. If it were up to me, the experience would include touching.

One friend remarked how meditative was their experience of a few of the pieces. Another person found their experience was of being disturbed yet being drawn closer.

The prize goes to a ten year old girl, Zoey, who remarked,

“I had to re-adjust my brain to see farther into your picture.”

Kay:
Do you have daily practices that support your creativity?

Stephen:
Paying attention. I’ve been a daily, spot meditator/contemplator for 28 years. These two practices are linked. I also keep my eye out.

Much of what fascinates me and concerns me reverberates in my living and creating. Music is part of this, so the language of your questions has already lit upon improvisation, intuition, inspiration. You know me to be a reflective type, right?

Certainly, there are key ongoing investigations about serendipity, pragmatist aesthetics, enactive psyche, archetypal processing, and, as I would put it, the creative conduction of being, that are seemingly practicing me, and overflowing into my creativity!

Rumi! A slender bright reed song. If it should fade, we fade!

Alice:
What is there before the image?

Stephen:
Lila? . . .a nascent playfulness.

As it happens–and this is true for the mirror symmetry when it is happening on a heavy metal album cover, in a Rorsach blot, or, in a centuries old decorative tessellation at The Alhambra–there is its striking of order.

This symmetrical order is an unusual reduction.

The outward physical order given in symmetry is nothing like the creative order of thinking, feeling, willing, being. But, in that we are experiencing creatures, it is notable when our order of consciousness itself becomes for a moment symmetrical. This and that; if so, not so; given this, this is given too; this side includes this other side. Etc.

This occurrence leaves traces. Those traces are numerous. There are classificatory systems able to conceptually encompass conceptual structures which are notable, for our purposes, for their two-ness, four-ness, fourfoldness, etc.

Such systems of systems include: Buddhist mandalas, the four humors, my colleague David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, C.G. Jung’s theory of enantiodromia, each and every theorization of paradox, polarity, dialectic, dichotomy, association, differential abduction, negative capability, etc. All involve the negotiation of a smaller order, a scalar symmetry, out of the greater, larger, more complex, complex.

What of the powerful impulse provided by the desire to see the transformation of chaotic togetherness into coherent togetherness?

There is in the first order a simple way to design this transformative action into a fourfold aesthetic experience and instance a deeply symmetric enaction:

be it / create it / experience it / see it.

Lila.

The last alliterative C that marks my process is:

Concrescence:
The growing together of a many into the unity of a one.
It is “the real constitution of a particular existent.” (A.N. Whitehead)

Eightfold Concrescence, Artistic Process Symmetry:

Capture
Cut
Choose
Coordinate
Concretize
e
Coalesce
Create
Consummate


Tony:
Up until now my interest and exposure to art has been limited to painting, drawing and sculpture. Computer generated art is something that does not immediately resonate. Your work is really the first I have tried to understand and appreciate. But I need some help.

I can understand when someone puts pencil or brush to paper that this is a direct expression from brain to paper or canvas. The transfer to computer does not seem quite so personal but maybe that is me – after all a musical recording has to go through all sorts of electronics before you hear that acoustic guitar. Maybe I need to approach computer art in a different way. Any thoughts?

Stephen:
I’d like to use your question to address a number of assumptions, including a few that are derived from your wondering out loud, but are not assumptions you’ve entertained here.

Every instance of my creative agency directs itself toward the generation of a flow of provisional stages. The various instrumentalities I deploy to facilitate this process are not less or more instrumental than is an acoustic guitar. A human plays the guitar, plays software, plays a camera, plays a shuffling of materials in a still life. My completed art pieces, then, are “human generated.”

The most intriguing assumption you’ve stated is: when someone puts pencil or brush to paper that this is a direct expression from brain to paper or canvas.

Set aside direct expression. Someone puts pencil to paper–what is put on the paper–is different than the mediation of this ‘putting down’ when it is facilitated by a simple or complex software routine.

Software ‘puts down’ the following task on a digital document: it changes the color of single pixels.

If I put a microphone on an acoustic guitar and plug its output into a reverb guitar pedal and then route this pedal’s output to an amplifier, the wave form will be altered. If it is a digital pedal it will be interpolated into binary samples and then converted back into an electrical translation of the analog sound that the mic picked-up.

Analog string wave form transduced by electromagnetic pick-up converted to digital stream manipulated in circuitry converted to digital stream interpolated to electromagnetic signal and translated back into impulses that move a speaker cone that produces a acoustical waves.

(Then onto the skin and into the ear, and more transduction, a deeply mysterious conjunction comes about between the now electrochemical intraneuronal transmission and the rising up of the qualia of mentally grasped sound.)

We are here speaking of the evolution of the means for manipulation (or alteration,) means which offload to various technological instrumentalities routines which cause manipulation. The actuality of the set of contemporary tools supposes that this evolution will continue, and, this evolution shows no respect to the idea that there are salutary halting points.

The so-called purist may be troubled by these facts.

Software instrumentalities in the domain of micro-processors boss around the color of single pixels. The file you view on a screen or in person just shows you what the underlying color/gamma designation are, and those designations are the equivalent of a very short descriptive phrase. Complex second order routines alter first order single pixels.

There are many questions which arise in noting the details of the growth of the techne embedded in the instrumentalities artists deploy. This is true for any art form. We do not expect visual artists to put down strokes on the cave wall.

Concerning this evolution, there aren’t any significant ‘stopper’ controversies in the visual art world, but, as I see it, there does arise a specific, albeit insipid, objection to digital art. This objection has come to be amplified in recent years because many people carry around and use mobile phone cameras. Before this recent era of mobile photography and so-called prisma, there was Photoshop, and its machine facility.

But, for this to make sense as an objection, it has to object to something real. So, the objection, really a family of objections, attaches itself to a sort of meta-ethic in aesthetics that hold that art cannot be produced by only facile procedures, by machine facility. In describing it this way I’m breaking it down and suggesting that the objection to using processors to manipulate those single pixels almost entirely has to do with the contrast between facilitating manipulation using processing power with the absolute command of, as you spoke of it, putting pen or brush to paper.

There’s a Turing problem concealed in this. How do we tell the difference? Watson plays chess really well. Clouds in the sky are beautiful. The sunset. Lilies. You see?

I read a series of comments on an internet thread a year or so ago where a bunch of painters came to mostly agree that art which uses processing power should rightly credit the software. Literally these folks thought the processing power and particular scheme for pixel manipulation was a co-author.

While recognizing what apparently is driving this objection, the objection would hold that Fender and Marshall and Maxon are co-authors of Eric Clapton’s music. The objectors don’t seem to me to have thought through the situation of techne and instrumentality in the creation of art.

Still, the place for facile manipulation of pixels itself is in a fascinating larger context having to do with the interplay of uniquely effective digitally applicative instrumentalities in the making of the so-called unified art object. This is to say that some of what is derived from processing power for the sake of manipulation speaks of capabilities and outcomes which are not achievable any other way.

The problem of the facile and facility is behind the contemporary concern with how certain manipulations have as their result mimicry of non-digital techniques. (Twas ever thus.) The question of who is properly described as being an artist does not get decided by analysis of what tools the creative person uses.

(That there are vested interests that believe such arbitration is sensible and justifiable is a sociological problem in the art world, not an aesthetic problem given by theorizing art practices.)

What I term the paradox-of-the-facile is evident in the realization that a given piece of digital art is not then bettered by something exactly like it having been produced by the absolutely masterful hand in the creation of a unified analog artwork. By virtue of this understanding there arises a symmetry: the faux watercolor manipulation of the analog piece is the equivalent of the faux analog rendition of the digital original.

Implicit in this is the idea that the goal of artistry is not exclusively obtained by the “planning out” of the “putting down.” An art object reflects any number of approaches. Many are heuristic approaches. Others include a factor of randomness. Others include methodical imprecision.

So, among the profound conundrums, or integrities, given by machine processing of pixels, is the one that informs my own work. This is: under-determination.

I do not masterfully or certainly or surely control every last element and micro-element that comes to be represented in the image. (At the other extreme is the total control of all elements in the unified art object.) But, I do invoke either a change or a prospect for change at the pixel level.

Think of how this is in music where the score controls everything but the player’s ultimate approach to the written music. In music, also, there exist crucial and revealing contrasts between the player who simply controls by virtue of her playing exactingly what is to be produced, with players who conduct their playing using a more generative approach. Yet, it is music all the same.

We do not have to work hard at all at coming to recognize the operations of underdetermination, or chance, or error, or serendipity, or intentional minimization of control, in any art form. Roughly, what I note is the ineluctable relationship between contingency, agency, and what actual overt and covert, grounded and backgrounded, socially constructed, fortuitous, etc. systems come to be instantiated in the unified art object. In a way, it is helpful to state that these systems exist behind the scenes!

There are other systems that are related to the action at the tip of the brush and in the feel of the artist. Only negative capability is up to the task of disentangling all that bears down on art making. What surely is not part of the process? Consider the social precedents in learning, in the actuality of both imagination and inspiration, or the ecological precedents, of which the weather and what side of the bed one arose from are not necessarily trivial contingencies!

This defeats any idea that the art creator is controlling absolutely and wholly every last element, or, absolutely controlling what she is putting down on paper. It is never simple.

(The aesthetics of aesthetics has yet to be worked out. The creativity of creativity has yet to be worked out.)

What is missing from the critique of instrumentalities is the contextualization that is provided by consideration of the art object as a contingent manifestation of a flux of human-intentional, and ecological, (implying everything else,) systems. This contextualization is robust enough to seriously consider that it can hardly be the case that an art object is caused by, for example, “when someone puts pencil or brush to paper [that this] is a direct expression from brain to paper or canvas.”

And, this is just as much true for the painter painting a painting. In light of this, that I am lightly touching upon here, a question for any artist is:

“What in your art did you have little or nothing to do with?”