Archive for May, 2010

Building mass

Monday, May 31st, 2010

At this stage in the artwork there are few aesthetic qualities to the work-in-progress.  This is partly due to the need to maintain each layer of text in a distinct colour so that I can identify layers quickly. Later on in the process I will change the colours to a more harmonious combination and shift layers around, changing opacity and emphasizing key words using a larger font.


One thing that has emerged today is the beginnings of what I will call ‘sedimentation’, layers of word-threads building up from the bottom of the composition, potentially building to a high density, with certain words breaking away from these foundational layers as they stack up towards the upper regions of the picture plane.  I also expect to add an amount of formatting material to generate ‘noise’.  This ‘noise’ material will be created by opening the original word documents (where the synonyms were collated) using the wrong software, such as a .docx file opened in .doc or notepad.


Word:Mass VO8 work-in-progress

Cognitive linguists have not concentrated their attention on creativity, in the belief that creative use of metaphor and metonymy is the exception to the rule, and they wanted to establish what the ‘rules’ were. This appears, at face value, to be an entirely logical assumption, but recent studies by Rachel Giora, a linguist working at Tel Aviv University, have challenged this approach.  By studying conventional metaphors and metonymy it would seem that we have ignored a basic, but highly important, function of the human brain, that of pleasure seeking.  Pleasure is not a bonus experience but a fundamental human driver.  The limbic system in the brain is stimulated by innovation.  But, as Giora has discovered, there is an ‘optimal innovation’. Giora has demonstrated, in her  ‘optimal innovation hypothesis’, that it is some ‘salience imbalance: the surprising discovery of the novel in the salient or the salient in the novel’, (Giora 2002: 12), that provides the most cognitive pleasure.  As Giora explains,

Optimal innovations are also more pleasurable than pure innovations. It is the surprise experience in suddenly discovering some novelty where it is least expected, or the gratification in discovering the familiar in the novel…. It is not the most familiar, then, that is least enjoyable, but rather the most novel that is least pleasing. Pleasure, however, resides half way between high salience and high novelty, (Giora 2002: 14).

Giora regards salience as being meaning that has been coded in the mental lexicon and is foremost in our mind due to ‘conventionality, frequency, familiarity, or prototypicality’, [Prototypicality in semantics is an instance of a category or a concept that combines its most representative attributes, such as robin being a prototype of bird, unlike penguin].  It follows that nonsalience is novel and inferred, being either non-coded or coded meanings that are unconventional, infrequently occurring, unfamiliar, and non-prototypical thereby making them slower to understand.   Giora’s approach is in itself novel, as cognitive linguists have not tended to measure ‘pleasure’ per se.  Aristotle, over two millennia ago, recognised the ‘optimal metaphor’ when he spoke in The Rhetoric of how metaphor makes language colourful, in that it ‘gives style, clearness, charm, and distinction as nothing else can.’  Interestingly, Aristotle uses ‘clearness’ as one of the virtues of metaphor in language. So, although he sees metaphor as an embellishment (charm), he also acknowledges its power to communicate new ideas in ways that we can quickly understand. He sums up optimal metaphor thus, Now strange words simply puzzle us; ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh. When the poet calls ‘old age a withered stalk’, he conveys a new idea, a new fact, to us by means of the general notion of bloom, which is common to both things….Liveliness is specially conveyed by metaphor, and by the further power of surprising the hearer; because the hearer expected something different, his acquisition of the new idea impresses him all the more. His mind seems to say, ‘Yes, to be sure; I never thought of that’, (see Rhetoric, Aristotle, 350 B.C.E Translated by W. Rhys Roberts Book III 

I believe Giora’s research gives us a means of understanding not only creative metaphors, but also creative metonymies.  We use conventional metonymies in everyday speech, such as ‘give me a hand’, but can we create novel metonymies, that provide the ‘pleasurable’ stimulus that Giora refers to? I think so. Metonymic relations, that is, domain-internal elements, grouped together may not necessarily seem novel. In fact, the very fact that there are a number of related elements grouped together would tend to confirm their commonplaceness. But if the quantity of elements is further increased there will come a point, (a ‘tipping point’ or a ‘threshold’) whereby the differences between these elements begins to outweigh the fact that they are related. The frequency of the differences between them, will outweigh their preconceived frequency within the world. At this point the differences between the elements is foregrounded and their relatedness backgrounded, enabling novel meanings to emerge.  There needs to be sufficient difference within a familiar grouping of entities or ideas for new meaning to be discerned. It is likely that this ‘sufficient’ or ‘optimal’ point will vary according to the material being used, and how easily difference is discerned.

Word:Mass version 4

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Word:Mass VO4 (work in progress)

Word:Mass VO4 screen grab

Getting started has been hard. No amount of planning seemed to help. I realised that I had to work ‘blind’; that is, with no sense of what might happen and how ‘Word:Mass’ might form itself.  It is always unsettling not being able to control, or at least believe that you have some control, over the artwork you are creating. 

So I used ‘material thinking’ to get started. I wanted to explore the transition between light and knowledge, which is a theme running through my recent work, so I used two light bulbs that were near at hand, as my initial material – a blue ‘daylight’ incandescent bulb and a fluorescent strip-light tube. I wrote down the distinguishing features of each, daylight: blue – glass – bayonet – filament – vacuum – glow, and the striplight: opaque – white – bayonet – pulse – glare, etc.  I selected two words from the list that described one of the types of bulb I was looking at – ‘daylight’ and ‘incandescent’.  These two words were my starting point. I am building the word ‘threads’ from the bottom of the page upwards because I anticipate that the lower words may be more concrete and, as the threads move up the page, they may well become more abstract.  This can be seen in the blue thread of words which begins with ‘daylight’ and ‘incandescent’ and ends in ‘free’.


The term ‘material thinking’ was coined by Paul Carter, an artist/academic based in Melbourne, Australia, who uses the term ‘material thinking’ to describe the process artists undertake in creating an artwork. Carter suggests that the artist engages in a dialogue with materials and with the context in which those materials are placed. Carter states that ‘what counts is not their [i.e. the material’s] obvious sensory and cognitive heterogeneity but their predisposition to movement, change, inter-penetration and transformation. … the creative capacity of the materials to rejoin themselves in different ways.’ (Carter, 2004:187) The ‘material thinking’ that Carter refers to involves ‘metonymic thinking’, in that the artist works within the domain of the selected materials: the materials’ attributes and constituents, their category relations and their interaction with the immediate locality.


I define ‘metonymy’ as ‘a cognitive process of meaning expansion within a domain or domain matrix, in which a ‘domain’ is any coherent organization of experience, and ‘meaning expansion’ is ‘the accumulation of a network of new senses around the original meaning. My definition is drawn from Klaus Uwe Panther’s observations that metonymy is a ‘cognitive operation of source meaning elaboration, i.e. an expansion of source meaning into a more complex conceptual structure of which the source meaning is part.’ (Panther, 2005:358; 2006:147-185); and Brigitte Nerlich’s observations, cited in her article Serial Metonymy: A study of reference-based polysemisation, in which she favours Armin Burkhardt’s definition of metonymy as being the “neighbourly links of aspects and elements inside a network of associations, based on a shared frame of reference” (Burkhardt 1996:178). Nerlich and Clarke also elaborate on the distinctions between metaphor and metonymy in language, which apply to cognition generally:

Two central aims of a mind using language are to express new things with old words (via metaphor) and to say in the most efficient way something more about something already well known (via metonymy). Whereas through the use of metaphor we are able to link distant and disparate domains of knowledge and experience, in the use of metonymy we follow referential landmarks picked out by the human visual system as the most salient, most obvious, and most basic to our experience of the world, namely those based on proximity and adjacency. If the mind is a connecting organ, as is widely acknowledged today, metaphor can be regarded as a force of conceptual binding (between distant conceptual domains) and metonymy as a force of conceptual spreading (inside and across adjacent conceptual domains). Both forces together make the human mind and human language what they are’ (Nerlich and Clarke, 2001:267-268).


 Word:Mass V04 (work in progress 26/05/2010)

Word:Mass VO4 screen grab with formatting paths

The software I am using to create Word:Mass can also be said to involve ‘material thinking’. I have chosen Adobe Illustrator because it creates a vector image which gives me the option to scale the artwork to any size without loss of clarity.  I’m working with layers – each word thread (grouping of connected words) is in a separate layer, so that I can return to layers created earlier in the process and make changes to colours, font size, opacity, and so on (all of which can be considered as materials that are being manipulated). I won’t know how words connect between layers until many layers have been built up. Illustrator throws up formatting guidelines which I have subsequently adopted as part of the artwork (see image).


I am using the term ‘thread’ to describe the associated words partly because I have placed an organic line under each word, that loosely follows the path the word was written along and partly because of the etymological reference to the telling of yarns – stories told by sailors while twisting yarn (rope). In the first layer of blue words, each of these gestural lines ends in a small square, drawn from the formatting symbols Illustrator uses to show the start and end of a path. I have included a ‘screen grab’ of the formatted image of Word:Mass VO4 to show how lively the image becomes when the formatting data is visible. I may well add other formatting symbols as the work progresses. The formatting symbols give a sense of texture, rhythm, direction and movement to the words. This additional, apparently superfluous material could be described as ‘noise’, in that these marks do not add specific information to the work, but somehow capture peripheral elements such as the downward passage of negative words, e.g. ‘fail’.


Mark C. Taylor discusses the importance of ‘noise’ in his book ‘The moment of complexity: emerging network culture (2001) in which he states that, ‘Noise disrupts order and creates the condition of possibility of the emergence of a new and more complex order.’  He explains that ‘what is information in one context is noise in another context.’  We can say that context, therefore, determines meaning; as Taylor says, ‘Noise… is always in formation. ‘Indeed, it is always in a process of forming and in a process of providing in-formation. Taylor refers to the French professor of biophysics Henri Atlan, whose studies in the nineteen seventies remain untranslated and therefore not widely known. Atlan summed up his work at an International Symposium on Order and Disorder held at Stanford University in 1981, ‘What I have to say may be summed up in two sentences: One is that randomness is a kind of order, if it can be made meaningful; the second is that the task of making meaning out of randomness is what self-organisation is all about.’  An artwork can in this sense be seen as a ‘self-organising system’. As Taylor explains, ‘For systems [including artworks] to work, … there must be neither too little or too much noise    We arrive, then, at the apparently paradoxical idea that organization is proportionally greater as ambiguity increases, up to a certain limit where there is no more transmission at all and where organization disappears.’ (Taylor 2001: 136). Where this ‘certain limit’ is, is conditioned by context, so that we might look at a later Jackson Pollock painting and see chaos or ‘noise’, with no apparent meaning. However, if we know that Pollock spent time in his early career studying entangled brambles and the branches of trees, and then consider the titles of his later works, such as Autumn Rhythm No. 30 1950, then a kind of natural, organic order emerges from his work.