What is neso-aesthetics?
(How are islands useful in thinking, even generally, about art’s relationship to the world?)
Neso-aesthetics has developed from my materialist approach to art in general. I take the position that aesthetics is first of all an exploration of our sensible experience, a pursuit of articulating the material and affective properties of art, an exploration of the ways in which art itself opens up our sensible experience of the world. That is, I view art as an important practice of creating or “inventing” new spaces of possibilities and new sensations. Our experiences of art, at their most transformative, are not only semiotic, but kinesthetic, material, active, multiplicitous events, moments of intensity that provide a destabilizing relationship with the world, access to what we do not know about it and each other. I also consider art a part from/ and apart of the world. In many ways, to make a quick and dirty metaphor, like an island. It is own entity (apart – one word, but meaning separation), but also a part (two words, but meaning conjunction) of the unfolding experiences that we have of the world and interpretations we make in the world.
This is a quick and evocative description of a specifically feminist and materialist notion of the aesthetic experience as part of the larger ecology of meaning, and imagination. Art is necessarily and inextricably part of ethics, history, politics, economics, geology and so on. As Donna Haraway, the radical cyber feminist, puts it, it matters what matters we use to think other matters. I have explored this kind of aesthetics with respect to readymades in my previous book, Uncommon Goods. While writing that book, I found the recurring theme of islands in the thinking of my favorite theorists Eduard Glissant, Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, and Gilles Deleuze (often with collaborator Felix Guattari). Deleuze’s theories, in fact undergird many of these more contemporary thinkers. He often discussed our ethico-aesthetic relationships using geologic, tectonic and island concepts. In What is Philosophy, he and Guattari offer what they call geo-philosophy: thinking (and feeling) always takes place in relationship to the earth. His famous essay Desert Islands is a critique of Western subjectivity’s foundational mythology of origin and difference. I’ve found one of his most evocative concepts of the creative process in his essay on Herman Melville. He says
It is first of all the affirmation of a world in process, an archipelago. Not even a puzzle, whose pieces when fitted together would constitute a whole, but rather a wall of loose, uncemented stones, where every element has a value in itself but also in relation to others: isolated and floating relations, islands and straits, immobile points and sinuous lines – for Truth has always had ‘jagged edges.’” [i]
We’ll get to Melville and his White Whale in a few months, but what I want to draw your attention to now is what Deleuze describes here is a concrete pursuit of making sensible human-world situations. He asks us not only to perceive the world in shifting parts, but to be sensible to the world’s own agency, force, and process, in so many words, its ability to “talk.” One could think about the aesthetic experience in this way: as a bloc of sensations, operating between the so-called object and viewer, opening this arbitrary division we have made between subject and object, opening the self to a world of impermanence and interpenetration, a molecular and geologic world of becoming. In sum, what Deleuze offers is a materialist understanding of relations applicable to both the world and our representations of it. This I am calling a neso-aesthetics (deriving from the Greek nesos for island).
To test and generate my understanding of this concept, I have been exploring the work of a number of artists who are specifically concerned with contemporary representations of the world as archipelago. Take Turkish artist Emre Huner for instance. I first saw Huner’s work in the New Museum Triennial, Younger than Jesus and ended up inviting him out to Hawaii. Since then we have both been obsessed with islands. Exchanging readings and sharing work. I am showing you part of his recent project, Aeolian Processes, a reference to the way the wind shapes land. In this series Huner revels in the properties of clay and his own ability and inability to shape it. In the end, he creates forms we can not readily understand, but that look vaguely geologic. Huner’s strange arrangements of unfired clay bodies articulate their powdery textures, their particle mashing, and their inability to stay amassed. He challenges my meaning-ful world by presenting these fragments, not as human artifact, but as the world’s vital material. Huner’s work makes me attentive to the specific textures of things in the world, and their obdurate quality to resist my words and my logic. <I have to grapple with and test out my sensations in a process and poetics of relation. Usually these maquettes and props, are also shown in animation and projection, emphasizing their agency beyond an easy understanding of what they are. These are sketches in clay and drawing for his new series Perpetual Island Infinite Vehicle. They mediate on our perpetual innovation, our love of imagining new solutions, even as we leave behind us a wake of abandoned ruins. Based on Christopher Priest’s future dystopia, the Islanders; and Judith Schaboskly’s Atlas of Remote Islands, Fifty Islands I have never set foot on and never will he offers both a critique of the typical mythology of island utopias, and presents more evocative and open-ended sedimentations that could invite us to see these fragments of the world differently.
[i] Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby; or The Formula,” in Essays: Critical and Clinical (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997): 86.