Situational Aesthetics – Victor Burgin

Some recent art, evolving through attention both to the conditions under which objects are perceived and to the processes by which aesthetic status is attributed to certain of these, has tended to take its essential form in message rather than in materials. In its logical extremity this tendency has resulted in a placing of art entirely within the linguistic infrastructure which previously served merely to support art. In its less hermetic manifestations art as message, as ‘softwear 7 , consists of sets of conditions, more or less closely defined, according to which particular concepts may be demonstrated. This is to say, aesthetic systems are designed, capable of generating objects, rather than individual objects themselves. Two consequences of this work process are: the specific nature of any object formed is largely contingent upon the details of the situation for which it is designed; through attention to time, objects formed are intentionally located partly in real, exterior, space and partly in psychological, interior, space. * * *

Accepting the shifting and ephemeral nature of perceptual experience, and if we accept that both real and conceptual objects are appreciated in an analogous manner, then it becomes reasonable to posit aesthetic objects which are located partly in real space and partly in psychological space. Such a placing of aesthetic objects however involves both a revised attitude towards materials and a reversal of function between these materials and their context.

Cage is hopeful in claiming, 4 We are getting rid of ownership, substituting use’; attitudes towards materials in art are still informed largely by the laws of conspicuous consumption, and aesthetic commodity hardwear continues to pile while utilitarian objects, whose beauty might once have been taken as conclusive proof of the existence of God, spill in inconceivable profusion from the cybernated cornucopias of industry. Each day we face the intractability of materials which have outstayed their welcome. Many recent attitudes to materials in art are based in an emerging awareness of the interdependence of all substances within the ecosystem of earth. The artist is liable to see himself not as a creator of new material forms but rather as a coordinator of existing forms, and may therefore choose to subtract materials from the environment. As art is being seen increasingly in terms of behaviour so materials are being seen in terms simply of quantity rather than of quality. [. . .]

Once materials are selected according to largely fortuitous criteria, depending on their location, their individual status is diminished. The identification of art relies upon the recognition of cues which signal that the type of behaviour termed aesthetic appreciation is to be adopted. These cues help form a context which reveals the art object. The object itself, in being displayed, may be termed overt and in the case of the visual arts it has been predominantly substantial. Any attempt to make an ‘object’ of non-overt and insubstantial conceptual forms demands that substantial materials located in exterior space-time be used in a manner which subverts their ‘objectness’ in order to identify them as ‘situational cues’.

Perceptual fields are not experienced as objects in themselves. Perception is a continuum, a precipitation of event fragments decaying in time, above all a process. An object analogue may, however, be posited by locating points within the perceptual continuum. Two rope triangles placed in Greenwich park earlier this year represent an attempt to ‘parenthesize’ a section of perceptual experience in time. General instructions for this work are:

1 Two units co-exist in time.

2 Spatial separation is such that units may not simultaneously be directly perceived.

3 Units isomorphic to degree that encounter with second is likely to evoke recollection of first.

By the above definition the units may be said to bracket the perceptual data subjectively experienced between them. The ‘object’, therefore may be defined as consisting of three elements: First unit. Recollection of intervening space-time. Second unit. [. . .]

Visual information concerning duration is gained, as it is gained when we observe motion, from observations of shift in perceptual field. In travelling past an object we are presented with an apparent configurational evolution from which we may abstract a number of discrete states. Comparison of expired configurations with the configuration of the moment tells us we are in motion relative to the object. An exercise of a similar nature is involved when we observe change in a place to which we have returned after an absence, we compare and contrast past and present configurations, or more accurately, we superimpose a memorized configuration upon a configuration present to the retina. Pragmatically, within this complex of shifting appearances, we have workable systems of establishing space-time coordinates for navigation and prediction, but true locations exist only in the abstract as points of zero dimensions. Locations such as those given by the National Grid are fixed by definition, but the actual spaces to which they refer are in continual flux and so impossible to separate from time.

Time, in the perception of exterior events, is the observation of succession linked with muscular-navigational memories – a visceral identification with change. Similarly kinaesthetic modes of appreciation are applied to the subjective transformation of these events in interior time and in recollection. All behaviour has these space-time parameters in common. To distinguish, therefore, between ‘arts of space’ and ‘arts of time’ is literally unrealistic. The misconception is based in materialism, it springs, again, from a focus upon the object rather than upon the behaviour of the perceiver. Theatre and cinema are not arts of ‘time’ but arts of theatrical and cinematic time, governed by their own conventions and the limitations of their hardware. The Parthenon is not ‘timeless’ but, simply, set in geological time. It is a mistake to refer to ‘time’ as if it were singular and absolute. A full definition of the term would require a plurality of times and would accomodate such contrasting scales as the times of galaxies and of viruses. The current occupation with time and ecology, the consciousness of process, is necessarily counter-conservative. Permanence is revealed as being a relationship and not an attribute. Vertical structuring, based in hermetic, historically given concepts of art and its cultural role, has given way to a laterally proliferating complex of activities which are united only in their common definition as products of artistic behaviour. This situation in art is the corollary of a general reduction in the credibility of institutions and many find much recent art implicitly political. One may disagree, however, with those who would locate motivations in as doctrinaire an attitude as ‘Disgust with the decadence of Western civilization’.

Art intended as propaganda is almost invariably both aesthetically tedious and politically impotent. The process-oriented attitudes described here are not intentionally iconoclastic and one should be suspicious of easy comparisons with . It does not follow, because some institutions have been ignored, that they are under attack. It seems rather less likely that the new work will result in the overthrow of the economy than that it will find a new relationship with it; one based, perhaps, in the assumption that art is justified as an activity and not merely as a means of providing supplementary evidence of pecuniary reputability. As Brecht observed, we are used to judging a work by its suitability for the apparatus. Perhaps it is time to judge the apparatus by its suitability for the work.

Originally published in Studio International, vol. 178, no. 915, October 1969.

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