Monday, October 17, 2016
The Battle at Bargen Way
by Hirsch Perlman
I had a mind to make a mechanical, articulated joint, perhaps for an unknown figure. And for some reason (because this is what artists do— close down the infinite possibilities, the infinite freedom we have to reveal a set of seemingly random finite possibilities) I would have to do this with no hardware, no glue, no fittings, just wood.
Two years of tooling up and experimenting followed and I arrived at an odd daisy chain design of interlocking wooden axles, nuts, and bolts. These parts were infinitely adjustable and could be locked in any orientation. I toyed with a variety of uses, placement, attachments, and configurations of the joint. Many kinds of wood were put to the test. The best wood, lignum vitae (wood of life), comes from South America. It's an extraordinary wood, with a resin that acts as a natural, built-in lubricant that has a lovely smell. Believe it or not, it's used to make large bearings in hydro-electric generators (I purchase the cut-offs from the manufacture of those bearings). It lasts longer than steel in that application. One of the first mechanical clocks was made out of lignum vitae.
Another year of toying and the real meaning of the joint unfolded. It's a mechanical schematic of thinking, the brain as an versatile tool. These parts were too flexible to be regular joints, they were "mind," not body.
I built a number of prototypes. 10-12 foot tall "stick person" bodies/limbs with my adjustable joint as neurons/hair/headdress, each thinking itself.
If I'd managed to properly anchor any of the them to the ground, they might still stand. I missed the storm and the battle, but not its aftermath. I would need to draw this out, look at the carnage for a long time, before I knew what it meant.
Many drawings later, I realized that my decimated figures represented the vanquishing, the obliteration of the old dualism: the mind/body split. They were models of a still powerful fantasy— the busy, infinitely nuanced and in-control brain atop stick-man-cut-out-doll structures. This was an important defeat. The battlefield needed to be documented for posterity.
Why do our big brains make us the most destructive creature on the planet? I wanted to dispel the false belief in our exceptionalism. We do carry the distinction from other animals of having our head in the sky and two feet on the ground. And it's true that humans are extraordinary mechanisms for projection— machines for seeing and making meaning in any and everything around us. Still, if consciousness is an evolutionary advantage, why doesn't a conscious self necessarily manifest humility, a counter perspective of unexceptionalism?
Despite my grandiose and personal cartoon war on the mind/body split and its tendency towards hubris, my own very real busy brain, persists in the illusion of my superiority. The battlefield drawings didn't exorcise my own mind/body problem.
I've continued to make the cranium-less busy brains. They are down-sized and I've taken away the body. All brain now. Heads on poles. And they're more international as they are made from random tropical hardwoods from Southeast Asian and South American rain forests. The wood was harvested long ago to supply the vast quantities of dunnage needed to secure the ever increasing global transport of cargo. I reclaim it as discarded dirty, stained, unidentifiable, meter-long wood posts approx. 4"x4" sq. Every post, a migrant— with unknown origins more often than not. I don't know what kind of wood it is until I mill it— and often, I still can't identify it. So far, I've only identified 3 or 4 species with confidence. There are at least a dozen I haven't identified. Estimates of the number of tree species in the world range from 20,000 to 100,000 (recent studies suggest there are 16,000 tree species in South America alone). Only a tiny percentage have been identified.
What if the history of sculpture were considered a long meditation on the mind/body dichotomy? Humans spent more than a million years making the same ascheulean stone hand tools, using the same knapping technology. We've spent only 50,000 years (maybe as much as 150k-200k according to recent research) making likenesses of ourselves. That's less than the last second of December 31st in Carl Sagen's famous analogy of the 4 billion plus year history of earth plotted onto one calendar year. Did representation serve some evolutionary purpose? Does consciousness? Maybe it's just way too soon to tell.
Humanitas Equanimitas: a human model, a sculpture, of embodiment; Five blocks equal in profile and proportion, one for a head, one for a torso, two for arms, one a pelvis, and two more blocks with the same profile but slightly longer for legs.
Months of stacking block bodies followed. I liked the immediate recognition that these simple blocks were hominim, but I wasn't confident in their ability to project affect. So I kept stacking them. I wondered if I was being simplistic. Was I just playing with blocks? Reminder to self: I'm happiest in my own creative process when I can't decide whether or not I'm serious about whatever it is I'm doing. If I go back and forth about it, that's a good sign somehow.
Armature wire now connects the blocks (or magnets in some cases) and a haptic balancing act between hands and blocks can achieve infinite pose-abilities, infinite posture and affect. Every seven blocks, now an individual, a subject, nearly a self (panpsychism takes this to its extreme— in the belief that all matter has at least some level of consciousness).
Some recent theories of mind suggest that a "self" is an illusion consciousness creates— questioning what it means to say we "are" selves, that we "have" selves? We know what that illusion feels like. What would that illusion look like?
That cylinder points in the direction of attention. That's what we do best— frame our attention, parse the incoming information, and focus on what's relevant.
When is a block just a block? When is a hole filled with presence, attention? When is my mind/body continuum not a self?
What's doing all this mental gymnastics if not a self? An organism extremely finely calibrated (thanks to millions of years of evolution) to continuously look for new ways to make use of all the sensory input it receives by transforming that information into infinite branches of specialty, utility, stuff, culture, civilization.
As important as all that incredible variety and specialization is to understanding our species and our universe, it's the shared human capacity for manipulating sensory input that's truly extraordinary (individual achievement is a byproduct of that shared capacity). At one end of our time line, there's more than a million years of hominids making the same set of tools and at this end, there's the damage we are knowingly doing to ourselves and the planet. The only species with the crazy ability to imagine its future generations is pretty miserable at safeguarding them.
I build the brains at a mechanically practical scale. And I build the two figure models at any size, from 5 inches high on up. Neither the brain or figure models have a definitive front or back. They're abstract, but unmistakable and approachable. Their face is whichever side you face. They never turn their back on you. Their message is be present and pay attention to past, present, and future. They are an egalitarian population.
I don't know yet what I've conscripted them for, or how they will be deployed, but now I can build my army of unexceptional-ism in earnest.
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