ANCHORAGE: a phenomenology of outline
Joe Graham (text and drawings) | Steven Dickie (drawings) | Chantal Faust (drawings)
Badiou, Alain. 2004. Handbook of Inaesthetics, trans. by Alberto Toscano (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press)
Depraz, Natalie. 1999. ‘The Phenomenological Reduction As Praxis’, in Fransisco Varela and Jonathan Shear (eds), The View From Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness (Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic), pp. 95–110
Fink, Eugen. 1995. Sixth Cartesian Meditation: The Idea of a Transcendental Theory of Method, trans. by Ronald Bruzina (Bloomington: Indiana University Press)
Gibson, James J. (1979) 2015. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Psychology Press Classic Editions (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1979; repr. New York: Psychology Press, 2015)
Graham, Joe, ed. 2015. ANCHOR (London: Marmalade Publishers of Visual Theory)
Husserl, Edmund. (1931) 2012. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans. by W. R. Boyce Gibson (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931; repr. London: Routledge, 2012)
———. (1950) 1999. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology, trans. by Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1950; repr. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999)
Ihde, Don. 2008. ‘Introduction: Postphenomenological Research’, Human Studies 31.1: 1–9
———. 2012. Experimental Phenomenology: Multistabilities, 2nd edn (Albany: State University of New York Press)
Ingold, Tim. 2015. The Life of Lines (Abingdon, UK: Routledge)
Maynard, Patrick. 2005. Drawing Distinctions: The Varieties of Graphic Expression (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press)
Moran, Dermot, and Joseph Cohen. 2012. The Husserl Dictionary, Continuum Philosophy Dictionaries (New York: Continuum)
Rawson, Philip. 1987. Drawing, 2nd edn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press)
Thomas, Paul, and Anita Taylor. 2003. Drawing: Foundation Course (London: Cassell Illustrated)
With thanks to Claude Heath and Paul McDevitt for providing ‘ANCHORAGE’ with a set of source material originally published in ANCHOR (2015).
Thanks also to Gordon Shrigley of Marmalade Publishers of Visual Theory for his help and encouragement during the previous, print publication stage.
For further information on ANCHOR, including how to obtain a copy, please see either the Marmalade website or contact Joe Graham directly.
The inspiration behind ‘ANCHORAGE’ is Edmund Husserl’s ( 2012,  1999) understanding of phenomenology as the search for invariants (or essences, to use the Husserlian term). Although I am an artist and not a philosopher, I remain intrigued by the implications of Husserl’s project for drawing research. This includes the connection between phenomenology and ‘the power of line – engraved or drawn – to specify invariant form’ (Ingold 2015: 102). I find appealing the idea that a general understanding of outline could potentially emerge, in unashamedly circular fashion, from within a singular question, such as, what is an outline? At the time of compiling ANCHOR, however, I understood that this task would require a more determined application of Husserl’s rather unique methodological approach – namely, the gesture of ‘phenomenological reduction’. Eugen Fink, Husserl’s assistant, referred to this as simply the means for ‘doing phenomenology’ (Fink 1995: 29). Aside from its conceptual underpinnings, my practical interest resides in the descriptive method that validates it – variational practice. As Ihde (2008: 6) describes it, ‘at the core of phenomenology in practice there is variational theory. In looking at any phenomenon, one must place it within its possibilities, its variations.’
WHAT IS AN OUTLINE?
As ‘ANCHORAGE’ is a piece of drawing research, I begin with the same question used before: what is an outline? Is it simply the ‘line around’, constituting a peculiar object of some singular sort? If so, then perhaps Philip Rawson’s (1987) articulation will suffice. Across a whole book devoted to detailing the history of drawing from a Western perspective, Rawson set aside only a few lines to describe the outline. Indeed, his description, the “line which runs around an enclosure, and which does not necessarily correspond with a single object, such as an area of empty space’ (Rawson 1987: 94), is perfunctory, suggesting no further questions need be asked. Equally unfussy is the description put forward by drawing scholar Anita Taylor. Treated as an everyday occurrence, Taylor describes, ‘a fluid back-ink line … used to define the characters and activity within the image’ (Thomas and Taylor 2003: 51). Patrick Maynard (2005) describes the outline solely in relation to contour, that is, the line around which gives the appearance of shape. For Maynard (2005: 77), ‘we are most familiar with contour shape through a line, notably an enclosure (dimensional index 2) generally called the “outline” of a thing’. As he goes on to say, ‘so universal is contour drawing across the ages that it stands in our minds as a paradigm for “drawing” generally’ (Maynard 2005: 77).
For variational theory to function, an actual description of the drawings as they appear is also required. Treating them as effectively a series of ‘outlined outlines’ means acknowledging they all describe the same task in conceptual terms. On a purely perceptual level, however, things are very different. If we look at Faust’s drawings, we can perceive a sense of fluidity within them that is far less present in mine. For example, I compare Chantal Faust, after Joe Graham, after Steven Dickie, after Paul McDevitt with the image that precedes it, namely Joe Graham, after Steven Dickie, after Paul McDevitt. Faust clearly makes use of white space in a way that I do not. Each jet-black gestural line is set standing forth from the space ‘behind’, whereas my pencil marks impress themselves into the grain of the tissue paper, declaring the surface upon which they sit. Likewise, Steven Dickie, after Chantal Faust presents drawn lines of various lengths, yet fixed in width, indicating a digital nib. But the way Dickie registers the form of a head is quite unlike Faust’s original – lines appear scored and hatched, rather than daubed. It seems the variations themselves could be endless, especially given the differences that accumulate via the vagaries of a personal style.
My initial attempt to address this seemingly straightforward question involved presenting it to a group of thirteen contributors, with the aim of collating material for a book. As editor, the various responses I received to the question (what is an outline?) were drawn, typed, photographed, and printed. These were then shuffled and arranged in sequence, before being published in print as ANCHOR (Graham 2015), a limited edition bookwork by Marmalade Publishers of Visual Theory, London. As a sustained piece of drawing research, my objective was to use these contributions to conduct a study into the phenomenon of outline, based on the concerns I’ve outlined above. This project was only loosely examined in relation to drawing – after all, if you ask a writer on drawing what an outline is, they may well provide you with a synopsis of their forthcoming book! Rather than seek to define an understanding, however, my objective was to ‘anchor’ the collective responses according to how the phenomenon of outline appears. In other words, by inviting each contributor to outline his or her respective creative concerns, I hoped to outline an understanding of outline, letting practice-led research form an alternative mode of reply.
SEEKING THE INVARIANT
This insistence … arises from the fact that a particularly benighted landsman must imagine the act of anchoring as a process of throwing something overboard, whereas the anchor ready for its work is already overboard, and is not thrown over, but simply allowed to fall.
Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea, 1906
What is an outline? Like many people who draw, I possess a history that began with drawing lines around things, described in an effort to keep separate what was ‘inside’ the lines from what was not. This process grew into a realisation that, when drawing lines around my ideas in order to represent them visually, what mattered most was not the outline itself but the thing outlined. The outer line was there, but not there – at least, not in the way I once imagined it was. In a similar vein, psychologist James J. Gibson ( 2015: 287) used his ecological view of perception to describe the outline as a misnomer. On this account, outline serves only to deflect attention away from itself, towards that which is properly other than itself, that is, the thing outlined. But if ‘outline’ is simply a misnamed term for what the outer line appears to be doing, then what is the right term, and why? As a drawing researcher with an interest in phenomenology, I suspect the problem lies buried within our comprehension of the relationship between the act of outlining and the object outlined. If, however, this implicit understanding of outline could be made explicit through the practice of drawing, perhaps a more universal understanding might also arise?
Once the act of bracketing has been implemented, ‘variational method’, or the practice of variational theory takes hold. As Ihde says, ‘in its simplest form the use of variations requires obtaining as many sufficient examples or variations upon examples as might be necessary to discover the structural features being sought’ (Ihde 2012: 23). The key term here is the word sufficient. Although we need to produce a series of outlines in order to seek the invariant understanding of outline, we do not need to produce an endless series. Quite the opposite – a small number might easily suffice for the key elements to emerge. In practical terms, generating variations of outline means redrawing the drawings of Heath and McDevitt in our chosen material. As mentioned, we include some of our own contributions to ANCHOR as additional starting points. This means Dickie, Faust, and I have copied each other’s drawings alongside those of Heath and McDevitt. We continued this process until we reached having to outline our own drawings, at which point we stopped. This formed a natural break in the process, suggesting the sufficiency of which Ihde speaks.
But what sort of sense can a ‘truth’ about outline offer to the practitioner who draws? If I understand Badiou correctly, it is only within the chance form of these drawings as artworks that the essence of outline is revealed. Importantly, this essence is nothing specific: for if chance forms in drawing remain mutable, fluidly developing across each new variation, then each new artwork described as ‘an outline’ means the phenomenon of outline is neither captured nor defined. In drawing this text to a close, I look to accompany Gibson’s ( 2015) misnomer with a post-phenomenological statement of my own. To wit – what is potentially ‘essential’ (Husserl) or ‘truthful’ (Badiou) about the phenomenon of outline is that it constitutes a peculiar form of immanence in transcendence. In other words, the individual outlines that inherently belong to each artist (on the basis of authorship) constitute simultaneously a universal understanding of outline that transcends the particularities of any single contribution. Yet on the basis of the reciprocality such a finding presupposes, the phenomenology of outline described here is fully contingent upon the various outlines we see presented there, there, and there. So although the outer line remains as slippery as ever, when we consider this as research through drawing, I would argue a new form of knowledge is reached.
ANCHORAGE: a resolutely circular phenomenology of outline.
This leads to the final stage: seeking the invariant proper.
Here, I examine the drawings as they are presented before me in this exposition. Selecting one image at random, Chantal Faust, after Joe Graham, after Steven Dickie, I try imaginatively to vary the configuration of marks I am looking at. Thinking of Faust’s drawing as an ‘outline’ in the loosest sense means I remain bracketed towards the scholarly descriptions of outline given earlier, so the marks can be imagined as a different length, width, or even tone. The only constraint is that they remain rooted in the task at hand, thus adhering to the one rule of variational method according to Ihde: ‘variations must genuinely belong together’ (Ihde 2012: 23). But what does ‘belong together’ in this instance mean? Faust’s outline is a redrawing of my outline, which is a redrawing of Dickie’s outline, and so on. These variations quite literally belong together within the context of the task embarked upon. However, even fictively altering the swirls of black acrylic marks seems immediately pointless. Why? Because to change them is simply to outline them according to my desires. And this, in essence, is what we have been doing each and every time we embark upon a new drawing.
In short, the task of trying imaginatively to vary Faust or Dickie’s work is not completed without the risk of changing something fundamental within the work itself. To be more specific, it seems as if the work in the form in which it appears here belongs to each artist in a manner rather different to the way in which it belongs to me as a viewer. Although each drawing provides a viewer with the loosest outline of the individual’s creative concerns, when treated as an ‘artwork’ it reveals itself to have very singular outlines, not easily disturbed. In an effort to bring further clarity to this point, Alain Badiou’s (2004) understanding of truth in relation to art seems pertinent. As Badiou (2004: 12) says, ‘a truth is an artistic configuration initiated by an event (in general, an event is a group of works, a singular multiple of works) and unfolded through chance in the form of the works that serve as its subject points.’ ‘ANCHORAGE’ can be described in these terms. As an event, it looks to unfold a set of variations of outline with a view to discovering the invariant truth about outline.
Thus the purpose of this JAR exposition can be described. Functioning as both a relocation and extension of an earlier project, ANCHOR (Graham 2015), the aim of ‘ANCHORAGE’ is to outline an understanding of outline by examining it in phenomenological terms. This means treating the outline as both a physical and conceptual notion, rooting it in the Greek term phainomenon, or ‘thing appearing to view’ (Moran and Cohen 2012: 251). The objective is to combine practice and theory in such a way that what is uninspected or merely assumed about the phenomenon of outline can be brought to light. As lead investigator of this ongoing project, I am actively joined in the current stage by two co-authors: Steven Dickie and Chantal Faust. Both are artists who contributed to the previously published stage (ANCHOR). In physical terms, we have produced between the three of us the various drawings presented here, using source material from ANCHOR as our guide. In conceptual terms, I will use this text to develop my own Husserlian-inspired methodology (Husserl  1999), in order to seek what was not sought in ANCHOR – namely, the invariant understanding of outline. This relates to what might be essential or truthful about outline in the context of drawing, contingent on the work presented here.
Nevertheless, while this initial stage of the investigation was deemed successful in a number of ways, it also left one or two phenomenologically inspired questions unanswered. Chief among them is the question of whether it is possible to approach the task I had originally set aside for ANCHOR – that is, defining an understanding of outline, but in a manner that would be wholly contingent upon a phenomenological approach. This would require a delicate balancing act: on the one hand going beyond the tentative act of gathering various contributions in a purely curatorial capacity, yet on the other remaining committed to an indirect, loosely outlined form of approach. In phenomenological terms that I will expand upon shortly, to define in this roundabout manner means to seek the invariant understanding from within the variety of work on display. In extending the investigation here, the original idea behind ANCHOR is allowed to ‘fall’ a little further into the philosophical context from which it first emerged. As a group, Dickie, Faust, and I are using this line of thought to ask: what might we have missed during our first time around?
To reiterate, as the editor of ANCHOR my focus was solely upon compiling the responses I received, rather than describing the work in a manner that would allow any sort of invariant understanding to emerge. In an effort to rectify that lack, ‘ANCHORAGE’ forms a relocation of the original ideas away from their previous location in print, towards this new site online. The visual work produced by myself, Dickie, and Faust is developed to answer the call for a range of variants to be described. This is phenomenology in practice: developed from the original Husserlian motivation to ‘do’ phenomenology, but pushed forward in practical terms by philosopher Don Ihde’s (2008: 2012) recent reinterpretation of Husserl. To ground our investigation in the physical response to the original question, we have selected as source material a number of images submitted to ANCHOR by artists Claude Heath and Paul McDevitt. Our process of redrawing/rethinking these drawings is intended to generate a new set of ‘data’ from which our conclusion(s) can be drawn.
Yet this business of treating the outline either as a thing that defines drawing or as a thing definable in itself remains confusing at best. For what is common to all these descriptions is their evident desire to ‘define’ the outline, whereas it might be suggested that what the outline constitutes, in a rather more fundamental sense, is a summary, sketch, or synopsis: indicating the general features but not the detail. In an effort to explain Gibson’s approach, social anthropologist Tim Ingold (2015: 101) adds, ‘Gibson is adamant in his rejection of the more traditional view of drawing, tied to classical optics, according to which the draughtsman mentally projects, onto the page, an image that has been first formed in his mind, and then physically traces the outlines.’ In a similar vein, we are rejecting the traditional view within drawing that says outline must be defined as this or that understanding. As practitioners, Dickie, Faust, and I treat the outline as that which is discovered only via the physical act of drawing. This means we circle the idea of outline through practice, whereupon the various works we have produced in response form a record of our movement around.