Emergent perspectives


In these experiments we found solace in terms of both consolation, and perspective. Under our hands we witnessed our growing ability to see our professions in a new way, to imagine them differently – without rejecting or disqualifying what we had. While doing, we accumulated and created data. Data through which and whereby fundamental principles of art – and exhibition making are reintroduced.[1]


Dwelling in rudimentariness provides a location that offers a new perspective onto the artists’ habitual modes of making art and exhibitions, transforming these habits in the process. Once again, what is intriguing for me is that the site that re(in)forms their existing practices is one of sensation and empirical investigation. The new perspectives and knowledge emerge out of making and, more precisely, from a hands-on engagement with the materiality of clay. Hence, learning and the transformation of what is already known in this case are grounded in doing and the maker’s aesthetic encounter with materials.


Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy in which the sensible, and the experience of the sensible, is rendered discursive. The tradition of aesthetic philosophy in the West has theorised in various ways how an aesthetic experience can contribute to knowledge or, at the least, following the Kantian tradition, reveal something about the workings and the limits of thought. More recently, philosophers have attended to the political aspects of aesthetic experience, demonstrating how what can be perceived and conceived in the sensible world depends on contextual and historical conditions of possibility. In this way working in and through the sensible is now deemed a crucial aspect of any political project. That said, and as Hongjohn Lin has recently pointed out, the tradition of aesthetics has predominantly been concerned with the perceiving subject, meaning with the ‘emancipation of a universal, speculative receiver, not of a particular doer’.[2]


A turn toward the ‘doer’ seems appropriate here considering that Western aesthetics are routed in an interest in sensation – in other words, an interest in our rudimentary reactions to the sensible. Aesthetics, as Lin reminds us, ‘stands on the muddling foreground where words can easily run out into the fusion (and confusion) of the rational and the sensible’.[3]


Aesthetic encounters in making

While he does not explicitly address what is at stake for the artist in the process of making, the father of modern Western aesthetics, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, does provide the grounds for thinking about what the aesthetic experience has to offer the making subject in terms of transitivity. Particularly important is his notion of ‘sensate thinking’, a mode of cognition that he claims is parallel to logical thinking.[4] Sensate thinking as theorised in Baumgarten’s Aesthetica (1750–58) is presented not only as a form of cognition in its own right but also as a form of cognition that has productive repercussions for the workings and understanding of cognition.


To describe the modality of sensate thinking, Baumgarten draws on Leibniz’s theory of the continuity between perception (that which comes to us through the senses) and apperception (the sensations that we are able to channel into distinct concepts and ideas). Descartes had divided the process of perception into a fourfold partition consisting of obscure and confused perceptions and clear and distinct ideas (apperceptions). Any idea that was contaminated with obscure and confused sensations was bound to be false and, hence, unworthy of philosophical reflection. Only clear and distinct ideas participate in what could be called knowledge. In this way, Descartes set up a clear division between sensation and reason, perception and apperception.


For Baumgarten, following Leibniz, obscure and confused percepts were precisely the ground from which clear and distinct ideas emerge and return in entangled processes of perception and apperception. Within this scheme, there is a necessary connection and continuity between perception and apperception, sensations and reason. As theorist Birgit Kaiser has stressed, the continuity and difference between these two realms of thought are imagined by Baumgarten as the workings of chiaroscuro in painting. Just as dark and light elements in a painting co-produce the legibility of shapes and forms within the picture plane, Kaiser explains:


With Baumgarten and Leibniz, aesthetics and sensate thinking was to account rather for the irresolvable chiaroscuro in which we operate, both in art and in life. It was to account for the power and vivacity of this twilight, on whose ground things can be seen, and on the basis of which clarity can be wrung from darkness. And it affirmed, at the same time, that any distinct clarity will permanently flee and fade again.[5]


The question of when a percept is confused or distinct is one of graduation and intensity, depending on whether it crosses a threshold and comes to the attention of the perceiver as a distinct entity. Sensate thinking therefore largely remains below the threshold of consciousness, yet, even while it remains lurking in darkness, it is no less important.


It is on this point that Baumgarten’s ideas contrast most strongly with those of Kant. The perception of beauty for Kant is an aesthetic judgement, meaning one that lacks distinction because, as for Baumgarten, it is not determined by concepts. As a result, the aesthetic encounter incites a free play between the mental faculties that find themselves absorbed in a state of self-reflection, yet otherwise – and here we depart from Baumgarten – have no further conceptual value.


For Baumgarten, confused sensations are powerful and productive precisely because their features – what he calls marks – cannot be turned into distinct concepts. For Baumgarten, as sensations gain in clarity, they simultaneously loose the richness of their many confused features along the way. As ideas are abstracted from obscurity, their force to affect and move thought is lessened. In his words:


The more marks a perception (idea) enfolds, the more powerful it is. Thus, an obscure perception including more marks than a clear one is more powerful than this latter, as much as a confused one including more marks than a distinct one is again more powerful that this latter one. Perceptions (ideas) that include more in themselves are called pregnant. Therefore, pregnant perceptions are more powerful.[6]


Confused and obscure ideas, possessing a richness of features, have far more potential to affect cognition. Most important here is how Baumgarten explains that, in order to allow for the power of sensate thinking to do its work on thought, one needs to have a certain disposition. In fact, according to him, the task of the philosopher is not only to understand the working of sensate thinking but also, in a second instance, to develop a sensitivity to this mode of thought.[7] Here we return to the concept of rudimentariness. Rudimentariness is an attitude or state adopted toward one’s object of study, one that strives to resist the workings of applying ready-made concepts, meaning the tendency toward conceptually grasping. The epistemological concept of sensate thinking describes and demands such a disposition. Rudimentariness as an attitude applied in practice reflects the ideals of sensate thinking, bringing the workings of thought closer to the chiaroscuro operative in art and life.


The state of rudimentariness, which is predisposed to the concept of sensate thinking, is arguably the general modus operandi of artists in general as they work on and through their personal sites of investigation. While other disciplines seek precise results through determined methodologies, artists’ aesthetic encounters with their materials and sites of inquiry are afforded the privilege that a distinct method can emerge each time. Certainly Bergholtz and Pask’s search to explore the richness of making in ceramics is one that aligns with sensate thinking as an attitude, as articulated here. Besides refraining from having a distinct idea of the final result they are working toward, such a disposition reflects the artists’ attitude toward the material with which they work. They do not attempt to readily form clay, but approach it probingly, as an entity from which they can learn. By embracing rudimentariness toward their medium, they remain open to its agency and the power of sensate thinking that accompanies their acts and reflections in the process of making.


Touch and rudimentariness

Here I would like to turn to the particular point of encounter between the makers and their material, which is predominantly the sense of touch. To be sure, touch always operates in a synaesthetic manner – that is, in collaboration with other sensory and cognitive faculties. However, the mode of making ceramics literally entails a hands-on approach, in which touch becomes the most direct site of contact between maker and material. Under their hands ‘they witnessed their growing ability to see their professions in a new way’,[8] to perceive them from a new distance that had opened-up from within ceramics as a para-practice. This claim reflects the specific trajectory that begins with fingers encountering clay, the perception of which leads to a gradual awareness of its transformative effect on the making subjects. It’s worth pondering the specificities of the sense of touch, as a closer look exposes its predisposition to the practice of rudimentariness and for the development of Baumgarten’s notion of sensate thinking.


The understanding of the senses and their relation to cognition is complex and has been articulated differently over time. It is not the point here to give an extensive overview of this history or to set one sense off against the other. Following Andrew Benjamin,[9] I want to stress that the senses have different presences in their relation to thought; I will focus on what characteristics are specific to the presence of touch: namely, that touch precedes in movement, that it has its own specific relation to time, and that the act of touching is never complete when it comes to understanding.


Intriguingly, in 1749, a year before Baumgarten began to work on his Aesthetica, Denis Diderot published Lettre sur les Aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient (Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who Can See), which turned the deficient state of blindness into a philosophically rich terrain for those who can see. Contrasting with the Enlightenment’s epistemological linking of sight, clarity, and knowledge, Diderot stressed how touch yields understanding in blind people by proceeding inquisitively in the dark and through movement. Fingers move over surfaces, textures, and forms yielding the contours and specificities of the object at hand. The incoming sensual data gradually forms a kind of mental picture in the mind. At its core, touching always involves movement, beginning with the movement toward – a reaching out – in order to touch.


Furthermore, the movement toward an object to grasp its features entails a temporal dimension that is not limited or constrained by immediacy. In Plastik (1770–78), Johann Gottfried Herder also examines the role of the senses in relation to cognitive faculties. Observing art students working in sculpture he claimed that touch is the most philosophically profound of the senses and described its manner of giving form to an object through movement and in time as ‘the difficult concepts we acquire slowly and with great effort by groping with our hands.’[10]


Hands form or discover an object carefully, uncovering its characteristics and meaning in time. Lingering in darkness and obscurity, the movement of touch proceeds without direction as it searches, feels and moves further. ‘That on which the hand works cannot be mastered’ according to Herder; infinite possibilities stand in the way. Touch uncovers and discovers all the while preserving the site as one of continual uncovering.[11] Hence, the tactile significantly repositions the touching subject in relation to the touched object, and the object plays an active dimension in the process. According to Andrew Benjamin:


Asking the question – when does the touching stop? – is to locate matter, the work of materiality and the placing of the hand within time. In addition, it allows matter to become a locus of activity. In the move from the literal there is an accompanying transformation in how the object is understood. Touching takes place over time. Touching is timed.[12]


Hence, working with, and the working of, materiality in the act of touching is reciprocal. As Erin Manning has emphasised, I cannot touch without being touched in turn. The sense of touch implies an entre-deux, a touching-being-touched relation between subject and object.[13] The information that comes to me through the sense of touch necessarily involves movement in time, because if I lay my hand still on something I can no longer feel the object (touching me) until I again move my hand across its surface. In the entre-deux of touching, transitivity operates in two directions. As the maker touches and forms the material of the object, the materiality of that object is felt and perceived in turn, (in)forming the making subject of its presence in the process.


The sense of touch therefore aligns with the practices of rudimentariness and sensate thinking. Resisting immediate grasping, it proceeds instead through movement and in time, and retains the possibility of a stream of non-abstracted sensory data to affect the making subject. The encounter that results is not one-way, because the material ‘might act as much as a companion as it can be resistant and recalcitrant’.[14]


Fragile compositions


[1] Bergholtz and Pask, A Way of Making, press release.

[2] Hongjohn Lin, ‘Stop Making the Sensible’, in Experimental Aesthetics, ed. by Henk Slager (Utrecht: Metropolis Books, 2014), pp. 18–20 (p. 19).

[3] Ibid., p. 18.

[4] Birgit Mara Kaiser, Figures of Simplicity: Sensation and Thinking in Kleist and Melville (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011), p. 12.

[5] Birgit Mara Kaiser, ‘On Aesthetics, Aisthetics and Sensation – Reading Baumgarten with Leibniz with Deleuze.’ Esthetica: Tijdschrift voor Kunsten en Filosofie (March 2011) <http://estheticatijdschrift.nl/files/2014/09/1-Esthetica-Onaestheticsaistheticsandsensation---readingBaumgartenwithLeibnizwithDeleuze-2011-10-17.pdf> [accessed 25 December 2016].

[6] Baumgarten, quoted in Kaiser, Figures of Simplicity, p. 20.

[7] Baumgarten, quoted in Kaiser, Figures of Simplicity, p. 22.

[8] Bergholtz and Pask, A Way of Making, press release.

[9] Andrew Benjamin, ‘Endless Touching: Herder and Sculpture’, Aisthesis: Pratiche, linguaggi e saperi dell’estetico, 4.1 (2012) <http://www.fupress.net/index.php/aisthesis/article/view/10983/10430> [accessed 23 December 2016].

[10] Robert E. Norton, Herder’s Aesthetics and the European Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 218.

[11] Andrew Benjamin, ‘To Touch: Herder and Sculpture’, in Sculpture and Touch, ed. by Peter Dent (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 79–90 (p. 85).

[12] Andrew Benjamin, ‘Endless Touching’.

[13] Erin Manning, Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), pp. 13–15.

[14] Kitty Zijlmans, ‘Knight’s Move: The Idiosyncrasies of Artistic Research’, in See It Again, Say It Again: The Artist as Researcher, ed. by Janneke Wesseling (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2011), pp. 175–91, p. 182.