Defined by what it lacks II

Perception is an achievement. When we perceive we are being active, we are doing something. As organic beings we are first and foremost organised organisms.1

I think of perception as a curator among an infinite number of possible experiences available at any given moment. A central facilitator for our experiences is all that we choose not to perceive as we curate our own reality. The curation begins on the sensory level. Next there is the curation provided by our personal heuristics established by previous experiences, and central for all experience (of art); the active and wilful guidance of incoming perceptions each of us engages in. As Alva Noë points out in the above quote, perception is active. We are doing when we perceive.

To let go and allow sensory input to remain out of perception, is also active. Given the limited "bandwidth" of our perceptual capacities, the omitted is central to those sensory inputs that pass the curatorial gates and is let into the perceptual realm. If we next consider imaginative perception, it seems apparent to me that perceiving must be considered a creative act.


Any incorporeal representation or surrogate triggers a yearning for the corporeal. Part of the overwhelming queasiness one might feel in the face of an overtly incorporeal thing is founded in an encounter with loss.2

While the animated figures in my research project came to be, I accepted and investigated the impact of their limitations. They make me, and I hope others, yearn for the possibility of a more complete interaction. For the virtual avatars featured in Ed Atkins' films, the primary facilitator is everything the avatars lack. Their lack of corporality is made explicit by them being computer generated and existing on a two-dimensional screen.

Aktins' characters are different from my figures. They are recognisable as avatars with a human form, which underlines their emptiness and lack as a central artistic gesture. I believe that experiences gained from encountering this project's figures are facilitated by a similar phenomenon, as a more general aspect relating to the experience of art. When someone perceives one of the figures, I hope for them to yearn for a greater familiarity, to know it more intimately, or at least for the potential for greater intimacy. I hope it creates the impetus for ascribing meaning and that the experience of lack may put the spectator in a state of openness to imagination. That the curational aspect of perception may stimulate fantasy to fill the figures with characteristics they themselves may not have.

My idea is that we search for what we cannot see. Even if an audience member finds different experiences from me, the artist, when experiencing a given figure or composition, and different again from what is found by other members of the audience experiencing the same; it is to the search that I ascribe potential sensation of relations between the perceiver of the artwork and the artwork. The artwork becomes defined by what we perceive as lacking and, in turn, is provided by our perceptual mechanisms filling in the blanks. It is what we cannot find in our perception of the work, and therefore experience as missing, that drives us towards more profound encounters with the works.

It seems to me that our lives are fundamentally defined by unknowing and unknowing is fundamental to life. Desiring, but always doubting if what we perceive has any relation to a putative "reality". Uncertain if and how anything we want to share with others can actually be shared.


Unknowing provides us with a sense of lack in life, and as an extension in art. In artistic practices, it is understood that understanding is not necessarily desirable or necessary. Unknowing can enable open encounters.

When encountering the animated figures of this project, I hope there is a tendency to ascribe motivation and intent to the figures that arises through interpretation of the perception of their presence and movements. Since a stable conception of the figures' being is otherwise not accessible to us using our limited sensorium and faculties, the interaction with the figures is defined and facilitated by what we lack. The inability to ever experience our perception as "complete" drives us to further speculation, ascribing value and allowing us to use imagination to augment or generate meaning in any encounter.

On objects

When I discuss these topics, in the above paragraph, and generally in my thinking and writing, I am describing experiences as if they were finite objects. They have a start, end and a given scope. It seems to be a powerful tendency that everything we ever describe or think of, we describe or think of in this compartmentalised manner. An experience has a start and end, and it is thought of as an experience. My animated figures will by most be experienced as discrete objects. Similarly, I am writing as if I am able to have a thought, a singular delimited thought that, though derived and connected to others, is one object. To me, it seems that such compartmentalisation is a perceptual effect as the mind perpetually generates new conceptions of delimitation. I can conceive of an opposing idea; that one thought or experience does not stand alone. Instead, our thoughts are becoming. They become a continuum in which thoughts flow without disruption from one to another, another forming part of the first, with all thoughts, shaped by the thoughts you had before. This is indeed closer to something I suspect but don't experience: That my perception of things as delimited, is a construction of my mind. 3 There seems to be an ontological conflict inherent in our experience as living things. So much hinges on temporality. And what is temporality if not continuous? Our bodies age, nature decomposes, everything around us is marked by graduality, of instability. But our thoughts, our language and how most things are considered and organised, speak the language of stable objects. With delimitation being so central to our way of thinking and attempts at communicating, could one even attempt to describe anything without assuming stability at least of the terms used? How would I be able to make these statements without using terms in all their finitude? Could I communicate or understand anything without the use of singular, delimited concepts put together to form an (also delimited) whole? I build my knowledge, mental and cultural framework based on my mental compartmentalisation of the world. Building stone on stone, with a fundamental experiential premise that there are fundamental particles of knowledge and experience that will reduce no further. In contradiction, I think I am simultaneously aware that those mental atoms of experience are not the same from one moment to the next. And certainly not if any period passes between my mind visiting a given topic. Fundamental particles involved in perception are temporary but perceived as stable.

Act of art

As an artist, I take material, be it physical, auditory, or conceptual, and treat it as something apart. I choose to consider one thing as worthy of interest over others. When experiencing art, we may enjoy considering particular objects as something apart. This act, giving preference to one thing over another, is a beautiful possibility our heuristic tendency to compartmentalise provides. Most artistic endeavours I can think of depend on giving special attention to one thing over another, and in this project, this is undoubtedly the case. Suppose we as artists organise stuff in some way, in time or spatially, for example. Then relationships between various bits of stuff are made possible by the compartmentalised interpretation of what our sensorium is picking up.

I take the basic building blocks of mental activity involved in any human endeavour and artistic activity specifically to be based on the premise of objects. There is, of course, things that, by their nature either as material or as concepts, would not normally be thought of as objects but nonetheless exist as a category for us, such as air. If art makes use of material that does not correspond to any specific category (outside the category of being art), I believe there is the possibility for alienation and uncanniness to be achieved. The innate pull towards categorisation can then be guided towards other characteristics such as form, texture, or materiality.

Questioning the nature of objects is clearly not new. The investigation of the relation between the physical and conceptual object in the parable The Ship of Theseus is an early example.4 In the case of physical objects, it seems easily graspable to accept that their seemingly stable current form is, in fact, temporary. I accommodate the conviction that my conception of objects as having a finite and determinable end, making possible a stability of definition, is a result of my perception. And yet, my entire artistic work is predicated on the treatment and manipulation of delimited objects. It hinges on what I believe to be a function of perception, but nonetheless illusionary; experiencing the world as made up of discrete objects.

What follows from such a conclusion? Suppose objects exist as singular delimited things only due to our cognition's workings. Are the delimitations we create with our perception actually continuously moving and artificial ontological borders? I don't think I will ever have access to a conviction one way or another. Still, one consequence that is clear to me, and that I am infinitely grateful for, is that it is the "shortcoming" of my perceptual machinery that allows me to engage with my artistic practice. To place "things" in relation to each other and experience that one "thing" creates tension towards another, and that distributing these "things" in time can create an engaging development.

I can experience all this while still believing that it is all generated by my brain's heuristics. The things I love, in this case, art, are defined by my lacking ability to access the continuum of reality, if reality is a continuum. My experience is defined by what it lacks.

Maybe I should attempt to reconcile my compartmentalised experience and create an alternative conceptual framework. I could perhaps approach my conception experience as a continuum, and the variation I perceive in the continuum can be considered varying densities in the elemental substance of consciousness.

If I were to strive to change my conception of reality in such a manner, it would perhaps reduce the kind of vibrant interplay that I can experience between things. The experience of the sublime as the mind oscillates between opposing concepts that can’t align might be lost. Possibly that interplay would be replaced by another type of excitement caused by a different sort of interplay if I were actually able to change my conception in that manner. But then that reality would also be defined by what it lacks and that my current experience of reality has: the vibrant interplay made possible by considering things as separate.

I believe that many of us suspect that our understanding and perceptual access to the world is minimal and that this suspicion colours and shapes our experience. There is a presence of absence, Saudade to use the Portuguese term; an awareness of that which is missing.

John Schwinn:
It's actually an illusion those two boxers are separate entities.
Paulie Gaultieri:
what the fuck? illusion?
John Schwinn:
Their separate entities is simply the way we choose to perceive them.
Tony Soprano:
I didn't choose nothing.
John Schwinn:
Its physics.
Schrödinger’s equation
The boxers, you, me... we're all part of the same quantum field.
Well, think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air, two tornadoes, say.
They appear to be two things, right? Two separate things?
But they're not.
Tornadoes are just wind.
The wind stirred up in different directions.
The fact is, nothing is separate, everything's connected.
Marvin: everything is everything. I'm down with that.
Tony Soprano: Get the fuck out of here.
John Schwinn: The universe is just one big soup of molecules bumping up against one another.

The shapes we see exist only in our own consciousness.5

Sensation and experience

Kim Cascoine points out that "sensation does not equal experience".6 He creates an explicit divide between what our sensorium picks up and the experience that may follow from that. The experience of sensation resides in our mind whereas sensation may be causally traced to some external or internal event causing stimuli. It follows that the flavour of the experience, what it is, is not only determined by what was sensed by the sensorium. An experience may be triggered by a sensation but what that experience is, depends on the mind generating it.

Such a divide between sensation and experience rings true to me. It may hint at solipsism, but it may just as well be more akin to the idea that there are infinite experiences waiting to be discovered in any moment. Just because my experiences are created by my mind, either informed by input from my senses or simply just created, does not exclude the existence of an analogue number(in the sense of an infinite resolution) of possible other experiences in every moment. Or indeed that our existence holds an endless number of potential experiences inspired by the possible sensations permeating our surroundings and waiting to be had. Only a minuscule, indeed infinitely minuscule amount of these potential experiences are ever discovered.

To me, it also follows that if a sensation can lead to an experience, then that experience is shaped either wilfully or subconsciously. It can, therefore, never be guaranteed that being exposed to a sensation will trigger the same experience in different minds or, indeed, the same mind at different times.

We can, however, guide our experience. For example, we can focus on certain aspects of the sensation we are having, directing our attention and influencing our experience. Cascoine points to Henri Borlofts description of two modes of awareness: "onlooker consciousness" and "participatory consciousness". The latter perspective departs from the indexical tendencies of human culture as it is expressed in delimited concepts.

Onlooker consciousness underlines the separation between the senser and what is being sensed. Implicit in such an outlook is that what is sensed is, on some level, connected or true to what the thing being sensed is. That sensing creates a representation in some way able to capture something objectively "true" about the thing being sensed.

Onlooker consciousness, or sensory-perception, maintains a subject/object duality, while participatory consciousness, or imaginative-perception, transcends this dualism by merging subject and object into a holistic continuum of consciousness.7

Imaginative perception opens the possibility to be available to your perception and what it does with what it receives from the senses.

It is quite clear that mental states influence perception. For example, mental imagery will affect how auditory information is perceived in the future by that mind.8 For me, this indicates that by guiding mental states, it is possible to guide perception. Suppose mental imagery can affect the interpretation of sensory input that will be sensed in the future, in that case, it becomes a key interest for me as a working artist. It speaks in favour of supporting an audiences' approach to my work using imaginary perception guided by an awareness of the effect of influencing the audience's mental states.

We can briefly pause here and note that these two ways of describing perception take for granted the compartmentalised indexical approach we generally use to categorise and navigate the world. For example, as Francisco Lopez points out, if we ask, "what is that sound?" we are generally asking what is the source of that sound.9 In the same way, we would generally take the statement "the sound of a frog" to mean that a frog is generating sound. We are always pointing to the origin of the sound rather than to the sound itself. In this manner, we go through life collecting an index of perceptual categories that are really identifiers of things. That we are so strongly guided by this indexical concrete manner of interpreting our senses could be argued as a limitation in the potential of sensing. After all, there are so many aspects of, for example, hearing, that we miss out on because we are dominated by our instinct to categorize. It deafens us to so much of the experiential potential of sensing sound. If a frog's sound is inextricably linked to the mental representation of a frog, it becomes challenging for most of us to focus on the other qualities the sound of a frog can offer us. The mental and symbolic indexing of sounds is prevalent and dominant to such a degree that this is how we generally hear. Indexicality dominates our perception. Francisco Lopez describes this as a massive problem since it makes us deaf to so many experiences.

On the other hand, this penchant for subdividing our perceptual stream into bite-size chunks is what allows us to experience the way we do. For example, it enables the communication of abstract concepts. It (seemingly) allows the communication of ideas. It makes possible the enjoyment of one thing in concord with or contrasting another.

When I work with art, I work with my perception of relationships between objects of various kinds. It seems that this would not be possible without the compartmentalised way of experiencing. In the end, I find it poetic that my work, my experience of everything, is based on what are clearly movable mental categorisations of perceptual input and therefore is akin to treating something fluid as if it were bedrock. I am unsure if I would want it any other way.

A forest, really?

It's possible to describe the sound of the forest. The sound of the forest is the category describing an object, and that object is a forest. However, the sound of a forest is made up of many other sounds: rustling leaves, birds, creaking, wind, ants, in other words, other objects. We can zoom into a category and further describe them or subdivide them, placing the sound of a bird flapping its wings as a subcategory of the sound of the forest. We could continue doing this. For instance, we could describe the sound of birdsong (made up by multiple birds) by describing each bird's song. We could describe the sound of a single leaf rustling, the sound of a single feather on a birdwing, or even the sound of an ant. We also know that the forest will contain sounds that we can predict using imagination, for instance, objects that are too small for us to perceive; bacteria procreating, a strand of grass growing, and so on. These are things that are outside of the range of our sensorium. Yes, they are available to us by using technological means such as microphones allowing small sounds to be brought forward. But they are also there for us to access through imaginative perception as auditory imagery. We could imagine the sound of a single straw of grass growing. In this manner, sounds generated by our mind as auditory imagery can enter our ever-evolving index of delimited objects, while remaining unheard. We can start to use imagined sounds as references for indexing sounds we encounter through our sensorium.

Pursuing this idea, any sound one might hear in the forest, say the sound of a bee, can be further subdivided. Some subdivisions we can perceive: a meandering flight over here, another flight over there, then a pause. Each segment of a bees' journey split into sonic segments, divided by the relative silence found in the break of wing flaps between flights—an arbitrary divide but one that can easily be consciously perceived and categorised, and therefore one we are wont to make. But then, we can continue to subdivide the bee's sound into segments that are no longer perceivable; the sound of each of those short flights into singular wing flaps the sound of which many of us can have access to as auditory imagery. One could imagine the difference between the upstroke and the downstroke, the creaking of the wing as it starts a new downstroke, the transient part of the sound of the downstroke, the harmonics caused by the wing shape, the effect of humidity, air pressure and temperature on the propagating soundwaves, the acoustic environment this takes place in, the quantum nature of the atoms that form the molecules that make up the air that is the medium of the sound we hear. All that is available to us, through imaginative sensing. Establishing the ontological borders of any (sonic) object either as a category or as a physical thing seems akin to grasping an eel.

If we take, as I do, the indexical manner we perceive the world to be a product of perception, one could be dismayed by what seems to be the obvious disconnect between what is sensed and what is. Then I like to consider all the experiential richness it gives. Giles Deleuze and others recognised the impossibility of organising life into closed structures not as a failure or loss, but a cause for celebration and liberation.10

The fact that we cannot secure a foundation for knowledge means that we are given the opportunity to invent, create and experiment.11

The previously mentioned possibilities of arranging discrete objects in relation to each other, the ability to manipulate the meaning of a given indexical entry, and even the ability to imagine an indexical entry to which we can compare future sensory impressions that is fully imaginary in the sense it lies outside the resolution of our sensorium and we cannot consciously perceive it, all this is given to us by this compartmentalised way of experiencing. In the case of the bee wings, many are capable of imagining what an individual wing stroke could sound like. By doing so, we access a sound that lies outside the realm of our senses and perception. Our sensorium does not have the resolution for us to perceive each wing stroke, but imaginative perception allows it. We can accept the insurmountability of our indexical, categorical way of perceiving the world while exploring imaginatively manipulating those categories. Zooming in and out, we can have an overview greater than what our sensorium can allow, employing imagination and memory. We can experience miniscule events that can’t be perceived that would always remain unheard for us had it not been for imagination in perception.

I marvel at the human ability to operate and navigate the world primarily based on a categorical way of experiencing the world, while shifting attention and moving the borders of any category with such ease and fluency. Our indexical understanding is constantly shifting; though we may treat something as stable, our understanding of where the borders of things and objects are, is in constant motion. This fluidity in the nature of our perception of objects we perceive pitted against our tendency to treat them as stable, is a wonderful dualism. It's like a rock that is soft.

I see myself as defined by this antipodal existence, living an existence full of delimitation. Defined by one thing then another while changing the size of the things and objects created by perception and conception seemingly at will. Perceiving things inflexibly but with flexibility. Living both a binary and analogue existence.

Judging and finding

For me, there is a difference between judging something to be lacking and finding that the thing is lacking something. The first is a position of closure, weighing a thing and finding it wanting. The second I consider open, identifying something that could be regarded as missing, but imagining what that could be and what the thing could be if it wasn't. Rather than assuming a position of disregard, the second outlook encourages the pursuit of development and to investigate the lack. I hope the audience encountering the artworks created as part of this project will experience openness if facing a feeling of lack in their encounters with the figures, seeing this lack as potential and openness.

If we approach an artwork openly, what could be construed as lacking could be rephrased into something more like not-there-yet-ness. The open approach allows an imaginary view of the potential of the objects, inspiring imagination as to what the objects could be and achieve.

On objects II

There are certain implications to questioning the ontological borders of objects. I am an object, I feel like I am one person, one thing, one. I can quite easily subdivide myself into subsystems, a little finger, a strand of hair, a nose hair, but I perceive those as subsidiary components in a whole. At least until they are what I perceive to be physically separated from me.

In my perception, I am therefore an object, consisting of many parts. As stated, I feel that the limits between any object and the next, are at best blurry. But if that is so, it follows that the same must be true for me. I think it's fair to say that the limits of me, where I start and where I end, must also be considered blurry. Is the microbiome living in my gut me? When I breathe, and various bits of my body follow the flow of air, do they cease to be part of me? The skin cells collecting as dust in the corners of my office, me or not me? When does the food I ingest change category from food to me?

It's easy to think that these kind of questions relate to living beings like myself only. As Melvin Sheldrake puts it “considering things as individuals becomes more and more absurd.”12 I don’t think there is much reason to reserve such an outlook to things we typically consider alive. For example, all things are continuously changing. Erosion, radioactive decay, the formation of new materials. What is the exact point anything shifts from one category to another?

An object then seems to be no more than a thing that inhabits a perceptual category for a fleeting moment. Always coming from somewhere, another category, and always moving through transformation somewhere else.  I know that the keyboard I am typing on now is an object (consisting of sub-objects, again consisting of smaller objects), but I also know that that there is no universality to that. It is only true in this time and this context. In another time and in another context, perceived by another being, it would likely not be perceived the same way. And of course, this keyboard will also turn to dust that again will reform into something else.




Ed Atkins and Natasha Hoare on Abject Bodies, Incorporeality and Virtual Flesh13

Ed: I'm out to make deeply committed, responsible, oblique, thrilling things that really move people.

Natasha: That's interesting, 'that move people' – how do you judge the affective qualities of your work? Is film the greatest medium in this regard, working as it does through sound, image and time?
Ed: I don't really judge it in any way other than by how it moves me. And, maybe audaciously, presume that if it can do that then maybe it will move someone else. Like, shove them across a room. I like film a lot, so it's kind of the form I come back to as that which is most moving.


Natasha: So X lives a life you can't live for yourself? You seem to punish him.
Ed: It's not a life. This is the problem: an insistent figuration where literalism would be way more productive. And vice versa. It's not a life, he's not a he, there's no name. The pedantry is productive in as much as a resistance to the intoxications of the work and the tech yields some residual agency or structural interpretation.


Natasha: There was an amazing story of non-corporeal language, when Facebook had to unplug their AI program as it had started to speak to itself in a new language. Facetiously, and with my tongue in my cheek I want to ask if you ever worry that your avatar might start to disobey? Would you ever invest him with AI?
Ed: It probably should. Rebel, I mean. But – and sorry to appreciatively swat away your cheeked tongue – it's not a thing at all; there's nothing to insert AI into. I could put some AI in my head, maybe, and make different work – work that liberated the figures from their current jailhouse ordering I've determined. But that'd be different.


Ed: I'm not sure what this means. Habitual language use? Most language use is more than that – it's about making sense, cohering. Coherence is something I'm interested in. Like, where does it lie? Is it an interpretative act more than an intentional, performed one? Is it a violence to cohere something that has neither asked for nor given you the particular tools that might be required to make it cohere? Ethical interaction, I reckon, lies in the affording of another's incoherence. To themselves and certainly to you. Unless they or I or whoever chooses to afford otherwise. That's grace