Recognition, movement and refuse, the thing in/with composition

I consider a significant part of making art as the act of guided and guiding attention. I take something, for example a material object or a collection of sounds and determine it to be something apart. Then I attempt to guide the attention of an audience to also see it as apart.

A sound artist, through many years of practice, may be able to experience a given sonic event as apart where others may not. Take as an example the sound of a dripping drain. Someone with a less focused attention may experience this sound a part of an ambiance and not worthy of being considered apart from the other sounds making up that ambience. If I have discovered the sound of a drain resonating with rainwater and experience it as something apart by guiding my attention, and I want to share the apartness I have discovered in doing so with an audience, I can do this by changing the context in which the sound is heard. One way of doing so is by recording the sound and playing it back outside of its original environment, for example in the context of an artistic presentation. Removing the sound from the context it would normally be heard and isolating it aids in experiencing it as apart. An audience listening to the recording is encouraged to guide their attention and provided apartness through dislocation of source and sound by this simple act. If I, as a sound artist want the audience to recognize the apartness of the recording as something more than a mere dislocation, I will need to pay attention to the context in which the sound is presented. Then my task becomes to create the possibility of recognizing the selected sound as apart based on merits that is a combination of its sonic qualities and the qualities brought to light by context. Making a recording of the sound and playing it back in an environment where it is a stranger can be one way of achieving this.

Recognition I

The making of the figures featured in this project aims to reduce or avoid recognizability, and make use of materials that can be considered “neutral”. Clearly, this is impossible. An electric wire is an electric wire, a steel rod a steel rod, they are still recognizable to me and an audience.

Still, I generally do not make use of materials or pre-existing objects already shaped to fulfil a specific and recognizable function. If I were to incorporate for example a tin can as part of one the figures, such an object come with already established and familiar functions and associations. A re-contextualization of such an object can certainly be valid artistically, but it seems counter to what this project set out to explore. There are several artists, not least in Norway, whose works relate to mine, while also differing with respect to how they actively make use of found objects in such ways that the nature, materiality, quality, and provenance of the object becomes a key feature contributing to the storytelling. Some prominent examples are productions by the theatre ensemble Verdensteateret1 and the machines and kinetic sound installations by Atle Selnes Nilsen,2 the latter often featuring re-contextualized tin-cans. Artists like Christian Blom have combined found objects with custom electronic machinery that for me imbue the works with a certain nostalgic quality. I also find that Amanda Steggell and the project The Emotion Organ3 and many works by artists like Espen Sommer Eide and even Heiner Goebbels Stifters Dinge4 to have this as one of their qualities.

If I compare this project to many of the works of Verdensteatret, including productions that I have myself contributed to such as And All the Questionmarks Started5 to Sing and Bridge Over Mud,6 I find a departure in how the figures in this project are meant to operate within the narration or time-based composition. The current project develops figures with shapes and forms that the audience should not have encountered before, and their provenance and possible or imagined past histories are initially unknown to the audience. In contrast, many of the works by Verdensteatret make extensive use of found objects, what Jon Refsdal Moe describes as floatsom:7 “things that were floating by and that perhaps had some purpose once.”

The driftwood and other objects in the installation The Telling Orchestra8  invites the audience to speculate what the history of those objects within could be. This is not so for the figures in this project, they instead prefer the history between an audience and themselves to begin with the first encounter between the two.

I can relate this project to several of Arthur Gansons kinetic sculptures. Particularly works such as «Machine with oil» and «Machine with grease” are to me mainly about suggesting intent and sensual empathy to the viewer rather than the indexical placement of the objects used in their construction. They shift the focus from the objecthood of the sculptures towards suggesting them to be entities. The basic premise is that the audience would experience empathy and ascribe desire and pleasure as motivation for the machine, as it bathes itself in copious amounts of machine oil.

Did you know that machines share all of the sensual passions and desires of humans? This one has the capacity to bathe itself in luscious, viscous 70 weight motor oil. For a machine, could there be anything more satisfying?9

The experience of working with Verdensteatret has been pivotal to my artistic interest in working with kinetic movement of non-human figures. The artist and composer Christian Blom seems to have followed a similar trajectory; after having worked with Verdensteatret, he continued related research at Norwegian Academy of Music, with the artistic research project Organized Time, Strategies for Transmedial Composition.10 Although I consider the focus of that project as neighbouring mine there are areas of departure. Blom primarily focuses on the compositional potential of transmedial material and on compositional strategies for utilizing such materials. In contrast the present project primarily research affect and kinship as it can be facilitated by anthropomorphic processes and in turn how that may guide compositional strategies.


I have often used steel rods in the construction of animated figures. Although recognizable, both as raw material, and shape, they still have a sense of openness to me. Yes, it is a familiar, but at the same time, it is not a thing that has a specific function. It is more akin to a building block. It has the potential to be used in many constructions, joined with other materials into new objects and things. Or the rod can be seen, as I often have, as an object in its own right.

The same could be said about a tin can, but still, the shared familiarity and established understanding of what a tin can is for, and how it should be used, for myself and the audience I expect to encounter my sculptures, makes it appear to me as a much more clearly and fully defined object. It comes laden with definition and expectation. If I were to use a tin can in an artistic presentation, in my case as part of a kinetic figure thereby considering it an object apart it seems to me that its main apartness would be simply that it is an object that has been dislocated from its widely accepted use (to preserve and hold food stuffs), and instead put to use as part of an artwork, in this case a kinetic figure. The mental indexical placement and for most people univocal indexical placement of the tin can might make such a displacement a potent tool for generating affect, but I have mainly been inspired and driven by the hope of creating a sense of apartness through the use of less indexically clear cut relations, such as a more indefinite feelings of kinship. An object like a tin can is established as “thing”, for me and the audience both. Its cultural place is one of inertness, stuck in indexical objecthood, its potential defined. Many artworks explore how hidden qualities can be teased out of familiar and even everyday objects both despite and because of their recognizability.

Though it’s not possible to completely avoid, recognition is something I have as far as possible tried to subdue in the figures created for this project. An object that is culturally and perceptually defined as inert in its indexical placement, I felt would be a hurdle for the potential for feelings of kinship towards the figures. I have therefore sought more inscrutable materials and physical objects to make up the figures.

Contradiction I

The inability to escape familiarity constitutes a contradiction to me. An electrical wire is an electrical wire, and most people have seen the things and materials I use: Circuit boards, plastics, steel rods and electric motors as well. Yet I do not feel that this inevitability invalidates an effort to replace direct familiarity with more beguiling materials where the recognition has a less indexical character.

The black box theatre is often thought of as designed to be as anonymous as possible. There are certain pragmatic considerations, such as audience seating and technical infrastructure, but the space itself is conceived to be neutral, and adaptable. Despite this it is not uncommon in contemporary stage arts to consider the black box as symbolically loaded and therefore finding it advantageous to present theatrical works into other spaces. The attempt at creating a neutral, non-recognizable space for performance in the form of the black box theatre, has become the recognizable reality that some stage practitioners seek to avoid. The black box cannot escape its indexical placement as a venue where stage arts are presented. Whenever an audience enters such a space they arrive loaded with expectations, preconceptions and prejudices activated by the symbolic and indexical meaning of the black box theatre. The context the established theatrical space creates provides is, in a sense, a reprieve from any statement the artists want to make. In a black box whatever is presented is after all always going to be “only” a performance. If I place an audience in such a venue, and then display a thing or action in front of them on the stage, the context is taken care of, at least in the sense of clarifying my intent for that thing or action to be something apart; to be considered art. It is made clear by the space that if I show something on stage I intend that something to be something apart, that that thing should be seen in the context of other things present in the delimited space of the black box theatre, 11 and that unless explicitly stated does not need to relate to anything outside that space.

I sympathize with the desire to show work outside of the established contexts represented by art venues such as black box theatres. As with the materials or things that make up the figures, I desire them to be encountered in a “neutral“ space, but at the same time I accept that our indexical way of experiencing our surroundings makes it unavoidable for the figures to also be categorized. Presenting art where the figures take part is balancing how explicit the indexical influence is.

Movement before form

When it comes to my desire to minimize the recognizability of the physical objects that are the figures, what I am trying to distance from is the implied function of a recognizable object, not its materiality or shape. The primary experiential facilitator are the actions and materiality of the figure, not the indexical recognition of the material objects they are made up of. I find, that if the action or function of an object is already prescribed by recognition of an intended use of its constituent components, achieving this becomes an uphill battle. Therefore, despite that which could be gained by taking a familiar thing and redefining it as part of a kinetic figure, spotlighting apartness by dislocation and transforming it from something “everyday” into something apart, I have still tried as far as I can to avoid such recognition. I want the focus to be on the actions or the potential for actions and physical movements that the figures have, and I desire those actions to be unencumbered by overt indexical recognition. Although the purpose of those actions may be unclear to the viewer, hopefully the first thing on their mind is not the original function of the things the figures are made up of.

Our indexical tendencies in encountering physical objects is inescapable, but also brings great power. I don’t want the figures to explicitly capitalize on the indexical nature of their component parts, and I hope that a feeling of kinship between an audience and sculpture can be experienced more fully by the lack of an explicit indexical belonging on the part of the sculptures. If the nature of the object cannot readily be placed in a mental “table of contents”, my hope is that the mind of the observer continues to search for meaning maybe sensing intent, kinship and vibrancy.

When lacking readily available possibilities for indexical placement of the figures maybe the audiences experience will latch onto recognition of physical motion in the figures extracting or creating meaning not from what they are, but from what they do.

For one – for many

I hope for any one of the figures that they stand apart and be a thing for which there is no immediate indexical categorization. I also hope that there being several figures can create the experience of contexts for which there is no immediate indexical categorization. That the interplay that can be experienced when seeing multiple figures acting together in a space can be considered as group doing something together, like a group of people acting together would be. Seeing intent in the actions of one and of many.

To me recognition lies at the core of any expression. I depend on recognizing something in the materials and objects I work with, and I also hope and believe there is something recognizable for the audience. When it comes to the figures created in this project, I hope the main area of recognition come from physical movement rather than shape and that that recognition be hard to place indexically. There is no way of separating form and materially from the physical movements the sculptures perform, yet my awareness and attention are on the recognition of movement and its qualities rather than the qualities of the physical material.

Recognition and experience

I agree that sensation does not equal experience.12  I consider experience as something occurring after sensation. In my work with animated figures, sensation, being the act of perceiving the figures, occurs before the recognition of something in them. Experience occurs when and if (or not) the audience recognizes something in the thing. When we perceive an entity, it becomes an experience when it is slotted in and contextualized among the memories and imprints of other experiences. This can be a non-conscious process in the sense that memories or imprints are not recalled into conscious focus, but for a person experiencing they are always already there. For me this is where recognition comes from. If I recognize something in the movements of the figures, it is because my memory, whether conscious or non-conscious of previous experiences leads me to recognize something in the movement. My hope for the figures is that the focus of recognition shifts from an indexical categorization of the shape of the objects, towards recognition of movement.

I believe that recognition as it pertains to physical movement of an object is different from the recognition of a physical object by itself. Any movement uses material as its medium and therefore needs what we perceive as a material object in order to exist.13  As such I think we can perceive action as an extension of the abilities of a material object.

Sensing action

When we as persons perform an action, it is mostly both as intent and as a sensual endeavour. It involves physical material, at a minimum our bodies, but it also (normally) intent. Mostly there is something that we want to achieve in performing the movement even if it is only to experience movement. We employ continuous sensory involvement, using our senses to guide and execute actions, and picking up on how it feels to perform them. We need foresight for planning what action is needed to achieve something intended, predicting what the action will do and how to do it and so on. I therefore consider actions as intertwined with intent, will and emotive motivation in a way that material objects we perceive as unmoving are not. In such an object we may recognize the will of the craftsperson that co-created an object in cooperation with the material(s) used, but in the culture I currently inhabit it is rarely our first impulse to wonder what it is that the object wants or wants to achieve with its being and how it would feel to achieve that intent.14 Rather the intent we could potentially pick up from a stationary object is a result of the indexical recognition and symbolic relevance the object has for us. Even a still image of movement, say of a runner, depends on our recognition of the physical object (the runner) and inferring that the runner is in motion from the recognition of that shape. Only then can we associate the image with motion. I believe that this changes if material objects are animated with motion. When observing a movement, I believe we associate it with the experience of performing a physical action ourselves. We try to understand the goal of the movement, and we can have a bodily empathy with the movement. Our mind will on some level imagine what the experience of performing that movement could be.

My impression is that when performing a movement, for example raising an arm, our conscious involvement is with the intent of the movement rather than with the kinematics involved. We focus on the movement of the hand in space and have a quite acute and conscious awareness of the position of the hand in relation to the rest of our body, and the point to which we want to move it. However, the sub-actions that facilitate the movement, the main four degrees of motion in the arm, (three degrees of movement in the shoulder joint and a single degree in the elbow) as well as the balance and position of the rest of our body parts, though present as sensory impressions, are for the most part under “automatic” control. Even if raising the arm requires a minimum of four degrees of movement, for the most part the experience of such a movement is as a single motion. Contrary to this immediate experience, I can, if focusing on the sensory input the motion gives me, also perceive and experience the individual motion of each joint, but this requires an out of ordinary focus and does not seem representative of the general experience of movement.

If I think of moving, I think primarily of two things: the feeling of the motion as a singular action, with the activity in each of the joints or “subsystems” automated beyond conscious control, and the intent I had for the movement I am thinking of. My movements are mostly executed without the need for direct detailed mental control, in the sense that I do not have to be attentive to the kinematics involved in order to perform a movement. Therefore, my primary association with physical movement is harbouring intent.

I think this facilitates my experience of empathy with the movements of the figures and by extension to the figures themselves, and it makes me feel that the figures have intent as the impetus for their movements.

Repetition and change

As humans most of us know that repeating a movement changes the experience of movement.15  Something that when first learned requires constant monitoring and attention to the motion and position of each body part, say riding a bike, soon becomes automated. The act of riding a bike is transformed from a careful monitoring of the limbs and muscles into an act of motion and intent. The experience of bike riding changes from being focused on staying upright, keeping on riding through the careful monitoring and coordination of body parts, into an activity of intent. No longer is the focus on body position and balance, rather it has shifted to a desire to move. Both with the aim to get to some different location, but often also with or because of the sensual experience of motion itself.

The experience of an action changes every time the action is performed. The example of bike riding shows this. Getting better at riding a bike changes the experience of riding a bike.

I think of memories as similar; recalling a memory changes the memory as does the passage of time. The way my experience of bike riding constantly transforms, so it is with the memories I use to contextualize the bike riding or any other encounter. Experience happens when something perceived is contextualized in between memories or imprints of other experiences. But if the recollection of the memory changes the memory, and memories are anyway more akin to a reconstruction or reimagining, what then is it exactly we use to contextualize our perceptions into experiences? The act of recognizing something also changes that which allows the recognition to occur. The recognition has a transformative effect on the memory or imprint that allows you to recognize the thing in the first place.

I think any experience is transformed by memories as it finds its place in a personal ontology defined by the encounter between sensory input and re-generated memories. The memories are transformed by the new experience changing the experience of a similar encounter if it were to (re-) occur. It puts everything in motion, in flow, including our memories. Maybe what I seek in my creating and experiencing art is the sensation of motion and transformation. Transformation of my memories, imprints and therefore myself.

It seems that the very act of experiencing is also a process of loss and discovery. We can never relive an experience but can take solace in knowing that that loss guaranties every experience to be new. All we know and experience is motion. In the sense of physical movement, in the sense of development and in the sense of transformation.