Seeking to develop and implement methods for activating the arguably irrational anthropomorphic schema in people in order to evoke art experiences.1

This is a statement I made at the outset of the artistic research project Emotional machines – composing for unstable media, where I am focusing on investigating anthropomorphism and developing artworks that are inspired by or seek to evoke anthropomorphic reactions in the observer. The inspiration for this interest is a simple question that formed through years spent engaged in and creating art that could be considered «abstract».

Through the years I have taken part in many projects using physical objects to create time-based artworks. In many of these the objects created were never intended to fulfil any symbolic or narrative function. Nonetheless, I noticed that affective reactions towards the objects were present and indeed sought out by us, their creators. Strong feelings of emotional ties towards the objects and a sense of kinship between us and the objects as well as a perception of kinship between the objects themselves seemed to form. In projects where I worked alongside other artists, for example with Verdensteatret, objects where given names, hierarchies formed, and stories unfolded with the objects as interlocutors.

At the time I always felt certain the metal and wood had no intent if intent is understood as forming part of a sentient entity, as a result of conscious will. The physical objects provide no reciprocal emotional response to the emotional investment I place in them, at least not in any form I at the time could recognize.

Still my love, infatuation, disdain (if I may use such terms) for them remains. They retain their ability to evoke emotional reactions in me. I feel agency in the objects, that they have intent.

I feel they have intent.

But know they have not.

I felt something I believed to be false. False in the sense I know the object has no nervous system that can allow it to have conscious intent as I understand it. That it is simply a lump of matter that is manipulated with no will or intent of its own. They are just objects for which we, the artists, provided a context made up of other objects, sound and lights for them to perform a facsimile of intent. My belief was that the intent I perceive in the objects featured in the art I work with,(and to some degree all the objects that make up my world), is something that is a product of my perception and mental categorization of the object rather than endemic to the object. Thus, I believed that my feelings about these objects are not rooted in physical reality, and therefore must be mental constructs.

Nietzsche writes about the powerful influence of anthropomorphism upon our conception of truth and reality.2 In his investigations of the language and concepts we take for granted and typically accept uncritically, he detected an inevitable tendency to describe the non-human in terms human attitudes, sentiments, drives or feelings. Nietzsche continuously raises doubts about our ability to understand anything at all except in terms of notions that are derived from our social relations, our own self-reflection or the language we use to describe «the self». The anthropomorphism he uncovered in the thoughts of others came to haunt his attempts to transcend the human standpoint and achieve a vision of a putative, de-anthropomorphic «reality».

Looking for truth where none can be found

Discussions about rationality are usually focused on our (failing) ability to make decisions. Often by examples showing how easily we are confounded and how we tend to jump to erroneous conclusions based on our many cognitive biases. Nonetheless its is usually taken for granted that people are on some level able to be rational.

If there are thoughts, things or actions that can be considered rational I take what those are to be hugely relative. One can only be rational in relation to an ever-shifting convention of what rationality is.

A statement like the one quoted at the top of this text was contentious under any circumstances. To accept it is to accept a range of preconditions such as an anthropomorphic reaction being irrational because it is based on something ’untrue’. Invoking truth as a concept and premise lets loose a pandoras box of assumptions associated, among other things, with the many and ancient questions around the nature of truth and reality.

Humans anthropomorphic tendencies may have developed from circumstances where they would be considered rational reactions. If you live in a hostile environment where there are a wide range of possible dangers, would it not make sense to see intent 100 times where no intent exist to catch the one time when there is a predator with a strong intent of eating you lurking in the bushes?

An overactive ascribing of intent may be considered the more rational way of surviving in such an environment.

What we want and what we do to get what we want

After the performance For one – for many, a composition for 7 kinetic sculptures and one human performer premiered at Lydgalleriet in Bergen 13.01.2019 I had some thoughts on the relationship between the human perfomers and figures. If members of the audience where «moved» by the performance, if they, like me felt there was kinship between the figures, and between the human performer and the figures, this could occur because of the willing participation on the part of the audience in a charade. In such a setting a host of social contracts come into play. Audience at a highly controlled art event, especially one where the passage of time is an essential element (as in time-based art), subjugate themselves to a set of norms that the situation dictates. In this performance there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that the people sharing the space where willing to suspend their belief, and were actively searching for meaning in the actions of the figures. 3

The audience wanted something from their attendance, they paid the entrance fee, they subjugated themselves to a set of quite prescriptive norms, (that I expected and counted on them adhering to), in order to get something. Many audience members expressed that they were indeed moved by the performance and by the objects, and that they prescribed «personalities» (and therefore intent) on several of the figures involved.

Maybe it would be more precise to state that they moved themselves. I take it that the majority of those present shared the outlook I had at the time, that there is no intent experienced by the objects, but that this conviction was pushed back in their minds as they instead they looked for some emotional connection with the objects in front of them.

It seems to me that the impact of the artworks presented at that event wasaided by the prescriptive nature of the concert situation. The audience where looking for something, and it seems humans are adept at finding if they look.

Finding what is not there

I find my own and similarly an audience’ ability to find that which is not there moving. By doing so it seizes to not be there through an act of creation that is to me profound.

As to what is actually there, Graham Harman states that whatever it is it can never be known by us, and I sympathize with that. The real is as he puts it so real that it cannot be known, you can only know it indirectly through allure:

What we find in allure are absent objects signaling from beyond—from a level of reality that we do not currently occupy and can never occupy, since it belongs to the object itself and not to any relation we could ever have with it.

While allure has no hope of ever getting us closer to the objects themselves, it can unleash objects that had been largely muffled in their relations with us and can translate already recognized objects into more potent form. Allure is the fission of sensual objects, replacing them with real ones. It is also the principle of all concreteness, insofar as it points to objects apart from all relational impact that they have on us. 4

In this light our perception becomes the sensual object that allow us to know the figures through allure, and in the light of the realness of that sensual object the intent seen in the figures may be equally real.