Continuum: from bricolage to ecognosis

Bricolage as a way of being in the world

A second, more personal thread I wish to bring into the discussion is the intuitively sensed possibility of bricolage as a way of being in the world. Engaging in a practice that willfully abandons itself to an unforeseen and dialogical relationship with the environment contains vigorous implications to one's philosophical and practical stance as an artist and a human.


Bricolage-like working processes seem to have grown on their own in my practice, and I observe similar processes in artworks and artists that I get to know: a shared current of culture is speaking through us. For the time being, my own bricolage has been happening intuitively as the most straightforward way to create artworks, with the intellectual parallel found in Levi-Strauss' bricolage that has been haunting me for a long time. Bringing together Lévi-Strauss' concept and my own experience of practice offers the possibility of considering bricolage as a conscious guiding principle in artistic practice. What if one took bricolage seriously, with consideration, and adopted it as a methodology? 


The perspective is daunting, as it would mean the abandon of the "oeuvre" as an à priori valued category (as the results of bricolage can lead to many sideways and heterogeneous compounds, not necessarily to a defined "oeuvre"), abandoning the teleological principle of artistic practice, magnified by the myth of the composer internally hearing the entire symphony and writing it down in a feverish rush, the pen and paper constituting the only inference, friction or discussion with the environment. In Lévi-Strauss' terms this situation would be one where the structure precedes the objects and events.


Letting go of teleological control, predefined plans and working in dialogue with whatever one finds evokes familiar resonances from Asian philosophies. Taoism presents the ideal image of "non-doing", or "being in Tao", that signifies working in harmony with the natural forces, as an inherent part of them. "Non doing" is mysterious, ungraspable by words and conceptual thinking, a primary, experiential relation to the world which can be gained only through practice.


A remarkable cultural figure who did consider and adopt such a choice was John Cage, with a very personal ecology of practice emphasizing the use of "chance operations" and the I-Ching divination from the Chinese tradition, such as in his "Music of Changes" (1951). Cage was a complex figure with multiple facets, periods, motives and ways of working, which will not be discussed in any depth here. Nevertheless, Cage is an iconic western artist who made a step towards the abandon of subjective control, away from the axioms of subject-centered, agentual model of artistic practice.


Arising from my artistic practice, I perceive a possibility of a transformative engagement into a discussion with the environment. Working in attention, listening to signals and meanings around me, working with and through things. To me it evokes the image of a path, of personal commitment. The question arises: is it possible to decide such an engagement? Truly subtle, enactive phenomena tend to escape firm decisions. Would a methodology of bricolage reveal itself to be another teleological principle in disguise?


In my more recent work I have now started experimenting with this attitude. Sustaining the dialogue, controlling my own desire to force my will and skill upon objects, events and people. I sense a transformative potential in this practice, as I seek a way to reorient my agency with the advent of a personal, visceral understanding of the urgency for a civilizational change. As I write these lines in confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, after the first-ever snowless winter in Helsinki, I grasp that artistic practice cannot continue on the grounds of twentieth-century positivist ethos and ideology of growth, new forms of practice adapted to the Anthropocene and ecognosis are needed.

In the introductory section of this exposition I argue that Lévi-Strauss' concept of bricolage applies strikingly well to the modalities of artistic creation that I observe in my own and peer artists' practices, characterized by aesthetics and notions such as: process work, an expanded notion of the oeuvre, immateriality, multidimensionality, sampling and reuse, as well as improvisation. I find bricolage to be a conceptual parallel to the practices that I live through in my own artistic work, as well as to those that I observe in my peers' work. On this basis, I suggest that bricolage can be mobilized as an effective conceptual tool in mapping the processes of contemporary creation. My argument is illustrated by the unravelling of processes in the two case studies presented in this exposition, "Motet" and "Tapage Nocturne".


The key finding from the discussion is that through bricolage, the artist forms a dialogical relationship with the materials and events (be they physical, mental or digital, or between these categories), arranges and rearranges in order to create meaning. Artistic work can effectively be seen as an agency directed towards the creation meaning and structure. The meaning referred here implies not only the semantics of language, but also the embodied, sensorial, intuitive and emotional processes of human meaning-making – the full spectrum of our being-in-the-world.


In bricolage, the construction of meaning arises from a dialogue, a productive entanglement with one's environment, which presupposes a sensitive opening to the world. In order to speak with things, the bricoleur must listen. The dialogical principle implies a shift from a subject-object, or agent-object setting towards an immersion to a world incorporating a multitude of qualities, signals, meanings and agencies. The bricoleur works within an animated world, within a network of human and non-human agencies.


I view the sensitivity acquired through artistic training to correspond  to the requirements of bricolage. As I work with my materials, I engage into a multimodal agency that involves action and perception loops, sensing the possibilities, or affordances1, of the material. There is a sense of plasticity in my action, the aims are not strictly defined in any teleological manner, the work forms itself through agency, resistance, trial and error, dead ends contrasted by sudden advances and insights. There is a sense of letting myself go – easing my grip of a given roadmap, letting go of my preconceptions, which, in a deeper psychological level, implies letting go of an ego-centered attitude to the world.


Anna Tsing captures this relationship to the world in an admirable manner using the metaphor of dance, although her discourse is about mushroom picking, not art: "Being in the forest this way might be considered dance: lines of life are pursued through senses, movements, and orientations. The dance is a form of forest knowledge – but not that codified in reports. And, although every forager dances in this sense, not all the dancers are alike." (Tsing 2015; 241).


Tsing's account of mushroom picker's dance merges effortlessly with the view of bricolage developed in this exposition. Furthermore, she manages to bridge the mushroom bricoleur's subjective life world to a vertical axis connecting the subjectivity to larger societal and environmental entities such as an analysis of contemporary global capitalism, human migrations, ethnography, biology and ecology. As a condition for a true dialogue with the environment, Tsing calls for moving beyond the anthropocentric perspective: "This "anthropo-" blocks attention to patchy landscapes, multiple temporalities, and shifting assemblages of humans and non-humans: the very stuff of collaborative survival." (Tsing 2015; 20)


Thus, bricolage leads us to an ecological relation to the world, in the sense of a dialogical immersion as well as in the term's current, environmental-political sense. Bricolage implies an immersion which brings about larger psychological and cultural consequences, opening a possibility of rethinking the implications of artistic practice both on a personal and societal levels. Timothy Morton outlines some ingredients of these implications in his book "Dark Ecology" (Morton 2016), where the concept of Nature and the value of naturalness are abolished in favor of a flat relationship between human and her environment: an ecological system between different manifestations of being, where human-made phenomena are not regarded as extra-natural.


As bricolage speaks with the environment, it also emphasizes sensitivity with the current ecological state of the world. In this way, the possibility of an immersion into a path also implies stepping into an acute consciousness of an unfolding, global crisis. Morton's dark ecology describes the descent into ecognosis, which is marked by darkness and horror, the realization of a self-running program driving us humans towards wrecking the planet's ecosystem.


Ecognosis in Morton's discourse seems to correspond to what in environmentalist circles is referred to as "deep ecology". His descent into horror finds an echo in the Finnish debate in the iconic figure of Pentti Linkola and in the periodic journal "Elonkehä", a deep ecology cultural journal (http://www.elonkeha.com), which both emphasize the sense of despair and loss and the painful knowledge of the ecocatastrophe underway. Yet, as Morton argues, a way forward is to dispel entirely of concept of Nature as distinct from, or opposed to, the Human. Passing beyond the Man – Nature divide allows us to include ourselves as well as our cultural, technological and mental creations into the ecological framework.


Bricolage finds here a framing as an immersion into an ecology of artistic practice, the ecology understood to comprise the human and her technological environment. Referring to the practices of technological musicians and media artists, which cover my artistic area, bricolage opens avenues for understanding technologically impregnated process-based art in an ecological framework. In this respect, Rama Hoetzlein has explored the notion of "digital bricolage", defined as "the assembly, discovery, combination, or exploration of both real and virtual objects using a combination of processes that may span many different styles of art on multiple scales, with meanings that may be signed, or which may have no prior connotation, using digital tools which externalize these processes". (Hoetzlein 2007; 40).


In my view, the bricoleur's dialogical environment is composed of heterogeneous entities such as people, software, musical instruments, spaces, ideas and aesthetics (…), a swarm of dimension with which one can enter in dialogue with in order to forge meaning. The heterogeneous assemblage of elements into an environment has a strange, non-continuous and contradicting character, which Morton refers to as "weird" or "uncanny" in his exposition of dark ecology: "Ecological awareness is weird: it has a twisted, looping form […] a world in which objects are suffused with and surrounded by mysterious hermeneutical clouds of unknowing." (Morton 2016; 6). Morton's uncanniness and weird loops offer an insight into the hybrid and multidimensional structure of our world, in a sense very similar to Latour's refutal of modernistic categories (Latour 2012). It gives a vivid picture of the current situation where artists are immersed in and operate within, and where I perceive bricolage to open up paths for making meaning at the time of ecognosis.


1 Affordance refers to the possibilities of action offered to the subject by the environment, The term was coined by James Gibson in 1966 and has been widely adopted in Human-Computer Interaction Design.