Art practice is primarily an observational, unlearning process. In that way, anything that induces a pattern interrupt, a perspective shift or a re-consideration is artistic. The concern here is less with finding a definition of art but instead to reframe awareness as the necessary struggle between percept and concept.
More importantly increasing the plurality of awareness is a healthier social path going forward (and the point of art :) ).
A reframed approach to awareness matters because manifesting and expanding this struggle instead of reducing or eliminating it is the key to improved technology, improved persons and improved society. Improvement being a process by which more awareness and more existence is possible, not less. Improvement should not be consider as a utopian state or some philosophical achievement of the correct way to be.
Reductionism appears to underly almost all Western cultural norms, political activity, science, and religion. It is called many things: prediction, control, understanding, optimization, cause and effect, purpose, problem-solution. Aware, complex but limited systems (such as a human or society) are under assault constantly from entropy. The complexity and uncertainty of the world pulls at the energy reserves of all intertwined systems. Reductionism is a protective mechanism that can feel like a reasonable antidote to uncertainty. However, it is really less of an antidote and more of a pause button, an exhaust pipe letting out some of the steam of awareness.
There is some utility to reductive concept — definitions, labels, norms, rules, laws, theories, proofs, programs, predictions. Primarily these save time, money, energy and/or may keep death away slightly longer than without them.
But! There’s also a cost — a trade off — with reductionism. Things are missed. Things are mis-remembered. In the process of slotting things into their place, other details are overlooked. When conceptualizing other precepts flow by. Adhering to a norm leaves an experiment untested. A commitment is made but another is not. The way it should be pushes the way it could be off.
In re-reading the above “that all sounds good though?!” That’s Science! That’s Progress! We Can Know!
On the other hand, experiments and research have shown that there’s a balance of percept vs concept — openness vs commitment — spontaneity vs normativety — that is almost required to maintain complexity in a system. Too much experimentation and all becomes noise. With too much commitment all becomes signal. The best performing machine learning (algorithms that can do complex things) all have a sense of forgetting. They unlearn things. Best practices in human therapy involve forgetting. Best practices for retraining older humans involve unlearning. Overcoming grief requires new experiences to outweigh the traumatic experiences. Even mathematical theories and entire branches of mathematics reach a point in which a swerve is required to make progress — a new object must be consider or an axiom removed or added.
Underlying this reductionism trade off point isn’t some new age hippy idea — some cute way of getting out of reality. It’s very likely a fundamental aspect of physical reality. Pattern, any pattern at all, is part of a larger whole. That is, patterns no matter how large or complicated are still only a small chunk of whatever is happening or *is spacetime*. And these patterns are only recognizable or very definitely patterns so much as there are relating patterns connected to them. For example, a distant nebula is related to a human observer by sub patterns of light waves hitting patterns of gas clouds making their way through spacetime to lens systems in telescopes and photographic paper/print outs read into human neural networks by human visual systems. Without all these patterns (or systems) refracting/interpreting the light (the energy) from the distant nebula (all of it’s subsystems of stars and blackholes and planets) the nebula wouldn’t be noticable. It is EXACTLY that these subsystems are limited, slightly different, but RELATED by the patterns of light waves that reveals the nebula to the human. Reduced signal flowing through reducing systems is what reveals the greater whole.
Perception of signals, not yet known to have been reduced, flowing through various systems to be compared, contrasted and combined into a conception in a reductive process reveal a pattern that survives the process as well as indicates there might be something else not yet perceived or conceived. This is the essential struggle, the necessary flow, the relational creation that awareness of anything requires. Be it self identity or art or science or math — awareness is recursively reductive and what seems to keep showing up or goes absent when expected is the object of awareness. Awareness is its own object but only as lensed through a bunch of different, but related patterns/systems.
Thought experiments, that do get a bit hippy, but not really implausibly so:
Total memory wouldn’t be memory — there would be no precedence, no ordering, either in time, impact or quality.
Total vision wouldn’t be vision — there would be no sense of depth, no focus, nothing to catch the eye for everything would catch the eye.
Total intelligence wouldn’t be intelligence — there would be no distinction between objects, and their infinite detail.
Total awareness wouldn’t be awareness — per all the above, there would be no way of distinguishing.
Total control wouldn’t be control at all — without any preferential awareness there cannot be a direction for control, it would be all things at once. nothing moves, everything moves.
While such bombast probably doesn’t do much work for the argument it is useful to have some limiting logic — somewhere for inferences to run up against an end. From there we can work towards a pragmatic set of implications:
Much of the design ideas behind society, personhood and technology hinge on notions like awareness, intelligence, and control tend towards infinity or totality — our “reductionist” science will still lead to infinite intelligence and control. And movement towards that infinity or totality must be “good.” Instead of embracing the reductive refraction of systems in relation to each other and their emergent effects our tech and the society that seeks that tech attempts to add more significant digits and more definiteness around laws, definitions, rules, objects, systems. Obsessions with “if you don’t measure it you can’t improve it” and “12 rules of X aspect of life” and “we have to get to mars” and “good and evil” are all expressions There is an Objective Reality and With More Perfect Measurement and Definitions We Can Get There and Live In It Forever.
These views could not be more incorrect. And the rift between increasing the awareness through an artistic dance vs. trying to control the infinite is causing most of the suffering on earth. Ironically authoritarians have some awareness of this and attempt to always squelch anything that would increase questioning and artistic expression. They seek to reduce the literacy and the creativity of people in order to maintain power. And the nuances technology provides to authoritarians is increasing their ability to reduce citizens awareness. For example, we see technology platforms like Facebook or Twitter as expressive platforms connecting people and making us all more aware. But considered from a design standpoint they have an incredibly normative UI and for an ordering of information on each and every users. They do not allow for freedom of perception or conception — at best they allow users to “link” to more expressive platforms, but often through framed (literally) windows to keep you inside the worldview of the platform. The algorithms reduce awareness to optimize repeat behavior — only that which is repeated can be advertised against. All of this is very cleverly disguised authoritarian control.
Self-driving cars, automated manufacturing, computational journalism, Virtual Reality filled with AI Bots, all suffer from the same underlying authoritarian conceit of Facebook/Twitter/Google/Apple/Amazon/WalMart/Current US Government/Business Schools in America/Most Science — pursuit towards more intelligence and more control is better. And, authority itself, is the main justification for anything. All of these entities and schools of thought (and their siblings) aren’t achieving intelligence and automation through an increase in the plurality of awareness and diversity of behavior but instead through the normative explotation of people and the environment. Facebook reduces behavioral expression to the point its algorithms can shape the users into repeated use. Self Driving cars will only reliably self drive in so much as the laws, roads, police, companies and riders all do as the self driving car says they can do. In the “interest of public safety” the world will conform to what self driving car companies want to do in order that they are profitable. This same logic will be used to justify automation of manufacturing, art making, content etc. “In the interest of climate protection/nation dominance/cheaper quality of life” platforms and companies will continue to reduce awareness by moving towards a totality of narrowly defined “intelligence” and “control.”
That they will try this doesn’t mean they will succeed. The connectedness and implicit chaotic reality of spacetime and its entire set of subsystems will blow things apart in unexpected ways. Those humans pursuing the total intelligence and total control approach will be caught off guard and will resist. Those that pursue a plurality of awareness will be less of guard and more resilient. And in the spirit of all the above it’s never clear if and when a catastrophe renders this all moot. The big history of nature is quite clear though… a diversity of awareness and approaches always finds a way and almost none of those ways forward has anything to do with intelligence nor control.