Machines for Thinking

Christine Davis

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Not I (pas moi). 2007. Mixed media slide dissolve projection onto suspended screen of buttons, two mirrors, four projectors. Collection: Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal. Courtesy of the artist.

Tlön, or How I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history. 2003. Slide dissolve projection onto suspended screen of Morpho Didius butterflies. Collection: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Courtesy of the artist.

The artist Christine Davis has described her creative process as "speculative infection." Central to her practice is the staging of "collisions" between contrasting ways of knowing and speaking. Beckett's stammers; Borges's taxonomies; Euclid's Elements; Mallarmé's dance criticism; mysticism; astronomy; nineteenth-century biology; a fifteenth-century dictionary: the artist roams among literature, philosophy, history, and the sciences. Often using the rhetorical devices or tools of one system or imaginary world to interrogate another world, Davis has referred to her projects as "machines for thinking."

The artist's own "instruments of knowing" include a broad range of media technologies, both old and new, that interact in startling ways. In the installation Did I Love a Dream?, a film loop of Loïe Fuller's veil dance is projected backwards onto a screen of copper mesh that unrolls like a bolt of fabric amid the whir of a nineteenth-century sewing machine rigged to the film projector. In Davis's installations, screens are not mere thresholds—blank surfaces on which a world is projected—but dense, tactile surfaces that have been constructed variously of pinned butterflies, rooster feathers, and tufted satin. Davis orchestrates complex viewing experiences that, as the artist puts it, "do not allow the optical and tactile to separate."

In the following interview, Davis discusses her working methods, experiences of the incommensurable, and wonder as a radical force.

—Eva Heisler

Your ongoing project Knowledge of Life, or The Imagination Is a Function Without an Organ currently consists of over seventy panels. Each panel is a two-page spread page from an 1847 edition of Euclid's Elements. You've taken the book's pages, with its hand-tinted images of geometric forms, and replaced the captions and explanatory texts with passages from writers such as Ovid, Borges, Mallarmé, Arendt, and Bataille. How did you arrive at this procedure?

Early on, I developed a technique of flowing materials and texts from one field through the scaffolding of another to transform and multiply different forms of knowledge. The first work like this was a juxtaposition of two pages blown up to immense scale: a soft pornish romance involving Barney and Sandy in the back seat of a car and a Time magazine article on nuclear proliferation. I remember how stunned I was to find, after surgical-grade redaction, the only words left were "giggled it" and "trigger on."

I don't recall the criteria for elimination but some logical process reduced the pages to those words! These cut/flow operations allow chance to give me a sense of what lurks in the interstices, to "feel" the material's abstraction. It is a precise and marvelous method of finding turbulence.

I am always looking for a positive methodology and I find the process of breaking things down into components of different "orders" a way to immerse myself in a given field. Each work or project has a distinct set of conditions that require the development of a unique material and conceptual language. Over the years, I have developed an extensive vocabulary based on this process.

You've referred to the work's procedure as "speculative infection." Can you say more about your process?

"Speculative infection" is a term I adapted from Isabelle Stengers's book on Alfred Whitehead to describe my process of colliding and filtering different disciplines and histories—it is the generative matrix that propels the work. That way I am always starting in the middle and working my way out. Plus, it allows one to escape the vicious cycle of "critique" as it is tiresome to always only be taking things apart instead of putting them together. I like to do both at the same time—infinitely—with stealth and absence of fanfare, to have the capacity to say "what if" and not only "it is."

At present, commodification and instrumentalization are so intimately entwined with what it means to be a functioning human, at least within my sphere and in the places I have lived, that I'm attracted to thinkers who focus on the transformative. In that regard, for several years I have been involved in a collaborative editing process (the journal Public: Art/Culture/Ideas) with another artist, Scott Lyall, through which we explore the potential of Whitehead in relation to artistic practice.

Your works often involve projections on constructed screens, but Knowledge of Life engages found pages. Do you have any thoughts about working with the page as opposed to the screen? Mallarmé is a touchstone in several projections, such as in Did I Love a Dream?, so this is partly why I ask about the page and the screen.

Since impulsively acquiring the book, I have kept Knowledge of Life in the studio as an open-ended "thought and craft experiment" running parallel to other projects. As an object, the book is stained, fogged by time, and cutting into it seems to imply that history is simultaneous and malleable, a hybrid thing that can and should be ripped apart and reconstituted as need be.

Some book lovers might not appreciate this work, but the project's constraints require that all material is printed and comes across my path in daily life (no downloads, Google searches, or image ripping). It is field research that incorporates chance, lines of friendship, and blind luck! It is also another way to disappear (no digital trail). It is an interesting exercise as, in the attempt to carve out some form of autonomy, I see how my own research patterns have shifted over the past thirty years. Every project used to generate a work book where all the lines of inquiry—blind alleys and sudden fertile ground alike—could be traced. That stopped, and I wondered why. Amongst other things, this project examines what research might be in a globalized era. It cannot (only) be Google.

This edition of Euclid blew me away as the modernity of page and beauty of pedagogical proof struck what I understood to be the magnetic poles of my work: aesthetic and scientific abstraction. I was stunned by the visual method—without necessarily following all the theorems, axioms, etc., I understood that the system made sense—and that I wanted to hijack it! My question was then, as an abstraction machine, how might these pages filter, transform, and prove within other domains? In other words, could I use it as a tool?

Using my own library as source material, I cut pages into lines to "run words" through the diagrams. Some were like blunt instruments, annihilating the geometry, while others surrendered to form and color. Experimenting with various writings, abandoning many at their point of failure, I arrived at a series of interactions that, through chance and necessity, still made sense. The choice of texts was not ideological, in the sense of liking or disliking what was written (although admittedly the texts were from my library); the choice was based on how the language performed with the structural flow of color and scientific notation. Everything—together—had to transform and emerge "Q.E.D".

The project is divided into three sections: Recto, Verso, and Excised Text. I had to find another copy of the edition to work on the Verso pages, but this is where I'm at now. It joins the diagrams with a 1950s trade paper sample book from my grandfather's printing press in Vancouver, plates from a book on historical costumes, and a friend's archive of scientific illustration. This section takes paper (its manufacture, dissemination, and future obsolescence) as a space-binding medium. These are, to use a phrase from Bruno Latour, "immutable mobiles" that I am mutating—archaic ones —instruments of colonization and globalization. I am trying to weave a cosmology that includes subjective human values and propositions about how things work. The resulting weird morphological process of abstraction fails to distinguish geometric space from anthropological space. It is all formations and deformations of the figure.

The title Knowledge of Life, or The Imagination Is a Function without an Organ is drawn from Georges Canguilhem. Against the isolation of biology as a science, he believed it would ideologically transform living beings into mechanical structures of physical/chemical equilibrium, and that this cannot account for the specificity or complexity of life. I think we are now living that ideological transformation. In this regard, I'm interested in Jacob von Uexküll's concept of umwelt as well, which suggests an organism creates and reshapes its own "functional circle" when it interacts with the world. The circles of every single organism differ, and the interaction creates a co-operative sphere or environment. I explored this in a projection work on satellite dishes called World Without Sun.

To return to your original question, perhaps the Euclid project is also calling for the survival and adaptability of the physical page itself. This is, of course, a socio-economic question. While it may no longer be possible to think of the book as a "spiritual instrument" (Mallarmé), it is nonetheless a counter-model to mass media. Maybe its radical potential is in persisting in blunt silence as "archaic instrument."

Yet many of your works feature projections onto screens.

Well, the screen is a more contemporary benchmark medium for compressing and organizing material spatially, according to the same informational vector as paper and other inscriptive media, or what Bernard Stiegler calls a "technical prosthesis." I have no preferred media, but must acknowledge the epochal importance of the display screen—it casts a color over any support now by its very absence of support. In the aftermath of the abolition of the image support, paper does seem archaic. Screen and paper infect one another in speculative and spectacular ways. I often do this—return to an earlier technological moment—as it is like a prism through which the present can be viewed in all its complexity.

Your screens are not just surfaces but have material presence. Can you speak to your interest in the screen as both material object and concept? You seem to be putting pressure on the conventional relationship between projection and screen; can you say more about this?

I guess the pressure would be in not allowing the optical and the tactile to separate. When I began working with projection at the beginning of the 1990s, the shift to digital had just started. I still work with both as there is an interstice that has not been explored between analogue and digital projection. For example, projecting slides onto orchids to see if sufficient photosynthesis can occur is still part of my studio practice.

As assemblages, the screen projections blur the categorical division between mechanical and organic. The constantly changing light patterns emitted by the projectors mean the surface is always in process—composing and decomposing—producing a "thickening" of the image. On that note, I think of the slide dissolves as "living" assemblages in the sense that all elements must animate one another to function.

Yes, there is a complex relationship between your projected images (often slide dissolves) and the surface onto which the projection loops. The surface doesn't just receive the image but becomes materially entangled with the projection.

I think of the relationship as form and matter being given the possibility of eclipsing one another. The works of projection explore the relation between digital morphing (change without residue) and analogue metamorphosis (change of/as residue). I'm always interested in what has been left behind and what has disappeared in a transformative process.

Barry Schwabsky, writing of your work, describes an experience of "being simultaneously inside and outside of illusory space." Can you talk about your use of space, both the illusory space of film, and the space of the viewer?

I find illusory space difficult to conceive of as a distinct entity. But I would suspect the physical space of the projection apparatus, our bodies as viewers, and the screen/image are enfolded in constant negotiation. I often go back to the following passage from Gilles Deleuze when thinking about the physical nature of spectatorship:

'Give me a body, then': This is the formula of philosophical reversal. The body is no longer the obstacle that separates thought from itself, that which it has to overcome to reach thinking. It is on the contrary that which it plunges or must plunge into, in order to reach the unthought, that is life. [ . . . ] It is through the body (and no longer through the intermediary of the body) that cinema forms its alliance with the spirit, with thought. (Cinema 2, The Time-Image, p. 182)
Your mixed media piece Not I (pas moi) projects phrases from Samuel Beckett's play Not I and Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace. At any given moment, there is both a phrase from Beckett (at the top of the screen) and a phrase from Weil (at the bottom). The phrases, sometimes in English, sometimes in French, dissolve on a screen that is made of buttons of different textures, sizes, and colors. Mirrors suspended at right angles on either side of the screen reflect the projections and one another. Why did you choose to pair these two writers?

I came to the writing of Simone Weil through her exploration of geometry and doubt. In her work, geometry is a force of beauty and functions to bridge human abjection (gravity) and divine perfection (grace). She also believed that modern science had become a separate universe that had lost its grounding in common experience. Science no longer served to clarify—or figure—our imaginary. For her, "an investigation of the limits of my control over my thoughts and actions will at the same time be an investigation of the boundary between, or intersection of, myself and the world." So the subject—"I"—persists in a state of doubt. Weil lived that doubt quite literally, in some ways experimenting on herself through action and response in the way Henri Michaux did with mescaline and perception or, perhaps more recently, Adrian Piper reading Kant to transcend. The process linking these acts seems to insist on a physical rendering of knowledge by the body.

Weil's quest to understand the "gift" of intelligibility through the instrument of her own body is striking. I have spent some time reading female mystics (Marguerite Porete, Hildegard of Bingen) and this current of self-negation as a liberating force runs through them all, as if somehow required in order to participate in the world. Weil yearned to "see what the world looks like when I'm not there." Without going into the political dimension of her work during WWII, it seems to me that she is searching for reconciliation with lived abstraction.

I found a parallel force of self-negation expressed quite violently in Beckett's Not I. Both texts have a desiring subject who desires not to desire, so I multiplied them to create a "double negative" condition. It is almost as if, by infecting and therefore inflecting each voice with the other, a space or circuit of affirmation opens up. I think this doubling or exponential blur of the constitution of "other" is fruitful as it creates possibility rather than exclusion. On that note, I have laid the ground for work with the subsequent "movements" in Beckett's text as this project ended with "pause and movement one." So the multiplication of negation continues . . .

Can you talk about the relationship between projection and reflection in this work?

There is a slow calculus of consciousness performed here that intimately links the projected text fragments with spectatorship. Mind and screen blur. I didn't plan this; the blurring effect emerged from the work. Some viewers found the process ecstatic and troublesome, as if the ebb and flow of words and light were trespassing on their internal conversations. Projection and reflection are conjugated—on the interior by thought—and on the exterior by mirrors which devour the environment, taking us along with it.

Your work Tlön, or How I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history consists of a four-minute loop of dissolving astronomy slides projected onto a screen made of pinned butterflies. The work is inspired by Jorge Luis Borges's story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." Can you explain the connection of your work to Borges's story? I'm interested in how you work with a literary text. What's the process? Are you drawn to an image and then work from there?

Borges is perhaps my spiritual home. His marriage of the sublime and rational is literally fabulous as it subverts taxonomic structures of knowledge, often conjoining "the mirror and the encyclopedia" (Borges). All the levels of invention required to sustain both the real and the fable incorporate such great care and yet utter despair with human history. With great humour but not irony. A firecracker went off when I read "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" as it takes positivism to its absurd conclusion:

The world [for them] is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial . . . The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather the astounding. In the end reality yields. Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, destined to be deciphered by men . . . [E]nchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels . . .
As you have no doubt gathered by now, there is a cosmological impulse underlying much of my work. Borges's story struck me as a way of thinking about the bifurcation of nature into the things we experience and know, like a sunset, and the scientific fact and feats of solar rays. I have never quite gotten over the fact that telescopes looking at supernovae in galaxies billions of light-years away see the universe back in time. Of course, I know this is due to the speed of light. But really: how does that make me feel about the stars above? Surely these two events are different orders of things.

I wanted to find elements that could sustain this experience of the incommensurable. And wonder. By overlaying several systems: documentation of the heavens (the universe at different wavelengths) and classification of insects (morpho specimens), a fantastic voyage through the universe on nano wings is traced, one that is impossible according to the laws of physics.

The bright blue wings and bodies are organized into a grid (an a-temporal/non-spatial structure) that floats in the dark. Once the light of the projectors hits the screen, they animate. And yet it is a paradoxical surface of the double dead; that which has expired by the time it is observable (stellar events) is overlaid on that which is killed in order to be better understood. Mystic and sadistic drives inhabit this work. I hope Borges would approve.

Contact lenses function as reading surfaces in the installations Le dictionnaire des inquisiteurs (tombeau) (1994-95) and Le dictionnaire des inquisiteurs (1992). Words, taken from a dictionary published during the Spanish inquisition, have been laser-etched onto pairs of contact lenses that are then displayed in light boxes. You've said this work was made in response to the increasing number of televised courtroom trials. Can you say more about how this work addresses the viewer as witness?

This work reminds me of a passage in Kafka's "In the Penal Colony": the judgment is incised on the back of the victim with a complicated needling machine allowing him/her to feel it but not read it—a vivid image of how body, tool, and text intersect.

The inscribed contact lenses compact truth and techniques of visualization. In the first iteration of the work, the lenses were arranged on light tables in patterns of chess games in mid-play. The index of the book was organized into pairs and mapped onto games so that the right eye plays against the left. [As an aside, I'd like to note that by this time I had a system in place for articulating the constraints, mapping, and logic of each procedure of "speculative infection"—which can never be the same as it develops out of the material at hand. I don't always remember the specifics but it makes tremendous sense at the time! The process is trance-like.]

Installed using a grid of thread to delineate the space of the chess board, these lines are lifted to let the lenses float in a pattern, an array of relations, that a viewer might decode as chess. But the relative value of each lense/word as chess pieces is missing so there is no way to play. The contact lense is like a skin-film on which is condensed the trauma and weight of history. The horror of each term is amplified as it ricochets in chance relation to others.

An intensely intimate prosthetic device, with these etched specimens, the word "disappears" into the body when worn as neither wearer nor observer can detect it. Similarly one must not look/cannot see the laser used to inscribe the word on the surface of the lens as it would be blinding. This illegibility at the root or technique of inscription fascinates me as I find over and over again that to see or understand how something is working—or even why it exists at all—one must shift it to a different ground.

I should add that Le dictionnaire des inquisiteurs was a painful work to make as this dictionary is an alphabetical litany of horror. And it really was used as a juridical tool; it is very technical and detailed. I had it for quite a while with little intention of working with the index until the L.A. riots of 1992 when the jury voted to acquit despite videotaped evidence of Rodney King's beating. I was living in Paris at the time and watched as much as possible on television. Then it all just clicked and felt necessary to work out—this knot between juridical production of truth, violence, and the visual: "How can that be?" found an echo in the past. My methodology always involves one foot in the here and now, and the other somewhere far away.

These "clicks" or synaptic firings are, finally, all I know about the starting points. All of the meaning and everything in the result comes from the process, the speculative infection–a descendent of collage or montage, in an epoch–ours–where the old textual paradigms of assembly—cut, paste—are themselves infected by processes like cognitive mapping and supplemented by new metaphors from biology, immunology, and the brain's plasticity. It is astonishing, the connections that proliferate—this is what obliges me to work—astonishment is the process of empirical experimentation, the verification of a problem I have effectively created in order to provide for—understand/feel—the immanent process of its solution.