Theory and Creative Practice Essay
Reflective analysis of the relationship between theory and creative practice
Information, knowledge and power in contemporary society (2005)
This paper provides reflective analysis of the continuities and discontinuities between theory and creative practice and their application in the context of an essay and a website, ‘blOated’. This is achieved with reference to empirical evidence, including personal experience.
The idea that I attempted to represent imaginatively is ‘information overload’, resulting from capitalist endeavour, which has promoted knowledge’s status as both a commodity and a decisive force of production.This was coupled with Lyotard’s notion of ‘performativity’, ideas related to rationalisation of the social system (Lyotard 1984:11). Specialisation on this topic came about as a reasoned, filtration of knowledge appropriated throughout the degree programme. That is to say that, whilst there are other ways to contextualise information overload, it was considered that issues of capitalism most accurately capture the intersection of information (overload), knowledge and power and broadly, this is why the subject is important.
Capitalism has sustained itself by generation of ICTs and information which ‘extends and consolidates its relations’ (Webster 2002:128-129). Theoretical knowledge preponderates practical knowledge ( Bell cited in Webster 2002:52) and there has been a shift of power from the state to multinational corporations (Lyotard 1984:6). The mass media exploit audiences by promoting commodification through advertising and supply of content that promotes their self-interest (Mosco 1996:146-147). These are some of the characteristics of the so called ‘information age’, which play a role in increasing inequality. ‘[A]bility to pay’ determines the quality of information available and so, essentially, those who can afford the ‘best’ information and related technologies widen the divide with those who are less fortunate (Webster 2002:146-149). These ideas were presented in the essay and the website.
It is important to understand these issues, in order that contemporary society may be changed, or at least its political foundations challenged, either purely intellectually or politically. Marx’s criticism of contemporaneous German philosophy rests on its assumption that society and nature were unalterable and he felt that this mode of thought was an ‘ineluctable march to obsolescence’. This is a beginning for his assertion that (Bandyopadhyay 2001:1) ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’ (Marx cited in Arthur 1974:123).
Reluctantly, I chose to represent the theme as a website. This evolved from a superior, preceding idea: a framed, blank canvas with a title. This idea was viewed as unacceptable in terms of assessment. Although advice was offered and received in good faith, in a sense, this prohibited freedom of expression, an exercise of power. Therefore, the concept of the website was not viewed as art, but more in terms of art by ‘proxy’, a ‘simulation’ of true expression. According to Wolff, this can be described as a form of censorship. Art embodies power, in that, under certain circumstances there is a potential for cultural practice to play a role in social and political change. In part, this underlies the state’s regard for censorship, as if the arts are allowed ‘complete freedom’ of expression, there is a potential to impact beyond an aesthetic level (Wolff 1981:74-75). These ideas are echoed in a personal context by Dmitri Shostakovich, a Russian composer, who asserts that
Every piece of music is a form of personal expression for its creator […] If a work doesn’t express the composer’s own personal point of view, his own ideas, then it doesn’t, in my opinion, even deserve to be born (Shostakovich cited in Way 2000:1 emphasis removed).
Shostakovich’s censorship was a control imposed by the oppressive and brutal Stalinist regime (Way 2000:11), where he was under constant pressure to compose what the state wanted to hear and in turn, ‘artistic repression’ manifested as ‘subtle and ironic music which satisfied government’, yet simultaneously protested against it. According to Histand and Peto, it is the ‘ creative response [to these circumstances that] make Shostakovich one of history’s most interesting composers’ (Histand & Peto 2003:1).
Comparably, here, although in very different circumstances, interpolation influenced the aesthetic fluency of the creative process and indeed, this expurgation precipitated a new rationale for the piece. The original idea was underpinned purely by artistic concerns in relation to the topic (assessment aside), but, however, the introduction of new media, introduced several moral dilemmas and opportunities. The piece was intended to protest the capitalist system and the computerisation of society, but a website utilises the very technologies that aid the structure of production. This illustrates that in this context, the media can be seen to shape the message (Herring 2004:26) , as in one sense, the message is somewhat neutralised by utilising the media it is aimed against and this expressed an irony that often a system can only be reacted to from within the system itself. In turn, self-interest became a motivation for the piece. It was considered that the product could become a portfolio piece. If the website is put forth into the public sphere, it has potential exchange and use value in a ‘global’ context. It was empowering to think that I was ‘becoming virtual’ (Lévy 1998:28), ‘a molecular vector of collective intelligence’ (Lévy 1997:160) and my interpretation of information overload could contribute to the topic it studies, through temporary suspension in cyberspace, virtually occupying ‘every point in the network’ (Lévy 1998:28). However, this was counterbalanced with a realisation that I was virtually prosecutable for copyright infringement. A major advantage of developing a website, was prepossession of the required technical skills to execute it and thus the technology became transparent, enabling a Dionysian, creative and playful milieu, which diffused throughout the project.
The website, entitled ‘blOated’, is a gallery of images, formed of images manipulated with Photoshop. It aims to offer an insight into the role of information in contemporary society and affect and inform the reader and persuade them to question social, cultural, political and economic issues in this society. The ‘home’ page can be seen in Figure 1.
Figure 1: ‘home’ page - ‘Einstein - sold!’
blOated has a ‘lo-fi’ feel, using distorted GIFs throughout, connoting a ‘data haze’ or ‘media mist’, which represents information overload and hidden media messages, that is, messages that promulgate a ‘denotation’ that the dominant essentially have the same ‘basic problems’ as the dominated and cannot control their destiny, thereby concealing an actuality (Schiller 1989:153). The images are arranged in an interface that is analogous to a broken television, although does not resemble one. This is connoted by six navigation buttons, which use a similar colour scheme to a television ‘test card’. The ‘channels’ are (‘home’), ‘signs’, ‘visiart’, ‘body’, ‘sound’ and ‘eduwork’, which represent several areas of life that were thought important to explore in relation to the topic. Each image is contextualised by a title, ‘alt’ tags and keywords or ‘subtitles’, accompanied by a cacophony of rants and raves, although generally the former. Some images represent commodities themselves, as seen in Figure 2, ‘The Daniel Bell Jar’, which is advertised as an information commodity, a sort of robot that can sustain in depth conversation about the Post-Industrial Society. Other images are related somehow to information commodities, as seen in Figure 3, ‘Miles smiles - the dotted semiquaver aisle’. Yet others relate to some other issue associated with the topic.
Figure 2: ‘ebody’ page - ‘The Daniel Bell Jar’.
Figure 3: ‘the sound of money’ page - ‘Miles smiles - the dotted semiquaver aisle’.
In one sense, the website can be compared with the ‘creative products’ of Lyotard, Frank Webster, Dan and Herbert Schiller and Pierre Lévy for example. These authors paint with words and blOated incorporates similar themes to these ‘theorarticians’. For example, Lévy ’s eloquent account of the ‘Second Deluge and the Inaccessibility of Everything’, which draws on Ascott’s ‘second flood’, utilises a theological analogy to express a realisation that knowledge in contemporary society is uncontrollable and beyond reach and this is achieved with literary imagery of contemporary arks and other sailing vessels ( Lévy 2001: 140). This is represented as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: ‘sea of signs’ page - ‘The Second Deluge and the Inaccessibility of Everything’.
Whereas my canvas offers the scribbles of a two year old child, an ocean of signs, Lévy paints his as nature might, with the skill of a blind watchmaker. Whilst Lévy logically develops his argument with clarity, I have attempted to develop opacity and promote the reader to writer. However, to help the reader, I have contextualised the image with the keywords: ‘ noah infoflood turbulence commercial belief system’ and have slightly rotated Lévy’s perspective to emphasise the topic at hand and this is reflected in the bar code filled ark. In a sense, by incorporating keywords, there is a coupling of theory with practice and it can be seen that the images are somehow validated or legitimated by the words. This aided solution to a problem that intermittently unfolded during the development of the website; often, it was extremely difficult to translate and imaginatively represent a concept or a theory and frequently impossible with the constraints of limited imagination and time. For some concepts, artistic ideas flowed freely, yet would take too long to develop, whilst for others, the reverse was true. So, often ‘problematic’ image/concepts were contextualised with a bar code, ‘zeros and ones’ or words for example. Simultaneously, words were often articulated, such that they constituted imagistic art in themselves.
Generally, blOated appears to be understandable on several semiotic planes and so is accessible to a variety of individuals and to a considerable extent, the pictorial content overcomes language barriers. In contrast, an essay may be relatively inaccessible in a ‘global’ context. Presumably, an understanding of the world through theoretical apparatus embodied in either an essay or another (art) form could only play a role in societal change if a certain number of people can access, understand and agree with standpoint.
More often than not, theory preceded practice, in a similar fashion to the arrangement of the lectures; theory, followed by practical interpretations. Generally, an understanding of concepts preceded practical work. Although practical ideas emerged before writing the essay, usually, they did not concretise until concepts were learned through writing. In this context, it is difficult to understand an inverted approach, that is, practical implementation before solidifying the concepts through the essay and perhaps this is a result of a personal ‘style’ of learning. However, often ideas emerged whilst writing the essay and indeed, artistic work was incorporated into the essay and this interconnection, in turn, led to an exponentiation of different perspectives, new ideas and new understandings of both ways of working. For example, ‘Coffee and TV’, a song performed by the popular beat combo ‘Blur’, helped to develop an understanding of ‘performativity’. Gane asserts that ‘digitalization of knowledge’ does not develop creativity, but reduces thought to information processing, as a substrate of performativity (Gane 2003:440). The opening couplet of the song: ‘Do you feel like a chain store?, practically floored’ (blurtalk.com no date available:3), facilitated an understanding of rationalised thought and subsequent analysis of the video, in turn, raised other questions and led to a development of knowledge about performativity. This performativity, a ‘systematisation’ of thought can be seen to result from a division of labour (Marx & Engels cited in Arthur 1974:118). For Marx, these divisions lead to isolation, into an ‘exclusive sphere of activity’ that cannot be escaped (Marx cited in Eagleton 2001:283) and in effect, this is what he means by ‘alienation’, where ‘certain forms of social life […] drive a wedge between [the] two dimensions of the self, individual and communal’, as products of labour embody the individual and ‘define’ them as apart from others (Eagleton 2001:285).
Whereas theoretical work appears particular, presenting specific meaning, blOated exemplifies increased use of suggestion and metaphor, therefore increasing interpretative flexibility. In this context, practice is relatively easy; inexactitude is acceptable, no proof is necessarily required and in any case, can a piece of ‘art’ be ‘wrong’? There is probably ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art, but no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ art. Essays require a definite ordering, constrained by rules and structured through argument, whereas ‘art’ appears to reconfigure this order and as such the original argument is possibly only known to the producer and the reader may appear to be faced with a fragmented argument, that presumably would restructure itself somehow with the original, in accord with interpretative key. In an essay, one word that is can interrupt the whole piece, but the order of art appears more forgiving of this. These ‘concepts’ of structure are also present in the website, but through theories of visual language, such as proportion, perspective and techniques such as ‘framing’. ‘Dissonant symbiosis’, seen in Figure 5, utilises three specific visual techniques, colour aside: the golden ratio can be seen in the rectangle and also the vertical positioning of the face vis-à-vis edges of the rectangle, framing connotes escape downwards and the face is positioned left as ‘given’.
Figure 5: ‘ebody’ page - ‘dissonant symbiosis’.
blOated is profound, in that upon reflection, as with an essay, it embodies subconscious thoughts and meanings that were unnoticed upon first reading and subsequent coagulation of these with conscious thought of production and present, interact in such a way as to reveal a representation of self on multiple levels of abstraction and reflection is synergistic, as in effect the product presents the producer as new, that is the product teaches me about myself, as ‘I’ am embodied in the product and presumably in Marx’s terms, this raises an awareness of otherness. Thus, reflective practice would appear to increase the capacity to improve the product, improve self and thereby at the same time develop the potential for alienation. In a sense, reflective practice can be seen as ‘action-oriented theory’ or ‘emancipatory knowledge’. Marx criticised philosophy, although his concern was not to replace ‘ideas with mindless action’, but to develop a ‘kind of practical philosophy’, to facilitate change in that it attempts to understand (Eagleton 2001:267). Eagleton refers to Marx who asserts that ‘the proletariat cannot realize itself without the realization of philosophy’ (Marx cited in Eagleton 2001:267). That is to say that an individual or group understanding of a situation is required in order to develop it. To reflect and know thyself, simultaneously leads to self-reconfiguration as the ‘act of knowing alters what it contemplates’ (Eagleton 2001:267). Thus theory has an important role in creative work as knowledge provokes change in practice, whether it be moving a pixel or bringing about revolution.
In conclusion, it is important to understand the relationship between and issues of information, knowledge and power in contemporary society, in order to afford an opportunity to influence its evolution. I attempted to persuade, affect and thereby provoke readers into action, by proposing that my version of reality was correct and it was so, because it was legitimated somehow with evidence. This was achieved through the application of theoretical principles in an essay and a website.
Originally a picture was a preferred media form, although in my best interests I was deterred from this. However, although the piece is incomparable to a sonata for cello and piano, this is a form of censoring and illustrates that art is couched in issues of society. In turn, new media replaced old and new opportunities and challenges arose and in particular, a dilemma emerged of how to balance principles with self-interest. 1 The website allowed artistic freedom, as technical issues were transparent and inspiration was rooted in literature and music, ‘creative products dealing with the same or similar themes’. Whilst some theoretical literature is not thought of as art, thinkers such as Lévy blur the division and arouse artistic inspiration through evocative language. This work emphasises ‘Apollonian’ qualities; reason, logic, argument, linearity, although interpretation in the end remains with the reader (Dictionary.com 2005 a:1). In contrast, art forms such as blOated favour ‘Dionysian’ qualities of irrationality and disorder and this was exaggerated for rhetorical effect, whilst sustaining usability, access and at least a strand of an argument (Dictionary.com 2005 b:1). It was often difficult to translate theories and concepts into ‘art’ ideas and then into blOated and the piece was partly explained with titles, keywords, rants and raves, which simultaneously, to some extent substantiated it. The ideas were often implemented with visual theory. Although many ideas came to mind before writing the essay, only afterwards were they fully formed, implying that theoretical knowledge informs practice.
Upon reflection, which can be viewed as an ‘action-oriented theory’ (Eagleton 2001:267), blOated is now a potential commodity itself, conflicting with its original reason for being and so, in a sense it exhibits latent destruction. Presumably, this situation can only be improved by reiterating this knowledge into the piece, although it would remain a potential commodity.
A realisation that the product embodies my labour and ‘I’ and therefore represents a division of labour and alienation, serves to reinforce that in essence, the outcome of this process is that I have become blOated!
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1 It was considered that a conversation with ‘The Daniel Bell Jar’ might have been useful here.Top