Elusive Presence – Chapter Summaries

Below are the chapter summaries for my book project Elusive Presence: How Images Make Themselves.

Preface ~ Eight Parables on How Images Makes Themselves Felt

The book opens with eight short parables. Each is about a particular experience with an artwork in which an image makes itself felt in the midst of the seeing act. Each parable corresponds to an artwork that is discussed in one of the chapters found in the book.

Introduction ~ Art as a Conduit for Experiencing the Elusive

The Introduction begins by stating that art facilitates a seeing that engages us with perception’s excesses that are usually backgrounded. Every time artworks are encountered perception has a tendency to extend beyond itself, enabling a seeing that is always engaged with potential. There is constantly more for the experiencing as occurrences of novelty continuously arise in the midst of a seeing encounter with art. The images that come to be seen ceaselessly go beyond themselves, giving way to even newer images, newer relations, and newer sensations. We come to feel more than just what is just visible. We encounter an “elusive presence” that lingers within every act of seeing. Always felt but not necessarily perceived.

1 ~ From Representation to Sensation

Chapter One examines how John F. Simon Jr.’s internet artwork Every Icon (1997) proposes to create every icon within a black and white thirty-two by thirty-two grid. In order to generate the seemingly uncountable number of images that his proposition puts forward, he uses techniques that are usually intended for a scientific representational practice for the purposes of art. As these representational techniques of science are deployed for an artistic outcome, they undergo a process of transduction that enables them to exceed themselves both scientifically and representationally. Rather than producing scientific results that necessitate a closure to the process the techniques initiate, the scientific techniques Simon employs in Every Icon are transformed in order to remain open to change, thus allowing the techniques to go beyond their intended scientific use. It is through this process of transduction occurring in the overlap between what Deleuze and Guattari call the scientific plane of reference and the artistic plane of composition (1994) that enables the mathematically arranged black and white squares of Every Icon to transform into what Whitehead calls “lures for feelings” (1978), which are sensational attractors that draw our attention towards the artwork. As lures for feeling, the black and white grid in Every Icon exceeds the limits of scientific representations offering us an encounter with an aesthetic composition of sensations.

2 ~ Beyond Static Experience

Chapter Two continues discussing how images emerging from artworks composed of grids have the ability to exceed the grids’ own invariance, enabling a seeing that goes beyond what is simply represented. Focusing on Piet Mondrian’s painting Composition No. 12 with Blue (1936-42), this chapter argues that no images, even gridded ones, are static. Instead, they constantly move with a dynamism that, if not actually seen, is experienced as an “elusive presence” at the level of sensation just below the threshold of perception. This movement that comes to be felt when gazing upon Mondrian’s painting is not produced by the painting itself and it is not caused by the viewers looking at it. Rather, the dynamism is co-generated in the shared experience occurring between the viewers and the painting. I then close the chapter arguing that the human viewers and nonhuman painting, through the relations that actively arise in the middle of their encounter, co-produce a process I call the “incipiency of images.”

3 ~ The Force of Pixels

Chapter Three focuses on Woody Vasulka’s pioneering video works from the 1970s and early 1980s. Using various analog and digital video signal processors, the images that emerged from Vasulka’s videos, such as C-Trend (1974) or Artifacts (1980), were constantly being altered and manipulated. Like Mondrian’s painting discussed in the previous chapter, we experience images composed of lines and grids that are never static but instead are in a state of continual modulation. Because the gridded images emerging from these video works are endlessly changing, Vasulka felt that they could not be understood by the two dominant imaging model of his time – linear perspective and the Bergsonian cinematic paradigm. The chapter then shows how Vasulka then proceeds to conceive of a new vocabulary for his work that centers around his notion of “time/energy objects” (1992). This concept of time/energy objects is then further developed through Massumi’s understanding of topological figures (2002) and Greg Lynn’s spline model used in topological architecture design (1999) in order to demonstrate, first, how “compositional forces” emerge in both analog and digital video and, second, how these forces then generate the ever-changing “incipiency of images” we come to encounter in art.

4 ~ Encounters With Incipient Actions

Chapter Four continues to further develop the “incipiency of images” by focussing on incipiency itself by examining how Robert Irwin’s ‘Line’ painting series (1960–1964) come to foreground the elusively present dynamism that cannot be but felt in the seeing. These paintings exemplify how encounters with incipient action potentially occur. Incipient action is what composes the about-to-become visible that is felt as intensity in the shared experience occurring between us and Irwin’s paintings. Through the set of conditions, or what Manning and Massumi call enabling constraints (2014), activated in the artwork’s compositional elements, incipient action emerges in the midst of the shared experience. As we gaze upon the ‘Line’ paintings, I close the chapter discussing how there is a constant modulation between figure and ground, foreground and background, producing an incipient action that generates a perceptual field experienced as a felt resonating compositional force of colour.

5 ~ A Paradox of Compositional Forces

Chapter Five focuses on Mondrian’s Composition with Two Lines (1931): a work in which the depicted vertical and horizontal grid is cut diagonally by its diamond-shaped frame. This chapter further develops the notions of “incipient action” and “compositional force” from the previous chapter by focusing on how, in our shared encounter with the artwork, we come to feel two simultaneously contrasting compositional forces in the seeing. One force spirals centrifugally outward, going beyond the form of the depicted grid. The second compositional force moves centripetally inward, luring our attention towards the work. Rosalind Krauss suggests this work by Mondrian produces a “cheerfully schizophrenic” experience (1985), not in a clinical-pathological sense but in how it is able to generate a paradoxical feeling of two seemingly oppositional movements at once. Turning to Deleuze and Guattari notion of schizoanalysis (1983), this chapter takes Krauss’s idea that these seemingly paradoxical forces are schizophrenic seriously, arguing that these two conflicting forces elusively felt in the seeing enable the dynamic production of the incipiency images we come to experience.

6 ~ Elusive Presence

In Chapter Six Bridget Riley’s high contrast black and white paintings Horizontal Vibration (1961) and Fall (1963) are used to further discuss the paradoxical centrifugal and centripetal compositional forces examined in the previous chapter, which are felt in the seeing in our shared experience with art. Upon experiencing these conflicting compositional forces in these works, it will be argued that contrasts are generated for the feeling. Following Whitehead, contrasts are not expressions of an opposition (1978). Instead, they provide the potential for forces or sensations elusively felt below perception’s threshold to arise into awareness. As we look at Riley’s paintings, we consciously feel the forces at work through their contrasts. However, we do not directly encounter these contrasts as such. They come to generate an “incipiency of images” that I will argue is a practice of active diagramming, in the Deleuzian sense (1988), which traces the eventful unfolding of the about to become visible. The contrasts emerging in the shared experience we have with Riley’s works I believe give us momentary access to the elusive presence of images.

7 ~ Painting the Sensation

Expanding on the previous chapter’s examination on how it is possible to access the “incipiency of images” in our encounters with art, Chapter Seven shows how the coloured planes Mondrian’s last painting, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), takes hold of our attention through a discontinuous, yet dynamic, movement felt in the seeing, luring us to feel and become aware of the elusive presence of images that emerge in our shared experience with the painting itself. This chapter explores Mondrian’s painting through Gins and Arakawa’s notions of “landing sites” and “critical holders” (2002), specifically looking at how our attention is first lured by the sensations on offer by the artwork and then momentarily held in the shared experience with the work, enabling images to emerge into perception for the seeing.

8  ~ Images of Incipiency

The concluding chapter of Elusive Presence returns to the paintings of Robert Irwin, focusing on two seemingly radically different series of works, the “Dot” series (1964-66) and the “Disc” Series (1966-69). Through these two series of paintings, Irwin slowly dismantles all the conditions that commonly activate paintings, such as visible marks of paint and the frame. With the removal of the frame in the final “Disc” series, he ultimately produced works that transform the entire gallery environment into a resonating field of colour. Like the other artworks discussed throughout Elusive Presence, we become consciously aware of the compositional forces at work. However, these artworks by Irwin, as this chapter discusses, make the diagrammatic praxis of the incipiency of image not only perceptible but also felt environmentally. The elusive presence of images, their incipient action, is all that is experienced. Seeing and feeling become one with the surroundings. We come to encounter images of pure incipiency. We feel nothing but an elusive presence.

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