Elusive Presence: How Images Make Themselves Felt is a book project that is derived from a major reworking of my Ph.D. dissertation. It is currently under consideration at a major university press. Below you will find the book proposal with each of the chapter outlines, as well as links to a series of updates on the progress of the project. Here is the outline:
It is the spring of 2009 in Ottawa, Canada. A visitor of the National Gallery of Canada stands in front of Piet Mondrian’s painting Composition No. 12 with Blue (1936-42). As he looks at the grid of black perpendicular lines that divide the white background into smaller rectangles, he notices a flash in one of the intersections of the black lines. Then he suddenly notices several other intersections are also flickering. As his eyes start darting around the canvas trying to see all of these sparkling points, the grid begins to dance in the seeing.
This brief parable is one of eight that begins my proposed book Elusive Presence: How Images Make Themselves Felt, in which I suggest that our encounters with art offer images for perception that become more than what just meets our eyes. Following painter Bridget Riley’s assertion, I believe that we feel more than what we actually perceive (2009). Art facilitates a seeing that reveals perception’s excesses. Beyond the images that come to be perceived—whether they are representational or abstract, analog or digital—there are feelings and sensations that exceed seeing that are active within every visual experience. Depending on the specific set of conditions we find ourselves in, or what Erin Manning and Brian Massumi call “enabling constraints” (2014), some particular artworks will channel the most fleeting potentialities to the forefront of perception, actualizing what usually remains elusive to our sight. Through the enabling constraints experienced in several artworks examined throughout Elusive Presence—such as the Internet art of John F. Simon Jr. (Chapter 1), the paintings of Piet Mondrian produced near the end of his career (Chapters 2, 5 and 7), Robert Irwin’s paintings made during the 1960s (Chapters 4 and 8), the ground-breaking analog and digital video art of Woody Vasulka (Chapter 3), and the black and white paintings of Bridget Riley produced in the early 1960s (Chapter 6)—we come to experience a seeing in which the dynamism of the incorporeal and the ephemeral is felt through the emergent actions occurring within these works as such. These imperceptible forces are momentarily felt in all of these works, generating a seeing that makes the elusive present.
Art takes a central role in this discussion because I believe it is the best conduit for experiencing encounters with the elusive. Regardless of the specific medium or technique employed, all works of art have the ability to foreground the virtual feelings and sensations of the more-than. The flecks of coloured pigment on a painting’s canvas, the rapid changes occurring throughout an array of pixels dancing on a screen’s surface in a piece of video or Internet art, or the lighting used to help shape a sculptural work may initially present something that lures and momentarily holds our attention. But as we continue engaging with the artwork, feelings begin emerging in this encounter that exceed both the artwork itself and our conscious perception. In the midst of this mutually shared experience occurring between us and the artwork, there is an elusive presence that, when felt, can cause us to question our own perceptual abilities. The first question that might come to mind is one that Riley asked: “What is it that we are looking at?” (2009). But perhaps a more specific question should be asked: What is it that we are fully experiencing?
It is often difficult to express what exactly these elusively present feelings are in the midst of experiencing images because they are felt differently from artwork to artwork, if they are consciously sensed at all. These excessive feelings, lingering virtually as potential, are not something that should be considered outside or separate from what comes to be seen. What we visually experience always includes both that which is actualized for perception and that which remains virtually as potential for a seeing to come. Usually these feelings of the more-than slip past our visual awareness, residing in the background of our experience. Their presence persists despite eluding our conscious attention. Yet despite their ineffability and imperceptibility, these elusively present feelings are as real as what we actually see. They just occur in the realm of what Gilles Deleuze calls the “virtual” (1994) or Alfred North Whitehead calls “pure potential” (1978). The images we come to encounter when engaging with art are simultaneously replete with concrete actualizations that are visibly seen and virtual potentialities that are imperceptibly felt below the threshold of the visible.
Much of the literature concerning images in art history, philosophy, film and new media studies has tended to focus on its representational, cognitive, or technological aspects. I feel that these already proven research avenues do not entirely get to what is at stake in Elusive Presence, which is how the more-than visible sensations occurring during an encounter with images are integral to the activity of seeing. Because these ephemeral feelings are on the cusp of visibility, Elusive Presence is oriented towards a philosophy of experience, placing great significance on process, movement and relations. Primarily guided by Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy (1978, 2004) and William James’s radically empirical understanding of relations (2003), but also influenced by contemporary concepts such as Erin Manning’s relational philosophy (2009, 2013), Brian Massumi’s philosophy of affect (2002, 2011, 2015), and Steven Shaviro’s speculative aesthetics (2009, 2014), Elusive Presence specifically explores how images are intimately entangled within experience itself and undergo a continuous process of emergence and change that I call the “incipiency of images.” These changes may not be dramatic and sometimes are not even visible. But, as I argue throughout the book, they become perceptible a felt intensity that unfolds through a mutually shared experience occurring between us, the viewers, and the artworks.
The chapter summaries can be found here.
1. June 22, 2015, on what have been completed thus far, finishing the introduction, sharing the drafts.