Working ideas: Imagining art and immediacy

The word ‘immediate’ is based on the epithet, ‘something without anything in between’. Immediacy is therefore derived from a very peculiar spatial metaphor. It seems to require us to imagine two things or a split-thing and then revise the image because there is in fact nothing in-between it. It suggests that something can be simultaneously divisible and not-divided. It does not specify a clear subject/object position and  the something is undefined as a thing, so it could be a physical object but equally it could be a thought or it could be both. And the experience of trying to figure out the paradox of the definition of the word ‘immediate’ happens all-at-once (whereas in language it is represented sequentially). In short, ‘immediacy’ is a word that is a riddle rather than a clear concept: but therein lies its potency. Rather than try to resolve the awkwardness of the definition, I think it is much better to embrace it, because it successfully encapsulates the complex problem posed by any encounter with things.

Sergei  Eisenstein’s cinema of immediacy was founded upon this awkwardness or paradox. For the dialectical film-maker art is always conflict and montage, the basis of cinema,  correctly understood is not “a means of description by placing single shots one after the other like building-blocks”, but:

“…an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots-shots even opposite one another: the ‘dramatic principle’ […] [Each] sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other. For the idea (or sensation) of movement arises from the process of superimposition on the retained impression of the object’s first position…”

One of Henri Bergson’s contributions to critical thinking was to draw attention to spatial metaphors and highlight their categorical difference from the flow of time, duration or ‘absolute movement’. In some senses, Bergson’s work was focused upon the problem of the immediate, his ambition being to understand our epistemological use of artificial divisions and stops against a reality of parallel happenings without anything in between. In Matter and Memory (1908) he rested for a while on a proposition that our language is predisposed to help us act on the world, so to satisfy our needs and, “carve out, within [the continuity of perceived reality], a body which is to be [our] own, and then delimit other bodies with which the first can enter in to relation, as if with persons.” Taking a comparable example from his contemporary scientific surroundings, he continued:

“…the materiality of the atom dissolves more and more under the eyes of the physicist. We have no reason, for instance, for representing the atom to ourselves as a solid, rather than as liquid or gaseous, nor for picturing the reciprocal action of atoms by shocks rather than in any other way. Why do we think of a solid atom, and why of shocks? Because solids, being the bodies on which we clearly have the most hold, are those which interest us most in our relations with the external world; and because contact is the only means which appears to be at our disposal in order to make our body act upon other bodies. But very simple experiments show that there is never true contact between two neighbouring bodies.”

In this statement one could read a dichotomy familiar in art theory between function and necessity and an ‘art for arts sake’ pursuit of conflict and complexity (The complexity of things as they are, the sublime, is far removed from the bread on the table function of everyday semantics). However, Bergson moves on to argue that the ‘smooth’ and ‘continuous’ reality against which we might say structures, boundaries and divisions are being cast is equally illusory. To imagine a singular emerging ‘time’ that is distinct from our compartmentalisation of it is also a product of a partial (human) consideration of reality. Our individual perception, which in itself is complex and does not unfold uniformly in space providing us with an unmediated sense of an immanent reality, is one of many. Our bodies (though Bergson is even more careful and refers to ‘images of our bodies’) are part of the material world and are a small aspect of the energies and forces that constitute a multiplicity of changes.

Keith Tyson (2002) A Supercollider (in progress) [detail]
Keith Tyson (2002) A Supercollider (in progress) [detail]
Keith Tyson is an artist who seems to pursue in his work a most extreme sense of multiplicity, albeit often in conventional media. Supercollider (from the action of four forces on 103 elements within four dimensions, we get…) crashes together scientific language with the mundane, profane and arbitrary: “All the insects in a rickety old cow shed”, “‘Missing in Action'”, “Repairing a dry-stone wall”, “Abbey Road, London, 19 August 2000, 3.30pm”.  Bergson reflects, “In reality there is no one rhythm of duration; it is possible to imagine many different rhythms which, slower or faster, measure the degree of tension or relaxation of different kinds of consciousness, and thereby fix their respective places in the scale of being” […]

“If we could assemble all the states of consciousness, past, present, and possible, of all conscious beings, we should still only have gathered a very small part of material reality, because images outrun perception on every side.”

If common sense tells us that immediacy is something simple and direct, then a consideration of ‘something with nothing in between’ leads us inevitably towards something extremely expansive, boundless: an affliction of everything. Tyson’s painting is a mass of information, its totality is impenetrable. It is a multiplicity in the sense Bergson advocated the term (qualitative multiplicity) because a quantitative analysis of the work – there are 144 phrases and 30 numbers (only for example) – makes no sense of the work. In fact this approach only repeats Tyson’s dry provocations. Rather, it has to be read one phrase after another; the flavour of that “cloud of cream forming in a cup of coffee”, the thrill of “the great train robber”, the flat domesticity of a child bouncing in an armchair are all important to the work. It operates on the evocative and emotional level. Yet is is also – like nature – abundant and seemingly endless, its ‘images outrun perception on every side’. For Bergson our ability to ‘borrow perception from matter’ is intimately tied up with freedom. Our mobility against systems that propose to regulate reality, whether science or economics, comes from the incomplete and inconsistent nature of duration as it unfolds.

In this short approach to the subject we have not engaged the view that ‘immediacy’ is simple. It should be taken as read that any such usage is an aspect of an ideology: it corresponds to the postmodern critique of immanent meaning where the conventional form of something or its semantic structure is so engrained that is spuriously appears to be absorbed naturally and without effort or resistance, ‘immediately’. Instead, we have played upon the fact that the word is based upon a paradox, that it is more of a prickly lump than a smooth tablet. It is not something that just is, so much as an imagining of things becoming. Although in the ‘simple’ sense of the term it would be impossible to say some artworks are more immediate than others, in our more complex sense it is possible to say that some works are better at triggering the imagination. These artworks may:

  • Demonstrate an excess of meaning that overwhelms them.
  • Resist structural constraints, divisions, spatial tropes, boundaries, limits etc.
  • Resist a homogeneous sense of flowing reality in place of a sense of multiple durations, rhythms and rates .

Of course, this is a rather generic set of statements. But they may be so by necessity. They benefit from not being media specific, prescriptive or tied to any set form or content. And a further study of ‘immediacy’ would need to address the relative paucity of the definitions ‘objects’. It would require a methodology that could account for the connectedness of everything, because it would be a study not dealing with solid atoms, or delimited things, but an “idea (or sensation) of movement [arising] from the process of superimposition”.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. rsmithing says:

    Intriguing post, James. I enjoyed reading this.

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