Change and Embodiment

This text was written as part of The Still Point’s ‘Creative Exchange’ which paired artists, from the Slade, with PhD researchers, from UCL and King’s College London, for an exhibition of visual art work and live readings at FAT RELIC. More details can be found on the blog and photographs from the evening are on our Facebook page

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‘Different Kinds of Sameness’, by Dala Nasser

The defiance in Dala’s work, of conventional conceptions of painting, is clear. The inherently altering nature of her work is perhaps not so. Working with liquid latex, resin and pigments, her materials interact both with each other and with the external environment, namely oxygen, to change form and appearance over time. Her work therefore offers the viewer temporally distinct experiences. The experience her work elicits has an added dimension as it is not only the viewer’s subjective temporality that contributes to her aesthetic experience, here the painting itself has a lifespan, a contingent yet fluid development.

My work involves the attempt to add an emotional dimension to theoretical reasoning, a defiance against the false dichotomy between reason and emotion, against most concepts of ‘pure reason’. Science is often thought as a paradigm case of theoretical reasoning. Scientific inquiry is as temporally dependent as Dala’s art works. Changing conceptual paradigms alter how we observe the objects of our inquiry. Time allows the evolution of a completely distinct artwork within the same spatial boundaries. In science, temporal distinction underpins different experiences of the same natural world.

Human sciences, as opposed to experimental sciences, are meant to be characterized by reflexivity, here meaning that the object of study is also the subject conducting the study itself. I am sceptical of how helpful the notion of reflexivity can be in distinguishing human from empirical sciences. Once the nature of our inquiry is accepted as inherently embodied, socially and biologically, room for the powerful role of emotions in abstract thinking, begins to be made.

The products of Dala’s process are pieces that possess intricate physicality. We long to explore her work tactually. This desire is triggered by our emotional responses to the work as emotions are the seat of motivation and preparation for action. The embodied nature of the subject is therefore crucial to the aesthetic experience elicited by the artwork. I take a similar experience to be involved in instances where scientists undergo aesthetic experiences regarding scientific theories or theorems. This experience is inherently emotional, embodied and physical. Detached appreciation is therefore a possibly gendered anachronism or false dogma.

We need to take seriously the question of what role such aesthetic experiences can play in scientific inquiry. This aesthetic, emotional experience motivates the generation of both action and beliefs. Allowing beliefs based on emotions to prove relevant in abstract thinking, as opposed to being vestigial epiphenomena. There is a rationality to emotions that cannot be detached from our nature as embodied, biological beings. Emotions are a way of perceiving, that is crucial to both art and science.

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Photo by Giulia Legora http://giulialegora.com/@Giulyfeels

Laura Silva is in the first year of her PhD at UCL, her research explores the philosophy of emotion. Dala Nasser is currently undergoing her undergraduate studies at UCL’s Slade School of Fine Arts.

The texts from our Creative Exchange will continue to be published on the blog over the coming months. 

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A Guide for New PhD Students

ian-book

Start the video.

Here is how to begin. Fill a fresh notepad with calming notes to yourself such as “how the hell do I even start this thing” and “this might all be a terrible mistake”.

This is the grey, sinister building that you will only ever enter late and panicked and sweating. Use your time in the lift efficiently by regretting your complete inability to manage basic aspects of day-to-day life.

Here is how to forget your purpose with unsettling frequency and stutter around in a mute stupor for weeks on end. Always remember to take sensible breaks while you stutter around in a mute stupor for weeks on end.

Here is how to structure the formless shadow of your half-remembered thoughts into a clear and achievable chapter outline, indicating the anticipated word count for each reckless and inexplicable tangent.

Here is how to feign interest in your own best ideas long enough to write them down.

Here is how to optimise the ergonomics of your desk to help you maintain control during unscheduled emotional convulsions provoked by some insignificant thing that may or may not have recently occurred.

This is a chart developed by experts to help you organise your throbbing obsession into regular study blocks. This is how to forget about the individualised chart you made after devoting what everyone would agree to be an unhealthy level of attention on the column widths. You’ll quickly learn how to stare incomprehensibly at the chart every now and then during the feverish midnight hours.

Here is how to keep your spirits up and persevere in exploring all the available options with an impressive pragmatism as your shitty laptop slips indifferently into some kind of electric coma.

Here is a little bench on a nameless road that you can sit at for almost two hours until lunchtime is definitely, undeniably over but you don’t have the slightest clue of what to do when you go back or even where to go.

Here is how to avoid ever discussing the three-and-a-half hours you spent colouring in the elaborate detail of your mind-map’s inappropriate and miserable centrepiece.

Here is a great place to relax and ache quietly with self-doubt in an atmosphere of academic excellence.

We hope you found this useful.


James Fisher is a PhD candidate at Kings College London. Follow @JamDanFish

Down the Rabbit Hole

Alice in Wonderland is a tale that has followed me just as Alice follows the White Rabbit. Her pubescent exploration of a confusing topsy-turvy land has stuck to me, appears when I don’t expect it. I realise I return to her rabbit hole regularly even now.

When I research I fall down the rabbit hole. Following what I find curious into darkness: dark corners of libraries, into the dark fathoms within books. Day after day I fall into different rabbit holes, some of which are dead ends, others that thankfully lead to wonderlands. Research is as strange and a mutable as Alice’s Wonderland and the joy of research stems from a curiosity like Alice’s. When I read I float like Alice in her rabbit hole – in a dark unknown, in a time suspended, a time that catches my skirt into a parachute and warps the ticking of the clock I should be following. Curiosity in the library – in the words of Alice – can ‘often lead to trouble’. rabbit hole

When Alice follows the white rabbit with a waistcoat and watch into an inadvisably small hole to fall down into another, more imaginative world that makes little sense, she enacts the experience of researching.

Yet. And yet, Alice in Wonderland shadows me ever further. For in my research I have taken myself to a wonderland much like Alice’s – a place of dreams and nightmares, myth and fantasy, full of strange and marvelous creatures.

The difference is that the wonderland of my research exists – can be traversed, touched, smelt and felt. It is a garden, built in sixteenth-century Italy, a woodland garden, where you will come across two fighting giants 7.7 metres tall, enter a gaping face where sounds resonate from the interior cave, see a sea creature with yawning jaws rise from the earth, and meet mythical Sirens and Harpies. It is a place as topsy-turvy as that land Alice wanders. A place, which I hope will tell us something of place, embodiment, imagination and fantasy in early modern Italy. In Through the Looking Glass, the second book of Lewis Caroll’s Alice tales, the White Queen lives backwards:

“Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!”

     “– but [said the White Queen] there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.”

My memory only works one way, in the words of Alice I sadly ‘can’t remember things before they happen’. But in my research I remember Alice, her wonderland echoes in mine and it is with her beside me that I fall down rabbit holes.

Thalia Allington-Wood is currently in the first year of her PhD in the History of Art Department of University College London. Her research explores the Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo, a sixteenth-century woodland of monsters and marvels carved from stone.