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Liberating experimentalism

Keith Gallasch: Paul Thomas, UNSW Art & Design

Jade Suine, (detail) Random Generator Experiment 3: who changes more rapidly, me or the packaged meat? Jade Suine, (detail) Random Generator Experiment 3: who changes more rapidly, me or the packaged meat?
With the second National Experimental Arts Forum coming up, I recalled the first in 2013 at which, in discussion, Paul Thomas (Associate Professor and Program Director Fine Art Honours, UNSW Art & Design) argued for a more rigorous notion of what is meant by ‘experimental’ in the arts. He wasn’t proposing that artists adopt strict scientific methodology and controls but rather that experimental art must have the open-endedness that true experimentalism requires.

Just back from the Sound, Image and Data Conference at New York University and Harvestworks (23-25 July), the jet-lagged Thomas entertains me with a mind-bending account of quantum spin. At the conference he’d shown a multimedia work, Quantum Consciousness (made with Kevin Raxworthy), which “engages the viewer with the novel perception of being immersed within the processing of the quantum spin as analogous to human consciousness.” We’re all spinning macro-cosmically and nano-biologically.

I’m curious about how Thomas teaches students to be experimenters in the week-long, intensive course titled Experimental Arts. He says there has to be trust, respect, acceptance of failure and adaptability—pretty much what many an artist would say about how they approach their work, especially in collaborations. But Thomas qualifies these terms. ‘Respect,’ for example is about having regard for other disciplines: “If you want to explore the possibilities in physics, say, you have to be able to understand that physics has a way of describing things and you have to respect that.” That includes, he says, getting to know its language, which, in turn, becomes part of your metalanguage for experimentation.

I assume ‘trust’ for Thomas involves trusting oneself, above all, to be open to experiment—it’s not a place for preconceptions—and accepting of happenstance. He wants students to be problem finders rather than problem solvers. Problem solvers already have outcomes in mind instead of looking for possibilities. “Problem solving is just a methodological process,” he says.

Thomas sees the treatment, incubation and nurturing of ideas as fundamental. “Experimental art is very much about how to freeze the moment of inception. When an idea is germinating, you can sense that something is going on. The traditional notion of innovation as the light-bulb moment is embarrassing. We have to strip away everything, all the need to make something. Let the idea grow, let it ferment; we’re not going to put any constraints on it to be something. It can stay in idea form; it can materialise if it wants to. This is like slowing down time, freezing the moment. It’s a huge difference."

“Allow yourself to not bring all your preconceptions with you. Allow the idea to take you on a journey and form will take shape in relationship to the idea and the materiality [materials, media etc], reinform the idea so that the two, idea and form, start working together—and you find yourself on a new trajectory.”

How does this translate into teaching practice? “Through synchronicity and serendipity,” says Thomas emphatically. He describes the approach as simple. “We start with a random generator. It’s a bit of a furphy—what is ‘random’?—but you’ve suddenly got something to think about and it also challenges students to think about what randomness is.” He cites a number of examples: number generators, numbers on successive ATM dockets, the dates of prescribed tablets missed, a selection of objects chosen by a stranger etc. The result—a word, a number, an image or multiples of these—is treated as an incipient idea and a pointer to exploratory tasks. Treat a number, say, as a goal or for determining bus stop locations to arrive at or for finding a product with the number for its price; take action and respond to the results (write, draw, make a video, do research) and see where they in turn take you in successive stages, by chance or by association; and see what happens to the idea as it takes shape.

The course is not skill-oriented: “Rather than ‘I want to learn how do video or sound or whatever, it’s about where the idea is taking me.’ Students are seamlessly working across mediums they’d never really thought of using.” That too is experimental.

Thomas turns to his computer to show me examples of students’ Wiki pages detailing processes, findings, responses, research (from surprising fields) and ideas taking shape conceptually and as draft creations. Progress is intuitive, very lateral, highly inventive and makes fascinating viewing. One student uses an electric fan to turn over the pages of a book, eventually arriving at a video of kaleidoscopic imagery of turning pages and a question to a philosophy student flatmate on video: “If I were to propose that we’d lost the wind that has turned the pages of philosophy ‘til now, what would you propose would be the propeller that would bring back the sound of a new contemplative moment?” The discussion ensues in a car with a focus on hand gestures—the video titled “the Puppetry of Philosophy.” Another student’s random generator—his date of birth and a correlating YouTube boxing video—has him attempting to engage with everyday life in boxing gloves (struggling with keys, for example) and relating it, among other things, to physiological pathologies. Thomas recalls with amusement a student’s creation from experimentation of obligatorily non-practical protective devices: a torch with a cut-out cover that flashes ‘Don’t hurt me’ and a leaf blower that inflates a bag with ‘Leave me alone’ written on it.

Thomas asks the students to pursue three different randomly generated ideas in one week, outside of the school and using whatever tools they like except, significantly, for the principal ones they usually employ. They record the progress of their experiment on their Wiki pages that can be accessed by Thomas and all the participating students. I ask why three ideas. Thomas replies gnomically, “The students realise the three are really one idea.” Inevitable synchronicity by association, I guess. He says, “the randomness starts to fall away, you’ve found something more and then you incubate it.”

Jade Suine, Random Generator Experiment, drawing [meat package] Jade Suine, Random Generator Experiment, drawing [meat package]
A vegetarian student Jade Suine randomly generated the number 521, that led to finding a $5.21 packet of pork in a supermarket and bravely proceeding to explore “mincing,” documenting on a daily basis the colour tones of the ageing meat (it got pinker) compared with her own skin, ‘desconstructing’ a pink toy by replacing the stuffing with meat and trying to grow plants in mince (with the seriousness of a bio-art experiment) and injecting dye (vein-like ‘life’) into it. “Freedom without restrictions!” says Thomas. “Not a finished product, but you’ve felt, seen, experienced it.” This student’s experiments yielded rich research and threw up fascinating possibilities and problems—artistic, scientific and cultural.

What’s exciting, says Thomas, is that the outcomes are unpredictable. A design student used randomly generated numbers to identify top-rating movies listed on IMDb; another random number took the student to a moment in each movie where he then recorded the first word spoken. This process was repeated and each individual clip was put together to add up to “a very strange narrative,” which became a possible starting point for a project, not the project itself.

Goal-oriented design students, says Thomas, sometimes find the exercise difficult because it’s not immediately perceived as being applicable to a product or their career, but the creativity involved is invaluable. “There are students from different backgrounds, culturally, age and skill-wise. I’m not teaching them skills of video or sound, for example; the students intuitively take up a multitude of mediums, innovating on what’s available for them, nor do they have to physically make anything.”

Thomas admits the course can be challenging and that he tries not to intervene too much. One student had a compass on her bicycle wheel. The spun wheel indicated which direction she should go at each point of her trajectory. Nothing grabbed her at any locations she arrived at, but looking at a photo of one, Thomas noticed the shadow from the resting handlebars pointing like a hand at chewing gum on the pavement near a bin, suggesting possibilities of an analysis of public disposal of gum, throwing trajectories (poor) and DNA sampling to determine the ‘gene pool’ of the site.

The course is intensive over a week of brainstorming and experimenting: “the amount of work sometimes outstrips that in longer courses,” says Thomas, “because that’s solely what the students are focusing on at that time. It’s worth six credits, a quarter of the value of a whole semester and you can do it in any year, as a Master’s student or coming from whatever course across UNSW that has an elective option—visual arts or design,” and there has been a student from engineering. “Students choose it because it’s not prescriptive. It frees them to develop ideas more spontaneously, whereas other courses set projects that can define outcomes.”

Drawing on Deleuze, Thomas sees the experimenter as a transdisciplinary nomad and “the university as a territory in which the student, rather than being inter- or cross-disciplinary, is above, looking down. They’ll have a vocabulary, a metalanguage, with which to engage, to be able to speak with these different disciplines, to draw from them without being obliged to totally engage. I know a bit about quantum physics and I’m not a philosopher but I’m a person inspired by things I might not fully understand. Experimentalism needs transdisciplinary delivery; not that I like the term ‘disciplinary’—I don’t like disciplines per se—but in an academic institution you have to explain what you’re doing in terms of them.” Nor is he fond of binary hybridity either—“it’s too simplistic as in ‘arts and science,’ which is too prescriptive. But make it ‘arts, science and culture or humanities,’ and that starts to bring in a whole lot of other things.”

Paul Thomas sees the Experimental Arts course as, “Fine Art leading students towards independent thinking, self-directed learning, to allow them to engage in materiality and ideas and to gradually let the ideas and material speak to the students as agents—encouraging in turn the agency of the students’ autonomy. The key is to see the world as a set of probabilities that we allow to speak to us. Nothing is neutral, everything has potential.”

I ask Thomas, “When does an experiment become art?” He replies, “A lot of work that starts as experimental becomes art when you want it to manifest as something concrete and it takes on a different form.” He points out that minor changes in an artist’s established medium and mindset might be innovative in their own terms, but they’re not experimental. It’s a big difference.

UNSW Art & Design, Paddington, Sydney

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 12

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to

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