Abstract: This article shares the one-and-a-half-year journey of my artistic research project that questioned what and how I know. These questions arose from conflict between my Peruvian background Western education. Digging into alternative ways of understanding and working was crucial to recovering my cultural identity and softening the gap between these different perspectives. Inspired by scores in performative art, I created working scores to abandon settled patterns of working and learn directly and anew from bodily experiences. I reacted intuitively and affectively to all matter that crossed my path and did the same while working with these various materials and objects. What occurred was an amplification of my embodied sensitivity. What followed was a sensitive and intimate bond to all things, as well as the reaffirmation that there are other perspectives of knowing that are radically different from normative structures of meanings and stories.
Keywords: alternative knowledge, embodied experience, art and diversity, agency, participatory art
The body and its sensorial competency are categorised by science, academia and general public perceptions, which are limited tools in which information is diffuse or vague. However, the body is the origin of expressive movement and a medium for perception of the world. Perception has often been taken as an activity of consciousness where associative sensations, memories, and evaluations occur, but to perceive is a direct sensory experience of the world.1 Things acquire meaning from the intuitive coherence they have for us when we find and cope with them in practical situations. We cannot think of ourselves as part of the world because everything we know about it is built on our perspective.2 The tendency to take our own perspective as the benchmark of what we know is amplified by science and our social environment, which gives us a theoretical construction of an ‘objective’ world of fixed things.
Nowadays, when technology works as an extension and improvement of our bodily capacities, the body and its sensorial competency are considered an essential but primitive part of the activity of knowing. Our vision of the world is disembodied. The instruments of visualisation in our postmodernist culture have given us the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation—a dominating gaze from nowhere3 that increasingly disconnects us from our embodied sensitivity. Therefore, it is crucial to confront this disembodied gaze and reclaim our sensory system.
Bodily experience gives perception a meaning beyond what is established simply by thought. So, my search for this sensory experience that comes before concepts and meanings now plays a foundational role in my practice as an artist. As an artist who works mainly with sculpture and within a space, I am continuously questioning the way I get to know the world that surrounds me—not just through my mind but also through my body’s senses.
What am I supposed to know? And what is beyond my comprehension? Is it possible to learn directly from the encounter with materials and objects, from the immediate process of sensing and making? What do I get from these encounters? Is this intimate, bodily engagement with materials and objects influencing a specific decision when it comes to forming a material anew or to combining things that I found with materials or other objects that I make?
Multiple ranges of exchange processes take place between my inner and exterior worlds without my knowledge, determination, or relativisation because these exchanges are vast and go far beyond my human possibilities to grasp them.
My interest in knowing more about this prior experience in our perception has its roots in my background and education. I was born and lived half of my life in Peru, and the other half until now in Germany. While receiving a Western academic education, I grew up with the certainty that what I know has its roots in a logical and organised way of thinking where the canons of science are standard. Consequently, this affects what I can understand through my mind. At the same time, I often heard oral stories from family members, as well as other popular stories that didn’t correlate with the Western education I was receiving. These were about objects or materials (natural or artificial) that were alive, or which at least had properties that could affect humans in multiple and unimaginable ways. For example, the conviction that a mountain, plant or stone is an entity with particular knowledge, the power to change people’s destiny, or the possibility to fill an object with a specific intention. (This intention will be transmitted through the object to the one who possesses the object.)
These are ideas that may appear as superstitious in the Western way of thinking. But for alternative knowledge, all kinds of material bodies are vessels that contain agencies and energies affecting each other continuously. What takes places is an interrelated relation or enactments between all material bodies and immaterial phenomena. These ideas were always resonating in the background of my mind and were contradictory to what I learned was acceptable as real and what is supposed to be taken as knowledge.
My research on alternative ways of knowledge brought me to a publication by El Instituto de Investigacion de Lingüistica Aplicada (CILA) at the National University of San Marcos4 in Peru. It covers the cosmogony of The Shipibo-Conibos, an indigenous ethnic group living along the Ucayali River in the Amazon rainforest and how their knowledge is built on an intimate and bodily connection with their environment. Their conception of the world is one of an interconnected web between all living and non-living components. The Shipibo-Conibos are aware that humans are not self-contained entities; instead, they understand humanity as part of a vast network of inter-relations. This knowledge is the base of their understanding, even if they never develop the scientific methods or rational thinking seen in our Western world.
Here, I would like to stress the importance of the embodied experience as a source of knowledge in Shipibos’ concept of knowing. The wisdom of the Shipibos is in their intimate, sensitive, affective, and daily bodily experience with their environment and everything that composes it, as well as in the acceptance that existence is not based on physical presence. But could I build such a relationship with the materials that I work with and the objects that I create? How and what can I learn from this experience? Can the process of making also be an activity that nurtures knowledge? For the Shipibo-Conibos, artistic expression is a way to communicate their experiences about the relation between the material and immaterial in this world.
I was inspired by this particular way of learning and gathering knowledge. I considered ‘sensing’ a vital activity to get to know ourselves and our connection—not only to the material world but also to an immaterial one that could be called ‘spiritual or affective.’ A world in which feelings, affection, imagination, intuition, and sensitivity have a place—an alternative way of knowing far from organised and already settled concepts or meanings, based on an intuitive, sensitive, and bodily commitment to all matter. Here, intuition means an understanding or knowing immediately that is grounded in feelings rather than concepts or facts.
As Karen Barad reminds us, ‘[T]here is no privileged position from which knowledge can be produced, as the researcher is of the world. A methodological practice of frequently questioning the effects of how we research on the knowledge we generate means to investigate phenomena.’5
The process of ongoing differences can be taken as a thinking tool for analysis and a system that adapts us to the differences generated by our knowledge-making practices and the effects that they have on the world. Being aware of these ongoing differences opens the way for greater sensitivity towards how we are part of the world’s continuous becoming and the ethics regarding the effects of, as well as within, these knowledge-making processes. Something I want to address in my work is the question of how language and culture acknowledge their agency and historicity. And, on the contrary, how matter is taken as passive and immutable or, at best, has a potential for change dependent on language and culture.
The project that developed over the course of a year and a half during my M.A. degree at St. Joost School of Art and Design, the Netherlands, was based on the search for new modes of making and knowing where embodied experience can be further developed. Through participation in a performance seminar,6I learned about scores, a term that was borrowed from music by the visual arts to refer to a predetermined series of physical, verbal or musical actions conceived by an artist and meant to be reinterpreted. During some practical exercises at the seminar, I noticed that the set of few rules could be a possibility to supress my habitual ways of thinking and doing—e.g., making a drawing to specify a particular idea or researching how to work with a specific material beforehand.
Therefore, I decided to create scores of time, a certain physical action with the material, setting the work in different spaces, spontaneous collection of things, etc. These new methods allowed me to create without a defined idea. I was motivated by the experience of sensing the material and reacting to its qualities and effects. My first experiences were with clay, a generous and unknown material to me. It enhances the experience of touch. For the first time, my hands were rolling, kneading, smashing, tearing, and adding while a ten-minute timer counted down. Just eight minutes to work with my bare hands or with a single tool and gestures, then two minutes to add the leftovers again to the result. Here, both these physical actions and myself determined the process of making a sculpture.
While working with the pottery wheel for the first time, I noticed that it is necessary not to lose the centre when making a vase or a pot; otherwise, the whole thing will be crooked. There are three essential components in using the pottery wheel: the hands, the speed, and the spinning movement. But what if I lose the centre for a while? What will happen if I just let these forces act for themselves for a bit? It was a specific moment where the clay got something like a form and then lost it again. The wheel, the movement, and the speed do their part, and I have less control over the whole process. Losing control of the entire action allowed me to learn how to work alternatively with this tool.
In the beginning, I made small sculptures playing with the forces of containing and letting be, but after a while, I became confident and made bigger ones. These last ones got broken in the kiln. As soon as I saw these broken pieces from my different trials, I realised that these failed works were also a remnant of the process of getting to know what I could do or could not do with a specific material. The collection of these ‘failure works’ was one more method in my attempt to capture so-called ‘coincidence’ as an essential part of the whole process. I didn’t throw away any broken pieces or those that didn’t turn out as expected. Instead, I reused them later on in combination with other materials or objects.
This decision reflects my intention to underline both that this network of interconnected information between all things and that everything has equal importance in a world where agencies are constantly affecting one other. But the decision also stresses our conflicted relation to the production of any devices and the exploitation of resources that are necessary for their production. My interest in making work from materials that have lost their function or are discarded—which others consider leftovers or waste—comes from the value that everything holds.
In connection to what I was experiencing in my practice, agential theories were immensely supportive when trying to articulate my experiences. Objects can manifest a lively kind of agency. As Jane Bennett points out, items can go beyond their status as things to display traces of interdependence of aliveness because they are part of our own outside experience.7
Most of the time, we think of objects as passive and stable things with we humans as the active subjects in the world. Like Bennett, I want to soften the gap of separation between subject and object, showing how they can be equal participants in the world. Accordingly, objects are alive because of their scope to cause diversity in the world, to have effects, and to construct the web of interrelationships of which they are part. This web is a crystallisation of processes, constantly enduring transformation and modification. A complex, mingled web of materials, all affecting each other, competing, forming alliances, initiating new procedures, and consuming others.
These webs are what Bennett calls assemblages. This immersive, complex, open-ended condition of reality suggests, I think, that all our activities are experimental, whether we like it or not. As participants of this web, we can never be sure of the results of our actions; they often stimulate unintended effects. Everything has a capacity not only to delay or stop the will and the creativity of humans but also to act as agents of forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.
As Bennett puts it: ‘The efficacy or agency of everything always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces.’8 As humans, we are also part of these natural processes. To admit this condition may lead us to a deep ecological awareness that accepts the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena. As individuals and societies, we are all enfolded in the cyclical processes of nature and determined by them.
Consequently, contemplation is an activity that builds up this awareness for materials and objects. It helps to sharpen the senses and sensibility for the other things that are also part of this world. Because of these ideas, I collected materials that ‘crossed my path.’ I was scrutinising everything that came into my hands or that I found somewhere when I was walking or driving, like domestic waste in the streets, the things in my cellar, or other natural materials in my garden, such as branches, stones, or a bird’s nest. I also collected from new natural landscapes during a trip, or I took discarded materials from colleagues. I mostly took one thing or another based on first impulse.
There was a specific quality of these materials and objects that caught my attention, based on form, size, colour, haptic, smell, symmetry, or asymmetry. I was also guided by what, at first sight, triggered a connection to a memory of the past or felt just right. After collecting, I set these materials or objects next to each other in my studio, and I combined them with other works made with clay, wax, and metal under the scores I mentioned before. I observed these constellations of objects and materials for hours or even days and months. During the process, many ‘coincidences’ that I prefer to call ‘the network’ appeared. For example, the similarity of form between the pieces of a clay sculpture that broke with a page of an old discarded science book depicts the relative intensity of the cosmic radio rays on the equator and a bird’s nest that I found one morning on my garden floor.
These objects or images are from different matter and nature; still, they express equally natural phenomena and forces acting under a similar pattern, which we humans are not aware of. Another example of this aligning of forms was the sound speaker of an old TV that resembled the human muscles around the belly. In this case, a constant visual pattern of a centre that can be an entrance or a departure for something or from where matter arrays concentrically are shown. I encounter this form repeatedly during the work process as a reminder of certain information that is repeating itself and under which many material or immaterial forces assemble.
Later on, I also worked with the space as an important component of the evolving work by involving the details of the space where I was working as a part of these emerging combinations. I had the opportunity to experiment with these arrangements in different spaces. After using my studio and a sort of a white cube made of movable walls at school, I decided to encounter spaces differently.
Whenever I could use another space, I set the piece inspired by the first particularity that I encountered in the room, e.g., a broken window, cables on the wall, heating, architectural specificities, or water patterns (rain on the floor). I also collected things I found in the space like a dead butterfly, pieces of wood, or other materials, incorporating them into another component or forming a new one. Guided by the details of space, many works changed or morphed into other combinations or into new pieces. Some of these combinations changed constantly depending on the space I used, while other combinations stayed permanent.
As system theorist and ecologist, Fritjof Capra9 remarks, the key to a broad theory of living systems lies in the fusion of two approaches that have competed since the beginning of scientific thought. First, the study of the pattern (or form, order, quality) seeks to understand the relationships between its constituent parts. The study of structure (or substance, matter, quantity) attempts to understand the properties that form the object of study. If these two approaches are combined with the central insight of living systems theory (the constant flux of matter), then this combination offers a radically new way of conceiving reality. A reality that changes every time, adapting itself to the circumstances and the agents that are part of it at a precise moment.
During my research using the methods that restricted my habitual modes of making, I experienced how patterns of organisation are at the core of every material or object, even if there was no intention or fixed idea of what to make while working. Of course, I was the one who chose an initial path on how to work with a material or work with a particular, space, time, but under these methods, the interaction between me and the materials was more balanced. Often, this self-organisation guided my intuition and delivered new ideas. This process in which the material and I were in an equal relation enhanced my understanding and my sensitivity to the process.
The last stage in the project of sensing and creating was the interaction with other human actors. Until that moment, the exchange of agencies and matter happened between me, materials and objects, but not with other humans directly. After a visit by some colleagues and peers to the third space where I was working, I realised that it was necessary to see what could happen if I let the visitors experience the work not just visually or spatially. What if they experienced it by touching and making with the same range of materials and methods that I had used? I wanted to share my own experience directly but also know what their experiences were.
Therefore, I planned a participatory installation with the visitors in the fourth space. This project happened as part of a pop-up exhibition and one-week residency at Werkwarenhuis, ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. The event was initiated by the art collective The Raw Cases, TRC, which was formed by twelve M.A. students in 2021. In this space, I asked the visitors to make an object with three materials that they could choose freely from a variety that I had decided earlier: white clay, thin wire, branches, bamboos, pieces of linen, pieces of wax and seeds. They worked with their materials while looking at the other artist’s works that were part of the exhibition, trying to not think about what they were doing, and letting their hands move freely while they were talking, walking, and looking. Afterwards, they could place their work on the pieces of wood that I left empty in the attempt to invite them to put their work there. They could place their objects somewhere else with the only condition being that they couldn’t leave the space where the installation was.
During the open days, I asked the visitors for permission to document their outcomes through a picture and talked with them about their experiences. Participation is not a common factor in an exhibition, yet it has often been examined in the history of art. Even if here the participation of the visitors is not something that contributes aesthetically to work, or it doesn’t differ so much from other participatory works, I felt the urgency to engage with others because of pandemic lockdowns. It felt necessary to connect with people again. In this case, the idea to build an installation together somehow pushed everybody to engage with each other and to break with the insecurity that we felt at the beginning of a conversation or encounter with somebody.
Guided by the sense of touch and without any specific idea, the experience of making was something that surprised many of the visitors because they only realised what they had done when they had set their pieces. They were also aware after setting their work that the objects were shaped by the limitation of the materials they had, the time, and the fact that their minds were busy with something else. This resulted in works that were mostly abstract without a figurative form or shape. The participants talked about how careful and sensible they were when staging their pieces because of the proximity of somebody else’s work. They also informed me of how much they enjoyed playing with the materials without worrying about what they would do. Some of them also pointed out when they could no longer manage to think about the installation aesthetics or how their pieces would look compared to others’. Therefore, what followed was an accurate and long examination of the installation and its components.
For most of the participants, this experience was new; they had never participated in creating artwork at an exhibition. They mostly encountered finished works, and they rarely witnessed a piece that changed through a show. That means that in the art field, as in other social activities, there are normative structures that direct our way of understanding or encountering an art exhibition or an artwork.
After this journey in the search for new structures of cultivating and sharing knowledge, I suggest that there is an urgency to amplify our embodied sensitivity and to dig into the yet-unknown world of our body and its capacities to perceive and to know far away from normative structures of reasonable meanings and stories. This would give space to other stories and beliefs—such as indigenous knowledge or other minority groups who have non-institutional knowledge—in which the embodied contact with all matter and entities is a primordial part of creating a sensitive and intimate bond to all things and that which reinforces our sense of a collective. I believe it is crucial to create spaces where all actions, agencies and participants are equally aware of a network of relational, mindful and appreciative interactions that are always in transformation and ongoing process. One in which all and everything affects each other.
- Barlow, Phyllida, Cul-de-Sac. Royal Academy of Arts. London, 2019.
- Barad, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2007.
- Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010.
- Fournier, Anik, ‘Rudimentariness: a concept for artistic research.’ 2016. https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/261526/316604.
- Fritjof, Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Vienna: Scherz Verlag, 1996.
- Graham, Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything.
- Haraway, Donna, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives.’ Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988).
- Lamas, Nicolás, and Alejandro Alonso Díaz, The Attraction of The Mountains. Amsterdam: Posture Editions, 2017.
- Le Guin, Ursula K., The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. London: Ignota, 2019.
- Longhnane, Adam, ‘Nishida and Merleau-Ponty: Art, “Depth,” and “Seeing without a Seer”.’ European Journal of Japanese Philosophy 1 (2016).
- López Flórez, Carmen, and Gisele Cuglievan, Shipibo: Territorio, Historia y Cosmovisión. Lima, Peru: Instituto de Investigación de Lingüistica Aplicada, National University of San Marcos, 2013.
- Lovelock, James, and Bryan Appleyard, Novacene: The Coming of Age of Hyperintelligence. London: Allen Lane, 2019.
- Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Phenomenology of Perception. London & New York: Routledge Classic, 1962.
- Morton, Timothy, Realistic Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality. London: Open Humanities Press, 2013.
- Steuerlich, Hito, Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War. London: Verso, 2019.
- Wulf, Andrea, The Invention of Nature. London: John Murray, 2015.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London & New York: Routledge Classic, 1962), pp. 53-79.
Merleau-Ponty 1962, pp. 103-112.
Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives,’ Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988), p. 581.
Carmen López Flórez and Gisele Cuglievan, Shipibo: Territorio, Historia y Cosmovisión (Lima, Peru: Instituto de Investigación de Lingüistica Aplicada, National University of San Marcos, 2013).
Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 381.
The seminar was called ‘Becoming Infrastructural’ and was led by Philippine Hoegen.
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 21.
Bennett 2010, pp. 22-23.
Capra Fritjof, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (Vienna: Scherz Verlag, 1996).