This short piece features in a book produced as part of the Conway Actants exhibit by Deborah Gardner and Jane Millar at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London earlier this year – a ‘a unique, visual art project which directly responds to Conway Hall’s spaces, ethos, activities and archive.’ https://conwayhall.org.uk/event/conway-actants/. It’s adapted from a talk at a Club Critical Theory event at the Exhibit.
It also lightly engages with some of ideas developed in the forthcoming book The Assemblage Brain: Sense making in Neuroculture (Minnesota University Press) due early next year.
The Man with Two Brains, but no Umbrella
Tony D Sampson, reader in digital culture and communications, University of East London
My critical intervention into Conway Actants draws on two books by Deleuze and Guattari which problematize the relation between art and philosophy in very different ways by introducing two kinds of brain. These two brains might seem like an uncanny way to engage with an art exhibit, but I’m interested here in the critical spaces that open up when philosophical and artistic brains meet and the potential to disentangle art from the circuitry of capitalism.
Artists familiar with Deleuze and Guattari might already know the rhizome brain.[i] Although it rejects signifying practices, causing all kinds of problems for the visual arts, it’s easy to see why so many contemporary artists are drawn to its light. It’s a seductive image of thought that brings together philosophical concepts and artistic sensations in mixtures.
Rhizome brains closely follow the neuron doctrine. They are not, as such, a continuous reticular fabric. There’s a synaptic discontinuity between cells. Thoughts leap across gaps, making the brain an uncertain, probabilistic multiplicity, swimming in its own neuroglia. Indeed, as some artists might notice, many people have a metaphorical tree growing in their head, but axons and dendrites are more like bindweed than roots. The artist’s rhizome does not, as such, produce forms in representational space or objects of art under the scrutiny of subjective acts of signification. Rhizome art is an aesthetic propagation; a contagion, spreading outward in unquantifiable spaces of experience.
Another attraction of the rhizome is that it connects anything to everything. There are indeed many rhizomatic mixtures in Conway Actants. In the Brockway Room, for example, there’s a series of abstract machines, acting like transmitters and receivers. This is not information transmitted through a medium. These are assemblages of disparate materials, objects and structures. Like Franz West’s adaptive and portable art we find the open possibilities of relationality. This is art that teeters on a threshold between propagation and disintegration.
Conway Actants assembles the historical figures from Conway Hall, connecting them to organic and inorganic materials. We find networks in networks, lumps of matter, crystals, images of splatters, scattered beads, layered and hole punched surfaces. Matter is strewn across the images, submerged in clear resin and magnified in parts or conversely blurred. It’s a fractured kind of viewing; disturbing, obscuring and connecting by way of blots and blobs. These are also event-sculptures. The hives, for example, are infestations in the library and hallway. They remind us what is outside, on the roof!
The artist seduced by the rhizome might be surprised by Deleuze and Guattari’s second brain. It certainly disturbs the composed mixtures of sensation and concept. But it is here in the chaos brain that we find an unexpected critical turn enabling us to more closely inspect the space of possibilities in which artists and philosophers meet.
In their swansong, What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari unpredictably argue that concepts and sensations do not mix. Forget the nomads that used to cut across art and philosophy. We now have distinct planes. It’s not that artists or philosophers have different kinds of brains. This is not a crude neuroimaging exercise, differentiating between the location of sensations and concepts in the brain. It is the work of all brains to tear open the umbrella that shields the brain from chaos—and “plunge” into the infinity that confronts us all.[ii] The difference here is found in what artists and philosophers discern from the endless possibilities they encounter. What emerges from these plunges into chaos is a difference in kind. The promises of rhizomatic mixture are replaced by the almost biblical affirmation: Thou shalt not mix![iii]
Philosophers Produce Concepts, Artists Produce Sensations
How do these differences affect the relation between art and philosophy? To begin with, both need to be considered in relation to the endless possibilities we find in events. Some of the mixture of the rhizome is retained in the work of concepts. They give consistency to infinite chaos – they actualize the event. This is not, however, about giving form to the event. A concept is not a representation of events! Concepts are not forms of opinion. They are always relational.
“There is always an area ab that belongs to both a and b.”[iv]
The philosopher’s analytical tool of choice, the conceptual personae, is intended to surpass forms of opinions. But like one Nietzsche’s personae, concepts can only interfere with sensations. They can never become sensations.
The artist’s sensation never actualizes the event, but instead embodies the possibilities it produces. The sensation is, in fact, neither virtual nor actual. It is always about the possible. Like this, the hive sculptures give a body to the event, providing it with a universe of possibilities in which to live. So while the artist composes with her materials; offering contemplations and enjoyments,[v] she also produces a universe that constructs limits, distances, proximities and constellations.[vi] Importantly then, sensations are not perceptions or acts of signification. They are affects that deploy aesthetic figures to route around perception and signification.
The historical trajectory of art leads Deleuze and Guattari to a junction whereby the emergence of abstract art and conceptual art seems to promise to bring sensations and concepts together.[vii] The shadow of Duchamp looms large here since he assembles both in the same gallery space. But to what extent do they really mix? Indeed, the move to conceptual art is explicitly rejected by Deleuze and Guattari. This is because when art becomes too informative it also becomes unclear as to whether or not it is a sensation or concept.[viii] The problem is, it seems, that it’s not in the artwork itself, but in the spectator’s “opinion” that the sensation is, or is not, manifested as art. It is the audience who decide (as receivers of information) “whether it is art or not.”[ix] Like this, Duchamp’s readymade does not mediate affect through the experience of a sensation. It is a subjective act that mixes signification with sensation, and as a consequence, it seems, the artist loses some of the affective power of the work.
Deleuze and Guattari evidently favour abstract art. It refines the sensation by dematerializing matter. Turner’s chaotic seascapes, for example, produce a sensation of the concept of the sea. In contrast, conceptual art is not so refined. It dematerializes through generalization. This is undeniably a surprising denunciation given that conceptual art is the condition for contemporary art and Deleuze and Guattari are seen by many to be the philosopher kings of contemporary art. Nonetheless, the problem is clear: conceptual art produces signification not sensation.[x]
Maybe in its pursuit of mixture, contemporary art has been decidedly selective in its choice of Deleuzean brains. I’m sure the revelation of a second brain will cause a certain amount of discomfort. But perhaps art as sensation retains a political clout that art as signification can never achieve? The former is famously infused with autonomy while the latter has too much information, which might, Deleuze and Guattari feared, collapse into immaterial capitalism.
Art in the Cultural Circuits of Immaterial Capitalism
In his Control Society thesis, Deleuze expressed concern about art’s relation to capitalism. Art had already left the gallery and “entered into the open circuits of the bank.”[xi] As Rivera must have asked himself in the Rockefeller Center in the early 1930s, “how can art find a critical space in this place?” Conceptual art is indeed part of an art system today; made up of critics, uber dealers, advisors, bankers and oligarchs. It’s these nodes in the circuitry, not the spectator, who decide if a concept is art (or not) by attributing a discourse, and ultimately, a price tag to it. This is a system that even Charles Saatchi calls “too toe-curling for comfort.”
How can art escape the cultural circuits of capitalism? Can a post-conceptual art create new conceptual weapons or frame its own concepts? [xii] Can art become non-conceptual?[xiii] Does art need to become, as Deleuze and Guattari contend, non-art! If nothing else the uncomfortable critical space produced by this second brain asks art to search for new rhizomatic lines of flight that might become disentangled from the circuitry in which it seems to be presently trapped.
[i] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
[ii] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? (London: Verso, 1994), 202.
[iv] Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, 20.
[v] Ibid., 212.
[vii] Ibid., 198.
[x] This is point of contradiction nicely captured by Stephen Zepke.
- Deleuze and Guattari explicitly reject Conceptual Art.
- Conceptual Art is the condition of Contemporary Art.
- Deleuze and Guattari are touted far and wide as the philosophers of Contemporary Art.
- . . . Huh?
See Stephen Zepke, The post–conceptual is the non–conceptual, Deleuze and Guattari and conditions of Contemporary Art, Autumn Art and film through Deleuze and Guattari (2009). http://www.actualvirtualjournal.com/2014/11/the–post–conceptual–is–non–conceptual.html (accessed April 2015).
[xi] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Control Society,” in Neil Leach (ed.) Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1997), 295.
[xii] As for example, Ricardo Basbaum’s work seeks to do. From a discussion between Basbaum and the author in London (July 2013).
[xiii] As Zepke argues.
Dr. Tony D. Sampson is reader in digital culture and communications at the University of East London. His publications include The Spam Book (coedited with Jussi Parikka, 2009), Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (Minnesota, 2012) and The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (Minnesota, 2017). He has also published numerous journal articles and book chapters. Tony is a cofounder of Club Critical Theory: Southend and director of the EmotionUX Lab at UEL.