Somehow Between the Water and the Wind
Emma Cocker
There are certain things in the world that only really come into being in the moments that they are activated or brought into action by other things. A boat, for example, is much like any other vessel until it is brought into contact with water, and it is this relationship to the water that in part makes a boat a boat and not any other mode of transport or travel. So too, the specificity or singularity of the boat is furthermore made evident during the act of sailing, for sailing characterises the mode of being which is a boat. However, the act of sailing is only made possible through the interplay of multiple forces, including but not only including that of the boat itself. Sailing is the interaction of the boat and the skipper and the water and the wind. It is an event that takes place in the moment of these different forces coming together in one place. Remove any one to reveal their inextricable interconnectedness. The negotiation or interrelation between these elements creates the dynamic of movement and in turn it is this movement over water that defines the boat as a boat; that gives it its reason for being. The boat’s reason for being is thus dependent upon the presence of other forces; its existence or potential, at least, is always conditional, affected and determined by the existence of other things. Learning to sail involves the negotiation between and with these different elements; it is a process of facilitation or mediation that attempts to make good the turbulence created by the pull of the water and the push of the wind. Sailing then, involves a mode of attendance or attention to these different and often competing forces; moreover, an intuition for knowing when to yield and for recognising when to assert control.

Our own experience of being in the world might equally be thought of in terms of these interrelations and co-dependencies. Subject formation is a highly contingent process, which takes place somehow between and through the event of affecting and of being affected by other things. It is perhaps no coincidence that the word subject also means to be depending or conditional upon somebody or something else, something other. The experience of the subject emerges then at the interstice between the self and the world, as a consequence of a social encounter or interaction with. For philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, the experience of ‘being’ is always one of ‘being with’, where the concept of ‘I’ is not prior to that of ‘we’. For him, the nature of existence itself is one of co-existence, where “being cannot be anything but being-with-one-another, circulating in the with and as the with of this singularly plural existence”. 1 Within Brigid McLeer’s practice, the process of art production operates in a way that is analogous to the contingent experience of a subject formation based on this notion of being with. Her practice becomes an active space of engagement that acknowledges and makes visible the interrelationships and interactions that contribute to our experience of being in the world. McLeer’s work often begins as a dialogue with, or response to, an existing place, a particular history or a specific text, where each different stimulus sets up new conditions or parameters within which to operate, necessitating the continual reconfiguration of the rules of engagement.

In The Face of Another, McLeer adopts Kobo Abe’s 2 novel and its title as the starting point for the production of a two-part work, in which she attempts to erode or destabilise the domineering presence of the individuated and privileged ‘I’, which is fore-grounded by the author’s use of first person narration. Over an extended period, the artist carefully deleted the text within the novel, word by word, leaving nothing but the pronoun, ‘I’. What remains is page after page of erased narrative, a white palimpsest punctuated only by the pronoun’s repeated and diminutive black strike. Counter-intuitively, the act of isolating the pronoun does not emphasise the individuality or singularity of the narrator, for this position was only held in place by the logic of the narrative structure, now absent. Without this anchor, the pronoun no longer belongs to any one; it is liberated of its relationship to the individual. The singular becomes plural and anonymous. A visual multiplicity of ‘I’s scatter across the surface of the page, as the pattern of a community is brought into being. In the second part of this work, the pattern from two pages of the treated novel are scaled up and each ‘I’ is indelibly etched onto copper panels. Once assigned its designated place on the copper grid the pronoun appears to relate to the individual once more, where it becomes seemingly separated from the others; a small island distanced by the space between. McLeer attempts to draw these disconnected entities closer together by delicately tracing a spiralling line around each, expanding ever outwards. Her circling inscriptions increase the space of each individual ‘I’, enabling them to slowly begin to creep or spread across the copper plate towards the others until, and only until, they begin to touch.

However, the process of striving towards the other is double-edged for the drawn lines serve to further inscribe the marks of separation, reinforcing the boundary enveloping each individual ‘I’; making them seem increasingly distanced, more isolated. Alternatively, the emanating lines appear territorial or viral, seeping across and encroaching upon the space of the others, trying to breach or infiltrate their boundary. The two parts of The Face of Another then perform a double-gesture, highlighting the plural experience of existence whilst simultaneously revealing this plurality or condition of being with to be discontinuous, where the individual ultimately remains separated and alone. So too, the act of production is marked by a dichotomy, for the more McLeer attends to the surface of the material the less control she has of the marks that are being made. Evidence of activity or labour registers not only in the carefully inscribed lines but also in the smudged clusters of bodily imprints that dull the metal around the sites of production, appearing like welts or bruises left from the act of being touched. Here, attention or even the artist’s proximity to the work does not guarantee any certainty or assuredness of process; rather it renders the work a little more unpredictable, a little less easy to control.

The condition of being with then is always in the end a form of separation also, where the process of contact or proximity between one and another simultaneously closes and reinforces a divide that can never be crossed, the line that marks the edges or limits of one person’s being and the beginnings of another. According to Nancy, “from one singular to another, there is contiguity but not continuity. There is proximity but only to the extent that extreme closeness emphasizes the distancing it opens up”. 3 Contiguity is only ever a form of being in contact with - a tangential operation, a mode of touching (upon). To be contiguous is to share only in a boundary, which in turn divides. Touching surfaces inevitably create a line; and it is this line perhaps that distinguishes the known from that which cannot be known, from that which remains unknowable. In this sense, it becomes impossible to ever truly know the other for even the close encounter or most intimate of proximity always leaves an unbridgeable gap or zone of indeterminacy between. Here then, is the dilemma at the heart of our being in the world, for whilst we are perpetually bound into relations with other things, they forever remain beyond the limits of our knowledge or understanding. Art practice makes this relationship palpable, for within the process of production there is a threshold crossed at the moment where the work develops a momentum or ‘life’ of its own, and in doing so begins to enter the realm of the unknowable, becoming somehow other.

For McLeer, practice becomes a space in which to explore the paradoxical experience of existence, as one of being simultaneously interconnected with and yet disconnected from other things in the world. The act of making work is performed through a relationship between the artist and a given context or particular stimulus; the chosen materials and a rule or instruction that is often brought into play as the catalyst to make something happen, to create the momentum for production. Practice is a continual process of negotiation between these different elements, the nature of which only becomes revealed in the course of the making itself, as the work begins to assert its own terms. Inthe video, Isola:Incontro McLeer endeavours to trace the pattern of a shadow over the course a day, as it carves an arc through the ferocious heat of the midday sun into the faint and dissipating evening. The shadow itself is cast from an ornately decorated gate that formerly marked the entrance to the psychiatric hospital of San Servolo in Venice; a place of incarceration and isolation previously inhabited (involuntarily) by hundreds of men deemed somehow unfit or unable to participate in society at large. McLeer’s tending to the shadow is then as much a mode of mindfulness or memorial; a state of immersion that calls to attention the lives of these unknown individuals whose right to life had been stripped away by the institution and by societal notions of normality. McLeer appears crouched awkwardly, engaged in the act of marking the passage of time with lines tentatively drawn and scored onto canvas laid on the ground; the drawing itself complicating the conditions of its own production by ever reducing the space and terms within which the artist is able to operate. The continual unfolding of the shadow’s arc demands continual attention and the sustained investment of time, concentration and of care. A rule is drawn, an action is required, and a commitment is made.

Whilst certain rule or system-based processes are often used as a way to absolve individual responsibility and a sense of subjectivity from production, McLeer works within certain parameters as a declaration of having made a vow to see something through. Hers is an ethical gesture like the honoring of a promise or a pledge or of a contractual oath. However, within the work the rule or requirement is rarely fixed or constricting but rather becomes a site of negotiation and working through. At times, different pressures, commitments or even durations compete for attention as one force gives way to allow the emergence of another; as the rule created in order for the work to begin is superceded by another that allows it to continue to develop. An outcome can only ever be predicted and can easily turn. The impetus or force that initiates a process has the capacity to destroy it also; production can become entropic in the absence of the decision that determines when to stop or change tack. The artist’s role then is to navigate a course of action between the different and competing forces of production, by intuiting when to yield to the rule or the momentum of the work and when to reassert control.

McLeer’s work offers a reminder that the terms in which we live our lives are in fact flexible and negotiable. It suggests how certain rules and frameworks can be affirming and productive, whilst others only serve to limit or constrain. McLeer exposes the rule as a construct whose logic has been put in place, or brought into effect over time, and which in turn might as easily be dislocated or challenged. She questions the logic and authority of rules or languages - of dominant systems of knowledge and power - that attempt to define or determine our experience of the world; that are insidious, invisible or somehow undeclared. Less the site of naming and of stabilising meaning, the dictionary for example, is exploited for its arbitrary logic. Unexpected poetry emerges in the collision of unlikely words found adjacent within its pages, incongruous linguistic relations strangely born of a desire to order and control. Or the entries for each individual letter of the alphabet are written over one another, each separate word merging with the others to become formless as they gather on the page in a mercurial pool.

Within McLeer’s practice the logic of the rule or restriction gets folded back in on itself in order to be creatively productive, or else becomes used as a point of critical pressure or leverage against which to work. Rules become reviewed or dismantled once they begin to stifle action or no longer offer provocation; they are entered into voluntarily and without obligation or have the capacity to be modified and rewritten as events unfold. This optionality however is not to be confused with opting out of a commitment, nor the blunt refusal to perform according to the rule’s terms. To commit to a rule or contract voluntarily or optionally is in the end a critical and ethical decision; it is to make a commitment to something out of choice, by one’s own volition. Rather than being surrendered to with passive and acquiescent acceptance or obedience, for McLeer, the rule is to be approached consciously and as a construct that should be used affirmatively or else somehow changed. McLeer’s practice then functions as a site through which to reflect on subject formation and the experience of being as an ongoing activity that needs to be continually attended to, that is always in flux. It is to be actively undertaken rather than passively endured. This sense of being through the act of doing is in part a refusal to see the world and our place within it as fixed and determined, as unchanging and unchangeable. It is to challenge the presupposition that the terms by which we live our lives and understand ourselves are somehow antecedent to us being here, and thus irrevocable. The experience of being is positioned as an event that is always taking place, whose terms need to be perpetually re-negotiated, re-worked or re-defined. Being is thus a continual process but not one of merely continuing to be as before, but rather a practice of exploration and investigation that is always happening in the present.

1. Nancy, Jean-Luc, Being Singular Plural, Translated by Robert Richardson and Anne O’Byrne, Stanford University Press, 2000. p.3
2. Abe, Kobo, The Face of Another, Translated  from the Japanese by Alfred A Knopf 1966, First published 1964. (Penguin Classics, 2006)
3. Nancy, Jean-Luc, Being Singular Plural