Visual Intelligences Research Project

Seminars : Artists' Seminar : Roundtable Discussion

RF: Well, thank you everyone. I thought there was a very interesting sense of subjects under investigation and a relationship each artist has with their subject. ‘Subject' is perhaps a problematic term but as you talked it became clear that there are these outside influences and information that were being investigated in the work. It’s the first time that I’ve really thought that the notion of 'art practice as research', has made sense to me! Whether people seem to know a lot about their subject or not, (Iain seems to know a lot with his studies while Paula professes to know nothing about hers), there seemed to me to be a sense that this investigation of subject wasn’t necessarily about passing on ‘knowledge’ to an audience or viewer, but it was about understanding the subject through the making of the work. So I wanted to ask you for a response to that and to the things that have been said today. Do you have any reflections on other people’s contributions or your own? Maybe we could get back to the term visual intelligence? Some people braved a response to it but maybe we could talk a bit more about that phrase?

MM: I was also thinking about how many of us took exception to the phrasing or the term, there seemed to be this discomfort or unease with it and I was wondering well, vision being one of the senses, I don’t know, do musicians get together and ask about auditory intelligence or tactile intelligence for example? I mean, what is it about vision that is a vehicle of apprehension for ideas? I mean when I heard the phrase visual intelligence it didn’t cause too much of a blip, it just rolled over.

NW: I’d just say that musicians do talk about musical intelligence, which isn’t the strict parallel but the phrase is up for grabs. I don’t think anyone’s terribly happy with it but part of the interesting thing has been trying to find a phrase that alludes to something that is going on but doesn’t over-simplify it or make it sound too exclusive. I think one of the problems with visual intelligence is it sets off a kind of post-Greenberg reaction to an isolation of the senses and that’s what concerns a lot of people, if it seems to be just visual intelligence, it’s as if you can separate the visual from other forms of creative processes which no-one’s claiming. It’s almost a historical knee-jerk reaction which still exists which I can fully understand so if people think there is a phrase which can get at what we’re trying to get at, which people are more comfortable with, I'd be delighted to hear it.

PK: I’ve never heard the term visual intelligence before, but I remember in the early 90s hearing people talking about whether or not people were visually literate. I wondered what the difference would be between being visually literate but not knowing how to process the information? I’m kind of curious to find out what it isn’t.

RF: Yes. I thought that Maria’s investigation of the term was really interesting. The idea of ‘thought through my eyes’ because we are talking about something that we perceive and we may use our other senses but it is something that is initiated through looking. I think the difference between visually literacy and visual intelligence is we are examining the thinking process that goes on for artists. Whether non-artists can be visually intelligent is outside the scope of what we’re looking at, I think, which seems to be what you’re referring to. But yes, it has brought up this discomfort before so I think it’s something that we should think about.

MC: I do feel it’s quite appropriate to us as artists but I also think it’s appropriate to people like architects as well, not exclusively artists. I find it perhaps more appropriate to them in some way, it seems a term that’s more philosophical than only descriptive of a process that we do.

RF: I tend to think about it not as an attribute but as a process. I'm thinking about how the brain works and the relationship between what you’re seeing and what you’re making. If I start to see it as a process then it’s not something I, or any commentator, can ‘bestow’ upon a work, as an attribute.

MM: When I heard the term I was confused as to where it would reside. I mean, for example, are we saying that it is something that somebody could have who is a critic and spends a great deal of their time looking and absorbing through very careful considerations? Can they never be in possession of visual intelligence as it is understood here? Is it tagged to that ‘thingness’, that artefact, that production of ….just for the purposes of this discussion.

NW: Clearly it would be nonsensical to claim that only artists can have that, it’s merely that what this project is looking at is the way that artists possess it. So it’s not to say that only artists and therefore no other people, but in this case we’re looking at artists and really the decision making process. I mean one thing that’s come through virtually everyone’s contribution is, people aren’t happy with the first thing that happens in their imagination as you would expect. They go through a process of questioning and re-ordering and re-presenting until a work is achieved that the artist is happy with to a great or lesser extent and that is the process of visual intelligence which you can’t put into words. You can’t say well what’s happening here is this and this and this. Often it comes down to phrases like ‘It feels right now’ or ‘It works’ and it’s trying to demystify slightly and open up the discussion about what it is that works’, or ‘looks right’ is, and what sort of decisions are going on. these are complex and varied and are usually in relationship between form, content, meaning, which is a dynamic. It’s not still so it can’t be tied down. As regards to visual literacy, I think visual literacy is the sort of thing you could teach at G.C.S.E. and probably should and in some cases, do, because it’s a way of coping with the contemporary world, a way of deconstructing advertisements and making sense of the visual world. So I think it’s a very different sort of thing from the sort of skill people with experience and expertise and sensibility use when creating artworks. So it’s not to claim these definitions are watertight or absolute. They’re working definitions for how we define this project.

IK: I suppose that declaration “it works” comes from a kind of Greenbergian kind of stance, that he took from Kant...

NW: I think it goes back further than that, I suspect it goes back virtually to cave paintings, - ‘Eureka!’ etc.

IK: what I’m thinking is, is the project doomed from the start in terms of the methodology in which you try and pinpoint, you talk about trying how to evaluate it, how to understand what the working is? The actual way you go about doing that is very interesting I think but …..

NW: Why should it be doomed?

IK: Just because as you say it’s been going on forever and yet no-one has yet come to terms with what it is or what it means, or the definition of it.

NW: I think it would be doomed if we were going for a grand theory, or grand definition but I think it’s far more modest than that, it’s a way of just looking at case studies or particulars and seeing what’s going on in that creative process. The way that people can talk about those sorts of decisions they’re making, so I think it’s the level of grandeur that would set the level of doom.

MG: When I read your letter it does seem to all come out about decision making and about process and although I can see why visual intelligence is a phrase you’ve ended up with I still think it’s kind of oppositional to, just to be silly, about ‘visual stupidity’. I was trying to say that it seems to mean a formulated way, a learned or apprehended way, of doing something, and the problem with the visual is that there don’t seem to be rules. There may be common currents, it’s very frustrating but that is the case, that there aren’t rules. It crosses my mind, if you took twelve other artists, twelve other artists who’d spoken to none of us and had a go at it from the start, would you establish anything in common that you might then be able to say, without grandeur, could pertain to art making at this point in time? Because I think although I applaud the modesty, part of it surely is to try and see, by giving a voice to artists, which is what you’ve done rather to any of those valuable people who are around art, to actually try and find out whether there is an underlying something in the process or commonality.

RF: You talked about intelligence as being something formulated and I’m not sure I’d go along with that. I don’t think about in terms of information stored for example. I think it as ‘ways of thinking’; ways of dealing with information. That was why I was asking Rachel earlier whether her ‘intuition’ was different now than it was ten years ago. It’s why we made a decision to invite artists, from different generations, but whose practices were established, because I feel that artists do set themselves a remit or a set of self-imposed rules, ways of dealing with things, from which they can then go into unknown territory. Alison started by talking about newness by saying ‘I want to make something new’. I would say that was something that everybody had in common, was that they did want to make something new, but from a position of experience, where they’ve established some kind of methodology. This is probably more obvious in someone like Colin’s case but actually I think it happens in everybody’s practices. There are certain things that people will do and certain things they won’t do, it’s not just a free-for-all. Those rules have probably been established over a period of time, they don’t just arrive out of the blue.

RS: It’s just something you said there Rebecca about thought processes and I was thinking of the word cognitive in terms of visual cognitive practice. We use terms such as cognitive linguistic programming and how that comes to something about understanding and reflecting about something but maybe it’s too scientific a word, maybe it’s too analytical in a sense to apply? What does anyone else think?

NW: Just to say that intelligence as a word has been used differently more recently, when people talk about ‘emotional intelligence’ and in a way it’s using intelligence more, not as something cognitive but almost a way of feeling, and a way of recognising, so that’s the sense in which it’s being used rather than in the purely cognitive way.

MC: I looked up the word in a dictionary: ‘a relation of intercourse between’ which suggests that it’s not learned, that it’s an argument and therefore it’s a working out. So the phrase ‘it works’ which always seemed to me a cop out, I must admit, when I was a student, is a very different phrase. Visual intelligence sounds rather grand but actually it’s the same thing, you can make something work, it’s an exchange between parts that finally ‘works’.

RF: I can’t say that I didn’t have the same reservations about the word intelligence if you see its opposition as visual stupidity, but I’m getting to like it more the more I’ve been working with it. Also if you put an ‘s’ on the end and it becomes visual intelligences which is how we’ve started to talk about it now, it seems to become less some kind of elite tag or some kind of judgmental description.

BH: Do you think then that visual intelligence can only be applied to the intention and approach of the artist and can’t be applied to the work itself? Can you say ‘that x piece of work is visually intelligent’?

RF: Personally I think that you can’t give an inanimate object the attribute of intelligence. It’s a difficult one. I have been thinking about it. You could say, the artist’s visual intelligence is in evidence.

BH: But is that any different from deciding if something’s a good piece of work or not?

RF: Well, that’s why I keep trying to shy away from it as an attribute.

IK: I think the mistake is thinking of intelligence as an adjective rather than as a process or a way of thinking. When one says something’s intelligent you’re assigning it a kind of virtue which I think is the wrong understanding and it’s more to do with trying to understand what’s going on in thinking. And so it’s the relationship between art and thought that I feel is interesting. There’s one more thing - in the past people have talked about retinal intelligence and how someone like Duchamp hated the retinal, yet visually they’re still intelligent so I think it’s a broad enough word.

NW: Intelligence is a controversial word but so is visual, that’s the problem and many people react to the term because it sounds Greenbergian, as if you’re separating out visual from other senses that of course is not what happens when you make artworks. So we’d be quite happy to drop visual as well and in one sense creative intelligence is perhaps more inclusive than that but Greenberg is a good example because what he was objecting to was that real, what became the Greenbergian sense of the visual, as a separate higher entity.

RF: Going back to what Mary was saying about the critic and looking at work. People have talked today about how their work alters in different spaces and how they understand it differently in different spaces and we’ve also been talking about when a work is finished. The artist makes the work, looks at it, makes the decision about whether it’s finished, takes it into a space, makes other decisions and when they’re not going to change it any more they’re still making decisions as they view the work about what they’re going to make next or about whether the work ‘works’ and that comes back into this notion of process. So I think that, at every stage of the making, there are decisions occurring and I thought it was quite interesting that Michael said sometimes you have to put down the brush or the tool and then your brain starts to engage. But also it quite clearly is engaging while you’re making as well, perhaps in a different way, in a different mode somehow. I think there are different dilemmas for the critic but I think the artist lives the critic’s dilemmas as well.

MC: But I think the artist is not always the best judge at the particular moment in time when they have finished a work. Going back to Alison’s idea of a great piece of work or something really pleasing, sometimes that can be recognised much later on. I am also thinking of Paula’s wall of studies, and I think that somebody coming along and saying ‘I understand this better’ or ‘I like this better’ is a good example of when the artist is too involved, too close to their ideas and their idea of the trajectory of their work. Somebody else can come along and see a part of it as being the strength and would like to see that being the greater part of the work. I mean I do accept that, I think that’s alright - it can happen. As an artist you can only respond, either recognise it yourself, or reject it, but it can seem like a sort of stubbornness to stick with your own rules.

CC: This seems like it’s a question for Alison, whether if she gets the sensation of the hairs standing up on the back of her neck when she’s just made something, whether that always sustains her or whether it happens later, how that works. I mean you’re the person to most clearly articulate this kind of view today, that kind of criterion for whether a work is good in your terms and whether it changes? That’s really the question.

AW: I think it can happen before the work is finished. There’s a point at which one recognises that yes, now I know what it is, how to proceed and all that has to be done is to finish the work. I don’t think anything probably would ever correspond to that very first initial sensation but I think there’s a vestige of something always there, even if you just think about the work and something will nudge into your brain.

CC: But it isn’t something that can occur later, on consideration?

AW: No. It’s to do with the moment, well with me anyway.