This article is a revised version of a talk I gave at OFFF CDMX
The struggle for modern subjectivity passes through a resistance to the two present forms of subjection, the one consisting of individualizing ourselves on the basis of the constraints of power, the other of attracting each individual to a known and recognized form of identity, fixed once and for all. The struggle for subjectivity presents itself, therefore, as the right to difference, variation, and metamorphosis - Gilles Deleuze "Foucault"
In the past few years, more than ever before, I’ve felt confronted with a helplessness when it came to define things I’m involved in professionally. It was always a bit of a problem for me, as my career went from something somewhat clear (a desire to make films) to something that could only really be explained (or at least understood) by people of my generation. Every time I tried to tell my parents about the variety of things I find myself doing, they would invariably conclude that I was a lighting designer, or an animator, or maybe a projectionist.
I’ve always felt my identity was a bit of a blur. On top of the 4 nationalities and countries of origin I received as heritage from my family, my father also worked in foreign affairs, and thus seldom stayed in one place for very long, often bringing us with him for long periods.
It was great to live like that, to establish cultural relativity as a hard coded given from an early age, but it also caused a sense of dislocation, of strong roots that somehow didn’t have a ground to grow and thus became a trophy on a wall. I remember as a child wondering how people could develop strong patriotic feelings, how they could relate to each other through a single cultural fabric.
For the past 10 years or so I’ve been involved in some shape or form in a field that was often called “Creative technology”. Not the best term (we’ll come other even worse ones in a bit), but it covered this amorphous environment of projects that used technology in ways that were never clearly codified. Each endeavor was its own R&D project. In 2015, after curating my first Day For Night, I started realizing that lacking a clear name, the field we were trying to represent would have a hard time being perceived as an actual field. How could it be taken seriously without a good name?
As I struggled with this idea and discussed its ramifications with others, I realized that maybe there was a very good reason to not have a name, or maybe to have several names. The key point was for it to be un-defined, out of focus - blurry.
I remember being asked to put together a curatorial statement for Day For Night, and the only clear thing I could see uniting everything I had selected together was the fact that all of the artists at the festival were, in some way, polymaths, and therefore could not be classified. Even the term “Day For Night” lent itself to this narrative, because of the strange shift and reversal that happens in the process of transforming day into night.
When I came to grips with this idea, I put together another show at Mana Contemporary, called “That’s Not It”. The title of the show was an overt admission that defining the work we were showing would be futile, but it also supposed that there was a common thread among the pieces (why would they be presented together if not).
But then, if definition was not an option, what “state” did that leave us in.
If we want to talk about blur, it might be worth defining it a little bit. Blur seems to be a predominantly visual term. It also seems relate more to vision mediated through optics rather than raw vision (except for certain “faulty” conditions such as damage to the eyes, re-focusing when switching from extreme darkness to full light, etc…). Blur is also a product of motion, both in the inability of our eyes to see very fast moving objects, but also in our inner vision of the movement of our lives.
In the visual FX world, where “blur” is very often used to mimic photographic lenses and the aberrations produced by the limitations of optics, there are two types of blur : the averaging of pixels, and the averaging of frames.
To blur an image, a typical recipe (by no means the only one) is to sample a group of pixels around a central “kernel” and use various algorithms to average the brightness and color of the surrounding pixels. With what is called “motion blur”, a series of frames in time are averaged together to create the illusion of movement as perceived by the human eye (or the camera with a slow shutter speed and/or frames per second). But even though a lot of effort is put into re-creating these optical phenomena through digital means, they are rarely created for themselves, they are usually seen as a way of enhancing “focus” (by contrast). Focus is king, in vision and in life, for the contemporary human. Lack of focus is a failure, both optically and “experientially”.
Poor Robin Williams is a perfect example of the way our world treats people who aren’t “sharp”.
We see this in the contemporary political culture as well. On one hand, you have the very clear-cut position of nationalists, extremists, sexists, racists and anyone who sees established categories as god-given gold standards. On the other hand you have the blurry position of progressives, who imagine a world with blurrier borders, genders, races, but can’t seem to articulate how that translates into a concrete vision (in other words it articulates around reaction rather than proposition, since these ideas are complex and difficult to translate into actual policy). Maybe they are the victims of motion blur, as things change so fast that every week brings a new concept to the table and a new entity that needs to somehow has to be integrated into the giant pot of humanity.
It is also interesting to look at digital practices designed to enhance focus in software. You will often find “sharpening” algorithms that do the opposite of the blurring ones. In essence, they will analyze color differences in “zones” of the image and add more contrast to what the software things are the lines separating these zones, essentially increasing separation. Separation is often thought of a powerful photographic technique to create a focal point for the eye, essentially blurring what is less relevant to the image, present for context.
In the history of ideas, a similar approach has been used to define rationality. Just as the human brain cannot possibly take in the infinite complexity of the world, it has to focus. Tools were invented over time to support the rational mind in its need to separate what is important from what can be discarded or “backgrounded”. The idea has been to focus on the “essential” and to “categorize” reality in ways that allow us to grasp it. Who decides what is important, what needs to be foregrounded becomes a conversation about power and authority, which became an important conversation in the so-called “postmodern” philosophy, but also in the teachings of Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Derrida and many others.
Categories are tool of power (some would say repression). In other words, if an art institution has departments for sculpture, painting, photography and, say, ceramics, where does a light artist fit? If there is no “category” for her/him, (s)he doesn’t exist within the confines of that world. The more powerful that institution is, the less the artist that doesn’t fit matters.
Of course one could oppose to this thought that art institutions are not the only place to show work, and that artists have always found alternative ways of being seen (and thus existing). But I would like to push this objection even further.
I would like to suggest that in fact the entire system of categorization, of “focus”, or clarity, is falling apart. In fact, blur is on its way of becoming overthrowing the king.
In all aspects of our lives, categories, organizing principles, accepted views, general consensus, ways of living, channels of information, and any kind of clarity about how to lead your life seems to be falling apart. Guiding principles of any type are up for grabs from wherever you want to find them (tribal lifestyle or alien societies, take your pick). This idea has often been touted as a tenet of postmodernist thinking (the end of overarching narratives), but in fact is more palpable today than it was when it felt more like theory than real life.
If you are raising kids today, or trying to make sense of the world, good luck. As Adam Curtis put it quite well, politicians have stopped providing a vision for the direction of the world. Clashing ideas seems to be floating between extremist nostalgia (the right) and some sort of fuzzy view of a world where sexes, countries, races and restaurant menus all merge in a fuzzy embrace.
But in art this makes a lot of sense. When you have a field like “new media” art, that has no allegiance to a particular medium, that does not fit (or rather overflows) the categories of the practices it participates in, and that just can’t seem to find a decent name, maybe the correct approach is to just decide to not name it, not categorize it. In fact, maybe as a society we can slowly move away from categorization as a whole, just as we would like to move away from identification, ownership, definition.
Of course this is a very lofty goal, blue sky at its best (or worst), but to me it seems like the only way to get unstuck. The net we cast on the world with our minds isn’t bringing back readable fish, but rather clusters of strange hybrids, eight legged sharks with whale tails and oddly placed fins. We are evolving, and our mind needs to evolve as well. Maybe one way to do this is to fully and wholeheartedly embrace blur.