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Situational Aesthetics (1969)
Victor Burgin

Some recent art, evolving through attention both to the conditions under which objects are perceived and to the processes by which aesthetic status is attributed to certain of these, has tended to take its essential form in message rather than in materials. In its logical extremity this tendency has resulted in a placing of art entirely within the linguistic infrastructure, which previously served merely to support art. In its less hermetic manifestations art as message, as “software,” consists of sets of conditions, more or less closely defined, according to which particular concepts may be demonstrated. This is to say, aesthetic systems are designed, capable of generating objects, rather than individual objects themselves. Two consequences of this work process are: the specific nature of any object formed is largely contingent upon the details of the situation for which it is designed; through attention to time, objects formed are intentionally located partly in real, exterior space and partly in psychological, interior space.

Conceptual elements in a work may to some extent be conceived of, and accounted for, through analogy with the experience of substantial elements. Consider these instructions: suppose an interior wall of a room to be concealed by a skin. The skin is parallel with and an eighth-inch above the surface it conceals. The color of the skin simulates that of the concealed surface.

The preceding paragraph is not intended as an object in its own right, although it could be considered as such,1 but “objects” may be generated through the perceptual behavior it recommends. The existing substances of the room serve to locate and particularize the object and no new materials are introduced. An immaterial object is created, which is solely a function of perceptual behavior, but which yet inducts attributes of physicality from its material setting. In “fitting” the Conceptual elements into this setting an act of attention is required that is similar to the act of handling material substances – it is styled by kinesthetic analogy.

In moving through real, “sensorial,” space we may touch immediately near objects. Distant objects in real space are “touched” in the mind (we say the mind “reaches out”). The manner, therefore, in which we make our mental approach to a distant object of attention is styled through analogy with, and expectation of, the bodily experience of near objects. This mode of appreciation, learned in exterior, sensorial space, is applied when we negotiate interior, psychological space. Kinesthetic analogy then, an understanding in terms of body, is constant to our reception of perceptual experience, which shifts freely between sensorial and psychological data in the life-world “tangled, muddy, and perplexed,” which precedes the ordering of experience.

We exercise discrimination toward perceptual fields. At the level of zero discrimination our experience is nonobjective and meaningless, “things” have not come into being. At the level of optimum discrimination for practical living, objects are identified and meaning attributed. But both primary experience and pragmatic interpretation are simply modes of consciousness, alternative states of awareness, and as such may be conceived of as points along a psycho-sensorial continuum. Between these points, to pursue the schematic analogy, lie all degrees of discrimination.

Schematically and in terms of discrimination, any path of consciousness through time might be represented as a meander. Attention to objects “out there” in the material world is constantly subverted by the demands of memory. Willful concentration is constantly dissolving into involuntary association. Even beyond familiar types of conscious association there are more subversive mechanisms at work: “. . . we now have direct evidence that signals become distributed within the input system. What we see . . . is not a pure and simple coding of the light patterns that are focused on the retina. Somewhere between the retina and the visual cortex the inflowing signals are modified to provide information that is already linked to a learned response. . . . Evidently what reaches the visual cortex is evoked by the external world but is hardly a direct or simple replica of it.”2

Accepting the shifting and ephemeral nature of perceptual experience, and if we accept that both real and conceptual objects are appreciated in an analogous manner, then it becomes reasonable to posit aesthetic objects that are located partly in real space and partly in psychological space. Such a placing of aesthetic objects however involves both a revised attitude toward materials and a reversal of function between these materials and their context.

Cage is hopeful in claiming, “We are getting rid of ownership, substituting use”;3 attitudes toward materials in art are still informed largely by the laws of conspicuous consumption, and aesthetic commodity hardware continues to pile up whereas utilitarian objects, whose beauty might once have been taken as conclusive proof of the existence of God, spill in inconceivable profusion from the cybernated cornucopias of industry. Each day we face the intractability of materials that have outstayed their welcome. Many recent attitudes to materials in art are based in an emerging awareness of the interdependence of all substances within the ecosystem of earth. The artist is apt to see himself not as a creator of new material forms but rather as a coordinator of existing forms, and may therefore choose to subtract materials from the environment. As art is being seen increasingly in terms of behavior so materials are being seen in terms simply of quantity rather than of quality.

Life exists by virtue of the one-sixth of one percent of impurities that exists in a universe composed mainly of hydrogen (about ninety percent) and helium (about ten percent). Viewed from this tangent, all artifacts may be seen as belonging to a continuum of forms of common elements. Consequently, a painting could be said to represent a point of particular cultural significance located in an elemental continuum somewhere between geological and organic forms and gases and dust. Although obviously irrelevant to some of the more sophisticated aspects of connoisseurship, such an attitude toward materials does enable us to view their use simply in terms of their suitability for a situation – in a given context, some will seem more appropriate than others.

Once materials are selected according to largely fortuitous criteria, depending on their location, their individual status is diminished. The identification of art relies upon the recognition of cues that signal that the type of behavior termed aesthetic appreciation is to be adopted.4 These cues help form a context that reveals the art-object. The object itself, in being displayed, may be termed overt and in the case of the visual arts it has been predominantly substantial. Any attempt to make an “object” of nonovert and insubstantial conceptual forms demands that substantial materials located in exterior space-time be used in a manner that subverts their “objectness” in order to identify them as “situational cues.”5

Perceptual fields are not experienced as objects in themselves. Perception is a continuum, a precipitation of event fragments decaying in time, above all a process. An object analogue may, however, be posited by locating points within the perceptual continuum. Two rope triangles placed in Greenwich Park earlier this year represent an attempt to “parenthesize” a section of perceptual experience in time. General instructions for this work are:

1) Two units coexist in time.

2) Spatial separation is such that units may not simultaneously be directly perceived.

3) Units are isomorphic to the degree that an encounter with a second unit is likely to evoke recollection of the first.

By the above definition the units may be said to bracket the perceptual data subjectively experienced between them. The “object,” therefore may be defined as consisting of three elements: First unit. Recollection of intervening space-time. Second unit.

The first triangle in Greenwich Park was constructed using about 100 feet of 1/4 inch rope held in tension between three 6 by 1/4 inch wire-strainers driven into the ground so that only the circular “eyes” projected above the surface. The rope was threaded through the eyes, pulled taut, and knotted. A second triangle was constructed in a similar manner on an opposite side of the park from the first. The two triangles were equilateral, both measuring 36 feet on each side, and sited so that neither could be seen from the other and so that neither could be seen from any great distance. This latter condition was established by the selection of gently undulating localities, the points of the triangles touching the slopes of a depression with the ropes between passing freely through space a few inches above the ground. The intention of this positioning was that the triangles should “come into being” gradually, in an additive fragmentary fashion, as they were approached. Their position within view of a footpath increased the probability of an optimum reading being effected. The triangles were serially ordered in space-time. Invariance in their reading, and therefore the apparent congruence of two actually dissimilar perceptual fields, was insured by the familiarity of the equilateral triangle as a configurational archetype. Encounter with the first triangle was not particularly notable, the materials used are commonplace and the handling of them eschewed craft considerations. It is conceivable that the first triangle might enter consciousness at a subliminal level (ropes are low in the hierarchy of sensory experiences offered by Greenwich Park). Encounter with the second triangle however emphasized recognition of the first by its involuntary recall. The intention was that the recollected image of the first configuration would be mentally brought forward and superimposed upon the configuration immediately available to the retina. Consciousness would be sent back through its memory data assembling en route an object analogue composed of recalled images, the relationships between these fragments to be governed by personal associative propensities. The life of this conceptual element might be brief though repeated path-tracing between the two cues would probably favor a particular sequence of forms and impress them on the memory.

Because of the emphasis placed upon the perceiver’s role in the formation of the “object” the specific nature of any such “object” is highly subjective. The required mode of attention would involve a mind “out of focus,” a self-induced suspension of cognition in which experience is emotive but meaningless. To focus, like this, upon preobjective experience is to be aware of movement, and attention to motion reveals the ephemeral, emphasizes the inconstant: “The invariant component in a transformation carries information about an object and the variant component carries other information, for example, about the relation of the perceiver to the object. When an observer attends to certain invariants he perceives objects; when he attends to certain variants he has sensations.”6 If we suppose a consistently noncognitive response to experience by an individual observing only the variant in his perception, then the only object of that individual’s attention would be his “life object” as he passively observes the perpetually present modulations in his visual field. Conceptually, the life object is equivalent to any individual’s total perceptual experience. However, the notion of an object assumes an exterior viewpoint. From “inside,” subjective experience is a context, within which objects are encountered rather than an object. Nevertheless, the idea of all of one’s perceptual experience as a single object does establish a high degree of latitude in the naming of objects as subdivisions within the subjectively experienced perceptual continuum. A more or less gratuitous designation of objects is possible as all perceptual data may be fitted into the common matrix of interval and duration.

Visual information concerning duration is gained, as it is gained when we observe motion, from observations of shift in perceptual field. In traveling past an object we are presented with an apparent configurational evolution from which we may abstract a number of discrete states. Comparison of expired configurations with the configuration of the moment tells us we are in motion relative to the object. An exercise of a similar nature is involved when we observe change in a place to which we have returned after an absence, we compare and contrast past and present configurations, or more accurately, we superimpose a memorized configuration upon a configuration present to the retina. Pragmatically, within this complex of shifting appearances, we have workable systems of establishing space-time coordinates for navigation and prediction, but true locations exist only in the abstract as points of zero dimensions. Locations such as those given by the National Grid are fixed by definition, but the actual spaces to which they refer are in continual flux and so impossible to separate from time.

Time, in the perception of exterior events, is the observation of succession linked with muscular-navigational memories – a visceral identification with change. Similarly kinesthetic modes of appreciation are applied to the subjective transformation of these events in interior time and in recollection. All behavior has these space-time parameters in common. To distinguish, therefore, between “arts of space” and “arts of time”7 is literally unrealistic. The misconception is based in materialism, it springs, again, from a focus upon the object rather than upon the behavior of the perceiver. Theatre and cinema are not arts of “time” but arts of theatrical and cinematic time, governed by their own conventions and the limitations of their hardware. The Parthenon is not “timeless” but, simply, set in geological time. It is a mistake to refer to “time” as if it were singular and absolute. A full definition of the term would require a plurality of times and would accommodate such contrasting scales as the times of galaxies and of viruses. The current occupation with time and ecology, the consciousness of process, is necessarily counterconservative. Permanence is revealed as being a relationship and not an attribute. Vertical structuring, based in hermetic, historically given concepts of art and its cultural role, has given way to a laterally proliferating complex of activities that are united only in their common definition as products of artistic behavior. This situation in art is the corollary of a general reduction in the credibility of institutions8 and many find much recent art implicitly political. One may disagree, however, with those who would locate motivations in as doctrinaire an attitude as “Disgust with the decadence of Western civilization.”9

Art intended as propaganda is almost invariably both aesthetically tedious and politically impotent. The process-oriented attitudes described here are not intentionally iconoclastic and one should be suspicious of easy comparisons with Dada. It does not follow that because some institutions have been ignored, that they are under attack. It seems rather less likely that the new work will result in the overthrow of the economy than that it will find a new relationship with it; one based, perhaps, in the assumption that art is justified as an activity and not merely as a means of providing supplementary evidence of pecuniary reputability. As George Brecht observed, we are used to judging a work by its suitability for the apparatus. Perhaps it is time to judge the apparatus by its suitability for the work.

The recognition of a multiplicity of times, the concentration on process and behavior, destroys the model of time as some sort of metaphysical yardstick against which the proper “length” of an activity may be measured. Works may be proposed in which materials are deployed and shifted in space in order to create compressions and rarefactions in time. Such a work would be perceived in the “extended present” within which we appreciate music. In this state of awareness the distinction between interior and exterior times, between subject and object, is eroded. There is something of Norman O. Brown’s “polymorphous perverse” in the attitudes now infiltrating the hierarchical structures that have previously determined the relevance and usage of materials and media in art. It is through an indiscriminate empiricism that the new work is currently evolving.


Reprinted from Studio International, Vol. 178, No. 915 (October, 1969).

1 See: editorial Art-Language, Vol. 1, No. 1 (May 1969).

2 Karl H. Pribram, “The Neurophysiology of Remembering,” Scientific American (January, 1969).

3 John Cage, A Year from Monday (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969).

4 It may no longer be assumed that art, in some mysterious way, resides in materials. Attempts to determine the necessary and sufficient conditions of aesthetic structure have failed from an emphasis upon the object rather than upon the perceiver. The implications of a redirection of attention, from object to perceiver, are extensive. It may now be said that an object becomes, or fails to become, a work of art in direct response to the inclination of the perceiver to assume an appreciative role. As Morse Peckham has put it, “. . . art is not a category of perceptual fields but of role-playing.”

5 Morse Peckham, Man’s Rage for Chaos. Biology, Behaviour, and the Arts (New York: Schocken, 1967)

6 James J. Gibson, “Constancy and Invariance in Perception,” The Nature and Art of Motion, ed. Gyorgy Kepes (Studio Vista, 1965).

7 This dichotomy has been most recently revived as “Modernism” v. “Literalism.” See: Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum (Summer, 1967).

8 Robert Jay Lifton has described personal connections with experience devoid of overriding value systems and has proposed that the concept of “personality” be replaced by a more appropriate concept of “self-process.” This notion of self-process is useful in understanding some recent attitudes in art: “The protean style of self-process is characterized by an interminable series of experiments and explorations – some shallow, some profound – each of which may be readily abandoned in favor of still newer psychological quests. . . . Just as protean man can readily experiment with and alter elements of his self he can also let go of, and reembrace idea systems and ideologies, all with an ease that stands in sharp contrast to the inner struggle we have in the past associated with such shifts.” Robert Jay Lifton, “Protean Man,” Partisan Review (Winter, 1968).

9 Barbara Rose, “Problems of Criticism VI: The Politics of Art, Part III,” Artforum (May, 1969).