Philosophy of machines

A talk with Harrison Pearce.

What is your formal artistic background and how did you get into kinetic art?

I have gone through the fairly traditional routes. I did a BA in Painting and an MA in Fine Art, which I completed at the end of 2016. But it was pretty late in that process that I came to make kinetic pieces. I ended up there for a few reasons. In between art schools I got a scholarship to do an MA in philosophy and that played a big part in changing the way I worked by the time I ended up back in a studio. I had studied analytic philosophy, which is preoccupied with strict logic and clear arguments. That was a breath of fresh air after reading the kinds of texts that do the rounds at art school, which is a big part of why I was drawn to it. Ultimately, however, I still wanted to tackle some aspects of art, and in particular, painting, within that philosophical tradition – and it was kind of a mess. There was something so deeply incommensurate between the method and the subject that all I did was skew both out of shape. But something did occur in doing that. I fell out of love with painting for a while. I became convinced that some of the dominant ideas in painting (most of the big Modernist ones) despite Post-Modernism, persisted in force-feeding a belief system that I couldn’t swallow – and that’s why I went looking for a more naturalistic explanation of what was going on with art and its capacity for things like ‘expression’. I am much less concerned with these things now but at the time I adopted a strategy that I thought bypassed the weight of things like psychologically laden brush strokes. It occurred to me that rather than represent expressive gestures, which, through paint, centred on me, I could make objects that could perform instead. I incorporated flexible, elastic materials to build in a kind of organic unpredictability, so that the behaviours could at times feel a little uncanny, all the while underwritten by electrical signals and codes that were fixed and unerring. Eventually this evolved into more elaborate machinery, methods of casting, sound design and lighting – ultimately borrowing freely from industrial automation and theatrical and cinematic conventions as much as art historical rhetoric. I stumbled on pneumatic automation, which I use quite often, because I had a friend who worked in a dry cleaning factory that used those systems and he let me have a go with some spare parts. Ever since, my sculptural work has been similarly led by ad hoc developments and learning new things along the way. On top of all that, the short answer to your question is that (even though it’s not the only thing I am dong now) most of the art I have seen that has blown me away has been kinetic.

Is there a philosophic concept behind your sculptures?

In some sense I do nod to specific philosophical concepts to develop new work. But more generally, for me, working as an artist is the best I can work philosophically. I knew I would never pursue academic philosophy, as I find it too tightly wound; I prefer the unreasonable freedoms of art. But having spent time with philosophy has gently organised my habits and intuitions about the kind of work I think up, or the way I make it. For a while I was focused on philosophy of mind and epistemology. In the analytic tradition the broad challenge about the mind is still how to reconcile Cartesian dualism in the context of a scientifically driven culture. The consensus about that tends to be what is known as Physicalism, which states that everything that exists is physical. That sounds obvious but, if taken seriously, the conviction probes at the way we might tend to quietly hang on to more mystical ideas about the location of things like minds and souls. Once you challenge that it can upset some people (for obvious reasons). I personally had to confront this very directly around the time I was doing my MA. I ended up in A&E, where I had my brain scanned and was subsequently told that they had made an alarming discovery. I was told that the ‘morphology of my brain showed signs of severe atrophy’, which was terrifying. Its absurd, but it was only then that I had the gut wrenching appreciation that my mind is my brain and if that was on the way out, then so was I. More tests and many months later I was told a mistake had been made; it was owing to a combination of a rare yet benign condition and a misreading of early scans. This was an explosion of unfettered philosophical problems happing to me: ideas about the mind, doubt, belief, embodiment, and scientific realism

Thinking about humans and machines, what is your prediction of the end of the world who is going to “win”?

I can see why you’d ask me that. I do work along lines that are ostensibly similar to those followed in science fiction. But I certainly don’t see the picture I am drawing as an apocalyptic one. The resentment we harbour towards machines in sci-fi scenarios is probably born of what I have described above as an unfulfilled project of exploring whether we are even distinct from machines (or any matter, for that matter). If not, the conflict is moot. Sometimes I want to see if I can create an image that is untroubled by a lack of such distinction. There are those who believe consciousness will be a short-lived evolutionary blip. There’s something exciting about that idea, even if ours is a torturous privilege. But I like the question because it touches on something a bit less far flung. With reference to technology and the sense of competition we are facing, there are far more pressing issues, obviously. Technological and medical advances seem to benefit society undeniably. But they also rapidly widen the gap in wealth and opportunity. My concern is not so much about humans vs machines, because the urgent project is human solidarity – and perhaps if we could achieve it the analogy of nefarious machines would actually disappear. Ironically, technology is our only hope of achieving it globally (we probably need to smooth over all human non-human demarcations at some point). In my work I use images and dynamics that turn on ambiguous demonstrations of power, control, free will and vulnerability. Sometimes this triggers empathy – even if the forms are reductively half way between abstraction and figuration. I use ergonomic industrial design principles that signify human comfort, pleasure and support and offset those with opposing, rigid forces. I use automation systems from factories that play a part in the conversation about labour, leisure and value. It’s all about whether we are in a position to collaborate or compete with technology. At the moment there are huge imbalances. But there are many experiments, in the reciprocal feedback between humans and tech, taking place that might see the status quo shift unpredictably. It’s the plasticity of the situation we are in now that I find compelling.

I’d like to know where are your inspirations are coming from (movies, books, space… etc)

My sources of inspiration are a lot of what I’ve already mentioned from the worlds of philosophy, sci-fi etc. but, off the back of what we’ve discussed, I think of inspirations a bit more personally. I’d mention my mother, for example. I grew up on a council estate in the UK with a single mum and recently watched her heroically go through a life changing medical event – that had me thinking more carefully about infrastructures like healthcare and government. I grew up gay in a relatively homophobic community (not at home though). My father went to prison etc. etc. So my inspirations come from seeing the advent of social change with regards to identity and community and from the opportunity to have conversations that are very exploratory. That is why I prefer to collaborate on projects when I can. To invite additional voices that might redirect a trajectory to places I can’t imagine alone. So, basically, other people are my most consistent source of inspiration. Perhaps this is in part because I have a little less time to read than I used to. That said – a show I’m working on right now takes it’s title from a phrase in a book by Paul B Preciado called the Countersexual Manifesto, which I recommend. I’m also enjoying Tim Morton’s, Humankind.

What are you working on these days?

I’m playing catch up on some shows that have been planned for a while but had to be held off. Three of them are solo shows so it’s keeping me busy. One with Ribot Gallery in Milan, another with Mine Project in Hong Kong and one with Carl Kostyal in London. Since the pandemic I actually got reacquainted with painting (after everything I said about painting) so one of the major things I’m working on the relationship between paintings and sculptures. I’m letting it be process-led and I am quickly seeing how the two are transforming one another. It’s changing things quite a bit and I’m excited to see where it goes as it’s not something I would have introduced had it not been for the lockdown. So far I’d say it’s been very liberating to feel unrestrained about the sorts of things I want to make; for some reason I didn’t feel that way before. I think the dawn of the digital has really opened things up.

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