Workshop 3: Neal White, ‘Experimentality. The Experimental Site’

Neal White (Office of Experiments and Media School, Bournemouth University)  works across media, and in no particular medium at all – creating projects with the Office of Experiments that develop collaborative, social and critical spaces using art methods and art materials. His work operates along the fine line between how art thinks and the effect that art has as a social practice. Neal White has been associated with 0+1, formerly APG, Artists' Placement Group, for several years. Maintaining that art has always pushed the boundaries of the possible in terms of models of social collaboration and networking, Neal White's work looks at how these models can engage with other kinds of knowledge producing structure. The Office of Experiments is a structure for experimental cultural practices. Their work is based on the need for new forms of cultural practice, forms of contemporary artistic production that draw on critical lessons of former experimental movements, artists, thinkers and structures - and that seeks to disentangle these modes and systems of approach from the value systems that underline mass media, financial systems and contemporary art markets.

Neal White’s presentation consisted of four parts: The Office of Experiments, Epistemic things, Experimental systems and structures, and Experimental fieldwork. White explained that he wanted to talk about his work on experimental subject elaborating on the belief from outside of science that it is prepared to make acts of sacrifice.

Firstly, Neal White spoke about the Office of Experiments: an intermittent institution dedicated to experiments, experimental knowledge and intuitive logic. He argued that the Office of Experiments aim is to respond to or create a context for the production and display of materials, practices and events in which the experimental element is paramount, if not rationalised, as art. White argued that the Office of Experiments creates temporary structures through which it can operate as a dynamic and fluid institution able to respond to its immediate context. As an example, White gave Flat time House which was the former home of late British artist John Latham (1922-2006) and which held Office of Experiments function between 2006-9.

 

Secondly, White referred to Epistemic Things - art, events and experiments. Here, White approached the experiment as that concentrated on producing ‘epistemic things’ and used Hans-Jorg Rheinberger quote to illustrate his argument: ‘The sciences are characterised by a permanent process of reorientation and reshuffling of the boundary between what is thought to be known and what is beyond imagination’  (‘Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube’, Writing Science,1997). Further, Neal White proposed that research systems are tinkered arrangements that are not set up for the purpose of repetitive operation but for the continuous re-emergence of unexpected events. He emphasised that experimentation, as a machine for making the future, has to engender unexpected events.

Here, Neal White brought to forefront some examples of arts that are exemplary of his arguments: Artlab, Imperial College ‘I Need to Know’ (2001) exhibit, ‘Ott’s Sneeze’ book by Lawrence Norfolk and Neal White (exploring early visualization, optical technology and remaking theatrical sneeze in a different way), as well as John Latham ‘Skoob tower’ (1964) performance.

Further, in talking about process and the object, Neal White referred to John Latham’s ‘Still and Chew’ (Art and Culture, 1966-7) permanent display at Museum of Modern Art, New York. Concomitatnly, White spoke of experiments and process sculpture, using examples of Bruce Nauman’s ‘Slow Angle Walk’ (1968-9), Roman Signer’s ‘Cap with Rocket’ (Mütze mit Rakete, 1983) and Erwin Wurm’s  ‘Outdoor sculpture Cahors’ (1999).

Thereafter, Neal White elaborated on experimentation and events (beyond spectacle) stating their main objectives:

- to problematise the subject / object relationship

- to problematise the viewer and the artist as performer

- to re-examine the space in which experiments can take place.

In this context, White was particularly interested in the notion of the body as an experimental system and the body as a site for art / invasive aesthetics. To illustrate his claims, White referred to ‘Lets Experiment with Ourselves’ initiative of National Institute for Medical Research (UK), involving International3 (Manchester), Barbican Gallery (London), Max Planck Insitute (Berlin) and Sherborne House (Dorset). Here, Neal White concentrated on ‘Colour After Klein’ exhibit at The Barbican Gallery (2005) elaborating on its follow-up studies, in particular ‘Truth Serum’, the Office of Experiments installation (2008-9).

In this context, White was particularly interested in the fact that history of self experimentation is very concealed. He explained that he found this compelling and it urged him to concentrate on the construction of the experiment in its totality. Asking how do you contest sites and science, White described ‘Colour after Klein’ exhibition where many of these issues emerged, i.e.:

- how do ethical committees deal with risk and the construction of uncertainty

- how do you deal with it as an artist in the opposition to the scientists

- what is the relationship between the object and process – keeping the pill as an abject or taking part in the performance.

 

Thirdly, Neal White spoke about experimental systems and structures claiming that the modern kind of experimentation has been contrasted with post-modern forms of experiment. The former, it is argued, relied on clear-cut separations between laboratory and society, facts and values, nature and culture. In contrast, the latter manifests itself as a socio-technological experiment (Latour) with no boundaries, carried out in real time and in the scale of 1:1, thus retrospectively changing our perspective on the seemingly modern form of experiment. Hence, White referred to Hans-Jorg Rheinberger proposing that ‘experimental systems are hybrid constructions; they are at once local, social, technical, institutional, instrumental and epistemic settings’ (Epistemic Things). Here, Neal White gave some examples of artworks that fulfil these criteria such as ‘Cleanrooms’ (2003), ‘Space On Earth Station’ [SOES] (2004-6) and ‘Solar ovens workshop’ by Marcus Ahlers.

Next, following Maria Lind, White described four waves of institutional critique:

- First wave Artist such as Michael Asher and Hans Haacke

Acted on the assumption of a crisis – institutions that pinion art and conceal diverse exploitative mechanisms regarding structure and methods, institution as building and apparatus. Aim – to discover problems at a distance, an us and them perspective.

- Second wave– Artist such as Fred Wilson and Andrea Fraser

Moved into institutions in order to work concretely with collections, using methods such as guided tours to reveal institutional mechanisms as racist and sexist.

- Third wave– Artist such as Rirkit Tirivanija and Bikvanderpol

Remain within institutions, but play with personal and poetic to produce constructive proposals or models for institutional dilemmas.

- Fourth wave– Artist such as Marion Von Osten, Copenhagen Free University

Starting ‘Pseudo Institutions’ . To question more comprehensive phenomena, such as economic structure of art, it’s working conditions and the demand for the spectacular.

(Maria Lind, Printed Project 06, ‘When Water is Gushing in’, pp18).

 

Thereafter, Neal White referred to Self-Institutionalisation, arguing that: 

‘Mass intellectuality and globalisation offer a potential to reintroduce avant-garde strategy not based on the universality of the heroic avant-garde, but unfolding as collective and polymorphous creative forces in the production of social relations. Aesthetics beyond disciplines. Aesthetics as a fact of life.’ (‘All power to Copenhagen Free University’, www.infopool.org.uk/cfu.htm).

 

Finally, White spoke about Experimental Fieldwork in terms of ‘Dark Places’. He explained that ‘Dark Places. With Arts Catalyst’ is an overt research project concentrating on an experimental method. Neal White stated that ‘Dark Places’ is combining field observation, alternative knowledge gathering and experimental geography techniques with a range of other standard and non-standard research methods, so the culmination of these interpretational activities can feed into the ORP Resource, an ‘open’ online database and physical collection. In the context of ‘Dark Places’ and Experimental Geography White mentioned ‘Spaces of Secrecy and Transparency’ ESRC Conference Series organised by UCL Dept. of Geography and Dept. of Science and Technology Studies as well as Trevor Paglen’s work. Trevor Paglen is an artist, writer, and experimental geographer currently working out of the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley and Neal White referred in particular, to his project on ‘Spaces of Sacrifice’.

 

Further, Neal White presented the ‘Dark Places’ Phase One aims:

1) To produce a geo-mapped UK collection of exceptional ongoing experimental research, environments, spaces and facilities linked to interpretive materials (physical and digital media, found and collected artefacts, retrieved experiences and recollections, rumour and conspiracy).

2) To undertake ‘overt’ research, as an open method which will include visual and audio collection, non-standard approaches to field research, oral history gathering and co-operation with social and networked groups ranging from artists to enthusiasts (amateur groups).

3) To create an ‘open’ depository for other ‘overt’ research in the form of intelligence or interpretive material from future or existing artistic and alternative research material and projects that already fall in line with the aims of the research project (all information on works to be made available through Creative Commons licenses).

4) To develop a dynamic and flexible system for categorisation of materials and facilities.

 

Neal White concluded his presentation by stating that by transforming the psychological space of discovery into a space of experimental manipulation his projects also transcend the ideal of a creative genius, of a free play of individual mental faculties, bent and domesticated only by the stringency of their own performance. By plunging into the spaces of experimental manipulation we find ourselves confronted with a rhizomatic network of recurrent epistemic practices, a filigree of “investigative operations”. White closed his paper with the Artist Placement Group O+I quote: ‘That the proper contribution of art to society is art.’

  

DISCUSSION

Firstly, the role of humour to engage in art was debated. Here, a particular attention was given to the issues of disjunction and rationalities. Also, references were made to the work of John Latham in terms of scrutinizing the relationship between knowledge and language and rejecting language. Further, discussion turned towards how humour and irrational things are perceived/articulated, followed by the belief that science could not answer all the questions and only artists could fulfil that role

Secondly, the recruitment for ‘Truth Serum’ experiment was probed. Neal White explained that the recruiting room had a lot of information and many diagrams exhibited as to set up a participant as a site of resistance of the nervous system. In this context, ‘Truth Serum’ study was about self control and self experimentation. Further, White illuminated that this study abandoned the usual debriefing format and the exit door led straight onto the street where participants were abandoned.

Thirdly, the framing of the presented experiments was questioned, in particular whether people were aware that it was art. Neal White explained that it was very clear to the participants and the Office of Experiments is all about artistic contestation of the spaces open as sites of resistance. Here, he referred to his new exhibition ‘Dark Places’ concentrated on mapping experimental places.

Next, issues of play and an emphasis on affiliation with art were debated. It was pointed out that the question of compliance was suspended in a way. Consequently, the differences in relation to science in power and play were discussed. Here, it was agreed that both are struggling with similar systems of control using humor in a face of adversity. It was pointed out that health and safety regulations are controlling art spaces as much as controlling the laboratory (which was the reason for the art being done off site in White’s experiments). Further, it was emphasised that in taking the work off site experimenters were asking people to participate and take their own risk. In this context a question of how much people are prepared to risk in relation to various attitudes of audiences was considered.  

Thereafter, a references were made to the work of Peter Gallison (1987) regarding ‘How Experiments End’. Here, it was debated how the art studio and the science laboratory were perceived in times of mechanical subjectivity. Consequently, Neal White was asked  in what sense is his art phenomenal. Here, White argued that it is the fibres that bind together these sites that are of particular interest to him, and following Rheinberger he values the investigation of how experiments begin – referring to the difference in subjectivity.

Finally, the political stakes in Neal White’s work were elaborated on, with particular reference to three sorts:

- the insistence of artistic approach,

- the allusion to Latham’s work against language, rationality and science

- the constant insistence on the political.

Consequently, some arguments were made claiming that the last two sorts are set up as binaries but not in the way that one might expect them to. Here, some questions were posed of: what are White’s definitions of the artists and scientist, what is the relationship between science and belief, fate and religion in his work, and whether he still is in a space of enlightenment even if working against science. Finally, the relationship between art and science and the experimental and the theological was investigated. Here, Neal White argued that following extended theory of Latham he believes that the artists need to step outside the studio and perform within the society. Further, White claimed that at the forefront lies the conceptualization of the process as the idea. Finally, he spoke of temporality and the fact that the context and structure that surrounds it varies and the two cannot be separated.