Heron Imperatives, Damselfly Affordances

Victoria Rance, midges at Walthamstow Wetlands

Some cormorants, a damselfly, a heron, an island and an artist walk into the Wetlands Wine Bar.

The cormorants immediately flock the dancefloor and start dancing wildly, while the rest head to the bar. The damselfly orders a Mojito, the heron a Cosmopolitan, the island and the artist order beers. The trout behind the bar strikes up conversation while pouring their drinks: “what’s brought you here tonight?”

The island rustles its trees: “My therapist tells me I should get out more”, it whispers. The heron, eyeing up the trout, cries “an appetite for something new!”, and the damselfly hums “I hear there’s an exhibition opening in the gallery.”

The artist replies intensely, “I wonder if any of you can help me. I’ve been struggling with Kant’s aesthetic theory. Should I make beautiful paintings that celebrate life and nature, or should I make ugly ones that critique humans’ destruction of the Earth?”

“I think the importance of Kant is his Categorical Imperative,” the island remarks,  “which very basically is the idea that there is a correct way to act, which we deeply, already (rationally) know. There is a link between moral and aesthetic judgement, the beautiful and the good, and it’s a disinterested, rational one – corresponding to the idea of aesthetic distance.”

“I thought the Imperative was more about altruism – a willingness to do things that bring advantages to others, even if it results in disadvantage for yourself”, shrieks the heron.

“Kant always seemed a bit universal humanist to me”, buzzes the damselfly. “All that stuff about altruism is for you sociable species. Evolutionary scientists suggest the reason altruism has such deep roots in humans is because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species. Recent neuroscience studies have shown that when people behave altruistically, their brains activate in regions that signal pleasure and reward… Like the dopamine hit you get from social media likes.”

“That’s right,” says the island, “there is always something – even if it’s not a material thing – that you humans get out of altruism: an investment in being a future beneficiary of altruistic behavior; tax relief; a dopamine hit, fulfillment of a deep genetic instinct related to long-term survival of the species. It’s not the same thing at all as an imperative.”

“Well, regardless of genuine selflessness or not, Social Network Theory research has shown that what you’re calling altruism can spread by three degrees—from person to person to person to person. And as a result, each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has not met”, comments the damselfly.

“Trees have networks too”, crackles the island. “They don’t even need to move – they communicate and have access to complex information systems via their roots, branches and leaves. But trees also experience the world in a completely different perception space-time.”

Edwin Aitken, Walthamstow Wetlands Study No. 8

“Well,” gurgles the trout, “us fast-moving fish see at 30 frames-per-second, which would appear like slow motion for humans. It means we can easily track our speedy prey.”

Jonathan Waller, watercolour sketch

“There’s an exhibition in the gallery upstairs”, squawks one of the cormorants, rudely interrupting. “Come and have a look.”

When they reach the art gallery, the group of wildfowl, human, small landmass and insect see the exhibition text:


Text by Stephanie Moran

“It’s all about me”, says the island, oblivious to the others.

They see that the exhibition text picks up on some of the earlier conversation:

These nine artists’ perceptions of the Walthamstow Wetlands’ series of reservoirs with nine islands depicts a sequence of overlapping, interconnected experience-worlds. But what do these connections mean? What is the significance of other species, and our relationships to them and our shared environments?

Ruth Calland, Archipelago Triptych, detail

What does it mean to be making artworks in response to landscapes at a time when human relationships to their ecosystems are recognized as colonially and terminally destructive? What does it mean to try to reconnect with ‘natural’ environments at a time of anthropogenic diminishing biodiversity and ecosystem breakdown? Does altruism, or multispecies cooperation, matter?

This text uses the rather thin and, frankly, risibly anthropocentric narrative of some of the multispecies inhabitants of the Wetlands here to hang its introduction on, and to introduce its main themes: the idea of imperatives that inform actions; human and other species’ perceptions, relationships to environments, and social networks; and short- and long-term survival; all in relation to the ways in which forms and narratives function, and their role in immanently conveying ideas and experiences.


In their book Connected, Fowler and Christakis argue: “the key to understanding people is to understanding the ties between them” and that our “social influence does not end with the people we know”. (Christakis & Fowler, 2010, p.xv) “Crucial traits and behaviours that lie at the root of – and that nourish – social connections have a genetic basis” and “we have deeply, and genetically, ingrained tendencies and predisposal to act either selfishly or for the greater good” (Christakis & Fowler, 2010, p.232).

They find, perhaps unsurprisingly, that “altruism… is a key predicate for the formation and operation of social networks”, that “some degree of altruism and reciprocity… [as well as] positive emotions such as love and happiness, are therefore crucial for the emergence and endurance of social networks. Moreover, once networks are established, altruistic acts… can spread through them.” (Christakis & Fowler, 2010, p.296)

The idea of altruism relates to Kant’s Imperative, but for Kant it seems to be more about duty than joy. Philosopher Alphonso Lingis critiques Kant’s location of the imperative in rationality, and develops his own conception of the imperative, extending it out beyond Kant’s human-centred viewpoint.

Perception is ordered by the ordinances things realise, and we as perceivers realise what we are through the styles of postural integration they induce in us and in the images they project back on us of the way we look, hear, and feel to them.” (Lingis, 1998, p.63)
“The perception of things… [is] an expropriation of our focus onto them, and ends in enjoyment.” (Lingis, 1998, p.67-68)

Lingis revisits and expands Kant’s Imperative as phenomenological directives – sensual, sensory, affective directives guiding our interactions with the world and other beings; a sense of the ‘right way’ to do or experience things. Tactile and sensual responses to and relationships with environments.

The artists’ subjective responses to their assigned islands vary. The islands were experienced as, variously: lying-down heads, brains, body parts; distant entities at the limit of a perceptual field to be approached via the more immediate surfaces in between; sacrosanct nonhuman spaces (for the birds, for the gods, for the spirits); and other worlds or dream spaces separated by sacred waters that must not be touched or entered. As artist Annabel Dover says, “working outside really made me think about how to process a multi sensory experience into a visual response”.

Lingis’ Imperative relates directly to the breadth of sensory perceptions. These imperatives are responses to sensory elements or phenomena that summon us; in writing and art-making, they are what feels right, the magical path of the artist or writer – a mix of intuitive, learned, and sensory responses to the materials.

Annabel Dover, work in progress, details

Lingis wants to de-anthropocise the imperative, which brings the question, what are our responses and ethical obligations to other organisms and the environment? Do other species have imperatives too? How can we know if they do or not?

For Thomas Nagel, in his famous paper on consciousness, understanding of nonhuman beings can only be approached via phenomenological reimagination based on the available (scientific) information (Nagel, 1974).

Victoria Rance, Isle of Gods

If understanding is enabled through imagery and narrative – as a way we make sense of the world, or contextualize our actions, how do nonhuman and environmental images and narratives help generate an expanded imperative, beyond the human world?

Shared sympathy and interest comes not just from imagining other species’ experience worlds: the situatedness of narratives produces sympathetic responses, while mythology enchants landscapes and their inhabitants, gifting them with hidden, historical folkloric or magical meaning.

Annabel Dover finds herself unusually affected by the dreamlikeness of the environment. She translates her perception-responses through transparent layers of watercolour, building up shimmering forms and fantasy elements. Victoria Rance unearths mythologies of the environment: she imagines the insect souls of mayflies, mosquitoes and midges, and their reincarnation, and explores the magical worlds of fishermen and herons. She researches, reimagines and dreams backstories and histories of the landscape’s inhabitants, channeling its myth-forms and connections to Celtic otherworlds. For Rance, the island is an isle of gods, not meant for humans; but for Edgar Racy, it is the water that is sacred. He reflects on the sacrosanct forbidden waters of the reservoirs, whose icy depths could easily mean death on entering but provide life in the form of drinking water for London’s East end.

Victoria Rance, Imagining the Isle of Gods
Edgar Racy, Reservoir

Most myths and artwork present animals from human perspectives or in a human context, even when the animals are the main protagonists. If animals possess imperatives, do they also possess a theory of mind? What would bats imagine it is like to be us? How might a heron, cormorant, or damselfly mind-model a human? Would they care to? Every organism has a different cognitive modeling, a different set of sensory apparatus and inputs, often with no human equivalent. If we only compare them to human senses, we are missing a huge chunk of their experience.

Captivation [the relationship the animal has to its world] is a more spellbinding and intense openness than any kind of human knowledge; on the other hand, insofar as it is not capable of disconcealing its own disinhibitor, it is closed in a total opacity.” (Agamben, 2004, p.59)

For Agamben’s concept of The Open, the special ‘openness’ of the human world is what allows us to imagine nonhuman points of view. In Georges Poulet’s Phenomenology of Reading, the openness of the book extends the same affordance or imperative to imagine beyond the self, to escape the boundaries of your own experience: it exists outside itself and the reader exists within it. Reading merges the reader’s and author’s consciousness, to the extent that the reader reads the author’s and characters’ thoughts as if they were their own, or as if taken over by an alien consciousness, not only understanding but also feeling what is read, while at the same time the reader is aware that they are thinking the thoughts of another. He suggests language is an auxiliary, secondary to the reader’s indistinct thought, repetition and mimicry – the repetition and imitation in the imagination of the reader of “sensations, emotions, images and obsessions of preconscious life” – like the imaginative affect often also produced by imagery, colour and abstract form in art (Poulet, 1969, p.54-57).

Ruth Calland, Archipelago, detail
Mimei Thompson, Wetlands (Brambles)


Like the kinds of relational ontologies we find in Lingis, James Gibson’s Affordances (Gibson, 2008) refer to the relationality of things afforded by environments; different animals inhabit different sensory worlds based on different sensory inputs, but we all relate to our environments. Affordances placed meaning into the relation between animal and environment, and took the idea of the meaningful world away from something constructed in the mind towards worlds relationally experienced and felt, which emerges out of perception – and behaviours based on what is afforded by environments. The idea of an interconnecting and overlapping structure is to echo the interconnectedness and overlapping of experience-worlds, the environments that connect us.

Your Paradise Island, sketch for installation

Ruth Calland meditates on selfish colonies of cormorants and swarming insects, the anxiety and guilt overlaying environmental immersion, and the ego in the landscape that we are part of, while it affords the existence of us and its other inhabitants. She overlays and integrates faces and body parts into the landscape in her paintings, imaginatively merging with it or emerging from it?

Your Paradise Island responds to ideas of liminality and inaccessibility, making a comforting and sequestering shelter out of their canvas. Mimei Thompson considers immediate and (humanly) overlooked peripheral spaces, in her attraction via her dog’s attention to the marginal edges of perception: the weeds and brambles often ignored in landscapes, but full of enticing scents and nonhuman territorial markings. She foregrounds these while attempting to capture another liminality, the ever-shifting light.

Enzo Marra, details

Jonathan Waller extends the vertical field of perception below the water level, dredging mysterious apparatus and fish worlds. He imaginatively explores the subconsciousnesses of fishermen, the underwater machinations they might just hook on their lines.

Edwin Aitken approaches the island from its closer peripheries, working with the occluding environmental structures and recurrent or mirrored forms, selecting and “extracting invariants from the stimulus flux”, as Ecological Psychologist J.J. Gibson might put it (Gibson, 2008). This repetition of shape is emphasized in Enzo Marra’s work, viewing from a distance, the trees becoming a series of abstracted verticals, or transforming into hands, while the island itself becomes a series of heads peeping out of the water.

Enzo Marra, sketch

“Oo’s she calling risibly anthropocentric?” howls the cormorant, snarkily. “I’m not some human’s cartoon character.”

“Time for another beer!” the artist yells, as they head back down to the Wetlands Wine Bar.

“Mmmm”, agrees the heron, sidling up into a better perching position above the bar.

The trout gulps, moving quickly to serve the damselfly at the other end, “so, what did you make of the show…?”

Jonathan Waller, sketch

This text was produced to accompany the exhibition Archipelago: Islands of the Wetlands at Walthamstow Wetlands, London, 1st – 30th June 2019, curated by Ruth Calland.


Agamben, G. (2004) The open : man and animal. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press ; London : Eurospan

Stanford University Press.

Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2010) Connected : the amazing power of social networks and how they shape our lives. London: HarperPress.

Gibson, J. J. (2008) The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, N.J. ; London: Hillsdale, N.J. ; London : Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lingis, A. (1998) The imperative. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

Nagel, T. (1974) ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’. The Philosophical Review, 83 (4),pp. 435-450.

Poulet, G. (1969) ‘Phenomenology of Reading’. New Literary History, 1 (1),pp. 53-68.


Berkeley University’s Greater Good Magazine: (‘science-based insights for a meaningful life’, ‘What is Altruism?’ 2019: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/altruism/definition




As I painted, intent on umber and verdigris, cinnabar and chrome, the colours, let out from their tight tubes, escaped under the studio door and up and down the public staircase to the black and white family rooms… Fawn carpets turned to blood and all the beige bedding there was couldn’t suppress a single sheet of crimson. [1]

Now, immaculately reinvented in digital unconscious – a mind without intuition – I become pure concept: a fire burning away the tangible sensory. Earth-bound pigments translate into intensities of light as fluctuating outputs of RGBs, chromacity-defined, hex-coded; detached from palpable origins. I circle continually. [2]

The dematerialized fluid subjectivity of Instagram performance-images and physically quantifiable deterritorialising flows of paintings play out, between multiple bodies of canvases and screens, a liquescent erotics of paint and digitality. Paint escapes the frame, spilling over her body, crusting on her jeans, work boots, skin, silver high heels, concrete floor; over her flexed, strong, vulnerable, contorted, nude, muscular, female, resilient, queer, fragile body that holds the cumulated experiences of four and a half decades. Digitally streaming, coursing, flooding, proliferating, evading binaries.

Clare Price was around for the first iteration of all the post-Gibsonian cybers [-culture, -feminism, -punk, -queer…][3]. As cyberfeminist theorist Sadie Plant described it:

By the mid 1990s, a digital underground is thriving, and the Net has become the leading zone on which old identifications collapse. Genders can be bent and blurred and the time-space coordinates tend to get lost… The Net is becoming cyberspace, the virtuality with which the not-quite-ones have always felt themselves to be in touch. [4]

Price is now part of a new online art subculture, made up largely of millenials, that doesn’t describe itself as cyber anything, or even particularly define itself, but in many ways connects to where the gender-fluidity and technomysticism of 90s cyberculture broke off abruptly in the mid 2000s (around 2004, with the advent of web 2.0). Price’s practice addresses the phenomenology of paintings – that is, painting as a structure that contains experience. She is particularly interested in the phenomenological traces of the making process, of the residues of a body’s physical presence, and the ‘affective resonance’ left over from the performance of making. Her Instagram images reveal fragments of rituals that usually remain hidden in the safe/sacred space of the studio. They are overcoded by accounts of other painters in their studios, the postfeminist combat zones of representation, and the material erotics of oilpaint: wetness, fluidity, fleshiness, viscosity. This is set against the phenomenological battle-ground over whose experience and cognition is recognized and validated. [5]

My paint was becoming thinner and more fluid and cried out to be soaked… I spilled on the drawing in paint from the coffee cans. [6]

In the socially mediated context of Instagram, however, liquescence dematerialises and enters a new dimension. This transubstantiation from embodied fluidity to digital viral fluidity was theorized in the 90s by Sadie Plant. She addresses embodiment via French Postfeminist philosopher Luce Irigaray’s critique of the ‘specular economy’ (the Levi-Straussian / Freudian economy dependent on the subservience and exchange of women between men). Irigaray suggests that thinking sexual difference is the problem of our age, specifically how to insert the female (Freud’s ‘blind spot’) into psychoanalytic and philosophical discourse. She foregrounds bodily experience and morphology as the key to this, and theorises female thought as shaped by women’s ‘incontournable [un-outlineable, or un-distortable] volume’ and relationship to fluidity. For Irigaray, woman is a volume “neither open nor closed. She is indefinite, in-finite, form is never complete in her.”[7] Plant takes this as an ideal for disembodiment, and enters the virtual multiplicity of cyberspace. Given the cybercultural histories and current online flows, what could it mean to replace binary, arborescent identity and kinship structures with liquescent contingencies? What effects might this have for rethinking ideas of difference or alterity? And how might the affective point-cloud of aesthetic tensions (fragility, vulnerability, desire, release…) inherent to Price’s work enhance or complicate this?


Nina Wakeford’s 1997 critique of the term cyberqueer centred on the lack of specificity of both cyber and queer, and the term’s consequent status as an overloaded, undersignifying hybrid.[8] But can a lack of fixity be a strength? What could constitute an alternative ground for identity, as disidentification? Fluidity does not (necessarily) mean vagueness; as cyberfeminist Faith Wilding said: “definition can be fluid and affirmative – a declaration of strategies, actions, and goals.”[9] For me, the problem with 90s cyberfeminism lies in its infatuation with (Irigarayan) mimicry and over-identification as strategies for critique, but for Helen Hester the failure of Plant’s 90s identity-fluid idealism is its conflation of distributed networks, neural nets and parallel processing with femininity.

Helen Hester’s proposal for a Cyberfeminism 2.0, in the form of Xenofeminism, is rather more pinned down than its predecessor, and doesn’t approve of such flagrant fluidity. Hester’s primary Xenofeminist hypothesis is gender abolitionist, but simultaneously ‘-feminist’ and ‘unmanned’, which appears contradictory.[10] If Hester’s critique of Sadie Plant is based on an assumed essentialism, and her feminism is post-gender, how is it useful to reinforce these binary oppositions? Even if, like postfeminist philosopher Julia Kristeva, she separates gender description from sex – feminine from female, masculine from male – the binary structure is still upheld and maintained. In fact, Sadie Plant’s position on this is far more complex. Plant takes femininity not as anchored to the female, but as the ground zero necessary for the erasure of fixed identity:

If fluidity has been configured as a matter of deprivation and disadvantage in the past, it is a positive advantage in a feminized future for which identity is nothing more than a liability. [11]

As Xenofeminist colleague Amy Ireland shows:

The positivity of zero grasped as a circuit that does not need the concept of identity (or indeed the identity of the concept) to anchor its productive power. [12]

All online platforms are constructed over a substrate of binary code, but the space between the ones and zeroes contain recursive, self-organising systems of infinite possibility: “the one and zero states of digital circuitry… exclude an unpredictable, dynamic middle, a narrow band of intense, nonlinear activity”,[13] while the Cantor set demonstrates that the gap between zero and one contains a more-than-infinite number of points. So what does that do to undermine faith in binary structures?

In Sandy Stone’s groundbreaking 1993 Posttranssexual Manifesto, transsexuality is not about introducing a third term of opposition between the binaries, to fit with hegemonic assumptions of the ‘wrong body’ problem. She positions transsexual bodies instead as “a genre– a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption of structured sexualities and spectra of desire has yet to be explored.”[14] Related to this, in a textual narrative sense, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s complex concept of the (In)appropriated Other refuses to fit into a specific type of identity. It constantly avoids classification, and articulates being and identity as permanently contingent and constantly renegotiated: “that which does not readily lend itself to (demonstrative) narrations or descriptions and continues to mutate with/beyond nomenclature.[15]

fragility, vulnerability, desire, release

Clare Price and Benjamin Whitley’s collaborative images – intimate photographs taken by Whitley – constitute a queer, intergenerational gaze that refuse easy gender binaries in the same way that Price sets up multiple positions between manifold painted and digital bodies. The network of tensions between fragility, vulnerability, desire, strength and release contained within those bodies is constantly renegotiated. As Price relates, “Benjamin Whitley… said it’s like pushing something very extreme out there to protect something that’s very vulnerable.” [16] Where alien is defined as “anything – and everything – to everything else”[17], these multiple positions and affective coordinates of Price’s work represent an ‘alien anthropology’ for thinking alternative, constantly shifting, modes of (dis)identification.


[1] Jeanette Winterson, Art & Lies, p46

[2] Alien Ontology / Marmalade Undertaking, script for Zahir, available at http://marmalade-undertaking.com/Projects_zahir.html. Accessed 18/11/2018

[3] William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy (1984-1988), which coined the term ‘cyberspace’ and defined an aesthetic for a generation’s tech developers and subculture

[4] Sadie Plant (2000). On theMatrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations. p268

[5] See Mira Schor (1996). Wet: on Painting, Feminism and Art Culture

[6] Helen Frankenthaler on making Mountains and Sea. Alison Rowley (2007). Helen Frankenthaler: Painting History, Writing Painting. P17

[7] Luce Irigaray (1985). Speculum of the Other Woman. P229

[8] Nina Wakeford (1997) ‘Cyberqueer’. The Cyberculture Reader, 2000, pp. 350-359. Bell and Kennedy eds.

[9] Faith Wilding (1998). ‘Where is Feminism in Cyberfeminism?’ Old Boys Network.

[10] Helen Hester (2017). After the Future: n-Hypotheses of Post-Cyber Feminism

[11] Sadie Plant, (2000). On theMatrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations, p270

[12] Amy Ireland (2017). ‘Black Circuit: Code for the Numbers to Come’. E-Flux journal #80

[13] Mark Pesce (2001) ‘True Magic’. P225, True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace

[14] Sandy Stone (1993). The ‘Empire’ Strikes Back: a Posttransexual Manifesto. p12

[15] Trinh T. Minh-ha (2009). Woman, Native, Other

[16] Stephanie Moran (2018). Unpublished interview with Clare Price

[17] Ian Bogost (2012). Alien Phenomenology, or What its Like to Be a Thing

Originally published in the exhibition catalogue accompanying Clare Price’s exhibition Fragility Spills at ASC Gallery London 9th November – 20th December 2018. Curated by Cairo Clarke, with photographs by Benjamin Whitley. The publication was supported by Marcelle Joseph’s Girlpower Fund.

Acts of Retrieval and Conception, or, Painting Intuition

From the Obscure Secure Exhibition

Organised by Claudia Böse, Hayley Field and Jacqueline Utley

at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, 6 September 2014 -18 January 2015

and Studio 1.1, London, 26 February – 1 March 2015


Detail_Field - Creekside - obscure secure copy

Creekside (detail) by Hayley Field


“We want to be judged on our painting”

How much are creative processes connected to gender? When biologically and neuro-biologically founded instinct and intuition inform working processes, does that make painting inherently gendered? Or is there a process of temporal retrieval of painting substance that comes from a pre-subjective, pre-gendered biological? There do not appear to be universals of process and material particular to women. As Linda Nochlin points out, women artists don’t share a style with each other so much as with their contemporaries. Nochlin positions the question “why have there been no great women artists?” as a socio-economic one of opportunity and power, responding with an enquiry into what the conditions for “great artists” are.[1] How important is the “feminist rewriting of the history of art in terms which firmly locate gender relations as a determining factor in cultural production and signification”? [2]

… Bright magenta and peachy teeth puncture upwards swallowing blackened quinacridone violet bruised depths, beneath fresh peppermint, traces of pink drizzling the green verticals, all thickly softly merging except for the incision of sharp saw-edges…

A triangular procedure of co-curation unfolds generating connections with historical works. Linking this triad of artist-curators are practices that draw on ‘intuition’ and ‘instinct’ – embodied in the work, representationally configured or not, but with form and colour essentially significant for invocation of feeling and affect – which, on cross-examination, relate to remembering. To interrogate further: what is really meant by ‘intuition’ and ‘instinct’, and how do they attach to memory? How are these remembrances retrieved or accessed? What is their relationship to cognitive processes, language and histories and to painting processes? What may they recall?

“The term intuition will be taken as signifying a cognition not determined by a previous cognition of the same object, and therefore so determined by something out of the consciousness… Intuition here will be nearly the same as “premiss not itself a conclusion”; the only difference being that premisses and conclusions are judgments, whereas an intuition may, as far as its definition states, be any kind of cognition whatever.”[3]

If thought is an act, and painting a process modelling thought, what structures these thought-acts? Intuition is a component of thinking, a grasping of patterns in order to operate in a hostile, inherently foreign and deeply unknowable world environment[4] For Reza Negarestani intuition constitutes a basic level of abstraction. Where intuition demonstrates a fundamental human neuro-biological response, instinct may form its embodied counterpart qua set of sense memory reflexes.[5]

Detail_New World copy

New World (detail) by Helen Kiddall

Hayley Field’s ‘Creekside’ is delivered from a memory of the shape and sense-feeling of a hole in a fence. The memory-image, detached and isolated from its initial context, is made autonomous on the plane of a board:

“how they’re described, the colours , the marks, the way they work with the surface is something that gets worked out as I go along. The unpicking is in understanding what quality I find interesting and how to make that visual.”[6]

Field’s intuition is bound up with the choice of a memory-form and the manner in which it is detached; the intuition-abstraction is in the desire for autonomy or cutting (off) and the way that she isolates the memory-form. This “pure mutilation: amputating form from the sensible matter” enacts Negarestani’s conceptualization of rudimentary abstraction as a procedure of pure cruelty. The “abstracting cut” fragments and withdraws, allows a close reading of what the paint does when separated from the image.

…Detail. A part cut out. [New World] Golden ochres cut with red-brown slashes, off-centre yellow-white highlight, unexpected bright turquoise on the left edge. Oscillation between red and turquoise pushing forward and back. Retreating top left a deep smooth red-brown darkening. a flurry of black cloudiness descends to whipped-up rosy-gold and sky-pale grey-blue merging with the gold of the jacket; a central turquoise smear flashes from white shirt-slash, before deepening rich ochres and red-browns heart-left. Gestural violence is reiterated in all-over extraneous red splatters, outlines and highlights.

Zoom out. A red-brown boy dressed in jacket and tie looks down, contemplative. The calm pose sits uneasy with crude brush marks, figure and jacket forms are fast, strong lines; the face a smoother space of tightened descriptive focus. Pictorial tensions of romanticized savagery or concern with a politics of visibility and representation, of what is remembered in histories?…

For Negarestani, intuition must undergo a rigorous process (such as Moulene’s protocols) to harness the transformative potential of abstraction as a:

liberating yet fully procedural exercise through which thought bootstraps itself from the realm of primitive intuitions and fixed spaces toward increasingly complex forms and transitives for the mobilization of itselfthe task of art is rediscovered not in its ostensible autonomy but in its singular power to rearrange and destabilize the configurational relations between parameters of thought, parameters of imagination and material constraints that structure and parametise the cognitive edifice.”[7]

Moulene’s work may “change the shape of thought” through a mathematically rigorous approach that breaks intuitive patterns of thought, but the Obscure Secure paintings come out another tradition of abstraction, the Modernist breaking down of Enlightenment’s mathematically based compositional form and central perspective.[8] They belong to a desire for an affective abstraction: – so how do intuition and process function affectively in these paintings? How do they use or go beyond intuition?

Hayley Field deploys a set of rules to structure her intuition-instinct: she never works directly from observation but refines strong memories of particular forms to create a flat image of a distilled figure usually central on a ground. Field spoke of “holding the not-knowing” in tension with a willed remembering in her working process. The form that emerges is a strange shape, often familiar in its abstraction from a real or observed form.

18_Prunella Clough_Sweetpack_oil_137x149cm_R2000-19-2

Sweetpack by Prunella Clough

all the cognitive faculties we know of are relative, and consequently their products are relations. But the cognition of a relation is determined by previous cognitions. No cognition not determined by a previous cognition, then, can be known. It does not exist, then, first, because it is absolutely incognizable, and second, because a cognition only exists so far as it is known.”[9]

Prunella Clough uses language as an abstracting machine, a transcription and filtering device; [10] her process moves from observation through description, translation, memory, association and combining-connecting, to fusion and withholding:

“Since I do not draw directly in landscape, it is the memory or recollection of a scene, which is also a whole event, that concerns me. A painting is made from many such events, rather than one; and in fact its sources are many layered and can be quite distant in time, and are rarely if ever direct… There is a vast discrepancy between the rawness of the original experience… and the relatively tidied up and composed painting that comes from it.”[11]

How does language connect to the spaces of painting? There is a leap, perhaps an act of bootlegging, from text to image. Given the absolute untranslatability from image to text, how is it possible to write about painting? The text should be read through and with the images.

Azure spreads damply, vastly, a flooding blue space containing swallowing pale shapes – collapsing structures on the horizon, while yellow upright forms advance on green. Grains of pigment and lightly defined forms float in undulating blue space…

… Floating luminosity, hazy intervals of shell pink and sand yellow drift over while sinking blue shadows mirror swirling ultramarine expanse above; part objects float in the evoked space.

Dispersion, figure becoming ground.

A possible hypothesis… would be that the perception of blue entails not identifying the object; that blue is, precisely, on this side of or beyond the object’s fixed form; that it is the zone where phenomenal identity vanishes.” [12]

Detail_Peggy Somerville_Tall tree and castle_watercolour 1922_23x29cm_R1997-19-2 copy

Tall Tree and Castle (detail) by Peggy Somerville

Detail_Connie Winn_Thorpeness_watercolour_25x31cm_R1985-66-6 copy

Thorpeness (detail) by Connie Winn

Julia Kristeva proposes that colour perception precedes object perception, expressing maternal jouissance as “luminous background” evoking an inner experience rather than a referential object.12 Intuition and instinct give birth to collective recognition unknowingly perceived through shared experience, pattern identification and biological memories, and its reconstruction by a viewer. As Peter Fuller suggests:

“while the specific ‘structure of feeling’, i.e. the assertion of the autonomous domain of the aesthetic, may be ideological, the feelings that are so structured are not. They are aroused because the artist has succeeded in giving effective, pictorial expression, through the material process of his [sic] medium, to an experience which is in some way recognized – though not necessarily consciously identified – by his receptive viewers.” [13]

Nana (detail) by Claudia Bose

There may be a retrieval, dredged out of the deep time of body and mind through the act of painting, from the artist’s pre-subjective biological memories and desires, as Julia Kristeva suggests occurs in Bellini’s paintings, through the (re)construction of pre-linguistic and pre-symbolic chromatic spaces:

“[Bellini] bears witness to what the unconscious (through the screen of the mother) records of those clashes that occur between the biological and social programs of the species. This means that through and across secondary repression (founding of signs), aesthetic practice touches upon primal repression (founding biological series and the laws of the species).[14]

Aesthetic mystical, cosmic and ecstatic experience – like intuition and certain religious experience – may be materially and biologically based:

correlated with feelings of dependency and being overwhelmed…Freud explained this feeling as a regression to the early infantile state when the child’s ego is not differentiated from the surrounding external world.[15]

As such, the experience is pre-subjective, pre-symbolic, and per se, following Lacan, pre-gendered.

… Thin olive shadows spread underneath dense translucent yellow spiraling squares around the inner viscous, scratchy lilac over baby pale pink enveloping heavy sunflower cadmium central core…

Claudia Boese’s abstract forms and spaces consciously attempt to confine, through her process, the shape, textures and colours of memories, and feelings about “the historical”. She engages various kinds of memory – autobiographical, perceptual, biological and historical – accessed though various senses. Boese summons televised images of war and refugees from her childhood memories and the layered feelings associated with those recollections over the years, mingled with empathically imagined feelings from reading about history. The envisioned heaviness, crustiness and shininess of bodies and the layers of remembering embed themselves phenomenologically and affectively in the layers of paint built up over an extended time, and in the use of colour as emotional tone; they function pictorially as Bergsonian images – in that, for Bergson, memories form into images rather than language; they gather together perceptions of time and identity. [16] The intuitive, instinctive use of space and colour which are affectively psychological, attempt to uncover what may be hidden or obscure in the palimpsests of splodgy, textured abstracted forms.

Hazy white striations beam out over cloudy RAF-blue-grey and navy grounds, deep charcoal architectural shapes rise vertically into twilight gloom.

Boese’s organic abstract memory images of war contrast with Blanche Vulliamy’s sharp pastels graphically depicting World War searchlights in darkened streets. The beams of light in the series of drawings resemble a set of variations on repeated white stripes over dark blue grounds at first glance. She records searchlights flaring through urban streets, delineating a real, observed pattern of wartime night light. Although not an official war artist, she captures something of the lived experience of war. Her aesthetic is closer to Alfred Barr’s articulation of the mode of abstraction that precedes the emotional and intuitional one discussed earlier, as “intellectual, structural, architectonic, geometrical, rectilinear and classical” but without being rigorously dependent on “logic and calculation”.[17]

… Delicately crusted, creamy light band above, grey shadows beneath seep through in verticals, dropping along nicotine yellow stain emerging from under scratched dusky rose horizontal centre swathe; soft highlighting over stratified sanded, dirty and indistinct pink-greys onto rusted bloody-streaked stripe below. Thick strokes of white over pastel shades float on a shocking pool of deep orange-red. All varying roughnesses and shiny smooth highlights on a coarse ground. Fleshy interior, familiar forms – tables, chairs, lamps, figures, mirrors, floor, walls; green tablecloth, green skirt. Seated woman, two standing women working at the table in non- specific past or future time…

“Art history…is a masculinist discourse, party to the social construction of sexual difference…composed of procedures and techniques by which a specific representation of art is manufactured. That representation is secured around the primary figure of the artist as individual creator. No doubt theories of the social production of art combined with the structuralist assassination of the author would also lead to a denunciation of the archaic individualism at the heart of art historical discourse. But it is only feminists who have nothing to lose with the desecration of Genius. The individualism of which the artist is a prime symbol is gender exclusive.” [18]

Hannah, Jean, Ella (detail) by Jacqueline Utley

Jacqueline Utley’s paintings combine imagined and real histories through her process, working between idealistically envisioned non-hierarchical groups in flattened spaces and collage. Utley catalogues worlds of interiors and stately homes magazines, found objects and figures, interpreted via drawings or watercolours then transcribed into oil, giving each part of the picture equal weight and material homogeneity in built-up layers of colour and texture to achieve a state between image and paint where neither dominate. She imagines histories and futures of working women, representing absorption in various tasks in domestic settings, but unlike Vermeer’s[19] women their immersion is social as they labour in groups. Utley reverses Vermeer’s roles – the ‘Lacemaker’ is the artist herself, toiling alone in the studio as she paints the canvas surface over and over, dreams of utopian collectivity notwithstanding.

… Lowlighted honeyed brown squares and curling ornamental edges emerge from blonded walls; central figure urgently foregrounded in pale rose, white light, warm peach, depths of caput mortum: tumultuous, anxious strokes above impatient lilac-grey horizontals; a bright lilac streak falling middle-left decentres the gaze. Kneeling woman in a room of wooden furniture, looking down. Colours of pale bodies

The introspection of Anna Airy’s central female figure, the vigorous gestural marks and flowing pinkness in the romanticized pastel ‘Trinkets’ (1951), contrasts with the realist paintings of workers in factories she made while employed as a war artist. One can imagine the experiences of women during the war going from house-wifely domestic solitude to socially outward-looking participation in the war effort, Anna Airy observing and painting furiously in the heat of molten shells burning the shoes off her feet in the gaze of the workers’ relentless rhythm, all engaged in “socially useful collective activity”, reflected in the smooth marks and harmony of the painting ‘A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London’, 1918.

Trinkets (detail) by Anna Airy

in the end, all our histories will be just that: stories we tell ourselves, narratives of retrospective self-affirmation, fictions of and for resistance that are, nonetheless, answerable to a sense of the real processes of lived and suffered histories… Situated knowledge, recognizing our socially overdetermined positions, does not create a free-for-all of limitless relativism[20]

Obscure Secure exhibits various histories reenacted and invented through the processes of painting. The biographies of a few of the women of the Ipswich collection are obscure and hard to trace, but most of them studied, had careers and/or exhibited solidly as artists. According to online sources, for example, Anna Airy[21] studied at the Slade, was recognized, and employed as a war artist with works in the Imperial War Museum collection[22]; Blanche Vulliamy was a successful potter with ceramic pieces on permanent display in the Ipswich collection; Beatrice Lithiby studied at the Royal Academy Schools, was also a ranking army officer serving in both world wars and awarded an M.B.E. and O.B.E.[23]; and Kathleen Walne practiced as a painter all her adult life, exhibiting regularly.[24]

Deeper pink tones, watery and fire-warmed pale magentas pull away from cool loose blues, flesh-greens and yellows, rounded shapes of colour contained more or less by series’ of curling black lines, knotted, coiled-up towards the middle in glowing domestic vortex.

Obscure Secure operates as an art historical documentation of women’s practices from a specific location and within a particular time frame. In answer to the question of how important is the “feminist rewriting of the history of art in terms which firmly locate gender relations as a determining factor in cultural production and signification”? I would suggest that while being valuable for art historians, for practicing artists it is more essential to engage the structures of power. There is no evidence in this exhibition for the sort of exclusively masculine individualist attitude proposed by Griselda Pollock, as these artists have mostly worked towards solo art careers regardless of varying levels of success, which may or may not be a result of socio-economic circumstances. Obscure Secure approaches power structures via a tactic of DIY exhibition organisation that could be considered as what Maria Lind terms ‘social abstraction’.[25] It can be read in terms of the move towards a kind of artistic independence or “autonomy”, in the vein of current art discourses about ‘exit’ and ‘escape’. Like Negarestani’s “cut” of abstraction, does engaging power structures not require some form of cruelty, or at least an application of inherently violent force? [26] As Nochlin states:

Those who have privileges inevitably hold on to them… until compelled to bow to superior power of one sort or another.[27]

Self Portrait (detail) by Effie Spring-Smith

But what is the territory of painting triangulated by this project, or what do the paintings actually do? The paintings have an inclination to abstract what is known or observed through breaking down and reconstructing familiar forms; they disintegrate these forms gently and give them new structures or patterns based on an ‘intuition’ or ‘instinct’ that tend to function as forms of remembering rather than cognitions “not determined by a previous cognition of the same object”. The works recall, commemorate, represent and wishfully anticipate different social orders; they explore minor histories to reveal experiences often hidden or unrepresented. There may be some (inconclusive) use of “biologically and neuro-biologically founded instinct and intuition” in the choice of colour and the way that images and memories are transcribed into paint (gesturally, signatorially). However there is no tangible evidence here to support Kristeva’s or Fuller’s hypotheses for psychological, biological memory retrievals, although their discussion of painting processes suggest that painting forms are pre-symbolic, escaping language, and therefore there is nothing to connect creative processes to gender except for choice of subject matter or any specifically and consciously gendered content. Gender is introduced in power and social structures, in the way that painting is received, framed, and viewed (or not); and in the use of language, through the cognitive construction of the pre-symbolic. This is also supported by Negarestani’s theorizing of intuition as human neuro-biological response, in which there is no reason to presume an essentially gendered neuro-biological. The use of intuition maintains the “emotional and intuitional” tradition of abstraction outlined by Barr, continued through 80’s psychological readings by writers such as Kristeva and Fuller, and still persisting in an ‘affective turn’.[28] Intuition as a premise may be overly vague, anti-intellectual mystification, obscuration or reaction; it may over-privilege the body, in ‘embodiment’ and reliance on instinct in itself without the necessary ‘intertwining of intuition and reason’ to complete the ‘act of thought’. [29] The kind of potential Negarestani describes for ‘bootlegging’ and ‘changing the shape of thought’ through mathematical abstraction may have an equivalent in abstract affectivity and its ‘structures of feeling’, but these need to be thought rigorously and specifically in art to be meaningful or useful.[30]

Sensible solid female mass on a chair in front of a hearth, leaning in towards the flame warmth…

Girl Sitting by Fire (detail) by Kathleen Walne


[1] Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ (1971), in ‘Women, Art and Power and Other Essays’, 1988, p145

[2] Griselda Pollock, ‘Vision and Difference’, p17

[3] Charles S. Peirce, ‘Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man’, Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1868) 2, 103-114.

[4] Reza Negarestani and James Trafford speaking at ‘Radical Geometries’, Tate Britain, 10 December 2014

[5] Reza Negarestani, ‘Torture Concrete’, 2014

[6] Field in conversation with Utley

[7] Negarestani, op cit, p.4

[8] Although most of these paintings are not purely abstract, they owe their sensibility to the second tradition described by Alfred Barr as ‘emotional and intuitional’ as opposed to the first abstraction after cubism that was geometric and rational. In Alfred H. Barr Jr, catalogue introduction ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1936, p19.

[9] Charles S. Peirce, op cit.

[10] “The problem is finding a form for the urban chaos, because visually any scene in a fully urbanized context is overloaded. It is a problem of reduction, and simultaneously of finding a form for the subject. If you actually look with precision at what you are seeing anywhere, a very drastic selection has to take place ultimately to fit certain preconceived forms. These forms may be left over from other paintings but still demand to be used. They may shape themselves over a long period. It is impossible to pinpoint their origins. But a concrete example recently was in seeing a photograph of a 1953 painting of a figure in front of a building site where the fence was surprisingly similar to the one in the painting Wire and Rods 19..?, thirty years later.” Clough interview, in ‘Prunella Clough’, ed. B. Tufnell. p44

[11] ibid, p43 – 44

[12] Julia Kristeva, ‘Giotto’s Joy’, in ‘Desire in Language: a Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art’, 1980, p225

[13] Peter Fuller, ‘Art and Psychoanalysis’, 1980, p186

[14] Julia Kristeva, ‘Motherhood According to Bellini’ in ibid. p242 – 243

[15] Fuller, op cit, p166 – 7

[16] Deleuze and Guattari, in ‘Cinema 1: The Movement Image’, 1983

[17] Barr, op cit, p19

[18] Griselda Pollock, ‘Vision and Difference’, p15 – 16


The Lacemaker’, Johannes Vermeer, circa 1669–1670; in The Louvre, Paris

[20] Griselda Pollock, op cit, introduction pxviii

[21] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Airy

[22] http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/anna-airy

[23] http://www.suffolkpainters.co.uk/index.cgi?choice=painter&pid=1135

[24] http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/aug/17/kathleen-walne-obituary

[25] Maria Lind, ‘Abstraction’, 2013, in introduction p20

[26] Negarestani’s articulation of abstraction as an act of cruelty and torture can be compared with Francis Barker’s discussion of Rembrandt’s painting ‘Anatomy Lesson’, linking abstraction, cruelty and the operations of power as the body of an executed criminal is subjected to the further punishment of a public dissection that is simultaneously held at the humanistic distance of scientific research, as imaged in the anatomical drawings the dissectors are looking at to avoid seeing the real body: “The painting elaborates a Pepysian figuration of its own as those sightlines glance off the surface of the body and search out meaning in texts where already the body has been transmuted by representation into an abstraction.” Francis Barker, ‘Into the Vault’ in ‘The Tremulous Private Body’, 1984, p81

[27] Nochlin, op cit, p152

[28] La Caze and Lloyd locate this turn in cultural theory, coalescing in the 90s, coming out of “phenomonological and post-phenomonological theories of embodiment; cybernetics and theories of the human/machine/inorganic; non-Cartesian traditions in philosophy; aspects of psychological and psychoanalytic theory; traditions critical of normalising power including feminism, queer, and subaltern and disability studies; a collection of attempts to react to the linguistic turn; critical theories and histories of the emotions; and aspects of science and neurology.” Marguerite La Caze and Henry Martyn Lloyd, ‘Editors’ Introduction: Philosophy and the Affective Turn’, Parrhesia 13, 2011, p2

[29] James Trafford, op cit.

[30] In the way that affect has been philosophically theorized and politicized in Deleuze: “Affects, according to Deleuze in his deployment of Spinoza’s work, are independent of their subject. With Guattari he developed an anti-oedipal philosophy of desire and theorised art as a bloc of sensations, a compound of perceptions and of affects.” La Caze and Lloyd, ibid, p1