UNBUILDING in words

Mermaid Arts Centre, 21st Aug – 17th Oct – 2010

The idea of distance – ‘Levinas Style’ (Francis Halsall in Conversation with Cliona Harmey)

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Unbuilding Conversation 4: Francis Halsall converses with Cliona Harmey about her exhibition titled ‘The idea of distance’, at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Thurs 16 Sept, 7pm, 2010.

‘What interests Levinas in the moment of Descartes’s argument is the human subject has an idea of infinity, and that this idea, by definition, is a thought that contains more than can be thought. As Levinas puts it, in what is almost a mantra in his published work, ‘In thinking infinity the I from the first thinks more than it thinks‘.[1]

Simon Critchley

Emmanuel Levinas’s seminal work from 1961 Totality and Infinity: An Excess of Exteriority came to mind after what had been said at the 4th Artist Conversation in the series of Unbuilding Conversations at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray. The clarity that the English Philosopher Simon Critchley brings to what he terms as the ‘opacity’ of Levinas’s language is helpful in traversing the gap between Levinas’s philosophy on what has been said, what happens when you are saying it (present-ness); and the ethical relationship with the person (the other) who you are conversing with; something that Levinas calls an ‘Excess of Exteriority’.

Francis Halsall (Academic lecturer from NCAD) and Cliona Harmey (Artist), had a back and forth conversation that tried to grasp ideas that were Levinasian and Bergosian in nature. Harmey’s exhibition titled The idea of distance immediately situates language – “The idea”, with a practical measurement –”distance”. In the exhibition statement, Cliodhna Shaffrey writes:

Harmey’s exhibition might read as a reflection on distance, and though vast spaces have been overcome through extraordinary engineering feats and communication technologies diminishing the proximity between points and elements – her work returns us to the ideas of open space and the possibilities of infinities.[2]

Confronting one of Harmey’s works in the space is unlike confronting a static art object (in time and space), to consider or experience. What the viewer gets is a disruption in time and space. The mind wanders to the destinations that are being fed live into the gallery from afar, discretely hidden in modified, black silhouette readymades. Shaffrey goes on to describe:

Sculptures perform as apparatuses incorporating small electronic devises and live data feeds of the schedule of the ships that arrive and depart from Dublin Bay Port during the course of the exhibition. Their names appearing on the dual black and white monitor – Ulysses, Bro Trader, Swift, Alexender – track an efficient system of sea traffic, that seems by comparison slow, almost static when viewed as real time within the exhibition experience, suggesting the notion of duration (the ever-going-onness).[3]

Cliona Harmey, ‘Hawaii 5010’, modified easel, LED, Arduino microcontroller, loupes, Part of Unbuilding at Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September, 2010. Image here

In a sense, Harmey forces us not to stay-put, but to be pulled in and out of space and time in a metaphysical sense. In the aesthetic there is also a leap in time, the leggy-black silhouettes that frame the hidden technology point in the direction of the past; a victorian sensibility when Empire meant travel and consumption of “oriental” shores. And as with all reflections on the past, nostalgia and technological obsolescence are beneath the surface of Harmey’s practice.

Halsall acted as the perfect conversation instigator and host to Harmey’s responses, and acknowledged his own part (as an academic with his own modern and art historical project) in the fabrication of history, that will always be part fiction and fact. The artist and academic found common ground during the growth of the conversation. Critchley via Levinas says:

‘This relation to the other is irreducible to comprehension, what he calls the ‘original relation’, takes place in the concrete situation of speech. Although Levinas’s choice of terminology suggests otherwise, the face-to-face relation with the other is not a relation of perception or vision, but always linguistic’.[4]

Unbuilding Conversation 4: Francis Halsall converses with Cliona Harmey about her exhibition titled ‘The idea of distance’, at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Thurs 16 Sept, 7pm, 2010.

There is a dichotomy here between Harmey’s art objects that compress distance and the infinite space that has to be compressed for explicit ideas to become implicit through conversation. The idea of being ‘too literal’ was the main topic of the conversation. This is where Levinasian Ethics  is important to the practice of conversation, which he defines as: ‘the putting into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the other’.[5] Critchley  diagnoses this as a compression of what is first thought, in order for the “first idea” to be understood by the other. In relation to the conversation around Harmey’s work, the idea of being “Too Literal” was fended off as being the job of the art historian, while for the artist, especially inherent to Harmey’s practice (although the artist is dealing with real time and events), there is a step away from language–the literal, to force a gap for the experiential. Instead of closing the infinite space that Levinas aspired to do, Harmey is trying to expand the gap so that the literal ‘illustration’ of real time lapses back into the unspeakable. The irony in this case is, there is a time-delay between what is being presented through the art object and what is said afterwards through conversation on said object.

As a reflective and humourous aside, Halsall described how technology has transformed his relation to the other by way of ‘Skyping’ his mother. He also mentioned how ‘Skyping’ was another compression of space and time. Maybe our fast technological progress is a levinasian project to bridge the gap with the other so that we consciously overlap. Harmey’s project does the opposite. If the artist’s work could be verbally ‘Skyped’, I assume the artist would like it to sound like the slowed-down, broken-up, sounding out of vowels and consonants. Levinas’s “style” it certainly is not, or is it?

James Merrigan is an artist

Comments: Francis Halsall: Thanks for posting this. I’ve also posted the link here http://acw.ie/comments.php?id=356_0_1_0_C where another conversation is taking place about systems and which might be of interest.


Unbuilding Conversation 4: Francis Halsall converses with Cliona Harmey about her exhibition titled ‘The idea of distance’, at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Thurs 16 Sept, 7pm, 2010.


Notes

[1]   Simon Critchley, The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, Eds. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[2]  Cliodhna Shaffrey, Exhibition Statement; http://www.unbuildingproject.com/index.php?/ongoing/cliona-harmey/

[3]   Ibid.

[4]   Critchley, op.cit.,

[5]   Emmanuel Levinas, 1961. Totalité et Infini: essai sur l’extériorité. (Totality and Infinity: A Excess of Exteriority), Duquesne University Press, August 1969

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Written by James Merrigan

October 5, 2010 at 11:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for posting this. I’ve also posted the link here http://acw.ie/comments.php?id=356_0_1_0_C

    where another conversation is taking place about systems and which might be of interest.

    Francis Halsall

    October 5, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    • Some really interesting discussion at ACW blog. Never knew this existed: Ireland’s underground philosophy. Thanks! James M.

      James Merrigan

      October 5, 2010 at 4:21 pm


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