patternsthatconnect

abstract art, a systems view

Posts Tagged ‘systems thinking

Chris Baker and Natalie Dower in “Double Vision”

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The Double Vision show at Lion and Lamb Gallery, Hoxton has a lot to keep going back for, and I have at least one other trip planned before it closes on 14 July 2012.

Two paintings I want to see again are Natalie Dower‘s Fast Track Through 44 Points and Metan by Chris Baker. Both paintings seem to position themselves in a continuing relation to Modernism, as opposed to a break with it, and I guess this may be true of all of the paintings on show here. Maybe this is to state the obvious, it’s abstract art after all. But Modernism breaks down into a number of traditions even when we are within the general term ‘abstraction’.

Chris Baker seems to draw from many of those traditions, and I am not always entirely sure that they are ‘abstract’ as figurative elements sometimes find their way in, though not so with Metan.  Is the title Old English? Others of his titles are similar. Could it be that the paintings reference an outmoded language, one that has lost its original meaning and can be plundered now for new ones?

It “draws from” quite literally, the lines seem excavated from a less than unified ground, or alternatively it is created by filling in the negative spaces allowing the linear structure to emerge. It is double in that it presents a strong figure/ground contrast, the light lattice like structure being figure against the dark ‘background’ that is actually ‘foreground’.  It is also double in terms of the divided space, the structure bisecting the canvas down and across the middle (more or less) as well as in numerous other ways. The structure looks arrived at through trial and error, like a form trying to get out of the otherwise monochrome surface, and in getting out it bends the space, so that the bottom half recedes, giving the appearance of horizontality, whereas the top half extends upwards giving a vertical appearance. The bottom half of the structure could be the shadow of the top half if the lines corresponded, which they don’t so that interpretation is discarded, but then it reasserts itself, only to be discarded, it’s a cycle, a system, in a way.

Chris Baker, Metan, oil on canvas, 75 x 60cm, image by courtesy of Lion & Lamb Gallery

I situate Natalie Dower’s paintings within the tradition of Constructivism and more specifically Systems art. One of the many things I appreciate about that approach is the unpredictable and un-work-out-able results that can be generated by logical means, or a pre-determined path. The great systems thinker Gregory Bateson’s question: “What pattern connects the crab to the oyster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me, and me to you?” seems to resonate with Dower’s aesthetic investigations, based as they are on the abstract pattern that connects all things. Mel Gooding recently said of her: “Like her ‘Systems’ comrades, Dower has worked in the knowledge that all nature – from the spiralling mechanics of the galaxies to the growth of a snail’s shell and the branching of a plum-tree – is governed by mathematical rules”. So when I look at the wonderful Fast track Through 44 points, I know that it is ordered by mathematical rules, I just don’t quite know what they are.

Natalie Dower, “Fast Track Through 44 Points”, 2008, oil on panel, 29 x 29cm, image by courtesy of Lion & Lamb Gallery

I approach it a bit like I might a puzzle, attempting to work out what is going on, except that I don’t care much for puzzles whereas I do care a lot for this painting and paintings of this kind. Possibly the title helps to solve it, though it could be a diversion. I am sure that the organisation of the line and points through which it passes as it journeys about the surface is not random, but I am unable to determine the rules for it. As I study the construction I feel sure that the ordering principle is staring me in the face but I just can’t see it. I realise that this may be saying a lot more about me and my slowness to catch on, than about the painting! Again the ‘figures’ (the bars and lines) look like they are the consequence of filling in the spaces with black, so that it is difficult to decide which are the positive and which the negative  shape, though I think we would agree that we read the black as space and the lighter tones as structure, until we don’t. The support is shaped, therefore some of the bars are ‘real’ rather than drawn. I like the difference between the constructed edges and the drawn edges, and that the image extends beyond the confines of the square, confounding its identity as image and asserting its constructed-ness.

These are wonderful things to view, and I am looking forward to making another visit soon.

The other artists in this exhibition are: Dominic Beattie / Isha Bøhling / Ian Bottle / Katrina Blannin/ Alice Browne / Simon Callery / Keith Coventry / Tom Hackney / Jumpei Kinoshita / Hannah Knox / John McLean/ Sarah McNulty / Neil Mendock / Mali Morris/ Jost Münster / Selma Parlour / Geoffrey Rigden / Dan Roach / Danny Rolph / David Ryan / Estelle Thompson / Julian Wakelin.

Working on the system

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In my day-job, it is my last day of full time employment at a company where I have worked for over 30 years (in its various incarnations). The end of an era, or was it an eon?

As well as having the pleasure of working with some wonderful people, it was also a great place for learning from the work. I learned how to work on the system, rather than just working in it.

It is a sad fact that employees all over the globe spend their time and ingenuity getting around the system, or “playing the system”, mostly because employers don’t give them the opportunity to get involved in improving it.

According to W.Edwards Deming “it is the job of management to work on the system, to improve it, with the help of those who work in it”.

Models…

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“One of the most intriguing things about models is that once a valid correspondence has been set up between the subject and its image, the model may reveal aspects of the subject not obvious to direct consideration…A diagram may be used as an empirical tool for discovering new properties in some conceptual structure”.

Far from mechanically repeating a pre-existent concept or structure, constructivism can be in a real sense a technique of discovery – a source of new knowledge through aesthetic response to the material object.

Stephen Bann, Catalogue for Constructive Context exhibition, 1978 (quoting from Systems exhibition catalogue 1972).

Written by Andy Parkinson

March 8, 2012 at 8:45 am

Why so-called performance related pay doesn’t work

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The behaviour of each of these shapes/colours is determined by the system in which they operate.

step 3 (conclusion)

Don’t you think that the pinks are especially high performing? Don’t they deserve special recognition? Yes, let’s give them a good bonus this year and a higher salary increase than the others. They deserve it.

Performance related pay doesn’t work because organizational behaviour is a result of the system (the responsibility of management). Paying people differently for what is a result of the system is always unfair. It also leads to concentrating on individual performance rather than on improving the system.

W. Edwards Deming has shown that in any organization 94% of opportunities for improvement come from the system and only 6% from individuals within it.

Metamodernism, Oscillation and the Beer Game

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In Luke Turner‘s Metamodernist Manifesto he says “oscillation is the natural order of things” and he, along with Robin van den Akker, Nadine Feßler and Timotheus Vermeulen, sees this oscillation ( “between a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all, between a modern sincerity and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy and empathy and apathy and unity and plurality and purity and corruption and naïveté and knowingness; between control and commons and craftsmanship and conceptualism and pragmatism and utopianism”) as an indication of the emergence of a new cultural dominant – metamodernism.

I feel sure that I am mixing metaphors as I attempt to question the naturalness of oscillation by referring to a business simulation known as the Beer Game, invented, I believe, at M.I.T by Jay Forrester and referenced by Peter Senge in the opening chapter of his book The Fifth Discipline.

Four ‘players’ take up the positions of Factory, Distributor, Wholesaler and Retailer, making up a production and distribution system, the product being crates of beer, represented by coins or counters, that make their way from the factory, to the other sectors and ending up as sales to external customers.

There are some system conditions: no communication takes place between the sectors other than the placing of orders and the receiving of product (silence), and there are delays in production and  transportation as well as in processing the orders. Orders are made by external customers and they are re-acted by each sector concluding with the factory that places orders with its own workforce. The decision-making required by each sector, at the end of each week, is how many crates of beer to order from their supplier upstream.

The activity spans a simulated year, at the beginning the system is stable, customers are ordering 4 crates of beer per week and each sector has 12 crates of beer in their respective inventories. Each sector aims to minimise costs by keeping inventory down at the same time as preventing backlog.

In conducting this simulation (as I have done with groups over 100 times in the last two years) we always find that when external customer orders are stable, the system becomes unstable, with sometimes wild oscillation, (as well as amplification: the oscillation pattern becoming more pronounced the further upstream you go).  A flat line could represent the orders from customers whereas this graph shows the oscillating pattern of orders placed within the system.

Getting back to the Metamodernist Manifesto, if we were to think of orders from customers as the external environment or  ‘nature’, we might conclude that oscillation is an artificial experience. It is not the ‘natural oder of things’ so much as the invented and exaggerated response to external stimuli. We do it to ourselves (that’s what really hurts, apologies Radiohead).

Then again, we could say that it is ‘natural’ in the sense that it is the repeated and predictable response: it seems to come naturally to us.

Maybe what I am saying is that although oscillation may indeed be ‘the natural order of things’, the natural order of things is not itself natural. Whilst the territory is flat, our maps oscillilate wildly.

Creativity at work?

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Is there really room for creativity in the workplace? I don’t mean art in the workplace…

…though I think that would make an interesting study.

I mean creative thinking. Whilst that term probably needs some definition I am going to leave that difficult task for another time and assume we share a general understanding of  it.

In large companies especially, creativity is needed (W.Edwards Deming said “it is necessary to innovate”) and often it is verbally encouraged. But then, at the same time, any behaviour that might approach the creative also tends to be stifled.

One way of stifling something is to claim to be managing it. I note that Talent Management is a euphemism for the squandering of talent and Performance Management guarantees that the performance of any organisation will be sub-optimised.

It is almost as if the more that an idea gets talked about the less  it is likely to be experienced. For example, we hear so much about “communities” (the HR community, the Learning & Development community, the artistic community, the gay community, the local community, etc) precisely at a time when our experience of community is virtually non-existent. It must be a virtual community!

Recently, a friend was telling me how in their workplace the job purpose of the Quality Manager seemed to be to prevent quality.

more than the sum of its parts

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“The whole is more than the sum of its parts”, from Gestalt theory, is perhaps better represented as “the whole is different than the sum of its parts”.

The whole is experienced differently than can be accounted for simply by understanding the component parts.

Combining previously existing wholes, they become parts of a new whole. New properties emerge.

Written by Andy Parkinson

November 11, 2011 at 8:00 am

On sequence dancing and learning to learn

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At the Blackpool Sequence Dance Festival 2011, in the Empress Ballroom of the Winter Gardens, attempting to learn brand new sequence dances, with a large group of people, I found it very difficult. It was wonderful and I loved it, especially as others took pity on us and helped us out, yet I really struggled to pick up 16 bars of steps in half an hour.

I could see many people, 20 years my senior and more, finding it quite easy to do what seemed an almost impossible task to me. What was it that made us different?

Maybe we could put it down to learning styles: this is not my favoured way of learning, I would rather read instructions first or have them explained to me in an environment where I could ask lots of questions, and then slowly piece the whole together part by part. I also seemed to suffer from ‘performance pressure’ that may have been absent in a smaller group or on my own.

It was possibly David Kolb that introduced the notion of learning styles, along the lines of: learning has a cycle of four stages and though all stages are required we may have a preference for a certain stage more than others. I have the impression that Honey and Mumford‘s learning styles are more or less the same as Kolb’s, but with more accessible labels, so we have Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist styles. One implication of the theory is that we learn best when our own style is adequately catered for, Activists and Pragmatists preferring to learn by doing, Reflectors and Theorists favouring a more thinking approach etc. Learning professionals closer to NLP might use the distinctions Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic as learning styles.

But isn’t this somewhat limiting? “I don’t learn that way” “It’s not my learning style” could easily become an excuse to prevent further learning. Isn’t it rather that what is needed is learning at a higher level?

Gregory Bateson proposed that there are levels of learning, where Learning 0 is an habitual automatic response to a given stimulus, Learning 1 is a trial and error process of adaptation to the given environment, Learning 2 is a process of corrective change in the set of alternatives from which choices are made at level 1, and Learning 3 (which rarely, if ever occurs) is about our whole process of forming, exchanging and losing level 2 habits.

Learning how to learn in the situation I described above would be Learning 2, which would then mean that on future occasions I could participate more successfully in the trial and error process of learning the new dances in the large group in only half an hour. One way to do this would be to model the strategies of other dancers/learners, which would I suggest also be a more sophisticated use of NLP.

Written by Andy Parkinson

November 10, 2011 at 8:00 am

Zizek’s “Living in the End Times”, recent violence and art

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In the final section of Zizek’s book “Living in the End Times”, (see previous blog post), having surveyed the responses to the anticipated end of global capitalism, under the headings: 1) Denial, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining and 4) Depression he comes to the fifth: Acceptance.

Acceptance:part of mind map on Slavoj Zizek's book "Living in the End Times"

He cites Badiou’s argument that we live in a social space which is progressively experienced as “worldless”, and suggests that ‘within such a space “meaningless” violence is the only form protest can take’. He is referring to the burning of cars in Paris in 2005, and it seems to me that he could equally be referring now to what has been taking place on UK city streets in the last few days. He goes on to argue that

This is why the famous Porto Alegre motto “Another world is possible!” is too simplistic; it fails to register that right now we already live less and less within what can be called a world, so that the task is no longer just to replace the old one with a new one, but …what? The first indications are given in art.

He seems to update the notion that art (may) help us to envision possible new worlds, to one where art (potentially) indicates the task at hand. From my reading of the chapter (a brilliant discussion of Kafka, Platonov, Sturgeon, Vertov and Satie), this indicating is itself extremely indirect, along the lines I mentioned in my previous blog where in film sometimes the plot is prefigured metaphorically during the opening titles.

(Since writing this post I noticed that someone else also quoted Zizek in relation to the recent riots  at this excellent blog: http://cengizerdem.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek-shoplifters-of-the-world-unite/)

Written by Andy Parkinson

August 13, 2011 at 7:53 am

Long ago: Mali Morris at Angel Row Gallery Nottingham

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It was May 2002 and I was walking in Nottingham, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed the name ‘Mali Morris’. She had been one of my external tutors when I studied Fine Art at Nottingham Trent, many years earlier so I stopped in my tracks. An exhibition of her paintings was being advertised at The Angel Row Gallery (now replaced by Nottingham Contemporary). Around this time there had been a number of painting shows at this gallery that I liked (I thought then, and still do now, that painting is so much out of fashion, especially abstract painting, that it is difficult to see any, if you’re not in the capital at any rate).

What a show it was! Here are pictures of two of the painting that were on view

Mali Morris, Pale Yellow Curly Clearing 2001, Acrylic on Canvas, 61 x 77 cm, Image by courtesy of the artist

Mali Morris, Ripple 2000, Acrylic on Canvas, 21 x 41 cm. Image by courtesy of the artist

I was expecting large paintings. For me, at that time, ‘abstract’ and ‘large’ tended to go together; it took me a while to realise that these two terms could be disconnected. These paintings gave me some good reasons why. Pale Yellow Curly Clearing, 2001 was the largest one in the show (there was one other with the same dimensions) and still a modest size at 61 x 77cm. They didn’t need to be any bigger, in fact part of their power (my perception of them was that they were powerful images, though on prolonged viewing they became something much too subtle for that word) was their smallness. They had an immediate appeal and they seemed to draw me in for closer inspection. It really felt like the paintings were exerting this power over me.

Every Autumn, near where I live I see kids jumping up or throwing sticks into horse chestnut trees. We think of the agency as being with the kids: they jump or throw. But year on year it’s different kids, same tress. Maybe in the system of tree-kids, it’s the tree that acts, putting out conkers each year always draws the kids up into the trees.

anyway I was drawn in, and when I got up close I found that simple though the images were they rewarded prolonged attention. The colours were doing something, but not in the sense of direct excitation, somehow it seemed indirect. They slowly unfolded, yet each one in a different way.

I chose the two above for contrast. Of course there are distinct similarities, you could say that the image is the same: monochromatic, with a circular shape against a ground, framed inside an almost square rectangle. And this would be loosely true for all the paintings that were in the exhibition. But look at the differences! Yellow and blue are very different in hue and tone. They do very different things. Yellow seems to expand, whereas blue seems to contract. The painting behave differently. In Pale Yellow Curly Clearing, and I think the title refers to the act of clearing away the paint to allow what’s underneath to show through, note how that particular way of placing, painting, clearing away, leads to a picture that behaves in that specific manner. Whereas, Ripple, 2001 ripples, and it was made by rippling, with a ripple or some such a comb-like instrument. And it’s just enough, any more and we would be looking at another painting, with another way of operating, and in each case this particular painting would have been lost.

Written by Andy Parkinson

July 26, 2011 at 7:28 am