Image Ill-function

Neil Chapman

This presentation concerns writing process, a specific process with words and/or images. The writing process in question is a form of meditation in which source material is used as a starting point for work that both emanates from that source and at the same time is not simply fiction-writing. The difference is testified to by a strong impression that what appears has not been invented but given, as if the writing is closer to dictation than to creation.

In this respect the process has implications for common assumptions about creative practice, allowing critical attention to fold back even onto these terms of ‘creativity’ and ‘practice’.

More broadly, the topic addressed here is one of writing in the context of art. A case can be made for a kind of writing appearing in art practice, which, while taking elements from other fields of literature and philosophy, refuses to be subordinated to the other disciplines. When this work in question succeeds it makes evident a form of escape from disciplinary constraints and begins to chart a new territory; when it fails, it does so aligning itself again with its literary and philosophical precursors.

This framing of the work and the problem in terms of disciplinary categories seems necessary because of another problem, which is the persistently ambivalent status of art and art as research in academic-institutional settings. Processes for deciding what counts as valuable in art research remain opaque. And the danger is that, as the financial screws are tightened, the practices being invented and developed by artists get undermined by their alignment to principles enforced for the most conservative reasons. This is a problem because one of the things art has to offer is precisely a proliferation of methods for working which, by definition, can be tested only in the peculiar conditions for which they are dreamed up. At present, the academic institution has no effective way of dealing with that fact of art research. It is important, therefore, to focus again on the peculiarity of practices, to re-singularise those practices through our accounts of what’s taking place.


These thoughts are developed alongside a reading of John Jordan’s ‘Art & Activism in the Age of the Anthropocene‘, which might seem to make for an odd collision of ideas. But a criticism of Jordan’s piece helps expose something about the writing practice in question, the potential that resides there for change in the way the institution operates and thinks. And here, institution is understood in the broader sense to include political and activist organisations.

There is a fundamentalist tendency in Jordan’s argument, woven in a complex way with what are valuable positions and insights. His piece is about the necessity for new ways of thinking about art under political regimes that promote inequality and wreck the environment. One hazard of his approach is the reappearance of a utilitarian attitude not unlike that conditioning the University’s increasing focus on business and income generation. Even while joyful experimentation is being affirmed, one gets the impression of regulation over what forms of work qualify (an historic problem for the left and perhaps an inevitability of any ideology). So while in one sense Jordan affirms a playfulness of art practice, in another sense diversity of approach is reduced. Little room is left for kinds of working process that might not ‘produce’ in relation to the stated imperatives. Even as the call goes out for art’s institutions to be torn down, an institutional form of thinking creeps back in.

Jordan quotes again Michel Foucault’s oft-cited remark that a life might become the creative project. Speaking about the Paris Commune and what was happening in art around the same time he characterises Édouard Manet as an artist so focused on undoing the conventions of bourgeois art that he missed the real revolution taking place. Manet is contrasted to Gustave Courbet, who provides Jordan with the better example of someone able to recognise the real revolution. Notoriously, Courbet’s career was ruined when the Commune fell. He was jailed then forced to pay for damage to the Vendome Column, the destruction of which was deemed to be his responsibility. Again, Manet is contrasted to Courbet and quoted complaining that the events surrounding the Commune have hindered the progress of his work. What Jordan does not comment on even while quoting Foucault as advocate of a synthesis of life and art is Foucault’s respect for Manet. Similarly, Gustave Courbet is discussed as an artist who abandoned bourgeois values in his association with the Commune with no consideration of how in Courbet’s work a Classical inheritance is fused with the artist’s social values.

Attention needs to be paid to the internal conflicts of these lives. The Impressionism that followed on from Manet’s attack on bourgeois institutions of art may well be the early case of ‘art-washing’—and Jordan’s point about the relationship between that movement and the Paris Commune is important—but Manet was not an Impressionist. Perhaps he remained interested in his work as a painter and didn’t get involved in the Commune along with Courbet. Even so, the conditions for the Paris Commune are sure to have been produced by many diverse acts of resistance and a more nuanced analysis is needed to make that history visible.

It is useful to remember again Foucault’s discussion of  Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (recently published as Manet and the Object of Painting: London: Tate, 2011). Foucault calls Manet’s work ‘vicious’ in its attack on bourgeois conventions. This turn of phrase (which he shares with Georges Bataille) accounts for one kind of encounter with the work, that of a 19th Century viewer scandalized by what has been done to the conventions of Classical pictorial space, the way a motif from Raimondi’s The Judgement of Paris (1515-1516) is patched into the composition. But there is surely another encounter in which the odd discontinuities of the image are felt for their impact and where that feeling means, first, suspending judgement. The hiatus and its peculiar value is missed in Jordan’s historical analysis. And it is conspicuous in its absence again in his version of activist art.

What’s true of the way that an 19th Century encounter with Manet’s painting can work is true also of an encounter with political regimes of control. In the face of all that’s wrong in today’s institutions and social organisations, it’s necessary to pause, to allow for an encounter that does not dictate already what the problem is but that, in noting the full range of impacts inflicted on the body, is able to appreciate more precisely the multitude directions from which they come and so understand the conditions of their possibility. Years of failure on the left stem from the same shortcoming of critique (a point made by Beradi, Žižek and others). The question is to what extent we can foster and encourage the phase of practice that’s missing in the fundamentalist-activist’s account. It is a moment demanding patience in the face of all that’s intolerable. The full scope of a body’s capacity to understand needs to be brought to bear.


I began by indicating a particular writing process, one that seems to be a form of meditation. While having certain affinities with fiction-writing it is significantly different—not least on account of a feeling that it is produced by dictation. The process in question involves working from source material, which can be textual or visual, defamiliarising oneself or undoing the identification with that sensate word, phrase or image. It’s a relatively well-known phenomenon in its sonic variation: to obsessively repeat a word can render it alien. The artist Nathan Walker works with this phenomenon. Similar effects can be had with the written word and with image-information.

But the process in question is not limited to this moment of defamiliarising. It involves further steps and ultimately what appears like the liberating of some unpredictable and concrete material potential. In the process as it pertains to words, the material will be more words. But these, as said, seem not to be of the order of something invented; on the contrary the writing activity is more like a problem of achieving accuracy in noting the detailed peculiarity of what appears.

In other contexts Gilles Deleuze uses the term ‘counter-actualisation’. There’s an account of something similar too in Henri Bergson’s writing explored by John Mullarkey in an essay called ‘Life, Movement and the Fabulation of the Event’. Here, ‘fabulation’ is the operative term. And it’s one that comes up in literary studies too with a different meaning. Mentioning the philosophical and literary accounts is another note to self that work is required here to specify the difference with the process of writing as it appears in the context of art. To that end it is good to come back to the steps of the process, to see how the spacing of those steps might shed light on the peculiarity.

First what’s required is the hiatus, a pause in the vicinity of the defamiliarised material. That’s what Nathan Walker’s work seems to focus on as he uses the physicality of vocalisation and the performer’s presence to bring an audience into proximity with the paradigm shift—word recognisable then defamiliarised then recognisable once more and so on. The encounter is a kind of collision of bodies—the body of the vocalised word and the body of the one vocalizing—which Walker’s work makes evident as his gestures begin to fracture into ticks and spasms in a way not dissimilar to the vocalised word.

Deleuze’s interest in Francis Bacon allows him to develop the theme. His use of the term ‘Figure’ (capitalized) indicates a passage of the painting not coextensive with the figure, which he thinks allows the viewer to plug in via the nervous system and in a way that circumnavigates the brain. Closer to home, Abigail Reynolds’ recent work at Kestle Barton is a case, I think. And the point could be extended to include other artists working with photo-collage.



In a project I worked on with David Stent a couple of years back we prepared images to give to a series of artists and writers. The images had been adjusted in ways we thought might provoke writing in the mode in question. What we were seeking here was not the invention of stories. More clearly still, a form of story-telling is one way that the process in question can fail; others include descriptions of the materiality of the word or image, or a lapsing into synaesthetic description. Rather, what’s sought is to persist with the oscillating intelligibility and unintelligibility of the material—in the case of work with images to persist with the mismatch of image data and proto-narrative—to stay in the vicinity of this trouble however hard that is until the material in question undergoes a transformation.

The nature of that transformation is very much the question. And there are different ways of thinking about it. The upshot is a strangeness or unfamiliarity, a disjunction that then seems to take on an identity of its own, that seems to manifest a face, as it were. In writing counter-actualised what’s anticipated is a form of iteration, a form of idea that, while retaining its awkwardness, its irresolution, its senselessness, resonates all the same. Resonance here means a kind of sympathy with peculiar social or cultural dysfunctions felt at the level of the body.

There’s a good illustration of this idea in a scene from The League of Gentlemen in which Tubbs, encounters a stranger. The ‘local shop’ in Royston Vasey is run by Edward and his wife (and sister) Tubbs. They live in a self-contained world, want only to serve ‘local’ customers. At the same time, for them, no single person will ever qualify as local. The outside world is profoundly frightening for Tubbs due to its utter unfamiliarity. In her dealings with what’s unknown she demonstrates a certain facility. And this is the idea that comes out strongly in the scene in questions. The passer-by sees the sign advertising a ‘local shop’ and makes his way there to buy a drink. He encounters Tubbs, who tries to ward him away (“This is a local shop. There’s nothing for you here.”) But unwilling to be put off, the stranger tries to reassure her; all he wants is “a can of coke”. Tubbs cannot comprehend what she hear, tries her best to interpret and then repeats back to the stranger  with an air of total bewilderment what she thinks she’s heard: “I can I can’t”. The stranger corrects her but instead of realising how she has misheard or misinterpreted the words, Tubbs takes his repetition of the phrase, ‘a can of coke’ as cue to learn his way of speaking, thus repeating back to the stranger–now triumphantly–“I can I can’t”.


It is absurd to spell out the joke, but necessary here in order to expose how profoundly this sequence illustrates the ‘fabulation’ in questions. Tubbs’ interpretation is a perfect case of senselessness, a statement and its opposite presented in one breath. Her achievement here is that she invents a way of speaking that allows the senselessness to be preserved. Then as the foreignness begins to appear as a thing it its own right, its potential becomes apparent too. She finds the resonance of the utterance, the way it might work for her as an authentic expression–the expression of a body already subject to the judgement of ill-function. (In other scenes, lamenting her inability to have normal offspring, she points vaguely towards her internal organs and remarks that they are ‘mixed up’.) Her repetition of the utterance is given with a conspiratorial air; this may be ill-functioning sense but it can be her ill-functioning sense, a sense that adds new determination if not emancipation to the world controlled by Edward (husband/brother). Notably, Edward for his part hears the senselessness of the outsider’s words, interprets in the same way but does not feel the resonance—this, we might conclude, due to his authoritative position, which makes him insensitive to his own abnormalities.

The case here is for a redoubled attention to the peculiarity of working processes, for an artist-activist’s sensibility that, even alongside outrage and indignation, is able to bring all the faculties that are available to the business of critique and analysis. In the specific case, the claim for writing that proceeds through experiences of defamiliarising to make nonsense resonate with ill-function, is not that it works to shock the viewer/reader. That’s not the value of the work in any straightforward sense. Neither are we talking about a kind of work that operates by exploding disciplinary conventions—certainly not in the mode of a 19th or 20th Century Avant-Garde. Instead, it’s a practice, which is to say a kind of training—one that, while beginning in one realm (of writing) might then transfer to another (of protest), the troubled present assessed and understood in the light of something that comes from outside of the present, which is to say perhaps from the future.





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