IMPERMANENCE OF KNOWLEDGE
Gregory T. Davis
Nov 12 – Dec 31, 2015
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This exhibition showcases two bodies of work by artist Gregory T. Davis, who lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky. C:Not Found consists of a series of 8 monochromatic black-and-white photographs, developed in the darkroom using the century-old technology of gelatin silver process. His Chalk Is Temporary is a video piece that projects onto the screen sequential images of chalkboards. Visible on the surfaces of the chalkboards are residues and ghostings, left behind from the erased letters, words, symbols … knowledge.
In his artist statement, Davis writes:
“My photographs examine issues of information and knowledge, exploring the decay of access that comes from the inherently temporary nature of the vessel in which it is contained, or the manner in which it is conveyed. Information surrounds us, and changes in technology, information destruction, and neglect alter our connection to the data. Information is moving from the printed book, to digital hard drives, to mere ether with the exodus towards the cloud. As we move further into the Information Age, how we store, secure and retrieve it is of greater concern.
Photographs are another type of information, records of something that existed or occurred in space and time. The digital era is transforming photographic image making removing the photographer from the darkroom. Film and darkroom knowledge have become almost endangered species. Printing with an analogue medium, the work clings to a process on the verge of being lost to explore capturing informational decay and fractured knowledge.”
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ARCHAEOLOGY OF HUMACHINE
araya vivorakij, curator
I see Gregory T. Davis’ work, or any other artwork for that matter, through a frame of reference that is predetermined and mediated by knowledge. In that sense, the thoughts and ideas written in this essay can only be a repetition, recitation, or recount of knowledge that is to an extent qualified and accepted as truth. Then, why am I still writing? What is this desire, as a curator, to write about the artwork as if there were a deeper meaning awaiting to be decrypted, interpreted, and discussed? As Foucault perceptively points out, the will to knowledge doesn’t allow you to simply observe but interpret. It is a will to uncover what we think is a deeper meaning, and to make that into truth and knowledge.
Citing, and over-simplying, Foucault is to lay bare the finitude of my acquired knowledge which frames the way I look at Davis’ photographs. His exhibition title, Impermanence of Knowledge, assuredly gravitates my thinking toward Foucault’s influential works on knowledge. Likewise, I picture the artist as an historian, who sets out to explore the uncharted and disparate ways of thinking knowledge and technology. In fact, linking knowledge with technology has a long history; the emphasis on knowledge has been characteristic of many American historians of technology.(1) But it’s the departure from conventional historiography that actually brings Davis’ closer to Foucault’s. In my view, Davis’ approach bears some resemblance to the archaeological methodology of Foucault’s, recalling his earlier analysis of discourses as objects. The objects that Davis investigates include pieces of computer hardware, stacks of floppy disks, a typewriter, a VHS tape, a film camera, classroom chalkboards … the last vestiges of obsolescence. Archaeologically speaking, they are analogous to artifacts recovered from a “prehistoric” time. Meticulously working like an archaeologist, the artist rebuilds those objects and parts, as if constructing an analysis of a material culture and knowledge that had been left behind.
Neither Foucault nor Davis actually navigates the prehistoric terrain. Rather, “history of the present” is where Foucault’s interest stays. Historiography, though tells about past events, is always written in today’s language with present-day frame of reference. It therefore constitutes and belongs to the knowledge of the present. In Davis’ series C: Not Found, “archaic” objects are interconnected with today’s technological devises — iphone, ipad, and other alike. The past and the present are jointed on material, structural, and conceptual levels, while history, knowledge, and technology fusing into a unit under examination.
Although they’re historians, in a sort, both Foucault and Davis forsake the gambits of linearity, progress, and advancement that are conventionally deployed in history writing. The “history of knowledge,” as Foucault calls it, is made up of anecdotes, stories, or piecemeal events, purposely overlooking major political occurrences. And they are often reorganized and reordered to the extent that they disrupt the familiar sense of continuity and progress — the logic of grand narrative entrenched in our habitual thinking not just about history, but also about knowledge. Similarly, Davis’ constructions of objects in C: Not Found are as much about materiality as interconnectivity, which in essence is about events or happening. The events of interconnectivity, as depicted in the photographs, take shape in a state of affairs which is characterized by discontinuities, ruptures, thresholds, limits, and transformations — principles that govern Foucault’s idea of history as well as knowledge.
Fundamentally, Foucault’s notion of knowledge is polymorphous in nature, punctuated by abrupt changes, — and, from Davis’ viewpoint, precipitated by impermanence. However, Foucault offers us no explanation for the abrupt changes. As Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow explain, “any explanation put forth to explain the change … would add nothing to our understanding of the fundamentally abrupt and unexpected nature of these changes.”(2) On top of that, how knowledge and technology become possible in Davis’ work is not only unpredictable, but also patently irrational, haphazard, and incomprehensible. His construction method appears as an attempt to unveil a level of unconsciousness underneath the rational, coherent, and intelligible rhetoric of scientific and technological discourse, an unconsciousness that eludes even the perception of the scientists, the engineers, or the computer designers — not to mention the historians. In effect, the work defamiliarizes the dominant discourses of science and technology. But more importantly, it brings to the fore Foucault’s idea of knowledge as essentially a construct. By its nature, a construct is not absolute, and it holds neither truth nor falseness.
Knowledge (or discourse) is treated as an object, or a thing, in Davis’ and Foucault’s archaeological studies. Neither of them is inclined to appeal to its meaning, to interpret it, or to evaluate if it is true or not. Foucault points out that “from the kind of analysis I have undertaken, words are deliberately absent as are things…”(3) The archaeological methodology, by nature, necessitates a temporal, cultural, and linguistic distance between the investigator and his objects of investigation. Today’s knowledge provides absolutely no possible frame of reference to make sense of the once meaningful objects, subjects, concepts, and discourses of the extinct past. Accordingly, a detached spectator, or meta-phenomenologist, is what Foucault identifies himself as, when he examines discourses as objects in The Archaeology of Knowledge. With regard to Davis, his photographs and video have already been stripped down to their bare, basic, black-and-white format, not a deeper layer of data or information, parody or commentary stored behind. A sense of imperturbability, measured out in the monochromatic tone and minimalist style of his work, speaks to the artist’s neutral position as an archaeologist.
The archaeological method can only take it so far as to reveal that knowledge is intrinsically a construct, that its inception is instigated by unexplainable events, and that its “truth” is impermanent and questionable. Of course, that’s sufficient to turn our familiar truisms into doubt or chaos. But there’s more to knowledge and discourse: It’s the fact that even the archaeologists themselves cannot solely stand outside the discourse which governs them as thinking, knowing, and speaking subjects, as well as governs the statements, subjects, and objects they take to be meaningful.(4) Hence, the archaeological findings are not meant to nor can it stop anyone from engaging in discourse. They actually impel us in wanting to rethink reality and society, because both of which are grounded in and limited by our present knowledge.
A way to rethink, beyond searching for definite truths and real meanings in knowledge itself, would be to suspend causal explanations. At least this is Foucault’s deliberate attempt.(5) Likewise, causal logic is no where to be found in the erratic, untenable fabrication of technological devices in C: Not Found. Yet those devices seem to have built to serve certain functions. They hinge on functional manipulation, application, and explanation at the expense of causal logic. That shifts and steers the focus towards what knowledge and technology do, away from what they mean. And as Foucault moves forward from archaeological into genealogical studies, he expands what is said to include what is done.
The genealogical questions that Foucault ask are: “how are the discourses used? what role do they play in society?”(6) And he charts the emergence and growth of social institutions and practices, looking into their roles and functions in producing, reproducing, utilizing, subjugating, and suppressing certain knowledge. In parallel, notable in Davis’ video piece, Chalk is Temporary, is a succession of institutional settings served as the contextual background in which knowledge is formulated, written, valorized, read, and erased.
Social institutions, structures, and practices, in Foucault’s analysis, function as the material conditions for knowledge production. In genealogy, discourse is no longer an isolated object. Its textuality is given a materiality as conditions of possibility. Foucault writes, “The will to truth … is a history that varies according to the range of objects to be known, the functions and positions of the knowing subject, and the material, technical, and instrumental investments of knowledge.”(emphasis added)(7) That very last strand highlights the specific relevance to the linking of knowledge with technology in Davis’ investigation. His undertaking is proper to our postmodern era, where, on top of the formidable social institutions and practices, technology and its development has become the difficult-to-ignore technical, instrumental, and material conditions for the working of discourse, power, and knowledge.
The discipline of science is an area where Foucault had hoped to explore using his archaeological and genealogical methodologies. However, he hadn’t got around to do it before he passed away. What he has accomplished, however, involves the studies of knowledge in what he calls human sciences (history, biology, psychiatry, linguistics, economics), looking into what they do in society, as well as what they do to us as human beings. Human sciences, as Foucault tells us, inform who we are. His concept of “Man is a recent invention” refers to the specific notion of human beings as it has arisen within the finitude of current justified knowledge. Fundamentally, Foucault’s corpus of works on knowledge amounts to a study of human beings.(8) And this can be said about the work by Davis, precisely from Foucault’s perspective of Man.
Man is at once the subject and object of knowledge, according to Foucault. Since human beings have immersed ourselves in a web of words, language, and discourse — a medium that has its own inscrutable history and is not transparent to its user — man is no longer the thinking subject separate from his/her environment, or objects of knowledge. The concept of man, therefore, transcends the humanist idea of subject/object division. This idea that we’re both the knower and the object of our knowledge alters the way historians conceptualize the relationship between technology and knowledge — the core subject matter in Davis’ work.
Many historians in the past decades have looked at the ways in which technology contributes to advancing knowledge in scientific discovery.(9) However, Davis has not only abandoned the path of causal logic, but also has refused to treat knowledge and technology as two separate categories of things. He merges them together in the same way that he has done with history and knowledge. Technology is knowledge; and knowledge embodies technology. Adding Foucault’s notion of man to the equation, we then see a complex configuration of history-knowledge-technology-man emerging from Davis’ photographs.
This complex configuration is an embodiment of posthumanism, bringing to mind the works by scholars such as N. Katherine Hayles, Donna Haraway, and Mark Poster. It inserts the Foucauldian archaeological standpoint into the debate on How We Became Posthuman (a phrase borrowed from the title of N. Katherine Hayles’ influential book). It also assimilates the image and idea of humachine, a term coined by Mark Poster to delineate “an intimate mixing of human and machine that constitutes an interface outside the subject/object binary.” Humachine, unlike Haraway’s cyborg, is not about self and identity spoken in the feminist discourse. Instead, it is situated in the context of the information-driven globalizing world, refusing to take on the notion of an immaterial virtuality while insisting on the need to look at globalization through the material conditions that enable cyberspace. Certainly, the materiality of information and communication technology, as examined in Davis’ work, is part of what humachine embodies.(10)
In the discourse of humachine, questions that has arisen include: Where do we draw the line between human and technology? To what extent does humachine displace or replace individual subjectivity and agency? These are valid and important questions. But if we’re to continue on with the Foucauldian frame of reference, then we shall be asking, how are the discourses on posthumanism and humachine used? What role do they play in society?
1. Layton, Edwin T. Jr (1974). Technology as Knowledge. In Technology and Culture, 15:1, 1974, pp. 31-41.
2. Dreyfus, Hubert L and Rabinow Paul (1982). Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. 2nd Edition. The University of Chicago Press, p. 27.
3. Foucault, Michel (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Harper Colophon, p. 48.
4. Dreyfus, Hubert L and Rabinow Paul (1982). The Methodology Failure of Archaeology. In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. 2nd Edition. The University of Chicago Press, Chapter 4.
5. Hoy, David Couzens (1986). Foucault: A Critical Reader. David Couzens Hoy (Ed.) . New York, NY: Basil Blackwell.
5. See note #2, p. xxv.
7. Foucault, Michel (1981). The Order of Discourse. In Robert Young (Ed.) Untying The Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 55.
8. See note #2, p. xvii.
9. See note #1.
10. Poster, Mark (2003). The Informative Empire. Keynote address delivered at The 2003 Conference of the American Comparative Literature Association. Cited in Hayles, N. Katherine (2004). Refiguring the Posthuman. In Comparative Literature Studies, 41:3, pp. 311-316.
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