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Orientation Statement

This practice-based PhD builds research both in response to and through practice. In 2017, during my MA degree show, I first made public the series of Not Really Really. It is a series in which I deployed my intuition to assemble found objects with organic materials and to produce different assemblages to those that we find in manufacturing and maintenance processes. This was in response to my concern that humans had become habitual in our relationship to objects and their consumption, as we often take the end-product for granted, cutting off the object from its history or trail of becoming. Manufacturing processes are habitual and force combinations between both materials and humans, which I refer to as ‘Binding’. In contrast, I propose the approach of ‘Jointing’, which attempts to ‘Un-bind’ this relation and recombine the materials, so that we can learn from material interactions rather than forcing them. It is an intuitive process that places materials in relation to each other in order to draw out properties or characteristics that may go unnoticed. Therefore, the process of Jointing is deployed in each piece of the Not Really Really series because each assemblage is stimulated by my lived experiences and encountered through the diverse array of audience experiences. This process ‘Unbinds’ both a) the artwork and b) the audience: a) by not forcing the materials together and b) enabling the audience to encounter and experience the work on their own terms.

The thesis ‘Un-binding Objects’ records the process/journey of allowing the practice andresearch to emerge together but respond to practice based issues. My thesis starts by mapping the territory that governs human and object relations, through investigating the knotted theories of how humans relate to objects. This then becomes the platform that my practice aims to intervene on.

The chapter Naming begins by analysing the restrictive relation as it is depicted in semiotics and maps the theories of Michel Foucault and Ferdinand de Saussure. It goes on to address Jacques Derrida’s critique of the binary distinction that creates a hierarchy between master and servant or original and copy. In tracing alternative approaches to this relationship, it looks towards the theories of the Post-human by Rosi Braidotti and Object Oriented Ontology by Graham Harman. The chapter Grumble is a reflection on the research undertaken in Naming, as it plays out the interaction with Derrida’s notion of the supplement relation. It is a written recording of my self-reflective thoughts based on what transpired during the making public of my work Not Really Really (17-SS-10).

The chapter Jointing deepens the inquiry into restrictive social systems and explores the mechanisms deployed by humans to control our landscape. It considers Michel Foucault’s argument that people should remain aware of the way institutions encourage self-discipline through his theory of the Panopticon. It also explores oppositional approaches to discipline and control, for example Claire Bishop’s theory of antagonism, Sara Ahmed’s queering of our human use of things and the practice of artists such as Oscar Bony. These are developed in order to pose an alternative methodology for making and viewing. After mapping out the territory, Backstage highlights an alternative approach to viewing art in which the audience is brought into the backstage (hidden architecture and decisions) as well as the front stage (gallery space) operations of making art visible. It is also important to clarify that this thesis is not an end-product, but a springboard from which my practice emerges.

Call and Response
My MA project Not Really Really (17-SS-4) was the catalyst for my PhD. After exhibiting Not Really Really (17-SS-4) a lot of questions emerged that generated a need for analysis, self-reflection and more practice. This starting point gave me a sense that the urgency was driven by the artwork, which was calling for my reflective response. Therefore, I developed this thesis Un-binding Objects to respond to my questioning of the work and what it was activating in terms of my artistic process and inner monologue, as well as the audience’s engagement with the works when no guideline for interaction was provided.

The methodology of my research builds on as well as pushes forward my practice. My practice calls to my concerns; therefore, I use this written thesis to respond to its call and then my practice can be pushed forward to ask further research questions (calls). For instance, I first focussed on achieving the assembly of Not Really Really (SS-21-10) but overlooked calculating the process of maintaining it. When showing the work to the public, difficulties of maintaining the herb’s freshness rang in my head and signalled an issue in my assumptions around maintenance. I followed this issue up by taking the decision that the caretaker of the work (me) needed to replenish the herb twice daily to maintain its freshness. Therefore, this evolution of call (issue) and response (resolving but also becoming) is part of my maintenance process.

Details oYun-Ling Chen, Not Really Really (SS-21-10),
Plastic bag, Sparkling Water and Fresh Mint, 25 x 14 x 9 cm, 2021

In terms of the overall methodology of my PhD, my thesis and practice also follow a call and response model. My thesis calls for the territories that I deem practice should intervene on and my practice tries to provide alternative paths for viewing art so that we can reconsider our human relationship to objects. For instance, in the show Unbinding Objects (2021) there were three spaces with a total of 15 works. Each space could also be seen as one piece of work because the artworks in each exhibition zone were networked together. Networked zones, included humans and non-humans, locations, durations, and sites. As both actors and network, we (artist, artwork, architecture and viewer) are all part of the process of co-constructing the meaning of the work. This network of supplements leads to more supplements, as it is an additive process that constructs a range of plural interpretations because all the supplements and actors are connected and indispensable.

Installation view of the final show Unbinding Objects (2021), Room 1

Materials for the assemblages (or networked things) were considered in terms of a response to the site, formal considerations (such as the balance of colour) and the logistics of refreshing. For example, in Room 1 there are six pieces including Not Really Really (SS-21-01~05) and (AW-20-06). Each of the works present different durations but overlap across the same space. The shortest duration such as the hot towels in Not Really Really (SS-21-01) required refreshing every three minutes. While the fresh asparagus of Not Really Really (SS-21-02) could last for a whole day without requiring replenishment. Each room included works that called for different forms of care from the caretaker; as each assemblage of things had its own unique duration, each piece of work demanded specific situated care from the artist.

Installation view of the final show Unbinding Objects (2021), Room 1

I identify the maintenance process within my practice as a form of a situated care, as opposed to general care, because each assemblage requires specific support. Through researching this form of maintenance, I found that my practice strongly resonates with Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s notion of situated care. Bellacasa stresses that care must be situated and responsive to particular situations as opposed to a general notion of care. As general care does not include all potential users and often only produces one path for all users to fit in and follow. In her book Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (2017), Bellacasa stated that:

Interdependency is not a contract, nor a moral ideal- it is a condition. Care is therefore concomitant to the continuation of life for many living beings in more than human entanglements - not forced upon them by a moral order, and not necessarily a rewarding obligation.[1]

I frame my practice as a situated response (care), as the demands of the materials within the work vary. Different assemblages require distinct modes of care, as I set up a situation in which I need to respond to each of the varying organic materials’ situations/durations. These result in human and nonhuman entanglements that may not always be easy or comfortable to interpret.

Another instance of the way in which my research and practice call to each other, is that in the thesis my research responds to the general modes of manufacture and maintenance, that my practice located as an issue. The thesis pictures the normative terrain of our human relationship to objects, which is an issue I would like to intervene on. According to Ahmed, in providing a well-used path we become habituated by norms inherent in the infrastructure of our society, ‘Used can mean previously used, shaped by comings and goings; becoming used can refer to how an activity has become customary. A history of use is a history of becoming natural.’[2] A well-used path encourages habitual use that will only make it even easier to follow. In contrast, I aim to highlight that society should not be governed by habitual structures/relations because this results in exclusion for some and an awkwardness for the many in the law of ‘majority rules.’ Minorities and intersectional voices, in particular, find that they have to shape themselves to fit this normative and majority mold or be excluded, rather than the structure being designed to support difference.

The thesis also goes on to explore the research and practice that are also attempting to rewire the well-used path of spectating. This enables me to draw on certain concepts but also to intervene in the lacunae I have located within artistic practice, through my own work. In the final show of Unbinding Objects (2021), there are three responsive installations that reflect Legacy Russell’s notion of Glitch and Homi K. Bhabha’s Third Space: 1) Not Really Really (SS-21-05), 2) Not Really Really (SS-21-11) and 3) Not Really Really (SS-20-00). For example, Not Really Really (SS-21-11) took its starting point in response to three screws that were difficult to remove along the corridor in which I chose to stage them. From the image, I repurposed the three screws that were an existing fixture in the space and used them to mount 90-degree pipes and oranges. These screws appeared as glitches in the functioning of an exhibition space but, instead of removing them, I decided to embrace this structural glitch and deploy it as part of the artwork. In considering the screw height and spacing, I saw it as an analogy for corridor lighting and deployed the found materials as an intervention which questioned the logic of the space.

Yun-Ling Chen, Not Really Really (SS-21-11),
Metal 90-degree pipes and Oranges, 2021

In the Backstage chapter we also find a response to the call from Not Really Really (SS- 21-11), as Backstage draws on Homi K. Bhabha’s notion of the ‘Third Space’; as the artworks in the exhibition are awaiting a viewer to co-interpret them. In Backstage, I refer to the following assertion made by Bhabha that, ‘this process of hybridity gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognizable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.’[3] Before being interpreted, the artwork is in a liminal space but when interacted with a hybrid mix occurs between artist, audience and surrounding. Through the encounter a third space is activated, in which meaning is produced as a mixture of elements and actors.

Both my practice and research aim to produce glitches, whether this is due to the endless maintenance of an organic material or providing alternative approaches to navigating a thesis and experiencing art practice. Glitches have always existed in our society, but they remain largely invisible as society aims to eliminate all glitches in an attempt to create and sustain the illusion that a platonic path exists. Following Ahmed’s theory of the well-used path, we can also interpret the path as platonic (ideal) because it becomes the most socially accepted or idealized route, which is built to support the majority. I agree with Legacy Russell, that the glitches are positive additions to society. In Glitch Feminism (2020) she explains, ‘Errors, ever unpredictable, surface the unnamable, point toward a wild unknown. To become an error is to surrender to becoming unknown, unrecognizable, unnamed.’[4] In contrast, to a society that interprets glitches and errors as negative terms, my practice sees them as a positive place from which to build alternative paths. Contemporary society requires the users of its systems to follow a standard well-used path. Although errors have always existed in society, they are not often seen as potential (other than in rare scientific discoveries) but obstacles that need to be ironed out in the name of efficiency. In overlooking the glitching process, we can become habitual in the way that we see (place value on) and interpret things. In response, my practice aims to reveal some of the processes often invisibly located in the black box of the art gallery (backstage) to the public in the white cube (by crossing the public and private spaces).

Artist’s Care

The duration of each organic and found (inorganic) material are different. Found materials (e.g., antique tiles, wood shelves and oxidation metals) require less care than organic materials. Found materials rarely need the caretaker (artist) to refresh them over a short period, such as an exhibition timeframe. The found (inorganic) materials have a longer duration and, simultaneously, they can absorb time into their surfaces, becoming an index for the environment around them and assembling longer durations into their material. For example, when metal reacts with oxygen, its surface becomes coated in oxidation and these layers become thicker as time elapses (even in some cases leading to erosion of the metal). When artificial ready-made materials react, certain elements combine and, therefore, they become a merged material that is both natural and artificial (as they are manmade and are registering the natural environment's effects, as well as being artificially staged). For instance, on finding the porcelain tiles in Not Really Really (SS-21-07), their surface had produced a scar that reflected the material’s experience. The reaction of the environment, temperature, and temporality had become evidenced through the tile’s external scar and I chose to embrace this atrophication by staging them with these ‘errors’. Their scars overlap across the tiles’ surface, which also weaves both the present and the past into the same surface, which is evidence of the fusion between natural and artificial. This also echoes the hybridity which renders us all actors and networks/networked.

Yun-Ling Chen, Not Really Really (SS-21-07),
Antique Porcelain lume green Tiles and Little Daisy, 15 x 9 x 3 cm, 2021

In each of the above scenarios, rather than providing a general instruction (care), the caretaker (artist) must be present to observe, analyse and make suitable decisions for maintaining each material. As a result, the relationship between myself and the artwork is one of supplementation and co-dependence. The supplementary relation between artist and artwork, is one of interdependence, in which it is imagined that they are irreplaceable for the other. Much like the master/slave narrative in Hegel, we are in a relation that defines each other but in which the power dynamic can change. As the artist, I set the parameters for the work and, therefore, the work relies on this framework to be considered an artwork. On the other hand, throughout the duration of the exhibition I have to maintain the artwork and, therefore, I become the servant that serves and maintains the master.

Labour as Process
In the thesis Un-binding Objects, I announced that the act of replenishing the materials is not a performance but a form of labour. In my past experience of exhibiting the series of Not Really Really, I could not predict how the public would encounter my work and the reactions of the visitor were unpredictable. I also avoided over-interpreting the artwork through text, in order to keep the viewer from following the predictable mediated path. Therefore, when viewer and artwork are on an unpredictable journey, they rely on how they encounter each other. Further to this, as the viewer’s experience of viewing an artwork is personal, this type of encounter with an artwork demands contemplation through the situated care of the viewer.

However, in the final show Unbinding Objects (2021) was experienced by a predetermined viewership and, therefore, acted more like a private show, as I knew who the viewers were and what time they would visit the exhibition. This necessarily entailed a consciousness in planning my movements in relation to the artworks and their care, which was based on a targeted viewer. When a specific viewer has been targeted, the act becomes more directed which can cause the maintenance process to come across as more of a performance. The caretaker (artist) now dominates the path of how the viewers can encounter the work. Therefore, I found myself creating an encounter, which induces the viewer to witness the caring process in a particular way. Whereas, previously, the caretaker (artist) in my work could not predetermine the public's encounter with my work or ‘care’.

In the final show Unbinding Objects (2021), each piece of work is an assemblage based on my lived experiences (gaze) and this informs what I choose to make. Understanding that my position is one among many and not an authoritative view, I leave space for the audience to assemble their own care to interpret and construct the work through their own lived experiences. The viewer enters the assemblage and becomes a part of it, as actors that are working to build the meaning of the work (to determine the uses of use). Plural interpretations of each object are produced by the audience, as they are dependent on each viewer’s unique experience. Therefore, I do not provide a standardized path or interpretative framework through which the audience should read the artworks. Meaning is co-constructed by the network of artist, artwork, site, and the viewer, and this enables the building of alternative paths in reading the work. This resonates with Walter Benjamin’s Death of the Author (1977), in which he asserts that the artwork should be read on its own (by the viewer) without consideration of the artist (author). There is no standard path for understanding artworks, and through this the viewer can interpret the artwork without being overwhelmed or directed by the author’s intent. Every time when an artwork is being viewed, the work is being re- interpreted again.

[1] Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds (University of Minnesota Press: London, 2017), 70.

[2] Sara Ahmed, What’s the use? (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019), 41.

[3] Homi K. Bhabha, “By Bread Alone: Signs of Violence in The Mid-Nineteenth Century”. In The Location of Culture,198-211 (London: Routledge, 2004).

[4]Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism, A Manifesto, (New York: Verso Books, 2020), 74.


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