Monday 24 November 2014

Navigating the unknown

In February 2014 I relocated to Tasmania to take up a scholarship to undertake a PhD at the Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania. The primary focus of my project, Navigating the unknown in relation to place, space and drawing is to investigate modes of drawing as processes to explore and describe embodied experience in relation to place and space. More specifically, it aims to investigate how drawing based methodologies might present experience of the unknown.


In 2014, the technologically driven present, satellites and GPS track and record our every move. Earth has become a ‘known’ quantity. It is 45 years since Apollo 11 successfully landed on the moon, and yet the world’s oceans, parts of the Amazon, the great icy wastes of the Antarctic and the whereabouts of flight MH370 remain largely, if not completely unknown. We have developed complex tracking and mapping systems to help us contain, categorise and cope with the uncertainty of being. But, despite these sophisticated systems, gaps in understanding, comprehension and knowledge surround us, not only through ignorance but perhaps more dangerously through arrogance and reliance upon the authority and totality of such systems. To accept that we don’t know and that uncertainty is in fact a useful state of being, to promote enquiry, curiosity and wonder (these being crucial drivers of progress and innovation), is perhaps a more productive approach for examining our presence in the world. 

The research seeks to establish that the unknown is a key motivator within drawing-based enquiry and indeed any research-based enquiry. The anticipated body of work will aim to present the unknown as a space between systems of knowing, making connections between understandings of the unknown within drawing practice, maritime navigation and cartography as locative systems and practices. The research will consider how the unknown may be physically and cognitively manifest through the explorative practice of drawing and its use as a means of encountering place and space.

Works in progress, installation view IMAS exhibition space Nov 2014
What is the unknown?

In this day and age it would appear that the existence of the unknown is dubious because of our total reliance upon and acceptance of such systems and technologies. What I am most curious about however is, do we in fact know ourselves and the world any better through these systems?

All systems operate within finite sets of criteria, some culturally determined, others conditioned by the user/maker or by the technology itself. Fundamentally, systems rely upon human perception, operation and interpretation. They access and are contingent to both subjective and objective experience and both of these agents are subject to influence.

As with any system, slippage and error does occur. It is an accepted albeit, unfavourable bi-product of use. I am suggesting that questioning and highlighting the limitations of these systems is important as a means of understanding their use as tools to articulate experience. There are gaps between what we know and what we think we know, and those gaps are especially broad when we become heavily reliant upon such systems to work without fail.

“Creaky symbolic systems, for all they imply about the evolved methods produced by Homo sapiens for coping with the pressure of the real…such schemas are almost effortlessly overwhelmed, exposed as puny.” (Herbert 2014, p. 106)

Accepting that the unknown does in fact exist, and is indeed a crucial driver of enquiry means that we are better able to understand and articulate how it is that we come to know ‘being in the world,’ in the phenomenological sense as discussed by Heidegger (Heidegger & Stambaugh 1996). Epistemological systems and practices such as drawing are anything but transparent. Acknowledging that these technologies, systems and essentially ways of knowing the world influence culture, thought and experience, we can consider these as culturally constructed apparatus through which we attempt to deal with the unknown. We are essentially employing these systems as a means of coping with uncertainty. So, what if we were to embrace the unknown and uncertainty and recognize it for its potential?

Precession and Nutation 2014
graphite on trace
210 x 148mm
How might this relate to drawing practice?

Drawing has established, but also contestable conventions and traditions. It operates as a system of knowledge in itself. Within Western culture this has largely been influenced by Cartesian renderings of space, the dominance of linear perspective and associated projection systems (Dubery & Willats 1983; Jay 1998; Maynard 2005). It has a defined field of edges and boundaries, the edge of the paper, materiality and object hood. These drawing conventions can be thought of as limitations or boundaries and can be pushed up against, physically, conceptually and linguistically. Contemporarily, drawing is a dynamic field; noun and verb, process, action, document and trace. It is not bound by paper edges. It has collapsed into space, simultaneously the space of the real and the space of the construct.

Time and the suspension of belief.

Drawing demands time. Time to look and see, but perhaps also to be. The time spent making a drawing and engaging in the process offers opportunity to experience through the entire body, not just the eyes. There are other sensory agents at work when we are drawing out from the world, through the drawing process. Time needs to be spent, it allows for an immersion in, almost a losing of oneself in the act. Angela Eames in her discussion on the types of thinking that occur in the drawing process, speaks of high and low-focus thinking, high-focus relating to the analytical and low-focus to the more free-flowing and subjective (Eames 2008). Links can also be drawn here to curious exploration, divergent and convergent thinking. Each of these processes promote critical mindfulness and optimum problem solving ability. Curiosity allows for divergent (generative) and convergent (selective) thinking (Leslie 2014). This cyclical process stimulates idea finding and solution finding and a very specific type of paying attention and with that a specific kind of understanding. Heidegger talks about this embodied way of knowing, “the nearest kind of association is not mere perceptual cognition, but, rather, a handling, using, and taking care of things which has its own kind of knowledge,” (Heidegger & Stambaugh 1996). To draw is to lose yourself in the experience of being somewhere, in a suspended state of consciousness and a heightened state of awareness.

“Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived,”(Bachelard & Jolas 1994)

Pages from artist's journal

Foucault discusses the notion of a heterotopia as such a space, one grounded in the physical while simultaneously existing within the conceptual or virtual (Foucault & Miskowiec 1986). The act of drawing is an enacted heterotopia, it is a process by which we are coetaneously occupying the real and constructing it,

it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.(Foucault & Miskowiec 1986)

So drawing is a slowing down of time, a momentary pause, an opportunity to sit quietly within a greater context of transience. It points to/suggests the indefiniteness of time and our place within it. Being in the process of the drawing is a point within an ongoing trajectory. The point where a bounced ball hovers in a periodic state of inertia, neither rising any higher, nor falling back to earth, not static, not moving, but in an interstitial space of potential.

Drawing is also a speculative and generative act. It exists both inside and outside of time. It requires a suspension of belief. The question of the real is highlighted through the process of making a drawing and throughout the process of thinking in the drawing space. Dictionary definitions define drawing as a process of moving or pulling something with force. The word draw comes from the old Norse, draga[1] to drag (Oxford English dictionary online  2000). This pulling indicates a movement through time and space. To move is to recognize one’s previous and present position, but also one’s desired position. Drawing occurs as adjustments are made in relation to these points of reference. To draw a line is to make a mark across a surface, a trace of movement, of bodily flux, but is also to conceptually pull away from. We both distance ourselves from the world as well as draw ourselves into the world through the process of drawing. Drawing is a means by which we simultaneously connect to and separate ourselves from the world.

Like time, the space of drawing sits both inside and outside of the frame – the frame being both a physical and conceptual parameter. This frame can also be likened to a system of knowledge that conditions our thinking. The process of a drawing’s making occurs through constant addition, erasure and accumulation of thoughts. Ideas and judgements are manifest in the mark and the frame is both established and contested through this exchange. The frame is simultaneously constructed, projected and broken down, to be built back up again and then again pulled down, infinitum. The frame provides a membrane through which an awareness of this process of speculation may be glimpsed at.

Testing works out in situ on the Hobart waterfront, cast concrete and plaster


How I use drawing

Within my practice drawing is a mediation process. It is the primary means by which I investigate ideas and conduct research. Subsequently it is through this process of enquiry, that bodies of work are developed, making reference to my embodied presence in the world.

Within the related historical practices of navigation and cartography drawing has also been a principal mode of recording the search for, and encounter with the unknown. This search has frequently been carried out through fieldwork and the practice of keeping journals, such as evidenced by explorers, scientists and travellers.

I borrow from this long history of drawing and journaling being used as explorative methods of negotiating, describing and translating our presence in the world. I often think of myself as an artist explorer and draw inspiration from these types of embodied practice.

Pages from the artist's journal

I am an avid journal keeper. Working from my journal establishes the first points of removal within the translative process. My journals are the beginnings of a system of notation, an extrapolation derived from embodied experience. This experience is always direct, immediate and frequently observational, for example sitting out on the wharf and walking at Cape Bruny.  My journals are points of departure from the actual, a tool of extraction, but they are also a point of arrival, they begin to construct my thinking. They establish their own organizational structure, a combination of text based information, alongside and interspersed with visual thinking such as doodles, drawings, diagrams and found images. Through their collection of ideas, references and musings they become complex, multi-layered repositories.

These documents are a compilation of my thinking, the many pathways, dead ends, loose ends and speculative ponderings of the search. They travel with me, embodying the investigative process, marking the enquiry, but not defining nor containing it. Sure, they have edges, boundaries, front and back covers, but these are just parameters, edges to push against, to test and question. Thoughts frequently escape their pages. Making their way out into the world, to occupy real space and time. Some even return to be captured and contained, specimen-like within the pages once again, becoming the trace of a given trajectory.

These trajectories are often repeated, overlapped, retraced and over-written. The drawing process being one of continual addition and reduction. Of a push and pull, of extraction and projection. This process abounds with errors - erring and blurring. Fortunately drawing ably allows for and demonstrates errors of judgement. The thing that most excites me about drawing, as someone who both looks at and makes drawings, is that the history of their making is evident in the finished product. The history of a drawing’s making is one of decisions, lots of them. A drawing is a palimpsest, a writing and over-writing of ideas, decisions and thinking. Through the drawing I am re-inscribing its and simultaneously my own place in the world. Ghosting, erasure, spaces, shape. Searching through repeated error, erring, blurring. Like walking through a site, choosing paths, direction and negotiating terrain. Human fallibility is innately evident in drawing and it is this room for error and evidence of it that I am most interested in, the points where anchors drag, buoys drift and the compass spins.

Pages from the artist's journal

My practice also frequently involves the use of field sites. Within this project field sites are considered in terms of their conditioning influence on the work and how they might allow for or deny an indefinite rendering of the unknown. Most recently I have been utilizing the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies exhibition space as a working studio. This space has become an expanded version of my journal.

The drawings in the IMAS space have emerged from the journal sketches. They evolve over the course of their making, from more highly rendered representations to simplified shape, blocks of tone and varying areas of mark.  There is a disparity of scale between the journal and the wall-based drawings. This speaks of the translation of the mark, the hand versus the arm/body. Marks are stand in descriptors, not only of the subject of reference but also of me, of my engagement with the subject and the process of attempting to translate and negotiate experience via the drawing process. The drawings are a series of indicative motifs of the embodied experience of being in the world, one that is wonky, uncomfortable, satisfying and confusing all at once.

My strategies for making come from a desire to speak of these ideas through both process and materiality. Paper, drafting film and tracing paper have varying degrees of opacity. They can be layered, collaged and overlapped to obscure, reveal and clarify. Graphite is a medium of first plans, propositional ideas and impermanence. Being granted your pen license in primary school was a big deal. Pen and ink is much more substantial and authoritative, but also much less accommodating of error. It is difficult to hide uncertainty and mis-direction within the line of a black pen. Thinking is evident in the line, one that wanders and strays. The attempt is for the work, through these wanderings to begin to morph.  To be mid-transformation, to teeter on the edge, seemingly recognizable, while also uncertain. Uncertain as to exact points of reference, wavering, hovering, evolving.

Cape Bruny Lighthouse

Thinking about the use of field sites in the project it became apparent that like physical field sites out in the real world, the studio and exhibition space are equally enacted within the making of the work. All of these spaces determine and condition. They are working sites, subject to and reflective of, contexts, systems of knowledge, conventions and traditions. Each of these spaces becomes a causal environment and experience is rendered through the volatility of its specific characteristics and contexts. Differing attitudes and perspectives to the environment are based upon differing purposes for encounter and degrees of control.

Thinking through the exhibition space, the restrictions as to what is and isn’t possible are similar to the restrictions of working in any given site. There are always limitations as to what you can carry, the weather, the equipment at hand, your own expertise and experience, concentration, interests and distractions. Working with constraints reveals possibilities in the work and strengthens it via imposed parameters, edges to push against, boundaries to question.

Working studio in the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies exhibition space, UTAS

Working in the IMAS space has its own set of influencing extrinsic agents. A studio within an institution that has social, physical and political agendas subjects the work and myself as the artist to unknown variables. The space opens up a range of new potential networks, audiences, dialogues and exchanges. Being present in the space and utilizing it as a ‘work in progress,’ opens up conversations about, and a focus upon process rather than outcome. Rigour within the questioning and enquiry drives towards an unknown outcome, embracing changeability and possibility. The journey is what drives the outcome, rather than the outcome driving the journey.

Ambiguities in the work, revelations in the errors.

One of the questions that I am currently pondering is, ‘how do we learn to embrace uncertainty, to recognize it as a strength, and as evidence of the rigour of the search? I am striving for ambiguities in the work, to set up an atmosphere of speculation, curiosity and wonder, these being key qualities of my experience in the process of the search.  

Error and ‘to err’ comes from old French errer, ‘to wander’ and the Latin errare, ‘to stray’[1] (Oxford English dictionary online  2000). Most commonly we associate negative outcomes with error. It is the undesired result of an attempt to reach a desired goal or preconceived outcome. The process of creative research is one of trial and error, fallibility is important. It is what drives the constant testing of ideas, materials and processes. It is what drives one to try and make sense of an idea through the translative process. Being willing to push something far enough that there is danger of failure attests to tenacity. So how do we make good errors and when can they be useful and productive?

Drawing in progress in the IMAS space, graphite, gouache and trace on paper

My work pre-supposes that the limitations and tendencies towards error and fallibility provide greater opportunity for in depth enquiry. Seeking out the gaps between, where systems begin to falter and break down is where we are able to most rigorously question their operation within greater contexts and hence how they shape and influence experience. Through recognizing this influence and the gaps between epistemological systems is where we are able to establish how the process of understanding is in fact enacted via the attempt to make connections between disparate and seemingly disconnected information i.e. the unknown.

I am choosing to borrow from the descriptive and locative practices of navigation and cartography to explore the instability of these systems and their attempt to deal with and contain the unknown, the gaps between, the spaces of unknowing. Highlighting and playing with the limitations of these systems, my aim is not to define the unknown, like demarcating a territory, but rather I am attempting to question our assumptions and faith in such frameworks. The unknown that I am describing is a place where abstract and physical worlds collide. It is where the unknown exists within physical reality and embodied experience, framed by the world of the imagined, idealised and constructed.

Through this project I am attempting to figure uncertainty and the unknown purposefully, considering it as an agent through which to investigate the process of embodied experience and the act of drawing as both a thinking and doing tool. I am proposing that the role of the unknown is to highlight what we don’t know within a world of instant information. To celebrate the searching journey and the possibility within that for greater understanding not defined by absolutes, rights or wrongs or simple yes and no answers.

Curiosity = activated by fluctuating frameworks and reference points
Potential = possibility, openness to new ways of thinking and engagement
Truth = openness to doubt and authenticity of experience, not absolutes

To speculate, question and interrogate systems of knowing and their associated connections, disconnections and limitations may be more versatile than relying upon absolutes. If we acknowledge the vulnerability of these ways of knowing we are better placed to utilise them, not as definitive points of reference, but more like buoys which are floating and possibly drifting within the currents of a constantly moving body of knowledge.

If we are to go further to consider the artefact within practice-lead research as one of these buoys, or beacons of the unknown, we can then set about investigating how we use these objects or sites of enquiry to mark a point in time and moment of thinking; the flotsam and jetsam of artistic endeavour, leaving a trace of a rigorous journey and search.

“The quest for authenticity is not a quest for essences but for ambiguities. Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.”(Dovey 1999, p. 41)

Drawing in progress, IMAS exhibition space, graphite, gouache, trace on paper

Bachelard, G & Jolas, M 1994, The poetics of space, Beacon Press, Boston.

Dovey, K 1999, Framing places: mediating power in built form / Kim Dovey, Architext series, Routledge, London; New York.

Dubery, F & Willats, J 1983, Perspective and other drawing systems, Rev. edn, Herbert, London.

Eames, A 2008, 'Embedded Drawing', in S Garner (ed.), Writing on Drawing, Intellect Books, Bristol, pp. 125-139.

Foucault, M & Miskowiec, J 1986, 'Of Other Spaces', Diacritics, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 22-27.

Heidegger, M & Stambaugh, J 1996, Being and time  a translation of Sein und Zeit, SUNY series in contemporary continental philosophy, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Herbert, M (ed.) 2014, The Uncertainty Principle, Sternberg Press, Berlin.

Jay, M 1998, 'Scopic Regimes of Modernity', in H Foster (ed.), Vision and Visuality, Bay Press, Seattle.

Leslie, I 2014, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Basic Books.

Maynard, P 2005, Drawing distinctions : the varieties of graphic expression, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

Oxford English dictionary online,  2000, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1467-3894, electronic resource, <

[1] Accessed 20.11.14                                                              

Journal musings ...

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