21 April 2009

Che's Anatomy

Went to an interesting lecture last night at the Science Gallery, where Lawrence Weschler spoke on convergences in art and nature as part of the current INFECTIOUS series.

Drawing heavily on his book "Everything that Rises", the lecture looked at ways in which iconic images echoed previous historic imagery, either intentionally or on a subconscious level, and then also examined the way in which this process is bidirectional, that our understanding of classical images are shaped by our contemporary understanding and biases.

He began with two iconic images, that of Freddy Alborta's photo of Bolivian officers parading Che Guevara's corpse, and compared this with Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp":

Weschler was amazed when he first saw the striking similarities in the poses of the observers and display of the body in both images, and began to wonder whether the photographer intentionally framed the photo in homage to Rembrandt, or if on some subconscious level all the participants instinctively stood in such a way, self-framing their actions based on an idealized notion of how one should stand in such a situation.

To me this seemed quite a platonic notion, suggesting that both Rembrandt and the subjects of Alborta's photo were both on some level referring to an idealized image, that there was in fact a perfect way of standing around a corpse and these were both shadow images of it.

Many more examples of art and life imitating art and life can be found at McSweeny's, where Weschler is soliciting submissions and offering his thoughts on such convergences. Unfortunately during the lecture itself, and even in the subsequent Q&A, he did not elaborate in great detail as to his ideas on the origin of such convergences.

I raised the issue of the purpose behind the creation of art; I suggested that an artist instinctively wanted to communicate a message to the audience, and that convergence in art could be accounted for on both a conscious and unconscious level by the artist framing their work in a manner evocative of an earlier work known on some level to the audience. This familiarity would thus create a fertile ground in the minds of the audience for the message of the artist. I was interested to hear his thoughts on whether this process was intentional on the part of the artist, or if in fact it was the work of the idea itself.

Susan Blackmore's work on developing Richard Dawkin's concept of the Meme as a self-replicating concept, idea or cultural aspect has always held a strong fascination for me, and given the inclusion of this lecture as part of the INFECTIOUS series, charting the spread of ideas as pathogens, I would have liked to have more of an opportunity to hear Weschler's thoughts on memetics in general. Are convergent themes in art a way for the ideas central to that art to spread themselves more easily through the minds of the audience? How complex is the artistic meme, ie is the meme that attempts to self-replicate through numerous crucifixion images one of suffering, redemption, hope and human frailty and the other ideas and concepts associated with the Jesus myth, or is the meme simply that of an image of a body on a cross with no further substance that got lucky because its one that the audience accepts rapidly?

With this last notion I am being influenced in part by Peter Watts' book "Maelstrom", wherein what appears at first to be a strong Artificial Intelligence operating on the net turns out to be a group of viruses working in concert to mimic the actions of an intelligence, as by doing so allows them to spread further. Consider the programs written to pass a Turing test, you are more likely to engage in a chat with that program than with something that is obviously a badly spelled spam email about Canadian medication, and for a longer period, because you think it is person on the other end of the IM. Watt's virus learns to mimic electronic conversation in a similar way to a Turing program, all for the purpose of spreading to more systems and replicating further, but it is not in and of itself self-aware.

In this way I wondered about the artistic meme, is it a meme of deep ideas, or is it a meme that has evolved to mimic deep ideas, learning that it will be able to replicate more easily by doing so?

All in all an interesting lecture, raising many ideas to be digested at length.

Or perhaps it was just a meme that had learned to mimic an interesting lecture.

Only time will tell.

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