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Chance and Control Today

The diminishment of authorial intention has been a key tenet of artistic movements since the early twentieth century, the time that saw the emergence of artists experimenting with chance as a provocative source of creativity. Chance remains crucial as a tool not only to mitigate ‘the sway of the Author’ (Roland Barthes) as a sole determinant of what his or her creation is meant to be, but to explore the complex interactions between human and non-human agencies in wider contexts. A good example of this lies in Olafur Eliasson’s recent eco-critical works that attempt to reconcile a reduced exercise in authorial control with an examination of human impact on the environment. Another example is found in the exploration of chance and control in computer-based art that can prompt a critical imagination of wide-ranging consequences brought by the transfer of dominance from human to technology. 

Beyond the aesthetic positivism of reduction or automation, this session seeks to provide a larger picture of how the use of chance in art can contribute to a better understanding of contemporary issues in culture and society. The papers in the session will shed critical light on chance as a threshold through which to readdress existing boundaries and distinctions, examining: the implications of gravitational chance in art; the limits of human control over animal sensitivities; the controversial ingenuity of artificial intelligence that challenges human intentions; and the idea of the ever-mutating ‘plastic city’ in tension between chance and control. 

Session Convenor: 

Taisuke Edamura, J F Oberlin University / Keio University 

Speakers:

Miriam Ashkin Stanton, Independent Art Historian  

Harnessing Gravity: Chance and the ‘Aerial Gesture 

Gravity serves as a conveyor of chance — a natural force with which artists simultaneously collaborate and contend. By dropping, dripping and pouring to produce artworks, practitioners since the early twentieth century have harnessed this gravitational potential. Still, perhaps because their act — of releasing materials in the air — is deceptively simple, its significance as a creative wellspring has gone largely unacknowledged. In this talk, I trace a typology of the ‘aerial gesture’ — a phrase Barbara Rose used to describe Jackson Pollock’s painting methods — which I expand, applying its logic to a broader mode of making. To artists intent on challenging the bounds of pictorial space, I posit, dropping materials has served as a succinct physical and metaphoric means of navigating between control and its limits. Calling upon figures who have put this action to formative use, such as Marcel Duchamp, Jean (Hans) Arp and Helen Frankenthaler, I explore how the ‘aerial gesture’ mobilises two pivotal moments that are within an artist’s power to affect: the point at and from which they let go of their medium aloft, relinquishing it to gravity to cause a fall — and, in turn, the instant of contact between that material and the ground. What happens, these critical junctures propose, when the ‘law’ of gravitation is at once employed and subverted — granted agency but also, in Duchamp’s words, ‘strained?’ Ultimately, such artistic interventions court chance without succumbing to it; the ‘aerial gesture’ thematises a strategic embrace of the aleatory — reminding us that uncertainty can yield creative latitude. 

Eszter Erdosi, University of Edinburgh  

Care as Control and Surrender: The Politics of Care Management and the Multispecies Landscape in Gerard Ortín’s Wolf Urine (2017) 

Gerard Ortín’s Wolf Urine consists of twenty photographs, documenting the procedures of wildlife control as introduced by local authorities in the Basque country. The process involved bottles of wolf urine being dispersed alongside roads to prevent wild boars and deer from crossing; a practice that regulated the movement of the animals so as to reduce the number of roadkill accidents involving these already overpopulated species. The strong scent of urine imitates the presence of the predator, hence keeping the animals away from the roads.   

This paper will explore how the politics of care as a form of wildlife management in Ortín’s series are underpinned by surrender and control, which coexist within both its subject matter and its procedures of creation. The process of photographing was contingent upon locating the bottles in the landscape, a difficult exercise that is playfully re-enacted by the viewer upon looking at the images. As subject matter, Wolf Urine is inextricably linked to the recognition of animal agencies, and prescribes a need to ‘work with’ other-than-humans to minimise human-animal chance encounters. The series unearths a power dynamic between humans and other-than-humans in which anthropogenic control is dependent upon a simultaneous surrender to animal sensibilities. The paper will look at how care as a form of control and ecological contingencies become entwined in Wolf Urine, a work which offers opportunities for more equitable interspecies relationships in the future. 

Brendan Flanagan, York University 

Ella Dawn McGeough, York University  

Scandals of Creation: Generative AI and Chance Operations within Artistic Production 

In February 2022, the US Copyright Office struck down an application for the copyright of images developed using generative AI, as they are not ‘created by a human author’. This ruling attempted to dislocate AI imagery from the human imagination, emphasising the responsibility of machine production over human construction. Similar concerns follow a long history of modernist artistic production. From Dada, Surrealism and Les Automatistes, into present anxieties surrounding generative AI — each successive generation contends with a scandalous web of consequences initiated by the traps of machinic creation.   

We love a good creation story. A creation story stabilises our reality and accounts for how X becomes Y. What happens when the machinic rubs against established understandings of authored creation? Is creative responsibility deferred by chance operations within the machines we build? This paper outlines the use of machinic chance within modernist artistic production; considers responsibilities that generative AI calls forth; and explores the ways in which the creative application of AI remains all too human, particularly when using data taken from the internet — often sexual, violent or racist in nature. 

In 1922, Frances Picabia created a suite of drawings for the surrealist journal Littérature that were pulled from publication for being too explicit. During a performative lecture, sections of this paper will be input into custom built generative AI. This model will then create drawings by a ‘resurrected’ Picabia, initiating creativity in real time and instigating questions of authorship within spaces of human/AI artistic collaboration. 

Emily Verla Bovino, The City University of Hong Kong  

‘Plastic City’: Theorising Chance and Control through Hong Kong at the Chance Event (1996) 

The relationship between chance and control inspired American writer-filmmaker Chris Kraus’s conception of the ‘Chance Event’, a three-day gathering conceived for a remote casino on the Nevada state-border in 1996. The event immediately acquired cult status for being among the first publicised through online message forums and for signalling a reorientation of the American experimentation in art from the Atlantic to the Pacific. ‘Chance’ explored theory-as-practice through performance and conceptualism in a line-up of artists, performers, poets, writers and musicians headlined by philosopher Jean Baudrillard and transgender theorist Allucquére Rosanne Stone. The road trip and the desert are acknowledged as crucial contributors; but the role Hong Kong played through a lecture performance by then emerging artist Shirley Tse remains overlooked. 

In 2019, Tse represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale. The ‘Chance’ performance script was published for the occasion; however, it continues to be treated as an artist talk rather than a work-in-itself. This paper focuses on Tse’s pronouncement at ‘Chance’ — the year before the transfer of control from Britain to the People’s Republic of China — that Hong Kong was ‘the ultimate plastic city’, offering a theorisation of the concept ‘plastic’ as the tension between chance and control in a perpetually ‘mutating’ Hong Kong. Ackbar Abbas’s iconic Baudrillardian study of Hong Kong’s ‘culture and politics of disappearance’ still dominates thinking about visuality and the city since its 1996 publication. What alternatives might lie in chance and control theorised through Hong Kong in Nevada at the ‘Chance’ event? 

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