A Lensmakers Formula

Rebecca Coates

Collaborations are strange beasts. Two independent people, with independent practices, come together to shape a common idea, with a unified will to participate in a shared process that encapsulates the essence of their own individual workings and separate outputs. And through this process they desire to create collectively something wholly new, wholly unique, that could not have been produced without the involvement of the two together.

Frequently, these collaborations focus on the process itself. How the two came together; when the two first started talking, and then perhaps tentatively put a toe – or two – into the water of negotiation and collaboration; working out a methodology for action, a process of constructive debate, suggestion of ideas; and the final and practical realisation of a process culminating in the completed work. Often, the process is analysed, discussed, and dissected to the point of total exhaustion, and beyond. Is it to easy to place too much emphasis on this part of the project? Is there a point of clarity, of purity, and distillation that is arrived at through the process of critical mutual examination, which would not be reached without this intense scrutiny? Or can the talking overwhelm the finished work? And what, if any, does the impact of this process have on the final exhibition and its ongoing evolution? How much is all of this reflected in the work?

I reflect on these topics as we wait in anticipation for the 16th Sydney Biennale, curated this year by Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev under the banner Revolutions – Forms that Turn.  Christov-Bakargiev suggests that, as with many things, this Biennale is about changing perspectives, turning things on their head, seeing things from a different point of view. In the societies worldwide and the times in which we now live, this is not always so easy to do. Media, time, place and technology all conspire with speed, offering us bite-size comestibles on a plate, ensuring that a subject’s complexity is unlikely to be appreciated in the limited time that it is flashed before our eyes. So, she suggests, you have to de-functionalise the object as an aesthetic strategy, removing the use value of something to help us see it afresh, allowing new avenues and new possibilities to appear. 

This, I feel, is at the nub of the collaborative process and outcome of Susan Jacobs and Andrew Hazewinkel. This project is revolutionary in a personal sense as well as the phenomenological sense.  Many believe that change – particularly political change - can only occur at the meeting point of psychoanalysis, the psychology of perception, and public politics – where the “personal becomes political”. If this is true, then it is necessary to look first at the personal and singular to understand the shifts of broader change. Central to this endeavour are issues of phenomenology - the structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view – the body moving in space, and the construction of form and experience through movement. The evolution of a process, and the final elements of a work both require displaced perception, and therefore, change – or revolution.

The etymology of the word revolution differs somewhat from its common political sense. “Revolution”, meaning motion in orbit, or a circular course around an axis or centre, or a cyclic recurrence, readily leads to the concept of constellations that inspires this project created by Jacobs and Hazewinkel.  Constellations in the night sky appear to revolve around the celestial poles (marked by Polaris in the northern hemisphere, and a point often calculated by reference to the Southern Cross in the southern hemisphere). The oft-reproduced time-lapse photographs of the night-sky present a dramatic series of concentric revolutions formed by the path of starry constellations around these fixed points.

These revolving constellations (or in more strict astronomical terminology, “asterisms”) are often envisaged as pictures – with lines helpfully drawn in astrology texts, even if they are often hard to imagine with the naked eye. But of course, this two-dimensional view is an illusion – often the stars that make up the points of the picture are astronomical distances apart in 3-dimensional space. Our understanding of these far flung galaxies and brilliant celestial diamonds can only be through our perspective of the night sky, when we superimpose a plan, or a relational narrative onto that which we little understand.

Jacobs and Hazewinkel’s work alludes to the infinite blackness of space in the oxy- acetylene blackened window panes, a blackened mirror, and the convex glass inserted into the wall like a winkling diamond. The cosmos is reversed – revolutionised - as the reflective brilliance of the once mercurious surface becomes black, set within an expanse of white space. For me it also evokes ideas of another revolution: carbonado diamonds, not white but black, not crystalline but an amorphous charcoal texture, not solid but porous, created not deep in the earth’s interior but in outer space. Quite possibly, the unaltered chunks of a long dead, exploded star.

Carbon, charcoal and lead are substances that Jacobs has explored in much of her more recent work, altering one natural substance to another and grouping them together to form a disparate but unified whole. Hazewinkel too has created a web-like formation in a number of previous installations, joining together a series of fixed points with a succession of interlocking, interweaving lines. Another constellation of sorts, in which the links are not only visible, but binding.

Exhausted Nature takes the notion of constellations, or collections of disparate elements, and applies it not only to the process of exchange formed through this collaboration, but also to the more specific elements of the project and how they are presented in actual space. They are grouped across the equivalent of the celestial sphere. A series of seemingly disparate forms, each of which has their own identity and elemental tracery, unite together to create an interlinking whole. An invisible line joins each of the unique elements, producing an imperceptible series of interlinking threads that unite the separate elements. Together, they form one cosmological whole: a gossamer web of invisibility, so fine as to be undetectable. It is as if the tracery of ropes and eyelets , that Hazewinkel has employed in previous works to tightly contain, bind, and control space and movement can be safely removed with this new collaborative practice. Their tracery, however, remains.

If revolutions are a series of shifting changes, constellations revolving around a central point of orbit, or a lathe in constant motion, there needs to be a central focus or point of action. This I feel is the initial proposal made by Jacobs and Hazewinkel in their endeavour to create an ice lens that would be either carved or poured in an attempt to direct the sun’s energy to create fire. As the pure light hits the frozen water, it creates a melting and crazing of the ice: a series of rivulets form and imperfections appear; a kaleidoscope of diamond patterns. A wisp of smoke. The scientific experiment a success. But is this what it is about? There is something intensely Julius Sumner Miller about all of this. How, we ask ourselves, is this so?

And yet it surely cannot work. In the broader cosmological sense, how can we create fire by turning water into earth, and passing through air – transmogrifying the classical elements of earth, air, fire and water identified by civilisations from Classical Greece to Buddhism, Hinduism, and traditional Japanese and Tibetan thought. There is something fundamentally transgressive – alchemical – about making these elements interchangeable when they are classically each supposed to be the elemental building blocks of the world.

This is not a straightforward scientific experiment. Rather, I would suggest, it is about a series of propositions, where science and the optical lens are the vehicle to explore those elements that intrigue, fascinate, and are little understood in layman’s terms. A carved form of a solid block of pure ice (note, only the purest will do), can create fire. Or can it? The process is manifestly shamanistic, and no more scientific than Beuysian blackboards and quasi-scientific proposals. The proposition, in a sense, is bound to fail, is set up to fail, and is as much about what comes from that potential for failure both seen and unforseen. How do you quantify, or present this? That quality that is infinitely unpresentable? 

In each of these processes, whether the creation of the universe’s toughest diamonds from space’s carbonised start, or creating fire through ice, or making light-impenetrable blackened glass, or bringing two divergent practices together, in each of these processes for a specific and intense period of time diverse elements are placed under extreme and unusual pressure. What ensues and evolves is hard to predict and sometimes more difficult to understand. It may be something as rare as the diamond born in space. It will, by necessity and circumstance, be a pure, distilled essential form. By presenting the apparatus, if you like, that enables the collection of these drops of essential clarity, Jacobs and Hazewinkel enable us to become a part of the ever-moving mobius strip of proposition, circling from micro to macro, carbon to diamond, and infinity to beyond. 

A Returning Model

Adrien Allen

It is rather wilful to ascribe the term ‘sensibility’ to an organization, but I have always seen Conical as an entity imbued with an emotional capacity. Appearing as a type of soft machine, with its internal organs and nervous system not particularly well concealed, sensitivity is instrumental to its operation. As an apparatus that is part machine and part organism it requires both manhandling and quiet cultivation to mould itself around specific situations.

In 2001 the space consisted of a single expanse made up of two distinct interiors, each with its own history – one Victorian and one light industrial/modern. A partial white cube was constructed encroaching on a decaying Victorian room beyond, evoking themes of memory and erasure.

The readymade narrative inherent in the meeting of these two distinct architectural languages was emphasized – a framing that was prescribed by interests relating to my own practice. A particularly sensitized and personal site resulted.

In the ensuing development of Conical, a response to the notion of ‘publicness’ was required. An anxiety towards exposure, towards opening out (with its attendant structural systems) was experienced in this response. The potential of overwriting a personal sensibility – subsuming the individual into the egalitarian and the singular practice into the multifarious organization – became Conical’s fulcrum. Early projects such as Wayfinder (Cate Consandine and Nicholas Murray)[1] and Pointform (Natasha Johns Messenger and Leslie Eastman)[2] were acutely aware of Conical as both a prior artwork and a traditional system of public display. A sense of transference between artist and organization was evident in the occupation and expansion of an existing sensibility.

Andrew Hazewinkel, Susan Jacobs and I studied together at Victorian College of the Arts, beginning in 1999. Since then, we have maintained a close dialogue, finding parallels in our practices. Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1975 work Conical Intersect has been of ongoing interest to us, particularly in relation to repetitive cycles of progress and destruction. The work consisted of a circular cut that spiralled upwards, boring through the façade and interior of two condemned seventeenth century houses, becoming smaller in diameter as it torqued it’s way through. The construction site of the new Centre Pompidou immediately behind was visible through the hole. Pamela Lee has described this cone-like cut as akin to a telescope from the outside and a periscope from within. Lee refers to Walter Benjamin’s philosophical inquiry into juxtaposed images of past and present where “the then and the now come into a constellation like a flash of lightning”.[3].

[4] Exhausted Nature is a collaborative project between Hazewinkel and Jacobs, yet it is very much an inside job, at one with the apparatus. Conical’s original premise – a pre-conceived set of conditions requiring response – is neither accepted nor rejected, rather, in Benjamin’s words, “the pastness of things is treated as a way to interrogate the foundations of progress.” Flip the cone and view from the large end or squint into an eye-size lens, either way, neither action is necessary here.

[1] http://www.conical.org.au/2003.html Wayfinder (Cate Consandine and Nicholas Murray, 2003.
[2] http://www.conical.org.au/2004.html Pointform Natasha Johns Messenger and Leslie Eastman, 2004.
[3] Pamela. M. Lee, Object To Be Destroyed. The work of Gordon Matta-Clark. MIT Press 2000.

Also see the following for a brief history of Conical projects by Hazewinke & Jacobs:

http://www.conical.org.au/2001.html (Device Versa, Andrew Hazewinkel, 2001)

http://www.conical.org.au/2003.html Abject Arousal ,Susan Jacobs and Carly Fischer, 2003. Curated by Angela Brophy.

http://www.conical.org.au/cojo.html Combined Operations/Joint Operations (CO/JO), 2004. Adrien Allen, Kate Fulton, Susan Jacobs, Vin Ryan, David Simpkin.

http://www.conical.org.au/2005.html Andrew Hazewinkel, Gathering in Cluster with Richard Giblett ,2005.

http://www.conical.org.au/2006.html Marking Time, 2006. Justine Henry, Susan Jacobs, Rebecca Umlauff, Jason Maling and Torie Nimmervoll. Curated by Jason Maling.

Please contact Conical for further images and texts from these exhibitions.
Susan Jacobs was a Conical committee member from 2003-2004.