Hermes & the veil: essais between art, feminism and physics

Bennes, Crystal J. (2021) Hermes & the veil: essais between art, feminism and physics. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.

Text (Doctoral thesis)
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This thesis explores the ways in which visual art practices can engage with the sciences; or, more precisely, how my artistic practice engages with the field of physics. Rather than define itself as interdisciplinary ‘sciart’ or ‘art science’, the thesis argues for an innovative approach. Informed by the feminist works of writers and thinkers such as Sandra Harding, Sharon Traweek, Lauren Chambers and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, this approach draws from a diverse set of practices including artistic research, ethnography, science and technology studies, and feminist theory. Less interested in participating in longstanding ‘two cultures’ debates in which arts and sciences are defined either as oppositional or complementary forms of knowledge creation, the thesis argues for a novel way forward. Adapted from the field of cultural translation, particularly the work of Sarah Maitland and Michel Serres—in which methods of interpretation, distanciation, and appropriation are key—the thesis argues for an innovative method of negotiation between two otherwise specialist domains. Here, the artist self-consciously acts as a Hermes-like figure, moving between two worlds, occupying a position that Serres refers to as ‘the Northwest Passage’, the treacherous in-between. The thesis further moves the conversation away from ongoing debates around ‘two cultures’—and from discussions of possible disciplinary commonalities such as ‘creativity’, ‘curiosity’, and ‘experimentation’— by asking whether it might not be more constructive for artists to differentiate based on concepts of ethics and values. Borrowing Hester Reeve’s idea of the artist as a moral agent, questions of ethical agency, in both art and science, are central to the practice. While the thesis endeavours to move on from existing ‘two cultures’ binaries, it nevertheless acknowledges the challenges and inherent contradictions present in any attempt to do so.

Although the art practice critically accounted for in this dissertation is ambivalent about the production of material art objects, it nevertheless engages in such production using lens based media, installation, and writing. Crucially, however, it is a practice committed to thinking as both a type of making and a type of writing, and the thesis demonstrates an important reflexive relationship between the writing/thinking and the practice/thinking. This dissertation is also underpinned by a commitment to making knowledge structures manifest. Namely, through the considered use of the essay form, the writing reveals artistic (and indeed scientific) knowledge production to be fragmented, contested, situated, contingent, subjective, and in constant negotiation. Here, essay refers not to traditional conventions of academic writing, but instead to the essai (n, French: try, attempt, trial) of Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, Maggie Nelson, and Sven Lindqvist, and offers up writing as a mode of thinking and making. Furthermore, use of the essai form is a critical device that appropriates and subverts the institutionalised conventions through which both academic and scientific knowledge production is legitimised— the practice is described ‘in real time’, accompanied by attendant failures and changes of direction, rather than as a finished account of a completed project.

Stemming in part from the thesis’s interest in the artist as a moral agent, the writing also appropriates certain formal conventions of academic writing, chiefly footnotes, for its own aims. Here, drawing on feminist citation and bibliographic practices, but especially the work of Katherine McKittrick, the writing complicates the first person position of the essai by revealing its own situatedness through a complex web of influences and references beyond conventionally-accepted citational practices. Footnotes are also used throughout as a secondary structure, for additional commentary or reflection on processes, experiences and practice. Despite personal ambivalence about the usefulness or necessity of an artistic practice predicated on the production of ‘stuff’, an ambivalence which intensified over the course of the PhD project, the practice nevertheless explores and (perhaps unwillingly) argues for the importance of making as a unique form of knowledge production. Finally, the thesis further enacts the situatedness and contingency of its knowledge production through a chapter simply entitled ‘Interruption’. The Covid 19 pandemic began almost precisely at the mid-way point of this PhD. Acknowledging the challenges and difficulties this event presented to research, ‘Interruption’ claims this disruption as an important aspect of the practice.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Additional Information: Funding information: AHRC Northumbria-Sunderland Centre for Doctoral Training consortium.
Uncontrolled Keywords: artistic research, visual culture, feminist theory, practice-based research, art and science
Subjects: L900 Others in Social studies
W100 Fine Art
Department: Faculties > Arts, Design and Social Sciences > Arts
University Services > Graduate School > Doctor of Philosophy
Depositing User: John Coen
Date Deposited: 14 Sep 2022 09:43
Last Modified: 14 Sep 2022 09:45

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