My husband Diogo Pimentão often uses tools for other purposes than the ones they were designed for. Yesterday, when he decided to dry up his hands, he used a pillow case taken from the pile of washed clothes, because 'the kitchen cloths are all dirty'. He will take one chopstick from the cutlery drawer to straighten the stem of a tomato plant; he will hammer a nail with a shoe. In his mind, a great deal of purposeful designs can be adapted to another purpose. This perplexes my father, who was a civil constructions technician. Diogo is a skateboarder besides being an artist, and I am a writer. Our perspective of life is to continuously challenge established representations and the mores they prescribe. Needless to say, we both drive my father crazy - with mutual love - although I inherited his compulsion for precise designs and mindful routines.
I guess how Diogo envisages designs is exactly how thinkers, particularly philosophers, will regard words. I have been thinking about the way we think and write about art. We are living in a time of one liners and tag-lines, often found on T-Shirts and Instagram posts. So, on one hand, there is a playful and entertaining concentrated form of writing that can encompass a varied set of beliefs because it is as poignant as brief and open-ended; and, on the other, there are texts that should support the experience of the spectator, reader, amateur and professional alike, but they are deemed denser and more difficult to read. We blame our shortened attention spans. We blame the nervousness younger generations feel when 'they don't understand'. We blame the 'paranoia' of identity politics with wanting to know where a person stands on an immediate level. There is a lot of blame and a lot of anxiety. However, there is also shrewd criticism. We forget that art is as much a specialised field as medicine: if our doctors start using jargon (we unfortunately have a raw experience of this with the pandemic), we will not understand what we are told about our own bodies. We'd complain if doctors behaved that way. Anyone who has looked up symptoms online and who has fallen down the rabbit hole of medical papers (ahem) knows what I am talking about.
This leads me to the way I enjoy reading and writing about art too - this inevitably takes you and me to our own pleasures as opposed to the ethos of sharing pleasure. Art writing has become very jargony, albeit less so in the anglo-saxon world, to the point of building a wall around itself and being deemed elitist. Granted, there is a point to the argument that contemporary art itself has become increasingly hermetic. But my question is, aren't these two phenomena entangled? Artists work with curators and writers who write about their work. Artists talk about - my pet peeve - bidimensionality and tridimensionality all the time because writers and curators did it first (is it too hard to talk about flatness and volume? about screens and objects? About surfaces and things in space?). No one else thinks in those terms. And most of us writers believe that there are magic words. I am sure all of us are guilty of this. All generations have theirs: a decade ago, we were knee-deep into the word 'conceptual', nowadays it is 'anthropocene' that takes the stage. Regarding the latter I recommend a great documentary about Donna Haraway where she precisely explains how dangerous it is to use words as magic potions, particulalry 'anthopocene', Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival. And there are many other unexplained words us writers use like a sleight of hand to accommodate the complicated theories we are fond of into a text that will nevertheless be read hastily in an exhibition space or in a ride back home from the gallery.
Personally, I often end up realising that it is a question of context – and of passion. Donna Haraway's texts, despite her claim that some words are thought-impediments, are not easy-reading. What I would alert to is against the use of certain new words, beautiful neologisms as if they were self-explanatory. Writers have to take time to explain, again and again, especially because I am certain that compulsive writers think through the very act of writing. But I do also recommend reading what we don't understand. It is thrilling to take up new concepts, new words, old words with new meanings, and carry them with us. We thus carry theories, immaterial, weightless beings, that materialise in the world around us and in the way we can see it anew. Be courageous enough to allow yourself to NOT understand EVERYTHING. Give yourself time. Who understands everything? Not me, an aphantasic curator who can't even see images in my mind's eye unless I'm dreaming. And also, we don't fully understand what and why we love. We don't master the sensuous meaning we find in the world around us (I am borrowing the word sensuous from a writer who at times I thought simplified her thinking, but who is in fact a skilled communicator, one who takes the time to explain: Minna Salami and her book Sensuous Knowledge).
Therefore, I still cherish the endeavour of making tangible complicated theories because life is an entanglement of a million experiences and points of view. Offering tools to disentangle those clusters of meaning can broaden horizons and stimulate joy, compassion, pleasure, togetherness. An example following up the aforementioned doctor's hypothetical situation: because I am forty-five years old and perimenopausal, I have added new jargon to my vocabulary, oestrogen and progesterone. I wish everyone would do the same, and stop the modern version of witch hunting, that is, accusing us, menstruated humans, of being angry. In the words of Wanda Sykes in her Netflix special (from memory) if we're angry in middle-age, it's because our levels of oestrogen are going down and testosterone is going up: that is, we're becoming men. Wanda Sykes is a powerful communicator. But if we haven't acquired new words (and their assimilated meanings), we are excluded from such an important conversation about half of the population when it reaches an age that is often the most fruitful professionally and personally while undergoing such profound physical changes that induce - incredibly - spiritual changes.
All this to say that today I am thinking about words (my tools) and (the technology of) writing precisely because I wanted to write about the word 'technology' and what it means when I use it. In my previous post, I announced that I am now investigating the notion of technology and drawing from a feminist perspective, which is why I mused about female labour. That is when Diogo's idiosyncratic use of objects-as-tools came to mind: words are multi-use tools in themselves already and we, writers and thinkers, add on more meanings to them. Writing is adding layers of meaning to pre-existing representations by using words, those little meaning carriers chained together as sentences. So, technology is often used to designate the most advanced technical apparatus such as digital technology. Or we oppose technology to technique, as in a digital camera opposed to the wheel for example.
However, technology is described in the Oxford Dictionary as 'scientific knowledge used in practical ways in the industry'. Opened up, the meaning becomes: new knowledge used in practical ways. Machinery - that we so readily associate with technology - is only used as an example of the above definition: 'for example in designing new machines'. The second meaning involves machinery, as it claims technology to be 'machinery or equipment designed using technology'. A roundabout way of describing the word! Basically, technology is knowledge to produce stuff in the industry, essentially machines, and it is also the machines that produce stuff. Considering that most of our computers were invented by two mavericks in a garage, Steve Jobs and his associate Steve Wozniak, academic 'scientific knowledge' has little to do with most of the things we use and that we consider to be technological.
So, I'll go with my definition which is, so far, 'knowledge used in practical ways, mostly to innovate'.
And what about technique, that we at times oppose to technology? It is deemed a 'particular way of doing something', a 'skill'. Not so far from technology then. I would even point out that knowledge, to be used in practical ways, relies on technical skill. Therefore, technique is the know-how, the application of a technology, that is a form of knowledge to be applied to innovative things. Like all words that end with the suffix '-logy' (derived from the very complicated Ancient Greek word Lógos or λόγος, with meanings from uttered speech to thought processes and systems), technology is a field of technical thought, a subject matter, a form of narrative of specialised knowledge.
Therefore, technology is a knowledge system encompassing technical skill applied to production, most often innovative. What I will explore, specifically through two authors, Dr Tamara Trodd and Vilém Flusser, is how technology was and is understood aesthetically.Because art not only expresses but critically engages with current representations, even creating new ones. And if we live, like Timothy Morton explained at length in Dark Ecology (2016), in the anthropocene (unlike Haraway, he stood by the term) that is, in a time where geology is associated with humanity, which is undergoing an industrial turn for centuries, it is essential to change our vocabulary in the art world. And to use it to analyse this reality through artist's representations of it, particularly through female spaces of labour.