Márton Koppány interviews Darren Marsh

Márton Koppány: I was lucky enough to see a segment of your Mouse Diary sequence in 2014, at the triennial Text Festival, held in Manchester, UK. It resonated in me at once. I read it as a new version of the basic story of "here I am", and to whom that "I" might belong to. (It brought to my mind On Kawara's classic conceptual sequences as well - but the methods are quite different, of course. Your language is much more sensual.) It is not necessarily the writer's self, nor the reader's, nor the mouse's own reality. It is perhaps our mutual position at this very moment, or, alternatively, the monument of something that has been lost and can never be searched for again. I am fully aware of how subjective my (mis) interpretations are, but I always need something more than a spectacle for the eyes. Then I looked at your website, and found a lot of intriguing items, some more difficult to tackle than the Mouse Diary. One of those, your writing the unreadable, looked especially mysterious. I read your comment on your site, but it raised more questions than I had before. My reading has remained inadequate. I'd like to get more specific info from you. Since I couldn’t intuit it (or intuit my version) I’d like to understand the process with your help. Images have their history. Language, hidden or not, is always there, predispositions are always there.

Darren Marsh: I've spent this morning putting together what I could find into some kind of note form. It's proven a useful exercise re-visiting the work, although I still feel there are aspects I don’t comprehend?! Please feel free to ask further questions or present any insights and thoughts you may have.

To begin...

[2012/2013] I was interested in how we construct systems, and how a form of internal language, native to that system, emerges. I think this developed from my earlier experiences painting. I noticed how a dialogue would seem to emerge between myself and the work. I would paint layer upon layer, scrape it back, rework and reapply. Marks would grow into associations — into visual language — into painting — into a series of paintings. I was absorbed by Helen Frankenthaler’s works on paper, the painting processes of Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings on vision and embodiment. The artist bringing themselves into the work. ‘The body sees and is seen’. My interest was always in the process rather than the final object. The real value of the work was in what would emerge from that process.

I also came across a Tedtalk by Kevin Slavin while researching and playing with some initial ideas. This is where I appropriated the title Writing The Unreadable. What I took from this talk, was that in building these algorithms the world is "no longer able to read the things [it] wrote”. We were rendering something illegible. What was it? I was curious. Why were these algorithms operating beyond their intended design, behaving independently?

This re-opened my interest in failure, slippage and accidents. I believe more often than not, this is were we can gain creative insight and access to places we would not ordinarily think of going. We only have to be open to it. It makes sense to me, that a greater understanding of something can be learnt from making mistakes and wrong turns. Getting everything right all the time doesn't allow us to fully comprehend and understand a problem.

And so, I began work on a simple drawing algorithm (a set of instructions / a recipe) to see what could happen. The forms used in the drawings came from a series of templates I had made for a previous work :synthia: (which had been sourced from an even earlier abstract painting). The drawings size and shape reflected the most common window to the world of algorithms — the computer screen. Randomness and chance were written into the process and I chose the ballpoint pen as my mark maker. The ubiquitous ballpoint pen and so-called "invention that changed the way we write". I like its curious qualities. When exposed to periods of intense light the pigments transform in colour, sometimes slowly disintegrating beyond control.

The system was now in place. All I had to do was become the machine that followed the recipe. A number of initial drawings were made, failed and modified. The system worked in monochrome and in portrait (as in a piece of lined writing paper). I liked the hyper-real rainbow effect of the ballpoint pens. The suggestion of a 'pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’. The promise of the algorithm — masking something other.

The quote "We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” by John Culkin, Professor and friend of Marshall McLuhan, was also relevant to the work.

These ideas have since developed and evolved into Spliess, A Space of Spaces and currently Phase Portraits which grows a series of forms from an ISBN number.

M.K.: I've thought about your notes a lot, watched the video and looked at the links. Now I understand better the processes behind the images of writing the unreadable, but still can't get as close to it as I could to the Mouse Diary. My reading feels somehow inadequate. Why did you choose your own abstract painting as a starting point? Why was the gesture of "masking" important to you? To express your distance from, or doubts about your earlier work and working method?

I look forward to your responses, and to going on with our dialogue.

D.M.: Please don't think your reading is inadequate. I cannot read the unreadable, it's language obscures its meaning. I too am locked out. Yet, I intuit that there must be something in there, it must mean something. I found the following quote from René Magritte when revisiting my sketchbook "everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see”. This also led me to thinking about your piece The Secret. I find it a very powerful work. I know very little behind the piece, so please forgive me if I misread it. The asymmetrical bracketing operates as a code to be decrypted. The form and structure of the brackets protect and reinforce what is hidden. I want to decode the work and know what is hidden inside The Secret — while simultaneously questioning if I really want to know? The central space remains open (ambiguous) allowing my imagination to project into it. I'm not comparing works, I respect they are from very different positions with very different meanings, but I think maybe there is a similarity in the way they could be read by a viewer.

I like ambiguity in my work (in a playful sense). We are ambiguous creatures living in an ambiguous world (which are our realities?). By taking an ambiguous position, I'm not stating this is how it is or this is how you should read my work. I like there to be space for the imagination to play and explore — to run with the work. Maybe, this is where the real art takes place?

I think WTU differs very much from the MOUSE project in that the algorithm system enforces an autonomy over the work. There is no space for the the sensual and expressive human, only a mechanised system of doing under instruction. Human ‘doing’ rather than human ‘being’. Where as, the mouse drawings, were produced unconsciously while engaged in real day-to-day activities. In some way that makes the MOUSE drawings embodied in and by a world.

I recall, when making the WTU drawings they would often remind me of mandala drawings or mantras. The idea of repetition in order to gain insight. I think where the work differs from MOUSE, is that you can repeat something over and over but if isn't embodied in the world, where is the understanding? I mean understanding in the sense of a change of perception or behaviour.

I’ve never felt it necessary to distance myself from the early abstract paintings. I see that time as part of the journey. I was aware I was wandering, imitating and repeating earlier artists work. However, what I learnt from those artists and my working processes I still carry with me today, and value wholeheartedly. The choice of abstract painting as a source arose from a series of hybrid paintings, Paradigm Shift, in which I had been attempting to embody the digital and re-code the analogue. The process attempted to create a feedback loop turning inside out both digital and analogue. Works remade themselves through samples, which were in turn sample selves in which variable re-configurations arose. It was a process mimicking digital culture, yet felt a very natural and organic way to explore and develop my work. It also created its own genealogy through the process.

With WTU I wanted to see what would happen, how the idea(s) would emerge. Looking back through my sketchbook, I was also interested in the idea of 'a subjective experience of being immersed in data'. A reflection on our current situation, in that we are surrounded by all this information but don’t fully understand what to do with it. We relentlessly focus on practical application for economic return without any true understanding of its physiological, psychological and social effects.

The idea of embodiment, or lack of embodiment in WTU, I later brought into Space of Spaces and the Phase Portrait drawings. To give you a greater insight, I will share with you a draft description about the work. Please note this is by no means finished, but reflects where I am with the project right now [2016].

We create sense and meaning from selective patterns of information we perceive in the world. We code and re-code our worlds to find order and meaning from within a perceived chaos. Meaning is constructed through a relationship between ourselves and the world - it is that which we can give interpretation to. Information is not meaning. Neither is information something that just exists out there in the world, it is a construct carried by physical markers and as such may be hacked into variable combinations.

This project began with the proposition of creating a book using an ISBN as a starting point. An ISBN is a machine readable code used to recognise and identify the product form of a book. It contains information pertaining to language, publisher and publication — but not the work inside. So, what happens when the systems <productidentifier> (the code) becomes the content? What happens when the information becomes too complex and unreadable by machine? and how is it perceived and interpreted by us? [when meaning is not guaranteed]

Into this, I also wanted to introduce strategies and principles from evolutionary biology and dynamical systems theory to re-define my drawing process. Concepts such as emergence, individuation and topological thinking expressed through a drawing system. By beginning with a few simple rules I could generate highly recursive, complex and variable forms. Information is re-coded — generating its system — embodied as form. The emergence of form presupposes the presence of information.

Digits within the ISBN code act as emergent pattern-generating entities allowing spatial detail to unfold through the performative process of each drawing. Control over composition, colour and form are all given over to the parameters of the drawing system. Each drawing a result of the laws of the process.

As in nature complexity emerges from an underlying simplicity. The iteration of quasi-mechanical gestures creates an emergence of complex structures and configurations, trajectories, flows and dynamics. Polygons rhythmically layer, morphing into dense organic forms. The unique ISBN code representing an object in the world and information within a system, becomes a score for a dynamic movement of form. A visual narrative in codex form.

I hope this provides some insight. There are moments of clarity, ambiguity, control / loss of control?! Very much like life!

M.K.: I really like your reading of The Secret — thank you for your comment! And the comparison is interesting and justified. As you realised, the brackets of The Secret are asymmetrical, therefore the goal of the trip is ambivalent. I equally believe in (or simply can't stop) trying to transcend what is given to me (as thoughts, as judgements, as "realities"), and also in that what Kafka put this way: "Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made". So I accept irony, especially when it is self-irony. :-) As I said in a relatively old interview about my work: "Something strikes me as a momentary recognition, then I realise that I have made a mistake. At that point I want to show the whole process. And the feeling of recognition returns."

The Phase Portraits are really beautiful. All iterated from the same ISBN number, they are far (very far) relatives of the half-mountain, half-Dow Jones peaks in the Kevin Slavin video, I guess. But while the example included in the video is humorous and illustrative, your creation is puzzling. The ISBN, identifying a book, but saying absolutely nothing about what is in it, grows into a sequence of suggestive images: a book in its own right. I still imagine to see the curved lines of the ISBN-pattern, waving to me from another world.

As for your Writing the Unreadable, for a while I couldn’t get close to it, well, certainly because I couldn’t read it. I mean I couldn’t read how its unreadability works exactly, and why. I missed the concreteness of that kind of inspiring dis-connection I experienced between the source codes and the final products in case of the Mouse Diary and the very different Phase Portraits. I was thinking about why did you choose your own abstract painting as a starting point? I saw the "vibration” of the masks, but couldn’t fathom out why was the gesture of "masking" important to you in that concrete case. Then I read again your message, and realised that another work should have been taken into consideration. I actually loved your :synthia:, its "re"-s were very close to my mind. And now it seems helpful what you wrote about the connection of the two projects. Now I imagine WTU as a work built on :synthia:. Hiding as another variation on ("re")presenting. The colour sequence of the masks still represents a kind of minusculus change/motion of forms, but it has slowed down to the extremes. It approaches its lowest limit in the yellow variation, where the pattern (the memory of the mask) gets almost lost for the eyes.

Could you please tell me more about the role of "accidents" and "mistakes" in your art? How do you select what to keep and what to discard? Are there cases when the visual presentation of the final iteration gets fully isolated from the info on the process, because you want it to work for itself?

D.M.: I would like to share with you PocketPHOTO and a short text about the work...

Malfunction and failure are not signs of improper production. On the contrary, they indicate the active production of the "accidental potential" in any product. Sylvère Lotringer and Paul Virillio, The Accident of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005

A Nokia mobile phone is dropped into its owner's pocket. The owner is unaware the phone is unlocked. The movement of a body triggers the device into action. Phone calls are made, apps are opened, garbled notes typed and photos taken.

I feel this work provides a marked example of what I meant earlier about failures, slippages and accidents. They provide essential feedback to the direction of a project, often leading to new avenues of thought and investigation. To Virilio, the accident can 'reveal something absolutely necessary to knowledge'. It is 'hyper-functional', as it shows a system in a state of entropy and so aids in revealing 'something important that we would not otherwise be able to perceive'. Sylvère Lotringer / Paul Virilio

The images happened serendipitously. I placed my phone unlocked and unaware into my pocket while at work. I work outdoors in a very physical job involving lots of movement. My pocket was also very threadbare, allowing enough light for the lens to see. As you can imagine my phone was 'running amok’, yet out of all that noise and chaos came this series of images.

An analogy. I believe life itself evolved by chance. A collection of matter and driving forces engaged with their environment morphing through time. Poïesis — an action that transforms and continues the world. Or, a life lived as a drunkards walk ;-)

M.K.: Many thanks for your response! What a beautiful sequence — and the comment is exciting. I like a lot that it has to do with your daily job. What could me more reasonable and coincidental than this sequence? (What is the difference?)

Darren Marsh's website, with many more projects than those included above, can be found at http://www.darrenmarsh.co.uk/home.htm
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