In Defence of Holism: textures and materials, words conversing with images, theory with practice, disciplines joined together

Tess Baxter

In my artistic and academic practice of video art, I make work out of rather than in the virtual world of Second Life, an online space that is now seventeen years old. My video art includes archive and contemporary film, images and sound, and this reworking is both informed by and informs theory. For example, my video art Future City relates different ideas of the future across time, overlaying The City, a 1939 view of the problems of the American city and a 2017 installation in Second Life by Cica Ghost, Future. But it is not just about the visual, as the sound is also overlaid with music by the contemporary band, The Fucked Up BeatThe Missing MileThe Safe Shipment of Small Cargo, and Breaking Ice take similar approaches. In this way, I react against the trend in machinima – the name given to videos made in games worlds – of player prowess in gameplay, which now dominates over inventiveness and art. But it is also a way of working across disciplines; from the social and historical aspects of sociology and anthropology, through the written word in literature and translation from literary studies, to images and sound from film studies and contemporary art. Although Second Life could be treated as ‘media’, media theory has to share with others, and in my view, doesn’t fare well. This approach presents theory as engaged with practice, echoing C Wright Mills’s view in The Sociological Imagination (1959) that method and theory are a means, not an end. And with no ‘off the shelf’ methodology for practice based research, it is more about understanding shared ideas and vision than singular excellence, as Natalie Loveless argues, and requires a self-critical approach. 

Texture is essential to Second Life. It is the name given to imported images, which are placed onto three dimensional objects to give them a distinctive identifiable appearance in form, shape and colour. It is that dynamic, the combination of shape, illusions, colour and light that gives objects their dimensionality, which video art and photos record. This is not a purely new digital phenomena, as painting and other artforms have always played with those elements. The image below shows a basic ‘prim’ shape made with the tools provided and prominent in Second Life, and shows the properties of the default plywood texture. But materiality is also present and essential, as the physical properties that determine how objects behave. Both the cube and my avatar (Tizzy Canucci) have different texture and materiality so they look and behave differently, but the ‘body is a thing among things’, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued in 1969 well before ‘the digital’. As Daniel Miller and Heather Horst set out in their open prospectus in Digital Anthropology (2012). both digital and analogue objects have material properties – is is not exclusive and what varies is how it is expressed. This view of digital and analogue as having similar properties parallels Noortje Marres’s refusal of digital exceptionalism. And to paraphrase Raymond Williams in Marxism and literature (1977), texture, material and digital are parts of the properties of an object, but this does not mean the texture, the material or the digital is the object.

Taking another angle, Tim Ingold in the textility of making (2010) sees skill or craft as emerging from a tactile understanding of materials in the practical sense, rather than ‘materiality’. And as Victoria Mitchell expanded in Textiles, text and techne,‘Relationships between text, textiles and techne are of critical interest not only for what they reveal about textiles and language; there are implications in their association which may be relevant to an understanding of what it means to create forms through materials’. This ties together the written and visual, literary and craft, texture and material, as connected forms of practice, theory and academic discipline.

In turn, this puts words into perspective, as just another way of understanding and communicating. In my own work, I include words alongside and sometimes within video art, but I rarely construct narratives or stories. An example is Innominate, where the creators of the installation space invited visitors to tell a story, but I included words simply as a list of things I saw in that space, without deliberately arranging them. I superficially refused to tell a story, but I did that in the knowledge that people would ‘read from’ the image just as I ‘wrote into’ it, a textual metaphor for the mutually supportive relationship of the visual that came from Cloke et al’s geographical perspective. This also connects with Henry Jenkin’s concept of fandom as textual poachers who blur fantasy and reality, which art practice does by engaging with theory in practical ways. Academically, this all steps away from the journal article as the ascendant way to communicate ideas. As Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López argued in Writing in images and sounds, to adequately discuss film, connecting edits of film clips is to remain more deeply engaged with their possible meaning, even if they are visually ambiguous. The only reason that writing seems more objective is through convention and status.

In my own practice, I developed my printmaking out of my video art, and was a development that connected to Pierre Lévy’s theory of the virtual and the digital being in a continuous cycle. Printmaking, using art paper, is not a plain copy; it demands a reinterpretation of tonality, colour and texture from the original light on screen. This again draws theory and practice together; Jai McKenzie’s light+photomedia sees the technological source, digital or otherwise, as having less categorical importance than what it does. In my practice, ink on paper reflects light, whereas screens transmit light; that is the difference that leads to a difference in perception, not whether it is digital or analogue. Indeed I see it more as a practice of translation, which is my academic reapplication of theory. Translation is a textual process of literary origins that considers the shades of meaning and cultural perceptions between different languages that lead to differing understandings in translation, which includes the untranslatable. The translation from light on screen to ink on paper is a visual way of working through the ideas of texture, textility and text. It engages with how objects and understanding inter-relate. But just as texture is important, so is materiality. Paper is very different from screen, and every paper has different properties where texture and materiality are equally present and interact with colour and form. Here, as an example is Edward Thomas, as video art, meeting This Moment Brief, a print work, the two being joined by The Bridge, a poem by Edward Thomas from a hundred years earlier.

Image: Tizzy Canucci

Tess was brought up in Lancashire and now lives in the Lake District, in the north of England. After time in conservation work, during the 1980s she was an architectural model maker. After a period in local politics, in 2001 she set up in business to self-publish her postcards and books about local food traditions and landscape, which inventively combined text and image. She graduated with a BA in Sociology with Independent Studies from UCLan in 2009, and an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture from Manchester University the following year. She is now completing a practice based PhD in Contemporary Art, with video art and printmaking as practice, and writing and still images for the dissertation, at Lancaster University. With no ‘off the shelf’ methodology for practice based research, it is more about understanding shared ideas and vision than singular excellence (Loveless, 2019: 5–28), requiring a self-critical approach. Her past – three dimensional model making, social and political concerns, and editing the graphical and verbal form – all come through in her video art and academic work, as does her long fascination with animation. But her influences are wide and draw from the history of film, poetry, music and literature.
twitter: @tizzycanucci
instagram: @tess_baxter_
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