Language often becomes the scaffolding on which a work of art can grow. The scaffold emerges out of the interaction between the work and the writer. This active event of perception is akin to the process of extraction.


What do we see when we see?

What do we read when we read?

The answer may seem obvious- we see images, we read texts. But even these mundane acts- seeing, reading- appear not so simple on reconsideration. Perception, art theory’s ‘much maligned monster’, rises time and again in our engagement with art. Fair then that we start by rousing it, this time not to be reified but to be undone.

(The Weeping Meadow ( 2003 ) directed by Theo Angelopoulos , Source: YouTube)

The philosopher who said ‘I think, therefore I am’- Rene Descartes– wielded doubt as his provocation for knowledge. Mere sensory knowledge of this world could not be a source of certain knowledge, he said. Our senses are fleeting, transitory, ever-changing, how can it be trusted?

“I see a tree, but can I be certain that what I see is a tree?”

Much of semiotic analyses in visual culture follow this line of enquiry, making the sign dispensable vis-à-vis the signified and all presence representational. Approached thus everything seen stands in for something else, often negating the little value we attribute to what we actually see. Imagine if you saw a pipe and thought only of Ceci nest pas une pipe / ‘This is not a pipe’ (courtesy the other Rene). Not only would this trap your perception in this particular signification but also thwart the opportunity to see the pipe as you would see it. The pipe- in not being a pipe but being a signifier of something else – becomes a purely conceptual entity and remains untouched by your senses.

What if we were to consider another approach to perception instead?

Consider, “I see a tree. I am certain that I see a tree. But how is it that I am seeing this tree?”

Seen this way, a tree emerges as a tree in the moment that we perceive it.

(Aankhon Dekhi (2014) directed by Rajat Kapoor, Source: YouTube)

 The materialist philosophical school of Charvakas propose a theory of knowledge which grasps the world through perceptual evidence. Far from clouding our experiences with doubt, they suggest, our senses help accumulate much of our knowledge. Unless a Charvaka perceives the tree with her own senses- sight, touch, smell etc.- she will not take as truth anything known about the tree. This position brings to mind the character of Bauji (played by Sanjay Mishra) in Rajat Kapoor’s Aankhon Dekhi (2013). In the film Bauji is shown to have suddenly decided to only trust his five senses to judge the truth about the world around him. This sets him off on a journey of radical self-discovery, unravelling the reality he inhabits. Refusing to accept mediated knowledge and adamant about testing the veracity of all things, events and experiences himself Bauji refuses to believe in the existence of anything unless proved by his senses.

This pivotal role of the senses, however, poses a strange conundrum: If the senses constitute our knowledge of the world what power can the word command, whether written or spoken?

Is the word stable?

Is language an indubitable mass, that can withstand time and space?

The Upanishadic traditions revered the word. Here the spoken word- Vak- and the heard word- Shruti- were both considered indisputably the true utterances of wisdom. But one often wonders if what is said is coincident with what is heard. ‘So I have heard’ is often an alibi for the word- one that ascertains the word not as spoken but as heard. This inherent uncertainty of the word is illustrated particularly well by the “Do you hear Yanny or Laurel?” debate circulating on the internet.

(‘Do you hear Yanny or Laurel?’, Source: YouTube)

Much like the spoken word what we write is rather unstable.

Is it possible to hope that you will read the same thing that I write?Much like the spoken word what we write is rather unstable.

And yet, we get each other (or think we do) if we pay attention. Language performs, whether by assisting understanding or misunderstanding. A hit or a miss. So, we read what we make and we make what we read- as mutual authors and mutual readers.

If language is so performative, so is writing about art. At the very outset it takes up the precarious task of synchronising the unstable word with the work of art. In the process such writing destabilises, re-purposes, speculates, sometimes representing, sometimes extending the work of art. Language often becomes the scaffolding on which the work of art can grow. This scaffold emerges out of the interaction between the work and the writer/worker. This active event of perception is akin to the process of extraction.

Seeing as Extraction

Extraction, akin to the process of distillation, sorts out particular elements from a mess of a mass. Like extracting silver out of its alloy, calcium out of rock, the right shade for a border from the local matching centre, milk from grated coconut. Extraction is an inevitable- yet unnoticed- aspect of perception.

We spot familiar names more easily than others, we single out the shape of a loved one in an instant in a crowd, we see familiar patterns in unfamiliar images. Our affinities silently guide us in our ways.

So also with our particular experiences of places, images, encounters and stories.

Our mechanisms of sensing are, thus, decisively directed and cannot afford innocence. They are instead active and deeply implicated tools through which the world comes to us in the way we see it. In other words, we can extract many worlds from the one world that we live in.

So too with a work of art.

This extraction is not merely an interpretation, it is a method of creation. It is constitutive of the world and all the things in it. The realisation that we have just made what we think we saw or read destabilises all our comfortable structures of experience. Everything seen or read or heard (or not) becomes implicated with specific agency. By way of this knowing- seeing, what I read also becomes deeply attuned and affected with what I know and do not know. Seen thus reading ceases to be passive. Instead it becomes deeply active.

These ways of extraction latch on to our points of encounter with the world- with art- taking these points forward in time and space. Much like embroidery. Puncturing into a blank surface decidedly, pulling our string of thought through it towards the next stitch.

When one embroiders, one is doing two things at the same time- abstracting and concreting- knowing the larger scheme and taking a minor concrete step in it. But, consider embroidery without design- a free-hand embroidery- where the stitch is not dictated by but dictates the design instead. What if reading were like sewing such an embroidery patch – as if a blind author was braille texting his words into paper with thread, and a blind reader, running her fingers over the words?

In his book Corpus Jean Luc Nancy describes writing and reading as impossible without the touch.

‘the page itself is a touching (of my hand while it writes, and your hands while they hold the book). This touch is infinitely directed, deferred […] In the end, here and now, your own gaze touches the same traces of characters as mine, and you read me and I write you. Somewhere, this takes place’

The text becomes volatile, alive and present when touched, when felt and when made – like a plaster cast or like flowing water. The same text- I read, forward back, backward forward, inside out, top down, sitting, standing, crawling or merely glancing as a passer-by.

The text as a waterfall.
The text as ocean waves.
The text as a river.
The text as a drop.I never step into the same text twice.

About the Author

Srajana Kaikini is a writer, researcher, curator pursuing her Doctoral degree at the Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal. She was part of de Appel’s Curatorial Programme 2012-13, Amsterdam and recipient of the FICA Research Fellowship 2013-14. She holds a Masters in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and has a graduate degree in Architecture. She has been writing and curating projects since 2013 and is currently collections curator at the K K Hebbar Gallery and Arts Centre. Latest curatorial works include Mukhaputa (2017) and Vectors of Kinship (2016) at 11th Shanghai Biennale. Latest publications have appeared in The Deleuze Studies : India Special Issue 2017 and Kunstlicht Special Issue : Translation as Method 2016.  Her doctoral thesis interrogates the philosophy of curatorial practice with a focus on ontology. Her intellectual probes include philosophy of art, curatorial studies, kinship and relations and philosophy of language and image, cinema and space.