Cowlick: The Process

The Concept

Cowlick is a series of work that incorporates sculpture, performance and photography.
Previously my practice has attempted to encourage physical interaction with geometric
sculptures. These attempts were unsuccessful as they did not invite the spectator on an
intuitive level nor were they accompanied by a prompt. To resolve these issues Cowlick is highly seductive in materiality and aesthetic while also relying on the recognisable task of grooming.


The form of the work was first influenced by the topological saying ‘if a sphere were
covered in hair you wouldn’t be able to brush it without getting a cowlick’. This connection to the cow was furthered by the second topological saying ‘A cow is like the world’. Both statements explain their weighted meaning without any mathematical jargon. It provides an image to the readers mind’s eye to aid them into understanding. I bring these sayings into reality to help the spectators into understanding on a physical level.


Alongside my own objectives I believe other perceptions may be drawn from the work due to current environmental issues that we are facing. Issues such as animal welfare and the impact agriculture has on our environment. Although not the primary aim it is a concern that will be acknowledged predominantly within my choice of materials but also evidenced within my researching of sustainable farming, leather and alternatives.


I will first give a brief overview of topology and why physical interaction can be useful
when attempting to understand it. This will include a section on formal knowledge; a theory about how our learned responses aid our understanding of more complex ideas. I will then continue by highlighting the difficulties that physical interaction can encounter and possible solutions to overcome these.


Understanding Topology
Topology is described as ‘rubber sheet geometry’ (Gamwell, L. 2015; 229), depicting the
stretching, folding and crumpling of a continuous plane. Mathematician and philosopher Luitzen Brouwer became a founder in general topology for his contribution of the Fixed Point theorem in 1912. Brouwer continued the work of Jean-Victor Poncelet who began generalising the relationship between linear perspective and projective geometry. Projective geometry is dependent upon a set of invariant points within projective space. This space has more points than Euclidean space which allows for the geometric transformations of line and plane to occur.


Brouwer was able to calculate the distortion of forms relative to a viewpoint that appears invariant under transformations using light and shadows; ‘The shadow of an elliptical object might be circular or elongated, but that shadow remains an ellipse’ (Gamwell, L. 2015; 229). Mathematician Gerrit Mannoury taught Brouwer and a number of other students that pure mathematical entities are mind-dependent and can only be achieved through meditation and creating a mental construct. He believed that once experiencing an insight into such knowledge it is ineffable, and therefore trying to communicate the experience could not be possible in language or symbols directly; a view he then extended to mathematical entities. This caused him to communicate with his students through an exhortative tone rather than that of a mathematical proof.

This exhortative tone is also seen in Martin Heidegger’s definition of the word ‘understanding;’ it is as follows: ‘it involves an act of understanding (verstehen). Understanding is not a theoretical knowing that we possess, but involves a process through which we come to know. It is something we do. Understanding is being-in-the-world.’ (Bolt, B. 2011; 183-4)


Formal Knowledge
Marcel Mauss was a French sociologist whose academic work navigated the boundaries
between sociology and anthropology. His theory of connaissance and habitus described in ‘techniques of the body’ explores how body actions are taught and become embedded; ‘not by the individual themselves, but by all his education, by the whole society to which he belongs, in the place he occupies in it.’ (Mauss, M. 1935; 76). These body actions (such as eating or drinking) are stimulated through an adaptive response to a physical, mechanical or chemical aim. This is known as formal knowledge, which holds daily stimulus and body actions as a core foundation of our knowledge. It explains why we have associations and will respond to certain objects and environments.


Mauss’ theory of connaissance and habitus was presented within art during the Neo Concrete movement. The movement consisted of a collection of young Brazilian artists in the 1950s that aimed to bring sensuality to concrete art. They agreed with Concrete artists that the utilisation of line, colour and plane was the most effective way to present abstract concepts such as topology. However, this rational approach meant that the works were visual and had no action or task to aid the viewer into understanding. To progress this idea of presenting abstract concepts as well helping spectators to understand, Lygia Clark- a co founder of the Neo-Concrete movement- believed that the ‘spectator’s interaction in the work is not limited to reception but to achieve realisation themselves’ (Roinik, S. 1999; 76). Clark demonstrates Mauss’ theory by first using simple geometric shapes, ‘since numbers and triangles are perfect and eternal, mankind’s knowledge of them is certain.’ (Gamwell, L. 2015; 158). Basic two-dimensional forms such as squares, triangles and circles have been taught to us throughout our education. Euclid’s Elements states within the first proof that a ruler can be used to draw a straight line and a compass can be used to draw a circle. By using these two rules an equilateral triangle can be made. These initial proofs not only show how line is converted into two-dimensional shapes but how one can do that using tools.

We have also learnt, through education and through living, how these flat shapes can be
constructed together to form three-dimensions. An example of Clark applying these forms to formal knowledge is in her work Bicho (critters) 1960. A sculpture constructed of semi-circles, triangles and quadrilaterals, each joined along the edge with visible hinges. By making a sculpture that can fold Clark is encouraging the sculpture to be reconfigured by her audience into a range of different shapes, all of which could move and none of which remain static. ‘There is no right way to display this sculpture, there is no front, no back likewise there is no inside or outside. (Walker Art Center. 2009)

Within mathematics it has been considered that those with the visual sense perceive a two-dimensional projection of a three-dimensional space. Professor in mathematics; Alexei Sossinski has been quoted saying “The blind person (via his other senses) has an
undeformed, directly 3-dimensional intuition of space” (Jackson, A. 2002; 1249)

Although sight within mathematics has been deemed as limiting (especially when trying to understand topology), its role within formal knowledge cannot be disputed, for it allows an individual to have the basic knowledge of geometry. Within the educational system we are first shown the form alongside its description; for example: Circle- a line forming a closed loop, every point on which has an equal distance from its centre point. This understanding is then clarified further when we view the demonstration of how to draw the circle and how to use tools (a compass) in order for us to draw it for ourselves. It is from these thorough teachings that we remember and therefore can imagine how a circle is drawn. It is from memory that the ‘imagining of an action activates the same processes in the brain as actually enacting it’ (Fisher, J. 1997; n.a).


The difficulties and solutions of physically engaging artwork
Nicolas Bourriaud; a French art critic and curator coined the term relational aesthetics. The term is defined as ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’(Tate, 2017). Bourriaud believed artists that concerned themselves with relational aesthetics to be facilitators rather than makers and regarded art as information exchanged between the artist and the viewers. The artist, in this sense, gives audiences access to power and the means to change the world.
‘Artworks looked like Lordly luxury items in this urban context (The dimensions of
both artworks and the apartments where they were displayed were intended to
signal the distinction between their owners and the hoi polloi), but the way their
function and their mode of presentation has evolved reveals a growing urbanization
of the artistic experience.’ (Bourriaud, N. 1998; 160)

It explains why a visitor may be hesitant in a gallery, or when being confronted with an
artwork that involves participation. For artists that aim to facilitate the many, they must embrace the urban environment and the aesthetic of the urban. This is true for Jeppe Hein’s ongoing series Modified Social Benches. The benches are placed throughout the city making them fully available to the public. Also, the bench as a piece of furniture is recognisable as something that does not require permission to use. The benches retain most of their original basic form but are altered to various degrees to make the act of sitting a conscious physical endeavour.


What does the act of sitting achieve? It provides a space for reflection on the ideas being offered, yes. However, it speaks less of the physical form and more of social structures and behaviours in different environment. Therefore, it is a combination of task, object and environment being presented. It is known that certain tasks achieve positive and
motivational outcomes in individuals known as flow. Flow theory was established by
professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1997). Flow is the psychological state that people
experience when engaged in an appropriately challenging activity. This results in the
participant gaining great personal satisfaction and deep learning. Examples of activities that are included within the research are driving, cooking and playing piano. Each task goes through a sequence of instruction, activity and outcome. Immediate feedback is a part of the outcome, which outlines a person’s strengths and weaknesses. In order to facilitate these experiences a balance of high skill and high challenge is needed.


Although clearly affective on a personal level, I am unable to use this method of high skill, high challenge for a generalised public. Instead I’ve reviewed the tasks undergone daily and chosen the most neutral response, grooming. This neutral task ensures that everyone has the skill level and motivation to accomplish the motion. However, the overall task is set by new topological parameters for which the outcome is challenged in its very statement of ‘If a sphere was covered in hair you wouldn’t be able to brush it without getting a cowlick’.

Although task and object are represented well and could achieve physical interaction, the factor of environment needs consideration. The object is representing a cow that is usually seen within a rural setting. This major consideration will be tackled throughout the process as each piece of work manifests itself in a variety of mediums.

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