Creative Practice, Nature & the Ambient Mode of Being

Storyboard P in "Black Magic," 2012. Courtesy of Hycide Magazine.

Storyboard P in “Black Magic,” 2012. Courtesy of Hycide Magazine.

Ambience denotes a sense of circumambient, or surrounding, world. It suggests something material and physical, though somewhat intangible, as if space itself had a material aspect–an idea that should not, after Einstein, appear strange. (Morton, 33-34)

How can object-oriented ontology (OOO) and other theories help us understand how contemporary artists employ mixed realities and simulate natural phenomena? Video game researcher Ian Bogost looks at the production of works that speculate about the “inner lives” of objects. Timothy Morton’s work involves immersion (of objects) in the surrounding world. Objects include the human body and what happens when an object/body becomes embedded in the environment. In Ghost Nature, Art and the Secret Realities of an Object-Oriented Universe, I highlight the work of artists in Ghost Nature and artists whose works exemplify what Morton calls ambient poetics.

Ambient poetics is a rhetorical mode that aims to conjure up a sense of a surrounding world. Art draws attention to what surrounds us, what normally goes unnoticed as background—as in ambient music, for example… or as in the poetics of race and place. In Hycide magazine’s video Black Magic (2012), dancer Storyboard P wears a sequined shirt that casts reflections on a brick wall as he moves. Dust particles on the ground are disturbed, creating a smoke effect. Storyboard P, a master of a dance form he calls ‘mutant,’ pops and twirls and contorts his body in the light. Through the movements of his body, fully immersed in his environment, he reveals to us an ambient mode of being.

Your soul is hundreds of layers. You can never fully convey all of the layers but you can give people a summary of it. –Storyboard P Dances on the Brooklyn Bridge

Sebastian Alvarez. "Phototaxis," 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Sebastian Alvarez. “Phototaxis,” 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Immersion is a metaphoric use of the experience of submersion applied to representation, fiction or simulation. Immersion can also be defined as the state of consciousness where a visitor’s or immersant’s awareness of physical self is transformed by being surrounded in an engrossing environment. Immersion requires a suspension of disbelief enabling action or reaction to stimulations encountered in a virtual or artistic environment. In Phototaxis, the Sebastian Alvarez (behind the scenes) uses the human body to simulate a moth being attracted to light. Berndnaut Smilde‘s Nimbus and Barbican’s Rain Room produces natural phenomena indoors. Smilde creates a delicate balance of smoke, moisture and light. The rain is programmed to ensure the visitor won’t get wet. When Storyboard P moves it is as if invisible strings tied to his limbs and torso are manipulating his movements. However, there are no strings or wires. His motions are improvised and of his own volition. It is the physicality of his performance (often on location) that immerses and transfixes the viewer.

In other words, to truly experience immersive, virtual art you have to go there.

In Du Bois’ Ambient Poetics: Rethinking Environmental Imagination in The Souls of Black Folks Anne Raine notes how nature is central to the articulation of the “spiritual world” in which African Americans live and strive. Raine writes that Du Bois’s main concern is “not to foster attention to and concern for nonhuman nature, but to explore the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century.”  Raine, notes that, although The Souls of Black Folks is not ecological in theme, it is strikingly “environmental” in form. The black identity is liquid and flexible like the body of a dancer who moves with nature. The African and African American identity is  deeply embedded in nature. Here, I intentionally compare/contrast the work of European artists with African American artist/performer Storyboard P. I seek to explore different ways to look at immersion and magic realism, a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment. In ‘Africa As an Alien Future’: The Middle Passage, Afrofuturism, and Postcolonial Waterworlds Ruth Mayer explores the poetics of race and place in films such as Amistad and the electronic music of Drexciya who conceived of an imaginary subcontinent populated by water breathing militaristic mutants called Drexciyans. Drexciyans are the children of African women slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Storyboard P plays a key role in Kahlil Joseph’s music video for Until the Quiet Comes.

Production still from Flying Lotus' "Until the Quiet Comes," 2013. Courtesy of Kahlil Joseph.

Production still from Flying Lotus’ “Until the Quiet Comes,” 2013. Courtesy of Kahlil Joseph.

Mae Jemison aboard Endeavour. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

Mae Jemison aboard Endeavour. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

Timothy Morton might argue that the goal of the artist is not to transcend the aesthetic frame (of nature), but to imagine oneself fully embedded in it. Storyboard P talks about this in another way: I think that art is supposed to have flaws. I think when you show that there’s flaws in it I think that is what makes it flawless. In a sense, it is the flaws that leave openings for new possibilities, for new layers that explore the soul of the artist. Storyboard P brings us into the 21st century and what it means to be black and an artist. Art involves the use of both physical and virtual imagery to generate a fantasy-environment; “the imagery itself is ambient, indicating that which surrounds the (subject)” and by metaphorical extension the viewer. Listen carefully to the following interview to hear clues to how ambience is part of the artist’s creative process/practice:

Ambience is the palpability of the interconnectedness of existence – and in particular there’s a certain notion of ambience we get from the avant-garde West and ancient East which is all about dissolving or diving through inside/outside, fore-ground/background… –Luke Jaaniste

Like with ambient poetics and object-oriented ontology the subject matter of blackness, or black history requires a methodology of its own. It demands different ways of viewing how we experience nature and natural phenomenon. It requires the inclusion of race and place in the discussion about ambient poetics.

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