Guest Blog: A Subtlety

By Andri Alexandrou

This story will have fewer readers than the one I wrote a month ago about the processes of cultural shift and responsibilities of ownership. Or, you know, the closing of Santa’s Pub. Before I write another sentence, let me say that Santa’s was never for a second even considered to be for sale, nor was it sold. Those are just the reasons people read it.

Alongside whatever ecstasy of whatever tiny influence I felt in seeing the readership number rise over the course of a weekend, I regret not conveying a worldview that depends on subtlety. Subtlety is the co-existence of opposing thoughts, and the ability to navigate complexity to the point of non-dogmatic conclusion.

Luckily, “For Sale” is not an essay that could not be written again by someone else.

Subtleties of the pursuit of knowledge are hard to communicate through soundbites. I admire Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ability to bring attention to the importance of science, but he acts as a politician for science, which is not subtle. I began my adult life thinking I would be an astrophysicist, a mathematician of the stars, and in that field I saw first evidence that nothing in the universe is concrete, though forms of objectivity may be applied to small phenomena to extrapolate about the larger whole. Truth is attainable by understanding interlocking systems; it is not isolated.

Jack Ryan, "Sounds for Third Ear" (installation view). Seed Space, September-October 2013.

Jack Ryan, “Sounds for Third Ear” (installation view). Seed Space, September-October 2013.

In the early fall of 2013 when I first began working at Seed Space, artist Jack Ryan installed his Sounds for a Third Ear. He brought in a few photographs of Ayn Rand that had been either collaged or monoprinted. Then he installed a lamp he built that would blink left and right according to Rand’s shifting gaze while she gave an interview, video for which screened on the analog TV set there in the gallery. Then, last, some speakers submitted a low buzz that oscillated just ever so slightly in the brain.

First, “bilateral stimulation” refers to back-and-forth eye movement, which Ryan emphasized by having the lamp blink on and off, left and right, to match Rand’s eyes. Bilateral stimulation has shown soothing effects, is even used in treating those with PTSD. It can act as a general mood relaxant. Second, the “binaural tone system” that emitted from the speakers contributed to the low, constant buzzing. Coming from two speakers were tones set 10 Hz apart, which in the brain’s processing turned into some third sound that only existed because someone is standing there to hear it. Cue the “third ear” in the title. That tone difference created the oscillation (a wave, if we want to speak in visual terms) in the (third) ear. At this certain tonal difference, the brain understands the oscillation as a frequency, and this particular frequency motivates the brain to achieve higher-level functioning. It’s better able to synthesize memory and information. I remember trying to record the oscillating sound on my phone, and on playback it sounded only as a flat tone—no oscillating. Well, I thought, the brain exists after all.

In a talk Mike Calway-Fagen gave in conjunction with the opening of his Story Breakers just a few weeks ago at the Hutchenson Gallery at Lipscomb, he referred to the nautical eye. The nautical eye operates like the ear does, in that it’s always open, always observing, though it may do so imprecisely. For Calway-Fagen, this is the extended metaphor that refers to the way we as human beings process the coded, visual system that dictates how we move about the world in an orderly fashion. Like a concrete block is able to demarcate where you’re supposed to put your car, and the rough amount of space we imagine that car to take up even if a concrete block is re-situated in a gallery setting. This out-of-placement makes us realize what we’re doing when we are out there in the real world and processing information only in a general, back-of-the-brain kind of way. Cognitive processing, or conceptual thought, is something always happening. We only recognize it when those thoughts are called forth to reconcile separate parts; when two eyes focus on a distant object to understand it as a three dimensional object; and when two ears allow external sounds to move the brain to higher function, to achieve another internal dimension.

When I sat in the space two days a week with Sounds for a Third Ear, almost a year ago now, I felt that Jack Ryan had created a space for the existence of nuance and subtle thinking. “One of the strengths of subtle art,” I said in an email, “is the ability to infiltrate someone’s regular thought processes without forcing them to surrender completely to the point of view of the artist, or the work… It encourages someone to exist in that place where conclusions haven’t really been reached, but where they’re also not precluded from happening.”

For all the scientific language of bilateral stimulation and binaural tones, it seemed that he intended to create a visceral response. In contrast to most visceral reactions, the usual kind being reactions to horror movies, to blood, to mutilation or euphoria, his installation motivated visceral nuance. It achieved something I can’t duplicate in language.

As people entered the space, they took on quiet. Of course, this always happens anywhere with white walls and dedicated preciousness that surrounds an object someone gives the name of Fine Art. But this show helped to materialize thought as a physical space one could occupy. I could reverberate in response to the images and sounds, and feel a meditative change in thought processes. Sounds for a Third Ear supported the notion of artistic product that for all its ability to be described, the mind’s experience of artwork is still something above the easily contained or defined. “The brain is wider than the sky.” Even if language has limits, the brain can still comprehend.

Ayn Rand studied cognitive processes as the interaction between the conscious mind and the automatic functions of the subconscious. Even in the most literal translation that brain function is equal to a series of inputs and outputs, we still yield that it is independent. “Art is the selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgements,” she says. Yes, it is selective. We know that we are capable of influencing that selection. Consciousness can understand itself.

*I do not like Kara Walker’s A Subtlety; I like that I do not like it; and I have not come to a conclusion about how I feel. I was told to like her early work in art history classes, and so I did. Is she hitting me, a white American, where it hurts? Is she blind to the general audience’s willingness to exploit, and therefore, not in control of her own intention? Is she removing herself from academic canon and going straight for the guttural that history isn’t history? I’m not sure, I’m not sure.

andriAndri Alexandrou has worked in the arts in Nashville since 2011. She is an artist and independent writer whose work has been published in the Nashville Scene and Native Magazine. She works currently at Seed Space, which is Nashville’s only nonprofit dedicated solely to contemporary art.
Photo courtesy of Lance Conzett, Nashville photographer and journalist.

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