It is challenging to disengage our human-centredness and commit to being co-habitants of the world. In the face of this challenge, there are three hopeful shoots I would like to nurture in becoming a critical posthuman. Situated within three particular artmaking processes, this Genealogy entry touches on the body of artmaking experience becoming a material, the human-ish, and difference as an oscillating dynamic of unknowing and materiality. These matters issue from the immersion of my artmaking practice (practice-led research[1]) in “unknowing”.

Unknowing offers a means of active engagement with the unbounded potential of the unknown.[2] Unknowing enables engagement with knowledge practices while excluding assumptions about how we arrive at new understandings. As a strategy for shaping the ways in which we come to understanding, acknowledging the ways in which we do not know could be of greater value than what we do not know.[3] “[T]he articulation of a zone of nonknowledge is the condition – and at the same time the touchstone – of all our knowledge”.[4] Reading Richard Smith’s articulation above through Karen Barad’s “cutting-together apart”[5] proffers a multidimensional mode of making where unknowing – in the form of what I call “in-the-dark methods”[6]– delimits knowledge. In other words, in-the-dark artmaking methods invert the traditional academic momentum towards knowledge by intentionally heading away from it. How then do such methods shape knowledge?

The multidimensionality of in-the-dark methods is better understood through particular artmaking processes. Here we might focus primarily on the in-the-dark method of removing a pre-determined goal from the making process. For example, bloubefok (2021) is a 10-metre ink, wax and charcoal drawing. Removing a goal from the process of its making entails excluding all reference imagery – such as drawings, photos, or mental imagery – and any planned trajectory – such as the step-by-step use of materials. Intentionally beginning to draw without prior knowledge of goal, trajectory or process is daunting.[7] Working at speed initially is an in-the-dark method that moves through and beyond my personal experience of unknowing. Although I may not know how materials and myself are going to engage, the potent presence of drawing, paper, ink, wax, charcoal overcomes the anxiety of not knowing. As the drawing begins it becomes apparent that an aspect of this potency is my past artmaking experience rising up to meet the other materials independently of my thinking. The portal for this body of artmaking experience is my own body, my somatic register. Welby Ings (2014) confirms that new insights are aroused by continuing to draw through the instability, anxiety, and fear that are part of an immersion in unknowing.[8]

Viewing the reverse side of bloubefok in the Jack Heath Gallery, University of KwaZulu-Natal. Courtesy of the artist

Another critical material element of the methods used in making bloubefok is the size of the paper. The accumulation of artwork in my studio during the COVID-19 lockdown meant I could only see and work with one metre at a time. Working incrementally became a new in-the-dark method which, together with removing a goal, instantiated a heuristic mode of wondering/wandering.[9] This heuristic mode enables acting despite not knowing the destination, precise trajectory, or step-by-step process. It embraces the fluid nature of in-the-dark methods, preventing them from developing a habitual carapace that would trammel unknowing.

Bloubefok’s in-the-dark methods revealed three vital insights. My somatic register, being independent of my thinking register, does not seem to distinguish between subject and object.[10] It appears that my body of experience is in itself an artmaking material, not the regulator of artmaking. Seemingly, it is my perception of my presence, not my physical presence, that is anthropocentrically problematic.

Wondering/wandering reveals artmaking as a strange terrain in ‘my’ hauntology (2022) series of paintings. In bloubefok, wax proved to be a viable alternative as a charcoal fixative. Here, wax melted into the heavy 300-gram paper renders it translucent, opening up its back/front boundary.

Caroline Birch, hauntology red (2022), in process, wax, oil paint and Fabriano, 100 x 70 cm. Image courtesy of the artist

Excluding a goal took on further dimensions in hauntology. The process of painting a field of one single pigment at a time, layer by layer, prohibited distinct forms. Without intending it, this in-the-dark method spawned the further in-the-dark methods of excluding a focal point and excluding pre-established meaning. The hauntology creative processes interrogated my perceived interior/exterior boundaries, my understanding of myself as purely and untouchably human, and the ensuing assumption of myself as the presence that brings meaning to artmaking activity. The hauntologiesilluminated my human-ness as approximate, as human-ish. Carefully excluding my thinking processes by eschewing a goal meant that neither meaning nor focal point were imposed onto the painting process. The care lies in the intentionality of the exclusion, the willingness to become vulnerable, and in acknowledging the ensuing openness to alterity.

In-the-dark methods appear to disable the boundary between ‘normal’ as internal and ‘other’ as external when I recognise that alterity is internal and external. This opens the creative process and myself to unknowing, and removes any blockage in perception to the forcefulness of matter in general, and different materials in particular.

Another material outcome of the global lockdown was the creative process of suspending thousands of sticks in the trees around my studio. This stick installation, in stalling the world + (2020), became pivotal in my engagement with unknowing and materiality. Unknowing originates knowledge[11] yet remains untouched by knowledge and thought processes.[12] Accessing the unknown through artmaking is possible when the maker is not thinking as the generator or leader of creative process. When we think about matter, it, like unknowing, seems to withdraw from us.[13] Working with the forcefulness of matter seems to similarly entail relinquishing human thinking as the generator or sole leader of process in general.

There seems to be an inherent gap between knowledge and unknowing,[14] human thinking and unknowing,[15] and human thinking and matter if human thinking is allowed to dominate. Jane Bennett (2010) states that “[i]f we think we already know what is out there, we will almost surely miss much of it”.[16] This is echoed by Brian Massumi’s contention that if we know where we will arrive before we get there, we have gone nowhere at all.[17] In-the-dark artmaking methods offer ways of practicing knowledge generation without needing to know beforehand what one is seeking or how one will find it.

Caroline Birch, detail of in stalling the world +, (2020), site specific installation. Image courtesy of the artist

Hanging dead sticks in trees was driven by the ways in which branches/sticks shape the spaces between them. No two are ever the same. When I am immersed in unknowing and the potency of specific artmaking materials and action, it becomes apparent that materiality is only partly visible and its reach is an untraceable rhythm.[18] When my perception of myself as sole artist is excluded, I become utterly immersed in the intimacy of hanging sticks. Artmaking is all-absorbing because it emerges as a flow whose appearance is never the same from moment to moment. Never to be repeated specificity (or singularity), and infinite difference seem to oscillate. Each instance of hanging a stick is utterly different. This unlimited capacity for difference I consider to be intrinsic to unknowing. In other words, unknowing segues into materiality as a force of differencing. Unbounded difference/extreme specificity oscillate as a dynamic.

Understanding how difference and specificity oscillate is beyond the capacity of my mind because only a part of this oscillation is apparent to my human-ish perception. Through the mobility of the human face, Giorgio Agamben (1993) understands oscillation as a mode that never stops at either the general or the particular.[19] Oscillation is a ceaseless fluctuating between the particular and the universal, as if the oscillation is enabled by their simultaneous presence. Approaching dead sticks and living branches as either dead or alive would have excluded the possibilities offered by their combined dead/alive presence. The notion of materiality as an oscillating force of difference ensued from “both/and”.[20] In other words, the combined dead/alive binaries generated an insight that reached beyond their presence.

This dynamic of unknowing and materiality has the potential to open up human-ish perception to the anthropocentric blind spots of our thinking. In-the-dark methods afford a means of deep somatic engagement that is independent of human-ish thinking. Artmaking becomes an experience of being handled as a material by materials.  In other words, my body of artmaking experience is re-configured with other materials and artistic process. My mind does not, evidently, have the capacity to express this non-verbal experience. The experience of becoming a material has interrogated not only my thinking processes, but my mind as the assumed parameter of human-ish thinking. In-the-dark methods thus activate a critical re-turn[21] to the realm of thinking and knowing, to how these might be enlivened by how we choose to engage with our blind spots. In-the-dark-methods have the capacity to engage myself, and I hope other human-ish beings, in more critical posthuman ways.

I have come to trust the responsiveness and capacities of my body of artmaking experience. There is also a deeper awareness of my somatic, emotional and mental registers. The distress of not knowing at a personal/emotional level how I will instil something meaningful into an artwork, now dissolves in the milieu of making art ‘in the dark’. Here, materiality/meaning emerge from unknowing. What seems to be required of my artist self is the sturdy openness and vulnerability of somatic, emotional, and mental registers. As they become vulnerable, these registers appear as nuanced and versatile modes. In-the-dark artmaking methods have lit up these modes, mind especially, as situated and embodied practices. Viewing ‘my’ mind as a practice, not an entity, has re-calibrated my perception of my human-ish self. Practice-led research as a situated and embodied practice becomes more than the disruption of practice and theory. It offers the potential for materiality as a creative force to interrogate not only the residues of thinking, such as theory, but the performative parameters of the human-ish mind.

In summary, in-the-dark methods reveal that the complex of materials and creative process is inseparable from unknowing and materiality. Creative potential is borne by the dynamic of materiality and unknowing, that is, by the oscillation of unbounded difference/extreme specificity. The practicality of in-the-dark methods contributes the following to new materialism: in-the-dark methods exclude my thinking processes within artmaking, thus offering a de-anthropocentric mode of engagement; they reveal my human-ish mind as a practice; they reveal my communally rooted body of experience as a protean material. This enables me to engage with different materials as a material while fully valuing and acknowledging difference. In-the-dark methods situated within a practice-led research paradigm let us interrogate human-ish creative and thinking practices through the dynamic of infinite difference/extreme specificity.

[1] Barbara Bolt, ‘Materializing pedagogies’, in Working Papers in Art and Design 4 (2006), p. 2 of 7; Carole Gray and Julian Malins, Visualising Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design (Aldershot, Burlington: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 16,103; Graeme Sullivan, Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in visual arts, (2nd Ed.) (London: Sage Publications, 2010), p. 119.

[2] Celia Kourie, ‘Mysticism: A Way of Unknowing’, in: Acta Theologica Supplementum, 11 (2008), p. 64; Celia Morgan, ‘A State of method: Unknowing’, Thesis for Doctor of Philosophy (Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, 2014), p. 1; Michalinos Zembylas, ‘A Pedagogy of Unknowing: Witnessing Unknowability in teaching and Learning’, in: Studies in Philosophy and Education, 24 (2005), p. 143.

[3] Giorgio Agamben, Nudities, edited by Werner Hamacher, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) p. 113; Richard Smith, ‘The Virtues of Unknowing’, in: Journal of Philosophy of Education, 50: 2 (2016), p. 276.

[4] Smith, p 276.

[5] Karen Barad, ‘Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart’, in: Parallax, 20: 3, (2014), p. 168.

[6] For a fuller practice-led research exploration of a range of in-the-dark methods see Caroline Birch, Lit up by the dark: Immersing artmaking practice in unknowing, Thesis for Doctor of Philosophy (University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2023).

[7]  Not knowing seems to be a personal experience of unknowing, which could be met positively or negatively. See Emma Cocker, ‘Tactics for not knowing: Preparing for the Unexpected’, in: On Not Knowing: How Artists Think, edited by Elizabeth Fisher and Rebecca Fortnum, (Black Dog Publishing, 2013), p. 126; Welby Ings, ‘Into the realm of unknowing: Immersive drawing, imagination and an emerging fictional world’, Fifth Art of Research Conference, pp. 4, 11 of 14; Rachel Jones, ‘On the Value of Not Knowing: Wonder, Beginning Again and Letting Be’, in: On Not Knowing, (Symposium hosted by Kettle’s Yard and New Hall College, Cambridge, (29th June 2009), to accompany the exhibition ‘Material Intelligence’, (Kettle’s Yard, (16 May – 12 July 2009; Daniel Mafe, ‘Art and the Sublime: the Paradox of Indeterminacy Unknowing and (Dis)orientation in the Presentation of the Unpresentable’, in: eJournalist, 9: 1, (2009), p. 58.

[8] Ings, pp. 7-9 of 11.

[9] Morgan, p. 184.

[10] Birch, p. 231.

[11] Morgan, p. 1.

[12] Ings, p. 6 of 14.

[13] Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, ‘Introducing the new Materialisms’, in: New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 2.

[14] Morgan, p. 111.

[15] Ings, pp. 6 of 14.

[16] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Thing, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), p. xv.

[17] Brian Massumi in Brian Green, ‘Research, Practice, Emergence; or Emergent Methodologies in Cultural Inquiry and Educational Research’, in: Fusion Journal, 007, 1-11, (2015), p. 7 of 13.

[18] Morgan, p. 2.

[19] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, translated by Michael Hardt, (Minneapolis and London: Minnesota University Press, 1993), pp. 18-19.

[20] Erin Manning, ‘For a Pragmatics of the Useless, or the Value of the Infrathin’, in: Political Theory, 45: 1, (2017) p. 104.

[21] Barad, p. 168.