Sitting with Ceramic Stone

Slow

Sitting with Ceramic Stone

By David Gagnon Walker 

Cultural theorist Jonathan Crary writes persuasively about what he calls 24/7  capitalism1, the condition  in which every moment of our lives can be reified and monetized by digital networks of production and  consumption. This absorption of everyday life into the network has altered our perception of reality in  many ways, not least of which is its coercive tendency to “eliminate the useless time of reflection and  contemplation.”

Alberta intermedia artist Alex Linfield’s work engages similar questions about digital media’s impact on  our perception and our lives. I own one of his sculptures, which originally appeared as part of his  exhibition W Y S I W Y G at NSCAD University in Halifax. For this edition of SNAPline, I proposed to  spend a day sitting with the piece in “reflection and contemplation” and to transcribe what passed  through me as I did. The following text is the result of that process.

The image of the rock cannot possibly provide the same experience the object holds, just as the object in some small respects ceases to be whole once its virtues are able to exist elsewhere simultaneously.2

— Alex Linfield, W Y S I W Y G 

I’m sitting with the image of a stone.

It’s a sculpture by Alex Linfield.

It’s made of hollow slipcast ceramic, airbrushed to look like a granite stone. It’s pretty remarkable, how  much it looks like a granite stone.

It’s like a photocopy of a granite stone.

It’s like a black and white photocopy of a granite stone.

Granite, of course, is often already black and white. But here somehow the black-and-whiteness is  amplified. Maybe because I know it’s a copy. Although from a distance I’m not sure you would.

Alex is a friend. The sculpture is very realistic and I think he did a good job.

Good job, Alex.

I’m sitting with the image of a stone.

It’s made of hollow slipcast ceramic and it looks like just a black and white photocopy of a black and  white granite stone.

Would Alex object to my calling it a deepfake of a stone?

Deepfakes, of course, are virtual. They’re the incursion of the virtual on what we think of as the real.

(Although that real still comes to us through a screen. Deepfakes are video. You might be reading this  on a screen, too. Or maybe you got the print copy. Is that different? How? Does it matter that before  typing this up I wrote the first draft by hand? Do you believe me? Do you care?)

This stone isn’t video. It’s sitting on my desk by the window in the attic of the house I’m subletting by  the river in the town where I was born.

This stone isn’t made of pixels but this stone isn’t a stone. It’s a very good copy, made of hollow  ceramic, of a stone.

Alex says virtuality has to do with essences.3

Etymologically, “virtual” as in “virtue” as in “nobility, ideals”.

So virtuality springs from the realm of ideals. Although the virtual is not the thing, and it’s not made of  the same things that make up the thing, it contains the essential properties of the thing.

This stone isn’t made of pixels and it isn’t on a screen, so it isn’t a deepfake of a stone. But, it contains  the essential properties of a deepfake – the incursion of the image of a stone into the real world of my  desk by the window in the attic of the house I’m subletting by the river in the town where I was born.

So, it’s the image of a deepfake with the essential properties (the incursion of the virtual in the real) of a  deepfake, without being made of the same stuff (pixels) as a deepfake.

So, it’s a virtual deepfake.

So, it’s virtually virtual.

So, does that make it real?

(What the hell am I looking at here?)

I’m sitting with the image of a stone (with the virtual deepfake of a stone).

What’s brilliant about this stone is how it abstracts virtuality from the virtual. It makes the virtual real,  and it makes the processes behind the virtual visible. To a point. These things are always fugitive, and  will always slip away from you whenever you try to grasp them. This work makes that visible too. It  shows us how we see, and it lets us glimpse (in an incomplete way that’s constitutive of the thing it’s  trying to show) the blind spots and limitations in how we see. W Y S I W Y G. What You See Is What You  Get. It’s breaking my brain a little to sit with this stuff. I think that’s probably the point.

Good job, Alex. I’m glad you’re my friend.

I’m sitting with the image of a stone.

It’s a virtual deepfake of a stone, which is to say it’s a fake stone in real space, really sitting on my real  desk (by the real window in the real attic of the real house I’m really subletting by the real river in the  real town where I was really born).

It’s made of hollow slipcast ceramic, airbrushed to look like a granite stone.

The hollowness is important.

It’s the most surprising thing about the object, and what most distinguishes it from a real granite stone. It looks like it should weigh forty pounds. Then you pick it up and it weighs, idunno, four? The piece is called Superficial Weight. Probably I should have mentioned that earlier. Sorry, Alex, for not mentioning that earlier.

What the image of the stone has in common with a granite stone is we can’t see what’s inside them. Where it differs from a granite stone, I assume, is the nature of what’s inside.

(Is what’s inside a thing an essential property of the thing?)

Of course I suppose I can’t know for sure.

I’m sitting with the image of a stone (with the virtual deepfake of a stone).

It’s made of hollow slipcast ceramic, airbrushed to look like a granite stone.

It looks terribly heavy and is in fact surprisingly light.

Also:

It looks terribly sturdy and is in fact surprisingly fragile, delicate, brittle.

I keep learning this the hard way.

For example: when I carried it up from the living room to the attic to start writing this text, I chipped a  little piece off the top of the stone. I’m not even sure how it happened. It must have just been the  pressure of my fingers, or the vibration from setting it down on the desk.

I did something similar the day I brought it home.

Sorry, Alex, for chipping your sculpture. Although in my defense you didn’t make it nearly as sturdy as a  stone.

(Is the sturdiness of a thing an essential property of the thing?)

The fragility feels true to the virtuality of the stone.

Remember it’s a virtual deepfake. And deepfakes are digital. And the digital, you may have  experienced, is a fragile, impermanent thing.

Have you ever had something go wrong with your laptop, your email, your Wi-Fi, your phone?

More evidence that the digital is a fragile, impermanent thing: I’ve been learning guitar, and my fingers  hurt: fragile. And, one day I’m going to die: impermanent.

(Alex likes to make this connection, between “digital” and fingers.4 More etymology.)

After I chipped the sculpture carrying it upstairs this morning, I picked up the piece that had chipped off  the top, found the gap in the paint where it chipped from, and delicately put it back in its place.

Magically, it stuck there.

Magically, I can’t find the spot anymore. I’m trying right now and I can’t.

It was absorbed back into the image.

The seamless virtual virtual stone.

I’m sitting with the image of a stone (with a seamless virtual virtual stone).

It’s made of hollow slipcast ceramic, airbrushed to look like a granite stone.

It looks terribly sturdy and is in fact surprisingly fragile, delicate, brittle.

My sitting with the image also feels fragile, delicate, brittle.

My presence, my capacity for real sustained presence, feels fragile, delicate, brittle.

My capacity to let my mind wander feels fragile, delicate, brittle.

(Those sound like opposites but I don’t believe they are.)

I want to focus on the stone and let my mind wander and track where the wandering goes, and it’s like  the wandering hits a wall.

Like I need right away to be distracted.

Like something terribly painful might be just about to happen if I can’t right away be distracted.

Like the mind isn’t sturdy enough to let itself really be bored. Like it’s not sturdy enough to trust itself to  really let itself wander and really see where (what feeling? what memory?) it goes. It’s exhausting to be  so fragile. Are you all exhausted too? Jan Verwoert writes about a burnt-out community, a convalescent  community, a community of the exhausted.5 Is that us? Could it be?

(Is the sturdiness of a thing an essential property of the thing?)

This is another blind spot in how we see.

These blind spots aren’t neutral.

There’s money to be made creating them and there’s money to be made exploiting them. We know who’s making this money.

Which apps do you use on your phone?

I’m sitting with the image of a stone.

It’s made of hollow slipcast ceramic, airbrushed to look like a granite stone.

I think the Rockies are made of granite.

Are they? Does it matter? Would Alex object to my thinking of the mountains when I’m looking at his  image of a stone?

A magpie cleaning its feathers, totally absorbed in the task.

I’m sitting with the image of a stone.

It’s made of hollow slipcast ceramic, airbrushed to look like a granite stone.

The hollowness is important.

My sitting also feels hollow.

My presence also feels hollow.

I believe hollowness is good. I believe emptiness is good. Emptiness can be truth and beauty and peace and space. But it won’t be if you can’t let it be empty. It won’t be if you keep trying to fill and fill and fill.

(Is what’s inside a thing an essential property of the thing?)

What the image of the self has in common with the self is we can’t see what’s inside them. Where it differs from the self, I assume, is the nature of what’s inside.

Of course I suppose I can’t know for sure.

The sun is setting now. It was high in the sky when I started.

I’m sitting with the image of a stone.

The self feels fragile, delicate, brittle.

It’s exhausting to be so fragile. Are you exhausted too?

I’m sitting with the image of a stone.

The self feels hollow. I’m trying to let it stay that way.

I’m trying to see my own seeing.

My friend is showing me how.

March 23, 2021 

Edmonton, AB


1. Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 40.

2. Linfield, W Y S I W Y G, 37.

3. Linfield, W Y S I W Y G, 36.

4. Linfield, W Y S I W Y G, 32.

5. Verwoert, “Exhaustion and Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform“, 70-1.

Bibliography

Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London & New York: Verso Books, 2013. Linfield, Alex. W Y S I W Y G. MFA Thesis, NSCAD University, 2019.

Verwoert, Jan. “Exhaustion and Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform”. In Tell Me What  You Want, What You Really, Really Want, edited by Vanessa Ohlraun, 13-72. Rotterdam &  Berlin: Piet Zwart Institute & Sternberg Press, 2010.