The text that accompanies an artwork has a lot of influence over how people
interpret it. Knowing how much information to provide is a delicate balancing
act. Do you provide a dense wall of information, that lists every step taken to
make the piece? Do you keep it loose and imply things in a light-handed fashion?
Or, should you say nothing at all and let the viewer interpret everything on
their own? These types of questions appear to ask different things at first
glance. With the second glance, though, you begin to see that they are all
asking the same thing: How abstract do I make it?
When confronted with texts that are long and dense I find that they tend to be
narrative based. I will stress, here, that this is not the case every single
time. With that said, it has happened enough for me to make this my default
expectation. When I do come across it, they tell the story of how the piece came
about and/or how the artist's practice was born. I refer to these types of texts
as "procedural-based". The reason why is because of the similarities it has with
procedural programming languages. The most notable being the procedural aspect
itself. There is, also, a secondary point I would like to mention alongside
that. Its place on the Abstraction Pyramid mimics the "low-level" nature of said
The Abstraction Pyramid is an aid I use to help position and name the type of
abstraction a piece of writing uses; It’s an idea inspired by computer
programming. I insist that you take the idea with a pinch of salt, though. It's
there to offer a waypoint but it comes with the accuracy of marking out a
distance with just your hands.
The idea of abstraction layers is commonplace in software development. The gist
of them is to bundle up a set of behaviours and commands into a succinct
package/idea/layer. A trade-off comes with this act, though. The bundling hides
away a fair amount of detail for efficient communication. A basic example would
be a software program itself. Imagine you wanted your computer to register all
the letters and numbers you typed. And, every time it registered a key it
displayed it on the screen. Once you finished, it then stored that information
in a file. Without going into any further detail, I think you can see what I'm
describing is a word processor. By agreeing on the name "word processor" we can
communicate at speed but we can only do so if we agree on the name. Otherwise,
we are back to describing things in a step-by-step and procedural manner. Which
is thorough and sometimes required but, most of the time, it's just time
Today, there are many programming languages. They take many forms and operate in
different ways. Each type has acquired a name over time. The three main
varieties are procedural, object-orientated and functional. The procedural
variation will be the one I will focus on from now on, though. The name
"procedural" comes from the style championed by such languages. What that means
is you are writing step-by-step instructions for the computer to follow. An
example of this step-by-step nature would be:
- Raise right hand two inches.
- Rotate right hand ninety degrees.
- Move right hand four inches forward.
- Extend fingers to open.
- Extend thumb to open.
- Move right hand one inch.
A by-product of this is the desired intent can sink deep into the verbosity of
the program. The aim of the program above was to drink from the near-by
cup. Even though I cut the example short, it’s clear that the desired intention
is already obfuscated.
To help speed up communicating the message you can raise the abstraction
level. Instead of listing out every single instruction you can prioritise the
important ones. Another way is to utilise common social conventions. To go back
to the example above, I could have speeded things up a lot if I had said "grab
the coffee on the table in front of you". This trade-off does come with
consequences, though. The ambiguity in the message can cause the final outcome
to miss the mark. For instance, it might be obvious to some but the actual goal
is to grab the cup and not the coffee; If you don't want to burn your hand, that
is. There is also a recursive nature to raising the abstraction layer. You can
take the last example and exchange verbosity for efficiency again. This time I
could just say "grab the coffee".
I mentioned earlier that the Abstraction Pyramid is a visual aid. Its purpose is
to help identify the type of abstraction a text uses and its position on
it. Below is an example of it.
The pyramid indicates the amount of information given. If a text piece trades
information for efficiency, it will be narrower and placed higher up the
pyramid. The saturation of the colour represents the amount of information
given, as well. The use of a single colour is to imply that each layer refers to
the same source. One way to think about it is to slide up and down each layer
like you would higher or lower the volume, on your music player.
The Abstraction Pyramid came about through a cross-contamination of my art and
programming interests. Moving up and down the abstraction layers is a common
behaviour when I'm programming. There was a time when traversing the layers like
this would have been an alien concept. The reason why is because the word
"abstract" had a narrow definition in my younger years. This was due to
university shaping my interpretation of the word. At that time, I viewed it as a
word to differentiate figurative from non-figurative. And, if it wasn't for
programming I still would. The overlapping of interests, though, has been
beneficial. It has presented options I never knew I had.
As my understanding of the word "abstract" expanded, new problems arose, whilst
solving others. The area where this is most visible is in my practice
statement. In the past, it felt inevitable that I would produce a back-story
when writing about my work. I didn't realise I could abstract ideas, procedures
and narrative details away. It didn't bother me that I might have included
superfluous details when I was at university. I was naive and still trying to
work things out. It never occurred to me that I have as much control over the
amount of information I give as I do. That changed, though, when I decided to
re-write my statement. What I didn't expect to find was that this new-found
freedom actually made it harder. The reason why is because I was trying to
answer a question I had never asked before. How much information is the right
As I began reading other people’s work, with my new eyes, I noticed
something. It became clear to me each writer was offering varying amounts of
information. The variation was not limited to writers but every single piece
written between them. Some writings included intricate details of information
and others gestured in a general direction. The most revealing thing that came
out of this period was every writer must make a decision. Do they offer more or
less information? The amount they do share, though, does not result in a correct
or incorrect grading. It’s always a judgement call and I tend to view judgements
as a gradient/spectrum. This made me envision the information’s total mass as a
slider the writer moves up and down. The higher up you go the less information
offered and the lower you go the more information offered.
The idea of sliding up and down a scale and have that translate to an amount of
information was insightful. It was also the basis for the Abstraction
Pyramid. Whilst I was mulling over my observations, I started to envision a
pyramid. It became a symbol that reflected the reduction in exposed information
and has stuck with me. The tip was important because I viewed the reduction as a
reduced essence. I never thought of it as an act of concealing. It was always an
act of bringing the information into focus. I did it as if I was cropping a
photograph with a loose composition. I felt like I had overcome a form of
colour-blindness when I devised the Abstraction Pyramid. I could see more shades
than ever before.
For various reasons, I decided to re-write my practice statement after
university. I didn't like the direction I was heading in and I thought it was
time to start again. I threw out all my work I had made up to that point and
took a minute to gather my thoughts.
Over the course of ten to twelve months I pottered about with ideas and
materials. I concocted drawings, prints and animations in that time. What seemed
to recur in the collection was a particular topic. That topic was "space". The
idea and meaning of the word was not limited to just one facet, thought. I also
looked at its mass, location and mental constructs. With that said, the work
started at "space" and ended up somewhere else on more than one occasion. In
those instances, I viewed "space" as the starting point. This was an insightful
and useful observation. So much so, I decided to take this observation and make
it the foundation for future work (I.E. my practice).
In the past I would have taken the phrase "space as a starting point" and buried
it in a dense narrated back story. I would have done it with the tact of an
untrained and tone-deaf piano player. The realisation of the Abstraction Pyramid
has taught me to be cognizant of how much I reveal. This is important because I
believe we should aim to make others around us welcome. Making my artwork as
accessible as possible, via my writing, reflects basic human decency. I don't
want viewers to feel stupid, intimidated or bored. I want an open
discussion. Tailoring my writing to the situation helps us all get
there. Rendering each paragraph as a thick forest and making them required
reading hurts everyone.
Having decided to not slide down to the pyramid base (I.E. produce a heavy
statement), I needed to decide how high to go. After all, a practice statement
has no real boundaries. They can be as loose or exact as people on this planet
can take them. With that in mind, I aimed for just above the halfway mark. The
reason why is because I want to encourage further investigation, but in a light
way. I believe the phrase "space as a starting point" is concrete enough for
people to build a springboard on top of it. I'm hoping it encourages people to
ask questions and not admit defeat, to the statement.