Craig Oates

How Abstract Do I Make It?


Art Practice

All Articles

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 languages.

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 consuming.

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 Abstraction Pyramid
Figure1: The Abstraction Pyramid

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 amount?

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.