Chantal Faust, 2011
What if we were to know everything? What if it were possible to accumulate all of the knowledge that has been, that is being and that ever will be? Would we have everything or be left with nothing? These questions provide the framework for Steven Dickie’s practice that focuses on social and municipal structures and draws references from fields including the sciences, utopian literature, modernism, politics, experimental music and geometry. Through an elegant remodelling of analogue instruments, Dickie’s sculptural inventions, sound experiments, drawings and performances form a kind of retro future-aesthetic that offers a synthesis of hope and failure, transmission and obstruction, everything and nothing.
Not fit for purpose, a bespoke chainmail suit lies in a foetal heap on the gallery floor with one steel glove outstretched. The lumbering costume was designed as a prêt-à-porter Faraday cage, based on the 19th century apparatus built to protect whatever was inside its shield from external electric fields. Dickie has carried the great weight of his self-made enclosure during a number of performances including Everything reveals nothing (2010), during which he demonstrated the operation of The Hunt for the Unavoidable Future, a meticulously crafted fusion of a mass of radios and a keyboard. Radio frequencies supplanted the traditional musical scale and the artist’s composition of white noise sought to discover a chance moment of synchronicity within the cacophony of sound waves. With its slick finish in white, black and grey tones of cellulose paint, this anomalous piano-tuner machine sprouting precisely 88 aerials appeared as if it had somehow dropped from a virtual cloud of 3D computer graphics.
The metal shell that both screens and encumbers and the modified transceiver are part of a growing collection of instruments devised by Dickie in his endeavor to attain what he describes as ‘a trajectory to all knowledge’. Other devices in his cabinet of curiosities include the extended spectacles from Causes from the Future (2011), a respectable set of rectangular frames with orbs that shoot out to form two transparent cylinders ending some distance away from the wearer’s face, the deliciously swollen lens endowing the 70s SLR camera in Too big to fail and the twelve sided rhombic dodecahedron: a geometrical shape that continues to make cameo appearances within Dickie’s practice and which he regards as the leitmotif for all knowledge.
There is a certain nihilistic tendency that infuses the artwork’s titles, but if this is all a folly, it is a serious one indeed. Within these beautifully crafted displays of potential nothingness, the retro-amplified monuments work to suggest that for the artist, this quest for the gathering of all past and future knowledge need not ever achieve an endpoint. There is something all too human about these pursuits, something that makes you think that Dickie already knows the answer to his question and that this really is a tale about the journey. Of course, the demon that is conjured here is Laplace’s, who articulated his idea of scientific determinism in 1814 when he dreamt of an intellect vast enough to comprehend the universe as ‘the effect of its past and the cause of its future’ and for whom there would be no uncertainty because ‘the future just like the past would be present before its eyes’.
Dickie’s prosthetic eyes literally try to see into the future. As opposed to a depth of field, their perspective offers a depth in time that nonetheless renders us blind. What we are presented with instead is a prismatic reflection of an instant. And perhaps this translation, this reenactment of a desire to see the limits is, in Blanchot’s terms, a fortunate thing because it allows ourselves to be ‘masters of the absence’ in that it renders the void of nothingness into a something. Each time Dickie presents his orchestra of white noise he teases our fear of an infinite nothingness while simultaneously rendering a score that could, just maybe, give us everything.
Unwieldy costumes marooned on a gallery floor, oversized eyeglasses posing on a terrazzo plinth, and reconditioned drawings of unrealised utopic sketches for a future that never was. All of these symbols of invention and expansion left idle recall the work of another artist who depicted the burden of the pursuit of knowledge in an engraving that was made five centuries ago. Melencolia I is an allegorical portrait by Albrecht Dürer wherein a winged being sits morosely with her head in hand, surrounded by untouched objects of science and art. Beside her a large polyhedron with the faintest of skulls etched upon its façade has bizarrely lodged itself within the frame, an epistemological figure that echoes Dickie’s scattered dodecahedrons. The angel’s wings may have been superseded by chainmail, but the meditation on human ambition, the search for knowledge and the limitations of time remain the same. It was perhaps this pursuit that Bruce Nauman was referring to in his famous spiralling neon of 1967 that declared: ‘The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths’. Steven Dickie reveals.
Ric Spencer, 2014
Steven Dickie: Where does a Thunk come from – and where is it going?
Thinking through Steven Dickie’s Explaining a Thunk seems reactive at best – trying to explain a thought is like salmon fishing with a butterfly net, language is bound to fall short. We used to talk of thought patterns; of creating memory rooms that file away learned ways of being (memetic or genetic memory at a cellular level as Dawkins put it). This all went out the window with Burrough’s Naked Lunch or possibly before when someone came to the sensible thought that cave paintings weren’t abstract but actually real articulations of what people sitting around campfires in trances actually saw (I can’t remember who said that but I think he was English). The none too subtle chemical reactions that make a brain sit up and see spirits and animal figures in real time in front of your eyes are bound to fuck up remembering or placing in a logical order the series of events that came to formulate the world we live in.
I like the idea that we’re all vehicles for ideas – as Dawkins wrote – and the sensation that you’ve had an original thought, somewhere out at the periphery of consciousness, which you can’t manifest into language seems to add weight to the prospect that ideas are formed by not one mind but the collective mind as they manifest, move around, build, form and then launch through some sort of connected global mind power. It’s quite possible that the internet is only a materialised version of what we already do – like a pathetic early proto-type that is clunky and awkward and anyway just full of distractions. Or maybe in the future we will look at it as some sort of religious symbology toward our collective destiny – who knows?? Anyway it’s as if we need many minds to create a new idea and that its just pot luck who gets to launch it when it’s ready (although maybe some minds are better portals of launching than others?) So we’ve all read Hitchhikers guide and we all understand Dawkins selfish gene and the cellular base of all thoughts and their inducement into memetic history (even if we haven’t read it our kids will know it because these idea are now being passed onto all future generations) so I won’t go into where thoughts come from and where they go – (even though that was my title). Rather I would like to talk about the sensation of materialism and its use as seduction in making art work. Because seduction is all there is, oh and the desire to be seduced.
Dickie’s use of video based materialism moves nicely beyond articulation to a place where visuals flounder and the real star of the show is the non-definable. It’s a nice space full of open ground, anxiety, tribulation and bright hues with the final sense of something bringing along with it the smell of possibility. I like Dickie’s art, because this aesthetic of potential materialises the non-definable (not like the awkward clunkiness of the internet) giving it a scope to mould ethereal concepts of thought into narrative, a home for existential anxiety that grows from the undefinable and the ungraspable. Like an itch you can’t scratch – the provocateur in Explaining a Thunk doesn’t explain a thunk, not through lack of trying mind you, but rather in the end the thought is released, moving into a timeless space of potential, growing, manifesting, trying to find a place for expression, as it tries to squirm into a more solid form. The temple of expression for Dickie’s thought unborn is not a church, or parliament or speaker’s corner (it escapes from him here) – it is the cinema, a place of seduction and desire built on the dreams of possibility, of creative narratives that have not only driven our consciousness for over a hundred years but exist as a place of refuge for the unformed thought, the unliked thought, the undriven thought, the unforgiven thought –the place where the ungraspable becomes materialised – where the magic lantern brings forth that which we cannot otherwise manifest – on the screen - the place of dreaming.
Sensationally, through a barrage of framed light sequences, Dickie’s thoughts are washed back over his provocateur, in a fleeting flood – where, like in Breakfast of Champions (a book Dickie gave me to read) the author nurtures his character’s ability for free thought. Dickie is sympathetic to his character’s plight and allows him the right to give away the form of his thought back to the artist, only for it to again be looped back into his world. This beautiful loop that Dickie has created for his Thunk is the virtuosity of a man unable to escape his own thoughts, his own repetitive nature and the nature of the gods that he has created. As you lie in the temple of flashing lights (the cinema), having slipped past the omen of the cmyk tree, we feel and we know that the way we describe ourselves first and inevitably creates us. The media that Dickie has used to describe this sensation is essential to the puzzle – the material that describes our thoughts cannot be unravelled from the thoughts that have seduced us to create it, one is bound to the other and will be forever the way our future memory remembers our existence. As such Dickie’s work seduces our collective future’s re-telling today - all that has been created has been imagined – and the past therefore is already a misrepresentation of the future – ahhh, but you already knew that.