On Specificity

Merve Ünsal, an artist based in Istanbul, is currently interested in tracing artistic production through the lecture format.  She has previously explored this topic through writing, editing, and visual/verbal collages that employ automatization and found imagery. She is also the co-founder of m-est.org. The Production series began last year at the Banff Centre as an artist lecture that became a performance, continued with a text that was only published on m-est, never performed, and ended yesterday with a one-day exhibition at PiST///. 

The first text in the Production series, On/For Production, traces production by looking at the permeability of self-enclosure. The second text, Underproduction, is a confession and proclamation of its very title. And the third, On Specificity, produced for PiST///, looks for artistic production in the potentialities of language. The Production series is structured as a sentence—On Specificity functions as an adverb, not essential for the subject and the verb, yet critical in defining how the subject does what it does. 

The word “tuhaf” in Turkish—translated as strange, weird, peculiar, funny, bizarre, in that order—is a word that a friend uses often to describe many things ranging from girls’ outfits to contemporary art to inappropriate behavior. Thinking about this word, I wonder about specificity. Or rather, specificity in language, as I’m interested in the relationship between description and that which is described and how one can be both loyal and subjective. With loyalty, I’m referring to that relationship between the description and the described—perhaps, the gap between the understanding, perception, created by the description and that which is described is exactly where the subjectivity of the speaker resides. In other words, what is the potentiality of subjectivity created by the very act of description?

To return to “tuhaf”—an adjective—the first sentence in the dictionary exemplifying the word refers to, “a state [that Nahit was in], which had never been observed,” before. The implications of this sentence is a) Nahit is observed, b) Nahit has different states that can be observed, c) the observers had never observed this particular state that he was in, d) this state that they were observing for the first time was “tuhaf.” Following these premises that I have injected into the sentence, I think about the relationship between not having observed something before and being “tuhaf”. Is it possible that the reason the observers thought Nahit’s state was “tuhaf” was because they had never been exposed to him as such? Without previous exposure, affinity, familiarity, and maybe intimacy, does the observer lack specificity?

I’ll try to illustrate my point using the first few pages of Le Petit Prince. The protagonist’s first depiction of an elephant, eaten, intact, by a snake resembles a hat, according to the consulted adults. The second depiction, in which the snake is made transparent and the elephant is seen as a whole, the contours of the snake traced around the elephant, facilitates the viewer’s understanding of what just happened in the image. However, the drawing is less accurate than the first one, as the snake is seen as transparent, which is not the case in real life. But one could argue that in the absence of any real possibility of accurate representation of a three-dimensional phenomenon, the boundaries of accuracy—and specificity—become permeable.

Wrapping up the foreplay, I would like to propose—meaning to put forward (an idea or plan) for consideration or discussion by others, which, by definition, requires an object to propose something to—that the space between “tuhaf” and its object of description, is exactly where artistic production happens, that I defined as the potentiality of subjectivity a couple of paragraphs ago.

Image-making is a form of description. It is non-verbal—quite different from what I am doing right at this moment. Shapes are sometimes central in images. Shapes, or lack thereof, nod to the very way in which things are formed and processed in the world around us. The functionality of shapes, in architecture, seems to embody that which becomes while already having become. Or, what happens to a triangle when that triangle is both the skeleton and the flesh? Is there any way that a triangle can be described as a triangle without having enclosed and described a space that is both hollowed and filled by that shape?

The shapes of letters form words; words express thoughts, which can all essentially be placed under “description” as thoughts can maybe only exist when they can be described. Thoughts are thus divided from emotions in their expression. The organization of images to both talk and listen to words is a form of communication that directly involves the viewer/reader and this is perhaps the ultimate form of production, if the words can talk to the images in an infinite number of ways. The constant re-construction of that which seems to be a mirroring, direct relationship between the word and the image is the triangle without the vertex. The vertex, following this logic, seals the descriptive potential liberated by linear relationships, and this is exactly why a triangle hosts, while a line frees.

It is thus possible to deduce—arrive at by reasoning; draw as a logical conclusion—that the linear narratives built around images is exactly what frees up artistic production. The relationship between the image and text, the described and the form of description, are all means by which relationships are built and the potentiality of these relationships, which seem to be limited, bracketed, by two things, is actually opened up. The phrase “drawing” a conclusion, at this point in time, is quite apt as the above text is completed in a full circle; drawing, a most basic form of image-making, of describing and formulating, is a means by which we make sense.