Writing About Nothing: Gustav Metzger and 'Null Object' (2013)

LEAR: … what can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
CORDELIA: Nothing, my lord.
LEAR: Nothing?
CORDELIA: Nothing.
LEAR: Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.

[King Lear I.i]

Lear speaks out of an ancient tradition of Western thought. Nothing will come of nothing: Creation cannot proceed ex nihilo. The Greek model of creation proposes a material substrate, known as chaos, which is operated on by the gods. Later monotheistic theology identifies the agent forming the formless stuff of chaos as a singular God. Later still, for Christianity, Islam and Judaism, God is held to create out of himself, without working on some pre-existing material. As God is total and infinite, creation ex Deo doesn’t arise out of nothing; It arises out of everything. Throughout the history of Western thought, the idea of nothing is always bound up in this negative way with that of creation. The opposition of the two has the force of a self-evident truth: you can’t make something out of nothing. You just can’t.

For Lucretius, In de Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things) ‘the first of Nature’s basic principles’ is that ‘no thing can ever be produced by the gods from nothing.’ Instead of creation ex nihilo, there are ‘seeds’ which, unfolding in time and space, give rise to everything that exists. He warns that if creation could proceed out of nothing:

any kind of creature could then be born from anything, with no need for seeds.
Men would come from the sea, and birds and scaly fishes
arise from the earth.

Creation from Nothing would be lawless, senseless. It would take place outside the temporal laws of the normal seasonal cycle, outside the spatial laws of the growth of the particular organism from its seed. Lucretius puts the idea of nothing to work in the project of defining the existent world as a fundamentally lawful place. This is a very successful, productive hypothesis. It marks, among other things, the origin of modern scientific enquiry.

However, at the very origin of the Western philosophical tradition there is a tear in the membrane between something and nothing, between lawful existence and lawless absence. In one of the few surviving fragments of his poem On Nature, Parmenides writes: ‘It must be that what can be spoken and thought is; for it is possible for it to be and it is not possible for what is nothing to be.’ If ‘what can be spoken and thought is’, then mental phenomena must be real. But what kind of reality do they have? It’s a question which haunts Western thought to this day. What ontological status to give to dreams, trance and in particular to the imagination, which appears to have the power to create ex nihilo?

The claim that dreams, creative states and meditative states are ineffable, intrinsically anti-rational, or just ‘personal’ and not be available for scrutiny, forms a kind of curtain that many people, particularly artists and religious believers, prefer to draw across their mental processes. The threats are manifold – the banalization inherent in a scientific explanation of consciousness, the possibility that a process or experience that ‘should be’ unique will be replicated, loss of identity. The dominant cultural idea of artistic creativity (still) comes from Romanticism, with its flamboyant image of the artist heroically wrenching art out of his subjectivity, each one a little action-figure of God creating ex Deo. Contemporary neuroscience has moved towards a model of populations of mental processes, in which our experience of self, let alone heroic creativity, has been relegated to the status of a side effect, or at best some kind of component subroutine of behavior.

For Lucretius, writing at the origin of scientific enquiry, all mental phenomena are unequivocally something rather than nothing. They are material, lawful and hence potentially knowable. He decides that the ‘images’ which ‘terrify our minds, either when we are awake or when we are sleeping, when we catch a glimpse of strange shapes and phantoms of the dead and departed’ are ‘a sort of outer layer peeled off an object’s surface’. He describes them in terms of dust, smoke, the skin shed by a snake. Unfortunately mental ‘images’ have a lot of the absurd characteristics of creation out of Nothing. There is no apparent temporal or spatial regulation in the mind, which seems to possess a kind of seedless, chaotic fecundity, and can easily produce monsters, like ‘livestock bursting forth from the sky’ and ‘men of such a size that they could wade across the deepest sea, as a ford’. Mental processes are infected by hollowness, by non-existence. They seem to bear a disturbing relationship to impossibility, and hence to nothing.

For many years, Bruce Gilchrist has attempted mindful crossings of the boundary between something and nothing. His persistent interest in shamanism, meditation, dreaming and artistic creativity is infused with a sort of Lucretian materialism. In his solo work and his more recent collaborations with Jo Joelson, impressions are often transmitted directly, sensations thrown off bodies like diffuse shells or ‘skins’. He and Joelson have experimented with EEG’s, skin galvanic response and other ‘direct’ ways of recording physiological and neurological states. The work almost always involves the digital storage and reproduction of those states. Can one person’s experience of meditation be reproduced in another? Could it be visualized? How about the pain of having a tattoo? Where other artists see banality or threat, Gilchrist and Joelson see a sort of porousness.

To computer programmers, a Null Object, invoked in the title of Gilchrist and Joelson’s latest project, is useful because it does nothing. It has no behavior. It represents nothing, but it is not nothing. It is a nothing which is something, which can be referenced, made useful. The project of asking an artist to think about nothing, and using this as the starting point of an act of creation (and not just any creation, but heroic sculpture in Portland Stone) is gorgeous in its perversity and precise in the questions it poses. Choosing Gustav Metzger as the artist who will be doing the thinking opens Null Object out into a radical tradition of postwar aesthetics that challenges the legitimacy of a contemporary art establishment obsessed ever more crassly with product and celebrity, with a definition of value as presence and permanence. Unless it will stoop to becoming a commodity, nothing has no place in a gallery.

Metzger is best known as the initiator of DIAS, the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium, which involved artists such as John Latham, Yoko Ono and Barry Flanagan and introduced London to the work of Viennese Actionists Herman Nitsch and Otto Műhl. DIAS presented a wide variety of forms of artwhich enacted or in some other way contained its own annihilation. In actions during the late fifties and early sixties he wore protective clothing and sprayed acid onto nylon sheets, which gradually dissolved. Seen in a 1963 film, (Auto-Destructive Art – The Activities of G. Metzger, by Harold Liversidge), the busy gestures of this small intense man, dressed as if for chemical or nuclear attack, seem to undercut the macho heroics of Abstract Expressionism. Metzger has frequently expressed his wish to decenter the figure of the artist as original creator. Interviewed for a documentary about Michael Landy, he faced away from the camera. ‘I am,’ he said, opposed to the artist as celebrity.’

Destruction is not Metzger’s only gesture of disgust at the narcissism of contemporary art stardom. He has also followed interests in what might be termed bottom-up or emergent creation such as crystal growth. For long periods, he has refused or tried to refrain from making art at all. Hooked up to Gilchrist and Joelson’s network, he will continue this activity. He will try to think about nothing, to make nothing. The art will be a byproduct of that activity; it will come into being despite the effort of the artist, not because of it. To be precise, the negative space carved into the block of stone will be created by Metzger’s involuntary imagination of primitives, shapes specified by Gilchrist and Joelson’s software. These shapes will provide the control instructions for the CNC (computer numeric control) robot, which will carve the block. Heroic sculpture, the most macho medium of them all, ‘achieved’ by failure.

To begin to answer the question posed by Null Object (to see if it is even a meaningful question to ask) we need to have a better sense of what thinking about nothing really entails. To think about nothing is, of course, to think about some idea of nothing, a Null Object, a domesticated pseudo-nothing which can only ever be a stand-in for the absolute. Parmenides: ‘what can be spoken and thought is’. Absolute nothing must, according to this ancient logic, be defined as that which is essentially unthinkable, unknowable – or if even this faint whiff of reification is too much, then as a kind of horizon to thought, the point at which all thought’s sailing ships fall off the edge. In many mystical traditions this cosmic absence is itself identified with God, and the purpose of meditation is a negation of thought, an unraveling of the thinking, intentional self. Our idea of Nothing, whatever it might be, is always a sort of screen over this radically-unknowable, unreferenceable non-object. We think of a nothing which is secretly something, which we covertly put to work, doing whatever conceptual business we require.

So can I write anything at all about nothing? Or is this essay going to end up as a longwinded retelling of the story (quoted here in full) of the red-haired man, written in 1937 by the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms?:

There was a red haired man who had no eyes or ears. Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically.
He couldn’t speak, since he didn’t have a mouth. Neither did he have a nose.
He didn’t even have any arms or legs. He had no stomach and he had no back and he had no spine and he had no innards whatsoever. He had nothing at all! Therefore there’s no knowing whom we are even talking about.
In fact it’s better that we don’t say any more about him.

In the nonsensical tale of the subject which has no attributes (and hence vanishes, like the victim of a Stalinist purge) is a bitterly ironic reference to the mystical tradition of the via negativa (the negative way), which proposes subtraction as a sort of mental technique, a road towards discovery of God as a pure entity, without appearance or form.

On the same maner schalt thou do with this lityl worde God. Fille thi spirit with the goostly bemenyng of it withoutyn any specyal beholdyng to any of His werkes whether thei be good, betir, or alther best, bodily or goostly -- or to any vertewe that may be wrought in mans soule by any grace, not lokyng after whether it be meeknes or charité, pacyence or abstynence, hope, feith, or sobirnes, chastité or wilful poverté. What thar reche in contemplatyves? For alle vertewes thei fynden and felyn in God; for in Hym is alle thing, bothe by cause and by beyng. For hem think and thei had God, thei had alle good; and therfore thei coveyte nothing with specyal beholdyng, bot only good God. Do thou on the same maner, as forth as thou maist by grace; and mene God al, and al God, so that nought worche in thi witte and in thi wile, bot only God.

[The Cloud of Unknowning ch. 40]

The Christian mystic of this anonymous fourteenth-century English text seeks, by contemplation of nothing, union with an ineffable God. In this project, his enemy is the imagination, which unless it:

be refreyned by the light of grace in the reson, elles it wil never
sese, sleping or wakyng, for to portray dyverse unordeynd ymages of bodely creatures; or elles sum fantasye, the whiche is nought elles bot a bodely conseyte of a goostly thing, or elles a goostly conseyte of a bodely thing. And this is evermore feynid and fals, and anexte unto errour [ch 65]

The student of the Tibetan Bardo Thodol (the Great Liberation on Hearing in the Intermediate State) seeks in the suppression of imagination and the contemplation of nothing an escape from the temporal cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The Bardo Thodol is essentially a technical manual, designed for a practitioner to chant to the dying person, to teach them how to recognise reality and so liberate themselves from falling back into rebirth. Each mental state (waking, meditation, dream, death, rebirth) is a bardo, an ‘intermediate state’ between other states, each of which offers opportunities for learning and the danger of deception. After the Bardo of the Moment of Death arises the bardo of reality. The practitioner speaks to the dying person:

O Child of Buddha Nature (call the name of the dying person) the time has now come for you to seek a path. As soon as your respiration ceases, [the luminosity] known as the ‘inner radiance of the first intermediate state’, which your spiritual teacher formerly introduced to you, will arise. [Immediately] your respiration ceases, all phenomena will become empty and utterly naked like space. [At the same time] a naked awareness will arise, not extraneous [to yourself], but radiant, empty and without a horizon or centre. At that moment, you should personally recognize this intrinsic nature and rest in the state of that [experience].

If the dying person fails to recognize the intrinsic nature of reality (and the illusory nature of self as separate from this reality), he or she will fall steadily backwards through a series of post-death bardo states, each of which is is more cosmically terrifying and distracting than the last. By the eleventh day after death ‘he who is called the transcedent lord Padma Heruka, of the Padma family of blood-drinking deities, will arise from the Western direction of your brain…’ Each time, the Child of Buddha Nature is offered the chance to recognize reality: ‘radiant, empty and without a horizon or centre’, until he finally falls back into a body and is reborn.

The mental state required to recognize reality and stay in it is generally translated into English as ‘Buddha-mind’. The qualities of this so-called ‘pristine cognition’ are given in the writing of the Nyingma school as ‘manifest enlightenment’, ‘indivisible indestructible reality’, ‘great sameness’, ‘great non-discursiveness’ and ‘liberator of sentient beings’.

In Null Object, a negative space is carved in the block of stone despite Metzger’s attempts to achieve pristine cognition. It is specified by comparing his EEG readout to a library of EEGs collected from volunteers who have been asked to watch a screen on which a three dimensional primitive emerges out of a stereogram image. The moment when the shape is perceived by the subject is captured and added to the library. As Gilchrist describes it, ‘we have been working with twenty minute EEG recordings of Gustav attempting to think of nothing. Twenty minutes of data – sampling the relational database every two seconds – gives us 600 primitive objects, which is enough to make the void. Our software rotates and collides the primitives. If one is a close match to the database, it appears smaller and closer to the edge of the block of stone – giving the internal surface of the stone a finer grain because all the smallest objects have been moved there. If a primitive is the result of a distant match, it appears larger and closer to the centre of the block of stone.’

If one reads the Bardo Thodol as a materialist text, describing in a Lucretian manner real, lawful, existing phenomena, it’s hard not to feel that the two things - the complex, recursive shape carved into the block and the hosts of gods and demons which beset the mind in the bardos of death - are actually the same thing. The carving is a sort print-out of demons, a trace of the terrible chaos from which the meditator seeks liberation through the contemplation of nothing.

But who thinks of nothing? Who is performing this task? This is perhaps the most challenging question raised by Null Object. So far, in accordance with the canons of Romantic aesthetics, Metzger’s activity has been framed as an act of will, the heroic struggle of a conscious subject, albeit one that is seeking its own dissolution. In 1983 a physiologist called Benjamin Libet published a paper that remains central to neuroscientific thinking about free will. Libet asked his subjects to flick their wrists at some random moment, while he monitored the associated activity in their brain, specifically an electrical signal in the motor cortex known as ‘readiness potential’, which leads up to voluntary muscle movement. He found that this activity began up to half a second before the subject had the conscious awareness of intending to move. Though the ‘Libet experiment’ has been criticized in various ways, its main conclusion – that the electrical preparation for typing these words takes place before I am aware I’ve decided to move my fingers over the keyboard – still holds.

The authors of a 2008 paper that concludes, dramatically, that ‘the outcome of a decision can be encoded in the brain activity of the prefrontal and parietal cortex up to ten seconds before it enters awareness’ hypothesise that ‘this delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.’ These ‘high level control areas’ are, according to the current neuroscientific model, themselves merely nodes on a distributed network, nodes that are interacting dynamically with each other to initiate and govern mental processes. This network is composed of populations of neurons. Populations, all the way down. No unitary willing self, acting decisively on the yielding raw material of the world. Sorry, Ayn Rand.

The thinking subject is a swarm, a horde. The idea of a sovereign self, sitting at the ‘controls’, has been consigned to history. The attempt (still common) to localise the moment when some mythical ‘conscious’ self enters the decision-making process, taking over the reins from some ‘unconscious’ or autonomic routine, also feels archaic, misguided. Conscious intention plays a role in decision-making, but its precise function is fiercely disputed. Daniel Wegner, a collaborator of Libet, prefers to think of the self, not as a boss, but a sort of ‘public relations agent’, governing social interactions and providing a sense of continuity between past actions and anticipated intentions.

In Null Object, the responsibility for sculpting a block of stone is devolved from some mythical sovereign artist (Michelangelo, Rodin) to a network. Is the artist Bruce Gilchrist? Jo Joelson? Is it the software which specifies the primitives, the volunteers whose EEG’s form the library, a KUKA industrial robot, MIT scientists, technicians at a fabrication plant in Oxfordshire, or Gustav Metzger? Null Object mocks the persistent narcissism of the artist, who believes secretly that he is a little god. It is a release into a more profound and complex reality. A great liberation.

Hari Kunzru September 2012