The Mangle of Art Practice

“The studio is a laboratory…” ~ Chris Ofili

The full quote is actually, “The studio is a laboratory, not a factory,” but for the purposes of this post I’m more interested in Ofili’s analogy between science and art than in the point he’s making about the studio being a space for creative expression and experimentation as opposed to one of commercial production.

As the tide of scientific thinking has risen to dominance, carrying with it high technology, our perception of ourselves, as humans, has been tossed about. Key thinkers across the past century—from Heidegger and Sartre to Foucault and Baudrillard—have grappled with the issue of the evolving self. (There’s a fascinating lecture series on YouTube delivered by the philosopher Rick Roderick that I highly recommend: ‘The Self Under Siege’). And an important concern at the heart of that issue is the question of agency, i.e. the efficacy of our actions.

We stand between two extremes of attitude. On the one side, advances made through science can give us the impression that we powerful controllers can, by the clever deployment of scientific reasoning and engineering, bend nature to our will and affect any outcome. On the other side, information technology drops us into an ocean of data whose sublime scale baffles us and, when married with a mechanistic outlook, seems to reduce our sphere of influence to the point where free will totally evaporates. The desiccated morsel that remains—the self—is regarded as little more than a cog in a machine, or a random number in a vast sequence.

Both extremes are bleak; one leads to exploitation and environmental degradation, whilst the other strips us of moral obligation and leaves us feeling helpless. And both have a corrosive effect on human rights. So let’s shift to the middle ground. It’s a hazier, less distinct area than at those poles where things are thrown into sharp contrast, but it’s in the messy fuzz that life resides.

In this twilight zone, shapes shift. There is movement as various forces balance one another. In fact, the ‘stasis’ of homeostasis is perhaps misleading in so far as equilibriums—ecological, economic or otherwise—are never static. Rather, they jump around in a dance of agency. And it’s not a solo dance, but something more like a ceilidh, with many participants. Importantly, the individual human is decentred, having to respond—and even submit—to the agency of other actors, both human and non-human. The sociologist Andrew Pickering has a name for this to-ing and fro-ing: ‘the mangle of practice’—from which this post takes inspiration for its title.

Although Pickering’s thinking was developed within the field of science studies, its reach is far broader and, indeed, it applies to art practice. An artwork is born of a tangled collaboration. I don’t sit down and bring to bear my artistic omnipotence by deciding to conjure up an incredible and powerful image in my head and then proceed to faultlessly copy out that crystal-clear mental picture. And once it’s created, I don’t place it directly in a museum for the world of viewers to promptly concur that it is a masterpiece with one clear message, and one message alone. No. It’s a far more uncertain, emergent process. Mental images are like dreams in their vagueness and fluidity, and I might struggle to give them some solidity by making sketches; unexpected forms and effects that jump out as the work takes shape may pull it in a new direction; materials sometimes splinter or splash to produce unpredicted marks. And that interplay continues right up to the point when a viewer stands before the work and makes an interpretation that I, perhaps, never imagined.

Artists, as a body of people, may play a unique and central role in the world of art, as a sort of keystone without which the art world would crumble into nonexistence. But, similarly, the role of artists is contingent upon the art world (and the world at large). We would cease to be creators (or at the very least, our creativity would be significantly altered) if suddenly we were without pencil and paint, viewers stopped looking, critics lost interest, and collectors spent their money elsewhere.

Yes, if there were no pencils or paint, artists would use clay or video… or messy beds. If there were no collectors, artists would still create for themselves and give artworks as gifts to the world. This is true, but my point is that the art wouldn’t be the same. Just as the artist would adapt, so would the artwork: new imagery might emerge, alternative avenues may be explored, or different narratives could be told. Artists don’t call all the shots. We’re caught up in a dance of agency with everything else, and the art lies in our skilful negotiation of all these forces.

By decentring the artist—and in a broader sense the human—we can acknowledge, with greater emphasis, the agency of other human and non-human players. We can adopt a humble, though not self-degrading, position between those two extremes of attitude I spoke of earlier—a position where we understand ourselves to be free and powerful, but within limits; a position in which we are open and playfully experimental. Perhaps art offers a starting point for us to foster such an attitude of respect that knows when to push and when to yield. And perhaps from there it can spread into other aspects of life. To perform any activity with this attitude is to make an art of that activity.

The chaotic dance of agency that is so characteristic of life might be most evident in the mess of the artist’s studio, but let us not forget that those complex dynamics are also playing out in the classroom, in the office, in the factory, and in the science laboratory. So yes, the studio is like a laboratory, but the laboratory is also like a studio.

(Hero image: Thomas Allen, Mangle, charcoal on paper)


Further reading

Pickering, Andrew

Amazon: ‘The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science’, 1995

Amazon: ‘The Mangle in Practice: Science, Society, and Becoming’, 2009

Wikipedia: Pickering

Heidegger, Martin

Amazon: ‘Being and Time’, 1927

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Heidegger

Sartre, Jean Paul

Amazon: Nausea’, 1938

Amazon: Being and Nothingness’, 1943

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sartre

Foucault, Michel

Amazon: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’, 1975

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Foucault

Baudrillard, Jean

Amazon: Simulacra and Simulation (The Body in Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism)’, 1981

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Baudrillard



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