Kika Thorne/medicine: Thinking about the Position Inside

By Rosemary Heather

KIKA THORNE, MEDICINE (2009/12), ELASTIC, HARDWARE, 60′ X 13′ X 11′.

As the circle of projection becomes the rectangle of screen, the transition is a form of the question “How can one thing become something else?”

If cinema and its precedents picture and extend what we can see and experience of our world, what does medicine do? Locate that experience in the body and maybe more to the point in the cells of that body, which are “elastic and magnetic — oscillating, communicating.”[1] What is medicine? Not cinema but its antidote, the artwork that you stand inside, an apparition of that technology which evokes its memory—pays homage to it—while dispensing with any need for cinema’s projections. A kind of medicine for our time, medicine is technology that extends and transforms our world by moving its users deep inside the moment of their own being.

                                                                        —

Think of this essay as structured by a relationship between two concentric circles. In the largest, outside circle we have the field of ideas associated with the concept of posthumanism[2]; in the smaller circle inside of it we have an artwork that can be seen to embody certain aspects of this concept’s meaning. It is important to specify that the idea of posthumanism designates not a progression but a shift, one that we can detect evidence of in Thorne’s work. The “post” appends the “human”, tethers it—to drop the chronological metaphor—to the extended environment within which we are all immersed regardless. The shift resides in a change in how we understand this, a now-in-process transformation in our perception of what constitutes our realm of being.

The concentric circle is proposed as the notional structure for this text as a way to contextualize Thorne’s work in a fashion that is explicitly non-linear. No theory of progress is at work here. The circle is the right spatial metaphor as it implies a concatenating field of associations, or in other words, modulating ripples of meaning.  The two concentric circles propose a relationship, one that subsumes the broader framework of posthuman thought within a much more specific context: that is, an artwork made by Kika Thorne, which is as it should be.

In her own words, Thorne articulates the central investigation of her recent work as an attempt to bridge the divide between “utopianism and the capacities of the artwork.”

The artist’s long standing engagement with anarchist thought is important to the understanding of her practice as a whole and is the framework within which her use of the word “utopianism” takes its meaning. Thorne identifies as formative a milieu of artist-architects with whom she first began to develop her art practice, specifically naming Barry Isenor and Kenneth Hayes, creators of the seminal architecture zine, The Splinter (1989-1994)[3]; Marie-Paule Macdonald, coauthor with Dan Graham of the equally influential, Wild in the Streets: The Sixties (1994)[4]; and Luis Jacob, Allan Antliff and Adrian Blackwell, with whom she started the Anarchist Free School (1999) in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Working with this cohort and others, especially Adrian Blackwell, Thorne participated in the production of a number of projects intended to function as critical-Utopian introjections into public dialogues about urban and social issues that were urgent to their time. These projects took place under different guises, the group at different times and with differing configurations of members naming itself: The C-Side Collective, Fabricator, the October Group, the February Group and the April Group (which included Cecilia Chan and Christie Pearson) among others.[5]

How can making art be a political act? Art as an experience emanates from a particularity, a location in a time and place. In a literal sense, location is a limitation. An art context can only temporarily be a command center for activism; the opportunities it offers for the building of a lasting communal culture are limited. Instead, art allows for experiments in a different kind of potential, one that every artist seeks to realize in their work. Artworks can transform you when they simultaneously enhance and obliterate the circumstances in which they are encountered.  How this translates into a politic, into an enacted Utopianism as opposed to an imagined one, is the central question of Thorne’s work, one to which she proposes possible solutions that are entirely in keeping with art’s circumscribed realm of efficacy. It is important to emphasize that posthumanism is not intended to evoke a cyborg future for humanity. Instead, the term “recognizes the embeddedness of human beings in not just its biological but also its technological world.”[6]  This is an embeddedness that, in the artist’s terms, extends to the molecular level. Thorne quotes Walt Whitman: “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air.”[7] Similarly, Thorne describes medicine, an artwork constructed from elastic cords, as a kind of molecular event, the artist working with materials to produce “an affinity of matter… the electrostatic energy of rubber’s stored bond distortions inducing vibration. I am not the author of this energy, just a collaborator.”

Posthuman thought holds out the possibility for a new vantage point for the human, one that emanates from the ground up. The goal it proposes: for the human perspective to become embedded within its wider environment, which is also true of the particular vantage point of Thorne’s immersive sculpture facilitates for its audience. In the posthuman, the human being becomes humbled, its assumed omniscience pulled back to earth to become grounded in, and refracted through, the material world in all of its multifaceted capacities. Posthuman thinkers seek a way forward out of an impasse of environmental destruction and unending economic crisis by ushering in a new era of human self-demotion. Considering it practical limitations, what can art bring to the conversation? Examination of Thorne’s work medicine can show how a collapse of perspective, of subject-object positioning, brings with it a necessary decentering, immersing its subjects within the concatenating vibrations of the paradigm that is now emerging.

The work medicine uses a single aperture in the centre of a gallery wall to structure a circle of 88 radiating black elastic cords that extend outward across the room to meet the rectangular frame of the far wall, which in the version of this work I saw at Toronto’s G Gallery[8], happens to be the frame of the space’s floor to ceiling glass-window entrance. A dazzling work, medicine has a powerful effect far beyond the modest sum of its materials. It derives strong graphic impact from the contrast between the black cords the bright white light of the gallery space. As Adrian Blackwell, the artist’s frequent collaborator notes, medicine is “highly architectural as both constructed space and a linear drawing.”[9] Experience of medicine also impacts the body. The installation fills the space, to a certain extent displacing or impeding gallerygoers, who choose to negotiate the work by entering into it, engaging with an experience not available to those who choose to remain at its perimeter.

In its simplest form, a historiography for the artwork can be found in the precedent that will come to be understood differently, in a new light, when considered from then viewpoint of its successor, and vice versa, a circle crossing over itself, each helping the other to more clearly define its significance to its time. Thorne notes that the precedent for medicine is British artist Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973)[10], a film of a white dot on a black background that over a thirty-minute duration becomes a circle describing the space within the circumference of its frame. As the circle grows the projector beam gradually expands to become a cone of light. Writing about the work, Colby Chamberlain notes the work, “utilized the barest elements of film—celluloid and projected light—but it clearly needed to be experienced as a three-dimensional object, like a sculpture.[11]

When comparing Line Describing a Cone with medicine, it is easy to detect two distinct paradigms: postminimalism and posthumanism, respectively. McCall’s “solid light installation” (one of a series the artist made) can be considered postminimalist in that he theatricalises cinema so that it becomes pure event, one that foregrounds the medium’s structural components. Line… forgoes a dependence on narrative and instead implicates its audience corporeally in the construction of its meaning.  The posthuman implications of Thorne’s work reside in subtle variation on and extension of McCall’s accomplishment, as I hope will become evident below. What Line Describing a Cone/medicine share in common is, first, their formal structure: both artworks formally mimic the (film-based) spatial arrangements of cinema, projecting image and light through a lens across a room onto a definite field in front of it that is usually, but not always, a screen. Second and more important, both works forego the cinematic image, the very point of cinema, in favour of becoming the image itself. The appellative “Cinema without an Image” applies to both artworks, but it is arguably of greater significance in relation to medicine, in that Thorne’s work subsumes within it salient features of contemporary experience, the everyday distortions of time and place that come with the use of the internet, being one example. A text about McCall’s work at the Harvard Film Archive notes, “McCall’s focus on activating the participants and the site transcended the medium and pared the artistic process and concept down to its paradoxical and essential crux.”[12] Implicit to this statement is the idea that Line Describing a Cone encapsulates cinema as an art form, as if from the work’s vantage point we see the medium in a rearview mirror receding in historical time. Arguably this is the meaning of the activated spectator of the postminimalist artwork who, no longer the passive viewer, is invited to occupy the exhibition’s figural center stage along with the work. Though the light cone creates a definite boundary, one that could be transgressed, the cinema without an image is in this case a theatre with an elective proscenium. With the advent of the digital era, film seen as a light projected is almost a thing of the past and perhaps this was a message Line Describing a Cone subtly intimated. Making use of the material components of cinema, Line Describing a Cone is cinema made whole, seen within framework of the historically-determined form of perspectival vision that made it possible; as Adrian Blackwell observes: “film has a unique relationship to perspective, because it constantly repeats the act of projection that is perspective each time it is shown.”[13] By contrast, because of the way it changes the audience’s relationship to the artwork, medicine can be seen to shut the door on the historical era perspective that McCall’s work encapsulates. Enter into medicine and you cross a threshold, the work creating a space for its audience that is no longer the stage for a performance (i.e., the performance the audience enacts when it joins the artwork on the stage of postminimalism.) Instead of a space constructed to facilitate perspectival relationship to the artwork (or the transgression of such), medicine creates the experience of that relationship breaking down. Every position the audience might take in relation to medicine is the correct one and at the same time no more necessary to its experience than any other. Parity between audience and work is at the core of medicine‘s meaning, its relativism exactly scaled to the body of each participant who engages with it.

German art historian Erwin Panofsky, writing in the early part of the last century, noted that the geometrically correct perspectival space of pictorial representation was an invention of the Renaissance.[14] In a passage taken from his essay Perspective as Symbolic Form (1924-25) that could also be describing the radiating lines of Thorne’s work, Panofsky writes:

I imagine the picture…as a planar cross section through the so-called visual pyramid: the apex of the pyramid is the eye, which is connected with individual points in the visual image…the relative position of these “visual rays” [determining] the apparent position of the corresponding points in the visual image.[15]

Panofsky’s goal was to denaturalize linear perspective and recharacterize it as historical style, making it apparent that at the very least linear perspective is unfaithful to the physiological truth of how we see the world. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, a certain resonance comes from noticing that the German historian was writing around the time of cinema’s (the camera’s) first decades, when we can assume the art of “almost scientific”[16] pictorial representation was receding into the past of its historical relevance[17]. A further interpretation might extrapolate: Panofsky’s text suggests the symbolic, historically-specific purpose perspectival vision was meant to serve, which was to foster a broad, if not to say colonialist, cohesiveness. Out of the homogeneity of the picture plane that realizes “in the representation of space precisely that homogeneity and boundlessness foreign to the direct experience of that space”[18], come ideas about a further homogeneity: that of the beholder’s worldview. Certain implications are obvious, say an Imperialism that conquers to assimilate all within its dominion, to give one example. A similar kind of extrapolation could be made from Thorne’s work, inferring from the concrete example far reaching implications. Panofsky describes a visual pyramid at the apex of which is an eye, but he does not note that this description leaves the Renaissance regime of vision in a curiously disembodied state. By contrast, visual experience of medicine is an incorporated aspect of its experience as a whole. Medicine posits a body integrated with its environment, not floating above it but grounded in and extended by virtue of the immediate materials through which it is made. In other words, an experience of medicine is like an experience of the embedded perspective on the world posthuman thought argues for.

As a non-Humanist work (in the Renaissance sense) medicine can be described within the framework of the Actor Network Theory (ANT) developed by French sociologist Bruno Latour and his colleagues, which has gone on to become foundational for what is now emerging as the body of Posthumanist thought. It pays dividends to note certain affinities, however superficial, between the work and the theory.  For instance, the networks theorized in ANT “exist in a constant state of making and remaking.”[19] Similarly, medicine’s requirement of total body immersion will reward participants with an experience of scale that is contingent and variable. Each body becomes the measure of the work, each individual negotiation of medicine “making and remaking” it.  However, variability in experience of the work should not be understood to evoke ideas about relativism. Panofsky’s translator Christopher Woods writes, “Perspective since the Renaissance also means relativism. It suggests that a problem is always framed from a particular point of view.”[20] In the world medicine describes, however, there is no point of view, only relationships produced within—and that produce—its network.[21]

Medicine dispenses with any need for linear perspective as a necessary component of the artwork. Instead, the work retains only the trace elements—the skeletal outlines of—the cinematic regime of vision that was so central to the experience of the 20th century. The lines of the work converge but never cross; they don’t culminate in an image, or follow the beginning-middle-and-end logic of a film narrative. While referring to cinema in an overt way, the work offers its participants an entirely other experience, in the process pointing to certain emerging characteristics of the Zeitgeist. For instance, in a time of massive digital image proliferation and distribution, medicine cannot be pictured. It definitively does not exist in this way, although the lens of the camera can seek to capture its various aspects, resulting in striking photographs (especially portraits, as if producing a quaint memorial for ‘the human’). This suggests proliferation of the image is the same thing as loss of its meaning as a singular entity. In this sense, medicine has little in common with the pictorial homogeneity which Line Describing a Cone can easily produce as an artwork. The latter activates the subject in a similar way perhaps, but never as a beholder of the work. Instead, a loss of perspective for the participant is central to its experience, which is no less coherent as a result.

Christopher Wood notes “Renaissance perspective…had in Panofsky’s eyes the virtue of insinuating a perfect equilibrium between the claims of subject and object.[22] Medicine, however, requires no subject in “equilibrium with its pictorial object.” Rather, a visitor subsumes medicine within him or her-self in the same way that they are subsumed within the artwork. In addition to there being no correct perspective from which to view the work, the concept of taking a position outside of it is all but meaningless to the worldview it defines[23].  Instead, engaging with the work requires a degree of entanglement within it, the audience’s visual perspective being no longer sovereign but an incorporated and intermittent component within its material. Engulfing the subject, medicine constructs contemporary experience from a position inside, producing within itself certain characteristics of the world we find ourselves emerging within.


[1] Kika Thorne, in conversation, August, 2012.

[2] A related context for posthuman thought is the Deep Ecology movement Thorne suggests the rise of posthuman thought illuminates the demands of the Deep Ecology movement to which she belongs. Naess, Arne. “The Shallow And The Deep, Long Range Ecology Movements”, a Summary. Originally published in Inquiry (Oslo), 16 (1973). Naess states seven main tenets of the movement. I quote from each section: 1. Rejection of the man-in-environment image in favor the relational, total-field image. Organisms as knots in the biospherical net or field of intrinsic relations. 2. Biospherical egalitarianism-in principle. The “in principle” clause is inserted because any realistic praxis necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression. The ecological field-worker acquires a deep-seated respect, or even veneration, for ways and forms of life. S/He (sic) reaches an understanding from within, a kind of understanding that others reserve for fellow humans and for a narrow section of ways and forms of life. To the ecological field-worker, the equal right to live and blossom is an intuitively clear and obvious value axiom. Its restriction to humans is an anthropocentrism with detrimental effects upon the life quality of humans themselves. The quality depends in part upon the deep pleasure and satisfaction we receive from close partnership with other forms of life. 3 Principles of diversity and of symbiosis. Diversity enhances the potentialities of survival, the chances of new modes of life, the richness of forms. “Live and let live” is a more powerful ecological principle than “Either you or me.” The latter tends to reduce the multiplicity of kinds of forms of life, and also to create destruction within the communities of the same species. 4. Anti-class posture. Diversity of human ways of life is in part due to (intended or unintended) exploitation and suppression on the part of certain groups. The exploiter lives differently from the exploited, but both are adversely affected in their potentialities of self-realization. 5. Fight against pollution and resource depletion. In this fight ecologists have found powerful supporters, but sometimes to the detriment of their total stand. 6. Complexity, not complication. Organisms, ways of life, and interactions in the biosphere in general, exhibit complexity of such an astoundingly high level as to color the general outlook of ecologists. Such complexity makes thinking in terms of vast systems inevitable. It also makes for a keen, steady perception of the profound human ignorance of biospherical relationships and therefore of the effect of disturbances. 7. Local autonomy and decentralization. The vulnerability of a form of life is roughly proportional to the weight of influences from afar, from outside the local region in which that form has obtained an ecological equilibrium. This lends support to our efforts to strengthen local self-government and material and mental self-sufficiency. But these efforts presuppose an impetus towards decentralization. Local autonomy is strengthened by a reduction in the number of links in the hierarchical chains of decision.

Reprinted in http://www.alamut.com 1999.

[3] Published in Toronto, The Splinter used the self-publishing “zine” (from “fanzine”) format to create a platform for grassroots dialogue about architecture. The terms “zine” originates in the D.I.Y. ethos of punk, and punk attitude defines the tone Hayes and Isenor adopted for the missives they launched against the world of establishment architecture practice. http://laforum.org/content/articles/architects-architecture-activism-by-david-jensen

[4] Wild in the Streets is an artist book, a “mini rock opera” in part based on the 1968 film of the same name. Whereas the film brings b-movie sensationalism to the revolutionary impulses of 1960s youth culture, Graham and MacDonald use the reference as a way to reflect on the failed promises of that cultural moment. https://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the_psychedelic_fantasies_of_the_sixties/

[5] More information about this era in Thorne’s practice can be found at http://kikathorne.blogspot.ca/

[6] Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2010) xv.

[7] Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Section 1, (Digireads.com, 2006)

[8] Kika Thorne, mediCine, G Gallery, Toronto, July 13 – August 12, 2012.

[9] Adrian Blackwell, “White Wall / Black Hole System: drawing lines between cinema and architecture, galaxies and souls”, poster accompanying the G Gallery exhibition.

[10] McCall cites as precedents to Line Describing a Cone, Warhol’s Empire (1964) and Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967). Both are works that emphasize the material aspects of cinema as a process, to create an experience of the medium that is largely external to the images each one projects.

[11] Colby Chamberland, “Something in the Air”, Cabinet, Issue 35 “Dust Fall”, 2009 http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/35/chamberlain.php

[12] http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2012aprjun/mccall.html

[13] Blackwell, ibid.

[14] Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, trans. Christopher S. Wood, New York: Zone Books (1991) 27. Originally published as “Die Perspektive als ‘symbolische Form,’ in the Vorträge de Bibliothek Warburg 1924-1925 (Leipzeig & Berlin, 1927), pp. 258-330.

[15] Panofsky, 28.

[16] With perspectival techniques of the 15th century “painting is sometimes indistinguishable from science.” Christopher S. Wood, “Introduction”, Perspective as Symbolic Form, 23.

[17] Blackwell “today photography, film and video persist as its living descendents”, ibid.

[18] Panofsky, 31.

[19] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 35.)

[20] Woods, 23.

[21] Within the logic of ANT, this network would be comprised of every component that produced the result of visitors appearing at the gallery door, including the artist’s friends and colleagues, meaningful art historical precedents, the institutions of art education and the Liberal Arts generally, a local art community and the mechanisms by which it publicizes itself, not to mention, the systems responsible for the manufacture of black elastic cord and wall paint, cars, public transit and bicycles, etc. Furthermore, ANT assumes these “networks of relations are not intrinsically coherent” but they can potentially of course crystallize as such.

[22] Wood, 23.

[23] Taking an outside position suggests a number of ideas, all of them arguably concerns no longer relevant to the 21st century, including: mastery and the hierarchy that falls beneath its summit; the proprietary advantage and subject-forming resolution associated with a point of view; the romantic individual who decides to reject the world; the militant who actively fights back against it; and the avant-gardist who presumes to lead it.

This essay originally published in the catalogue for, The Wildcraft, Kika Thorne’s solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Windsor, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s