THIS ESSAY INTRODUCES A RANGE OF RESEARCH ACTIVITIES UNDER THE COLLECTIVE TITLE OF PLEASURE CENTRE INCLUDING A WEBSITE, A PUBLICATION, A SERIES OF PARALLEL EXHIBITIONS AND AN ACCOMPANYING SYMPOSIUM.
I hope to draw out some ways of talking about the numerous participating voices and explore some context for the idea of pleasure that we have begun to use. I will outline some of the problems the term conjures, and some of the opportunities for research that it opens up. Annie Cattrell manages this research project and sees this package of activity taking place as the first iteration of a growing program of activity to explore through different disciplines and vocabularies this odd, uncomfortable but commonplace word.
The term pleasure is part of a family of words that sit awkwardly in the history of aesthetics. Pleasure, enjoyment, liking, happiness and others that are subjective value judgements that imply some kind of positive emotional response to a situation. Pleasure has a particular inflection and the project title, Pleasure Centre implies a neurological slant to the research activities.
This project includes an important partnership with Morten L. Kringelbach, a leading neuropsychologist exploring the physiology of pleasure. Annie Cattrell’s work as an artist exploring the intersections of science and art has informed the development of the project. Through her work she has developed a longstanding relationship with Kringelbach with whom she has collaborated previously. For those of us working on the project his text The Pleasure Center has been the presiding genius of activities.
The concern with the subject of pleasure as a research focus emerges from exhibitions developed by Max Mosscrop and Adam Gillam in 2003 and 2004 entitled ‘With pleasure’ and ‘Doubtful pleasures’. The exhibition explored the problems around our perception of pleasure and the ways in which it is discussed. Pleasure is a spectral presence that permeates our value judgements without having any objective criteria against which it can be audited. Is it meaningful, the exhibitions asked, to talk about pleasure in relations to art?
Whilst the project is multidisciplinary in approach it is rooted in the Fine Art department at De Montfort University. If questions around pleasure could be broken down into epistemological (what is pleasure), ethical (what are the limits of pleasure) and aesthetic (what causes pleasure), then it is this final category that will be the focus for us at the moment. The interdependencies are enormous and we can expect these relationships will be drawn out later in the life of Pleasure Centre.
In politics, social impact from national policy to the granular impact of children’s centres on specific users are evaluated in terms of happiness, contentment or pleasure. The classical model of economics is dependent on an idea of utility in which we are able to model and predict our pleasures perfectly and will always aspire to maximise them. Both systems are, to say the least, open to critique. Within twentieth century theory the politicisation of aesthetics has been very significant. But in terms of our understanding of if the arts can achieve the presence of pleasure has been left outside of the conversation. There is a sense that pleasure is the opposite of politics in these contexts, a pleasurable reading of arts being an apolitical one.
The question of what is pleasure returns to the neuroscience of Morten L. Kringelbach. He lists the fundamental pleasures as food, sex and social interaction but suggests that the experience of pleasure in the way that we primarily use it is more complicated than this. ‘Pleasure is not a sensation, but linked to the anticipation, evaluation, and memory of sensations.’ It is within this network of meanings that we can start to locate the aesthetics of pleasure, especially within contemporary art.
The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has written about the discrepancy between experienced pleasure and the memory of pleasure in his work. Over a series of experiments Kahneman demonstrated that the relationship between pleasure and the memory of pleasure is indirect and unreliable. Immediate hedonic reward does not lead to a long term sense of life satisfaction, equally suffering does not necessarily impact on our overall sense of lifelong contentment. This gap between immediate and fundamental pleasures, and a more temporal sense of reflective satisfaction through which we evaluate our lives is the pitch on which the artworks in this exhibition play.
Kahneman talks about there being two selves, one that he describes as ‘the experiencing self’ for whom the current sensations are paramount, and the other is the remembering self, an unreliable narrator who strings together the memories of sensation into our life stories.
In 2010 an exhibition entitled Play Ground explored artists using subjective pleasurable experience within their work. Including Angela Bulloch’s karaoke activated light sculptures and Mungo Thomson’s bouncey castle, entitled Skyspace Bouncehouse. These works foreground unreflective participation within the audience experience, shifting the paradigm away from self-reflexive observation of the work. The sweetie spills of Felix Gonzalez Torres, that the audience are invited to eat also can be seen as shifting the experience towards the fundamental pleasures of food. Carsten Holler’s works, especially the slides, Test Bed, also speak of the pleasure of physical play in which the sensation renders reflection impossible in the moment.
Morten L. Kringelbach talks about a state of ‘fluid absorption’ in which we enter “a state of self-forgetfulness that affords us deep pleasure”. This would include activities such as rewarding work, sports activity or play. This state is one that Holler was exploring through test bed, in which the audience become entirely self-forgetting in their participation. So Play Ground began to delineate a model of visual arts activity in which play and fun were prioritised over the reflective process.
Play Ground looked at work that emphasised immediacy over remembered experience. In Kahneman’s terms this was work designed for the ‘experiencing self’ rather than the ‘remembering self’. Play Ground set out to critique a model of art consumption in which the remembering self is prioritised.
The experiencing self lives by sensation that constitutes the moment. The remembering self lives by meaning that create the life story. The discourse around visual arts is dominated by something we call meaning. Meaning is the possibility of a story being woven from the work. It is generated by the act of converting the immediate sensations of the experiencing self to the material of the remembering self.
At New Walk Museum and Art Gallery our exhibition is a constellation of works focussed around 9 prints by Henri Chopin. In the works Chopin’s mist of letters hovers between the possibility of communicating through language and the loss of meaning to aesthetic form. As with all concrete poetry it emerges from a history of mystical typography running back through twentieth century cryptography, back through Koranic script, kabbalah and the production of the Torah. Throughout this history the pinnacle of aesthetics is the relationship between meaning and its cyphers, of such importance that it becomes occult, such a threat that it is condemned a witchcraft.
Henri Chopin’s work illustrates this divide between sense and meaning. The division between form and content is the division between the sensation of the experiencing self and the story telling of the remembering self. This is the tension between the grapheme and its effect on the reader, derived from the meaning it might provide.
Kringelbach’s concept of fluid absorption might seem a useful way of talking about the audience experience of art works. But artists participating in this exhibition do not allow the audience to succumb to this mesmerism. To lose one’s self in work is a romantic aspiration, Coleridge’s opiate dreams. A ‘fluid absorption’ in which we lose our criticality and self-reflexivity bears close relationship to work within Play Ground, and perhaps with certain transcendent ideas of modernism. But for most contemporary artworks the audience must remain critically aware to activate the work.
Perhaps we could see the artworks shown as a rejection of the idea of pleasure. Or at least a rejection of the ideas of pleasures that neuroscience articulates. Stuart Croft’s cyclical film Drive In, shown at Phoenix Square mocks up a movie scene in which a couple drive through a rain soaked city at night. The woman tells a story about a man’s voluntary escape from paradise before he eventually finds himself washed back up on its shores whence he leaves again to find himself washed up on its shores once more.
This cycle of humankind’s eternal departure and return from paradise narrates the experience of the works displayed. They prioritise an exploration of form, often, as with the work of Ben Cain (showing at The Great Central) , physically seductive, but does not allow the viewer to escape into a simple relationship with the work either through the fundamental pleasures food or sex or self-forgetting. Rather they enforce a discomfiting self-awareness on the audience both in terms of the sensory experience of the space and the ways in which meaning is generated.
The artworks in this series of exhibitions postpone pleasure from the experiencing self to the remembering self. But when we remember the works it is inadequate to the physical experience of the work. So like Croft’s man escaping paradise pleasure is postponed and a cycle of departure and return is set up for the audience from experiencing self to remembering self. Pleasure in the works is postponed, it is the promise of the memory of the works, the story they can articulate retrospectively. But this story remains inadequate to the experience of the work. Closely related to this idea is Liam Gillick’s discussion of the evasiveness of contemporary art. Artworks are unwilling to be reduced to an idea. Though the artwork may tell you what it isn’t, it will never tell you what it is.
In the spirit of Morten L. Kringelbach we can confidently talk about and become lost in play on a bouncy castle and describe it as pleasurable. It is useful to say we enter a state of “fluid absorption” and lose ourselves in the experience. This is pleasure for the experiencing self.
For the works in Pleasure Centre there is a space that can be mapped in which pleasure might be discussed. It is somewhere between the form and the meaning. It is somewhere between our experience and its memory.
This is the start of Pleasure Centre, its first iteration. There will be many more axis along which we can explore the themes of pleasure. Perhaps the discrepancies between experiencing self and remembering self will prove useful in this context.
It is a credit to the staff involved at De Montfort University that this area of research is being opened up. Pleasure is the basic currency of our daily lives and our assessment of it drives decisions from the global to the personal. Pleasure Centre provides a vital opportunity to explore what this subject can mean across disciplines, with a focus on aesthetics and the visual arts. The evasiveness of arts practice is essential to chasing down this spectral idea that seems prone to slip through the fingers of empirical research.
Exhibitions Officer for Contemporary Art
New Walk Museum and Art