An Archeology of Emotions – Art as a Medium of Knowing

Mika Karhu, artist, researcher
The text is based on a paper: “Art as a vehicle of knowledge”, presented at a symposium, University of Art and Design, Helsinki, November 2008


Art is a vehicle for thinking and knowing. Art creates knowledge unformalized in a traditional sense compared to scientific knowledge. The knowledge that is art brings form to experiencing changes in time, as changes of experience. Art brings about meaning. Art organizes our experiences combining historically evolving skills and knowledge with the present – in our action.

Art mediates our perception and saves our experiences on to memory. Thinking arises out of raw matter of experience and is manipulated by artistic thinking into a meaningful form. The significance of art grows form the experiential context, networks of behavior and habits often non-verbally affecting our actions in highly compulsive ways.

Neither scientific or artistic knowledge is a reflection of existing order. Both are constructive projects. Science and art produces meaning and relations between meanings in matters of perception. From this follows that both science and art may look at things and their features in a new light, helping us to construe anew the way things mean to us, thus creating innovations that enriches and alleviates our life and society.

Contemporary art does not function in isolation. It is a social space, where social events, habits and visual traditions may be investigate, regardless how severly in conflict with each other. Art is linked to the contexts of social life that in their connectedness form the significant possibilities for meaningful art.

An attitude of disinterestedness and autonomy was created within modernism around art that, however, slowly lost its importance with the arrival of postmodern thought replacing modernism with an idea of art that stresses interaction and multiple values. This has happened as well on a larger scale in the society.

An Archeology of Emotions

The concept of an archaeology of emotions refers to the method of Michel Foucault, to his archeology of knowledge. My notion consists functions in analogy with Foucault´s archeology of knowledge only loosely, but its main contribution may lead to similar descriptions and formations of emotions that Foucault´s pertaining to enunciation and discourse.

Focusing on knowledge as archeological strata Foucault does not stress metaphors of digging or drilling but as organizing levels of discourse. As Foucault states in an interview:

“I strive to make visible that which is unvisible, because the invisible (as the form of discourse) is the steering factor on the surface”

Styles of speech and thinking, Foucault says, are self-evident and formative in their presence regarding various judgments about realities that become ”natural”. Manipulating the way we direct our consciousness in thinking, being and feeling, styles are felt to be natural. The reactive emotions based on these kinds of practices not only guide speech and writing , but direct and position us in action toward our goals. The cultural codes of action make us think about action in certain ways. This amounts to a background process guiding cultural action.

In the archeology of emotions we deal with that what the artist takes as a starting point for his/her work: the cultural strata of emotions. Via these layers emotional action responds to the demands of the environment. In other words, we adjust ourselves to the existing emotional environment within our culture. Ways of action within our culture differ from each other. Habits function as media for our thoughts, giving us the possibilities to think about the future, the non-present. Contents of our thinking are thus also to be shared collectively. Similarily they refer to our identification within the community with its habits and traditions, its praxis.

Culture, in other words, produces shared meanings we identify ourselves with collectively. The significations within culture linked to action mediate the consciousness of the members of as belonging to the same community. Cultural praxis produces similar ways of interpreting cultural meanings. Against this backdrop cultural praxis is not only formations tied to language but organizational habits, procedurer and forms. Culture is to be understood as a binding and forming factor. Binding individuals together culture produces cultural identities. Foucault stresses the role of power. Power creates knowledge that identifies and organizes people as part of the dominant civilization.

An archeology of emotions is thus a concept, that tries to envision those complex processes governing our experiences as social agents. An archeology of emotions states a question: How can a habit of action based on routine and authority be described in artistic work that takes imagining and action as its point of departure from a reconstructive point of view?

Pertaining to emotions power makes for unity. Codification guarantees common practices, in which participation is possible if rules are followed. Following rules the fields of action make participation and interaction possible. Adherence to rules manipulate and organize deep emotions in reacting to codified needs of the environment accordingly.

The environment of power as a field of imitation

Power is everywhere. From this point of view habits of action within the community function as guidelines in the processes of social organization. Social principles do not ”hang in the air” but are tightly linked to social and psychological praxis. As social individuals we have a natural need to adjust to changing circumstances in our environment and strive to act reasonably in each social set-up.

Humans function in a social environment, in culture. Culture is an environment that integrates, adjust and build our actions. In other words, culture make us behave. It does things that genes do not. Simple forms of social learning make possible individual abilities to find out prescriptions for the environment benefitting culturally dependable actions. The ability to imitate, to learn and copy behaviour is the guarantee to human socialness. Art is something we learn by imitation and copying which makes us adjust to our surroundings.

When environments change and learning is difficult, a system of imitation can make for that advantage explaining why we may find quite often basic social learning systems in animals. By imitating and learning traditions in various ways humans gain plug-in features with selective and swift adoption of those general or most general changes that become dominant in successful behaviour.

Combining together a stress on social learning with random factors of innovation adjusted to, results amount in a complex and cumulative manner within a culturally adjusted evolution. These adjustments are much wider than any creative ability of an individual person. The cumulative evolution of culture leads to complex adjustments at a much higher pace that natural selection molds genetic adjustments. Art is the result of these emotional layers and processes.

Experiences as significative materials of art

Experiences grow in interaction with the environment. Experiences become a cumulative knowledge of action. Through experience we organize and re-evaluate the mediate or historical as well as the immediate, the here and now and relations between these two. We live, as it were, our history in the future.

Earlier experiences define our life and the imminent blends with the recent creating a new experience. When, similarily, former experiences get a new viewpoint, this changes the states of departure for future experiences. Experiences give us a possibility to re-examine our future actions .

Meanings appearing in emotions are difficult to describe verbally. Our experiences bring along dimensions impossible to define in a final sense. Artistic work builds on structuring emotional meanings. Emotions could be labeled as reservoirs of meaning.

Elements tied to experience are thematic and functional to art. By this I mean that artists use elements yet to be structured in his/her work, such as they are developing in experience and in ineraction with the world. Emotions are indicators of bodily existence, expressing nodes of interaction between humans and enviroment making a diversity of life possible.

Experience is a ”channel”, conveying the fact of us being an inseparable part of the world. Experience is not a veil distorting the existing world but it discloses it – not in its entirety but pertaining to each specific event that simultaneously link on to other experiences in the past and in the continuity of the future.

The significant materials of experience that artists process , are virtual, non-tangible, materially un-showable and unrecordable, although effective. From the point of view of emotions links to former experiences unwind as a network of experiences in the artwork. The presence of social pressure is an inalienable part of the structure of becoming human. Humans are results of a social whole in which historically mediated structures and meanings actively locate themselves.