Loosely strung together quotes from: Alfred Gell; Conclusion: The Extended Mind, 9.4 The Artist's Oeuvre as distributed Object, in: Art and Agency. Oxford, 1998

Alfred Gell holds an extraordinarily compelling image of personhood: "a person and a person's mind are not confined to particular spatio-temporal coordinates, but consist of a spread of biographical events and memories of events, and a dispersed category of material objects, traces, and leavings, which can be attributed to a person and which, in aggregate, testify to agency and patienthood during a biographical career which may, indeed, prolong itself long after biological death. The person is thus understood as the sum total of the indexes which testify, in life and subsequently, to the biographical existence of this or that individual."

In that light, he discusses an artist's complete body of work, the oeuvre, as an entity that is constituted by protentions and retentions. "Any given work of art, in gross terms, considered in the context of its maker's oeuvre, is likely to be both a 'preparation' for later works, and a 'recapitulation' of previous works." He makes the point "that there is isomorphy of structure between the cognitive processes we know (from inside) as 'consciousness' and the spatio-temporal structures of distributed objects in the artefactual realm [...]."Gell goes on to state that "the structures of art history demonstrate an externalized and collectivized cognitive process."

Where an artist is doing this work of structuring herslf, as for example in giving an artist talk or writing a statement, or as part of a critique, she is mapping this externalized cognitive process and current perceptions onto each other.


This passage reminds me of Dewey's notion of 'mind as background', what I call deep ground, and also speaks of the work of the present, as calibrating and projecting, evoking what I see as intermediate ground: "Retentions can thus be construed as the background of out-of-date perceptions against which more up-to-date perceptions are projected, and significant trends and changes are calibrated. As perceptions become more seriously out of date, they diminish in salience and are lost to view. We thus perceive the present not as a knife-edge 'now' but as a temporally extended field within which trends emerge out of the patterns we discern in the successive updatings of perceptions relating to the proximate past, the next more proximate past, and the next, and so on. This trend is projected into the future in the form of protentions, that is, anticipations of the pattern of updating of current perceptions which will be necessitated in the proximate future, the next most proximate future, and the next, in a manner symmetric with the past, but in inverse temporal order."

Gell quotes Husserl and then comments: " 'The whole past sinks in a mass, taking all its arranged contents with it' (Findlay 1975: 11). But the past does not just 'sink' as the present progresses; it changes its significance, is evaluated in different ways, and sets up different patterns of protentions, according to the way in which the present evolves. This dynamic past, and the future which continually alters in complexion, cannot be accommodated in 'physical' time, but only in cognitive time." Here he gives weight to the background as an active force from which patterns emerge that shape future perceptions and actions. His notion of cognitive time is diagrammatic. It is shaped by relations, not absolute.

Another Husser quote: "Every actual Now of consciousness is subject to the law of modification. It changes into the retention of a retention and does so continuously. There accordingly arises a regular continuum of retention such that every later point is the retention of every earlier one. Each retention is already a continuum. A tone begins and goes on steadily: its now-phase changes into a was-phase, and our impressional consciousness constantly flows over into an ever new retentional consciousness. Going down the stream, we encounter a continuous series of retentions harking back to the starting point. To each of such retentions a continuum of retentional modifications is added, and this continuum is itself a point in the actuality that is being retentionally projected ... Each retention is intrinsically a continuous modification, which so to say carries the heritage of its past in itself. It is not merely the case, that, going downstream, each earlier retention is continuously replaced by a new one. Each later retention is not merely a continuous modification stemming from an original impression: it is also a continuous modification of all previous continuous modifications of the same starting point. (1928: 390, cited in Findlay 1975: 10)" This translates well into how one creates a narrative of ones work over time.

Gell then uses Duchamp as an example of an artist who wants to make these processes visible through his work: "Because almost all of Duchamp's work, from 1913, is part of a single, coherent project, which subsequently, after the (semi-)completion of the Large Glass in 1925, extended itself until the close of his career, his oeuvre is particularly interesting from our point of view. It is literally the case that Duchamp's ouvre consists of a single distributed object, in that each of Duchamp's separate works is a preparation for, or a development of, other works of his, and all may be traced, by direct or circuitous pathways, to all the others. This was intentional and explicit, since Duchamp's basic objective was to create a fourth-dimensional entity, and an ouvre such as his is perhaps as close as we will ever get to possessing such an entity." What Gell names a fourth-dimensional entity is indeed a diagram, as he represented it in his drawing above, to be completed by a viewer/reader in each concrete case of an oeuvre, reanimating the movement of the intermediate ground from clues an artist has distributed.

"Each Duchamp work, in other words, invites us to adopt a particular perspective on all Duchamp's works, often by providing explicit quotations or references to past and future works, though also adumbrating retentions and protentions in a more elliptical fashion. The sum total of the infinitely transformable network of internal references (protentions and retentions) uniting the ouvre from all of these temporal 'perches'-which we can only, in fact, adopt serially, is the unrepresentable but very conceptualizable and by no means 'mystic' fourth dimension." Extended back to the notion of distributed personhood, each curated entity, be it an art collection, a syllabus, an anthology or an exhibition, can be read in this same way as well, with the work of synchronization of a diachronic object into a diagrammatic one already achieved.