We encounter a swimmer hovering underwater, and other moments from everyday life; a bar, a bus journey, an exhibition opening, and the shared space that is created when we move through the world with another. The viewer is located within a kind of first-person temporal play made up from different moments of lived experience. The sensor-driven interactive video systems respond to the viewer’s proximity to the screen, forming a dynamic coupling between the motion of the user’s body and the resulting real-time manipulation of video and sound.
These works explore the dynamic tension between retreating from and attending to the world, and hint at the fragmented nature of our internal and external identity.
John Tonkin: Experiments in Proximity by Jacqueline Millner
When it emerged in the 1930s and 40s, the interdisciplinary science of cybernetics — defined by its founder Norbert Weiner as ‘the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine’ but also understood as the original systems analysis — influenced many other fields of inquiry. One was another emergent area of research and innovation: computing. Another was perhaps less likely: psychology. The proponent of what was to become a major tenet of psychological analysis, namely attachment theory, drew on cybernetics to mount his argument that healthy human development depends on the child having adequately bonded with primary caregivers (the attachment figure) early in life. British psychologist John Bowlby proposed that the child’s need for proximity to the attachment figure balanced homeostatically with the need for exploration. In response to changing circumstances, the child self-regulated to balance the desire for experience and novelty on the one hand, and for security and familiarity on the other, and this expressed itself in the actual distance the child maintained from the caregiver. The safer the child felt, the longer the distance; sensing a threat, the child sought proximity.
Despite its link to cybernetics, in attachment theory we see the inklings of the change in emphasis that was to characterise later theorising on the development of human cognition: from the classical notion that the mind is a system that processes information, to the idea that cognition is grounded in the sensory-motor dynamics of the interactions between a living organism and its environment. The classical notion has long roots in Western philosophy, although was formally theorised in the 1960s as the ‘computational theory of mind’ in the context of the rise of computer technologies: an extension of this theory is the metaphor of the mind itself as a computer that computes input and forms output. While this view is still widely held, recent research has gone to affirm Bowlby’s early insights in developing another approach, now called enaction, that proposes that living things enact the world they live in, that it is embodied action in the world that constitutes its perception and grounds its cognition.
A key aspect of the world that humans enact is also highlighted in attachment theory: other people. Studies in human cognitive development, such as those by child psychologist Daniel Stern, have increasingly emphasised the inherently inter-subjective character of the child’s early experiences, which do not dissociate the feeling of self from the feeling of the other, and also recognised that the various stages of cognitive development in early childhood may keep operating in parallel throughout life, rather than being resolved once and for all when certain milestones are reached. Such an approach diversifies our understanding of ‘normal’ cognition and opens out to a far more dynamic (and mutable) understanding of human subjectivity.
It is in full awareness of this rich field of inquiry that John Tonkin practices his experiments in proximity. Tonkin has a long career in exploring the potential for computer technologies to grant us insights into who and what we are, often reading those technologies against the grain of technophilic claims made about their capacity to connect and transform us. That engagement with digital technologies has moreover underpinned his curiosity about the nature of human cognition: the question of how we think ourselves and the world is at the heart of his practice. In his more recent work, Tonkin has refined his approach to produce beautiful and deeply resonant images that we ‘enact’ through our embodied relationship with spaces, screens and each other. Using a connect sensor (and some clever programming that makes the final result look seamless), Tonkin has designed a most elegant and intuitive interface that recognises our presence and responds to our full bodily movement.
The new work has grown from the earlier Closer: 11 experiments in proximity (2010) and Metacognition (2011). In Closer, Tonkin created a series of everyday scenarios — including a water bottle spinning at the base of an escalator and a walk in a park — which we, as viewers, could control, depending on how close we were to the screen on which they were projected. The revelation of the videos’ responsive quality evoked our playfulness, as we participated in a game of constant oscillation and calibration between our bodies and filmed scenario in much the same way as we constantly ‘enact’ or ‘make’ the world in our daily lives, homeostatically regulating between proximity and distance. In Metacognition, Tonkin was guided by the notion of the homunculus, the idea of ‘the little man inside the brain’ that grounds our perceptions and interactions; the interactive video pulled us through an infinite set of screens where the artist figured his everyday point of view (POV), powerfully communicating the integral role representations and self-surveillance play in conventional theories of cognition.
Surface: Stranger in a strange land (2013) brings the concerns and techniques of these earlier works together: we are again encouraged to take the artist’s POV, but this time we can navigate his enactment of the world far more freely (unshackled to a degree from the framing device of the screen), using our broad bodily motion to pierce the boundary between the suspended silence of internalisation to the cacophony of intersubjectivity. Projection (sometimes I forget where I end and you begin) (2013) takes the intersubjective dimension of the earlier works even further. Based on the companionly walks the artist takes regularly to discuss life and ideas with friends, the work demands that a ‘real life’ interaction take place before it responds to a viewer’s presence. To heighten the relational aspect of human perception and cognition, Tonkin has deliberately cross-wired the video’s interactive sensors, so our movements control not our personal ‘avatar’, but that of the figure we are interacting with. It is a very effective un-anchoring from expectation that brings us into much greater embodied mindfulness.
Tonkin’s recent work makes a valuable contribution to understandings of human cognition and world-making: it immerses us in, but also unpicks, the very process of enaction, and thus renders us ever more aware of the potential to enact the world differently.
Jacqueline Millner teaches the history and theory of contemporary art at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney