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introductory text
September 2008

stuff and things, or, how do you know what you're looking at?

I take things as I find them. A lot of things come from the noise of everyday life.
(Ed Ruscha)1

There was a piece of furniture in my parents' house that we knew as the 'stuff press'. I don't
know if other families had one, but then we also had family names for other objects and
for rooms in the house. The stuff press, ('press' is the Hiberno English for the Standard
English noun 'cupboard', as in 'hot press' / 'airing cupboard') was a nineteenth-century
mahogany sideboard, and it was filled with stuffs (specifically referring to fabrics, but also
some old clothes, dressing-up materials, and leftovers from home sewing projects). It was
stuffed with materials that could be turned into something else, that might be transformed
by work, or by imagination. And by its name it made stuff of the matter held in it.

This sense of stuff as having the potential to be modified, manipulated, altered into
something, as having little form of its own but offering the possibility to be shaped into, to
be worked into things is a way of considering the practice of art. There is stuff (data,
materials etc) and there are things made from this stuff. This is not to propose this as a
strong binary, but to imagine a gradation, a variety, a means of discussing various
approaches to making. One direction or approach is to make work by amassing, gathering,
accumulating the data, the stuff of practice and to then organise this into works, into
things. Another direction is to begin from a sense of a form, a genre, an event, and to find
the stuff with which to realise this. Artists and makers may operate with both approaches,
may shift from one to another, and in engaging with it the receivers (viewers / readers /
audience) may apprehend the work as having both aspects.

This stuff that is handled gets shaped or organised or assembled into things, but there may
be differences in where or how or when the viewer or reader or the maker can point and
say, now that's a thing, before it was only stuff. I may point to a page and say 'there is a
poem' or point to a screen and say 'that is a story' or point to a wall and say 'there is a
painting', but to another viewer or reader it may still appear as stuff.

The systems for and discussions of pattern perception may offer another model for this. As
a software designer someone may approach pattern recognition as an area of data analysis,
as a neurologist she may approach pattern perception as an area of brain function. As an
artist and writer I may consider these questions as engaged with both data and function, as
dependent on cultural experience, as affected by familiarity, or family, as partly determined
by access to or knowledge of the codes.

I can be on a bus and overhear people speaking a language I don't know. It may be
received by me as a stream of sounds, as noise, without a sense of where the breaks are,
between words, between phrases, where the shifts in register or tone are occurring. If I
hear a tune from a culture whose products I am not familiar with, I may not recognise it as
a musical form as I may not be able to perceive any organising principle.

Receiving the work as data, the possible organisings may be considered in microscopic
detail, as 'text' is analysed into individual marks, or strokes, or gestures, or phonemes, or
whatever the 'atom' of the particular medium may be felt to be. Equally the array of modes
of organisation may be chased in the other direction, higher and wider towards an ever
more macroscopic view, as the data is seen to be a sentence, or a paragraph, or a story, or a
book, or an author's work, or a national literature, to whatever is seen as the ultimate
upward rationalising of the work.

Each direction of analysis brings into play a variety of possible, valid, variant, other
principles of organisation within which our data may be categorised or by which our data
may be recognised. Depending on the intention of the viewer, or the point from which she
starts, or her opinions that she brings to the performance, or the context of her coming
upon a text, the answer to the question 'what is this?' will be different. And these different
answers are political. They are differences among people, among persons who read and
make and are made by these works.

So if I see a particular text as a poem, what assumptions am I working with as to the

existence of a set of textual forms? If I read a novel as science fiction, what set of genre
characteristics am I operating with? If I listen to a song, what are these strings of notes and
phonemes that I am hearing? If a film claims to describe me, what means do I have to
resist what the narrative has made me? If my life feels like a soap opera, does that mean
that Eastenders is a true reflection of contemporary society? If the narrative of global
warming is satisfying as an eschatological myth, do I enjoy the story too much to act to
change it?

The 'stuff press' acts as a prop for a story, and as a metaphor for material loosely packed
into a frame, into a provisional holding formation. It also carries particular historical and
cultural information in its being so named. This naming gives identity to a specific object,
and locates that object in a particular familiar familial place. The art work as the audience
encounters it, as the viewer recognises it to be a work, is already always both provisionally
organised stuff, and a thing which may be apprehended. What are you looking at? It is this
stuff here now seen by you in this arrangement.

Mark Leahy

1. Ed Ruscha. They Called Her Styrene (London: Phaidon 2000)