The Art Instinct

by Mark Calderwood

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From somewhat shaky beginnings, installation and media have grown into sophisticated artistic genres. Not only have they expanded the possibilities for making art, they have redefined the ways we interact with and understand contemporary art. Yet for all their varied strategies for doing this, there is one common thread that underpins and drives this engagement- the instinctive response that move us.

This psychological phenomenon, known as affect, provides a vehicle for understanding contemporary aesthetics. Affect is a reaction to a stimulus, forming an unconscious, ‘pre-wired’ stage of the cognitive process. Affects cannot be static, inert or potential states; they are experiential, apprehended and understood only in their active expression. Although some psychologists suggest that they are holdovers from evolutionary survival instincts, affects are much more complex- temperament, cognitive development, socialisation and educational patterns, and personal inclinations all play a part in how affect is felt.

The assumption is that ‘positive’ affects such as aesthetic pleasure are merely the culturally conditioned consolation for other, more primal, pleasures; but this view does not account for the tickle of curiosity that quite literally moves us- spatially, bodily and cognitively- to interact more closely with something intriguing or appealing. This is especially true of a work of art, where affect then operates in tandem with the spectator’s conscious faculties to generate meaning and understanding.


More than ever, contemporary art relies on the viewer moving into it, interacting with it, to activate or complete the work, breaking the habit of seeing art as a passive recipient; succinctly demonstrated by two ‘classic’ installations by Australian artists. Aeriology (1997) by Joyce Hinterding is a shimmering veil of copper wire that  catches and transduces the electrical signals of the body as it moves and displaces the surrounding space. The tactile qualities of the material both entice and inhibit touch, suggesting woven textures but also live wires, playing the natural desire to touch against a deeply ingrained hesitance- the danger affect. The installation uses the body’s movement as an invisible component of its workings, to reveal what is invisible yet all-pervasive.

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TIn similar vein Roadkill (2000) by Simryn Gill places the innate desire to touch, to get up close, centre stage. Dozens of various small objects, found squashed on the roads, were fitted with toy wheels and grouped on the floor. Their tiny size and toy-like appearance spark the viewer’s curiosity, and cause them bodily to bed, sit, touch and play with the objects, as the conscious mind begins to reflect on the environmental and social comments that a work made from consumer detritus suggests.

In many ways, works like these changed the character of contemporary art by demonstrating that interpretation and meaning is not narrowly reducible to simple cognition: it requires an affective/cognitive loop wherein the preverbal, prepersonal response informs and intensifies the aesthetic and cognitive experience. In short, it is impossible to separate the drives to the work from the process of understanding the work- especially in art that readjusts the body.


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