The Hospitality of the Abyssal Ground or Perceptual Architectures of Indeterminacy

The Hospitality of the Abyssal Ground


Perceptual Architectures of Indeterminacy


Natasha Lushetich


There never has been such a thing as solid ground. As profoundly transient beings, all we can hope for is the hospitality of the abyssal ground.[1] Perhaps that is why our everyday aesthetic appreciation of our natural environment is inseparable from indeterminacy, as change and ambiguity but also potentiality; think of the immensely pleasurable journeys through the rapidly changing shapes in fire- or cloud-gazing. But can the same be said of our machinic environment? In this article, I discuss indeterminacy as a generative principle in four realms: elemental, evental, linguistic, and machinic. Anchoring the transubstantiating potential of the four elements to butoh; multi-perspectival event-hood to John Cage’s work; linguistic “chaotics” to Xu Bing’s work; and neural-network contagions to Mario Klingemann’s work, I suggest that these perceptual architectures help us understand first, David Bohm’s implicate order (1980), and second, the seeming paradox of a hospitable abyss.

Key Words
butoh; John Cage; chaotics; the four elements; indeterminacy; Mario Klingemann; neural networks; unimpeded interpenetration; Xu Bing


1. Introduction

What precisely is it in the shifting “patterns of differencing” in cloud-, fire- or ocean-gazing that is so pleasurable, exhilarating, or appeasing?[2] One possible answer is that the micro-temporal movements of air, fire, and water mirror the movement of all things and, thus implicitly, the meta-movement of life. Another is that the richness of the imagery reveals undercurrent mnemonic processes, perhaps even a secret archive, as when we suddenly see in a cloud a mixture of creatures or faces from mythology, long-forgotten personal history, or yesterday’s news. Regardless of content, the slow, steady rhythm of change and the unexpected appearance of fragmentary memories are profoundly hospitable. They have a cozy, nesting quality while, at the same time, opening onto infinity and unfurling what physicist David Bohm has called the implicate order.[3] For Bohm, and quantum physics more generally, indeterminacy refers less to unknowability and more to the parallel coexistence of multiple times, spaces, and histories, given that “patterns of differencing” constantly “modulate matter” in all of space and time.[4]

Unlike classical physics, quantum theory does not follow determinate rules. An electron can jump from one orbit to another without passing through intermediary stages. Connection is nonlocal and cross-temporal; objects do not have to be in contact with each other in space and time in order to be connected. A wave may behave like a wave or a particle, depending on how it is treated.[5] Bohm initially developed the notion of the implicate order to explain the behavior of subatomic particles. He suggested that subatomic particles that once have interacted can “respond to each other’s motions thousands of years later,” when they are literally “light-years apart.”[6] This startling propensity of an individual existent—of any individual existent—to interact with and, what is more, reveal information about an(y) other existent is caused by subquantum forces forming cross-temporal interconnectedness through enfoldment.

Using the metaphor of the hologram, Bohm explains enfoldment in the following way. When two wavelengths interfere, they create a pattern; a hologram records all existing patterns and stores all information in such a way that the information about the entire holographed scene is enfolded into every part of the film, as every part of the film is determined by the interference patterns.[7] Likewise, in the implicate order that encompasses the entire universe, everything is enfolded into everything else. The main stabilizer here is not regularity of a spatial, temporal, or material kind but instead is memory, understood as the sedimented interpenetration of cross-temporal and nonlocal connections. An energy-matter continuum of perpetual intra-actions of geological, mineral, animal, and human processes, the universe is full of emergent directionalities and dissipations.[8] It is also endowed with a protean mnemonics of sentient and nonsentient existents.

We usually think of architecture as spatial. However, architecture is temporal and relational. It can also be evolutionary, cognitive, acoustic, kinaesthetic, and tactile, among many other examples. Concerned with the design, shape, and process of emergent structures, all architecture is generative. It mediates change, sculpts time, cues actions, and shapes behaviors. Even microscopic organisms, such as bacteria or fungi, sculpt their living conditions by “memorizing” the information obtained from the environment in the form of embodied and spatially distributed knowledge. As architects, bacteria and fungi are endowed with plasticity; they weave emergent structures with relays of energy-matter. In what follows, I discuss four perceptual architectures that articulate the implicate order in the elemental, evental, linguistic, and machinic realms. I situate these emergent architectures in: 1) butoh, an improvisational dance form that anchors cross-materiality and cross-temporality to the human body; 2) John Cage’s compositional work, which stages the multi-perspectivism of what D.T. Suzuki and the Zen tradition refer to as “unimpeded interpenetration;”[9] 3) Xu Bing’s deterministic sign systems, which render transparent Catherine Hayles’s chaotics; and 4) Mario Klingemann’s work with neural networks, which reveals superposed digital worlds.

2. Butoh and elemental indeterminacy

Despite the fifth-century BCE atomists, Democritus and Lucretius’s revolutionary ideas about the atom as the smallest part of the universe, since the fifth-century BCE earth, water, air, and fire have formed a system for correlating the universe to the transient human body.[10] Empedocles first used the four elements to describe the “roots” of all matter.[11] Hippocrates further established the relation between their macrocosmic and microcosmic manifestations on two levels: as a relation between earth and the land, water and the sea, air and the sky, and fire and the sun, and as a relation between the elements and the four basic fluids in the human body that he believed gave rise to different humors. Earth, akin to phlegm, gave rise to an apathetic and sluggish humor. Water, akin to black bile, inspired sad and brooding humor; air, identified with yellow bile, produced a changeable and irritable humor; and fire, akin to blood, gave rise to an active, enthusiastic humor.[12]

In the twentieth century, Gaston Bachelard, for whom the Bergsonian study of change is the most urgent task of metaphysics, theorized the four elements as “the hormones of imagination” that “facilitate intimate assimilations of reality, dispersed in shapes and forms” and, as such, are key to artistic, particularly somatic artistic, expression.[13] Fire is, for Bachelard, “the origin of every animism,” which is calorism.[14] Air harbors “a sense of infinity and extension;” it is “a vector of flight” but also abyss: “fainting” is “falling inside our being.”[15] Water, with its “its particles incessantly falling away,” is an ontologically essential metamorphosis between fire and earth; it embodies the affective dimension.[16] Clear running water is full of humor; still water is a mirror; tempestuous water is the epitome of struggle.[17] Earth is the only “permanently resistant” element, a sparring partner to “human will.”[18] However, earth, too, is in a perpetual state of change. Whether change is active, passive, caused, or inflicted, all four elements undergo changes of aggregate states. Beyond the obvious example of ice turning to water or water to vapor, stalactites, when fossilized, turn to minerals, which are of the order of earth. Ionized fire turns to plasma, an electrically conductive solid matter, again of the order of earth.

This twofold, local-universal changeability and its connection to the body are why the four elements are extensively used in butoh, an improvisational dance form that originated with Tatsumi Hijikata, in the early 1950s, in Japan. Butoh’s place of origin is relevant as the Japanese philosophy recognizes five, rather than four, elements. Indeed, butoh is (one of) the vehicle(s) for crystallizing the fifth element. Apart from chi or tsuchi (the resistant things of this world), sui or mizu, (formless things), ka or hi (energetic things), and or kaze (things that grow and expand), there is (void, heaven, pure energy, and spirit).[19] Although quantum physics does not use expressions like “heaven” or “pure energy,” void is seen as an irreducible component of all existence, an essential aspect of the indeterminate enfolded universe.[20] Butoh “opens out the body” to [21] through a microscopic and cross-temporal engagement with a series of body landscapes, “impregnated” with the vital flux as well as with ma—“the interval of space and time between each evolution and the next, an artistic transport of space-time.”[22]

Hijikata’s seminal Revolt of the Flesh (1968) is a good example of such a nonlocal, cross-temporal, cross-material, even interspecies connection. In this performance, Hijikata was carried on to the stage on a ceremonial litter, accompanied by a small pig in a child’s cradle. In the two-hour performance, he danced several ecstatic sequences, almost naked, throwing himself against metal panels suspended from above. An elongated golden phallus was strapped around his waist, of the sort usually seen in fertility rites. Half way through the performance, Hijikata changed into a white girl’s dress and danced a transformation from extreme old age to youth and back again. At the performance’s end, he stood motionless with a fish in his teeth.

Hijikata Tatsumi. Revolt of the Flesh. 1968. ©Hijikata Tatsumi Collection, Keio University Archive, Tokyo. Courtesy of Keio University.


This transitivity that encompasses different ages and genders, and includes animals, is the enfolded becoming of being that does not refer to a single form but to the ephemeral and archaeological nature of the body as the abyssal ground of the being of being human: “something is hiding in […] our unconscious body;” here “we rediscover time with an elasticity, sent by the dead.”[23] In butoh, we can touch a “hidden reality […] something can be born, and can appear, living and dying in the moment.”[24] Like Bohm, Hijikata relates the micro-cosmos—in this case, the micro-cosmos of the body—to innumerable cross-material and cross-temporal intra-actions enfolded in the somatic unconscious. Butoh excavates the vibrant patterns of nonlocal connections, with the aid of aerial, fiery, fluvial, and earthly reverie. To use a contemporary example, in Min Tanaka’s Body Weather Laboratory,[25] or Masaki Iwana’s residential workshops in Normandy, France, dancers train by rolling down hills, diving in nearby rivers, dancing with the wind, making their own fire at night, and walking in fast brooks downhill with their eyes closed, in order to, at a later stage, dance the brook, starting at its source, following the stream down the hill, flowing into a river with the stream, flooding the fields, flowing into a swamp, opening their body up to fluvial and earthy reverie and releasing their unconscious somatic memory into the dance, exactly as we do in cloud- or fire-gazing.[26] This elemental impregnation of the body is key to transforming the dancer’s body into a landscape; in butoh, the body becomes alive with multiple images in the manner of drifting clouds.

This is why, for Hijikata, butoh is a “secret ritual” that mediates between the “spirit and impulse”[27] giving “song to what is dumb”[28] articulating enfoldment, in movement, and in butoh fu. Butoh fu are word-images used in butoh training. The most famous are the ash pillar walk, bug ambulation, the floating pollen, and the flower’s passage from bloom to withering.[29] All owe much to the performative-mnemonic practices of the Surrealists, such as André Masson’s automatic drawing—a continuum of plants, animals, persons, objects, and environments—drawn quickly in a “moment of surrender to the interior tumult”[30] or Max Ernst’s frottage, where charcoal or pigment is rubbed on a paper placed over one or more rough surfaces. Like Masson and Ernst, Hijikata and many butoh dancers after him channelled the four- or five-elemental somatic impregnations of butoh-fu in an automatic, somatically hallucinatory, frottage-like manner, creating an ephemeral network of plants, rocks, animals, and humans located in ma. As a practice, butoh affords a vertiginous glimpse into the enfoldment of matter, energy, time, and species by anchoring temporally and materially distant existents to the dancer’s body and the present moment. John Cage’s work, on the other hand, much of which was developed at the same time as Hijikata’s, albeit in a different geographical region and artistic media, focuses on the depth of the present moment—the time of all times. Unlike Hijikata, Cage diffuses the process, instead emphasizing multiple connections to the percipient-interactant’s immediate audio, visual, kinaesthetic, and social environment.

3. John Cage and evental indeterminacy

One of the main influences on John Cage’s compositional work was D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese philosopher who, during his 1952-57 lectures at Columbia University, New York City, famously spoke quietly even when there was so much noise that he could hardly be heard. Suzuki’s purpose was to demonstrate the nonpriority of any given thing over another while also demonstrating Zen’s preference for demonstration over explanation. However, Cage was also influenced by numerous experiments in perception that took place in the U.S. in the years succeeding World War II, those with nonhuman perceivers and duration. For example, György Kepes’s attempts to seize the “invisible world’s” emerging “patterns of order,” recorded by radars, X-rays and computers,[31] or Buckminster Fuller’s ten-hour lectures à la Erik Satie’s 1893 24-hour piano piece Vexations, delivered with a deluge of audio-visual material to liberate the transversal working of perception, trigger fragments of hidden memories, and cue new synaptic connections. In his elaborations of such and similar methods, used in composition and live performance, Cage often drew on unimpeded interpenetration that, paraphrasing Suzuki, he described thus:

Unimpededness is seeing that in all of time each thing and each being is at the center of the universe and furthermore that each thing and each being is at the center is the most honored of all. Interpenetration means that each one of these most honored ones of all is moving out in all directions penetrating and being penetrated by every other one no matter what the time and the space. So that when one says that there is no cause and effect, what this means is that there are an incalculable infinity of causes and effects and that in fact each and every thing in all of time and space is related to each and every thing in all of time and space.[32]

Drawing on co-occurrence and the interpenetration of diverse events in time-space, Cage’s compositional practice consisted largely of staging indeterminacy within a precisely determined frame. Using compositional procedures based on the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text, and his own chart technique, Cage created multi-modal perceptual milieus in a live performance area where multiple media, flows, and tempi amplified emergence. Consisting of square grids, each devoted to a single parameter and specifying different musical values, such as duration, timbre, volume, pitch or silence, the purpose of the chart technique was to determine the parameters of events and their order in time. It was also to render palpable the simultaneity of countless micro-events in space-time and the fact that we consciously perceive only a fraction—the proverbial tip of the iceberg—of any perceptual field. For example, in his Untitled Event (1952), a collaboration with Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg performed at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the pre-arranged time brackets, such as 3’22 – 4’00’’, were the only instruction given to the various performers, who were otherwise free to determine the content of their performance, be it dance, poetry, or music.[33]

M.C. Richards, floor plan of John Cage’s Untitled Piece 1952, drawn for William Fetterman in 1989. © M.C. Richards. Courtesy of M.C. Richards.


The created space-time was filled with many simultaneous events and perceptual possibilities: Cage delivering a lecture; Rauschenberg playing old records on a hand-wound gramophone; David Tudor playing a prepared piano; Charles Olsen and Mary Caroline Richards reading poetry; Cunningham dancing through the aisles chased by an excited dog; and Rauschenberg flashing slides created by colored gelatin sandwiched between the glass.[34] But even such an agglomerative description is far too unified. As Martin Duberman, chronicler of the Black Mountain College, shows, Untitled Event resisted any form of unified rendering. The indeterminacy of the perceptual field resulted in radically different perceptions of content, duration, and sequence bringing to the fore the dependence of content on sequential and contextual determinations.

It goes without saying that while some audience members heard a lecture on Zen, others heard a lecture on silence or on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Some thought that the music Rauschenberg played was Édith Piaf. Others opined that it was experimental music. Some thought Untitled Event went on for precisely forty-five minutes, others for over two hours.[35] This Rashomonesque disagreement over what happened  was related, of course, to the multiplicity of focal points.[36] More interestingly, it was related to their unsurveyability, a temporally, visually, and audibly palpable rendition of the ancient Chinese yu zhou, a nonhomogeneous time-space whose closest equivalent is Albert Einstein’s unified field.[37] Simply put, the unified field is a self-perpetuating field, where there is no separation into spatial, temporal, or electromagnetic constituents.

In the Chinese version of this phenomenon that preceded Einstein’s by almost four thousand years, zhou is that which has just passed and that which is about to pass; yu is the four directions, east, west, north, and south, the up and the down; and Tao (the vital principle) “lies across but no one knows where.”[38] Yu zhou is the antithesis of directional time and surveyable space; it is riddled with micro-events and emergent directionalities that include both shi and wu wei. Shi is a moment in which the gathered momentum of historical and circumstantial forces is triggered, an impetus that unfurls new potentialities, a quantum leap. Usually translated as “action in inaction,” wu-wei refers to the mutual structuring of the constancy-mutation continuum, a ceaseless interpenetration of existents at multiple levels. Within the context of the Untitled Event, several mutually unrelated activities—movement through space; film footage of the daily life of the dining hall showing students and cooks going about their business; a poetry reading; music coming from a gramophone; and music played live on a prepared piano—were unfolding at the same time but at different tempi, which is to say that they were also sequentially enfolding other temporal events and creating clusters of sequences. Every unit of action proceeded through a form of “action in inaction” unencumbered by any form of determined directionality, be it authorial intentions or premeditated relations to other media.[39]

In many ways, Cage, Rauschenberg, and Cunningham, like Kepes and Fuller, embraced the infinite variability and development of initial conditions characteristic of the chaos theory that, as philosopher of science Ellen Marie Chen suggests, repeats the “basic observations” of both Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Taoism, namely “self-similarity, iteration and hierarchies of scale.”[40] Like Hijikata’s, Cage’s perceptual architectures render the vertiginous interconnection, combination, and recombination of implicate-order existents palpable by amplifying the multi-perspectivalism of co-occurring sensory events, shi, the triggering and dissipation of tempi, stasis, and wu-wei. In keeping with Cage’s thematization of what is (problematically) referred to as perceptual “background,” explored in such works as his seminal 4’33’’, Untitled Event sheds light on the vastness of what we might call the “perceptual unworld,” innumerable micro-events unfolding in yu zhou that do not enter the narrow strip of conscious perception, not only because of their quantity, but also because of the culturally and individually formatted nature of perception. Xu Bing’s work, more closely aligned with the indeterminacy of writing, articulates the cultural vortex of signification and the enfoldment of signs.

4. Xu Bing and cultural-linguistic indeterminacy

The chief concern of the chaos theory is the study of hidden and, conversely, spontaneous or emergent order based, in part, on strange attractors, attractors that never return to the “point or shape” they “previously occupied in space” yet are clearly recognizable as attractors.[41] Linking chaos theory to Jacques Derrida’s grammatology, which redefines writing, seen as any signifying practice,[42] Katherine Hayles christens it “chaotics.”[43] Although rooted in science, chaotics is not a scientific paradigm. It is a cultural paradigm, closely related to Xu’s work, that forms part of the Chinese avant-garde. Like Wenda Gu, Song Dong, Qiu Zhije, and Yin Xiuzhen, Xu, too, aligns with Chan Buddhism and Taoism, much like the European and the American avant-garde and neo-avant-garde did. Xu’s Book from the Sky (1987-1991), also known as A Mirror to Analyse the World, consists of several 500-foot hand scrolls, on which thousands of characters are printed in ink-painting style. Set in front of the scrolls are boxes of books bound in blue paper to resemble traditional Chinese books.

Xu Bing. A Book from the Sky 1987-1991. © Xu Bing. Courtesy of the Artist.


The characters that Xu spent years carving are composed in the same way as regular Chinese characters. They also look like real Chinese characters from afar. Yet upon closer inspection, the characters form deviant or entirely nonexistent words. It has often been suggested that Xu’s manner of engaging Chinese tradition is iconoclastic and totalistic.[44] However, based on Xu’s cultural reflections and his reflections on viewer responses that reveal that while some visitors saw misspelt words or hidden order within disorder, others saw disjointed fragments of meaning akin to an emergent but nonexistent order, and yet others saw bursts of meaning that left traces amidst emptiness, A Book from the Sky engages chaotics as a perceptual architecture of indeterminacy. For Xu, this work “doesn’t really have a connection with text, since there is no semantically consistent text […] but it does have a connection with writing and printing.”[45]

Xu goes some way to create a deterministic system to reveal the fluctuation, iteration, and constant interplay of hidden and spontaneous order within the chaotic system of pseudo-language, framed by the graphic regime. Although he does not refer to Derrida, this particular work is, in many ways, similar to the logocentric production of meaning criticized by Derrida. For Derrida, writing remains forever open to radical indeterminacy; it acknowledges a before and an after as a constituting difference yet defers indefinitely the originary moment when this difference came into operation.[46] Derrida’s logic is very similar to iteration in chaos theory, and we are overcome by the same vertigo when we realize that texts are chaotic systems open to infinite variation. Every word acquires a slightly different meaning each time it appears in a new context, making the boundary between text and context porous and permeable. This further means that infinite contexts permeate all texts, regardless of time, place, or authorial intention. Because all texts are constructed through iteration—the repetition of words in slightly different contexts—indeterminacy is the essence of all writing. For Derrida, as for the chaos theorists, deterministic systems that posit a solid, culturally determining ground are decidedly groundless. Taking this notion further, Xu’s work exposes a particular brand of semantic-cultural indeterminacy, bound by a “graphic regime:”

When Chinese children learn to write, we spend a lot of time memorizing and tracing characters in calligraphy lessons. My father would ask me to do a page every day. The purpose was not really to learn specific characters but rather to teach me discipline within a particular cultural framework […]. During the Cultural Revolution Mao was promoting simplified characters. We spent a lot of time memorizing new words. Then they would change the words the next year. And then they would change them again.[47]

In Xu’s cultural experience, the sheer physicality of writing defined the ground parameters of what culture is. Seen in this light, A Book from the Sky triggers a perception of the interplay of strange attractors and graphocentrism inherent in the pictorial representation of the world, while, at the same time, setting it adrift in the vastness of textual and contextual contaminations. Similar, in this respect, is also Xu’s American Silkworm series, which illuminates interspecies iteration. In this series, live silk moths lay eggs on blank book pages and spin silk on various objects, establishing a chaotic relation between two deterministic systems, human writing and ‘nature’s’ patterns, often read (by science) as a signifying practice. Apart from the association of braille with the patterns of eggs laid on the surface of the open pages, this work also captures the manifold intersections between the patterns of ‘nature’ and culture, silk worms and humans, creating a deterministic system that subsumes, under its supposed universal legibility, an eclectic array of marks and patterns. The work stages a vertiginous indeterminacy of cultural tracing where enfolded intra-actions give way to larger-scale contagions. In addition to questioning genealogy and apriority, Xu’s work also poses implicit questions about epigenesis, the assimilation of environmental impacts in the form of habits and practices into the organism’s genetic makeup, transmittable to future generations. Communication and language form part of this process, which means that, in the perceptual architecture Xu articulates, language is less “a house of being,” as Martin Heidegger famously argued, and more the abyssal ground of becoming.[48] Can something similar be said of our increasingly present machinic environment?

5. Mario Klingemann and machinic indeterminacy

In many ways, the contemporary datascape is more indeterminate than the elemental, compositional, linguistic, or cultural contexts. In today’s datascape, modulators of time-space form what has been called a “synthetic garden,” where human and machinic multi-species’  perceptual apparatuses process and memorize sites, scenes, tempi, and intra-actions and also often communicate the history of their own operations through feedback loops.[49]  The generation of large quantities of temporally enduring “givens” via online activities, sensors, and sequencers, all trafficking in textual, numeric, and audio-visual data, distributed across machine-to-machine communication, cyber-physical systems, sensor circuits, and Internet of Things, have profoundly altered notions of environment. The tools-senders now produce geospatial information in the geographic and the electromagnetic fields, weaving space and time into what Wolfgang Ernst has termed “data tissue.”[50] Embedded in algorithmic substructures and in “dynamic random access memory (DRAM),” the constant streaming of data has created a shift from deterministic stability to permanent change.[51] In this state, information flows create “informational landscapes,” temporarily stable environments that “wrench order from disorder.”[52]

There are many precursors to the current work with machinic visual indeterminacy, one example of which is Mario Klingemann, who trains neural networks to produce variations on input data that are both context and environment. The shifting of agency from the human to the machine has a long history, too; for example, in Chris Welsby’s Seven Days (1974), a time-lapse film of land- and skyscape recorded over seven days, the images of the wind blowing and the rain falling were obtained through the sun-and-clouds-controlled camera angles.[53] Likewise, in Robert Pepperell’s 1990s Photoshop works, images scanned from art history books were mixed with random image parts from different sources, and all traces of recognizable objects blurred.[54] In a similar vein but working with Generative Adversarial Networks or GANs, algorithmic architectures that “pit” two neural networks against each other to generate new synthetic data, Klingemann, like Cage and Xu, creates images by establishing a deterministic frame yet bypassing its repertoire. This liminal tendency brings to the fore the digital unconscious, akin to Hijikata’s somatic unconscious or Xu’s linguistic-cultural unconscious. It also brings to the fore machinic indeterminacy, only with more incongruous or transgressive elements that mix humans, animals, debris, foreground, and background, as can be seen from Klingemann’s Chicken or Beef (2017).

Mario Klingemann. Chicken or Beef. 2017. © Mario Klingemann. Courtesy of the Artist.


By definition, GANs create indeterminate images that straddle many (for humans) incompatible categories. While initial GAN layers correspond to large-scale objects, subsequent layers capture fine-scale details and textures constructing scenes in pictorial space and turning objects into compositions, adding textures, hues, and details.[55] Because of this procedure, GANs often place textures in unexpected arrangements, combining familiar objects with unfamiliar sequences and vice versa. In neural-network terms, indeterminacy arises from multiple local neural pictorial suggestions that fail to align with a macro-interpretation but nevertheless show an emergent directionality reminiscent of the combinations of creatures and mnemonic fragments we see in clouds.[56] Resembling Xu’s work, these images create an abyssal visual and semantic ground, exposing the genealogical connection between image models, texture synthesis, and style transfer algorithms that have, through cortical modeling, led to the development of deep convolutional networks and, subsequently, to GANs.[57] Deep convolutional networks are regularized versions of what we could call “multilayer perceptrons,” often used for data recognition and extraction. GANs, on the other hand, learn to generate new data with the same statistics as the training set yet with vastly different results, creating an overwhelming abundance of variations in the process, not only variations of everything that exists but also variations of everything that could potentially exist—or, in quantum terms, simply exists—yet remains inaccessible to human perception because of its limited scope and cultural or individual formatting.

To use Bohm’s metaphor of the hologram, GAN-generated images show the coming together of patterns, motifs, figures, textures, foregrounds, backgrounds, details, and macro planes. In Klingemann’s work, as in Hijikata’s, a magnified detail is coupled with a large-scale element through spatially and temporally distant connections. Neural networks, of course, are trained on the already existing cultural, sensory, and statistical data. Klingemann, like Hijikata, was influenced by Surrealism, in particular, by Max Ernst and his continuity of animal, rock, human, and machine life-forms, and foregrounds both randomness and serendipity in neural training. Randomness and occasional serendipity facilitate the creation of emergent directionalities and, in this way, determine the possibilities of future exploratory processes: the modeling of models, or meta-modeling, and their relation to the various lineages of inscription and transmission.[58] Like Xu, who unfurls the dizzying vortex of signs and marks, Klingemann shows frozen moments of a vast, indeterminate, and constantly changing matrix. Like language, a highly variable yet invisible environment, machinic environments, too, are subject to constant micro- and micro-scale change.

Commenting on the rapidly evolving digital landscape, Ellen Ullman articulates an unsurveyable multitude of cause-effect relations, similar to the above-mentioned unimpeded interpenetration: “‘when programs pass into code and code passes into algorithms and algorithms begin to create new algorithms the software released into a code universe is beyond [human] comprehension.”[59] A glimpse of the speed and scale of change can be gleaned from high frequency trading (HFT), a financial-digital ecosystem in which faster algorithms randomly distort the existing market information. The initial placement and cancellation of the same order 10,000 times per second is, of course, programmed, but the speed ratio, the distortions of scale caused by repetition, and the learning capacity of adaptive algorithms used in HFT open, like Xu’s pseudo-signs, onto radical indeterminacy. Once an algorithmic action has been performed 100,000,000 times, it becomes impossible to predict its effects or trace its causes. What is created, instead, is a field of heightened spatio-temporal interpenetration comparable to Cage’s sensory environments, only occurring in the digital realm, in neural networks, and, we might add, at a vertiginous speed. Klingemann’s work sheds light on this accelerated tendency by creating neural contagions that, in turn, create new digital environments comparable to our four-elemental or linguistic-cultural habitats.

For much of Western history, matter has been seen as inanimate. However, as Yulia Frumer notes, the Japanese term for nature, which conveys an array of philosophical and religious connotations, can be traced to the early nineteenth-century word for a sophisticated machine or automaton that could do things by itself: shizen-ni, which later became shizen, a fusion of the “artificial” and “natural.”[60] Many notable Japanese roboticists, such as Makato Nishimura, drew inspiration from the Zen heritage of interpenetration and interdependence. Robotics, of course,  is a field different from neural networks. However, the machinic as such ushers superposition—the simultaneity of multiple histories, times, and forms—into the digital unconscious, revealing yet another “perceptual unworld.” What machinic indeterminacy shows perhaps better than its elemental, evental, and linguistic counterparts is the infinity of indeterminacy’s generative processes. The emphasis here is not so much on what is but on what might be. As Henri Bergson argued over a hundred years ago, in The Creative Evolution, creative morphogenesis, or perpetual differencing, is the basis of evolution: “the smallest grain of dust is bound up with our entire solar system, drawn along with it in that undivided movement of descent which is materiality itself.”[61]

6. Conclusions

Within the four above-discussed perceptual architectures, butoh articulates elemental intra-actions between existents that elude human perception, either because they are too microscopic, too macroscopic, or too dispersed in space-time. Tethering them to the body, butoh illuminates the somatic unconscious, offering a glimpse into cross-material and cross-temporal memory. Cage articulates the interrelation of context, sequence, and content of a density of events. His work affords a glimpse into the subperceptual vibrations of a multiplicity of temporal existents. Xu, for this part, illuminates the infinite recursion of signs, marks, and traces, cultural or ‘natural’, shedding light on the linguistic unconscious and the epigenetic possibilities of cross-species memory. Thematizing the vast indeterminacy of machinic and statistical operations, Klingemann’s work brings into focus inscriptive sedimentations of machinic perceptions buried deep in the digital unconscious. Together, these practices show that the entanglement of existents, through multiplying, triggering, unfurling, and superposition (among many other processes), modulates the discordant simultaneity of living and machinic umwelten. That is, it modulates their configurations and reconfigurations and, through them, the world’s iterative becoming. These (re)combinations also instantiate—make palpable or, we could say, experiencable—the enfoldment of ‘natural’, cultural, and machinic lifeforms in a way similar to Bohm’s example of patterns enfolded in holographic waves.

The question this raises is one of adequacy of the notion of environment. If, in butoh’s iterative use of the four elements, Cage’s audio-visual and kinaesthetic iterations, and Xu’s linguistic-graphic iterations, the word ‘environment’ is appropriate, albeit decreasingly tangible, in Klingemann’s neural iterations, it denotes a highly abstract yet impactful realm. With ever-increasing quantities of machinic perceptors populating the world, it is far more important today than in Cage’s or Hijikata’s time to apprehend, that is, to perceive and comprehend, the world as an indeterminate architecture of diverse intra-actions whose only stability is the sedimentation of multiply enfolded interpenetrations. This condition should not be seen as lacking in grounded-ness, fundaments, or first principles. On the contrary, it should be seen as a form of infinite hospitality that enfolds the vital flux in —void, abyss, and spirit.


Natasha Lushetich

Natasha Lushetich is Professor of Contemporary Art & Theory at the University of Dundee, Scotland. She is author of Fluxus: The Practice of Non-Duality (Rodopi 2014); Interdisciplinary Performance (Plagrave 2016); and editor of The Aesthetics of Necropolitics (Rowman and Littlefield 2018); Beyond Mind (De Gruyter 2019); and Big Data – A New Medium? (Routedge 2020).

Published on September 17, 2020.

Cite this article: Natasha Lushetich, “The Hospitality of the Abyssal Ground, or, Perceptual Architectures of Indeterminacy,” Contemporary Aesthetics Volume 18 (2020), accessed date.



The research for this article forms part of The Future of Indeterminacy: Datification, Memory, Bio-Politics project, supported by the UK Art and Humanities Council grant AH/T001720/1. I would also like to thank Contemporary Aesthetics and the two anonymous reviewers for their help with refining the text.

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