The shapes of edges

author –  Sean O’Connell 
“A crisis is a return to the multiplicities. Evidence that the multiple is possible, that it is open to the future.”
– Michel Serres, Genesis (1995, 120)


My attraction to New Materialist thought comes from its concerns within the areas of matter, force, non-human agency, and, ultimately, knowledge and perception. There is also an intimate exploration of materiality and vitality that resonates deeply with my approach to research.

My PhD research digs into the fundamental paradigms of perception and posits another model. It is not an attempt to remedy a flaw or even present a coherent new system, but rather the consideration of an alternate, which sheds a little light upon our common process of making sense of the world. Alternate models allow new perspectives, and even bring some understanding of the structural underpinnings in current patterns of thought.

I like to think of my research beginning with physical experiments that I document, but writing and thinking blur together with experiment and documentation, and it is hard to track the influences between theory and practice. I have been exploring the formation and interaction of boundaries and identities by tracking movements of force through material form so as to encourage alternate modes of perceiving the everyday. It is a complex relation of thought structures I am tracking through explorations in the real world, allowing alternate perceptions to rest alongside each other without coming to immediate resolution.

So as to examine the interaction of boundary and identity, several machines were created to throw half-metre-long hollow metal boxes at each other to collide in open air. These collisions are filmed with 16mm slow-motion film cameras. The film is developed by hand, facilitating examination of the visual records in slow detail. Piezo microphones are attached to the sides of the boxes as they collide, creating a concurrent sonic record of the rippling skin of the boxes. What is seen and heard in the event and its documentation is a flux of energetic exchange. Forces of momentum and vibration surge along vectors of motion, meeting head-on to collide in space and negotiating their way through physical material and the geometry of the sheet metal box forms. This is a dialogue of force, a violent clash that results in a flood of excess energy that ripples across the surfaces of the boxes, resonating within their enclosed spaces, and vibrating out into air as waves of pressure that reaches our ears as the clang of the collision.


crash from sean oconnell on Vimeo.

In similar experiments exploring the formation of identity and the behaviours of boundaries, electrical and hand-operated air pumps were constructed to create smoke vortices.  Rings of smoke were documented in detail, again through 16mm slow-motion film cameras, as well as direct shadow records on emulsion-coated paper, light densitometry recordings, and laser-plane cross-sectional images. The formation of these smoke rings begins with a column of smoky air moving through a body of cleaair. The sides of the column of smoky air encounter friction, and, dragging, mix in a little of the surrounding clean air, then the edges slow down, moving to the back of the column, where they fold in behind, slipping back, and with nowhere to go, are sucked up inside, revolving through again, folding and turning, creating a stretched surface of revolving multiplying layers. The initial outside skin of the smoke column is stretched, its outer edges folded deep within, and it becomes an involuted form that approaches pure surface without volume. In the stretched edges of these smoke vortices our common notions of boundary and identity appear absurdly simplistic, and it is obvious that a fundamental re-negotiation is required.

smoke forum smaller from sean oconnell on Vimeo.

These physical experiments, examined through the naked eye and with details documented through image and sound recordings, are material experiments in energetic exchange that I examine philosophically. This process has become integrated in my research sequence now. The philosophical examinations direct the perception of the experiments just as the experiments lead the philosophical thought. I am attempting to think through action, and to respond back and forth across these modes of conceptual thought and experimental action. The main aim of this research is to explore the possibilities of an alternate mode of perceiving physical reality, relying on the subtle perception of energetic flux, rather than simple modeling of discrete entities into discernible separate parts at slices of time through perceived boundaries and identities. A big call, no doubt, but of course on-going….
“One should never seek to define important things by their boundaries, because boundaries are always blurred, are always interfering. One must seek to define the heart…”
– Edgar Morin, On Complexity (2008, 48)
Sean O’Connell,
PhD student, Sydney College of the Arts.
Morin, Edgar (2008). On Complexity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences). Denver: Hampton Press.
Serres, Michel (1995) Genesis (Studies in Literature and Science). Milwuakee: University of Michigan Press.

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