The Singular En Masse: Meditations on the Collaborative Practice of Beth Shapeero and Fraser Taylor
by Simon Buckley
‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe’
Carl Sagan (2011)
BANG. Pure energy. A few seconds of unimaginable blistering intensity. Matter forms. Years, centuries, millennia, millions, billions of years pass. Atoms firing through space. For three hundred million years the ever-persevering force of gravity brings the atoms closer to each other. Soon they will be baked into galaxies.
There are heavier elements starting to form. Planetary systems are beginning to emerge. Defined galaxies, evolving out of thin air then exploding away. Several billion years pass. The milky way is forming. Our sun. The planets. Earth! Soon the dense atmosphere of oxygen and hydrogen will start to form water. And with this, it will begin to rain, for millions and millions of years.
The oceans have formed: a rich soup of minerals, being pushed and pulled into countless molecular shapes and patterns through an array of processes and actions. But one of these patterns is ‘smart’ – a coordination with something different, something of a memory, something that adapts to what has come before. It repeats. It fails. It repeats. It fails better. Millions of years pass. It is now the first identifiable living cell. Crude, basic but transferable.
The cell’s primitive state encourages a wide variety of testing and application to occur, relentless variations, reptations, overlays, inversions, insertions and removals occur. Fail. Fail Again. Fail Better. Molecular exploration. But it’s working. The cellular life-form is starting to proliferate, its components evolving, shifting, regressing and mutating with the passing of time. Millions of years pass. Multi-cellular beings. Millions of years. Complex multi-cellular beings.
The oceanic kingdom is now alive. Some species will soon turn amphibious, then terrestrial. Complexity built out of simplicity (and then vice versa). There are now some iterations that are starting to grow a measurable sense of intelligence. The sharpened tip of this swollen and fragile dance pushes on with ever more success. The terrestrial kingdom proliferates. Forests, animals, dinosaurs, insects, apes, primates and in time hominids.
BANG (PART 2). Earth is struck by a meteorite. All life larger than rabbit is wiped out. Everything that has come before is nearly thrust back into an indifferent silence. But not quite. Millions of years pass. The rout of everything that could have been has left a space, a space free from predators which has allowed the gentle dance to regain its momentum, to re-learn everything it had nearly forgotten. But this time there are no further interruptions. This time the hominid species will become bipedal. They are learning to use tools, to build fires, to cook, dance, love, sing and paint. They are growing wheat and farming fruit. They have automated their cooking processes. They call it an oven. And sitting inside of it is a hot apple pie. Bing! And it is done.
It started with a back and forth of text messages. After agreeing to write about Beth and Fraser’s work, I immediately started thinking about the vast array of routes to approaching their collaborative screen-printing practice, a project that had been titled ‘Two-Step’. Given that they’d offered me an unusually open mandate about how to engage with the task of writing something, I felt that the best way to start would be to view some of their recent prints up close. I messaged them to see if I could have some of their works dropped off to my flat, so I could live with them for a week or so. I suggested around six prints for the period of a week (one a day if you will). Kindly, they agreed.
The plan was (at least I thought) to have the first six prints dropped off at 15:00. It was 10:00 now, so I had plenty of time before they’d arrive. As such, I decided to make the most of a break in the weather and go for a run. I’d use the time to think about what I already knew of their work, namely, that they were prolific in quantity and diverse in presentation. In the last year alone, I’d seen hundreds of their prints presented en masse, alone, in pairs, in rows, in grids, unframed, framed, on big custom-made walls, in small little stair wells, in commercial galleries, project spaces, studios, domestic spaces, on Instagram, in piles, on websites, on tables, on Facebook and in coordination with their respective solo prints and paintings (both old and new). Anyway, a gentle run to ruminate and I’d be back in plenty of time, refreshed and energized from the exercise, ready to discuss my ideas and start this process in earnest.
Now, I don’t know about you, but running can go two ways for me – good or shit. I don’t know how I always seem to forget this, but predictably enough, my morning run prior to the prints arriving took the latter route. I had felt heavy legged and tired from the first corner – hot, slow and pissed off. I had persevered and dragged myself to the hour mark, but at some cost. So, far from dancing with endorphins on my return to the flat, I felt wrecked. A wheezing shell of a human. At least I could have a shower and re-group.
Keys turned. Door opened. Beth is kneeling on the living room floor spreading prints around like she is setting up a vast abstract boardgame. Play it cool. I could already see there was more than six. I could also see that the box that she was taking them out of was swollen with more waiting to emerge. Had I got the times wrong? What was the time? So thirsty. Aware of the smell drifting up from my stinking running shoes, and starting to feel the cool trickle of sweat on my bright red forehead, I was the picture of unprepared, trapped in the discomfort of a failure utterly of my own design. Gulp.
“We are not interested in the fact that the brain has the consistency of cold porridge.”
Alan Turing (1959)
- There are an infinite number of memory locations. They are arrayed in a linear structure.
- There is a central processor. It can access one memory location at a time.
- The central processor can enter into finitely many locations.
- The central processor can perform four elementary operations: (i) write a symbol at a memory location; (ii) erase a symbol from a memory location; (iii) access the next memory location in the linear array; (iv) access the previous memory location in the linear array.
- The elementary operation selected by the central processor depends upon two factors: (a) which symbol is currently inscribed at the present memory location, and (b) the processor’s own current location in the overall structure.
- A machine table dictates which elementary operation the central processor performs.
- The machine table dictates how the central processor’s location changes given those same factors.
“A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
and the dry stone no sound of water.”
T.S Elliot. The Waste Land (1922)
After a glass of water and Beth’s departure, I began to regain my composure. On starting to look properly at the prints that had arrived, I was once again immediately struck by the scale of the Two-Step operation. I also knew that the eighty or so prints that were spread across my living room floor, hallway and studio were just the peaking tip. Gulp indeed.
As for the appearance of this particular group, they seemed a little bleaker than I had perhaps seen from them before, both in tone and semantic allusion. The warm off-whites and cool pale tones that I’d seen most recently had given way to staccato greys, pallid browns and jarring schisms of black and white, both rhythmically mesmerizing and syntactically unsettling. Erasure, layering and overload seemed to now be being tested as forces for progression. There was an almost geological brutality to their movement, a heaving indifference and weight. They seemed more uncompromising than before, yet equally seductive.
A reoccurring formal strength of everything that Shapeero and Taylor produce is their ability to present shapes, colours and lines that just about allude to the idea of something familiar (something from our world), whilst simultaneously remaining within the realm of abstraction. Tilt your head. Now that collection of lines almost makes its way into the shape of a falling figure, but by the time you’ve seen it, it’s floated back into being a group of lines blowing across the page. Oscillating between polarities with such ease is both beguiling and disconcerting. Perhaps then I shouldn’t have been totally surprised that as I went through this particular set of prints, their stark image planes began to flicker between telescopic scans of the night sky, to microscopic close ups of molecular cultures; from dead lunar wastelands of beige, to ultrasound scans of fetal life; from frenetic white noise to deafening mechanical silences (and of course, simultaneously none of the above!)
There were notable visual progressions and adaptations too (perhaps just from the way they had been stored and delivered to me), discernable aesthetic steps being repeated and refined, only to then to be cut off in mid-flow – severed brutally back into an uninterested silence. Around some of the images edges there were thin flashes of primary colours. They appeared as dying embers of what they had once been, evidence that development can be brutal; that death is itself a species of progress.
In the face of this particular group, and indeed such a vast and multi-directional practice, I realised my request for six prints had perhaps been an attempt to impart some constraint onto how I might begin to approach this task. For better or worse, this request had gone unheeded. But thank goodness it had, as it was through this miscommunication that I was –in time– able to identify what I now realise had always captivated me about the collaborative practice of Shapeero and Taylor: the relationship/tension between the singular and the crowd.
For analytic philosophers of consciousness, there is no greater challenge than what is known as ‘the hard problem of consciousness’. Unlike the so-called easy problems, such as explaining how the brain integrates information, categorizes and discriminates environmental stimuli or focuses attention, the hard problem of consciousness is concerned with how the inordinate complexity of the brain’s physical processes result in how (and why) it feels like ‘something’ to be here now. How do millions of tiny electrical charges firing around the hundreds of billions of neurons, interneurons, motor-neurons, Betz cells, glial cells, neural-stem cells, blood vessels and cerebellar Purkinje cells result in ‘the taste of apple pie’? How and when does a system become complex and ornate enough to produce/be accompanied by ‘experience’? There’s also a couple of extra hurdles that make the hard problem so, well, hard. First of all, the human brain is –by a distance– in the single most complex entity in the known university. As such, it’s pretty hard to understand. Second, we’re all stuck inside of one, and as such, are left trying to unpack the car from the inside out. So where does this leave us with answering the hard problem of consciousness? We basically don’t have a Scoobies.
Over the next few weeks, I diligently rotated the seventy-seven prints around several designated spots in my living space. And I slowly but surely started to unpick a complexity belied by their unassuming compositional lucidity: how they existed both as individual works and as components within an ever-expanding body of work. And here we have it: a collaborative practice that is simultaneously completely confident in its operational scale, strategies of process and methods of presentation, yet remains completely vulnerable, delicate and generous in its present moment – in my experience of being here now with it. You see a lone print. You move closer. You start to realise that this individual work is another whole multimodal universe in its own right, replete with its own patterns and processes of repetition, variation, replication, reflection, impression, allusion, regression, misdirection, layers, colours, shards, fractures, familiarities and oddities. Each work is its own distinct moment, and yet through each individual print we can feel the weight and knowledge of all that has formed it, everything that it has been and is no longer.
The End of it All
But let’s get back to the apple pie for a moment shall we. The point Segan was moving towards with his remark is the vast and unavoidable interconnectedness of all things; to the holistic and brain frazzling reality of all humanity, nature, biology and chemistry being a part of the same whirling system of interacting forces. So, although an apple pie may feel like a completely distinct (and hopefully delicious) entity you just made this afternoon, it is nonetheless intrinsically woven into the fabric of the universe, as are you and I. The point I am moving towards is that the same is true of any individual print of Shapeero and Taylor’s (both within their own universe, and of course ours too). This is, to an extent, true of any artist’s practice insofar as one thing will always lead to the next – formal and conceptual traces, elements and fragments will consciously and subconsciously be carried forward, whilst other aspects will be dismissed, mutated or reformulated into something else. With Shapeero and Taylor however, this process of evolution is so explicit and powerful, it warrants specific remark.
My citation of The Turing test and reductionist and materialist theories of consciousness is of course not an attempt to suggest that their practice could in any way be considered sentient. Rather my intention is to draw attention to the insatiable human impulse to understand, to contain and to control – an appetite Two-Step very much speaks to. Natural and with valuable evolutionary function though they may be, human endeavor for apprehension and categorisation (and the closure they bring) can devalue/distract from the importance of being faced with realities we do not, and will never ‘understand’. Two-step serves to remind us of the tension of being alone in the crowd, and that remembering this side of ourselves is to reconnect (however momentarily) with the inherent beauty of an existence built upon uncertainty, indifference and contradiction.
At the start of this text, I expressed an apparent concern at my own ability to tackle the scale of their operation, wondering where it might be best to begin. I now see that my fear was not about where to begin, but rather once in motion, when and how to stop (perhaps something they too feel?) To closely study their practice is to feel its gravity pulling you in. My cowardice however, can be used a barometer to reflect the raw power and delicate nuance implicit to both the macro and micro aspects of Two-Step. It’s massive. It’s getting bigger. Yet every corner of every print is brimming an unimaginable blistering intensity of detail, hope, history and most importantly, a hunger for whatever is coming next. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.
“All I know is that to me, you look like you’re havin’ fun, open up your lovin’ arms, watch out, here I come”
Dead or Alive (1984)