The Viral Sublime
Suzi Morris
Transcript and slides of a Powerpoint presentation presented at the

Annual Postgraduate Research Conference - East Building - EB1.37

University of East London (UEL)

Wednesday 22 April 2015
(Original concept put forward by Suzi Morris in November 2014)

Slide 1
Good afternoon. Some of you will not have been at my previous presentations, so I would like to start with a brief summary to explain why the Sublime is of interest as both a historical and philosophical concept. Between my BA and my MA, I spent many years working in culturally challenging environments with the under privileged and also in Art Direction for Film. In that time I witnessed things that humbled me and were often beyond my comprehension. Witnessing the cheapness of life in poverty stricken parts of the world can be quite shocking and I found myself having to find coping mechanisms. Finding the language to define the experience is difficult. This really summarises what Burke was referring to In the 18th century when he spoke of the duality of the sublime as being in his words- ‘complex, and how something terrible and frightening speaks to both of our two most basic instincts: self-preservation and the social instinct of sympathy with others. When we see these depictions of death, calamity and misfortune happening to others we seek to relieve our own fear by an empathic response’.

Many of these memories I have, constituted a loss and that sense of temporality in life has shaped my thinking and my practice. One of the qualities the sublime encompasses- that of temporality is part of what draws to me explore it further.

My research has led me to explore this legacy around the discourse of the sublime and to what extent it’s still useful within contemporary art. The sublime is quite a traditional archaic concept spanning millennia and continues to shape our thinking today. But what is the relevance of the sublime? - Is it through the gaze of science, medicine or technology that postmodern notions of the sublime continue to thrive?

So I’m going to talk briefly about the history and where the discourse began but more importantly look at its relevance today within my practice and the practice of others. As a traditional aesthetic category, history and the unfolding of changing social conditions has had a profound effect on how the meaning of the sublime has changed.

Far from being an outmoded concept, I argue that the sublime is a distinctive aesthetic category which reveals an important, aesthetic-moral relationship with the natural world. This presentation proposes the viral sublime as a new category and extension to existing knowledge surrounding notions of the sublime.

Slide 1
The word ‘sublime’ evolved from the Latin word ‘sublimis’, which is the amalgamation of two words: ‘sub’ (up to) and ‘limen’ (threshold).

The word has several applications: a mountain range may be termed sublime, yet the meaning of the word ‘sublime’ is not limited to such value judgements; it also expresses a state of mind and a recognition that the idea of infinity is beyond symbolic representation.

Slide 1

The constantly evolving concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature- distinct from beauty was first brought into prominence in the 18th century, in the writings of Ashley-Cooper and John Dennis. They both expressed an appreciation of the terrifying yet exciting forms of external nature.

Addison furthered the debate of the sublime. He stated that, “Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity."

The importance of how Addison perceived the Sublime relates to the elation of our imagination. In essence, the Sublime happens when the impressive or terrifying object is transformed into a thought or idea in our mind.

All three had travelled across the Alps at different times as part of the, then popular, ‘Grand Tour.’ Previously, mountains had been regarded as symbols of the wrath of God, and people had travelled through them in a subdued, respectful manner.

Slide 1
Addison had also embarked on the Grand Tour in 1699 and commented in the daily publication he founded, the Spectator, that "The Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror".

Addison's notion of greatness was integral to the concept of the sublime. An art object could be beautiful but it could not rise to greatness.

Slide 1
Later in 1757, Edmund Burke in ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’ explored his relationship with the ‘sublime’ and ‘beautiful’, and the language to define the experience.

This was the first philosophical discussion in which the beautiful and sublime were separated into distinct categories.

Slide 1
Burke’s seminal ideas were followed by a significant contribution from Kant, (1790) on how the sublime might relate to aesthetics and aesthetic experience.

Kant differentiates between the "remarkable differences" of the sublime and beautiful, highlighting that beauty "is connected with the form of the object", and possesses "boundaries", whilst the sublime "is to be found in a formless object", and can be said to be "boundlessness".

Slide 1
Sublimity for Kant is, “the feeling that arises whenever we, as subjects, become aware of the transcendental dimensions of experience.”

Kant discovered a much higher level of human sensibility that was pure and universally shared and the sublime offers a system which enables us to create meaning.

Slide 1
So I may have spent a bit of time on the history of the sublime but I’ve done so because its legacy has shaped our thinking today and while the sublime was a very male dominated category in the 18th century, since then further categories of the sublime have added to the discourse in defining the meaning.

These are just a few examples as there is an endless amount of discussions surrounding the sublime and I could easily spend a lifetime researching it! And this presentation would be boundless!

For instance Luke White writes about The Capitalist Sublime where he discusses the likes of the work of Damien Hirst and how Hirst intertwines the aesthetic of terrible nature with the capitalist sublime.

Claire Pajaczkowska covers The Cinematic Sublime which addresses how technology empowers films like The Day After Tomorrow… and this makes reference to The Technological Sublime. So it’s a huge subject…seemingly without limits which is ironic in a way.

Slide 1
In terms of fear - before the 2 World Wars, our fears lay within nature, prior to technology becoming limitless in its capacity to terrify us in the Information Age we live in today. The so called electronic ‘viral’ invaders of this 3rd millennium ride in the form of Trojan horses in the world of the technological sublime, yet I believe the ultimate sublime remains within nature itself.

Gilbert-Rolfe suggests that the sublime is now found in technology, as the sublime in nature has been sublimated. I argue against this… I’m proposing a new sublime, which has greatness in size and yet paradoxically it is invisible to the naked eye but carries a certain beauty when seen under an electron microscope; its universal; and triggers fear on a scale beyond understanding; it is both boundless and limitless in its power to end life, it has all the character traits of a sublime that I define as the ‘viral sublime’.

Slide 1
So coming back to what I said earlier: Is it through the gaze of science, medicine or technology that postmodern notions of the sublime continue to thrive? It’s a complex question open for debate. How far are we from a super-pandemic virus or a new malicious computer virus? It seems to me as if there is an analogy between science and technology in that science claims that the two most critical things about a virus are virulence and transmissibility. These are both traits engineered by computer hackers and the creators of biological weapons for germ warfare. Are we therefore more threatened by the perils of biologically lethal viruses, or the menacing behaviours of mans abuse of technologies?

We have been denied the choice not to be ‘technological’. In an era of converging technologies – information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology and the neurosciences, is the viral sublime Janus-faced?

Slide 1
Returning to history- to quote Burke : "...terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.”

The terror and boundlessness of one face of the viral sublime revealed itself in the Ebola virus outbreak last year. It killed over 10,000 people and continues to do so although the media attention has subsided, yet between 1918 and 1920 a deadly influenza pandemic the H1N1 influenza virus wiped out approximately four percent of the entire world's population at the time.

BUT - It is not my intention to identify the viral sublime solely with Ebola, H1N1 or with that of any specific theorist or philosophy. The appeal of a ‘viral sublime’ is not to specify, but to call such a category into question in this Information Age where the use of the term ‘viral’ is both widely used and is homonymous and the sublime is clearly a category still in motion.

What I’m trying to do is to translate these ideas into paint and within my research what I’ve uncovered is that relatively little funding is actually put into viral research in comparison with other areas. During this doctorate I want to look at ways of raising more awareness and funding into these areas. I’m considering ideas on how I can maybe contribute through my art practice towards making a difference to viral research.

Slide 1
So I’m investigating ways to translate the concept of a viral sublime, into paint and imagery that offers meaning and a way to reconnect and register emotion.

What I haven’t mentioned to some of you until till now is that I’ve spent the past 35 years living with a virus for which there’s no cure and it’s a condition that impacts me 24/7. This electron microscope image showing viral activity in the eye, reminded me of the tiny organisms of bioluminescence which emit light when stressed, forming beautiful luminous effects on water. The perception of beauty masking the destructive stress response of phytoplankton was not dissimilar to the image of viral activity in the body, only visible through electron microscope technology, again- bearing reference to a technological sublime.

Slide 1
This WIP is trying to translate these thoughts into paint through exploring the concept of the virus but not in a literal sense but as a metaphor in terms of its characteristics of invisibility, the intangible, the unknown, and the ability to replicate and mutate. It’s these qualities which engender an imaginary relationship with this microorganism which seeps into my practice. I’m also interested in the concept of working on diptychs or triptychs or greater again as a metaphor for the replicative characteristics of the virus with the canvas becoming the host in a metaphorical sense.

Returning to Kant again - Kant discusses our attempts to comprehend something beyond our abilities of reasoning and understanding. We can never grasp the presence beyond this world, or quantify its absoluteness. Equally this pertains to the viral sublime. The scale of a virus or its variability is immeasurable, it has a boundlessness, a limitlessness. As soon as one virus is catalogued another appears in an endless chain of chance mutations.

Slide 1
In this very early WIP painting I’m exploring different surfaces such as aluminium and trying to focus on underwriting the authenticity of phenomenon that slip beyond my conventional understanding. Fascinated with what we cant see or describe, but whose existence we can question, I also want my paintings to generate, an awareness of the performance and act of painting itself in capturing and articulating my thoughts of experiences underlying this viral sublime.

Lyotard was so influential In the discourse around the sublime I wanted to include this quote.

I’m also reading a lot of Merleau-Ponty and interestingly he writes of the differences between art and science, uses painting as an analogy for phenomenology. True painting being akin to ‘the phenomenon of expression.’

Slide 1
I’ve been thinking about how viral activity in the body, which is only visible through electron microscope technology, bares reference to the technological sublime. In my practice I make use of technology through using PhotoShop.

Paint as an organic substance is capable of transformation and destruction. If the paint becomes the ’Virus’, in a metaphorical sense, it’s through the process of destruction and mutation the final image emerges, constantly evolving and always infinite. Because destruction and negation is part of my working process.

Edmund Husserl speaks of phenomenological reduction, or ‘Bracketing’ as a process of considering mental experience in an attempt to capture and articulate its original meaning. Thus making visible a reality that otherwise has no absolute form, recognisable only by the senses. In this sense I believe the search for truth is becoming more authentic in my practice.

In this respect I’m referring to the behaviour of the virus being not dissimilar to the degradation of the image in painting.

Slide 1
I’ve been looking at other artists that I’m drawn to and asking- To what extent can contemporary artists offer glimpses of what we term sublime with a view to initiating change in societies perceptions of disease or indeed anything else?

In the 1980’s Ross Bleckner confronted the stigma and social issues surrounding the AIDS crisis. The mysterious luminosity in his softly layered multicolored circles or “cells” mutate and become something else as they effortlessly take over ‘the canvas’, suggestive of particles of blood viewed under a microscope. Although some of his work oscillates between figuration and abstraction and I’m not so drawn to those - his paintings allude to a sense of mortality and loss serving as a memento mori to those who died. Bleckner founded ACRIA (AIDS Community Research Initiative of America), which continues to raise funds to help those with HIV, and AIDS live longer lives today.

Slide 1
Concepts of micro macro serve as the catalyst in his paintings - in connecting abstraction with technology. Mark Francis suggests pathogens such as lethal viruses, bacteria and fungi which oscillate on the borders between representation and abstraction. His paintings confront us with a subtle play of ambiguous almost conflicting evocations of the ideas of energy and life, giving form to what we know exists but remains unseen.

Slide 1
Now that we’re governed by an age of limitless digital technology and many artists are drawn to technology. I’ve been asking is it surprising that such a traditional hand made medium such as paint still has such a salutary effect, and continues to be the medium of choice for so many artists? I believe its because never before has man been more threatened by dehumanization. I know that for me, its about what paint as an organic substance can do to an image… the physicality and the hand made gesture. While I see that painting may no longer be dominant, it remains atemporal in its ability to offer creative representations that capture that sense of ‘unrepresentable’ anxiety, created by what has been referred to, as a ‘disenfranchisement of the senses’.

So in ending this presentation my research will continue to add to existing knowledge in exploring how the sublime remains a legitimate and potent concept in todays world - focusing not on preconceived ideas, but on the role of the sublime in our perception of both the natural world and the ‘Other’ world.

It seems the secularisation of the sublime that has taken place, intermittently since Burke, suggests that the sublime seems to emerge at historical points where power is in transition - so points of cultural change are triggers and hence this has led to multiple categories of the sublime. So in proposing this new category – a Viral Sublime is both a new category and extension to existing knowledge surrounding notions of the sublime, I am pleased to say I have submitted this for publication.

Thank you.


© Suzi Morris 2015