Struggle for Pleasure

Exhibition at Verse London2024 –  curated by Leyla Fakhr

The title of this exhibition is borrowed from a musical piece released in 1983 by the Belgian composer Wim Mertens, generally positioned in the ‘Minimalist’ tradition. There are aspects of the composition that I always find myself falling for, even though there are other aspects I find a bit kitschy. In thinking about the ways in which works of art that speak to me can have this dual dimension, one of immediate appeal and a kind of intellectual resistance, the ideas behind this collection began to germinate.

The tropes of musical Minimalism seem familiar at first glance, for example, repetition, or the arpeggio. They are used and they ‘work’. When listening to a work like Mertens, I find myself liking and resisting the work simultaneously. I don’t want it to work on me, but it does. It is a work that lives up to its title; it is a struggle but a pleasurable one. In thinking about struggling for pleasure in my own visual practice, I felt closest to the concept of the struggle initially. Specifically, how pleasure can often seem suspicious somehow, and why this might be. Working in the digital realm of visual production, there is a kind of rhyming element between the fundamental features of minimalist composition and the minimal units of digital display. Rather like the spare notes played in a musical composition, the rendering of pixels in certain positions and densities create a visual composition which our minds work upon, and which work upon our minds.

The pixel is fetishised perhaps in a lot of the iconic works of contemporary digital art and NFTs, and this is something that I do find myself struggling with. For example, works like CryptoPunks lean into pixelisation by exploiting nostalgia, which I found myself wanting to resist. The pleasurable hit of playing up 8-bit graphics has always seemed to me a kind of easy way out of the problem of making an interesting visual work in the context of digital display formats. The works become about the viewer, but less about who they are personally, than about their generational position. While this is pleasure, it didn’t seem to be a lasting pleasure for me.

In creating these works, I researched how we relate to pixels, how they reveal something about how we perceive and mentally construct images. They appeal to a general cognitive faculty, but each assemblage or organisation of pixels has a personal, individualised aspect. In this way, they touch on some of the same unsteady ground the Impressionists worked upon. The elusive coherency of strokes by Monet, or later Pointillist works by Seurat sought to find a place where perception, image, and emotion met. The point, particularly in the latter case of Pointillism, offers insight into the application of the pixel: the point is information, but it can only become meaningful in the presence of other points, and other minds. In these works, I seek to take the fundamental element of digital display and examine how it can be dialogic rather than simply nostalgic.

In creating these works, I built on elements of earlier uses of an algorithm in my practice. Historically, I dedicated myself to an iterative algorithmic process which in the end hermetically generated the final ‘pleasurable images’ to be released. In the past, that iterative process involved a great deal of loss, discarding all outputs before the final algorithm would be complete. For ‘Struggle for Pleasure’, I opted for a different, gentler process: keeping images generated at all points during the iteration process and curating them into a final selection. Therefore, the collection is not merely a product of the final outputs of the final state of the algorithm but a kind of historical and procedural window on the chronological process itself.

Here, I chose very simple operations - rather similar to the austere approaches that define minimal music - to apply to the images, such as mirroring, rotation, repetition, and in particular subdivision. The outputs often paradoxically took on an exceptionally complex, transcendental quality not unlike, for me, the way the apparently straightforward components of a mandala can. Simplicity of operation can become a window into territories of complexity where knowledge itself breaks down. This openness to uncertainty and to the dialogic process of the realisation of a work is central to the struggle for pleasure that defined the creation of the works on show here. It is my uncertainty, but it appeals to a wider openness, an openness where pleasure can flourish.

– Written by William Kherbek based on a conversation with Harm van den Dorpel, 2023