TRACE, verb: to copy by following lines
noun: a mark or line left by something that has passed
From Latin TRACTIARE “delineate, score, trace”
TRACTUS “track, course, a drawing out”
TRAHERE “to pull, draw”1
“That’s what I’m interested in: the space in between, the moment of imagining what is possible and yet not knowing what that is.” – Julia Mehretu
In 1962, Dr. Michael Polanyi delivered a series of lectures at Yale University, initiating his transition from a decorated career in science to one in philosophy. Acutely aware of the nature of scientific knowledge and discovery, Polanyi posited an original insight regarding personal knowledge, declaring, “we can know more than we can tell.” Serving as an orienting principle throughout his book, The Tacit Dimension, this terse, and perplexing, statement has not only significant implications in scientific discovery, but also in the creative process, a point Polanyi himself addresses by directing attention towards literature, the fine arts, and other “non-scientific” pursuits, emphasizing that: “the pressure exercised by literary and artistic circles is notorious.”2 Purporting that these other spheres have as much to offer society, if not more, Polanyi’s theory draws parallels between the sciences and arts, in that both experience an emergence of ideas through active seeking and discovery, not merely through the coalescence of a prior knowledge.
In chapter 3, “Society of Explorers,” Polanyi concludes his original declaration by elaborating on the acts of seeking and recognizing problems:
“Yet, looking forward before the event, the act of discovery appears personal and indeterminate. It starts with the solitary intimations of a problem, of bits and pieces here and there which seem to offer clues to something hidden. They look like fragments of a yet unknown coherent whole. This tentative vision must turn into a personal obsession; for a problem that does not worry us is no problem: there is no drive in it, it does not exist. This obsession, which spurs and guides us. Is about something that no one can tell: its content indefinable, indeterminate, strictly personal.”3
While some of these “bits and pieces” might have origins in familiar material, Polanyi argues that they are pointing towards that which is not yet known, that which is hidden. In other words, the intimation of a problem is a significant act in and of itself. If taken as a basis for not only knowing, but also acting, and subsequently being, this assumption has far reaching consequences for other creative endeavors. Polanyi continues:
“Indeed, the process by which it will be brought to light will be acknowledged as a discovery precisely because it could not have been achieved by any persistence in applying explicit rules given to fact. The true discoverer will be acclaimed for the daring feat of his imagination, which crosses uncharted seas of possible thought.”4
Directed specifically towards visual representation, the question becomes: can we draw more than we know?
Emergence through Drawing
Polanyi defines the process of the revelation of something hidden as an “emergence,” a particularly useful word in the examination of the multi-disciplinary act of drawing. Do we draw what we already know, or are we drawing to know? Artists have historically embraced the idea of drawing as the fledgling existence of an idea, by using paper as a space to construct the potentiality of a non-existent work5 , and even further, as something that might never be described as “existing.” Drawing is also the common language that unites the fine arts and design disciplines, serving as a common method in which practitioners first visualize something that previously existed only in their mind. It is the most primal act.
In my own drawing practice, I am often caught between discovery of unknown territory while feeling a simultaneous sense of familiarity. The tension between these two conditions is what propels the work forward – energy generated from an ambivalent state of being both lost and at once knowing exactly where the drawing is. Most concretely, this process begins through the tracing of video source material, the drawing initially a recording of obvious forms and outlines. Sometimes, what is found is known, like a literal outline; other times, it is the discovery of a new path of movement, or previously unknown geometry. Further, the content of the drawings I work on is typically of the observed world around me, often through the slowing down of, or an expansion of, natural movement patterns. Both the material constraints and slowness of the process open up new possibilities, the chance of discoveries through a process of hunting out that which I am not sure about yet.
Drawing as Hypothesis
How does the body relate to the spatial and temporal qualities of drawing? Can these characteristics spur further inquiry and generative ways of working? In Polanyi’s terms, the exploration of “true discoverers” implies a type of risk, relying heavily upon the imagination, particularly that which does not yet exist. Emma Cocker similarly defines a hypothesis as “the pioneer who pushes at the edges of territorial frontiers.”6
In this way, a process that relies on tracing is also fruitful because it lifts the yoke of meaning, allowing instead for the propulsion of not-knowing, coupled with the anticipation that something will emerge. There is a sense of trust required, that a process is indefinitely going to lead to something meaningful, even if the origin is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Oscillating somewhere between the “known and unknown,” the drawn hypothesis can serve to destabilize preconceptions or otherwise seemingly familiar things. Again, drawing is the language that unites such varied disciplines; as such. it is typically treated as a stepping-stone to the final act:
“Drawing is the language through which the hypothesis is shaped within art practice, since it too has been habitually designated as a preliminary activity, always coming before, rarely taken for what it is in itself.”7
Cocker points to Paul Klee’s drawing of some thrown object experiencing gravity, always anticipating its return to earth. Klee urges the reader to think about the object’s ability to experience a “cosmic curve,” on which the hypothesis, or the “if” , continues without an indefinite resolution. Richard Hugo similarly urges young poets to be aware of the difference between the “initiating or triggering subjects” and the “real or generated” subject. He notes that young poets tend to cling onto the triggering subject, moving laterally (or through the full gravitational arch, in Klee’s words), never quite ascertaining the subject matter that can be generative (the object that defies gravity). There is the investigation, material, or process that might begin a project, but the real project lies somewhere just beyond the horizon. But what if drawing is also taken for what it is in itself? Can it tell us something about which we think we don’t know if it is both the question and the answer? Can the drawing continually propel itself, following a new path one never foresaw at the origin of the drawing? If indeed the drawing is taken for what it is, it becomes an event, something worth viewing from an objective perspective, but also participating in.
If understood through this context, we can now define this inchoate space as a “trace” dimension, one which is elucidated through the hand but takes place in the mind.8
It is articulated and comprehended through our thoughts and experiences: as the pencil is pulled across the page or the mouse dragged across the desk, and the subsequent drawing is constructed, we inhabit the ostensibly unseen places that occur in-between, underneath, and within.
- “Trace | Search Online Etymology Dictionary,” www.etymonline.com, accessed September 5, 2021. ↩︎
- Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, p.84 ↩︎
- Ibid., p.75 ↩︎
- Ibid., p. 76 ↩︎
- Diana Petherbridge writes about the role of the hand and its thought process in drawing in her prolific and deeply insightful historical work, The Primacy of Drawing: “In many respects, the moving hand of drawing registers the movement of the thinking eye, the degree of coordination being susceptible to multiple external and internal influences and depending on the skill perfected by the artist” p.90 ↩︎
- Emma Cocker, Distancing the If and Then, p. 98 ↩︎
- Ibid., p. 100 ↩︎
- “My paintings are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.” – Agnes Martin ↩︎