S1E2 Marilyn Stendera: Background Notes

From: Marilyn Stendera <>
To: Pat McConville <>
Subject: Re: Invitation to interview on Concept : Art podcast

Relevant papers:


I’ve been struggling a bit with deciding which pieces to highlight, partly because of a paradox – art is both so close and so far; it’s a pervasive part of my everyday life and as such is always there when I’m working on something, but I’ve written almost nothing about it. That’s something I’ve been wanting to change, but for now, the influences are all very much implicit and in the background. I’ve also struggled to pick out only a handful of things, so one thing that’s helped me is to focus more on themes. I’ve realised that the art which influences my relationship to philosophy most clearly is art that deals with the boundaries of the human – the relationship between the human and the non-human, whether natural or artificial; meaning-making at the edge of experience; radical transformations, both liberating and threatening. And of course, in all of that, time also pervades the kind of art that interests me.

The only thing I’ve written about art is Disintegrating the Linear, which is the exhibition catalogue essay for a wonderful Australian artist, Simon Finn. The themes at work there – disintegration; transformation; the paradox of capturing and thereby freezing the motion of time – also pop up in the work of two contemporary artists whose work is always on my mind – street artist DALeast and sculptor Seo Young Deok. Every student I’ve taught has seen their work on my slides, haha. In terms of relating this to my philosophical interests, I am interested in exploring the limits of human cognition, and how the human experience of lived time compares to, is shaped by and affects the time of other systems (from non-human cognisers to artificial systems). I explore those limits especially in Beyond Disintegration, but also pretty much all of my work on enactivism. DALeast and Seo Young Deok also address critiques of modernity and the politics of the human in their work, which resonates in the background of how I try to explore the power dynamics of time. In Time’s Entanglements and similar work, I’m especially interested in the history and operation of reductive temporal imaginaries and the productive of particular subjectivities. 

For me, perhaps unsurprisingly, all of this is also linked to death. I think that’s what attracts me both to phenomenology/existentialism and also to enactivism (because, for the latter, cognition is defined by precarity, the inescapable need to grapple with the constant threat of annihilation).  In terms of art, that comes through perhaps most clearly in my love for horror films. I tend to like horror movies that play with existential precarity in unexpected ways, looking at what happens when meaning-making breaks down. Carnival of Souls, Martyrs, The Fly, Event Horizon, Videodrome, In the Company of Wolves, Antichrist, Annihilation… 

Having said that, my view of the role of death in life tends to be a lot more – congenial, I guess one could say. The piece that best captures this is Finnish symbolist Hugo Simberg’s The Garden of Death. (Again, it’s always on my slides!) I’m not too fond of Simberg’s own explanation, but I like the motif of death as the gardener of life, enabling growth. The painting also, however, reminds me of Beauvoir’s famous point that every death is a violation, that humans do not experience a ‘natural’ death because of the kind of entities we are. Death is inevitable and it defines us, but it is also never neutral or straightforward; it becomes more complicated – more political – at our end of the spectrum of cognitive complexity.

How I approach these themes is also profoundly shaped by my love for games. I came to gaming fairly late in life – late teens – due to a very strict upbringing, but once I discovered them, they became central to my life. Much like you, games shape how I think of affordances and practical cognition. I don’t think I ever really understood Heidegger’s account of practice and equipment until I thought of it in gaming terms. 

Thematically, too, the kind of games I love has shaped how I think about all the themes I’ve mentioned – the shaping and reshaping of the human; death; transformation. Here I’m thinking especially of the big games that got me into all this: Mass Effect, Half Life, Bioshock. But also what my partner calls the ‘sad piano indie games’ I love. The Company of Myself, To the Moon, The Last Door , Paratopic, and so forth- all games that use aesthetics and gameplay to explore the nature of meaning-making at the edge of impossible situations, and that also all explicitly grapple with the non-linear nature of lived time. 

Last but not least, I did want to briefly touch upon music as well. Music is weird here in that it’s the most extreme version of that paradox – I listen to music all the time, the kind of music I listen to – metal – has shaped my identity and social circle, but it’s hardest for me to articulate how it fits into my philosophical life. One way in which this music is deeply philosophical for me is the way it grapples with themes of death, precariousness, decay, transformation, annihilation – and does this through music and production as much as lyrical content. Crucially, though, metal is – for me – also about time, and affects how I conceptualise lived time. I’m particularly fond of a subgenre called ‘doom metal’, which is about very slow, drawn out songs; my favourite sub-subgenre, funeral doom, tends to have 50-minute songs. Time itself becomes part of the medium and the performance. Indeed, my favourite doom band – Mournful Congregation, from Adelaide – are known for their slogan that their music is ‘for those whose hearts beat slower’ (which I’ve always loved). Here’s a good example of one of their tracks.


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