Floating States 2019


Going Meta


Studio Visit




Ulysses Belz

Painter and printmaker

Going meta

Metacognition refers to the awareness an individual has of their own mental processes (also referred to as 'thinking about thinking'). In the past thirty years metacognition research has become a rapidly growing field of interdisciplinary research within the cognitive sciences.

The Foundations of Metacognition, by Michael J. Beran, Johannes Brandl, Josef Perner, Joelle Proust; Oxford 2012.

The uncertainty of painting
or : why is Ulysses Belz going meta ?

by Joelle Proust, CNRS

There are many different ways of explaining what painting is all about. These ways, obviously, vary with periods in art history, and with individual painters, styles, and techniques. Popular in the first part of the twentieth century, the “message” view is now out of fashion: a painter does not try to “express something” through his work: why should he or she choose such a contrived way of conveying her message? The “conversational trigger” view, more recently, has been claiming that art – paintings, installations - aim at fueling comments about them. Why then should artists sometimes prefer to keep their sketchbooks for themselves? A recent theory, which we might call “the reflective-perception” view offers a more promising tack: painting teaches the viewers to become aware of their own perceptual activity. It offers them an experience that cannot be gained otherwise, by resonating to what the canvas has registered, brush strokes, color patterns, light contrast, and similar cues of the painter’s embodied agency. This theory, however, needs to be further elaborated. First, we need to understand why a work of art, rather than a natural scene, allows viewers to develop a specific form of perceptual awareness. Second crucial question: do painters intend, more or less consciously, to develop this form of awareness in viewers? Or do they have their own private agentive experience that may or not overlap with the viewer’s? Third, are not there other features than agentive cues that successfully engage the on-lookers in this reflective form of contemplation? Should not reflective activity in both painter and viewer involve more than perception alone?

These questions may look fairly abstract. However, they are vivid subjects of interrogation for painters attentive to the changing meaning of what they do- for painters, that is, who are thinking through their paintings. Ulysses Belz, quite clearly, is one of them. As we will see, his paintings have recently started to address our three questions above. It is not by chance, then, that he insightfully named a recent exhibit “metacognitive painting”. What did he mean by that? Metacognition has to do with internal uncertainty. Just as the world is changing –slowly or abruptly -, the individual mind is also changing: enriched as it is by previous experiences and learning, kindled by new desires, and made more cautious by a heightened awareness of its former errors. Metacognition comprises the set of competences that allow us to become aware of this complex internal landscape of felt obstacles, exploratory strategies, and anticipated mental outcomes. In contrast with world-directed cognitive activities, it has to do with what can be done with one’s mind alone. It is involved whenever we attempt doing things of a mental kind, such as discriminating, comparing in thought, remembering a name, a place, a picture, solving a problem, trying to communicate, etc. All these mental actions require, critically, that we evaluate our chances of succeeding in our endeavors. In other words, they require appreciating how likely or uncertain we are to succeed in a given attempt; or, once we have completed our mental action, they require appreciating as objectively as possible how well we did. By calling his new work "metacognitive painting", Belz, then, tells us that his painting has to do with the painters' feelings of uncertainty, with the complex awareness of having to evaluate one’s progress even though one is, mostly, making progress, so to speak, in the dark.

From the painter’s viewpoint, a main source of uncertainty lies in the very nature of the activity: successful creation is by definition unpredictable. But there are many different layers of uncertainty that may compete for the painter’s attention. Ulysses Belz helps us find our way through them. His primary uncertainty has to do with himself, or, rather, with the force or agency driving painting, both in its motivation and in its particular decisions. Every artist, every poet, has a form of xenopathic experience: I did not do it, I did not anticipate it. Rather, my brain (my muse) knew. It used my hands and led me where it saw what to do. Belz's Zyclus, and also his wonderful 'Selbstbildnis, den Himmel betrachtend', present us with neuron-shaped, or randomly connected biological sub-agents; they are the neural correlates of the painter, who, as an author, vanishes as a self-entertained illusion. Belz indeed is informed of current research in neuroscience, by Ben Libet and Pat Haggard: our consciousness of acting follows our decision to move; painting is an activity that is started in a non-conscious way. The painter in action, in Zyklus, explores its own limits, and is confronted with the displacement from center to periphery, from the conscious author to some subpersonal mechanisms 'making it happen'. The painter finds himself to be "no-one", an experience which the philosopher Thomas Metzinger and other neurophilosophers validate on empirical grounds.

Ulysses Belz, however, opens up for us a second 'layer' of uncertainty, related to the contemporary predicament: What kind of painting is to be done today, after figurative and abstract art? He makes visible to us this form of uncertainty through the momentaneous admission, and final rejection, of semi-figurative patterns, here to be dismissed and connected to other patterns in a non-figurative way; notice, however, that the connected patterns belong to at least three worlds: our everyday world of bowls and sinks and chairs (Sitzendes Papier, Plan B), the world of industrial artefacts and machines (Plan B, Seereise), and finally, the world of hidden biological components of the human brain and body (Plan B, Polymer, Botenstoff). The artist seems here also to go "meta": these three kinds of representations are now things of the past: they inspired twentieth-century painters, as solid elements of a represented world, (although the "biological" components were, quite significantly, at the time, the human body rather than the human flesh or neural structures). Belz lets them now play an interely different role: they are citations, elements of a critical reflection about and against one's own acquired impulsions to represent an external world. The critical elementin these metacognitive paints is the constant presence of cerebral matter, neural transmitters, internal bodily organs, that do the job: they perceive, interpret, evaluate. The painter's intimate convicton is that the present art needs to confront itself to this role of our subpersonal mechanisms in the highest form of human creativity. Belz thereby endorses a naturalist viewpoint: culture and art need to consider themselves in continuity with scientific evidence; the painter needs to acknowledge, and make widely accessible to the public, how science and naturalistic philosophy of mind provide new tools for understanding artistic creation and contemplation.

These considerations help us address our three questions above. First, what kind of specific perceptual awareness does Belz's paintings generate in the viewers? The response is that Belz's paintings trigger in them an uncertainty that matches the painter's own. There is no fixed figurative point that is presented as a focus, nor a fully abstract pattern. Attraction to figurative patterns is both expressed and distanced. Color or form properties are now cautiously used to deflect viewers's attention away from easy sensory targets. The viewer, rather, is led to experience oscillations, from attempts to locate a meaning, to realizations that meaning lies in the very course of these oscillations. See his Reactions to a Ringtone: the painting nicely bootstraps the automatic attentional process through which a viewer is expecting a door opening: the view is waiting for identificatory cues; this is what we might call "the good old viewer's routine". A more promising metaperceptual attitude from the viewers part is to become aware of their ringtone-like expectations, and drop them. Here starts the awareness of one's own fundamental incertainty, i.e. a higher form of perception, and, as we shall soon see, an invitation to resonate differently to what is immediately presented.

We are now able to address the second question above. Do painters, does Ulysses Belz, intend, more or less consciously, to develop this form of higher-order awareness in viewers? The response is that Ulysses Belz' "whole system", embodied mind, certainly intends to share the awareness of his own search, and effort with the viewer. The rythmic pulse of the striped backgrounds so often used by Belz (see, again, Reactions to a Ringtone, Male Beauty or New Centres), suggests a common background of objective timing and effort for novel trajectories to become visible – to the viewers. This can only be appreciated by someone who knows how to "go meta" for his or her own sake- how to use his own perceptual process by turning into its own neural depths, so to speak.

Finally let's come to our third question above. Should not reflective activity in both painter and viewer involve more than perception alone? We saw above that Ulysses Belz questions traditional ways in which artists present themselves, as the conscious authors of their work. Uncertainty extends also to what art is all about. It's not enough, as in earlier ways of "enjoying art", to identify a referent or to assess one's pleasure at the sight of a given work. Belz invites viewers to actively enact his critical experience while painting: to share his momentaneous attractions and rejections, to go beyond the visible to the machinery that makes art what it is, with its flowing energy and its incredible depth of thought. In his reflective process, the painter is able to help himself with science and philosophy: visual art needs to reach out to these deeper issues. Thus metaperceptual topics in Belz' work function as invitations to a mental travel across layers of contemporary culture: viewer, travel for yourself ! (otherwise, there's nothing here for you to see.)

Joëlle Proust
Tray-le-Mont, September 24, 2010


On Course for New Spaces

by Markus Braun-Falco, PD, Munich

Painting, as a traditional point of intersection between external vision and inner perception, is undergoing social and esthetic realignment due to advances in the field of consciousness and brain research in the early twenty-first century. Mental processes encompassing abstract concepts of human existence formerly regarded as unable to be materialized or concretized – such as consciousness, perception, language, and emotions, but equally mood, motivation, and concentration – are becoming increasingly definable on a molecular and genetic basis.

Ulysses Belz approaches from the viewpoint of an artist the challenging and complex questions surrounding the possibility of visualizing mental processes. In many years of intensive preoccupation with cognitive neurosciences, he has developed a mode of painterly expression
that he terms "metacognitive painting".

The concept of metacognition, introduced in the early nineteen-seventies by the psychologist John H. Flavell and the physiologist Henry M. Wellman, focuses on the analysis of one’s own perceptive processes, that is to say, on knowledge of how we can know[1]. For Ulysses Belz, it is the plastic interest in the processes by which occurrences and memories are stored, filtered and retrieved.
From an angle of self-perception arise compositions that make visible a figuration beyond figuration. In works like "Spare Bed", "Viennese Hotel Room", or "Archive", which in the broadest sense still embody an existentialist sensibility paying reverence to the work of Francis Bacon, it is possible to discern the germination of a confrontation with personal recollection, the processual nature of which is already reflected in the all-over treatment of the canvas in "Daylight".

"Selfportrait Contemplating the Sky" represents a striking developmental step forward. Despite the implication of the title, the painting has nothing of an individual self-proclamation but seems more like a cosmological speculation. The painter’s view of the heavens includes, as a biomorphic seal of existence, a depiction of "mouches volantes" (commonly known as eye-floaters), those thread-like strands or dotted structures fleetingly inscribed on the field of vision in line with the motion of the eyes and percieved as entoptic phenomena by almost everybody. As a selfportrait it is a descendant of Ernst Mach’s drawing of himself as a headless figure lying on his sofa, whereby not only the mirror image of the classical selfportrait is avoided, but simultaneously the question is raised of the internal generation of the external world.[2]

Despite the precise corpuscular definition in paintings like "Patience" or "Timetable", there is no trace of a return to figuration. Similarly, fundamental concepts of abstraction are largely eliminated.
These works – and even more so "Reactions to a Ringtone", "Wasps" or "Thank you, Mother" – provide examples for the way in which the viewers are required to neuronally grasp the structural patterns presented to them in order to be able to appreciate by non-rational means the correspondence between picture and title. The title may still evoke a concretizable visual notion in the personal recollection of the viewer – an aspect which has largely vanished in the series "New Centres". Here we are presented with loop-like signal patterns that indicate a concrete momentary state of an individual’s sensate condition. Or are they possibly even universal activation patterns characteristc, in each case, for a specific sensation?

In order to enter into a relationship with Ulysses Belz’ paintings, viewers must compare with their own experience the painterly proposal regarding an internal process. It is a wordless communication
in which a pictorial investigation is undertaken into shared patterns of stimulation. According to Ulysses Belz, a picture is a mental object produced in the field of neuronal connections and able to assert itself only within the dynamic of previously unknown algorithms. Painting can thus make no statements about the outside world without deceiving itself about its own character.

Ulysses Belz’ metacognitive painting articulates a neronal esthetics, an artistic formalization of absolute immediacy, which approaches the sublime of contemporary art from an innovative perspective.


Markus Braun-Falco

Freiburg, 7th of april 2008

[1] H. Flavell and Henry M. Wellman, "Metamemory", in Perspectives on the development of memory and cognition, eds. R.V. Kail and J.W. Hagen (Hillsdale, N.J.,1977),pp.3-33

[2] Ernst Mach, Die Analyse der Empfindungen und das Verhältnis des Physischen zum Psychischen, 1st edition ,Jena 1886; translated as Contributions to the Analysis of the Senses, 1886

(Transl. Tom Morrison, Berlin)