The background is a “set of nonrepresentational capacities that enable all representing to take place. The background includes biological and cultural capacities, skills, stances, assumptions and presuppositions.”1 This can be thought of as tacit knowledge which we all embody in our specific spatial, historical, social and psychological configuration. “Tacit knowledge” means skills, ideas and experiences that we have without easily being able to make them explicit.

The background is more than the personal tacit knowledge of an individual in interaction with cultural, historical and technological universals. For example, everyone has a lot of personal tacit knowledge about brushing their teeth that is similar to the tacit knowledge of most other people’s tacit knowledge about brushing their teeth: how to hold the brush, how to posture one’s body, how it feels and tastes, things that can go wrong etc. Here the toothbrush and the act of brushing one’s teeth is a cultural, historical and technological universal at the same time.

I want to propose to understand “background” as the set of all the shared tacit knowledges. This accounts for the intuition that the background is out there in the external world and not just a phenomenon created in our individual head. Specifically part of the background is the mundane and ordinary, the day-to-day. One of the most common ways to get an idea about one’s own background is travelling, which often leads to encounters with functionally identical artefacts that come in a different shape, color, grouping and context, than we are used to.

A more intentional way of revealing the background to others is the production and exhibition of art. By changing the context of phenomena2 art lets us see our shared preconceptions. This ultimately allows the viewer to question descriptions, norms, commitments, expressions and behaviours by matter of now being able to notice them. Furthermore the background is part of the fabric that makes being as being-in-the-world meaningful to us. The more one learns about the world, learns about the history of all the normalities, the richer one’s own background becomes and the more the objects in the world start to speak, start to whisper like a rustling in the eye while letting one’s gaze wander.3

  1. Daniel Barbiero, “The Background,” in Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind, last modified May 2004,
  2. Artifacts, images, technologies, ideas, bodies and behaviours.
  3. See Louis Marin, Über das Kunstgespräch (Diaphanes Verlag, 1997), 15-16.