Submitted to the Art Practice program at the School of Visual Arts in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts
Thesis Advisor: Laura F. Gibellini
Table of Contents
Emancipated Imagination Foreword………...……………………….................................... 4 Theses on Emancipated Imagination…………….…….….......... 5 Defining Imagination……………...…...………..…….…........... 6 Rancière’s Equality & Worker’s Dreams…….......….........…..... 11
The Visitors……………………………………………...…....... 14
Open Doors in Liminal Space Note on The Archive……………………………..……….…… 21 Static People..………………………..……………………........ 29 Acknowledgments.………………………………….…………. 37 Bibliography………………………………….…………......…. 38
Foreword This paper has two essential goals. The first is to fulfill the requirements of the SVA Art Practice MFA program by demonstrating critical thinking with the ability to contextualize and describe my artistic point of view (my thesis: propositions, claims, arguments, and ideas). The second goal is for this writing to be a reference point and cornerstone that will help support and establish my art practice beyond this program. “What is the central concern of your art practice?” I remember David repeating this mantra last summer when dialogue began about our upcoming thesis year. I was petrified by the singularity of the question…. one primary concern? Being someone who gravitates towards questions and not answers, I found the task spellbinding, yet I was pulled in by the challenge regardless of how ambiguous the way forward was. I did recognize how critical the ability to speak clearly and write about my work was, and that without this, I wouldn’t move forward as an artist. In October of 2013, a few months out of the summer session, I felt stuck. I explained this to my thesis advisor Laura, and she tasked me with something straightforward to help remove my block; write about all the work that I’ve made and look for connections. The process felt like that of an archeologist amnesiac, deciphering my own unrecognized artifacts, symbols and half-utterances. I’d like to think of this document as my field report, intentionally colloquial in tone, yet rigorous in its attempt to understand and describe the primary concern of my practice. While it is important to note that I view this writing and thinking as in progress, my hope is that this document aids in the continuation of my life-long journey as an artist.
Theses on Emancipated Imagination1
Emancipated Imagination is a practice, not a concept. Emancipated Imagination is a transformative human activity, a resource limited only by human investment and willing participation. Emancipated Imagination is open source. Emancipated Imagination is not a luxury or superfluous practice. Emancipated Imagination functions as critical thought and blurs the boundaries of the status quo, throwing into confusion held roles, accepted possibilities and limits to the predetermined capacity, and therefore destiny, of all human beings. Emancipated Imagination is not an end in itself. Emancipated Imagination transforms us into explorers, investigators, witnesses, travelers, operatives, detectives, and adventurers. Emancipated Imagination aids progress and is tied to radical forms of equality. Emancipated Imagination invites the body engaged in predetermined work or labor to enter. Work or labor that affords no opportunity for the imagination or thought is dehumanizing. To dehumanize is to regress and the end of regression is the absence of meaning and consciousness. Emancipated Imagination is transformative, creating the necessary space for new forms of recognition and alternative understanding. Without transformation, creativity, empathy, invention and discovery would be impossible.
1 These theses were influenced by the writing of Anthony Bogues on radical imagination. Anthony Bogues, “And What About the Human?: Freedom, Human Emancipation, and the Radical Imagination,” Boundary 2 (2012): 29-46
"In the world which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself." Frantz Fanon2
Imagination is a ubiquitous word; a disarmed catchall that while considered critical to human progress, in daily use, its definition carries a mawkish ambiguity. If you google the word imagination, you’ll discover dizzying results. Rising to the top of the page, Disney amusement ride Wiki pages3 collide with links to creative firms selling ways to transform business through creative practices; We make your business grow through imagination. This simple exercise illustrates the first challenge of this paper; to describe, define and locate imagination. Imagination appears to be a primarily human faculty4 that the Oxford dictionary defines as "forming a mental concept of what is not actually present"5 and wiki goes with “the ability to form new images and sensations not perceived through the senses.”6 Imagination is considered the birthplace of ideas, a mysterious form of cognition with transformative properties. We are told in poems, ads 2
Ibid 29-46 “Imagination! (Epcot pavilion),” last modified April 15, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imagination!_(Epcot_pavilion) 4 Chimpanzees and gorillas have displayed the use of this faculty. “Do animals have imagination?” last modified February 7, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130207-can-animals-imagine 5 “Oxford Dictionary: Imagination,” last modified 2014, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/imagination?q=imagination 6 “Imagination,” last modified May 12, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imagination 3
and love songs7 that imagination can be sparked or captured; it can run away or flee. Imagination a figment, a fantasy, a vapor, an illusion, and when we touch it, we are transported and transcend. Words commonly in its orbit have a hyperactive optimism, words like: ingenuity, invention, discovery, creation, originality, resourcefulness, wittiness and cognition. The imaginative faculty is often considered the concern of peddlers of the unreal, like children with their naïve whimsical meanderings or daydreamers and artists, enemies of practicality and reason. While imagination engages fantasy, it arrives there through the channels of the real. French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote, “The imaginary is not formed in opposition to reality as its denial or compensation; it grows among signs.”8 Said another way, imagination is the place of renewed reality, dependent on the repositories of knowledge. As much as imagination is considered a destination, it’s also an experience. Immanuel Kant wrote9 that happiness is an ideal of imagination, not of reason. Yoko Ono once described her imaginative capacity this way, “You may think I’m small, but I have a universe inside my mind.” 10 Ono’s description is a sweeping proclamation describing an inner and outer totality or unity. Imagination has ethereal qualities that contribute to the difficulty in locating just where, when and how it occurs; it cannot be relegated or limited, but instead functions in the realm of a grand generality and mysterious expanse. When theoretical physicist Albert Einstein was asked how he accounted for his discoveries in a 1929 interview by journalist and poet George Sylvester Viereck, Einstein famously declared, “I'm enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. 7
“Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” Released January 14, 1971, Temptations, (Motown Records) Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 87-97. 9 “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals,” last modified April 28, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groundwork_of_the_Metaphysic_of_Morals 10 “Yoko Ono’s New Music and New Writings: It’s Her Universe, and Welcome to It!” last modified December 21, 2013, http://hyperallergic.com/99356/yoko-onos-new-music-and-new-writings-its-her-universe-and-welcome-to-it/ 8
Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."11 Einstein is considered to be the most inventive physicists of the 20th century, so he knew a thing or two about ingenuity and breakthrough. It would be prudent to carefully consider his thoughts on the imaginative faculty. First, he uses the word “freely” to describe the action of imagining, as in freedom from external control. The acknowledgment that freedom without restriction is fundamental to his genius and to the act of breakthrough, scientific or otherwise, is important. Similar to Ono, Einstein describes the immensity of his imaginative faculties and its inherent potential to facilitate new thought and discovery. He calls the imagination artist’s territory, and as a contemporary of Picasso, who can blame him? But these are not the times of Picasso or Einstein and therefore it begs the question; why would an artist working in 2014, an artist located after the effects of postmodernism and its rejection of sweeping concepts like transcendence and universalism and it’s suspicion of grand narrative, choose to write on a topic like emancipated imagination? On the surface, emancipated imagination could easily be dismissed as old thinking, more akin to modernism or romanticism or even just plain naivety. In addition to the danger of a lack of criticality or blind sentimentality, seeking to define imagination has a hint of impossibility; a similar struggle that occurs in Zen Buddhism. In Zen practice, one is guided toward absorption, a direct encounter with now. When a practitioner introduces formed concepts before the immediacy and spontaneity of the present moment, they are thought to have missed point of the Zen practice12. Formed ideas, concepts, rational thought and intellectual reason are all viewed as getting in the way of seeing directly in Zen, of seeing another way of looking at reality. The exercise of 11
Keith Negus and Michael J Pickering, Creativity, Communication and Cultural Value (New York: Sage Publications, 2014), 9. “Peter Matthiessen On Writing And Zen Buddhism,” last modified 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/04/07/300261643/petermatthiessen-on-writing-and-zen-buddhism 12
formulating ideas and concepts to describe imagination, while a useful tool to gain insight, can still feel futile, like uttering what cannot be uttered or naming what cannot be named. In a similar way, Jean-François Lyotard’s description of the Sublime in The Postmodern Explained to Children, finds imagination situated similarly to the Sublime. The Sublime “invokes the unpresentable in presentation itself, that which refuses the consolation of correct forms, refuses the consensus of taste permitting a common experience of nostalgia for the impossible, and inquires into new presentations — not to take pleasure in them, but to better produce the feeling that there is some-thing unpresentable.”13 Unpresentable, unnamable, unutterable or not, imagination has been considered a worthy area of considerable discourse throughout time by European heavyweights like Martin Heidegger, David Hume, Aristotle, Henri Bergson, Immanuel Kant and Gilles Deleuze. So why has imagination fallen out of the present day vocabulary or zeitgeist of the art world? You are more likely to find imagination as the topic of a TED talk or of an essay from a leading economist or business leader, than you are in art discourse. You don’t need to convince leaders in business or technology that imagination has value; these companies need imagination’s by-products, creativity and innovation, to stay viable. New ideas are fuel for the companies like Google or Facebook, who are only as good as their latest release or technological invention and yet, unlike oil or natural gas, imagination is a resource with unending supplies as long as humans are able to tap into it. The embrace of imagination by the mainstream world of capitalist business is surprising because it has long been suspicious of imagination’s unruly nature. As business began to occupy the equally ethereal and hard to locate space of the virtual expanse, the former suspicion of the imaginative faculty was turned on its head. As social 13
Jean-Francois Lyotard, Post-modern Explained for Children: Correspondence, 1982-85, (London: Turnaround Books, 1998).
theorist Brian Massumi wrote in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Post-Contemporary Intervention), “Imagination is the mode of thought most precisely suited to the vagueness of the virtual.”14 The creative revolution in technology caught fire under the influence of innovators like Apple founder Steve Jobs, whose mantra “think different” admonished consumers and employees alike to break out of the thought rut and into the experience of creative thinking. Bill Gates’ first writing15 after resigning as Microsoft’s CEO in January 2000, Making Capitalism Creative, 16 aimed to convince heads of industry on the urgent need to infuse creativity into the North American capitalist model, the goal of which, according to Gates, was to help the world’s poor. It’s clear why Gates connected business and creativity in his philanthropic message; empathy, the ability to learn and understand another without first-hand experience, is impossible without the capacity to imagine. However, business or art discourse does not possess the definitive answer to understanding imagination. Imagination is transdisciplinary and defies definition and like ether or air, imagination is located somewhere and everywhere, in the territory of the omnipresent.
14 Brian Massumi, Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Post-Contemporary Intervention), (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2002). 15 “Making Capitalism More Creative,” last modified July 31, 2008, http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1828069,00.html. Accessed January 29, 2009.
Rancière’s Equality & The Worker’s Dream
Yubari coal mine workers on their way to their job inside the mines, March 21, 1947, Hokkaido, Japan. Associated Press Photograph
Imagination may defy definition and be an ethereal resource limited only by our ability to tap into it, but let’s be real. Many of us have to engage in some kind of structured labor to pay the bills. Labor depletes two critical resources needed for imagination: our bodies and our time. It would be impossible to discuss imagination and the potential of an emancipated imagination without addressing labor. In Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France,17 French philosopher Jacques Rancière investigates the intellectual life of a group a mid-nineteenth century laborers through research of an archive of their writings, which include worker-run newspapers, letters, journals, and worker-poetry. Rancière presents the argument that these laborers were not fighting against the hardships of their working conditions per se, but the overall predetermined trajectory of their lives. Rancière ruminates on the words of this small group of individuals who performed the profound act of destroying the barrier separating 17
Jacques Rancière, Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France, (New York: Verso Books, 2012).
the worker, or proletariat, from those who contemplate aesthetics, the bourgeoisie. Rancière calls this barrier breaking dis-identification. He suggests that the worker disidentify her body, faculties, sensory and intellectual equipment with a reclaimed subjectivity, a body engaged in labor but which is aware of a freedom to engage in intellectual and aesthetic interests. Rancière recounts several scenes of dis-identification found in the workers archive. For example, a skilled worker sits gazing out his window where he labors, delighting in and contemplating the beauty of his view. In addition, Rancière recalls a group of workers who form intellectual clusters after work is done. Unwilling to give in to the nightly restorative cycle of sleep (for continued manual labor) these proletariat intellectuals consider the night to be the time when their real life occurs through the articulation and expression of longings and personal pursuits. Therefore, when a worker dis-identifies, she reclaims the destiny of her body; its fit, function, purpose and social destination is disrupted and repossessed by the worker. An exemplary example of resourcefulness, these acts of dis-identification pronounce the equality of the workers who are capable of critical thought, intellectual ponderings and free-falls into beauty and expression. Equality is a reoccurring theme in Rancière’s discourse. In his book addressed to educators, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, he asks us to “consider equality as a starting point, not a destination.”18 By accepting the idea of the equal intellectual capacities of all people, one casts off the old narrative of lack, deficiency, scarcity, and therefore salvation from academic saviors and intellectuals. Why look at equality as something to strive after, a delayed dream, out of reach? Why not consider equality as something already available? Rancière suggests that
18 Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, (California: Stanford University Press, 1991).
educators become more like “the ignorant schoolmaster’ who “does not teach his pupils his knowledge, but orders them to venture into the forest of things and signs, to say what they have seen and what they think of what they have seen, to verify it and have it verified.”19 For Rancière, equality is defined and verified moment to moment. In The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière elaborates on his previous ideas about equality and emancipation, this time in regards to spectatorship, he writes: “Emancipation starts from the opposite principle, the principle of equality. It begins when we dismiss the opposition between looking and acting and understand that the distribution of the visible itself is part of the configuration of domination and subjection. It starts when we realize that looking also is an action which confirms or modifies that distribution, and that “interpreting the world” is already a means of transforming it, of reconfiguring it. The spectator is active, as the student or the scientist: he observes, he selects, compares, interprets. He ties up what he observes with many other things that he has observed on other stages, in other kind of spaces.”20 What is described above is a cyclical process of active imagination, observation and connection. Rancière encourages the worker or pupil to accept that they are able to teach themselves, to investigate and uncover any knowledge they choose to. It doesn’t take a specialist or intellectual to lead the worker, but the worker can be responsible for his or her own intellectual and imaginative emancipation.
Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, (London: Verso Books, 2011).
I see. You see. I see you seeing. You see me seeing. I want to show what I see. Nirvana in the rose garden.21
I wake up most mornings about a half an hour before I have to scramble down the stairs to go to work. My apartment is on the top floor of a brownstone, right below the 7-train in Queens. If I am feeling romantic, I like to think of myself as living underneath a roller coaster. Every morning, I walk exactly 279 steps door to door, pushing my way though what I secretly call the crowd of other mutants. I have a day job in an office at a news organization. Some days it’s hard to reconcile the restrictions I place on myself working a 9-5 job because I have always assumed the free don’t work in offices. There is something in the action of
From the video Entslastlungen Pipilolottti Fehler, Pipilotti Rist, (1988)
returning day after day to one place that feels unnatural, inhumane even, and I was always under the impression that the grind was for the I can’t think for myself, so will you? types, dressed in the daily uniform of forgettable. I arrive to work between 8 and 10 am most mornings. My office building is a blocky tan and white stucco pyramid; a 1970s misstep plopped between the Lincoln Tunnel and Madison Square Garden. It’s always a little awkward entering the building. On most mornings, you will find me fumbling through my bag looking for my company security I.D. that gets me through the cascade of electronic glass doors, each one bringing me closer to my workstation where I take my position. I stay there until 5 or 6, give or take an hour spent meandering to friend’s desks and trips to the coffee machine. This would all sound like quite a death sentence if it weren’t for them, the Visitors, the ones who appear only to me. My official title is photo librarian if that tells you anything. It basically means I look at old news photo negatives all day, playing photo god, deciding which images are worthy of digitizing. My edits will be transformed into data, rescued and placed in the benevolent arms of the immortal digital ether, while others are sent back to decay, cradled between acidic envelopes and crumbling gelatin skins. The archive is quiet and removed on the back right corner of the 15th floor. I can’t tell you how many co-workers say they didn’t know we had an archive, many of them have been working for the company for decades. The Visitors prefer to not be seen, so I am sure you can see why the archive is just the kind of place they would feel comfortable in. They first appeared to me during a large edit of late 1960s southern civil rights riots. The archive is deceiving at first; when you open the door the first thing you notice is the cold air and the forgettable avalanche
of beige splashed over the cabinets and floors. I can’t excuse the beige, but the cold air keeps the 3 million negatives it houses from disintegration. The archive feels like a morgue, it coddles the film and prolongs its life. I have proven a trustworthy and efficient researcher over the years so my manager gave me permission to research any topic of my choosing. All that he asked was that I keep my numbers up; I was in a dream. I called the first visitor Old Man South. He appeared out of a cloud of chemical smoke while I was sitting at my light table after hours. His skin was grey and wafer-thin, like cheap cardboard; his teeth were sharp and white. His mouth was fixed and open, like a defensive dog. He wore a floppy hat and his downcast eyes glowed as they were fixed to the ground. He appeared for less than a minute, but I was lucky enough to have my camera and captured his image before he disappeared. Days went by and there were no signs of him. I was perplexed by the incident, but I knew full well not to discuss it with anyone. A story like that will get you shipped right up to H.R. with a note saying something like “better keep your eyes on that one” placed in your permanent file. But keeping it a secret didn’t stop me from pouring over the image, analyzing every odd turn and dark contour. I simply couldn’t place this feeling, this experience of being in the presence of such a force. There was something terrifying about him; his bones were already partially erased pulsating, disruptive, on the verge of I don’t know what. It was as if his very essence was suspended in the moment of his highest force of living and the oblivion of death. The next time I encountered the Visitors they appeared in a group of three. It was November, and the archive was particularly icy and damp. At the end of the day, all of my colleagues left and I went out to grab my
sweater. I was preoccupied in my research and I was in no rush to go home.
Manipulated image of a negative from the Associated Press’ photo archive of 1960s civil rights riots.
Since my husband left, the idea of home took on another meaning. I knew what was waiting there in those unoccupied rooms. My own thoughts filled the space, just like office life. The sensation of moving between the two places, home and work, gave me a feeling of idling, of hovering; I felt weightless. My life’s rhythm was null and flat which made everything I researched all the more spectacular. As I reentered the archive to continue my research, I suddenly heard a rumble. It was coming from the corner of the archive. As I turned the corner and walked down the aisle to approach the source of the noise and I saw them. There were three forms joined and they hovered in a lavender haze like Old Man South. From what I could discern, although the three forms were clearly connected to one another, each possessed a corporal independence distinct from one another.
countenance, the second figure was ambiguous and moved in unpredictable formations, wobbly and warped. The third figure was feminine and her arms
dangled loosely; her body was bent and her legs were askew. All of the figures backs were turned to me, and as the billows of smoke expanded, I saw the outline of a wooden doorframe. The figures pressed forward and I realized that I had stumbled upon some sort of way station or open door. The passageway of the doorframe was clear, and off in the distance, I could see there was a multitude of forms. The forms passed back and forth, inside and around the doorframe. The doorframe seemed more like a symbol or a marker than an actual object of utility. The airy masses were reminiscent of a multitude of disintegrating paper dolls, descending and ascending shadows hovered all around. I remember there was a sense of acceleration and anxiety to the Visitors’ movements. It quickly became clear that the scene I was witnessing was a moment of crisis, the origins of which are still unclear. I started to get the sense that the Visitors were about to disappear, so I took out my phone and photographed them. Just as I suspected, moments later the Visitors headed into the doorway and vanished. Tuesday came and went; I met my deadlines and started to wander in my research; C: Carnivals, Cats, Chorus Girls…. Perfect. Yes, Chorus girls; something feathery and weightless. I grabbed a stack of brown folders filled with acidic, aging envelopes, film negatives and captions. The captions were as telling as the images themselves; bygone sentences which charm and a certain sense of historical shame.
I sorted through the pile of
negatives, shuffling the thin blocks of emulsion, carefully taking them out of their plastic sleeves; semi-permanent impressions of fanned out beauties, affixed, but slowly fading. There were Japanese and American girls undergoing dancing
drills: the foxtrot, the rumba, the cha-cha, legs in the air, with gleaming faces, super-glued smiles and eager eyes.
Image of a negative from the Associated Press’ photo archive of 1960s chorus girls.
They were aspiring young things from farms, desk jobs and schoolrooms, now ready to take their places on the chorus’ front line, or so the caption read. I carefully inspected each frame under the magnification of my loupe, marking it with a crimson red wax pencil. There are so many elements to a good frame and for those with a keen eye, the recognition is instant. You know a compelling image when you see one and the rest of the unmarked frames are forgotten, forced back into their obscure origins. It took about two days to get through all the negatives. I went into the archive and placed the folders back in their slot. It was about 3pm and this was always the time of the day when my energy dipped. I got up from my desk and walked toward the coffee machine in the main cafeteria on my floor. Passing through the hallways always produces a certain level of anxiety. Do I make eye contact and smile at everyone I pass? Will they make eye contact back with me? In the end it never really matters. Everything fades in to an equalizing autonomy. The speckled commercial
carpeting and hovering slim tubes of florescent lights are efficient guides as I travel between the separated workspaces. There are three glass doors in between my desk and the coffee machine; each door demands a swipe of my badge for entrance. When I finally reach the coffee station and I feel a sense of relief to see there isn’t another worker present. Standing in front of the coffee machine, my mind begins to drift. I try to get a hold of where I am; even the coffee is sanitized, repackaged for banal precision. My older colleagues love to recount the ruckus days when men threw typewriters across the news floor out of rage, the days when darkroom workers snorted coke in the stairwells during lunch breaks. As I stared at the coffee packets, neatly divided into drawers dependent on blend intensity levels: medium, mild, bold, I realized how far from that unruly experience I was. This realization didn’t produce melancholy. The truth was I didn’t know any better. How could I miss something I will never experience?
III. Open Doors in Liminal Space Notes on the Archive
Image of a negative from the Associated Press’ photo archive of Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb detonation.
Julius & Ethel Rosenberg (trial, conviction, execution)
Robert Mapplethorpe (The Perfect Moment-Cincinnati)
Christo & Jeanne-Claude
Ku Klux Klan
Fashion 1920-1980’s (most 1950-60)
1970 Ancash Earthquake
Rabbi Meir Kahane
Fall of Saigon
Ulrike Meinhof & Andreas Baader
Mariel Boatlisft-Cuban mass exodus
The Beach Boys
Rodney King (beating, trial, aftermath)
Howard Beach (racial killing)
Alan Shepard /Project Mercury/Ham the Chimp
Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill
1985 Mexico Earthquake
John Lennon Death
Leon Trotsky assassinated in Mexico by Ramon Mercader
Winter Olympics 1948-1980
Israel withdrawing troops from Lebanon 1985
Jim Bakker/Jessica Hahn
Patty Hearst/Symbionese Liberation Army
California National Parks
UAW Strike 1936
Wayne Williams (Atlanta Child Murders)
Son of Sam
Strange Animal Combos
Grace Kelly Wedding
Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Trial
WWII (Wrens, Sailors, S. America, Ships, Hospitals)
The list above is an excerpt of jobs I completed while I worked as a researcher in the photo archive at the Associated Press. This list is part of the North American news narrative created by AP journalists and assigning editors. My research as an archivist was driven by need and curiosity; news requests from contributors and members and archival demands drove the need and I drove the curiosity; I had a lot of research freedom. Sometimes, I would be so overwhelmed by a particular job that it would take me days, weeks or even months getting though the files of negatives and sometimes even more interesting, the photo caption, type-written in the language of its time. My experience as an archivist lasted four years and I am pretty convinced that I will look back at that time as some of the most formative experiences in my visual and intellectual life. It is an extraordinary thing to interact with an archive let alone one of the most important news archives in the world. Casting aside for a moment the Spectacles, Fever, and Regards of Others,22 because, true to the journalist call to bear witness, I have come to tell you my truth, as I know it. I wonder how you, dear reader, experience looking at news photos? Most of us have experienced some deep trauma, right? Do you too find yourselves fumbling for its memory, trying to equalize it, confront it, so that it might disappear? When I optimistic, I think we look at news photographs to reach for some sense of commingled humanity; we are mapping our own empathy, gauging perhaps if we find ourselves awake in the real. What happens when we see the face of another human bent, in the throes of unbound emotion? If even for a fleeting second, however convoluted, gilt-ridden, apathetic, and dishonest our empathy is, we as the viewers of news photographs are transported. Something quite interesting that can happen in these 22
No disrespect to these important writings.
encounters is blur and equalization, cohesion, and imaginative (re)imaginings; a collapsing intersection of a personal topography, which blends in with the very public topography of news reporting. Our trauma is married with someone else’s trauma and it can create an instantaneous dream narrative - nightmarish, vague, complete, hidden, and indescribable. I did a lot of reading about art during my time working as an archivist. While I considered myself an artist, as a full-time employee I found that my identity and sense of life-determination would become muddled. In my attempt to sort out my confusion, I would lean an array of printouts on the wall of my desk, and as I would edit, my eyes would earnestly dart from the illuminated images on my light table to the illuminated text of the page. Reading about artists or art theory (which at the time was so out of context that it felt more like the poetry of aliens) was a way that I had learned to disrupt the predetermined labor of my working day and empower myself. My given task, my labor, was to edit and archive news photos, and yet when I began to read about art and snap sneaky iPhone photos of the negatives I found particularly compelling, divergent little connections started to occur. I remember one day in particular. I was listening to a random mix on my headphones and I was reading about the artist James Turrell’s off-site airplane landings23 off the coast of Santa Barbara (my home town) in between editing WWII images. As the Turrell story approached its climax, he recounts a moment when he lost control of his tethered plane and it began to drift, awake or asleep, he couldn’t tell. Instead he hovered over the remote Channel Islands like a ghost. It was a beautiful story. At this point, Brian Eno’s Music For Airports24 came on in my headphones.
23 Craig E. Adcock and James Turrell, James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space, (California: University of California Press, 1990), 21- 23. 24 Brian Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports, (London: Virgin Records, 1978).
Image of a negative from the Associated Press’ photo archive from WWII.
I paused and returned to my research, moved by the connection between Turrell and Eno: airplanes, airports, sonic drifts in Eno’s musical inflections, a little mysticism in Terrell’s island hover. When I opened the next envelope and placed the negative on the light table, I was startled. I saw captivating photo of an outstretched hand holding what looked like a toy plane up against a map. The negative hummed with lavender, as do many of the black and white negatives from the era. The plane was glowing, cradled with delicate care. The hand gripped the miniature plane the way a child would while mimicking the pattern of flight. However, the hand didn’t belong to a child, but to an officer plotting his strategies of war. This moment had a profound impression. My senses, intellect, and memories were colliding with Eno, Turrell and now this WWII negative. I was engaged with every aspect of what I was seeing, doing, hearing and feeling. At that moment, I snapped a photograph of the image on my light table through the magnifying loupe to add to the secret archive I had begun to accumulate. Reflecting on my days as an archivist I see that
it was when art and my daily labor formed a lasting cohesion, when the boundary between artist and laborer dissipated.
Image of negatives from the Associated Press’ photo archive taken while working as an archivist.
Looking at images is not a passive activity in the slightest; it can be a very imaginative moment. When I try to describe this merge or open door, I think of the eloquent writings of Borges, who, in the basement scene of The Aleph,25 describes a thunderous encounter with all in a complete and closed-in now. In The Library of Babel,26 all knowledge resides in hexagon-shaped chaos, it dangles, unreachable, unknowable; there are only whispers of a remedy. How terrible it is to encounter this and how futile it is to seek a wholeness of vision, the cohesion of ideas and histories, the unsatisfied longing to discover the source. This merge between art and labor described here, may seem to you dear reader, mundane, confusing or even simple, but for me, it had a ring of destiny. I had many more experiences like the one recounted here, each with its own meaning, each acting as an invitation or an open door leading me to emancipated imagination. 25 26
Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories, (London: Penguin Classics, 2004).
Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel, (Boston: David R. Godine Publisher, 2000). 28
The Static People
Video still from the series Static Background Radiation (2014).
A ripe imagination sure can be a lifesaver! Two years ago on one of my daily spaced-out strolls to the coffee machine at work, a scene played out in my head. A pulsating electromagnetic figure appeared with a vibrant and dynamic presence, colorful to the point of offence. The figure had the air of an instigator who swiftly tossed the banality of my workspace on its head; it was clear that the office wasn’t its natural habitat. Why was it here? Before I could figure out any agenda, the figure vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Days past and then a year, and the image wouldn’t leave my mind… I had to chase this down; I just had to. That encounter led to Static Background Radiation, a video series of hybrid fiction that ruminates on human identity during the golden age of technological advances of the most personal kind. Iphone, Ipod, Itouch, www.I; personhood has become digitized and those that can are getting connected. Static
Background Radiation’s two lead characters are technological human hybrids called
Video still from the series Static Background Radiation (2013).
Static People, and like electromagnetic poles or Mormons, these sojourners come in two. The Static People are faceless and look like digital tadpoles caught in some kind of awkward stage of electo-evolutionary metamorphosis. They wear malleable shrouds whose shape hints at religious devotion. Why static? The term Static Background Radiation refers to cosmic background radiation, “electromagnetic radiation from the sky with no discernible source.” 27 When televisions were analog and channels had no transmission signal, a display of electromagnetic noise pattern, or static, would appear. 1% of the static noise on the television screen at any given time was a visual reverberation of leftover remnants of ancient light from the Big Bang fireball 13.7 billion years ago. The Static People act as mediums that embody the ubiquitous longing to define, locate and describe what has historically been indescribable; the universal source. 27
“Cosmic Background Radiation,” last modified March 12, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmic_background_radiation
Video still from the series Static Background Radiation (2013).
In Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything, Joe Milutis investigates “the superflux of the sky” or ether, “a mediating substance between technology, science, and spiritualism and the historical relations between these three terms determine it’s perfume.”28 Milutis writes that ether is “all over the place, and that place is nowhere to be found” an immaterial vapor “without disciplinary location.”29 Ether is the connective substance by excellence. Ether, Milutis explains, was once situated in scientific discourse but fell out of favor due to the rise of physics (but as he notes, ether is still held close to the heart of quantum theorists). Milutis suspects another reason ether was cast from rational thought was because some understood it to be a description of God. He argues that ether is not about god “but about how humans contribute to their total mystic environment through their technological extensions and scientific advance.”30 28 29 30
Joe Milutis, Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 5 Ibid, 8 Milutis, Ether, 22
Video still from the series Static Background Radiation (2013).
The concept of ether has resurged in recent decades due to its “deep cultural usefulness that transcends the scientific”31 as well as its implications in the omnipresent “drama of the computer interface.”32 Long tied to myths of technological forms of transmission and communication, ether asks, “what’s in the back of the sky?”33 and “what does it mean to broadcast?”34 The first episode in the series, Static Background Radiation: △ (2013), is a 5-minute electronic opus of reverb and shifting supernatural digital shapes. It begins with a rush of television static and wavy oversaturated color bars; there’s no signal, but we’re tuning in. The noise breaks with a telephone ring and a wonky d-list YouTube motion graphic of a portal; we’re connected. Seductive and unapologetically vivid, Static Background Radiation: △ unfolds in a succession of hyperactive collages made from Discovery channel documentaries, online algebra tutorials, Saturday morning cartoons, 31
Milutis, Ether, 11 Ibid, 12 33 From Theme From Valley Of The Dolls 34 Quote by Dana Osburn when talking about Static Background Radiation. 32
60s educational animations, and original footage.
Video still from the series Static Background Radiation (2013).
The structure of the video relies on the tension gained from the omitted information in both the plot and the low-fi imagery. In the opening scene, a major part of history, the building of the pyramids, is reduced to an 8-bit flash. The camera pans with robotic conviction as figures survey their creation and begin to digitally decompose. Through its ambiguity and irreverence for historical, religious, social, and scientific truths, Static Background Radiation: â–ł winks at the beliefs that construct our understanding and at the many embarrassing iterations of technology. The first female form appears at 45 seconds in. She is faceless, an ethereal YouTube math teacher translucently placed at the base of an ultraviolet beginning of civilization. The sound is chalked full of electro hum and the sense of anticipation builds towards an unexpected climax or ominous end behind each
Video still from the series Static Background Radiation (2013).
With her back to the camera, the teacher appears to be undoing a mathematical formula, erasing plans and undoing history; her equation is heading towards nothingness. In the next scene we are introduced to the so-called protagonists of this saga, the Static People. When they first appear, we see them blankly hobble out of an earth quaking triangular vessel. Side by side, they walk towards the viewer, looking like a mix between ancient Roman sculptures and B movie space nuns. As the figures approach the camera, static noise surrounds them and they disappear. Next, we see the façade of an office building at night: a glowing orb of static light dances in the center of the frame, mapping the outline of the structure. Over the frames we hear a melancholic radio conversation, sincere and hushed, musing over “technology without recognition of its inherent human and spiritual
Video still from the series Static Background Radiation (2014).
Led by missed connection and unanswered questions, the viewer is ushered into the ethereal and immaterial longings of the digital age; we become lost in a dream-like constellation and intuition is the preferred guide. But before the viewer is allowed to freefall into a far-out techno-mystical abyss, we see the Static People arrive at their destination and boy, it’s a rude awakening. Plastic corridors of oatmeal colored walls and florescent lighting usher the visitors into their new environment; so much for travel….it’s time to get to work! Board meetings, telephone calls, and computer screens fill the Static People’s day; let’s make a deal! Weary from work, the static sojourners play catch and Ping-Pong interspersed between long gossipy coffee breaks. Coffee is the office worker’s elixir and the Static People quickly abandon themselves to this daily ritual. As they navigate the workday, hovering though their monotonous tasks, moments of
35 On a car ride home I heard this talk randomly and picked up my iPhone recorder. I have no idea what show it was or who was speaking.
transcendence begin to occur. The rules of gravity fall away and we see one of our electromagnetic travelers surrounded by cascades of energized paper, swooping up in a rush of super-natural abandon. The paper ascends to the sky as if being called home, a reminder of bygone ways of transmission and communication. This bout of workplace ecstasy sweeps away the banal office space veneer and leading the viewer into a color field of playful whimsy. The universe begins to spill into the office space with a blissedout collision of floating geometric shapes and hyper-colored spheres. As the Static People teeter between frequencies, with a click they are brought back into their workday. But things are not quite what they used to be. In the closing scenes, the Static People return to the office space after their encounter with the source, a current day clash of the sacred and the profane. After one last cup of coffee, we see the static dissipate. An eerie melodic reverie washes over a solo shrouded figure, a sonic hint that the end draws near. This time, papers fall to the ground as geometric shapes map the figure’s celestial topography. The figure disappears; we’ve reached the center point. Static Background Radiation is a project that emancipated the corporate space I occupied through imaginative practices; my body and mind were undone through a creative free-fall into possibilities beyond the daily restrictions of my workday, transcending the predetermined work of production. Through the emergence of the Visitors and the Static People, an open door appeared and materialized a liminal expanse, a territory of “being without structure.”36
36 Ingvild Sælid Gilhus, “Gnosticism-a Study in Liminal Symbolism,” International Review for The History of Religions, (1984): 106128.
Acknowledgments I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to my fellow Art Practice chums. Without you, this incredible experience would be unimaginable. Each and every one of you have influenced, admonished, supported and inspired me to be a better artist and human being. You are family – thank you, thank you, thank you: Rachel Chick, Simone Couto, Leah Foster, Kate Harding, Anthony Hawley, Jaewook Lee, Victor Liu, Dana Osburn, Brenda Perry, Andrew Prieto, Henry G. Sanchez, Rosanna Scimeca, Benjamin Thorpe, Alfredo Travieso, Frank Tribble, Tracey Mancenido, and Richard Walshe. An extra special thank you to my crit group (WU!) for lighting the fire in my heart to make and for nurturing my creative wanderings. And to Anthony Hawley & Benjamin Thorpe, for believing in my work from the start - your friendship and encouragement allowed me to believe in it too. I would also like to express my deepest appreciation to the incredible Art Practice faculty: Dara Birnbaum, Sarah Sharp, Kathy Brew, Steven Henry Madoff, Jovana Stokic, Gary Simmons, Mark Tribe, Robin Winters, Thyrza Goodeve, Daniel Kunitz, Eric & Heather Chanschatz, Ernesto Pujol, Tim Rollins, and Stefan Saffer. Your collective depth of knowledge, bodies of work and generosity is simply awe-inspiring. In addition, I want to extend my sincere, sincere gratitude to my wonderful thesis advisor, Laura F. Gibellini. This document would not be possible without your steadfast support and encouragement. Despite my travail and confusion, you pushed me towards greater clarity to make the necessary connections in my artwork. Thank you Laura for offering your generosity and patience until the very last moment of this process. I would also like to thank my most fantastic critique group leader, Luca Buvoli, whose buoyant passion and joy for creativity reminded me that there is a place in art where I belong. And to my mentor, Johan Grimonprez, whose exhilarating body of work, dynamic sense of purpose and brilliant mind have enlightened me and have forever expanded the boundaries of what I imagine art and filmmaking to be. Second to last, and certainly not least, I would like to thank the Art Practice administration, assistant Allison Hewitt Ward and Director of Operations extraordinaire Jacquelyn Strycker. Jacquie, I vividly recall our first lengthy conversation while I was trying to decide whether I should make the leap to enroll in the program and you patiently answered every question I asked with a kind transparency. Throughout this experience, you have been an incredible support and I am so very grateful for the opportunities you have facilitated. Finally, I would like to thank the impossible to summarize treasure, David Ross. David, you are simply one of the most energized humans I have ever come across. Thank you for seeing something in my work that I didn’t. It was an incredible privilege to sit in on your history of video art classes these last two semesters, where, week after week, I watched as you imparted your great passionate love and knowledge of art on to a new generation. I was profoundly moved and transformed by that experience and by the experience of this program. I will be indebted to you for the reminder of my days. Thank you.
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