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Category Archives: Ideas & Inspiration

Big Bone Lick and the Birth of Extinction

At Big Bone Lick State Park looking at Bison

At Big Bone Lick State Park looking at Bison

Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology

Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology

Did you know the concept of extinction was born in Kentucky? Before unearthing these huge mysterious fossils of unnamed mammals, no westerner had seriously contemplated the idea of extinction. The concept did not jive well with the deist views of our founding fathers–Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others imagined the universe as kind of a large clock or watch set in motion by God. That this same god would create a creature and then allow ever single member of that particular species to die seemed strange and even unbelievable. This was an America before dinosaur bones had been discovered, before the endangered species list, and just before my ancestors began shooting buffalo from westbound trains for fun.

Letters from Jefferson and others reveal a deep personal interest in these bones from Kentucky, bones which eventually turned out to be new species like the Mastodon, Wolly Mammoth and Jefferson Sloth.  These discoveries turned the world of science upside down and gave rise to paleontology, the science of prehistoric life. That these early Americans were forced to accept evidence over ideology (a skill that seems to be lost on many contemporary thinkers) makes for a great narrative. To read these letters and get a first hand account of this story, including some great Native American myths about where the bones came from, I highly recommend the book Big Bone Lick, by Stanley Heeden.

How did Kentucky go from the birthplace of American paleontology to a hotbed of fundamentalism?  Now there is even a theme park devoted to debunking hundreds of years of science in the name of religion.  It seems to me like Kentucky could benefit from a 1600 square foot mural about natural history!

Last weekend, after a long week of painting mastodon bones as part of an outdoor mural in Covington, KY, I took my girlfriend to the state park to see the site of these discoveries.  It’s a great park with some great hiking trails.  And as you might expect, yes they do have some big bones on display!  These bones below are from bison.  The mastodon skull was simply too cool to be captured in a photograph.  You’ll have to visit yourself!

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Dayton Kentucky City Council Cancels Mural

Old Map of Dayton, KY
Old Map of Dayton, KY

 After a great deal of energy, time, and taxpayer money was invested, Dayton City Council reversed its position and blocked a summer mural project from happening, despite a strong outpouring of community support, enthusiasm for my designs at the last city council meeting, and knowledge that the project was already completely funded.  Thanks to Penny Hurtt and Cathy Volter for voting for the mural! As for the other four Dayton Kentucky City Council Council members, Bil Burns and Bobby Allen were pretty quiet, Virgil Boruske didn’t want a mural in the first place, and Jerry Gifford was particularly unpleasant.  Maybe this outcome will shake things up in the next local election.

I am still a little unclear as to why the project (which, again, was already been completely funded) was voted down, but I’ve got to chalk it up to small town politics and in council member Gifford’s case, pride.  Gifford explained to everyone in attendance that despite enjoying the new designs, “If I already voted against something and I change my vote, what does that say about the power of my vote or the power of city council?” I was surprised at Gifford’s willingness to express this view so unapologetically and publicly, as it seems to me that the first priority of those in political office should be to represent their community, not to preserve their power.  Later, Gifford conceded that he too was an artist, although maybe not as good.

Working with the community of Dayton, however, was a great pleasure.  I still believe the city has a bright future.  And this story has a happy ending anyway–the project was since moved upstream to Covington, KY, where we were welcomed with open arms!  Read about my new bigger, better project here!

Here are some photos of my visits and research at the Charles Tharp Dayton Kentucky History Museum before the project was cancelled.  Charlie Tharp and Barry Baker showed me around and taught me a lot of interesting things about the city.

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The Internet as a Fine Art Medium

Alexi Shulgin's Form Art, 1997

Alexi Shulgin’s Form Art, 1997

In the late nineties, the internet was still a kind of wild-west for nerds and young people who had grown up playing video games in the 1980‘s. The idea of what a website was or could be was still evolving. It is my belief that the full potential of the internet as a personal creative tool was never realized, or at least was never popularized or accepted. Could the internet have developed into primarily a tool of self-expression and art-making rather than a behemoth of competing corporate interests like Google and Facebook? Most content created for the internet today appears not on personal domains and home pages, but on existing dot-coms owned by social networking companies, replete with advertising and corporate labels.

The dot-com is the “white cube” of the internet, in the same way that the white cube of the physical art gallery represents the ideas of possibility, neutrality, and a clean slate.  Furthermore, the dot-com is one of few digital phenomena that cannot exist twice. While one could feasibly copy every bit of information on a particular website and host it somewhere else, the dot-com itself is a flag in the dirt. To put it most dramatically, there is only one joehedges.com.  But despite the inherent scarcity of the dot-com, unfortunately websites as works of art remain difficult to commodify. There is perhaps only one internet artist, Raphael Rosendaal, who has had great success commodifying and selling websites (http://www.artwebsitesalescontract.com). However, even Rosendaal also creates prints and other physical art objects that relate to his websites, perhaps to supplement his income and/or to allow his work to be traditionally curated.

Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans's Jodi.org

Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans’s Jodi.org

Ben Benjamin's superbad.com

Ben Benjamin’s superbad.com

Another major problem in creating internet works of art (and this is just scratching the surface) is the rapid rate at which online consumers are used to devouring information and clicking through images. The physical art gallery commands a kind of slow reflection which simply has no online equivalent. Thus, one of the most successful aspects of early internet art pieces like superbad.com and jodi.org is density. Rather than push against our tendencies, these sites remind us of our obsessive relationship to clicking and navigation online as they subvert the commonly accepted purpose of a website–to deliver understandable information.

Is “internet art” even possible or valid today?  It is perhaps ironic and ridiculous that I have chosen to use the internet to create art work inspired by one of our National Parks, sites which are well-known for their beautiful, meditative qualities.  While my latest project solgonda.com encourages rapid navigation at times and borrows heavily from the conceptual aims of early net artists, as much as possible I have included scenes that suggest a more contemplative approach from the viewer, using traditional formalist and narrative techniques such as lighting and music to encourage slowness.  Increased bandwidth means more contemporary possibilities.  Gone are the days of early internet works that presented a glitched, dark, confused view of cyberspace.  The internet is a comfortable, daily part of our existence now, an existence that is both glorious and mundane.  As such, for contemporary online art to connect with audiences it should reach beyond cold cyber-tropes and present a more human range of moods, experiences, and content.

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The Artist as Collector

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636

In the Renaissance, before the borders of art and science were so rigidly defined, the cabinet of curiosity or cabinet of wonder (Wunderkammern in German) was a place where peculiar objects were gathered (for a most fun and succinct recollection of this history, see Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. New York: Vintage, 1996. Print.).  These cabinets of wonder included natural objects like shells and bones, as well as human-made art objects such as oil paintings and sculptures.  Today we might understand these groupings of art and science as naive, but those collections were precursors to our modern museums.  Put positively, museums are now cultural expressions of shared understanding, places of wonder and appreciation.  Seen more critically, museums are promotors of ruling class propaganda–institutions where knowledge is created, stored and maintained by governments and wealthy individuals, opened periodically to the public, often for a fee.

The Artist in His Museum, (self-portrait, 1822), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

The Artist in His Museum, C.W. Peale (self-portrait, 1822), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Did you know that one of the first well-known American natural history museums was established by an Artist?  Artists are natural collectors, attracted to unusual forms and phenomena.  It is no surprise then that Charles Wilson Peale, a well known American portrait painter, was among the first to offer his collection to the public as a museum.  Peale also was progressive in that he adopted a system of scientific taxonomy, organizing his birds and bones by groups and classes rather than presenting them as random curiosities.  I always loved this painting, especially the grid of shelves, implying modernism, stability, structure and organization.

Peale, along with Thomas Jefferson and other early American figures, had a particular interest in the Mastodon, a then-emerging symbol of American power.  First called the “American Incognitum”, the Mastodon was thought to have been a powerful carnivorous beast.  One of the first complete skeletons to be unearthed was displayed in Peale’s museum.  Here is a magnificent drawing of the skeleton as it was displays in Peale’s museum from a book, Voyage to North America, and the West Indies, in 1817, published in 1821 and written by Édouard de Montulé.  It would have been incredible sight for early Americans.  but they put the tusks on backwards.  oops!

Skeleton in C.W. Peale's museum, drawing illustration by Édouard de Montulé in his book A voyage to North America, and the West Indies in 1817, published 1821

Mastodon Skeleton in C.W. Peale’s museum

A Wunderkammern aesthetic can be found in my own art, in that my work consists of gathering together seemingly disparate objects under the banner of art but often employs the visual language of science.  I treat natural and human artifacts as equals.  I am interested in the formal effects of visual organization but rather like early cabinets of wonder, my goal is not to deliver answers but to raise questions and inspire.

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Thesis Paper

MFA Thesis Paper

My MFA Thesis Paper with $5 Binding at Kinkos

A Stack of Books about new media art and critical theory

Some resources

My thesis paper is finally complete!  It was not without challenges as I tried to synthesize a large amount of information and a wide range of topics into 35 pages.  While a lot of people scoff at the idea of a written portion of a thesis project for an art degree, writing has always been a way for me to organize my thoughts so this was helpful for me as an artist.  Most of the ideas in the paper I have been blogging about or will blog about anyway, but if you have trouble sleeping e-mail me and I will send you the entire document…

I am going to submit my paper and then to the final installment of Launch: MFA Thesis Exhibitions.  This will be my last official event as a graduate student.  Tonight, champagne!

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Probability and the Illusion of Choice

Candyland and Snakes and Ladders Board Games

Candyland and Snakes and Ladders Board Games

Vintage Candyland Board game and Pieces

Vintage Candyland Board game and Pieces

A central challenge of an internet project is creating an enjoyable experience for users of a wide variety of browsing styles and personalities. My recent project could be considered a form of interface design, but is not a game in the traditional sense–one cannot win or lose. The first purpose of a work of internet art then is to simply engage. But how can I create and maintain interest in viewers who are accustomed to navigating social networking sites, sites promoting specific products, and games, but may have little or no experience with screen-based artworks? What formal and navigational components can be used to make clear to the viewer that experience itself is the only objective? How can I avoid audience frustration while retaining a sense of ambiguity, wonder, mystery central to my conceptual goals?

rock with arrow solgonda screen shot

Rock with Arrow

My solution to avoiding frustration in visitors to the site was a long, careful consideration of navigation. Rather than send users into an endless sea of networked links and imagery, Solgonda.com now occasionally gives clear instructions, through actual instructions or blatantly obvious interfaces. In the final stages of development I added more clear instructions (“Proceed”, “Exit”, “Skip”, and direction arrows).

Before finally solidifying the available paths through the site, I studied two of the most successful board games in history, Snakes and Ladders and Candyland. Each game is primarily linear, but with shortcuts (Ladders or Bridges, respectively), and some setbacks as well (Snakes). I began to organize my own project in this way, thinking about independent and related events, inspired by a fantastic statistical analysis of probability in Chutes and Ladders at DataGenetics.com.

The early draft of my project contained pages that were highly networked and linked almost randomly. In the end, I have found that it is not choice but the illusion of choice that is most satisfying. There are several predetermined arteries through the site, each with a unique, well-considered series of pages that provide a similar mix of predictability and surprise, respite and reward. Interconnected moments are harder to discover, but rewarding. I organized all the paths into four modes of travel: simple linear steps (roads), dramatic leaps forward (ladders), dramatic steps backwards (snakes) and finally toll roads. Using the metaphor of a toll both, the site funnels users into certain pathways based on whether or not they have picked up an internet “cookie” (a bit of data stored in the user’s browser) at an earlier point.

Solgonda Treasure Map

Solgonda Map

The result of all this consideration is a seemingly chaotic visualization of lines and rectangles. However, each piece of the puzzle is highly considered. While the creation of this chart was a pragmatic endeavor to organize the project at the final stages, it can also be read as a piece of art in its own right, a treasure map, reflecting my interest in interconnectedness and my passion for personal exploration. In the end, I realized that what we look for in art is what we look for in life: a particular balance of predictability and excitement.

I kept this site map in my back pocket during the gallery reception, sharing it only with those who were lost but especially determined!

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Secrecy and Natural Wonder in Contemporary Art

Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen They Watch the Moon, 2010

I love the work of Trevor Paglen, artist, author, and cultural geographer at the Department of Geography at the University of California at Berkeley.  Paglen’s experimental geography and “anthropogeomorphology” explore ideas about space and culture by capturing and presenting images and texts that are interdisciplinary, pushing the boundaries of science and art.  His books and exhibitions range from examinations of the geography of the Pentagon’s secret world to the creation and selection of images to be sent into outer space as an anthropological record.  Like Paglen, I make use of photography and am inspired by locations that have a built-in mystery or ambiguity.  I am attracted to instances of “epistemological collapse” (Paglen’s words).

Nimbus II

Berndnaut Smilde, Nimbus II

Olafur Eliasson indoor sun, tate modern

Olafur Eliasson’s indoor sun, Tate Modern Museum

Two other contemporary artists who have influenced my work are Olafur Eliasson, whose Weather Project at the Tate Modern museum in London involved a suspended convincing indoor sun, and artist Berndnaut Smilde who became an internet sensation for his photographs of real clouds in art galleries.  Noticing a trend here?  I didn’t really consider the connection between my own work and these installations until recently.  I believe the recent popularity of recreations of natural phenomena in galleries is due in part to our ever-increasing reliance on screens, which are obviously flat, 2D representations of the world.  Making a dramatic installation is one way to excite audiences who are constantly looking at representations of reality already.

Solgonda - Magic Molten Rocks (Altered photograph from Joshua Tree National Park) 2012

Solgonda.com screenshot


While my own project is less ambitious, several scenes have the same aim as the works of these two artists–to bring a sense of the awesome vastness of the natural world into the indoor space of the gallery.  These works walk the line between representational and experiential art.  The installation version of Solgonda included actual boulders within the gallery space, blurring the lines between simulation and reality and between representation and intervention.

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Glyphs

Fun with black and red ink and mostly non-alphanumeric characters.

I have an early memory of playing on a typewriter upstairs at my father’s office.  While I was old enough to have typed words or even a short story, my first impulse was to use the machine to layer and mix mostly non-alphanumeric characters (periods, brackets, commas, etc.), combining the red and black strips of ink to create what I proudly presented to my mother as “my own language”.  I knew then on some level that what I had created was and was not language at the same time.

In my recent art projects I have explored the visual output of both past civilizations in the form of petroglyphs, and contemporary computer coding languages in the form of obscure characters.  Both systems of glyphs are nearly completely unintelligible to the layperson and remain obscure even to the specialist.  Thus, these systems have an inherent relationship with semiotics, as the associations between the characters and symbols fail to create meaning.  While one function of code is to communicate, another equally useful purpose is to obfuscation (as in Morse code, etc.). Many children are attracted to this capability of code and language, evidenced by the marketing of secret decoder rings and fake spy gear.

Code Display

Solgonda Code Display

A basic principle of semiotics is that meaning is constructed through difference [1. Saussure, Ferdinand De, Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye, and Albert Riedlinger. Course in General Linguistics. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1986. Print.].  In the world of computer languages, fragmentary, rigidly organized, intensely fragile components cannot even be understood in terms of difference, for difference is found in such abundance between coding languages and within any specific language that difference is completely stripped of its organizing power.  It doesn’t really make sense to call computer programming languages “languages” at all, in that while they have a metaphorical resemblance to human language, they are essentially data systems of commands that are not spoken nor written, save to transmit information to machines.  This misleading resemblance is what makes code so frustrating for the uninitiated and so intriguing for me visually.

Taking a huge leap back in time, petroglyphs or rock carvings are also systems of information but not necessarily language either.  When I first stumbled on some petroglyphs in and around Joshua Tree National Park I was struck both by their art-ness and their resemblance to written language.

Joshua Tree Petroglyphs - Great Basin Abstract Style

Petroglyphs

These symbols are often referred to as “rock art”.  There is an undeniable formal beauty in the line work and abstract renderings of these peoples, and it is easy to feel an artistic connection.

Most of the Joshua Tree markings belong to the Great Basin Abstract style and are believed to have been carved by by the Serrano or Cahuilla Native Americans several thousand years ago [2. Austin, Donald. “Serrano Petroglyphs at Coyote Hole, Joshua Tree, California.” Petroglyphs, Pictographs and Rock Art. Petroglyphs.us, 3 Jan. 2006. Web. 24 Mar. 2013.].  But beyond their physical appearance, we know little about them. There is no reliable way to carbon date a rock carving, since the carving is literally the absence of rock, and the rock itself predates humans.  Furthermore, sites may contain carvings from multiple tribes or carvings made at different times.  Most individual meanings of the markings are lost to time.

In my most recent web project I use JavaScript code to randomly generate an array of images of glyphs arranged into a grid.  Clicking on one of the glyphs advances the user to the next page, but the correct choice is a mystery.  While the grid evokes modernist notions of organization and understanding, the random placement of the glyphs underscores their unintelligibility.

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Common Threads

My MFA thesis will be continued work on this project that began last summer at Joshua Tree, which is tentatively (and somewhat arbitrarily) named Solgonda.  Above are a few images from a recent exhibition at 840 Gallery at DAAP.  I had intended to shift gears after this show, but I found that I could not stop working on this thing. Instead, I am hoping to present the ever-growing project in a larger format (projection or larger screen or screens) in the spring as a more varied investigation of the visual language of photography, digital art, and science. Everything begins with photography but I am using HTML, PHP, and javascript, to create interactive music and visuals, and exploring themes including:

  • art as information
  • information as art
  • information and code
  • images as code
  • systems of organization and categorization
  • language systems
  • networks
  • buildings
  • clues and puzzles
  • magic and mystery
  • artifacts
  • geology and landscape
  • history
  • wonder (vs. alienation)
  • Simulacra
  • Archive as art
  • Collecting as destruction or preservation
  • Image making as collecting
  • Visual Anthropology
  • ethnography

This list arose as I attempted to find some common threads or links between my last paintings of boxes and the accompanying interactive web project, mintabox.com, and my current research which came out of the Joshua Tree trip but continues to evolve.

Even though I am working a lot with the computer lately, I still think of myself as a painter. Now I am creating interactive paintings. I am also working on a series of 10″ x 10″ static paintings and art objects which I am hoping to show with this project or shortly thereafter. These came about during bouts of occasional frustration with code, which gave rise to an accompanying need to do something physical. They are also round-about solutions to the challenges of commodifying internet art. I will post some images of those soon.

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Abandoned Homestead Cabins and Photographer Kim Stringfellow

There are a lot of abandoned Homesteader shacks out here in Joshua Tree.  Here is one i stumbled on the other day.  Also, I had the great pleasure of meeting award winning photographer Kim Stringfellow, who did a great book project on these homes and shacks.  Here is a nice article, and accompanying video from KCET’s program Artbound, below.  I love the characterization of the aesthetic here as of “rustic bohemia”.

 

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

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