ART, SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY
Artisans Gallery 78 E. Blithedale, Mill Valley, CA; July 3-August 3, 2001
Commentary by Loren Means
[Note: Art, Science, & Technology is the title of a juried show held at Artisans Gallery. The jurors were Donnalee Dunne and Melanie Hofmann, who selected the work of 24 artists for exhibition. Loren Means, the featured artist in the show, comments here on his work and that of three other artists whose work is represented in the show.]
Back in the 60s, I held open showings of 8mm film at the f8 Studio on Market Street in San Francisco. A participant in these showings was a shabby fellow called Ron Morrissey, who lived in a wino hotel on Sixth Street. Ron created hand-painted films using household bleach (he made his living cleaning houses) and film stock and nail polish he found in dumpsters. Ron would bleach away most of the image and pint down the length of the film with no regard for frame lines. He made no attempt to use the repetition of imagery that is the fundamental component of animation and of the film medium itself—the phenomenon of “persistence of vision” which operates on the fact that if the eye perceives a series of nearly-identical images projected at the right rate of speed, the brain will be fooled into thinking it sees three-dimensional objects moving through space and time. The brain really wants to have this experience and is easy to fool.
Non-repetitive imagery had been pioneered by Stan Brakhage in the 50s, but I doubt if Ron Morrissey had ever heard of Brakhage or seen any avant-garde films. Since Ron was ignorant of concepts of transparency in pigment media, he tended to use opaque nail polish, which resulted in his creating black shapes against the blue ground of the partially-bleached film emulsion. The shapes tended to be reminiscent of the work of Franz Kline, an artist with whose work Ron was familiar (in fact, Ron bought a Dave Brubeck record from me because it had a Kline print on its cover). The paint was applied with a brush from left to right down the horizontal surface of the film stock. When the film was projected, it was turned to a vertical axis, then sliced segmented and sent to the screen in chunks of imagery that superceded each other so rapidly as to be superimposed on each other.
So, when Ron Morrissey’s films were projected, the audience was literally bombarded with rapidly-changing imagery. As Ron put it, “When those images come at you, it can really snow the mind.” I postulated the concept of a “perceptual consciousness” that would try to leap from the viewer’s body and grasp onto Ron’s images somewhere in the space between the projector and the screen. Since the images changed too rapidly to be fully “grasped”, the feeling became one of being surrounded by images, of rolling and tumbling among them. Many people found this experience exhilarating, although I noticed that most of these people reported being under the influence of LSD at the time. Other audience members found the experience tedious, probably because it was essentially unvarying in its constant variation.
I began painting on 8mm film under Ron Morrissey’s instruction, but I also came under the influence of Day Chaharoudi, a physicist who explained to me the concepts of transparent and non-miscible paint media. I began creating palettes of oil- and water-based paint, acetone, and a product called Crystal-Craze (now discontinued, I believe, for reasons of toxicity) that grew crystalline forms when applied to a surface. Instead of brushing the paint onto the film, I would immerse strips of bleached or clear film stock into these palettes (different palettes on different sides of the film) and hang them to dry, then splice them together to project them. The effect was different from Morrissey’s films in that there was an immersion in light rather than a flickering modulation of light, and a wider range of colors and shapes, since my hand was removed from the shape-creating process entirely. And since my hand was totally removed from the process, I had to acknowledge that all of the imagery was self-generated. However, projection was a problem, since the film was so thick with paint and distorted from the acetone that it would catch in the projector and burn. I finally abandoned the film medium and concentrated my energies on avant-garde music instead.
A few years ago, I stumbled upon an 8mm Editor at a garage sale near my house. Overwhelmed with nostalgia, I bought the device for $15. Anxious to try it out, I dug my painted films out of a box in the basement. Looking at the films in the editor, I was dazzled by what I saw. Not only could I stop the film at any point and hold it there indefinitely (with the light shining up through the image), I could also turn the focus and move in and out in space discovering new images and relationships, like looking into a microscope. I found this method of viewing the film images much more satisfying than trying to project them.
The editor satisfactorily addressed the problematical nature of painted film regarding both time and space. Unfortunately, 8mm film is extinct as a medium, and Editors are no longer manufactured. I finally found a film lab that could make negatives from my painted footage, but they had to focus on the imagery that was on the film plane itself, which may or may not have been the plane I was focusing on in the Editor. So the lab solved my problem with time, but not with space.
When I created the painted films I had never seen a computer. Now, I have to explain to people that the still images I display from my painted films are not digital in any way. Most of the artists whose work I find provocative today are working with computers and are able to grapple with problems of time and space in visual media in ways that were not available to me 35 years ago.
Daniel Shulman-Means addresses the problem of space in the static medium of computer graphics by utilizing the levels available in Windows-based programs like Photoshop. He is able to create his compositions in multiple levels that can be made to overlap other levels either in front or in back, in varying degrees of domination. Levels can be eliminated or duplicated at will, and while flat and non-illusionary, they are utilizing a real space that is palpable, like the space I was finding in the Editor. However, rather than changing the focus, you change the order of the levels, or intensify certain levels and render others transparent. The surprising thing about the levels is the way they interact with each other. A hierarchy of levels is established, but this hierarchy can be violated once the requisite number of levels is in place. Manipulating the levels is one of the most creative elements of Photoshop, but unfortunately the audience can’t share this experience. Once the composition is finished, the image is compressed, and the levels cannot be experienced or manipulated by the viewer. The levels are only a component of the creative approach Daniel calls “Digital Organics”. He uses the filters in Photoshop to generate images that he manipulates and combines until he finds the images that he responds to. The creative process is so spontaneous and so full of multiplicity of choices that he could not reproduce any of his pieces if they were ever lost in a computer failure. Daniel’s images can be viewed on the Web at www.organics.n3.net. His imagery always gives the impression of more under the surface.
Scott Draves is very concerned with the relationship of images to each other in time. He creates his imagery within the medium of the Web, a medium in which the rapid and smooth delivery of images in time, the “streaming media” the development of which earns Scott his living, is a central issue. Scott writes algorithms that create images through the solving of equations that are constantly reiterated. As he put it in his article Metaprogramming Emergent Graphics (Ylem Newsletter, May, June 2000), “I produce more than images, I produce spaces of images.” Scott’s images are constantly being created, even when nobody is looking at them, and his goal is for them never to repeat themselves. In his program Bomb, the images come thick and fast, but can be modulated by keystrokes by the user. Another of Scott’s programs, Flame, creates single images at a much slower pace, but these images are constantly morphing into other images, like a sort of animation. Scott characterizes these images as a kind of artificial life, with a self-organizing impetus and a desire to maintain themselves through time. As Scott put it in his article, “it’s difficult for me to lay claim to my images at all. They are all found objects. It is the nature of nonlinearity and emerge that something unexpected and unpredictable happens…This kind of creative process, generate and test, is the same as evolution itself…” Images from both programs can be snapshot at any point, and that snapshot can be exhibited as a frozen piece of the continuum. Scott’s Web page is at http://draves.org/art.html.
Marius Johnston creates his imagery using a scanner, but he applies an extra element to the scanning process. As Marius puts it in his Artist’s Statement, “Although not immediately obvious, an image in scanner space is an image that is constructed through time.” Whereas this aspect of the scanner is mainly a source of annoyance to most people using it, Marius uses this time delay as a compositional element. He will move the objects he is scanning (and he tends to scan 3-dimensional objects, as Man Ray did creating his cameraless photographs) to change and elongate its image. Three-dimensional forms are translated into two-dimensional imagery in a linear way through time—space is transformed through the element of time. Sounds vaguely Einsteinian. Eventually Marius arrived at a method to convert the scanning process into a 360-degree Virtual Reality environment. This environment can be explored in real time on the Web, with the viewer controlling the experience of motion through the space provided. The viewer is surrounded by imagery, but this version of virtual reality requires memory to reconstruct the location of objects in the virtual space. Virtual Reality headsets allow the viewer to move around in space and locate objects in relationship to each other in a spatial continuum, but there is a certain comforting element of participation in orienting oneself to the perceptual configuration of Marius’ imagery. Marius maintains the Ylem web page, where his virtual 360-degree abstract environment resides, (and where Scott Draves’ article can be found) at www.ylem.org. All of Marius’ still imagery is a record of transformation of objects through time.
To sum up, the four of us seem to me to be illustrating in our work a phenomenon that is probably fairly common. We have a certain experience in the process of creating out art, and this experience is a fundamental aspect of our concept of the works of art. However, the translation of our art into the medium of the framed picture precludes us from sharing these experiences with our audiences. In my case, the most satisfying aspect of my creative process is not the creation of the images on the film, but the viewing of the self-organized film in the Editor. For Daniel Shulman-Means, a prominent aspect of his creative process is manipulating the levels and other Photoshop elements he uses in discovering his Digital Organics. Scott Draves enjoys creating the algorithms that generate the artificial life forms that create his images, and he conceives of them as constantly in motion. And Marius Johnston relishes the kinetic experience of the motion of the gears of his scanner. Why, then, do we submit our work to the deprivation of the wall-hung static work? I can only speak for myself on this topic.
In any art medium, the viewer’s perceptual consciousness apprehends the work of art by making a journey, a kind of dance, through time. In a temporal medium, like the motion picture, music, or narrative forms, the perceptual consciousness is orchestrated in its dance by the artist—you look where you are directed to look, you see or hear or understand when the artist wants you to. In static media, like painting, photography, and sculpture, the perceptual consciousness is self-directed—you orchestrate the experience for yourself. The artists I’ve been talking about, myself included, are dealing with the tension between temporal and static media created when a slice is taken out of a temporal flow and put up on a wall in an art gallery. Photographs have often been referred to as “frozen time”, and this is particularly the case when the artist’s experience of temporal relationships in the creative process are translated into a still picture with a frame around it. When I experience a temporal work of art, I feel like I’m being controlled by it. But when I experience a static work of art, like a picture on the wall of a gallery, I feel like I’m in control of the experience of appreciating the work, and I like that feeling.