When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. (Solnit, 13)
My current work is a continuous attempt at representing the world as I remember and imagine it to be. It is about the places I have been and the places I wish to inhabit, with plenty of diversions along the way. There is the hope that the experience of the work translates into a similar or new personal meaning for people who engage with it.
To that end, I am interested in creating new personal spaces in our world. Spaces where people can explore. Spaces where people can meditate. Spaces where people can play. Spaces to feel safe in. To bring the mountain vista to the gallery space, the forest trail to the sidewalk, and in so doing create a new kind of interconnected space. I see my work simultaneously running counter to and parallel to Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics. In opposition, I am often using representational elements from my experience; In parallel, I create concrete conditions of possible ways of being. My central concern is not representation, but creation of worlds or, more accurately, their fragments. In order to explore ways of making meaning, I will look at artists creating dream spaces in sculpture, digital media, and hybrid forms.
This idea of making concrete interventions is central to Bourriaud’s argument in support of relational aesthetics. The primary concern of the work “is not a matter of representing angelic worlds, but of producing the conditions thereof.” (Bourriaud, 83) So, rather than giving someone an image of this or another world, we are attempting to create that world in our present space. This creation may be small or temporary, but its existence as a real way of being is nevertheless significant.
What, then, are these angelic worlds?
The angelic worlds that Bourriaud relates are not necessarily the ones I am interested in (or ones I would consider angelic). Perhaps it is better to consider them as alternative worlds, or dream worlds. They are places “where reality and dream form a whole.” (Bachelard, 23) I want the interstitial elements that I create to allow people “to recapture the naïve wonder we used to feel when we found a nest,” to become comfortable dreaming in their daily lives (Bachelard, 93). Different manifestations of these dream-worlds include the man-machine hybrid, technologically-mediated nature, and my interest,
The spaces for reflection and discovery I aim to create are modeled around the spaces where I reflect on and discover the world. They are landscapes and cities of my imagination. They are pieces of music that play over and over in my head, and the places where I learned them.
These, for me, are dreams of interconnectedness and liminal spaces. Dreams of being simultaneously apart from and in touch with the world. I want to create scenarios where we can see the other world and reach out to touch it, experiencing the journey without going far.
I walk often, as it is how I generally form the strongest association with a place. It is not merely that I am walking, or the place that I am in, but the engagement of all senses with that place. The physical exertion needed to climb a mountain bolsters the view in validating its summit. Wandering and discovery are important themes in my work, even as the landscapes themselves are transposed/mediated, made into objects and made portable.
As I wander, I sometimes dream of occupying Bachelard’s image of rootedness and interconnectedness, “the undergrounds of legendary fortified castles, where mysterious passages that run under the enclosing walls, the ramparts and the moat put the heart of the castle into communication with the distant forest” (Bachelard, 20). Not of leaving the world behind, but being in a vast interconnected state. Of being at home, and simultaneously everywhere.
How do we form these worlds?
The importance of abstraction
These worlds should be expressed obliquely, leaving room for explorative, imaginative and emotional responses. We cannot simply say, “there is a forest,” and expect that statement to engage the imagination. As Bachelard writes (concerning the image of a snail retreating like a girl being teased): “Images that are too clear … become generalities, and for that reason block the imagination. We’ve seen, we’ve understood, we’ve spoken” (Bachelard, 121).
Rather than tell people what they should experience (or show them mere photographic evidence of my experience), I want to direct them to a memory. To give them “an orientation towards what is secret without ever being able to tell the secret objectively.” (Bachelard, 13) The secret, in the case of my work, is my own, deeply subjective, experience. It cannot be extracted from that subjectivity, and so can only be hinted at through equally subjective signs and directions. The artwork of these directions provides a place for discovering memories or dreams that inspired the work, and for new dreams and imaginings engendered by the work.
Building on land
Numerous artists create spaces that leave room for the imagination to complete them, to fill in the network,. I am interested in their works that present a vision of another way of being, and enable us to experience it directly or through the work as proxy.
A High Plane by Katrin Sigursdottir is a simple installation with a strong effect of collapsing distances, shown at PS1 in 2007. Entering the room, visitors are confronted by two ladders rising up through small holes in the ceiling. At the top, after climbing eighteen feet, the visitor enters a new space. An expansive ice floe in miniature surrounds the viewer’s head, as if she is just surfacing from the ocean. This is the type of interconnectedness embodied by the fantastical cellar: the visitor is simultaneously in the gallery and playfully elsewhere.
James Turrell’s Meeting Room, also at PS1, has a similar effect of bringing the outside world into the present space. It is a small room with seating around the outside which is opened to viewers at sunset. The ceiling has been cut away, such that there is a crisp white edge that meets the sky, making the plane of blue sky level with the white-painted ceiling.
David Altmejd creates sculptural dioramas of fantastical worlds. As Sigursdottir and Turrell bring imagined or outside space into familiar, interior spaces, Altmejd’s work brings the larger world into the interior of the imaginary body. These sculptures play with the body as landscape. They include worlds living in the crystallized bodies of dead beasts and tiny civilizations built around the hairy flesh of giants. He collapses space so far that we are not inside a new liminal space, but instead show us that the new space can be inside us, as it is inside the bodies he constructs. They are worlds we might create when we are dead, but which we do not yet participate in.
Building in the clouds
Work in non-physical spaces faces a different set of problems from those of physical objects and provides new opportunities. We rely almost exclusively on the sense of sight in most of our virtual worlds. (Interfaces are starting to shift away from this anemic sensory experience, as I will discuss below.) Despite the limitation to visual and auditory output, many artists are creating engaging work on the internet and in screen-space in general.
Many independent games give the player the opportunity to explore alternative, seemingly impossible, worlds. The pixeljunk series allows players to experience existence as life-giving plankton growing a digital menagerie on their screens through a series of balletic encounters with corals. Flower from That Game Company lets the player journey through a world experiencing the daydreams of a flower. Aether presents a similar kind of journey, inviting the player to move casually from planet to planet by swinging from clouds.
The work of Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar takes some of the playfulness of these games and charges it with the somewhat more serious task of representing people’s emotions as gathered from blogs and chatrooms. As it brings together information from disparate places into our brightly-colored playground, “We Feel Fine” begins to create new interconnected spaces online. It provides a window onto thousands of other worlds from within our own. While one can argue that web-browsers in general provide this window, projects like “We Feel Fine” do so with meaningful intent and poetic framing.
Bridging the ether and matter
One of the pragmatic aspects of digital practice is that information can be infinitely developed, recycled, and reproduced in various contexts… (Paul, 70)
By working in digital media, we can move seamlessly between a range of representations. Its malleability aids greatly in bridging the gap between the physical and the ether, since bits can be at once an image, a sound, and translated into physical form. Using this range of outputs afforded by digital media, we can give feedback to nearly all the senses: creating motion, temperature, light, sound, and modulating each in time.
Eddo Stern’s Dark Game puts the player in a world where they have new haptic senses and are occasionally deprived of senses they may be accustomed to using in gaming. When sight is taken away, the player is given a haptic sense of where their objectives are located. Similarly, other senses are traded throughout gameplay.
Ear Studio’s Listening Post, on the other hand, brings the world of information into physical space but without gaining any warmth—it consists of an array of LCD screens and speakers. They display information gleaned from chatrooms in a series of movements.
Both of these works have a particularly digital affect. They are about their digital materiality more than their dual materiality. I am interested in pushing digital work to have a more material affect. I think work can engage the digital world as much as these pieces while entering the physical world more materially. Work that is successful in doing this will come succeed in the realms of both traditional object-making and digital artifact making.
You can bring it with you
Rather than requiring a physical presence for these effects, I am interested in how the conditions of those spaces can be created through the limited means we can carry with us or encounter in our everyday.
Portable screens are now pedestrian, and provide a pedestrian way to create portable environments. They confine the added experience to a small area, but give the carrier a sense of control over the experience. They are larger than it, can turn it off at any moment. But they can also turn it on wherever they are, which is these small screens’ strength. The screens become personal spaces by virtue of being small and being controlled by the people carrying them. They present an excellent stage for carrying out small interventions.
A synthesis of cult and exhibition value
Walter Benjamin talks of two traditional poles for the function of artwork: cult value and exhibition value. In other words, the value of the artwork as an object of the imaginary versus its value as an object that is seen. (Benjamin, 225) With the internet, the art original seems to take on the role of a cult object, as only its documentation may be seen by a larger audience. There are so many representations that serve to exhibit the work, but the idea of the existence of the original that makes it important. The cult value is no less important now, for the existence of the object suggests other life possibilities, other ways of being and using objects. The documentation provides exhibition value, but the existence of the object gives proof that, “…artists invent ways of living, or else create an awareness … making it possible to imagine a further state of our civilisation.” (Bourriaud, 71) While I think that artwork may suggest a better world, I take a more tempered view than Bourriaud on the work’s efficacy in bringing about that better world. Instead, I see artwork more as a placeholder marking our desire for something better.
The artworks discussed above are not merely about exhibition for their formal value. They are inherently concerned with their cult value—their ability to transform immediate reality. It is not about changing the whole world, but about changing one moment, imbuing it with new possibilities for living. It is a new kind of romanticism enabled by technology that lets us extend visionary drawings into physical space.
Some of this may not be true
I want to create work that creates the kind of interconnected scenarios I have discussed so far. Recently, I have been engaged with work that creates personal moments online and objects that transform experiences of the natural world and bring them into our more immediate domesticated environment.
My first serious attempt at creating personal spaces happened online, at timespentalone.com. It consists of a series of interactive scenes conceived in solitude and intended for display and participation in the isolated social space of the internet. I consider each scene to be a daydream, worry or solitary trip.
I subsequently created Portable Forest, a jacket that creates a sonic forest around the wearer that becomes denser as they zip up the jacket. Not a space for reflection so much as an opportunity to change the space one is in, transforming it into a new kind of hybrid natural space, in which experiences in our urban environment are overlaid with experiences pulled from the natural environment. Perhaps it allows us to imagine a future state—one I certainly hope for—where we have attained a fusion between our constructed habitat and our natural one. I am currently developing the next step in the project, a forest that lives on the viewer’s cellphone, and provides a level of natural environment commensurate with the person’s current need for nature. That is, there will be more simulated forest at hand when you are farthest from an actual forest.
Desert I & II diverge from this idea of creating spaces, but attempt to provoke similar emotional responses. A concrete ground that floats just above the one we stand on and a circle of miniature trees growing from salt, they present a memory of the natural world that is contrary to expectations about that world. They are a response to and re-asking of the questions I had when I first encountered trees bearing salt.
My work, then, is in process. Each piece I make is an attempt at relating some of my experiences or my hopes for new experiences we may have. As the physical and digital systems we live in grow increasingly sophisticated and widespread, I hope to tell more sophisticated stories, and to tell simple ones more effectively.
- Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
- Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Random House, 2007.
- Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002.
- Galloway, Alexander. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
- Paul, Christiane. Digital Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003.
- Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin, 2001.