Artist / Inventor
John Douglas Powers
In Western society, the extraordinary individual who exhibits superior intellectual and creative skills was understood to have divine inspiration, a marked contrast from the previous view of the artist as a mere craftsmen. The subsequent incarnation of this idea is that of the genius, applied to artists and writers but more recently attributed to the scientist or inventor. The premise of this exhibition is to recall that while the art object and the practical invention often serve a different purpose, the process of producing a novel idea through imagination and experimentation are one and the same. The participants of Artist / Inventor make work that exists between and beyond these two worlds.
It is well-known that Leonardo da Vinci not only imagined but designed various modern technologies such as scuba gear, various flying machines, and an early version of the machine gun. Perhaps what is less known is that Samuel Morse was a realist painter before he began development of the telegraph system. His motivation was more than simply a means to communicate faster; he envisioned that his system would help spread art and culture across America with the hope that the resulting cultural consciousness would rival that of Europe. Louis Daguerre used the camera obscura, as many artists had for centuries, in order to enhance the accuracy of his landscape paintings when he began to envision the possibility of permanently 'fixing' the image on a substrate. Together with Nicéphore Niépce he went on to develop the first modern photographic process, the Daguerreotype. The storage and transmission of media are the dominant characteristics of the Information Age and are rooted in these very technologies, while the history of machines and kinetic innovations is much older and diffuse. John Douglas Powers seems to pay homage to ancient machines by building kinetic sculptures of wood, stone, and rusted metal. While they run on electricity, they read almost as relics of a pre-Industrial era. Arthur Ganson uses handmade gears and levers in his mechanical sculptures, combining motion with found objects in his video compilation. Terry Berlier's Standard Time is a poetic snapshot of the rail system's necessity for individual towns to abandon their arbitrary 'local' times in favor of a standard that would facilitate the coordination of train schedules. Paul Villinksi's whimsical sculptures could belong in a comic book catalog next to X-ray glasses and decoder rings. Spinner is like a grownup version of the propeller beanie popularized in the 1940s, complete with a fully functional 2-stroke engine. Wishful Thinking is a must-have in anyone's roadrunner-chasing toolbox. Each of these artists is in dialog with the tradition and sometimes collision of technical innovation with culture.
The word invention carries with it the connotation of something that has never before existed. Simon Penny, in his essay Bridging Two Cultures: Toward and Interdisciplinary History of the Artist-Inventor and the Machine-Artwork, reminds us that one of the characteristics of invention is the “hybrid and unorthodox combination of techniques, tinkerings, and kludges.” Simply put, prototypes of new technology are almost always assembled from existing technologies, not entirely unlike the method of photocollage employed by the Dadaists. Blake Fall-Conroy modifies an old adding machine to add 1+1, each printout increasing by only one integer which results in a series of blurred lines as the paper is constantly reprinted. In Tiny TV, Conroy repurposes an old camcorder viewfinder to display 100 Nascar crashes, a process that required the artist to translate the signal from an S-video cable through trial-and-error. Aspen Mays' photograms of television static (or background radiation left over from the Big Bang) combine the camera-less technique with the relatively newer technology of the vacuum tube television. In a similarly experimental vein, Mays traps fireflies in the body of a camera for two minutes, directly exposing the film to the insects' bioluminescence. Gabriel Barcia-Colombo combines video projection and interactivity in Animalia Chordata, where he has performers 'trapped' inside bottles, reacting to the viewer's presence in various ways until their privacy is restored. Unorthodox combinations, to be sure.
As contemporary artists work with and respond to new technologies, the criteria for evaluation of new media must adapt. Simon Penny argues that the traditional modes of aesthetic judgment are not adequate without a thorough understanding of the abilities and limitations of the day's technology and calls for a new aesthetics of behavior. The artist/inventor cannot continue the social/critical mandate of contemporary art without stepping foot in the more 'rational' disciplines of science, computer science, and engineering. Rhys Himsworth creates digital composites of fifty faces in his Avatar series, manually recreating the process used by facial recognition software to create ghostly but unmistakably human portraits. Travis Donovan pairs kinetic systems with objects that evoke cultural responses. An antique bar of lye soap mysteriously levitates over a correspondingly old bible in Solvation, while a pair of VHS/television combos face off in Mixed Signals, producing a bizarre approximation of relationship dynamics. Joe Ford uses an infrared sensor and vacuum combination for his miniature suburban house, envisioning a possible future American Revolution that loses steam due to boredom in This Revolution Sucks. Lile Stephens indulges in the nuts and bolts of electronics by highlighting the usually hidden wires and connections of consumer electronics. Flight Simulator is a direct reference to American foreign policy regarding the use of drones, while Music for 5 LEDs in Green is a more neutral homage to the minimalist composer Steve Reich. These artists are not just using systems to realize a concept; they are unifying tools and content to have a direct conversation with networked culture.
Undoubtedly, Artist / Inventor challenges conventional expectations of the static artwork, evidence of the artist's hand, and even the practical application of mechanical and digital systems. At its essence, this exhibition is about the tradition of integrating new tools as an essential element of art's evolution, perpetually opening new ways to mirror life. Creativity is not aware of the categories that we impose upon it.