This text is by Chris Reilly in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.
In May and June of 2015, I participated in an artist-in-residence program at the Samband Íslenskra Myndlistarmanna (SÍM) in Rekjyavík, Iceland. About a dozen artists a month from all different parts of the world stay at SÍM in a communal apartment and studio space. The following text is a journal of my time during the residency and outlines some of the artworks I made before and during the residency.
The Islands Game
I was fascinated by the aesthetics of different players' interpretations of the instructions (my own, especially), rendering wildly different islands as they played. Were they big? Small? Were the islands inhabited? Or just abstract blobs floating in negative space?
It's not entirely surprising, then, that I spent a few weeks this past spring writing a software program to generate drawings of islands. This process was actually quite enjoyable and led to some very interesting and surprising images, along with an improved understanding on my part of digital vector graphics and the math used to control them. I often wonder, though, about this tendency I have as an artist to avoid an elegant, direct, social process—like the analog Islands Game—which, clearly, has a strong potential to produce interesting results for a small amount of effort, in lieu of a decidedly more grueling, isolated technical process whose merit to me is clear only in the production stage, leaving an end product that's often muddy. Maybe it's just the cynic in me that always thinks the process I'm not engaging in is probably the better one. But there's also something that I am pretty sure legitimately bugs me about the ways in which I tend to approach artmaking, specifically the tendency to bog myself down in often-tedious technical processes that easily distract me from the broader scope of what I'd ideally prefer to be doing as an artist. At best, these technical processes (writing software, for example) allow me to make intuitive choices with images, audio and interaction that are engaging and sometimes successful as artworks; at worst, they are the empty calories of the creative process, allowing me to feel productive (or at least busy) as I work through solving technical issues, while distracting me from important opportunities to socialize, experience new things and step outside of my comfort zone in a larger way.
Most people who did get into bed with me did so just long enough for their friends to take a picture. I received a few good hugs, a little bit of conversation and, actually, was able to doze a bit during my three-hour stint. I noticed that younger women and married couples tended to get into bed in multiples, and I wondered if there was maybe some sort of safety-in-numbers/fidelity check happening, respectively. Easily, the best moment was when someone I couldn't see placed an infant in the bed with me. I did not expect that to happen. Unlike the restless adults, the baby just stayed put, for what felt like 20 minutes or so, much, much longer than anyone else. I don't have kids, and other than babysitting my niece when she was young, don't have regular interactions with babies. Based on my past experiences as the aforementioned single, burly hereto vaguely-threatening-by-default male, I can safely say that a stranger outside this setting would never do something like this spontaneously.
|Being American—and therefore highly attuned to commerce—I also immediately noticed the difference in products available here versus in the U.S. I wouldn't call the difference drastic, but it's definitely distinct. For example, at the grocery store: not the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables I'm used to around Detroit; a perplexing lack of canned bean varieties; weird peanut butter (not bad, just... wrong); lots of amazing rye bread; abundant fish. With the volume of ships coming and going, it seems like it would be possible to get just about anything you want delivered here. So it occurs to me that while of course there are limitations on what products are logistically able to survive being shipped into the country, there must be an equal—if not greater—social factor that determines what gets brought in, and what local products get prioritized over imports: local and regional eating customs dictate the choices.
My observations are all fairly elementary for a traveler, but I am here as an artist, so I can't help but view such situations through the lens of making artwork. I have to ask myself: where do I stick to my own traditions (self-imposed or cultural)? Where am I conflating logistic or technological determinism with social or preferential determinism? Where do I stick to a comfort zone, when breaking from the status quo could expand the way I work, think or relate to others?
I started video recording the ships that pass through the harbor. Since the days are so long here, I could get at least a few large ones every day in all different lighting and weather conditions. The unaltered shots of the ships are beautiful: sometimes in fog; sometimes clear; some in daylight; others against the sunset. But there is no shortage here of beautiful imagery featuring Icelandic scenery: postcards, photobooks, waterfall tours. It seemed more natural to me to focus more on the man-made, functional things passing through the landscape, especially the things that physically bridge Iceland to the rest of the world. I used a couple of software techniques to isolate the ships from their backgrounds, tracking their colors and motions and algorithmically masking out the sky, water and mountains of the harbor. The isolated ships combine together into one sort of meta ocean, where the ships endlessly churn against one another, always moving but never reaching a particular destination. The masking technique leaves the motions of the ships and their interactions with the water quite apparent, yet weird and ghostly, as though some important part of the scene has gone missing. The effect is much different than displaying still images of ships, as the digital processing leaves artifacts, jitters and mismatches of background and foreground. Watching the ships is a lot like the feeling of being in the studio at SÍM, where a ship almost always seems coming or going out of the corner of my eye. It also feels like the experience of being in Iceland, where there's almost always some tie to the outside world, whether it's cultural, musical or culinary.
I've already come clean about how poorly traveled I am, but even I can get the gist of a Romance language. Icelandic is different: the pronunciation, the characters, the grammar, all whizz right over my head. Here, I'm the equivalent of a smart dog, dumb baby or somewhere in between. I've bumblingly memorized the most basic phrases (“já,” “nei”, “takk”) and can stumble my way through buying groceries (as long as I don't need to know whether I'm buying decaf or regular coffee and the cashier asks nothing besides 'Would you like a bag?' and/or 'Would you like a receipt?'). Every purchase is now an exhilarating linguistic expedition.
I've spent some time with an Icelandic comedian I met on Tinder. The other night I went to one of her comedy shows. All of it was in Icelandic, with the exception of these English phrases I was able to pick out: 'orgasmic birth'; 'Facebook'; 'Tinder'; 'Ain't no party like a [unintelligible] party'. The rest was verbally incoherent to myself and my artist friends in the audience, though I could get a fair amount of context from gesture and tone (the orgasmic birth joke was pretty funny). I had also gone to an Icelandic poetry reading the week prior, to pretty much the same effect, though not as funny.
Times like these I think most about drawing. More specifically, about this goal in drawing—and artmaking in general—to perceive things in the most basic sense: purely; not interpreted or analyzed; not reduced to categories or symbols. Listening this way is a profound experience. To be able to hear the structure, the tone, the rhythm of language without any distraction as to its content is so rare. It becomes less like hearing words and more like hearing a piece of music for the very first time.
With the Ships video, like the Islands Game, a tie between software and drawing comes into play. The process used to isolate the ships involves an open source code library for processing video. It can do things like track colors, shapes or faces from a video feed. I used the source code library to look at each frame of the Ships video, freeze it in place and isolate it from the background by drawing a vector line around it. In some ways, it's a process that's something like making a blind contour drawing with the help of a computer.
|Bed Artist: Part II
For several years, I've been working out a way to make photographic images without perspective distortion; that is, where parallel lines don't converge and objects don't get smaller with distance. My interest initially stemmed from conversations about drawing: different styles of rendering the figure do away with perspective's linear regression; design and architectural drawings are usually rendered isometrically to represent real measurements of the objects represented. Those ideas overlapped in an interesting way with some of my thinking about photography and how it relates to space, portraiture, performance—specifically the act of photographing/being photographed as a performance—and the limits and presumptions built into photographic optics. Because of the fundamental way lenses work, making images without distorting perspective requires combining multiple exposures from multiple points of view. Combining multiple exposures from multiple points of view adds an additional component of motion through space (with the exception of double-exposures, most all photography is from a singular point of view) and therefore through time as well.
Lately, I've been experimenting with software tools for digitally 'stitching' multiple points of view together into an image without a distorted perspective. Of course, the project is not purely technical. But the technique is a good vehicle for exploring self-portraiture, sleep/sleeplessness and relationships, all of which have been on my mind well before traveling to Iceland, but are put into sharper focus through the lens of the residency. We are nearing the summer solstice in Reykjavík, where the sun won't set for a few days. The 20-odd hours of sunlight per day are, in some ways, refreshing—I can look out the window whenever I get groggy and very quickly feel energized—and, in other ways, quite frustrating, leaving me suspicious, on edge—”Shouldn't it be dark now? What time is it?”—and a little distrusting of my surroundings. Needless to say, sleeping has been a challenge during my stay. Since making the perspective-less photographs requires combining multiple images, the process lends itself to things that are very still: inanimate objects; or people—like life drawing models or subjects of early photographic portraiture—who can hold a pose for at least several minutes. Luckily, it goes well with being tired; and being tired brings to mind my bed.
In thinking about subjects to record for perspective-less images, my bed was one of the first that came to mind (I say 'my bed' here for brevity's sake, but, to be accurate, I should say 'the bed I'm borrowing for two months'). Physically, my bed is a prime subject for the project. It's a rectangular prism,which makes it great for highlighting the weirdness of rendering things without perspective. Since our eyes have lenses that, in a general sense, operate much like the lenses of a camera, we are used to seeing things with the effects of perspective, and effectively ignoring it: we know that train tracks don't actually converge as they extend towards the horizon; and that the faraway ship is not actually the size of a penny. We're so used to compensating that, when we see an image without the distortions we expect, it looks just a little wrong. I like the effect. Metaphysically, my bed is the site of fitful sleep, of being half awake, of lucid dreams. A place where I try to fight off the almost constant sunlight, the strangeness of being in a new setting, the uncomfortability of trying to make new artwork. It's a place where I'm mostly alone—which I don't like—and where I know that even the most physically intimate encounters are fleeting, since I'll most likely be gone in a few weeks. It's always striking to me how quickly the loneliness or a longing for touch and sex sets in for me, especially in a new place. Something about travel highlights corporeal physicality: my body is literally transported someplace foreign.
In thinking about my explorations of the perspective-less imaging technique, I've been contrasting it to video, which is similar in that it photographically captures multiple points of view in space over a duration of time. Video is different, however, in its presentation, which, on some level, is always dependent on sequence. We never see a video 'all at once'—even multiple-channel video installations or videos with non-linear progressions of content still show themselves one frame at a time. The perspective-less process, on the other hand, sort of distills time and space, almost like a multi-dimensional cross section of an object. Thinking about the process and the presentation in such a way brings to mind more ties to drawing.
Another artifact of the particular software process I'm using is a 3D model of the thing being photographed, with the stitched-together image mapped onto its surface. The artifact allows me to position the person or object in space more or less however I want, taking the compositional choice away not just in the photographic moment, but also away as a singular choice in the whole process. Once I have the composite model, I can generate almost any configuration of the subject, combining it with other subjects, moving it around, scaling it up or down, even deleting or re-shaping parts of it. And while my interest in the work is in the photographic information, I also have the option to use the 3D information to actually fabricate the objects using a 3D printer or other digital fabrication device.
At the time of writing, I still have two weeks left in the residency. I don't feel as though I've made revolutionary changes in the way I make artwork or the way I socialize. In spite of my feelings, the experience of being around other working artists and having a dedicated period of time in which to work has been very productive and thought-provoking. I can't wait to get back to Detroit and reassemble my permanent studio, to spend some time developing the new projects I've started here. I have to laugh at myself a bit, partly for being naive in thinking that visiting a new place could fulfill my hopes of enacting profound personal and artistic changes in such a short amount of time, and partly for being naive in thinking that those sorts of changes, even if they were to take place, would be pleasant, comfortable and not totally terrifying.