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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.  

Island Thinking  


Chris Reilly

 

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.

For a long time before I traveled to Iceland—without realizing it—I had been thinking about islands, and about beds.  Islands, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically: islands in an abstract, mathematical sense like discreet nodes in a network; islands as representations of human subjectivity; islands as places that needed things from the outside.  Beds as places for sleep; conduits for non-rational thinking; sites for sex; either full or lonely places depending on whether I was occupying one alone.

I took the trip to Iceland after a fairly long period of artistic dormancy (or, at least, lethargy). After finishing an MFA program, moving cross-country and starting a new teaching job two years ago, I've been slow to amass a satisfactory studio and to set enough deadlines for myself to make artwork when I have the time (as opposed to simply collapsing into a pile as soon as a busy semester is complete). Travel and exposure to other artists' work in a new setting could be just the inducer of change I needed, I thought. I could cast off my burdensome idiosyncrasies that had slowed me down socially and artistically over the past two years: no more depression; procrastination; hesitancy; withdrawal; distraction. I could escape from myself for a bit, from the nascent life I'd been kludging together in Michigan.

Before coming to Iceland, I'd never left North America. I'm not really averse to travel and I don't have a monolithic excuse for why I've never done much: I had a pretty static childhood where trips were by car and usually to visit family, so maybe travel for its own sake seemed frivolous, entitled; I worked hard through my twenties at jobs where time off was limited; and I could never seem to align with the people with whom I'd most want to travel.

There is a part of travel that makes me uncomfortable. I don't like being a tourist, an outsider, someone who lacks a deep understanding of contexts and meanings of a place and its people, someone who needs to ask for help. Such superficial discomforts are tolerable and can sometimes lead to learning or growth. But there are deeper discomforts I'm thinking about. The idea that I can, very freely, jet to different parts of the world and swoop in on other cultures where I don't really belong troubles me. It means I'm leaving behind all the folks near home who don't have the same luxury and arriving in a place where people are quite possibly more stuck than I am.

Part of me wishes I could completely transcend or sever connections to home, as well as to the burdensome parts of my personality and work habits, and that travel could instigate such changes. But I find that I've brought most of myself along for the trip. I wonder if it's too late for me to change the entrenched habits and quirks of myself. I wonder how much I should try to fight my own tendencies, whether I should even be self-conscious about being so self-conscious.

figure 1

Island Thinking 01

An iteration of the Islands game

The Islands Game

As an exercise for a programming course I took a few years ago, I developed a simple drawing game about islands. Like any of the Surrealist drawing games (Exquisite Corpse, Telephone), the rules and results are deliberately open-ended.
The Islands Game [for 1+ players]:

  1. Draw three small islands on the page; they should not touch one another.
  2. Connect two islands with a line. Lines can pass thru other lines, but must stop once they hit an island.
  3. Pass paper to the next player.
  4. Repeat 1 & 2 until finished.

figure 2

Island Thinking 02

An iteration of 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?

When I wrote the rules, I had been thinking a lot about interpersonal relationships, specifically the long-distance one I was in with my partner at the time. And beyond the visual variations, I found myself responding strongly to the inequality built into the game. There are never enough connections to bridge all of the islands together; someone is always left out. And even the islands that are connected are done so by only the thinnest possible mark: barely a thread, let alone a bridge. The game has stuck with me since then; I even found myself playing it during my time at the residency (it wasn't until about three-quarters through the first month that I consciously made the connection of playing the Islands Game while visiting an island). I love it for its simplicity, directness, openness and collaborative nature. And those are exactly the things about it that terrify me the most.

Fear of the Easy

Recently, I stumbled onto a thrift store copy of Betty Edwards's The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (HarperCollins; 3rd edition, 2009). I'm a sucker for books that are written accessibly and can crystallize things I might already intuitively grasp. Reading the text and going through some of the exercises has rekindled an awareness of the importance of perceptual thinking in my artwork and a joy in direct, observational drawing. As a young art student, I found drawing awkward, sticky and uncomfortable. The handful of drawing courses I took were not enough (or I was not yet open enough) to hammer home the simple directive to draw what one sees, without categorization. When I did draw, I mostly made very labor intensive, high-contrast images, more or less variations on filling up whole sketchbook pages with ballpoint pen. Cowed by the open risk of direct mark-making, I gravitated towards more mediated artwork, studying mostly photography and programming. The technical processes were a soothing distraction from the fuzziness and vulnerability of drawing.

figure 3

Island Thinking 03

Software-generated islands

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.

Whether they are mediated or not, some of the most successful artworks I've made are centered around performance, social interactions and vulnerability. There's a cliché about good art requiring risk and/or vulnerability, and I often wonder how or whether to take that into consideration when I'm working. I suppose risk could be interpreted in many ways: some formal shift like trying a new media or process; switching subjects; etc. For whatever reason, I fixate on risk and vulnerability in social contexts, particularly in my interpersonal and romantic relationships. Maybe these areas are furthest outside my comfort zone. I think part of the issue is that I seem to assume an all-or-nothing approach to my relationships. Other people to me are somehow either perfect strangers or the most intimate friends, partners or lovers; and anything in-between just makes me uncomfortable. Some people might label me as introverted (although, I've never found the title especially useful) which is not to say antisocial, but inward-looking, averse to merely casual social situations in favor of ones where deeper, more intimate social bonds can happen. As such, I prefer having permission, excuses or a premise to interact, and get a little freaked out in totally open-ended social situations.

Lately, I feel quite torn between setting my focus on technical work versus developing performative artworks. Certainly, experiences like learning a new coding language or figuring out a photographic process allow me to feel productive, and insulate me from a more nebulous task of figuring out how to explore my own relationships. Part of me wants to be a technical wizard with complete control over my media of choice; the other side wants to be a poet, spending my time living life instead of drudging at a computer, then periodically distilling my experiences into elegant verse of some form or another (I also doubly-question my own thinking here, as to whether it's even a binary choice between the two).

Bed Artist: Part I

Not all of the artwork I make is technologically intensive, or even mediated. A couple weeks before traveling to Iceland, I was invited to participate in a happening at the Ann Arbor Art Center, where a group of artists took over what was supposed to be a painting exhibition. We were charged with responding to the show with an irreverent approach of our choice. Since the event took place at an especially busy time for me—right at the end of the teaching year and just before my trip to SÍM—I wanted to make artwork that was decidedly not labor-intensive and that gave me an excuse to do something I wanted to do anyway, while still responding to the painting exhibition. The Art Center is a local community center focused more towards craft and is not known to have the most adventurous take on contemporary art.

So I decided to take a nap in the gallery and invite other viewers to join me. The day of the happening, I bought an air mattress (which was great, since I'd need it for the night between putting furniture in storage and getting on my flight to Reykjavík), some earplugs and a sleep mask and arrived at the gallery in my pajamas with a little poster inviting patrons to Take A Nap With An Artist (with the promise that it would improve creativity). I was aiming for a balance between the playful irreverence of asking viewers to do something backwards in a public art gallery and a more serious question of whether to lay down with a young, decidedly masculine, not-totally-unthreatening male artist. The response was great, with a healthy number of people actually climbing into bed with me. I was wearing the eye mask the whole time, so I didn't get to see much reaction from abstainers, but the secondhand reports I got seemed to indicate a healthy mix of viewers being made to feel amused, dismissive, uncomfortable or regretful at not seizing the opportunity. I'm happy when a participatory artwork can still have an impact on viewers who choose not to participate in the way the artist asks.

And what better way to experience paintings—or gallery art in general—than in a hypnagogic state? The question may sound flip, but I mean it sincerely. In my home state of Michigan, there is a strong tendency in art appreciation towards valuing labor intensity and optical clarity above all else (see the past couple of winners of the local ArtPrize competition for examples of what I mean). This has often struck me as not a particularly interesting taste, and also one that is problematic in its comfortability. Valuing something that is a clear demonstration of labor—if time is money, then something that evidently took a lot of time and skill to make must be of great value—is easy in a culture like that in Michigan where commerce is prioritized above most everything else. I feel that part of my challenge as an artist living in Michigan is to lay out an alternative model of experience that pushes viewers outside this 'more is more' mentality, without alienating them.

figure 4

Island Thinking 04

Take a Nap With an Artist

 

figure 5

Island Thinking 05

Take a Nap With an Artist

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.

While the baby and I were attempting a nap, I got a sense that something was different in the room.  The tone of the room (what I could hear through the earplugs) had calmed and grown closer. I was able to peek out the bottom of my sleep mask to see a tight circle of viewers around the bed, all fixated on the baby (and, by proximity, me too). To be seen in that way, and to be trusted next to a stranger's infant like that, was a marked and unexpected shift in the performance and put me in a place that is quite foreign in my daily life. I'm well aware the privileges that come with being male: I can intimidate; I can charm; I'm strong and not petite. etc. In more nuanced ways, though, I don't completely fit the stereotypical gender mold: I'm introverted; socially anxious; self-doubting; emotionally intense. But regardless of my deviations from the norm (however slight) and any desire I have to transcend stereotypes, I can't shake off things like my stature and appearance—I'm easily the hairiest dude in three counties—and some of the negative assumptions that come along with it: I'm by default an aggressor, I'm looking to dominate, I'm presumed decisive.  I went into the happening expecting to play a little bit with this scenario, to at least poke fun at it while being a bit transgressive with gallery decorum in a place not known for its edginess. By asking viewers to lay down with me while I was at least somewhat defanged—blindfolded and earplugged—maybe the implicit risks were mitigated or, at least, shifted. But I never expected them to be vaporized like they were next to that baby.

Ships in the Day

One of the first things I noticed after arriving in Reykjavík were the ships. The residency building overlooks the harbor with giant container ships, fishing boats and whale watchers passing by the studio window almost constantly.

 

figure 6

 

Ships in the Day (video still)

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.    
 

figures 7 – 11

Island Thinking 07Island Thinking 08  
Island Thinking 09Island Thinking 10  

 


Self Portrait in Reykjavik

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.
 

 

 
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link - issue 19: July/August 2015