What’s this?  As a working professional artist in the 1990’s, I felt the pressure many of us felt then, to have important things to say. With our work, about our work, and about the world that our work was making important commentary on. I’ve archived some of those early writings and discussions here.  I make relatively few apologies for the self-important yet dilettante nature of some of these blasts from the past; I’m sort of proud of the callow youth I was.  I’m still interested in all the ideas I tinkered with; I’d just explore them, and express them, differently today. 

The artist as a young wanker.
Photo by Richard Whittaker 1995

Artist’s Statement (2002)

There were a lot of these over the years.   Today I don’t think of explaining things in this formalized language, but it seemed important to curators, critics and collectors back then.

My interests as an artist fall within the realm of commentary upon our culture’s, and my own, relationship to technology and nature.   I make conceptual, time based electronic sculpture incorporating microcomputers and programmed with complex, often long-term agendas. I am a committed object maker with an equally fundamental dedication to concept. Some of my works are fairly straightforward interactive sculptures which focus on personality or animal behavior, sensing viewer presence and speaking or moving in response. For example the animal-model robotic pieces Scanner and Explorer. Other pieces are more codified analyses of human concepts and behaviors, such as the works about time and mortality Ten Things I Can Count On and Portrait.

My principal area of exploration is technology in the cultural context: the effects of technological development on culture, and the ways in which our culture’s worldview shapes the development of our technologies. I’m interested in the dialectic of art and pragmatic disciplines. As both a sculptor and conceptual artist, I see my own work inseparable from the various disciplines that have captured my interest, including industrial design, engineering, product design, mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, software and interface design. Yet while I am fascinated with the technical characteristics each of these disciplines, I think that most often attempts to incorporate other disciplines into artmaking fail because the artist is seduced by the argot of the foreign discipline and allows the nature of his own to become secondary. In artists working with technology, this can be seen most often in work which focuses on a particular technical effect; ‘gee whiz’ art. In such work the conceptual component is clearly secondary to the technical. On the other hand, a thoughtful analysis of technical disciplines as an intrinsic part of our cultural context offers rich opportunities for exploration and critique. I’m interested in discovering a particular discipline’s fundamental assumptions, and the ways in which these hidden paradigms invisibly influence societal development.

One element common to all my work is brevity. A strict, almost conservative minimalism shapes everything I make for both esthetic and technical reasons. Having been schooled in the late Seventies and early Eighties, I identify with some of the precepts of Minimalism and Modernism. More recently, having steeped myself in the esthetics of engineering and industrial design I have internalized those discipline’s own rigorous pragmatisms. Limitations, both the personal limits to my skills as a technical designer and the inherent limitations of the technologies I work with, force economies upon my work which could be seen as antithetical to the complexity with which it attempts to deal. However, I have found several advantages within those constraints. They function for me as grounding devices, reality checks on the often arrogant projects of both art and technology. The difficulties of technological production encourage a triage which helps reinforce the intellectual rigorousness I demand of my work. Lastly, if carefully considered technical limitations, can invoke a conceptually reductive encoding which I find interesting, and in fact have adopted as one of my principal techniques.

I enjoy creating works which exhibit lifelike behaviors despite their technical limitations. I appreciate the metaphorical value of objects whose behaviors or characteristics are in some ways lifelike yet which embody little of the richness of being. Interactive machines’ failure to transcend their artificiality is for me poignant. Such pieces are not so much lifelike as referential to being, and what is missing is what resonates. Also, due to the nature of engineering much of my work is countless months of demanding intellectual struggle distilled into a small, simple object whose muted surfaces are supported by an invisible pyramid of complexity. This contrast, too, is another essential characteristic of my work. I prefer to let points make themselves wherever possible. I have come to think of the negative space around the conceptual object, that which is left unsaid, as the place where my work happens. At its best, I think this phenomenon forms a sort of electro-mechanical Haiku, in which randomness and absence generate elements of sentience and presence which I would be unable to evoke directly.


Time Machines (2000)

Notes for a short panel presentation given at the Oakland Museum, June 2000


I just have eight or ten concepts I want to throw out at you.  These are brief observations, polemical maybe, but really more questions than answers.  I’m going to very quickly toss this handful of ideas out, as potential grist for our upcoming discussion.

1. The system

Of the four of us up here tonight, you have the writer, the systems artist, the filmmaker; and I am tasked tonight with representing the object; and specifically object-making in time-based art.  And although I do go through life earnestly advocating for that, on the other hand I’m a bit uncomfortable with those somewhat arbitrary categorizations.  Because a film is unquestionably an object, wouldn’t you say?  I think you can also call an essay an object.  And if so, then most important to what I want to talk about tonight, a SYSTEM is an object. I’d say in fact, that the system is the crucial, quintessential object for our cultural moment.  It is the object evolved.

2. The systemic object

Consider this cell phone.  The question that concerns us is, where is the machine?  Because we drag the wake of our evolution behind us, as visual, object-manipulating creatures.  Our mental filing systems, the constructs we use to define and represent our notions of reality, lag behind our data creation and distribution systems and the new, if invisible, world they are creating.  The cell phone is composed essentially of an antenna and a plastic housing containing a circuit board with a microcontroller on it, which in turn is programmed with a complex system for the transmission and reception of voice and data via radio.  So now, if this phone was accidentally shipped from the factory with a blank micro, would it be a cell phone?  No; but we call it one because it looks like one.  But really it could look like a banana and still be a cell phone.  Because of this particular aspect of its nature, the cell phone is a fundamentally new kind of object.  It is a conceptual object.

3. The human body

Along with the human mind, with the Western cosmology, our cultural paradigm, the human body is the primordial time machine.  The segmenting of the infinite stream of the cosmos, is our culture’s singular IDEA.  The origin of this may well be in our fear of death; certainly it’s true we can slow our perception of time, by continually expanding our magnification of it.  And really, we have been doing this for millennia.  Today, in electronics, a microsecond (that’s one millionth of a second) is a very, very long time.

4. Time and Memory

This is a riddle.  Like the chicken and the egg; which came first?  One can’t exist without the other.  The contemporary Western human literally is time.  Dualism; rationalism; binary logic; “then” and “now”; all these cultural constructs are what allow us to have memory.

5. The Clock

This physical manifestation of our culture’s belief in, or desire for, the cleaving of the continuum, the clock has historically been the primary facilitator of this strategy.  In the middle ages, monastic time measured the day in 8 “hours”.  Before that, perhaps we were used to merely sensing dawn, noon, dusk, maybe midnight.

6. The computer

Our new meta-tool, the computer fuses the clock and memory.  It is the systematic and physical manifestation of our notions of time and interior space; it is the mind made flesh.  The computer is a universal machine, a wish, a dream, a magic box containing the second riddle: the name of the thing being the thing itself.  A computer program is a description of a machine.  One’s task as programmer is to describe something so thoroughly that it literally comes alive, manifests itself before you.  Like the mythical map which is so detailed that it covers the kingdom, the computer program, when fully imagined, ultimately becomes the machine it describes.

7. Two kinds of machine memory

The computer has something called program memory, the system for storing the instructions that define the machine.  This is what allows it to be the universal machine, and so the artist’s dream; perhaps the greatest, most powerful art medium we’ve yet seen.  Data memory is the system for storing new information taken in by the virtual machine.  This is what allows it to become heavy, wide, big, long, rich, deep, oppressive, impressive, intimidating, and also boring.  It’s what gives it reach, and scope, and scale.  It’s what allows us to create systems with tasks, goals, agendas. Agendas which outlive us by decades, by centuries.

8. Which brings us to the microcontroller

The ultimate lackey of our cosmology, the ultimate artists tool, and also perhaps the most invasive, interesting and problematic machine to date.  The microcontroller is a tiny, nearly microscopic universal machine which can be, and will be soon, embedded in nearly every object in the architectural environment.

9. The new animism

Ubiquitous computing is the name they give the idea of the accelerating process of embedded intelligence, the appearance of microcontrollers in nearly every conceivable product.  Like the hive-mind of the internet, there is also a growing invisible encroachment of the physical environment by these tiny sentiences.

10. The non-virtual internet

The Internet has everybody’s attention because of its scope, and also because of the way the desktop computer, and the browser, can make it visible.  But what will never be so visible, but may someday have farther-reaching ramifications for the quality of our existence, is the coming wireless embedded network.  An invisible, ubiquitous traffic of signs and symbols, shared information.  The emerging standards for the wireless networking of countless tiny machines will someday physically manifest the internet on the face of the earth, overlaying us with a cybernetic web of surveillance, feedback and control.

11. The ultimate art medium

Resonant, relevant, dynamic, potent, rich: conceptualism and kinetics and psychology and physiology and biology and sculpture.  All these things merge in robotics, in computer-based sculpture.  I’ll quit with a quote from Jack Burnham, from the book Beyond Modern Sculpture written in 1968:

“Nothing more spectacular heralds the beginnings of the sculpture of the future than the slow emergence of what I have called “Cyborg art” (the art of cybernetic organisms )”…”It is only a step from here to suppose that in time an aesthetics of artificial intelligence will evolve…the logical outcome of technology’s influence on art before the end of this century should be a series of art forms that manifest true intelligence, but perhaps more meaningfully, with a capacity for reciprocal relationships with human beings (in this case the word viewer seems quite antiquated.”

12. The future

Lastly, I’ll describe a dream of my own:  and that is, that someday a visitor to the house of a collector asks to see one of my works.  And the collector replies, “I’d love to show it to you if we can find it.  This time of day, well, it’s usually hanging out somewhere in the living room.  Let’s look around for it.”


Anti-Speed (1998)

Expansion of a videotape talk given at Dromology: Ecstasies of Speed panel, in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name.  New Langton Arts, June 25, 1998

Time compression

As you know I’m not able to be there tonight because of a schedule conflict, and so have decided to pre-record my talk.  This allows me to both go on vacation and participate in this panel at the same time.  This video tape, and your viewing of it while I’m on an airplane somewhere else, is for me personally a form of time compression.  I believe that this now very common type of behavior is a strategy which we as a culture have developed to cope with our fear of death.  And also that our obsession with speed is an artifact of this strategy.

So we’re preoccupied with speed because we fear death.  In other words, immortality is our goal, and since we can’t have that we settle for the compression of time.  The faster we can do things, the more things we can get done in the amount of time we do have.  And this speeding up of the pace of life, the squeezing of more and more events into a given period of time, is the culture’s desperate attempt to live longer.

Tree Time

The piece I contributed to this show, TreeTime, is a computer- controlled robotic sculpture fabricated from parts of a downed tree which had been struck by lightning.   This ‘improved’ tree has large articulated joints, and a number of small motorized branchlets.  Light sensors give the computer information about viewer proximity, and the computer sends brief pulses to the motors in response.  However, the pulses to the motors are so short that the piece’s movement occurs over minutes, hours and days.  To all but the most intrepid viewer, it appears to be a static object.

This machine is I think equal parts meditation on slowness and bastardization of nature.  The reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the lightning-struck tree, the garish reassembly, the electrification, the technological “improvement” upon the original organism, is intentional.  The artists who worked with me on this piece, Paul Stout, calls this eco-porn, which I think is apt.  Pornography is a rich word.   And to it I’d add the word ecstasy, because it too carries multiple, sometimes contradictory and sometimes sympathetic, meanings.  This dissonance is an essential characteristic of the work.

Ecstasy used to mean a mind elevated to a higher plane by extreme physical suffering.   Today it refers to a release through pleasure, yet the word still carries its history with it.  So, too in pornography, which refers both to sexually explicitness and also a kind of lust which destroys.  I associate both words with TreeTime, because of the pleasure and the pain, the beauty and the obscenity of the endeavor.   Because, on the one hand, it is a beautiful object.  But on the other it is also far less magical, far less beautiful or accomplished than the living tree was.   And yet, by technocentric culture, it may be considered an improvement.

The opposite of speed

In that sense, Treetime is a morality story about limits.  It’s called TreeTime because it’s a robotic sculpture whose movement is sessile, interminable, frustratingly slow.  It’s about speed in the way that a painter uses negative space, only on a conceptual level.  Communication theorists call it exformation, meaning a way of leaving out some information which causes a kind of epiphany in the recipient.   I often refer to it as Haiku, because that poetic form is the perfect illustration of this concept.

In other words, you can’t have fast without slow.  And both of those concepts are defined by the mechanics of the human organism.  Speed can be defined as a rate of events which is surprising, scary or stimulating to us.  Speed happens, then, when something else happens quickly relative to our human, biological window of perception.  This window is defined by our limitations.

Persistence of vision is one common example of such a limit; our inability to perceive rapid movements allows film and video to work.  Our species has countless such limits imposed by our biology.  And 20th century Western culture itself seems to be defined primarily by the process of finding and if possible exceeding such limits.  The past few centuries have seen radical extensions of the human organism, in size, lifespan, athletic capabilities, etc, all of which now appear to be reaching some sort of plateau.

Our obsession with speed suggests a (perhaps unconscious) perception of our biological limitations.  Here at the end of the millenium, we’ve seen an explosion in the pursuit of the limits of our biology on all fronts.  Globally we are reaching a saturation in population, we have nearly choked the planet with people.  In this culture our birth-rate is stagnant, and as organisms we are reaching a biological speed threshold.  In athletic competition, for example, humans have moved faster and faster.  Then, as the biological limits are neared, the differentiation between instances of performance becomes finer and finer.  In the past 100 years, we have seen performance time differences reduce from minutes down to thousandths of a second.

Immortality through creation

While I’m sure we will never cease to try to actually live longer, we as a species have always also pursued other means of attaining immortality.  In the past, we procreated to extend ourselves, through our progeny, beyond our own biological limits.  Now, although population growth, in our culture at least, has slowed, technological progress has exponentially accelerated.

In the book Beyond Modern Sculpture, Jack Burnham saw the history of Western sculpture, up to and including contemporary technological (robotic) work, as a continuation of this imperative to self-replicate.  He speculated that computers, robotics, artificial intelligence were simply the logical extension of this biological urge.  And it certainly will be true that our silicon progeny will be able to live if not longer, at least much, much faster.

Unlike procreation, speed is a real Nineties workaround: compressing more and more events into a given period of time gives the impression of extending time itself.  In other words, if we can’t live longer, maybe we can live more.  Embodied (sorry) within that concept is the notion that time itself is nothing more than a conceptual tool, an abstraction created by us to help individuals in the culture synchronize their worldviews.  In that sense, it is something which doesn’t really exist outside of our perception of it.  Humans then are literally time machines; the primordial clock.   So by speeding up the events of our lives, we are in that sense actually altering time itself.

Decades ago, the Futurists ironically celebrated the grisly effect of the machine-flesh interface. Today, it seems to me almost redundant to point out what the automobile does best by it’s very nature: that we are, through technologies like it, relentlessly pushing the boundaries of our natural limits in our pursuit of speed.  The crash beckons, not because of some dark undercurrent of self-destruction, but the illusion of immortality which we briefly achieve when we don’t die. In other words, speed is a thrill because we are anchored by our flesh.  We want what it’s not possible to have, superhuman speed.   To exceed our nature as humans.  But auto fatalities are now just one of many ubiquitous reminders of our nature as an organism, of the difference between the rate of our biological and cultural evolutions.

The Void

TreeTime is in that sense an anti-speed piece.  Because I think we need slow.   Frustrating and annoying as it may be, it is a check, a hedge against forgetting ourselves and spinning out of control into the void.  I’m fascinated by vast timescales because of the images they evoke of the immensity of the universe, of what Western culture calls the void.  For this reason I strove to construct a system which is not merely slow but inexorable.

What is the source of the power of this image of the void?  Perhaps in our secular society the urge to technological power, whether speed or networking or artificial intelligence, is a search for immortality fueled by the fear of death: it seems that cultures which are more spiritual are also less obsessed with speed.  In a secular universe, however, we truly are anchored by our bodies.  I think that its possible that freedom from the image of the void releases us from the panic-stricken drive to enlarge life at any cost.  That our pornographic fervor of creation and consumption may, unltimately, be a spiritual problem.

If it’s true that our fear of our own mortality is driving our engine of creation, it seems ironic that our successes inspire such a godlike confidence.  We build on those successes in a uniquely secular way, that is shamelessly, fearlessly.  We never consider that we shouldn’t keep on going, shouldn’t create life, shouldn’t irretrievably and irrevocably alter the world, the environment or ourselves. In that sense the void is also permits us to do anything, go anywhere we can.  There’s no god except us.

Back, then, to Burnham’s idea that the tradition of sculpture is a striving to become god, to create life, to immortalize ourselves first in stone, then in steel, and now of course in silicon.  Which returns us to TreeTime, a computer-controlled machine which is, in a certain sense, a tornado in a box; the ghost in the machine.  The microprocessor is inarguably the most important invention of this century (at least), and it is the site of a terrific, if invisible speed.

The Ghost in the Machine

Computers are called solid-state devices because they have no moving parts.  When we say they are moving, we mean on a subatomic level only.  And, strictly speaking, computers can’t be made to go slowly, or at least they usually aren’t.  They perform their instructions very quickly, and they never stop, and all you can do to make them appear to function slowly is force them to spin their wheels most of the time.  If, for example, you construct a computer-controlled machine which rings a bell once an hour, you are in effect asking it to perform literally billions of useless operations in between those bell rings.  So in a machine like the one I built for this show, you have to imagine this dischordant confluence of the very fast and the very slow, in which the result is a sculpture which looks like its not moving at all, but which is, inside, moving very, very, very quickly.

This tension seems a uniquely apt way to remind myself, and my viewers, of our roots.   Today, we telecommute, take our laptops on vacation, we never go anywhere without our cell phones or pagers.  Every possible moment is utilized.  I imagine we are easily doing twice the work in a given period of time that we were a century ago.  We have compressed time as much as it seems possible.  TreeTime frustrates us because we want it to move faster.  It is a wrong machine.

The Paradigm of Metal and Flesh

But while the sculpture is an exercise in constraint, it isn’t simple Luddism, either.   It’s not the machine itself that I’m thinking about.  Culture itself is a technology; technology in turn is a symptom of our culture.  Speed and in fact time itself may be artifacts of our biologically-determined imperatives.  The cliche has it that technological development causes alienation, but it could also be our alienation guides technological development.

Lewis Mumford wrote that with the advent of the mechanical clock, “eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.”  Yet while that is obviously true, it also seems true that the reduction of our worldview brought on by our acceleration is ultimately caused by our striving for the eternity which we have lost.   In that way, speed does seem to be a symptom of a sort of an epochal crisis in our species, a crashing against the boundaries of our flesh.

It seems important for us as a culture to identify what looks to me like our desperation; to perceive and understand the nature of our urges.  Understanding our motivations can help us mitigate the damage we are obviously doing to ourselves.  I personally just hope that the ultimate irrefutable marker for our limitations isn’t also some sort of irrevocable systemic crash.


Time and mortality (1997)

By Frank Cebulski, Artweek December 1997

Bruce Cannon is an Oakland artist who works with technological materials, usually computers, custom electronic circuits and various sensors, to create machines that explore the relationships among technology, culture and nature.  He was born in Washington state in 1960, received a BA in video and sculpture from Evergreen State College in 1985, and an MFA in Conceptual Design from San Francisco State University in 1991.  For several years he worked as an assistant to sculptor Alan Rath.  He was the recipient of an Oakland Creative Arts Fellowship in Sculpture in 1994.

Artweek The simplest way to begin our discussion is to ask, “What is time?”

Bruce Cannon Time for me is a human measurement, a purely human measurement that we have created in order to measure and determine our mortality.   The universe of course is endless, cyclical; the expansion and compression of the big bang theory.  Humans want to believe that our existence is somehow finite and measurable.  If this were true, of course, then we would be able to speak of our immortality, because that is really what the invention of time by humans is intended to do–to give them confirmation of their immortality.

AW This sounds inherently relativistic to me, that is, that time is arbitrary and uncertain, a convention like language, whose meaning humans have agreed upon for their anthropomorphic purposes, so they can communicate by arbitrary symbols. Have you read the theories of Einstein, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Heidegger’s Being and Time, Schroedinger?

BC Of course I know about their theories; but I have not read or studied their works in depth to learn about the human invention of time. That to me would go counter to my work as an artist and would, in fact, take something away from my personal experience and knowledge of time. That, like all human experience of time, must be drawn out of myself, out of my own body, my physical and finite body, which is mortal and dying, whose useful functional limit is finitely determined. My own body is an anchor of time. I want to discover my own body’s feelings about time. As an artist, that is the only way I can truly represent time in my works–as it is drawn from my personal feelings, emotions and experience, and how we speak about time.

AW Or what we speak of time by how we speak about time?   That is, the way we talk about time, our very knowledge of time may in fact be determined by our language and the way we are able to formulate conceptions of time.   It seems to me you are speaking about the Western experience of time.   Cartesian logistics.  Linear time.  In Language, Thought and Reality Whorf not only posits the much abused idea that language is thought, and that there is no thought without language, but he also examines languages, like Hopi, that are not grammatically based in time, that do not embody tense in time as we are accustomed to speak of it, as present, past and future.

BC I see what you’re driving at.  But to me that only proves my point: that time is a human invention, just as languages are human inventions.

AW Whorf’s point is, however, that we might differently conceive of time if our own language were not so embedded in a time-bound linear syntactic structure: subject (in place, in time), verb (of tense and time), and predicate or object (in place and time).  Hopi apparently embodies a transcendent, or nonlinear concept of time, not finite or discrete.  Strictly speaking, they cannot speak, as I understand Whorf’s explication, of the reality of a transient thing, like yesterday’s clouds, because such transient things have no distance in time, only in memory, like mythology.

BC These ideas agree with mine, and I think I’d better read Whorf.  I think of time, when I speak of it as a human invention, as not necessarily transcendent or ideal but as meta-cultural, as meta-finite, and yet bound in the physicality of our bodies.

AW Modern science and technology have, however, refined and expanded our conception of time, both into the past and into the future; for example, Einstein’s mathematical expressions of space and time.

BC What bothers me most about any human explanation of time and of the cosmos is that it is always so anthropocentric, just as human religion tries always to explain the nature of the universe in human terms, with a conception of creation and a godhead that satisfy human perception and comprehension, as if we were the entire focus and purpose of everything that happens, in time, and in the universe.  I don’t want to veer off into a religious discussion, but when you talk about death, time and mortality, you cannot avoid it.  I just don’t like anyone who imposes absolutely their view, religious or scientific, on all of us.  How often has science been proven wrong!

AW And yet you use and rely heavily upon current technology and science in your works.  Like the balance beam in the work Portrait (1995) and the old, very handsome black meter boxes in Ten Things I Can Count On (1997), an obvious pun on time.  Hour does the technology serve your purpose?

BC Portrait is made of microcontrollers, modems, a balance beam and phone lines, with a power module.  This “portrait” is a real-time model of myself, the artist, with a resolution of 30 days.  It is composed of two elements linked by telephone.  A wooden box with a brass button plate on its top is placed in my home.  Once every 30 days I enter into the control device a private code.  At the home of the owner of the other element of the piece is a mechanical counter in a small iron cage hanging from an old balance beam scale.
On the floor a few feet from the beam, connected by a cable, is a small oak box containing the communication and control system.  The device is plugged into the owner’s phone line.  Once a month the balance beam unit calls the control unit and checks to see whether the code has been updated within the past 30 days.  If so, the sculpture calls back again in another month.  If not, it permanently ceases to function.  The balance beam, which has a maximum travel distance of 90 degrees, is moved by a very slow motor one degree per year of my life.  The counter in the cage increments one per day.  This time sculpture and components represent a model of my mortality accurate to within 30 days.

AW Do you view the “mortality” of your pieces as just so many other artifacts, finite elements in the history of time?  You speak of “immortalizing”your career as artist, but isn’t this just falling back upon the old traditional concept of the purpose of art in time, to preserve and pass on immortal moments and perdurable objects to future generations?

BC As you can see, I already have done that by giving life to these antique meters and other “found and retrieved objects,” which otherwise have “lived out their time.” As I am human and the anchor of time, I hope I have anchored time in my works that are themselves so concerned with counting human time.

Frank Cebulski is a freelance writer who lives in the Bay Area.


Art in the age of the microcontroller (1996)

an essay in progress…

We live in the age of the microcontroller.   “Microcontroller” is a term we use to describe a single-chip computer which is specifically designed to interact with the real world with few additional parts.  It is a programmable device; that is, it has inherent basic functions and limitations but is designed toward universality.  As such it is a virtual machine, a black box into which the designer pours their vision for a new product or function.  They write a series of instructions and place them inside this machine to cause it to perform the functions they imagine.

Electronic animism

We are surrounded by these devices, millions of them, busily humming away.  They tell time on our wrists, open our doors, wash our clothes, cook our food, adjust our room temperature.  We exist in a state of contemporary animism, in which not the rocks and the trees but the walls and the floors watch, listen and act.  The microcontroller is the talisman of this age as surely as the car was in the 1950’s and the jet was in the 1960’s.

Virtual sculpture

As artists, we can see the microcontroller as a virtual sculpture: a black box into which we can pour our creativity.  By combining this machine with devices which take in or send out information in useful ways such as sensors,  text displays or motors, we can create larger machines which, to the limits of our own ability to understand the limitations of the technology, can embody our creative vision.

Beyond modern sculpture

In 1965, during the first flush of the technological revolution, Jack Burnham wrote an amazing book called Beyond Modern Sculpture.  A true visionary, he saw the history of Western sculpture as a process, an ongoing project, a cultural striving toward self-replication.  As such, the automata of the last few centuries and the electronic robots emerging in the 1960’s both represented for him the logical extension of this striving.  He suggested that robots themselves were the ultimate extension of sculpture, and should be judged as such without any other esthetic criteria.  That their striving made them inherently art, regardless of their physical form.

Robots as art

Despite the fact that he later recanted all this, it was and remains an amazing conceptual leap, one that I respect and admire.  As an artist using computers, interested in artificial intelligence and robotics, I strive toward the purity of this vision, but fail.  I long to be able to strip away the superficial trappings in which I feel I must dress technological work in order for it to fit into the dialectic of the art world.  I crave the unary pursuit of sentience and autonomy over the rote schematicization of the prevailing cultural fad.

To be continued…


A whirligig of self-reference (1995)

A conversation with Richard Whittaker, originally published in his Deus Ex Machina magazine, June 1995

I met with Bruce Cannon in his studio. The question of the artist’s responsibility to act for society’s benefit had just come up.

Bruce Cannon: I don’t think I have come to terms with that in the healthiest way. The more success I have as an artist the better I feel about making art instead of doing other things, because I am getting something done. If you start with my fundamental assumption—which is that art is pretty much inadequate for directly addressing the needs of society— it wouldn’t follow that being more successful as an artist would make me feel better about that issue, but for some reason, it does.

Richard Whittaker:  In terms of postmodern critical theory, I suppose you can’t trust your own intent much. What do you think of that point of view?

Cannon:  I buy into a lot of that sensibility… the postmodernist, deconstructionist, kind of shtick. I wouldn’t want to take the artist’s statement at face value. I would have to assume that the artist doesn’t fully understand his or her position in the world enough to know how his perceptions are shaped by his place in the world. As a critic I would want to hear what the artist had to say and filter that through my own perceptions of the work and of the artist, in context, and try to come up with what I think is going on. But why one would want to toss out the artist’s point of view, entirely, I have no idea.

I just think it would be a mistake to take what the artist says at face value. I don’t read much theory. The problem with that kind of writing is that the egos of the writers overwhelm everything else they’re trying to talk about. When they wax eloquent about a particular subject with broad sociological ramifications you often don’t hear much other than their need to be heard.

Nevertheless, in the broadest, most abstract sort of way, I think criticism is valuable. I appreciate an informed eye on an artist’s work. I have to say that I am getting less egalitarian as I go on. I started out being really up in arms about that issue. As I’ve come to realize there aren’t that many people actually listening anyway I’ve come more around to the point of view of the critic, because they’re my peers. On an intellectual level, they may be my only audience.

RW:  Although your art will have an impact on even an uninformed audience it may help if the viewer bring something to it in terms of an artworld context.

BC:  That’s where you need the informed audience. Those are the only people who bring the vocabulary, who speak the language.

RW:  One sees that over the years, something is gathered and now I bring it with me. If I go back far enough I can see where it was absent.

BC:  Me too, actually. I know more and more about my own work, and I have learned more about art, in general. But I’ve learned enough to realize I really don’t know as much as I thought I did. I’m really not a very well informed viewer. But, as I progress I feel I do become a more informed art maker. I used to be Allan Rath’s studio assistant and we would have a lot of conversations about these kinds of things—he’s willing to think about stuff like this a lot too. You know, he’s a well established, successful artist, yet he doesn’t concern himself that much about other people’s art either.

RW:  It makes me think of Wittgenstein. I gather he was not a student of philosophy, so to speak. As far as he was concerned, the thinking of other philosophers was not needed for his own work. I gather his thinking went something like this: I am as immersed in this world as anyone else. It is the one that contains all the elements we have to come to grips with, and my ability to struggle with, and to think clearly about them, has nothing at all to do with knowing what Kant thought, for instance.

BC: I wish I’d said that! That’s how I feel as well. But it opens a can of worms for me. I’ve definitely mulled this over, because I originally came at art-making from a populist point of view, with a strongly anti-elitist stance.

The can of worms that it opens for me is that while I want to think that it’s a valid point that everybody experiences life and struggles with it, still you have to bring in an individual’s ability to articulate their struggles in a way that other people can understand. I find describing work problematic because it unnaturally reduces and restricts it. And similarly I find the critical dialogue and discourse problematic. If you think too much about the art world you begin to unconsciously steer your work as you get wrapped up in what the art world wants. You lose sight of what I interpret Wittgenstein’s point of view to be, that he, as a human being fundamentally, aside from the currently fashionable discourse, is simply struggling with the things he is struggling with.

I guess I have come into a more elitist position as I go along because I realize that the whole thing is a language. And there isn’t any deep and fundamental voice for art as the romantic notion had it, you know, that you could tap into this universal wellspring of truth and beauty and meaning and all that. That’s just not there. At least now it’s not. That’s what I believe. I’m real interested in, what do they call them nowadays, what do they call it when you’re driving along and you see a 60 foot Madonna made out of hubcaps?

RW:  Folk-art, “Outsider art” Naive art, I guess.

BC:  All those things, yes. A few years ago it was real fashionable to be interested in the unschooled, untutored whacko, out in the middle of nowhere, just driven to do this thing. I don’t want to say they have nothing to contribute to the discourse, but in order to believe that they are talking to us, here in the art world, you have to believe there is this universal language of meaning that anyone can play if they choose, and that we’re all born knowing it. I’m just not sure I believe it anymore.

RW:  What is it then, that this discourse is about? This informed discourse taking place in the art-world?

BC:  There are lots of discourses. The one I am interested in is the one that attempts to dissect and analyze and separate culture from nature. What does society do to us? It’s the Postmodern discourse that interests me, if that makes any sense. Baudrillard. My take on his take, which is a pretty big filter in itself. What I relate to is Baudrillard’s famous essay, The Precession of the Simulacra. The linchpin of that essay was the idea of the map being greater than the territory. He wrote about the fable of a king who wanted a map of his kingdom more detailed than a map had ever been. The map makers kept having to increase the size of the map to include more and more details until the map finally was bigger than the entire kingdom and actually covered it up. All that remained was the map.

Baudrillard embellished that fable to talk about what he saw happening during the Reagan era, where there was nostalgia for a better time that really never had been, and how that got injected into the mass consciousness. It was what he called “the endless whirligig of self-reference.”

The “precession of the simulacra” means that the simulacra, the model, the ghost, the simulation is the thing upon which we base our notion of reality. If we learn about reality from the picture, what we’ve really done is learn about the picture. But then we call that reality, and we teach that “reality” to our children. They learn about “reality” from our picture of that picture. And then eventually you get far enough away that nobody even conceives of real reality anymore. Do you follow me? And I use the term “Postmodern” to refer to that, to disassociated signs and everything kind of swimming around in this whirlwind of equally valued signs and referents and objects.

In this soup it gets harder and harder to distinguish between the thing we’re talking about, and the talking about the thing.

What does that have to do with discourse? Well, what interests me in art is talking about that effect in society, talking about how society is loosening us from our moorings. And how we are losing sight of what it means to be real. Take the fundamental experience of walking in the woods— the culture is losing sight of that reality, because many of us learned what walking in the woods was about through television. I think that is really interesting; fascinating in a sick sort of way. And this is what I think is going on in society. Technological consumer culture is sort of mixing everything up.

RW:  That’s well put. Your description of the disembodiment of it all. And “the endless whirligig of self-reference” was that the term?

BC:  The “discourse” of postmodernism not only describes, but contributes to, a sick phenomenon of this culture, a problematic one. That is, that the Postmodern view is presented to the next generation—yet children, who affect this ironic distance—do not understand it, as such. If you look at MTV you’ll see lots of evidence of this “Postmodern stance.” However, it’s become so much a fundamental cultural environment for children that they’re not aware it’s the Postmodern stance.

RW:  When you say “children” what ages do you refer to?

BC:  Anyone who’s old enough to emulate culture. If you’re a kid now, it’s when you are old enough to wear pants that are ten sizes too big. By the time you are old enough to be aping something you don’t understand you’re aping. I think it’s a real problem if you’re mimicking post-modern irony but not really understanding what that’s about, not using it as a tool. There’s no there, there.

RW:  I follow you. And along with that I believe that a lot of what appears on the movie screen or television that may be meant as satiric is actually received quite differently—often not as ironic, but instead, as fashionable.

BC:  The one thing I am sure of is that there is cause and effect. The one pin-pointable problem I see is the divorcing of cause and effect. That is the one tangible thing I would like to rail against.

RW:  Can you say a little more about that?

BC:  Well, one of the by-products of that culture we’ve just been talking about is that one can lose sight of the thread between cause and effect, which brings about a loss of self-determination and responsibility and will.

RW:  How can you have a morality in a world where there’s no understanding that there are consequences to my actions, in other words?

BC:  And, “what happened to me, bad or good, happened because someone else did it.” If this culture is going down-hill—and I’ve come down on that side, in general—if that’s the case, then from a truly post-modern perspective, it’s just happening. And nobody is taking responsibility for the deterioration of the environment; no one is taking responsibility for the changes in culture and the way technology and products are produced and disseminated in the culture. It’s just “happening” to us. It’s harder and harder to find the guilty party. “That’s just the way it is.” And it’s just such a pathetically passive, victim-speak kind of thing.

I just hate that, and I have an interest in trying to talk about that in my work. I really have a love-hate relationship with technology. It’s getting so complicated it’s hard to talk about: technology, culture, and people are so woven together now you can’t tell which is cause and which is effect.

That’s a real problem, because you can’t figure out who to blame. That means you can’t figure out where to make changes. And so you can’t figure out how to make anything better. Do you at all follow what I mean?

RW:  Absolutely.

BC:  With that whirligig of self-reference there won’t be anybody left after a couple of generations to take responsibility, because there won’t be any place where you can stand and say this is the way it should be. This is right, this is wrong. It will all just be dissolved. The only thing that will be left is—this is a product, and this isn’t.

RW: I  want to go directly from that to your piece, “Patronage”. It seems to be tied up with this.

BC:  Your mention of that made me realize a couple of things going on in some other pieces. I’ll come to “Patronage” in a minute. That piece, “Ball and Chain,” remember that piece?

RW:  Is that the one that has 9985 days to live?

BC:  Right. An electronic display “I have five thousand, four hundred and something days to live”; it’s counting down, each day. Also, there is a mechanical counter which increments each day. At the end of the system’s life, it’s mechanical counter will read 5400, and the electronic display will reach zero and then stop. So, then, what is it when it’s done? Is it still a sculpture? Does it still have value? Is it still marketable? Is it a commodity? Is it still useful?

RW:  Because only for those years it will be registering its life-span?

BC:  It’s only going to do what it does now for fifteen years. Making a piece that does that was a way of forcing someone to engage in the issue of where you site value. What is the thing that is valuable? Is it less valuable because it stops having that behavior in fifteen years? If so, why? Is it because it loses resale value? Is that what value means? Or, is it less valuable because it’s not alive anymore? Or has it just entered another phase of its existence as a long term conceptual project? A person buying that piece has to ask, “Am I buying a piece that only lasts for fifteen years?” You know what I think about that, right?

RW:  What do you think?

BC:  I don’t think the work’s value lies in its marketability. I believe that the experience of that piece extends beyond the first phase of it’s existence. And further, I believe the first part of its life doesn’t have value without the second part of its life. If it doesn’t stop, then its living doesn’t mean much. Because of that, it still means something after it stops. And what interests me also is a typical collector’s—and allow me to make that gross generalization—what interests me is a typical collector’s concerns with value. I have problems with the definition of every experience based on a market value, the commodification of experience. That’s why I also made “Patronage,” a subscription sculpture. It was an even more effective way to poke that particular hot button.

RW:  What is it that’s truly valuable?

BC:  Are you asking me that, or is that rhetorical?

RW:  Yes, I’m asking if you’d like to say something about what is more truly valuable.

BC:  In the most succinct way, and at the risk of being too reduced, it’s anything that’s not about money. Money is also interesting, and the way we relate to money. But, I think it’s important to look at the way we’re taught to replace all values with economic value, and how that is taking place. The entire language of the conversation is slowly being replaced by a language of commerce, of capital and economics. It’s slowly getting to the point where it really is a consumer culture.

More and more, we are becoming people who are created for consumption. Every generation it seems like we’re better and better consumers. We care more and more about aspects of commodities and less and less about other things. It’s not just that one value is being replaced by another, the whole dialogue is slowly being replaced by another dialogue that excludes everything except commerce. What is value, is your question. And anything that doesn’t have economic value is what I mean when I say value. It’s what I care about.

RW:  I can’t help but think of the Biblical injunction, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” There’s a whole world of living that is potentially wonderful. But what happens when all the positive life experiences are used to sell product. Take the happy youths romping on the beach. Have a Pepsi! If you see what I mean.

BC:  That makes me think of another way to get at what I’m talking about. It’s not like we’re just obsessed with the buck. I think it’s more insidious than that. We not only replace all aspects of our life with systems that are really about the buck, but most importantly, we also lose sight of the fact that that’s what they are about.

Using the example you gave of the Pepsi commercial—you have the association of nature and Pepsi which you see as problematic, and what I find problematic is what I think is really being communicated: “Have a Pepsi, instead of running on the beach.”

There’s this “green” pressure in the culture these days, but I don’t think it’s authentic. I think it’s just a marketing thing. We all feel this “green” thing: Earth Day, recycle the paper, and so on. I mean, look at this bottle here: (holding up a bottle, he reads the label) “This is an envirokind bottle, made from 50% recycled milk-bottles. But what’s in the bottle.(Looking to see) Is it insecticide, weed-killer, or fungicide? Imagine the irony of having a 50% recycled milk bottle full of fungicide! Or weed-killer, or insecticide. Isn’t that bizarre? So, all that is really required of us is that we use 50% recycled fibers, to hold weed-killer.

All that’s required of us from this green pressure may just be that we participate in the marketing thing. Nobody is asking us to be green. All they are asking is for us to be green(trademark), green(copyright).

So, as far as the Pepsi ad goes, I think that a person’s perceived pressure to participate in the green movement is alleviated by drinking a Pepsi. That’s how the whole machine works. “I’m satisfied that I did the right thing because I bought Pepsi.” But the person I’m thinking about probably hasn’t even seen a beach, except on t-v.

RW:  That whole question of television is a big one. I was listening to an interview on NPR. A journalist had gone to Berlin to talk to people about the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. When he asked people who were over thirty what they thought about this, they said, “I was so amazed I had to go see it with my own eyes.” The younger people he talked to said, “Yes, I saw it, but it didn’t seem real somehow. But when I saw it on television, then I knew it was real.” This really is virtual reality.

BC:  That’s creepy.

RW:  Television as the modality of the real. Computers next.

BC:  I think it totally fits. I think the fundamental mistake is the establishment of the profit motive as the most important mechanism in society.

RW:  This is where I wonder if the arts—and I think I share with you the sense that high art really hasn’t much impact—but the thing is, what is it that can give people any sense of, any ability in themselves to truly value those non-money based things, non-material things?

BC:  What could allow people to do that? Only the ability to see the value in those things. And we’re raising people without that ability. You know, they take inner city kids out into nature, and the results are so devastatingly unsatisfactory because they don’t have the grounding to appreciate it. They don’t know what the big deal is. And see, there’s no solution to that. Because once you’ve eliminated access to the real, access to nature, then there is no way that anyone can learn the value of the real. Once it’s gone…and I keep coming back to Baudrillard, even though he may be considered the David Letterman of the cultural critics, I think what he says is, once it’s gone, you’re left out there spinning around.

RW:  Well, to bring to bear another thing, and speaking of the real, we all have these bodies here. Although it seems to me we’re pretty much disconnected from them. If television promotes that aspect of us that keeps us in our heads, in an inside-whirligig, if you will, we just become disembodied heads.

BC:  That makes me wonder about the fitness phenomenon. It seems like people obsessed with fitness aren’t any more “in” their bodies than anybody else. They’re still in their heads. It’s really not about their body.

RW:  It’s almost like a product, isn’t it?

BC:  Yes. But, I feel like I’m as out of touch with my body as the next person, so I don’t have any answers to that.

RW:  But I do suggest that our bodies are avenues to the real. They are little pieces of nature, and they’re right here. We may not have a very good relationship with our bodies… and well, first of all, I suppose one has to recognize this as a problem. I mean, we’re not going to find our way out by accident.

BC:  Yes. And how do you have enough perspective to see that? That’s the hard part.

RW:  It gets back…well, we haven’t used this word, we haven’t talked about consciousness, that there is such a thing as becoming more conscious. Though perhaps it’s a curse, since likely one could become a lot more dissatisfied as one becomes more aware.

BC:  I know. I’ve had that argument with a lot of friends. And, really, I just want to reject that. All the very intelligent, miserable people I know believe they are miserable because they are more intelligent, and that people who are happier are less intelligent than they are. And I reject that idea, outright. I just don’t think that’s true.

RW:  Well, I throw my lot in with those who wish for consciousness. I don’t see any other thing that looks very good. And, I think that many artists have a sensibility that… I don’t know how to put it, is headed in that direction.

BC:  My own particular bias is that most artists don’t. This is just my own personal peeve, or my own take. I think most artists are as shallow as the next person, and that an association placed on the artist as seer is very unfortunate. Because I think most artists are nothing more than exceptionally self-centered people. That’s been my experience. While we’ve been talking about my criticisms of the public not being there, not really being concerned with the discourse, I don’t think most artists are really there either. I don’t think more artists care about these things than other people.

In my experience with artists the only thing I know to be consistently true is that they are incredibly self-centered. Some manifest that self-centeredness in caring about, deeply caring about, how to most accurately articulate how they feel about the world. And others just deeply care about the art of expressing themselves to the world— “I care about what I have to say because I care about me, because I’m me. And everyone should care, damnit! Because, I’m me!” It’s unfortunate that artists are told that what they have to say is so important.

RW:  Well, I have some other thoughts along those lines, but at the same time, I think there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying, too. When I first came to San Francisco in 1966 I was ambitious to be a poet. I was 23, recently out of college, and somehow I got to be in charge of a little poetry space in the bottom of a church in the Haight-Ashbury district. Every Thursday evening there was an open reading. People had to sign up with me and I’d introduce them and so on. I got pretty sick of it in a hurry because of the poets’ endless bitching and complaining, often in self-aggrandized ways. But every now and then someone would appear who would be a welcome relief. In those days, trying to read my own work at other places, I ran into incredible fighting and selfishness about the time in front of the microphone, and I concluded that poets are self-centered. I wasn’t ready for that, and it shocked me.

BC:  What’s the difference? Poets and artists.

RW:  Yes. But, what I’ve found lately, and maybe it’s because I’m older, …I just seem to run into a lot of awfully nice people who are artists. And they don’t seem self-centered in the way you’ve described.

BC:  Maybe your personal filtering mechanism skews your sample in a way you’re not aware of: you only interview the people you find interesting. You could be perceiving artists as pretty nice people even though you’re only talking to a sliver this big (thumb and fore-finger held up).

RW:  That may be true. However, I do accept the idea that artists tend to be grappling with something. I remember hearing a writer express the opinion that artists were all trying to reconcile some kind of childhood suffering.

BC:  You know, we all are, but who made the mistake of telling artists that they deserved special attention. That their wounds deserved special attention? That’s my beef. I mean, the average person on the street is most likely walking wounded. Most people are pretty screwed up. But I have more respect for them because they’re not under the impression that their wounds are special, are stigmata.

RW:  That’s a fact and something to remember. But maybe part of the reason people may think that artists are special is because a few of them really are.

BC:  But you’re talking to a real philistine here. I don’t know that much about art, or writing, or painting, and what little exposure I have to the canon of great art is that it’s just that, a canon. I have this sort of emperor’s new clothes feeling about most of the arts. I have the sneaking suspicion that there was somebody better than Fitzgerald. His book was published, so he’s a great writer, you know?

I have a feeling that what goes down through history is just a tiny fraction of the important work that was really there. It was just fate, or commerce, or who knows what that made us deify whoever it was. A critical mass of people say Picasso is great. People who want to be told what to think begin to repeat that. And it begins to cycle through the culture until it finally becomes true. At that point, it’s been a long time since anybody’s asked, but is this really true? It doesn’t take long for peer pressure to make it difficult to ask that question. We don’t want the derision to rain down on us.

RW:  I understand your point and ask the same question. But instead of trying to figure that out in the large view let’s get back to your own creative process. We talked earlier about it and I know you have mixed feelings about the aesthetic questions of how a piece appears.

BC:  I have to first explain that in the past I’ve made work that’s as aesthetically neutral as possible. Some of the speech pieces I’ve done, machines that speak using computers, have been attempts to create, to embody, a sense of personality and manifest it in a little machine. I wanted to create a perfectly neutral object so that the personality was the sculpture, not the object. And so I attempted to make things that were as aesthetically neutral as possible, a black box, that spoke to passersby, for instance. It was a failure. I couldn’t get anyone to look at that as art unless I used a visual aesthetic.

I had to make the things visually engaging in a more traditional way in order to get people to consider what I’m interested in. And so, when I say I’m suspicious of the formal aesthetic I mean I am conscious of the fact that one of the major reasons I’m engaging more with formal issues is because I have to in order to get the people to look at the work.

This whole body of work in the show you just saw looks very different from my older work. It’s more pleasing and more complex, visually. That’s because I just wasn’t having any luck in getting people to look at the earlier work. So, I figured I had two choices. I could continue to rail against that, or I could hope that by adding this other element it would give people a doorway to see what I am really concerned with.

RW:  If you could get people to focus on the element that really concerns you, what would they be focusing on?

BC:  The ideas that are behind those pieces.

RW:  Let’s look at those two wall pieces, for instance. They both say things as you get closer. Ten things for ten specific distances. One starts with “aware” then, as you get closer, it says “cautious” “nervous”, “panicked” and so on, until, finally, “hysterical”.
The other says more and more positive things as you approach, “You’re sensitive,”, “I love you” and so on until at the very closest it says, “I want to kill you.” It seems to me that those two pieces have some similarity of concerns. So, if people were paying attention to what really interests you in those two pieces what would they be paying attention to?

BC:  They would be paying attention to the aspects of personality that those pieces are thumbnail sketches for. The silver one that says “panicked”, “nervous” etc. is a very simple machine, but to me that simplicity and redundancy is typical of a certain kind of person, and a certain sort of behavior in a person. In that way it’s an accurate model of that kind of behavior. While it’s too reductive to really be like a person, it still does really seem like an aspect of a certain kind of person. What I wanted to talk about was that inflexible, programmatic kind of behavior, so a machine is a totally appropriate medium for that.

RW:  What do you think made you want that piece to be out there?

BC:  I don’t really know except that “one writes what one knows.” I spend a lot of time being aware of my own emotional state and being aware of that of others, and thinking about the way we react to each other and that sort of dance we do together.

My own struggle is to be self-actualized and to come to terms with my neuroses and fears. That sort of dance between trusting and not trusting. That’s how I define my whole life, apart from the art career, and so on. In general, the process of my life is about that going forward and then backing away; two steps forward, one step back.

RW:  The question of closeness and distance and how that relates to questions of trust…

BC:  Yes, absolutely. The machine always says the same word at the same distance. It always says “concerned” at a certain distance. It always says “panicked” then, “hysterical” at the closest distance. I get pleasure from making a simple machine that in many ways is nothing like a person, but is also, paradoxically, like a person. I get pleasure because it not only illustrates how the machine is limited but also how we have limited ourselves.

I don’t think you’ve seen another piece I did. Physically, it’s an ammo box, a little metal box with a handle on the top. It has body-heat sensors on it and so it senses your presence. When you come near it, it says, “I love you.” It’s a little box out in the middle of the floor. It says, “You’re the best. You’re special.” And things like, “I need a hug.” It tries to get you to pick it up. And it has a switch underneath it so the instant you pick it up, it begins to shriek at you.. “You make me sick. I hate you. Put me down. You’re filthy.” And, the instant you put it down it goes back to, “I love you. You’re the best. You’re special, and so on.” That’s all it does. It’s called “Oscillator.”

It was a portrait of an old girl-friend, a sort of after-the-break-up kind of thing, just a childish and spiteful thing, but it’s also successful for me because her behavior really was that predictable. That 180 degree reversal was totally determinate. In that way, that human being was very mechanical. I just think that’s interesting.

RW:  That is interesting. I was thinking about your piece called “Trajectory.” It’s unlike your other work, earlier, I think you said. What you’ve done with that piece, an old can, is to bring to life part of its past. It probably got thrown away and then, eventually, people shot holes through it. Maybe over months, or years. And now, with these rods placed through the holes the same caliber as the bullets that pierced it, it brings all that back. But it also opens up questions of what people do with their anger, their hostility, and what about guns, and so on? It’s really pretty evocative and addresses some big questions.

BC:  You understood what I was trying to do with that. I like that piece but it’s hard to get other people to accept it because it doesn’t plug in, it doesn’t talk, or move. And it’s hard for them to make the leap. But to me, it talks about the same things the other pieces do, but does it without having to resort to those other techniques, such as interactivity, which are themselves so loaded down with connotations and their own kind of baggage. For me it was a very succinct way of illuminating the past experience of that object, and the violence, and sort of freezing its history of violence without needing to resort to anything more literal. And I liked that. It was also a materials study. On a formal level it was a real pleasure to make that piece. But, you’re probably the only person who’s ever looked at it who realized it’s about violence.

RW:  In a way it seems you’re concerned with the threats to life.

BC:  I think so.

RW:  Well, you’ve got a number of pieces that have life spans. In a way, you’ve brought things to life that will only live for awhile. And the violence acted out on this can takes on its meaning in relation to life. Then, there is the piece about dissection. A very evocative and disturbing piece. And the piece in the barrel that, over a period of time, sort of comes to life. I find your work addressing very big issues around our life today. Our existence.

BC:  Consciousness.

RW:  So, I haven’t really asked you to speak about this work in a big, philosophical way but it seems to me you address fundamental questions.

BC:  I guess I am interested in those issues on a human level but my motivation is…it might not be clear from the work. I am strongly motivated by my concern for animal welfare. I don’t know if that comes across in the work at all. But I think of those pieces as attempts to create entities, little sentiences in boxes.

The box where you open the lid, or the cask, these are attempts at sketching a sense of life in a small space. And that scale, the intimacy of that, to me, is like a small animal. It’s obviously not smart or complex but it has a sense of life. And my goal is to make people empathize, to identify with it as being alive. Because I think that the way we treat the rest of the environment, animals, and other aspects of the natural environment, is because we can’t empathize. We don’t have any empathy. We don’t know how to empathize.

While I’m trying to get people to empathize with the speech pieces as if they were human beings, I also try to have a sense of there being less than a human there, too. Because, as I said, I can address the issue of human limitations but I also want to talk about animals. I think if I could get the viewer to empathize with the object as a creature, a sentience, as having being, then I can somehow raise that issue. The issue of the beingness, of the meaningful, valuable existence of other living things. Do you know what I’m trying to say?

RW:  I think so. What I’m thinking is how some other cultures value life. I believe the Tibetans, for instance, regard the world as one living organism. The attitude is that one has to take care of it because it is alive. And my life is tied to, and dependent upon, this bigger one and the two are related through life. I’m alive, it’s alive. The care I want for myself I must feel for the earth and everything of the earth. And, of course, in many native societies there is a feeling of relatedness to the life around one. One feels part of it. It seems to me that you are aligned with that sort of feeling about the world.

BC:  I think that is fundamentally how I feel about the world. We were talking about spirituality earlier. I have a hard time with that word. But the closest I’ve come to anything I could label as spirituality is the way I perceive the human relationship to the environment. I can almost see why one would say that a rock or a tree is alive and has consciousness, because whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter. It’s just such a useful way of engaging our empathic engine. Of making yourself respect, care for, and take responsibility for something outside of yourself. The need for other things to be there besides you. That’s what I feel. But, I recognize people don’t respect anything they can’t empathize with. I also recognize that empathy is really in short supply and if I had to pinpoint a fundamental problem, to reduce it all to one problem, I’d say it’s the lack of empathy, and compassion.

About the Author: Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and the West Coast editor of Parabola magazine


Four -isms (1994)

Notes from a talk given at the International Sculpture Conference, San Francisco, CA   August 20 1994

I’m a sculptor based in Oakland, California.  I make objects which incorporate computers, sensors, motors and other electrical and electronic parts.  These objects typically sense the presence of a viewer, then generate some sort of reaction or response.

Generally limit my comments to that sort of technical description of my work; I’m reluctant to talk about why I do the work, or what it might mean, for fear in part of limiting other’s perceptions of its potential scope, but especially of creating a conscious, rationalized agenda for myself which may inhibit my ability to work intuitively.

However, I do want to give you some loose frame of reference for the work which you are about to see, so what I’d like to do today is float some ideas from out in the cultural realm which I find particularly engaging, and let you ruminate on them while I show you some video tape of some of my sculptures.

Essentially I’ll be asking you to consider my work in the context of the relationships I’m going to suggest between four cultural attitudes or belief systems, hence the title of this talk, Four -isms. They are animism, Luddism, boosterism and formalism. 

1. Animism

Animism originated as an ancient spiritual belief which invested everything; rocks, trees, grass, this podium, with consciousness.  Humans viewed their existence as a collaboration with all other aspects of their environment.

It seems that Western (Cartesian) consciousness has worked in direct opposition to this concept at least since the Enlightenment, when the philosopher Descartes definitively rendered the rationalist, empirical, objective worldview.

Earlier this month I visited Xerox corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center, a technical and conceptual research facility which has been given the freedom to explore less bottom-line, more experimental and far-ranging technological projects. Their Ubiquitous Computing department focuses on the general project of the decentralization of computing power, the diffusing of electronic intelligence into the environment.  Their goal is the sliding of the computer off of the desktop and into the VCR, the telephone, the oven; they envision a seamless cooperative network of smart thermostats, refrigerators, lighting systems, cars, houses, etc.

It could be that contemporary technology, specifically the computer and artificial intelligence, will allow the fundamental control-fetishism of Cartesian thought to fold back around and absorb animism, that most social and symbiotic of belief systems.  What better means of universal control than to originate the consciousness of all objects; what more elegant fulfillment of the Cartesian ideal than to be the animator?

2. Luddism

Luddism was an early industrial revolution movement in which the members of the weaver’s guild went around smashing up the new semi-automated looms, in reaction to the loss of the majority of weaving jobs.  The contemporary use of the term ranges from an attitude of technological skepticism, cynicism or mistrust, to a knee-jerk rejection of ‘bad’ technologies.  Luddism exists primarily as derisive counterpoint to the prevailing cultural attitude of technological boosterism; the gee-whiz, excited cheerleading for accelerating technological development.

3. Boosterism

Historically, our culture has been shaped and determined by technological boosterism; European and then American expansion, and in terms of that paradigm, success, have been fueled in each major wave by an empowering technology, from the rifle to trans-oceanic sailing vessels, from railroad to the automobile and the airplane.  The development of these de facto systems of control and conquest has been driven by the dominant paradigm of the culture, which I earlier characterized in shorthand as Cartesian.

In concert with the development of this system of knowledge of the physical has been the evolution of systems for human control, loosely gathered under the term politics.  In the early 20th century, the parallel progressions of capitalism and the cultural paradigm of control resulted in the emergence of two interesting theories of social control, Technocracy and Taylorism.  Technocracy was a theory developed in the heyday of technological determinism, when it was believed that technology could solve any problem.  It was proposed that society be governed by a cabal of technocrats, who would administer benevolent social control using the systems and principals which technology had proven.

Later Frederick Taylor, father of the assembly line, developed a theory of ‘scientific management’ for use in the new large-scale factories based on the systematic consolidation of knowledge from the worker into the hands of a management elite, and the radical simplification and redefinition of work as support for the systems of mass production.(1)  These systems advocated the application of the structures or tenets of technology for control of human beings; they were social technologies.

The brute-force approach of the conquest-and-control, pioneer paradigm reached its pinnacle in the 1950’s, after which it began to flag under the weight of a series of economic downturns, social disturbances and failed wars.  Philip K Dick, an American speculative fiction writer who did his best work at the peak of this cultural conflict, was brilliant at synthesizing the cultural phenomena which I have described, orchestrating the various influences and extrapolating them into his insane yet eerily familiar visions. (2)

His near-future worlds were cluttered with sales robots which accosted pedestrians on the street with hard-sell, automated taxis which demanded usury tips, and belligerent elevators which wouldn’t take you to the floor you wanted if you wouldn’t say something nice to them.  The characters, human and artificial alike, never took off their rictus-like happy faces, even when the free and harmonious society they aped had long since disappeared.  A profound cynic, he foresaw with startling clarity the potential within the free-market system for indirect social control.

4. Formalism

Robert Romanyshin, in his book Technology as Symptom and Dream, describes technology as both the ultimate manifestation of the imagination, and the ultimate destroyer of the imagination, through its systematic literalization and quantification of all knowledge and experience. Implicit in this process is the removal of all that is not linearly, binarily describable.(3)  Traditional critiques of technology have often focused on totalitarian systems of coercion and control.  In the late 20th century, a convergence of technological, social, cultural and economic developments suggests subtler, more interesting forces in play.

There is a traditional Japanese maxim, “the nail which sticks up gets hammered down.”  This refers to the societal condemnation and ostracization of a person who exhibits too much individuality. Shame is a powerful tool in the streamlining of the options available in that  culture.

A subjective, pluralistic and decentralized (Zen) philosophy of pervasive social control contrasts sharply with the linear, objective, brute force approach of Cartesian, Enlightenment thought.  The Japanese approach offers an interesting interpretation of technological capitalism’s historically colonialist bent; the subjugation and forcible exploitation of the weak is replaced with total colonialization.

In the late 20th century, we’re seeing the downfall of State communism and the emergence of a fledgling global free-market economy. Various previously hostile political systems are beginning to cooperate in this emerging global marketplace; the unifying philosophy is profit. It appears that the hard sell of direct control is being supplanted by the soft sell; force set aside in favor of subtler, more pervasive systems of long-term coercion.  Implemented in the template of the global free market, and united within an unprecedented spirit of cooperation, capitalism rather than democracy seems to have proven itself as the more effective socio-political system.

Inherent to and coincident with the emergence of this global “free” market is the development of a universal economic culture streamlined for the fluid exchange of commodities.  In the Japanese culture, this required only a relatively minor redirection of the goals of a strongly communal society.  In Western culture, it makes sense that technology rather than society will play the pivotal role in smoothing the rough edges which inhibit the efficient transfer of goods and services within this new system.  This week in the Wall Street Journal, I saw a blurb about a joint venture between Sega Genesis and AMF Voit or some other exercise machine manufacturer. Their goal will be the production of virtual reality exercise systems.  Imagine it: headsets containing audio and video synchronized to the movements of exercycles, rowing machines or Nordic tracks, resulting in a Stairmaster workout that‘s almost like walking up real stairs!

Jean Baudrillard, in his essay The Precession of the Simulacra, relates a fable in which a king demands a map of his kingdom so detailed that it ultimately covers the kingdom completely; the original landscape is obliterated.  Baudrillard uses this fable to refer to the ongoing process in technological culture of categorizing and describing reality, coupled with an unblinking trust in the powers of technology to do that, which results in our acceptance of the horrific idea that we can learn about reality by experiencing the representation of reality.  He describes the prospect of someone learning about reality from the media and then teaching a new generation about the world so that, generationally, the original frame of reference disappears; things just go around and around in what he calls “an endless whirligig of self-reference.”(4)

Do you see the binding point of these references?  That which cannot be described by technology just doesn’t matter.  It is ignored and ultimately, from within this worldview, ceases to exist.  Taylorism was a social technology; virtual reality and, I suggest, contemporary Western culture are technologies of consciousness.  It’s not “the nail which sticks up gets hammered down,” but “the nail which sticks up really isn’t there.”  To paraphrase Frank Baum, put your headset back on; pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Four paragraphs about my work

In some ways, my work will seem to be in opposition to much of the traditional sculpture we’ve looked at here in the past 2 1/2 days; its simplicity goes beyond formalism, perhaps.  I have three observations on formalism in relation to my sculptures which might help you understand my point of view, and so the point of view inherent in the work.

I work with ideas. I use whatever tools and form are appropriate to conveying the idea I’m working with at the time.  The concept is my medium.  Given the questions I raised in the previous section about technologies of consciousness and implicit structures, it probably makes sense that I think this is a kind of formalism, albeit in opposition to traditional material formalism where physical structure is of central importance.

On the other hand, the idea of structure is very important to me as a symbolic object.  You’ll see that the work does have a very strong internal structure in which I lever against formalism as a metaphor for the modes of thought which the work addresses.  On one level, the form much of the work takes is a (conceptual) structure about formalism.

Finally, I try to enforce a radical simplicity; a distillation or reduction of content until it hovers on the verge of nothing; this way I can also work the negative space around an idea as a medium; in other words, when a lifelike piece of mine fails utterly to be lifelike, I may have choreographed that failure as a means of addressing the failure, the source of the failure, or that aspect which is absent.

(1) Jhally, Sut The Codes of Advertising NY: Routledge 1990.  In his analysis of Taylorism, Jhally points out that one interesting byproduct of the divestiture of knowledge from the laborer is the creation of a new realm of work which deals exclusively in the movement of representations of goods rather than the goods themselves.

(2) A good starting point with this writer might be Ubik, or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

(3) Romanyshin, Robert D. Technology as Symptom and Dream (NY: Routledge, 1989)

(4) Baudrillard, Jean The Precession of the Simulacra (NY: Semiotext(e)), 1985