Heads on Horizon at Ramp Arts
By Edward Breitweiser
February 4, 2018
I. SOMEONE WHOSE MIND IS IMPRISONED IN THE METAPHOR CANNOT SEE IT AS A METAPHOR
Like it or not, we are the recipients of an Enlightenment conception of a separation between subjective being and objective “environment”. Today, we experience the fundamental flaw of this perspective as we continually evaluate an environment that is “out of control”, and whose survival we must manage via increasingly severe interventions. But “the environment” is not separate from us; ecological and network thinking has emerged to understand and articulate that we exist within a complex system (or, a network of imbricated systems) that cannot be reduced to the additive behaviors of simple, discrete components.
But there is a practical problem with these systems, from the micro-psychological to the macro-social and every intermediate level in-between: the systems themselves are largely invisible, or can only be revealed when they have been disturbed. We humans largely lack (or shut off) the sensory capacity to interpret them without mediation. Seeing our own narratives within these systems enables us to regard systems as things that we inhabit--not merely as detached, alien objects. This is perhaps the most important optical skill of the 21st century.
Bloomington-Normal-based artist Gary Justis has refined a practice that is similarly ecological in conception, whereby each work invites the audience to comprehend a system that is in the process of unfolding. At the core of Justis’s work is the superimposition of narratives upon physical phenomena. Since approximately 2000, a significant portion of his artistic output is rooted in a particular phenomenological event that occurred in his apartment. Justis recalls, “I watched a car's headlights shine over a very long distance, through my apartment window and onto a wall adjacent to my bed.” As the shadows of objects compressed themselves onto a two-dimensional surface, “It occurred to me that every instance of activity within the shadows of those projected objects were physically unrelated; nevertheless, at the time, I naturally put together a visual story from the accumulating collection of projections and silhouetted forms.” That visual story encompasses the endless variations of physical objects--whether organic life such as plants or insects, or inanimate items including rocks or household items--obstructing dynamic light sources. It is the manifold dynamics of interacting nodal actors revealed through the simplest optical phenomenon--light and shadow.
II. AN OAK WOOD OR AN ORGANISM
In his 1967 essay “Conscious Purpose Versus Nature”, eminent anthropologist Gregory Bateson elaborated upon the 19th-century proto-cybernetic observations of Russel Wallace. Bateson points out that all systems--biological, civilizational, psychological, organizational, or otherwise--are self-corrective and employ their mechanics to conserve the status quo and conserve against disturbance. This conservative characteristic can be understood as the means to survival, and as long as it remains intact the system can continue to function. However, mere survival does not indicate that a system is balanced; it may exhibit survival even as it spirals through imbalance en route to breakdown. Commenting on the human encroachment on the natural world, a destructive phenomenon that has nonetheless equipped us to identify the underlying dynamics of systemic collapse, Bateson observes that “we are rapidly, of course, destroying all the natural systems in the world, the balanced natural systems. We simply make them unbalanced--but still natural.” Through disturbances or gaps in the balances and dependencies that would otherwise achieve systemic equilibrium, Malthusian growth curves can appear; unchecked, these exponential curves grow into explosions, as when a prey’s population spikes after the sudden removal of a predator. Today, we can readily recall examples of these “unbalanced but natural” systems--such as the migration of the boll weevil to American cotton crops or the introduction of Dutch elm disease and Asian carp to our regional forests and waterways--that poignantly illuminate the delicate mesh of systems that we inhabit.
By the late 1960s, these ideas were well-established, but Bateson pushed them into a compelling direction. He sought to understand the part-whole paradox of observing systems. Simply put, if we want to understand a whole machine, we must understand a part of a machine, but we cannot understand that part of the machine until we understand its role amongst the machine’s other parts, which requires understanding the whole machine. Bateson uses the example of a television:
The television screen does not give you total coverage or report of the events which occur in the whole television process; and this is not merely because the viewers would not be interested in such a report, but because to report on any extra part of the total process would require extra circuitry. But to report on this circuitry would require a still further addition of more circuitry, and so on. Each additional step toward increased consciousness will take the system farther from total consciousness. To add a report on events in a given part of the machine will actually decrease the percentage of total events reported.
For humans, as residents within a number of interdependent systemic layers, understanding any part of the whole becomes a tautologically futile pursuit unless we settle for a limited consciousness. We attain this limited consciousness through shortcuts, such as filters or unconscious biases that effectively alter our perception of the real world. In particular, we allow purposes to guide our perceptions by identifying perceptible patterns or problems. Armed with purpose, we create myths about what we perceive to be true: “I, the conscious I, see an unconsciously edited version of a small percentage of what affects my retina. I am guided to my perception by purposes. I see who is attending, who is not, who is understanding, who is not, or at least I get a myth about this subject, which may be quite correct.” While a certain degree of purpose is inseparable from our unconscious behaviors, Bateson argues that there is an inherent risk in applying purpose as a conscious technique for organizing our contemporary world: purposive consciousness strives to break out of the loop-structure that defines the whole system, foregoing systemic wisdom of the interactive whole in favor of a hubristic determination to control it via forced linear causality. In this manner, limited consciousness is elevated above total consciousness, with potentially disastrous results when applied to the realms of human activity, such as economics, medicine, or biological ecosystems: Bateson warns that a, “[l]ack of systemic wisdom is always punished.”
III. LET ME OFFER YOU A MYTH
Heads On Horizon is a survey of recent works that present Justis’s primary material--light--through his singular approaches to photography, video, and sculpture. Ramp Arts separated the works into two rooms: a larger, darkened room contains two kinetic sculptures and video works, while the photographic images are installed in the front room among glass pieces by Michael Amis. The works in this front room benefit from the ample sunlight radiating through several large windows. Despite different approaches to craft and materials--Amis’ is largely refined-yet-functional expressions of a traditional craft while Justis primarily constructs self-sustaining systems from industrial components--the works share a sympathetic assertion that light is a fundamental ur-material that can reveal or transform the work created by the artist’s hand.
Justis’s systems typically feature aluminum assemblies driven by force, such as electrical motors, gravity, or an acrobatic combination of the two. This kinetic scaffolding defines a body around which the work can orbit: into this kinesis, Justis introduces light-emitting diodes (LEDs), lamps, reflective surfaces, refractive lenses, and readymade objects with light-altering characteristics. When activated, a multisensory performance emerges. Looping patterns of colored lights, shadows, and humming electronics beat against one another like phased Steve Reich counterpoints.
The photographs and videos selected for Heads on Horizon share a voyeuristic perspective, with Justis turning the camera lens toward his systems and documenting their performative behaviors. There are echoes of László Moholy-Nagy’s oeuvre throughout these works, particularly given his selection of industrial materials and photogrammic techniques that align with Moholy-Nagy’s cool Bauhaus innovations. Yet, while these are process photos, Justis guides them to a deeper resonance than mere quasi-scientific documentation. Through rich color palettes contrasted against black backgrounds, the photographs capture moments in highly constructed processes that hint at familiar human references, such as mythic symbols and earthly forms.
Three large 48”x 36” photographic pigment prints feature images that strongly evoke heavily abstracted impressions of the natural world. Philsen (2013) captures sweeping gestures that recall a boreal phenomenon emanating from a vulcan source; in this fantastic landscape, we are given a sensual glimpse of the birth of arctic light. Degge and Mate (2013) is perhaps the most documentarian in the bunch. Here, the viewer can track the movement of pulsing light sources across the print via the umbral imprints of warm filaments. As these patterns converge, they forge the facial contours of fetal beings. A soupy mixture of rhythmic accidents beget luminous full-spectrum life-forms. One can practically hear Björk’s discography pulsing from these prints. While these probe the natural world for their imagery, Rosetta (2013) distinguishes itself by venturing into the anthropocene, asserting itself firmly within a pseudo-historical mythical framework. One could be forgiven for mistaking it for a conventional figurative photograph. Containing allusions to alchemical tools--fire, altar, tome, mortar, ritual--employed in the pursuit of knowledge, it is only a small leap to the diabolical fables of Prometheus, Faust, Oppenheimer, Greenspan, and others whose hubristic aspirations unbalanced the natural order.
Alongside Justis’s large prints are three 14” x 11” photo prints on aluminum. Through a softer matte finish and a more intimate scale, these prints employ Justis’s systemic documentary technique to evoke traditional portrait photography. Each features a “head-on” perspective of a quasi-figurative anthropomorphized character or scene. Meela (2013) captures a ghostly Imagist bust, donning animal prints and a gravity-defying pompadour like a cartoonish Ed Paschke subject that wouldn’t sit still. Drell (2015) is the most unabashedly sci-fi image in the series. Justis seemingly caught an interstellar seraphim, proving once and for all that ours is not the only planet that reveres Russian iconography. This holy figure--the patron saint of optics, perhaps?--offers a radiographic benediction while glancing from a gleaming third eye. What wisdom awaits if we dare to look more deeply?
Of all of Justis’s photographs, Birth of Athena (2016) demonstrates the most adept marriage of technical aptitude and mythic storytelling. A sublimely delicate image, it depicts Venus emerging from the head of Zeus, but with a language that is closer to David LaChapelle than Botticelli. In Justis’s hands, what could be a gory affair has been rendered with feminine forms. A bud-like skull blossoms and lily petals unfurl, revealing lofty stamen and a serene, seated Venus adorned in a resplendent Victorian garment of warm light; an Arrangement in Light and Shadow. The three aluminum prints certainly share an uncanny quality, but Birth of Athena stopped me in my tracks; Justis corrected my mistaken assumption that its holographic effect was the byproduct of superimpositions of various individual images, assuring me that it was process-based. I cannot fathom how Justis captured this moment within the workings of an optical process.
The videos compiled for Heads on Horizon stand as a set of companion pieces to Justis’s photographs. While they can be enjoyed independently of the photographs, they also provide a peek behind the curtains of Justis’s analog photographic process. Over each short video (the longest is less than two and a half minutes), the viewer is dropped into the process of Justis exploring a real-time setup of light projections. Despite the brief time scales, the element of time greatly animates the perspective that the viewer has adopted over the course of the exhibition. Justis’s video camera guides us deep into the dynamics of superliminal structures; we see evident experimentation as the artist’s hand intervenes in the system’s variables and the ripple effects unfold before our eyes. The visual effect is akin to Jordan Belson’s experimental videos, and when paired with the original soundtrack of ambient sounds and music it instills a remarkably therapeutic sensation decoupled from the expected tensions of traditional musical forms.
In these visionary wanderings, Justis continues to identify the uncannily familiar imagery found in his photographs, but their force is blurred by the liquidity with which they drift in and out of existence. We witness the emergence of a cultural echo from systemic abstraction, only to see it vanish quickly enough to question if it was even there at all. Justis describes this threshold effect as “[lying] on the edge between still visual order and material displacement...a new realm where a visual medium might yield images that have their origins outside our conscious awareness. [...] This provides a glimpse of life dissimilar to our symbolic order of things.” Above the Gate juxtaposes an intensely glowing cup-like object with a soothing, undulating crown that resembles the direction that Dan Flavin may have taken if he had opted for graffiti instead of fluorescent bulbs. Unlike the abstract lushness of the other videos, Kingly returns to the quasi-spiritual figurative subjects of Justis’s “portraits”. Amidst the otherworldly psychedelia, we are fed repeated glimpses of a Christ-like torso--a close encounter of the transfigured kind.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is Time Slap (2017), an imposing kinetic sculpture assembled from machined aluminum, electronics, and assorted transparent glass and plastic readymade objects. This sculpture is around seven feet tall and prominently features two four-foot pendula--when activated, the pendula are forced to swing from affixed electric motors that spin smaller rods in circular motion, and a strong white light bulb casts itself through the sculpture onto the wall behind. At Ramp Arts, the sculpture was placed within a recessed wall, resulting in a tight, dark frame around the light projection. The result is an aesthetic encounter somewhere between the monolithic, detached objecthood of traditional sculpture and the immersive multi-sensory experience of an installation; here, the object is positioned to intercept the viewer and frustrate the possibility of an immersive encounter. Like a work of stained glass, the sculpture is, in essence, betweenness itself; it was formed to intervene in the path of a point of light, and we witness the product of its intervention--a field of refraction and shadow. The wall beyond displays a sublime bath of static colorful impressions, abrupt obscure expanses, and lively glimmers that flit across the wall as if on their own plane. And across it all, the pendula cast the noisy gloom of their tick-tock.
But Time Slap plays a funny game with its own scale, one that deftly portrays the limited--and whole--consciousness tension that Bateson formulated. Simply put, Time Slap is best taken in both at a distance and in intimate detail. As a compulsive tinkerer, I was immediately drawn in to examine the sculpture’s machinery, and found myself resisting this initial temptation in order to savor the sensuous performance on the wall beyond. As the piece emits an ominous electrical hum, its spinning pendula swipe back and forth in wide periodic arcs--frankly, despite the lush backdrop, the sculpture itself is quite menacing. But for those brave enough to approach it, when viewed up close the sculpture reveals a wild, loosely-choreographed performance that leaves much of its charm to chaos. Those lively glimmers dancing across the wall beyond? They are merely the secondary effect of abused donut-shaped lenses gleaming like googly eyes at the front of the sculpture--a small paint roller is affixed to each lens so that they can be smacked by one pendulum. (Is the decision to take a swing at a paint roller a practical choice, or a jab at traditional artistic media?) A gentle bonk accompanies each smack, and the lens jerks on its axis, launching its refracted light across the walled canvas.
This delicate violence upsets the conventional use of a pendulum: to reliably measure human time. While one pendulum swings uninhibited, marking a steady beat on a scale between human seconds and minutes, the other is interrupted by intrusive art objects. Beyonds its best orderly intentions, an improvisatory intervention awkwardly interferes unless additional force is exerted--side-by-side, one version of time clocks along while another trudges forward (and back) and eternally returns to encounter these entropic catastrophes. The electronics are wired to a motion detector to protect its circuitry throughout extended usage, and a tense stillness fills the space when the performance ceases. The large, darkened sculpture holds an eerie, quiet allure when its purpose is hidden from view. This monolithic silence is a stark reminder of the dominant role of time in our experience--perhaps the only thing more frightening than watching it mark its passing in front of you is its absence.
While Time Slap’s tense examination of refracted temporality is the grandest piece in Heads on Horizon, The Pond (2015) is the most compelling. Situated on the floor across the room from Time Slap and nestled into a corner, The Pond is a subtle exploration of that other optical effect: reflection. The Pond’s sculptural object resembles the marriage of a spherical astrolabe and an overhead projector. With its quietly precarious array of weights, guides, and reflective surfaces, it’s very attractive. The weights provide forces to keep the motor-driven actuator in a wobbly sort of balance, and the reflective surfaces--a crystal-clear circle, a blue bean (ostensibly our titular pond), and a spinning lemniscate clad in a sort of incandescent fish scales--scatter the overhead light into the walls and ceiling that converge in the corner.
The reflected light is mostly concentrated into a circular shape that glides across the walled surfaces; the explosive scale of its three-dimensional dance distorts the object’s relatively small simple kinetic pattern. Watching both performances--the object and the light--at once evokes the subtleties of observing slow physical change. As the object spins and swings, its circular loops shake with minor variations and the light-pond glimmers like sunlight off a gently rippling current. Over time, the focal point of the light becomes fuzzy: the colors blur, and the “edge” proves instead to be an oscillating set of concentric rings. This tidal phenomenon recalls Benoit Mandelbrot’s landmark 1967 mathematical paper on “the messiness of raw nature”, “How Long is The Coast of Britain?”, in which the author uncovers that, “Seacoast shapes are examples of highly involved curves with the property that--in a statistical sense--each portion can be considered a reduced-scale image of the whole.” Despite being eternally, intrinsically coupled to one another, the edges of the object and the light-pond do not scale perfectly--the object’s edges are quite clear and hard, but those of the light-pond are nebulous like a proper coastline.
Justis intimated that The Pond was the result of an experiment to construct “a vertical pond” and to see what is underneath. In this piece and Time Slap, Justis highlights the dissonance between the objects themselves--cold, mechanical, masculine, measured--and their systemic performances- ethereal, non-substantial, and deeply sensuous. In both pieces, a post-industrial machine plays its full, holistic process right before you--this is not the alienated Taylorist production of Modern Times, Humain Trop Humain, or “How It’s Made”. By using his systemic object to ask what is underneath, Justis reminds us that a pond without life is just a cesspool.
IV. IN THE CRISIS THE ENVIRONMENT CEASES TO BE THE ENVIRONMENT
In the late-capitalist Anthropocene, an age of ecological, psychic, and economic crisis, we must resist the overly simplistic diagnosis of an alienated environment-object that sits beyond a subjective threshold of experience. On the contrary, we are in the world, and the world is in us. Herein lies the power of Justis’s use of light and shadow--his works are not merely optical. Instead, they begin with these fundamental phenomenological building blocks in order to render visible the deeply entangled web of connectivity that we inhabit. We are not detached observers--we are actors and nodes, as well, and our world is writ small on our emotional landscapes.
Jung theorized that classical mythology was an expression of humankind’s collective unconscious, and archetypal forms of gods and goddesses allow us to identify those core thoughts that occur across the whole of humanity. By turning his lens inward towards those archetypes that lurk within his systems, Justis asks us to locate our most essential humanness inside constructed worlds. Through a glimpse of our shared stories, we recognize that these systems are not isolated objects to be regarded from afar, but small wholes that we can consciously inhabit. Beyond simply capturing mythic imagery within his systems, Justis also constructs his systems with this animus. But importantly, Justis is not a precise perfectionist. While undoubtedly made with clear-headed care, his kinetic sculptures are not meticulously measured to function flawlessly. Coincidentally, I visited the gallery while Justis was present. He made repeated efforts to adjust a large lens on Time Slap that kept sticking at the terminal point of its rotation, but it would not cooperate. The piece was better for it. Bateson reminds us that a system can still be balanced when all of its parts are not in perfect working order. Justis’s flirtations with systemic imbalance--whether a permissibly subtle gravitational shiver or an errant lens--teem with affect, like asynchronous winks from the face behind a mechanical mask. With a smirk, they ask, “where’s the thrill when everything goes according to plan?”
* * *
Ramp Arts features large south- and west-facing windows that allow generous amounts of light into the exhibition space. I visit the exhibition in late November, when the incoming light was filtered through nearly-bare trees and falling leaves. A leaf blows past, casting a shadow that converges with my own. The receding autumn sun fills the space with warm rays that hint at the scaffolding of the natural world--sub-structures and infra-performances that unfurl around us, yet which we rarely encounter outside of unexpected moments of simple, beautiful clarity.
For a moment, I am young Justis seeing the strange car headlights within his former apartment. Again, light unexpectedly draws the external world into the subjective space; light intervenes to bring life itself to a lived moment, and I inhabit the rest of the world. It’s no wonder that Justis has dedicated his practice toward recreating this experience for the rest of us. Wisdom is available if we are willing to look.
Images courtesy of the artist.
Edward Breitweiser is an Illinois-based artist, musician, and writer. Incorporating models from various intellectual traditions and bodies of knowledge, Breitweiser organizes particulars (software, electronics, audio/visual signals, text, networked distribution channels, improvisational music, performative activities) into arrangements whose products are the macro-result of the emergent interactions of all components at once.
His works have been presented at Festival MusicAlp (Courchevel, France); Network Music Festival (Birmingham, UK); the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago); Illinois State University Galleries (Normal, IL); MobileHCI (Stockholm); Salle Cortot (Paris); threewalls (Chicago); the Giorgio Cini Foundation (Venice); Illinois Wesleyan University (Bloomington, IL); the Fuse Factory (Columbus); and the McLean County Arts Center (Bloomington, IL).