I've discovered Fernando Orellana in 2004, the year i realized that there were artists playing with technology out there. All along my tumultuous and whimsical 4-year relationship with new media art, artists have been appearing and disappearing from my BVBMA (Best of the very best media artists) list. I'm slowly moving away from the entertaining, the merely playful, the very geeky, the strictly techy and i'm now looking for something called "an artistic experience". Well, Fernando's installations are quite geeky in a sense and some are even playful but, no matter how you define art, i've always found something extremely meaningful and touching in Fernando's work: a robot dreams, others are unable to make a decision, an elevator appears to be self-aware and a vintage radio relentlessly searches for God. Needless to say, Fernando's work has always amazed me and i can see in my crystal ball that it's going to be that way for the years to come.
The artist has uploaded several videos about his work on you tube. As a starter, here's an ABC news segment on his robotic art piece "Sleep Waking":
When i first met you in Gijon at the opening of the exhibition Emergentes, you told me about the personal story behind 8520 S.W. 27th Pl. v.2 (don't miss the video of the robot assembly), an installation about the pointlessness of our never ending decision making process. Can you share it with the readers?
8520 S.W. 27th Place is the address of the home I grew up in Davie, Florida after my family moved from El Salvador in 1979. It is in a housing development called Rolling Hills. I've linked it in Google maps.
For the most part, my siblings and I assimilated and became part of American culture. Subsequently we grew up in the burgeoning suburban sprawl that has now swallowed southern Florida into an endless ghetto of cookie-cutter dream homes. This is what frames a large portion my childhood memories. Neatly cut lawns. Driveways with two-car garages. Manicured gardens adorned with transplanted trees. Swimming pool parties. Mosquito nets. Packaged people living out their packaged lives. Day in. Day out.
This imagery is what fueled the aesthetic for this 8520 S.W. 27th Place. I wanted to reference the suburban dwelling that millions of other people worldwide grew up in as well. I thought it this would be the appropriate stage for a sculpture that speaks of humanities' decision-making process. It is within the walls of these prefabricated, automated homes that we ceaselessly make decisions about everything; from the type of partners we want, to the garnishing on our pizza delivery, to what color we want our IPods. Endlessly. Back and forth. From the moment we are born till the day we die.
How did you come up with Extruder? Where did you get the idea of making a machine that makes play-doh cars?
I arrived at the idea for Extruder from a couple different places. It branches from a series of drawing machines that I made a couple years back. Extruder started because I wanted to make a machine that could make sculpture. I had been doodling designs for this mechanism for years. I suppose funding issues kept them from materializing until now.
This last summer I made a series of paintings that spoke of war, dismemberment, IEDs, and automobiles. During that process, I came to appreciate the impact that the automobile has made on this world. I read a statistic that still baffles me when I think about it now. There is one car for every 11 people in this world, roughly 590 million passenger cars total. The automobile is involved in everything. From pancakes to penicillin, Play-Doh to parking lots.
I developed Extruder as a response to this machine that we worship. I wanted to celebrate it. Criticize it. Emulate it. Making hundreds of Play-Doh cars. Millions. The ultimate goal of Extruder is to make the total number of automobiles that were made in 1947 (the year Henry Ford died) by the Ford motor company, an estimated 429,674. As you can imagine that is also a whole lot of Play-Doh; about 11 tons. Until May 11th 2008, Extruder will be making Play-Doh cars at the Mandeville Gallery at Union College in Schenectady, NY. When the next venue emerges to exhibit it, the process will continue.
The colors that Play-Doh comes in were also a nice reference to my recent paintings. Vivid primaries and secondaries, suggesting the Technicolor cartoon reality that we in the developed world live in. Entertainment for the masses, delivered in candy-wrapped doses of violence, humor, and erotica.
The Carry On installation features a series of suitcases fitted with robotic arms and micro-cameras which survey their surroundings. Why did you feel the necessity to develop a work that explores surveillance and paranoia? How much impact on the public can artists have when they comment on surveillance technology?
Carry On is a direct reaction to post-September 11th paranoia, both in the USA and abroad. Since the attacks, I have traveled quite a bit. On these trips, I have passed through countless security and surveillance systems, always hunting for the would-be terrorist. Subway cars now display and sometimes speak "Report ANY Suspicious Activity". If you happen to look even slightly of Arab descent, you may think twice about growing a beard or wearing your traditional garb. Leaving your luggage or backpack alone in an airport or a train station, even for a moment, could lead to a cavity search.
Holding a miniature video camera, on one side of each suitcase in Carry On is mounted a two axis robotic arm. The live video feed from this camera is displayed on a LCD screen mounted on the other side of the suitcase. Every couple of minutes, the robots change the position of the cameras, thus changing what is being displayed in the LCD screens. Lacking image analysis of any kind or other sensory capability, these suitcases blindly look about, never understanding what they see.
I'm not sure what impact artists make when they reference surveillance technology. Perhaps it may give a person a moment of peace or clarity. Realizing that, like the artwork in front of them, the whole affair of paranoia and fear based politics is an illusion; clever clockwork designed to create the reality they want us to believe in.
I saw that images of one of your recent project, Phoney. What is the work about?
Phoney is a toy. It is a kind of absurd videophone. There are two terminals to the piece. The terminals are installed in separate parts of a gallery, with no line of site between them. Each terminal is fit with an old-school telephone receiver, a video screen, and a black and white camera attached to the head of a modified mechanical toy. When a person speaks into the telephone receiver of one terminal, their voice makes the mechanical toy on other terminal dance. This causes the video image they are looking at to shake, since the camera on the other side is attached to the mechanical toy. If two people are involved, a bizarre and sometimes funny conversation can commence. To me the piece references the countless methods or proxies that we now communicate through and the ridiculous information that we pass through them.
I read that your work is about "creating systems that seem to be alive". How much life is there really in your artworks? and how would you define such kind of life?
The key part in the quote above is this: "seem to be alive". My machines are not alive. They never will be. I have become much more interested in the simulation of living systems. It is remarkable how easily we anthropomorphize things, especially things that are in motion. The perception of what humans will assume or believe to be alive is where much of my robotic work is headed.
The latest iteration of this investigation is Elevator's Music, a site-specific robotic sculpture that I exhibited in an elevator at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, NY in the winter of 2007. It consisted of four small robots that emerged from the elevators translucent ceiling panels. When people entered the elevator, the robots would sense them and might emerge. Fitted with sonic sensors and having the ability to maneuver in three axes, they were programmed to seek out and respond to near and far objects. If a robot found something near by, it would try and interact with it via randomly determined mechanical gestures and a watery stream of sounds. The robot would also send a message to the other three robots (through a local network), informing them that it had found something of interest. This would cause all robots to look in the direction of the object, causing a kind of musical symphony to commence. If the object was somehow to close, or if nothing was found, they would recoil back into the safety of their ceiling panels.
With this relatively simple set of instructions the elevator robots were able to illicit innumerous reactions from their passengers. Some believed that the robots were watching them or trying to attack them in some way, while others became enamored with them, whistling and talking to them like one would to a pet bird. When one of the robots failed (as all robots eventually do), passengers reported it immediately to museum officials, feeling empathy for the hurt machine. Future robotic sculptures that I design will foster this tendency to assign anthropomorphic qualities to inanimate objects. Through this investigation I hope to arrive at more sophisticated and realistic artificial life simulations.
What can technology developers or scientists learn from digital artists like you? Is there any reason why they should pay more attention to what crazy artists are doing?
I like to think they should pay more attention. In this country there is a general undervaluing of fine art and art education. Art departments all over the nation are the first to suffer from severe budget cuts. The argument that art is not a "mission critical" subject has dominated the establishment for decades. The problem with this of course is that students become completely illiterate to the visual culture all around them. In engineering and science I think this becomes a handicap. The engineer or scientist that can beautifully communicate their findings will undoubtedly fair better on the world stage. Moreover, those engineers or scientists that are willing to experiment with ideas that seem pointless or ridiculous may arrive at discoveries, innovations, and conclusions that otherwise might have eluded them. Perhaps "crazy artists" do have something to teach, other then just being dismissed to be irrelevant or a waste of time.
What is your favorite gadget or bit of technology and why?
It would have to be my laptop. I basically live inside it (or through it?). That aside, I have to say that I am a huge space technology nerd. I read everything and anything about space. Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers scooting along on mars, or Voyagers one and two, speeding out of the solar system at this very moment are like aphrodisiacs to me. In fact I have a number of art projects that I am just waiting to develop specifically to be put into zero-g environments. Hopefully by the time I am retiring, this will be a possibility! In classic nerd style however, I would first need to over come the crippling and ridiculous sea-sickness I suffer from, sometimes even on sea-side docks.
What are the common factors between your media art installations and your paintings? Or maybe they have nothing to do with one another?
Painting and drawing is something I have always done. It was my doorway into art and in many ways it keeps me balanced. Until recently, the subjects I painted came from the schools of dada or surrealism, seemingly from my subconscious. This all changed in my recent work. Without really knowing why, last summer I started tackling the subjects I was exploring in my electronic sculptures in the paintings. Painting allows me to quickly approach different angles or points of view within a subject, some of which would not be possible in media sculptures due to funding or physical limitations. It is also a way for me to quickly explore new ideas, some of which are now leaving the canvas surface and becoming sculptures.
You are also developing an electronic art program at Union College in Schenectady, NY. Can you tell us what the highlights of the program are?
I was hired three years ago to help start an electronic art program at Union College. Our program is one of the few electronic arts initiatives that is jointly sponsored between the Computer Science and Visual Arts Departments. Drawing from aspects of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The Ohio State University's Art and Technology programs (both of which I graduated from), we have created a thorough course of study, covering topics in digital imaging, video, 3D modeling, physical computing, experimental computer programming, web-design, interactivity, and animation. We have worked hard to make the program as cross-disciplinary as possible, offering courses that computer science, fine-art, and students from other disciplines can benefit from. In many ways the program was a perfect fit at Union College, since it has a long tradition of combining world-renowned engineering within a equally solid liberal arts education.
Any upcoming project or event you could share with us?
There are a couple projects cooking. The most imminent is a real-time video series titled Plain Text. The series plays on the "infinite monkey theorem" which states that given an infinite amount of monkeys, typewriters, and time, the monkeys will type out any particularly text you choose. If one instructs the monkeys (or monkey simulators), to type the King James Bible one of them eventually will. Interestingly, this also includes all the text that you did not choose or any text that might ever be written.
I apply a version of this theorem to a series of short phrases that over an extended period of time cycle through every possible permutation of themselves. For example the phrase:
"You want _ _ _ _ _ _."
Starting right-to-left, like an odometer only with letters, all the blank spaces in the phrase sequentially cycle through every letter in the alphabet. By this, every word that is six characters long will eventually appear in the phrase above. Differing in theme, amount of blank spaces, and speed, each piece in the series has a different phrase displayed by itself on a large LCD screen.
For the PluggedIn Exhibition happening in Hudson, NY from May 17th - 30th, two of these phrases will be on display in the vestibules of the Mark McDonald store, along with one large phrase projected on the store's second floor windows.
Yesterday i went to a very exciting show at Museum of Arts & Design in New York. Pricked: Extreme Embroidery has invited 48 artists to demonstrate the diversity of new approaches to needleworking technique.
As they did with their previous show Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting, the Museum demonstrates that contemporary artists are exploring new ways to bring centuries-old handcraft traditions into the 21st century.
One of the works that most impressed me was Morwenna Catt Phrenology Heads. Phrenology, developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall around 1800, and very popular in the 19th century, is a discipline which claims to be able to determine character, personality traits and criminality on the basis of the shape of the head (i.e., by reading "bumps" and "fissures"). Catt's soft sculptures of heads have long animal ears, Frankenstein-like stitches all over their face, one eye is shut by a patch and a needle is stuck in their head as if the work was unfinished.
The heads are embroidered with fragments of texts: the Mother one has "You will need eyes at the back of your head". The Father has "The gloom and the silence, i am terrified when i realise i am alone", etc.
Words and images have been combined in traditional embroidered samplers for more than 500 years, and many contemporary artists give their own twist to the convention. Tilleke Schwarz, for example, embroiders texts and images she finds in her daily life from letters to editors that have caught her attention to images from television.
Elaine Reichek embroidered an 80-foot long transparent curtain with dots and dashes that spell out the first telegraph message sent by Samuel F. B. Morse on May 24, 1844: "What hath God wrought".
Andrea Dezsö records aphorisms and warnings received from her Transylvania mother in the Lessons from My Mother series. 48 cotton squares are embroidered with illustrated bits of folk wisdom passed down from her mother: "My Mother Claimed That A Woman's Legs Are So Strong That No Man Can Spread Them If She Doesn't Let Him", "My Mother Claimed That You can get hepatitis from a handshake," "My Mother Claimed That Men will like me more if I pretend to be less smart," etc.
While embroidery traditionally connotes safety and domestic security, some of the artists in Pricked use the medium to explore and reflect on political and social issues.
Mexican artist Ana de la Cueva's video shows a digital embroidery machine stitching the contours of the United States and Mexico highlighting the planned wall to keep out illegal aliens in bright red thread, all to the tunes of Mexican and American popular music.
Xiang Yang's The Truth that People Are Not Willing To Face -- Bushism vs Saddamism are portraits of President Bush and Saddam Hussein linked by a rainbow of threads. The threads are continuous between the 2 visages, giving the impression that the faces have morphed into one another.
Peter Hellsing used embroidery as a channel for communication with the immigrants who live in Flemingsburg, the suburb where he lives in Stockholm. He documented their stories of dislocation, alienation and longing for home on household furniture. The body of works, called A Little Cabin In the Woods, tells the story of these migrants, how they grew up in Sarajevo, or their fate during the Turkish-Armenian war.
Sonya Clark's $5 bill celebrates the connection between the president and the Afro-American community by giving him an afro hairdo.
A section of the exhibition explores the work of artists who adopt, appropriate or quote images and ideas from other sources, including art history and popular culture, in their embroidered works.
Los Angeles-based artist Maria E. Piñeres embroiders portraits of celebrities who have been arrested, such as Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. Mark Newport has created a full-sized bed spread of embroidered comic books heroes as a way of exploring masculinity and identity.
Paddy Hartley uses his research into the lives and families of disfigured World War I soldiers as the basis for his reconstructed military uniforms that are embroidered with texts and images related to the specific soldier.
German artist Sybille Hotz created large-scale stuffed human figures drawn from first-aid manuals and medical books.
Orly Cogan embroiders found linens that have been previously embroidered with flowers, animals, and hearts with nude self-portraits and animal fantasies.
Laura Splan, whose work is at the crossroad between medicine and art, is showing Trousseau, an embroidered nightdress created from a transparent plastic-like material that results from a drugstore facial peel-off mask which picks up and retains the detailed impression of texture and hairs on one's skin. She covered her entire body with the product, let it dry, peeled it off in one large "hide" so that she could have large sheets of "fabric" to work with. The sculptures are embellished with computerized machine embroidery.
Splan has also turned the cellular formation of scary viruses such as SARS, herpes, HIV, and flu into doilies. They generate both a feeling of repulsion and one of attraction. Would we be willing to pass these dollies from mother to daughters as tradition would require?
Italian artist Angelo Filomeno, who learned embroidery as a child and today is a master in the form, has created a wide panel titled Death of Blinded Philosopher. It depicts a skeleton whose eye sockets have been violated by alaws, facing a blood red explosion of tendrils and blossoms attacked by flies and cockroaches.
Paul Villinski's wall sculpture Lament is made up of hundreds of abandoned or lost gloves collected from New York Streets, assembled as a massive pair of black bird's wings which would perfectly suit Icarus.
On view at the Museum of Arts & Design through April 27, 2008.
Back in New York for a few days and walking around Chelsea with a long list of shows to visit (as usual ArCal has helped me select them.)
Even the Ghost of the Past, Dzama's fifth solo exhibition at the gallery, includes drawings, collages, costumes, installations, dioramas, and a film. They evoke fairy tales but with an added streak of terrorism, jazz-era nostalgia, sexual perversion and cruelty.
Inspired by the religious shrines he found in Mexico and the work of Joseph Cornell, the Canadian artist has created a series of five dioramas. Recessed into the wall, they recall a child's puppet theatre or the didactic displays found in natural history museums.
Nearly 300 ceramic sculptures were used to compose the biggest diorama in the show. On the banks of the red river recreates the apocalyptic cover image of his 2005 exhibition catalogue, The Course of Human History Personified. Dozens of haughty aristocratic hunters, guns in hand, are massacring forest animals. The lovely fawn lays with its tongue out, the bird had its head severed from the body, the fate of the little dead frog leaves the hunters indifferent, bats and flowers are flying, etc. Great care has been taken to make the corpse as cute as possible. The cuteness of the animal kingdom turn into perversion with the Infidels diorama where adorable little bats flap their wings above a dead bear.
Dzama also created an installation that pays homage to and almost demystifies Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés, 1946-66. Like Duchamp, Dzama has created an intricate tableau only visible to viewers through a peephole. The artist imagines what could have provoked Duchamp's scene of a nude splayed in the woods. Dzama's interpretation proposes a wily fox is to blame, knocking-out both the nude and her lover with a slingshot.
In a room at the back of the gallery, the silent film The Lotus Eaters recalls a time when black-and-white mute movies were accompanied by live pianists. The title suggests Homer's mythical race whose favored food induced a dreamy and contented forgetfulness.
Using a combination of 8mm and 16mm film, Dzama also incorporates footage shot by a Fisher-Price PixelVision camcorder - his childhood camera. Embodying the unique combination of homespun aesthetic and referential complexity that characterizes Dzama's production, the film makes vivid not only the characters who occupy the artist's imagination, but also the essential nature of the creative process.
In Dzama's drawings and collages, distinct characters take center stage against a blank background, most notably the masked and armed "terrorist." The character is repeated amongst cowboys, archers, and femmes fatales. What the artist really meant to evoke is up to everyone's imagination. It's hard not to think of the climate of paranoia at the forefront of American politics.
On view at David Zwirner gallery, through April 19, 2008.
Chinese Contemporary had a group show with many of the big names of Chinese young art world: Wang Guangyi, Wang Ke, Wang Jin, Lili, etc. All are selling like hot cakes. According to the gallerist, some people even phone to buy a painting without even having seen it.
Nice works at Jonathan Levine, a gallery that specializes in turining what they call the "underground" into something posh, polished and highly marketable. They are currently showing great works by Jeff Soto and a quirky aggregate of paintings and objects by Jim Houser. Both run until October 6.
The photos document the physical transformation of Jonathan Velasquez over 4 years. The teenager inspired Clark to write and direct the film Wassup Rockers.
The day had not started well. I was on the plane, laptop on my knees waiting for the seatbelt sign to be switched off. Then, damn! When did Lufthansa stop offering wifi on its transatlantic flights? All i had to kill boredom was in flight entertainment, namely Ocean's 13 which i had seen 10 days before on another plane and a documentary about pandas (i kid you not.)
Thank god for Chelsea gallerists, they cheered up my day. Especially the John Connelly Presents which covered its walls with a series of wallpapers and art works called Divine Deviltries. I love Kent Henricksen's evil tapestries and seeing how he manages to play on the same theme with the same characters without ever being repetitive nor annoying is a delight. The usual little devils keep on wearing masks, strangling, torturing and mocking innocent-looking people and animals (no panda though). The embroidery is exquisite and the scenes are set in a pastel and dreamy landscape.
More images of the exhibition.