How did you start thinking about conflict in art?
I was interested in resonance and wave patterns and energetic exchanges as early as 1996, but I started making work directly about conflict in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq. I was sitting with my parents watching television and seeing the green hue of the night vision cameras, watching the pops of bombs falling on Baghdad. And it almost looked like fireworks or some sort of celestial asteroid shower. It looked so abstract and felt so distant. I felt a deep sense of complicity, but also a deep sense of distance and an inability to understand.
So I started making real-time memorials that connect to conflict zones using data feeds, to parse how I felt about this. The notion is to collapse spaces, create a portal between the site of the installation and the site of conflict, so that we can understand on some level what’s happening in that place and meditate on it, feel a deeper sense of connection and simultaneously a sense of disconnection or distance from that zone.
People are always talking about how technology brings us closer together. I think that’s true, but it can also be a way we can understand that we’re actually quite far apart. There’s a lot of nuance that’s lost through technology as well. So the work becomes a space to wrestle with complex topics such as conflict and loss, but also a way to maybe site all of that in a larger meta-narrative: we’re on this big, geologic, hot ball of gas and rock hurtling through space at the same time. We get stuck in these human dramas, but there’s also a much larger narrative in play. And that’s why I really like using data feeds like seismic activity, allowing the Earth’s biorhythms to create a natural resonance and compose the narrative of my installations.
Can you give us an example of how your pieces work?
Well, The Divine Strake Project robotically tolled a bell, signaling large concussive disturbances from the Nevada Test Site, the US’s foremost nuclear weapons testing ground. I worked with seismologists Joshua Stachnik from University of Wyoming and Glen Biasi from University of Nevada, Reno, to pull a real-time data stream from an array of seismometers out on the test site. The data controlled a large bell located in San Francisco, at California College of the Arts. The bell tolled based on what was happening on the test site, without drawing a distinction between latent seismic events and nuclear weapons tests. Large seismic disturbances in the magnitude range of weapons tests resulted in a heavy toll at the sound bow of the bell.
In The Nicholas Shadow, the data feed came from citizen journalists in Iraq, via the website iraqbodycount.org. I installed a bell inside a former confessional chapel in St Ignatius church in San Francisco that, again, robotically tolled hourly the civilian death toll for that day.
Why do you use bells?
We have a long history and bodily relationship with bells. The bell is the size of, essentially, a human core. The ones I select are about 42 inches high, so they become bodily surrogates, in a way. And in the church, you really felt the intense energy of the bell tolling in that confined space. It shook the whole building. I also find it interesting that bells are tolled both as a call to worship and the call to arms. During the US Civil War, bells were pulled from churches and melted down for bronze to cast cannons. When the war was over, the cannons were melted down and church bells were cast from gunmetal. So they are complex objects that have been historically used in our most spiritual and violent practices.
I borrow most of the bells from historical collections. In the case of Divine Strake, I borrowed the bell from Hastings College because they had one that was cast in one of the first weapons-production facilities in the United States, around the time of the Revolutionary War. I found it interesting that they cast bells out of the same alloy as cannons. So this bell was resonating in my mind with the sounds of Manifest Destiny, that this was all steeped into this object, this history.
What are you working on now?
It’s a piece called Pax Americana that uses seismic activity from conflict zones around the world to resonate, or vibrate, a 15-foot diameter pool of water — proportional to whatever’s going on in each one of the zones at that moment. Light will be bounced off the surface of the pool and reflect those wave disturbance patterns as reflections into the space. So if there’s a bomb explosion or a mortar attack in, say, Syria, you’ll see proportionally modeled shadow play on the walls that looks somewhat like an explosion, in real time.
The first iteration will be installed at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco, a nonprofit installation space down on Market Street. Then I’d like to tour it internationally and domestically. I built this project to be sited, ideally, at the US Capitol rotunda, with the idea that politicians on their way to work would have a place to pause and reflect, so that they could see the resonance of their decisions in real time and have a moment to meditate — a complete feedback loop. I think a much more realistic and possible site would be the UN Plaza in New York. But any federal or public space where a lot of people who also make decisions shaping the world circulate is a good zone for it.
The project now has a good deal of momentum and generous support from Boulder Real Time Technologies, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Phyllis C Wattis Foundation and the Fleishhacker Foundation — and I just found out that it will receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Now I need help getting the project to the UN Plaza and on to the Capitol rotunda.
What is the message you’re trying to get across that links your memorial pieces with the seismic pieces? Is it about creating a connection between forces that you don’t normally see?
I think it’s about creating a connection to things that we know about, that are in our psychic space, and maybe are mediated to us through traditional news media, but we have generally no access to, or we might never have been impacted by it directly. I’ve never been to a conflict zone, so a lot of this work is an attempt to connect to these spaces that I hear about every day, but have no direct relationship to. Obviously many do, but for those at a great distance, like myself, it’s about creating that sense of real time. The thing about news media is that we have these long latency periods where we hear about an event, but it gets distilled down to essentially a sound bite and some statistics about what happened. And there’s something lost in our kinesthetic awareness of what has just happened. There’s a disjuncture in time.
So the work is more asking questions than saying anything. And the questions are: How does it shape our perception of our presence in the world if we are signaled at the exact moment a violent event occurs? And how is it different from being present at the event versus watching the news versus monitoring it remotely from one of these installations? And if you don’t know much about it, but you experience something that physicalizes an event’s relative intensity — not even necessarily human loss, per se, or destruction — how does that change the way you make sense of it?
These are really questions about our current relationship with technologies that allow us to watch and act from a distance.
Have you seen any concrete changes that may have resulted from the narratives you’ve revealed in your work?
I don’t think I have seen any change that I could measure. I know that there have definitely been people who’ve had profound experiences with the work. And I personally have been profoundly moved through conversations with those people while the work was up. So it raised awareness or broadened consciousness, and that was why I did it.
At first the parishioners were pretty resistant to the Nicholas Shadow project, and the priests as well. They allowed it, but then they were kind of like, “Well, how long is this thing going to be here? It’s gonna interrupt all of our mass services. I think you should turn it off during weddings or funerals or masses” — basically any time anyone was in the church. So I made a case that, in order for it to be a powerful mechanism for dialogue, we should keep it going all the time. They still wanted it turned off. I decided to leave it on, interrupting a mass. One of the priests responded by giving a really moving talk about what it was, why it was there. He spoke about the complexity of loss, militarism and colonialism in the context of religion and spirituality. He brought up all these amazing ideas, and then they all agreed to leave it on permanently for the 66 days that it was installed.
It interrupted every ceremony from then on, in some cases for long periods. There was one day that 72 people died in a bomb attack in a marketplace in Baghdad, and the bell tolled for a really long time — around18 minutes of every hour. But it became a talking point in all of the following ceremonies that happened at the church. And then people started going to it and praying and spending time with it.
You described the bell piece as “disruptive and meditative.” Is that a quality you’d like to have in all of your pieces?
Yeah, definitely. The notion of meditation holds a pretty key role in my life. It’s something that I do quite often and that has been really helpful for me in terms of reconciling certain experiences. Or just as a moment to observe. And the impulse of my work is offering something that is, on some level, poetic and abstract and beautiful. But maybe within the context of that beautiful image or sound or whatever it happens to be, there’s something about loss that’s communicated. And I feel like to get into such complex territory as loss, we need to be in somewhat of a meditative or soothed or nourished space.
So I try to make it a palatable space. I try to make it something that’s comfortable and beautiful and ethereal and also extremely ephemeral. These works come and go.
Tell us about some of your collaborations with other Fellows.
I also work as a designer, and run a small organization called Brainvise. We do everything from apps to art and we work with clients having a big impact by doing good things in the world. Right now we’re collaborating with TED Senior Fellow Eric Berlow and his endeavor, TRU NORTH LABS.
Eric is an ecologist and complexity scientist, and he’s looking for a way to make complex problems more simple to understand. He does a mapping exercise where he essentially characterizes the ‘ecosystem’ of a problem by identifying how all the parts influence one another. Then from that ecosystem map, he identifies the key leverage points — the key issues or nodes with the most potential influence. Those are the places where creative solutions could have the most widespread positive impact on a problem.
Right now, Brainvise is working on videos, interactive infographics, and a website, and has built an app, TRU NORTH LABS MAPPR, that allows Eric to crowdsource data with which to make the problem-eco-maps. The one we’re working with right now is the Vibrant Data Project, sponsored by Intel. It’s about trying to understand what boons and barriers social entrepreneurs face as they develop social platforms, and what can be done that might augment what they’re already doing to enhance social justice, health care, economic opportunity, health and well-being. With the help of our collaborator Juliette Powell, we have more than 50 social entrepreneurs participating, including a bunch of TED Fellows (Sonaar Luthra, James Patten, Dominic Muren, Jon Gosier, Erik Hersman and Juliana Rotich from Ushahidi, Esra’a Al Shefei, Walid Al-Saqaf, Bre Pettis, Jean-Baptiste Michel, Jimmy Lin, Cesar Harada, Su Kahumbu, Faisal Chohan, Michael Karnjaprakorn and Jessica Green). Other folks participating include John Battelle and John Perry Barlow from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
For me, it’s awesome because the creative side of my work gets to be expressed, but it also satisfies a deep desire to have an impact. Art works on a much longer timeline in its effects. But in terms of my work with Eric, I can see how my work directly augments the efforts of people who are trying to do good things.