Transformation, Transition and the Song of Myself
In Part 1, I referenced how an experimentation with selfies and the reflexive psychology spent reviewing them led to several new series: Whitespace-Bluespace, Poppy Transitory (formerly Wheel of Fortune) and Channeling.
The selfies are not themselves a new series, nor were they the only impetus behind my new projects, but they did lead into further philosophical exploration of image-making, serialization and methods of re-orienting my idea of “self” and “other” (and self presented as other). They formed the outset of deeper methodology for these new bodies of work, distinct but interlaced, each emergent from The Cascade- Moments in the Televisual Desert and Desert (Loss).
I have always delighted in being a very analytical, even impersonal, artist. I’ve focused on philosophical and social-theoretical contexts, even when the core idea emerged from a secret, personal impetus. I have avoided the self-indulgent biographical–partly out of defiance, partly out of disinterest–denying how fiercely personal many artists can be about their work. But I see things changing. I am allowing more of the personal to guide the conceptual. While this essay reveals much that appears biographical and terribly personal, and I find myself conflating the personal with the public more often in this year’s work, there is still a distance between the private language and the outward manifestation. In other words, I outline the personal-historical here to help support my bigger-than-the-self concepts, though I now adroitly nod to my own participation in the “self.”
In moving through this territory, I also embraced the meditatively self-ascendant Whitman–adopting an aware position of the self, a poetic system of “selfies,” an expansion of self into non-self, and a recognition of our selves oriented within the flow of language and image, thought and word, event and recollection, place and displacement.
I sing myself.
The landscape sings itself, sings the self of my re-invented heroes, of my self re-engaging material from my past. My far past. My recent past. My soon-to-be-past in the delicious present.
I sing the association and connections of myself, within myself, within that unique, time-stamped moment that fascinated Charles Baudelaire—that for all of the sameness one moment to the next, there is something vital and undeniable about our presence in our unique moment in time, with our whirl of knowledge and histories, influences, memories and locations; “for almost all our originality comes from the seal which time imprints on our sensations.”
I am a product. A production.
I am a result of the weird, Hollywood-desert-Mojave; an abstract of my parents and friends, memories and lovers (narrative and episodic), my philosophies and writing, the fullness of food and softness of body, the buzzing of screens and static of audio, the shapeshifting Lego blocks of television and music, rocks and sky–commercials and sand, politics and play, spiky Joshua trees and burned-out cars, flaming deserts and earthquake rubble. I am the dialectic of objects lost, objects gained. The childhood-internalized language of Whitman, Heller, Plato, Dostoyevsky, Mom, Dad, truck drivers and trailers, stolen pizza and scribbled poetry, space shuttles and aerospace, mine shafts and abandoned boxes. I am a product of the television narrative, strung across so many series and characters, so many enshrined decades. Those stories written in the spare spaces in old magazines, stuffed dog under my arm (the dog dad and I picked out at an arts & crafts show, from a table of handmade plushies wrapped in coffin-like plastic, in the parking lot of Antelope Valley College in 1979).
I am a side-glance of the weird, plaster King Tut bust, bought for $5 at the Four Points Swapmeet, presented by mom & future step dad, delivered proudly in a white sheet. Brady Bunch orange and ’80s electric blue. Heavy and life-sized. Grounded and cheap. I still think of how I wrapped his head again in a sheet when we had to evacuate my childhood home. He was waiting for me to return, to retrieve him, alone in the leftovers of my room, on the knobbled orange-brown carpet, nestled with my bottle collection and space shuttle, my clothes and childhood books. He waited. I never returned.
Just as the passages above moved from the abstract to the concrete, each of my new series vacillates between the almost-gained and almost-lost, straddling subtle clues and purposeful diffusion. There is a fascinating tension between the nondescript, compressed recollection of moment-as-concept, and the radiant, often fixating pulse of raw detail–of moment-as-exposition, and I try to engage this in different ways with each of these new bodies of work. The tension between specificity and obscurity is certainly the key to much of this new work. The in-between space is where it all happens…
…The space of gray within gray, the cat whose corpse crawled with worms, my foot plunged into his cavernous body, bare in the desert, and who I later buried with a garden trowel, sending his quiet form back to the sand beneath the Joshua tree (the same tree still visible on Google Street View, on David Hockney’s–my–Highway 138, Pearblossom Highway). All those stolen guitar picks I snaked from my brother’s friends when their bands rehearsed in my parent’s bedroom, also buried under the Joshua. All those stubbed toes, seed pods and firearms…
So many luscious and terrible moments, ideas, pinpoints, pinpricks.
Whatever became of my box of plastic animals? My sister’s stories, written on notebook paper and illustrated with plastic toy animals, Scotch-taped to each page as a 3D visual: cows and fences, horses and cats, creating a thick, metered book with strange pages and caverns? I felt guilty pulling the black and white dog from his place near the end of one of her stories… I played with him out of context, with my own toy animals, and his adventures continued. I did not put him back in the book.
Now all the animals are lost. And things are still just things. And whatever becomes of them? Are they lost in the tension between specificity and obscurity, like memory, like each individual held delicately in a photograph? Before they left our possession, after they were lost?
What’s become of my blue bottle and tape player? Those black trash bags filled with ephemera from our old house, piled in the cracked-stucco Model A garage, alongside the single remaining grapevine?
These mundane things, the coffee cup of our daily greet, the blue toothbrush and broken-prong comb. These delightful, simple things… I sing for them in these new visual pieces. I sing for the simple associations, as much as for the grander connections to personal loss, to cultural grief.
I sing the song of ordinary things. Of ordinary selves folded into ordinary moments.
I sing the tones of my self-as-formality, that outlined person on off-white bond, presented and polished, distributed and structured. I was part of the first dot com boom. I’ve been an editor in chief, private investigator, copy writer, video editor, web designer, artist assistant, sheet music salesperson–you name it, from bowling alleys to amusement parks, window painting to entertainment writing. I’ve sold hot dogs and held international conference calls. I performed for the space shuttle Endeavor roll-out at Hangar 10, marched in two Rose Parades, been on TV, built websites and wrote copy, published and rejected, I’ve lectured and researched, even been a “cover girl” for a Japanese technology magazine…
Are employment stats part of the song of ourselves? The linear facts of metered existence?
My resume doesn’t tell the time I was nearly stabbed and coolly disarmed the knife-bearing attacker. It doesn’t reference the summer I saved a friend from wild dogs in the desert, or the after-lunch pause where I yanked a co-worker off the street by her blouse as a bus bore down on her in muggy San Francisco. These are the socially heroic thing, but there are just as many (or more) moments of fear, confusion and longing, and even more points of quiet heroism: the process of waking up each day. Of continuing. My resume doesn’t log the times I’ve been without food and electricity, couch-surfing and family-less, washing my clothes with a neighbor’s hose in high school, when I ate leftovers from friends’ lunches; the tail-end of bananas shared by my friend Dave, the tail-end of everything, all the time. It does not reference the time I missed the chance to meet Allen Ginsberg before he died, thanks to an anthropology final. Or the time I once found a life-sized, headless Buddha in the Mojave Desert. I’ll share the story some time, with or without the formality of our public, published selves.
What is biography but a creative, forced-linear narrative? Accentuating the colorful?
What is a resume, but a forced-linear evaluation of the concrete and ‘important’?
What is biographical artwork? How much biography is necessary (if any) to engage a piece?
Dissipated memory is itself pressed into coherence, and extraneous or negative details often airbrushed and removed, sensations bound to a host of romanticized facts or apprehensions, misaligned and finessed. Fierce details are often distilled into crystalline, prescient moments (but often unstable, unreliable). Other details are skimmed and polished, forming inanimate phrases like “parents and friends.”
What is a resume? Are we the sum of our “jobs”? Our roles and proscriptions? Are we the sum of our experiences, or our perception of those same encounters?
Enter the song of my characters, another song of my extended self.
A friend’s large-scale figurative paintings frequently make use of his own “self” as the body-subject, though I am not certain he would consider them “self portraits” in a literal or traditional sense. There is certainly a self-portrait aspect (or else he would have enrolled other male models), and these “self” portraits speak as metaphoric modernity, becoming selfless in their representation of cultural and philosophical typologies, and are themselves headless, homogenized, repetitious, dulled in the face of the antithetic machine. Just as my discussion of the resume and the uncomfortable tension between personal detail and the airbrushed, presented self are in disharmony, the men in his paintings are rendered with sensitive realism, such exquisite specificity that blemishes are elevated to the divine, concrete.
But his figures are denied the specificity of identity, yet they possess a peculiar level of detail that would render the nude, fragile and exposed men utterly recognizable to me, if I happened upon them. There’s a tension here between the face-as-identity and the body as identifier. Quite unlike most selfies, actually, where the map of the body, in its fierce detail, is in contrast to the headless erasure of implied, conceptual decapitation. His “selves” are disconcertingly anchored in predictable normalcy, yet denied any identity through the recognizable face, any ability to communicate or understand.
My selfies are so heavily based on the “face” that they become repetitive and dulled, inseparable and blended. A monotonous stream of the same essential form and set of colors, providing a different kind of tension in the weighted specificity of features. As my friend’s work has moved to embrace first a more complete image of a headed figure (after its early headlessness)–again allowing the face to enter–a kind of non-self-portrait rooted in the self, it now engages an emptied sense of space. The figure has been, or will be, present, but is not located within the represented moment.
My earliest Cascade works were more focused on that kind of recently emptied, but obviously occupied, urban environment, or lived space. I suggested that figures had recently passed through, left imprints, littered the environment with their stats and biographies. Slowly, vehicles snuck into the landscape, then figures emerged, oddly embraced by my formerly all-abstract eye. The tail end of my MFA work, then, allowed figures to be fully present, but the landscape was potentially more vital than the characters, a division I now find upended. Just as my friend’s work naturally moved into new territory, I bring my characters forward now, into several new phases–and the figures are more crucial than the lived space they inhabit.
My friend’s work was thus an important and direct influence on Whitespace-Bluespace and Channeling.
The face and the body are the matrix upon which we exchange and interchange, the space others identify, a literal and conceptual anchor of placement, within place, within culture. As two of the three new series are filled with figures, these bodies are a curated response to myself, to my insecurities and questions, to my isolation, dignity and indignity–and as I am not particularly an emotional or very personal artist (though these last few articles might suggest otherwise), these new series are allowing me to indulge a bit in the very idea of self.
This move toward the character, the self as other, and the time-distorted whirl of indeterminate events allows me to abandon some of the ties to regional specificity I’ve been focused on (though the ties remain, if less prominent). The character as being, as figure, as selfie, as referent and referrer, has become fascinating to me. The desert, Hollywood, California, all undercarriage, superstructure now.
The de-centered and de-structured heroes are moving into new territory, allowed to be whole and present in a sense. I grant them access to the previously abstract picture plane, just as I once allowed vehicles to enter the empty expanse. My friend Pam, a fellow printmaker, says “I don’t like the ones with the people,” preferring instead the more abstract environments. The abstraction, for me, is only one variable. I have not abandoned the abstract stills, but now they offer vital tension for the panes with people. I see myself in the people. I’ve seen myself even in the flimsy posters and watery re-reruns, the action figures and advertising.
Two of the three series are centered on men, my ultimate self-as-other (like The Cascade…) More on this gender tension in a future post.
I will also fully flesh out each of these new bodies of work in separate posts of their own, but here’s a taste:
This is my biggie. My solo exhibition and beyond.
I spent 8 months doing real-time, photographic capture-manipulations of the Miami Vice television show, which is currently airing each weekday evening, 9-10 pm MST on Cozi TV. As with all my media work, I had watched Miami Vice in its original run, in a particular time-and-place context. More on that below.
Each night, for an hour, I did experimental photographic “monotypes” right from the television screen, making good use of the show’s one-hour time slot and its watery, softened, broadcast form. I set rigid parameters for my manipulation times and methods. I could have easily watched it all in a week or two, binge-style, and done my work in this manner, but there was something about slowing down, about restricting the raw manipulations to an hour each day, preventing me from being out, from doing other things, tying me to the TV screen each night–sometimes against my will. Slowing down put me in a different headspace. Different events, moods, daily affects–these all impacted the way I engaged the televisual language on a given evening.
Limiting myself to an hour of generating imagery created both tension and frustration–some nights I was energized, wanting more and more! Other nights, my life-circumstances bogged me and the project was dogged, nagging, relentless. That’s how I knew I was on to something. When I felt like doing more, I curated and glitched selected moments, rather than finding a way to gather more raw imagery.
As always, I used my cell phone. On my knees, in front of the TV. I’ve gotten so that I can manipulate and shift color, form, focus and distortion in fluid ways, and I worked my little iPhone 4S so hard, I killed it.
The project was all-consuming. Gathering became an intense daily ritual that lengthened the scope of the project, requiring focused introspection and systematic gathering. After gathering, I also put some of the stills through additional glitch manipulation, to purposefully lose, obscure and erode key information that might have provided clarity and resolution. I watched the series through twice, researching and taking notes, then on the third time through, one hour each day, I extracted particular kinds of imagery–one season at a time.
The result is a 23,000 + image archive, composed of the original, real-time manual glitch / experimental photographic pieces and digital glitch images. This in itself has a stark relevancy I’m still unpacking. It makes prolific use of the “before” and “after” I describe in Before, After – Part 1, and the characters are trapped in a terrible cycle, suspended within an indeterminate space of the impending and the retreating. Some of the experiemental photographs, rather like monotypes in their single-shot pull from the screen, are left raw. These don’t undergo more manipulation after the fact, and are prescient, alive. Others, as I mentioned above, receive glitch treatment for conceptual reasons I’ll explain in a future post.
Whitespace-Bluespace – Project Statement
Life is a rush of contingencies. The wonderful, terrible sublime of “before” and “after,” a strange and delicate dance of relativity. As we commit experience to memory, details become blurred, lost, remixed—fact folded with sensation, sequencing lost to the abyss of recollection. Over time, we may even embellish, or crystallize moments, often losing more than we retain.
Memory formation relates to the way we engage television—we grab bits and pieces of information about characters and situations, often by viewing episodes out of order. We understand events by assembling a sensitive web of memories, culled, even appropriated, from different seasons. Like episodic TV viewing, we construct a mosaic by assembling clues extracted from the media flow—from our life experiences—allowing us to “know” people, places, and events by collating often disparate pieces of data, much of it reframed (often misunderstood).
Using cell phone photography in a real-time system of manipulation, I spent 8 months capturing digital “monotypes” from the TV screen, generating an archive of 23,000+ experimental images. These image-cells were mined from a personally poignant television series—Miami Vice, which I watched in its original context, during a time of personal loss and disruption. Using an obsessive, ritual system of watching and extracting, combined with manual and digital glitch, I suggest the imperfection of memory and our incomplete understanding of situations. These suspended moments are seemingly extracted from the “before” and “after” of an unclear, yet disturbing, system of events that vacillate between the almost-gained and almost-lost.
The characters, like memory, are composed of fragmented, episodic information, sampled and informed by our own recollection of other images in the installation. The viewer might begin to understand, but true clarity is denied. There is a tense passage of moment into moment, an endless catastrophe of “instants” presented as passive works on paper, active video and intimate View-Master spaces. My eroded heroes are denied resolution, forever stuck in transition, their lives suspended as frozen, oddly linked moments—undermined, human, uncertain, temporary.
Why Miami Vice?
My engagement with the televisual language of the program is tied to a distinct sequence of “before” and “after” life-moments of personal impact. As I mentioned in the first half of the essay, I watched Miami Vice on our little TV (when we had electricity), recorded at a friend’s house on a watery VHS tape because we couldn’t afford a VHF antenna, watched and re-watched because it was a precious capture. The process of borrowing and remixing media via tape, and savoring each chance I got to watch it, was tied into my parents’ impending divorce, and the downward spiral of homelessness, distancing and confusion that resulted.
The characters seemed so strong at the time, I longed to be both of the male heroes in alternation.
I reacquainted myself with the series quite by accident, just after my thesis work, which also dealt with the impact of televisual media on concepts of self and place. Stumbling across it on Cozi TV also coincided with tumult in other parts of my life, and at first it was a welcome, aesthetically compelling refuge.
After only an episode, I found it stirred a lot of surprising sensations within me–from gushing philosophy to raw emotion, adding fuel to my media-mind. I found a fascinating, compelling thread running through each episode–the male heroes often faced loss, destruction of the self, a terrible sense of distancing–the deaths of loved ones, failure to complete missions, subjugation by terrible enemies, denial of closure–in episodic tenacity. They were rarely successful in an iconic fashion, instead suffering loss and resistance at every turn. Resolutions were complicated, problematic, and even when things tipped in their favor, it rarely resolved the way they expected (or hoped). There were no ridiculously triumphant heroes here.
I had rediscovered heroes already plagued by a strange tension between the appearance of success and the corrosion of endless defeat. A progression that unsettles and warps the main characters, with Sonny in particular emergent as a jaded, unwilling participant. As I mentioned above, I watched the series several times through, savoring each moment as I had in my youth, while realizing I was simultaneously tipping over into a new body of work, with new territory. It’s funny how that happens.
It’s so easy for many artists (and people in general) to deride “old” TV, as if by the very nature of its context, it epitomizes failure and deserves ridicule because it is from the time “before.” You, dear readers, know me by now. I never deride. Each media-moment is vital, worth refreshing and revisiting, or revitalizing in the present moment. I never judge the programs that compel me for being simply themselves. How could I?
You can read more about Poppy Transitory in this blog post, as I went into greater depth about the now completed series.
Poppy Transitory investigates the sincere absurdity of processing loss with decorative memorials, themselves transitory tokens of grief. Based in a fiercely personal, yet oddly abstract pain, the series considers the story-infused space of mourning—colorful, obsessive layers behave like memory extracts.
Conflating the mysterious Mojave Desert deaths of my sister Cindy Adams (1972) and musician Gram Parsons (1973), I ask what it means to “know” someone through location-tied story; to “understand” events via embellished clues, just as I “knew” both individuals through family narrative. What does it mean to assuage loss through well-meaning transference? Do gifts for the dead resolve our perplexity?
To engage this, I use transparent layers to suggest recalled memory, story cycles, and the deluge of tokens posthumously offered to Cindy and Gram. I deconstruct and reframe the language of the Mojave Desert, the visual vocabulary of memorial shrines, and personal iconography from Cindy and Gram’s clothing, whirling them into a sensitive system of overlaid shapes. The desert they loved represents and consumes them.
Aware of its own artificiality, the work earnestly embraces our candy-colored attempts to mediate the space of grief with flowers, cards, and condolences—the physical trappings of a cultural process of mourning, often our only recourse in grappling with the unexplained. Poppy Transitory is itself a fragile, momentary monument to the passage of imprints, the trace of Cindy and Gram, and to our moment, an undeniable passage of its own.
The most undeveloped of the new series, I see Channeling as a project destined for excavation in fall and winter, bleeding into 2017, just as the seasons echo an appropriate, often monstrous shift in perception and place.
I watched a lot of movies and TV growing up. Obviously. Hell, all of my work in maturity grapples with this, my “self” intricately connected to media. I recorded sounds, voices, music, from the TV screen and remixed them with portable tape players. I took pictures of the screen long before I knew it could ever be “art,” ever be socially relevant in any way. I understood the world, the interactions of people through media, parallel to my own physical dealings in the “real” world, through media.
Thus, I experienced a lot of films broadcast on TV, scrunched and reformatted for the mosaic mass audience. Of particular interest to me were the Universal films with tragic, despairing heroes like the Wolfman–monsters more human than the humans who attempted to subjugate them. Lon Chaney Jr. was a recurrent figure, and my familiarity with his form, his voice, is tied to an experiential window that speaks to me both of childhood, and of survival-as-desperation; his characters are nearly always haunted, ineffectual. His lifespan nearly echoes my grandfather’s, born the same year, died three years after grandfather, before I was born, but after Cindy had died. Another fascinating shuffle of before, after tied to the other two series.
Each time I watched a reprised film, it reactivated the media in the present moment. Each time I watch one now, it’s like raising the media-material from the dead–revitalizing it in the present. Film supercedes mortality in a sense, both the original recording and in the re-engagement of older films… as if the characters, the actors, the movie sets and lived spaces, the flora and landscapes, are all reborn in perpetuity because of media.
I see this work dealing with living memory, re-emergence and the transitional states of bodies (and images) that are positioned between manifestation and death, between the archive and the actively engaged. Watching the performance of before, after, watching the performance of dead performers in lived, current space, is, in essence, a method of summoning. Channeling. Not unlike the Wolfman, who rises from death when hit by moonlight, the act of engaging material in the present moment reinvigorates it, reinforces its presence, its existence. It returns to vitality what has been lost.
Then there’s the added lore of film still impacting living memory. My memories of watching the films years ago–my new memories and connections, made when revisiting each film, when discussing and viewing, capturing and renewing–channeling the before into the after. This will be developed in the series. Artists Renee Green and Douglas Gordon deal deftly with this in different ways, and I am also turning again to their work for dialgoue.
Television as medium becomes, in itself, a medium (think spirit medium) spanning lived memory, experience and the inheritance of media culture as cultural and personal memory. Is watching a film akin to attending a media seance?
With Channeling, I also see there is something in this utter, diligent sense of despair… recognition and denial, submission and resistance found in Lon Chaney Jr.’s character panoply.
Is it the curse of modernity? The desire to find a place within the chaos?
The deliciousness of silence, each image and its mutations are a recorded, but experiential point—there was the point lived by the actors and creators, the viewers and me as the manipulator, the literal time in which I am photographing and working with the raw digital bytes. The literal time it took to film and cut the original footage. This is the experiential point of both subject and manipulator, mortality and immortality.