I'm a visual artist and writer in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

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Blog Archives dated September 2012

Unsystematic searching / scratching in glass

Finding myself far from the familiar, I am more aware of the world. Everything I read seems somehow connected, as if each book or blog post I come across is a mark on a map I am just beginning to understand. My brain is attuned; I keep making connections without trying. Living in a new place makes it easier to see things differently, to notice all the little details. Hardly knowing anyone here means my world is quieter, and I write more. I feel a fullness of purpose I haven’t felt since I lived in Montreal.

This clarity is perhaps because I have been reading a lot. Moving was an opportunity to pare down my library. Most of my books are in boxes in Newfoundland, lending a new essentiality to the ones I brought. A few days ago I chose four thin volumes to reread: John Berger’s And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, Don McKay’s Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness, Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald. Books about channelling firsthand experience into memory and meaning.

I am writing in the university library, at a small table lit mostly by sunlight. Nothing urges me to write more than a chair beside a window. A moment ago I overheard two students at a nearby table talking about a history class. One described his visit to a distant historical site, an apartment made famous because a writer or writers had lived there: “The windows were full of writing; they scratched poems to each other in the glass.” My muddled impression is that he was talking about New England, but a little web research seems to suggest Robert Burns.

Writing in public has always felt best to me; I prefer coffeeshops, libraries and parks to the tiresome quiet of a desk at home. Used bookstores and chance conversations are my favourite ways to research. I do my best thinking while walking. These methods leave room for serendipity. I know I am on the right track when I feel slightly uncertain about the work; a little uncertainty leaves space for reinterpretation. It suits my work to feel a little unfinished, rough around the edges, liminal. Sometimes I work best when I’m not sure what I am working on.

“As you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons why I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian, which is in a tiny little museum somewhere, which you would never find in London. And in that you find odd details which lead you somewhere else, and so it’s a form of unsystematic searching […] And the more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way, i.e., in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field.”

— from The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald

Imaginary lines

From Quiet City

Aaron Katz’s film Quiet City is a lesson in seeing slowly, in making silence meaningful. Watching it is like reading Bashō for the first time; it puts me in touch with how I experience and interpret the world. Afterwards I feel fine-tuned, yet slightly off-balance, as if a wind has shifted direction slightly. Quiet City reminds me that it is possible to string together a series of small moments into something more.

This is how I make art, whether photographs, poems, blogs or book projects. Each project begins as a sort of journal, a series of small moments strung together, and over time tends to synthesize into a cohesive stream of work. I find this process of producing a series of small works over an extended period of time immensely rewarding. Thus watching Quiet City is an affirming, sometimes astonishing experience. I watch it when I want to remember how to remember.

“Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky.”

— John Berger, from And our faces, my heart, brief as photos

index of first lines at Reese Bullen Gallery

index of first lines at Reese Bullen Gallery

My digital print index of first lines is currently being shown in the art department faculty & staff show at Reese Bullen Gallery, Humboldt State University, in Arcata, CA. I’m currently teaching Web Media & Design here at Humboldt.

Here’s the artist statement you can see on the wall there:

I am interested in adapting digital photographic data into information systems usually associated with language and literature, such as an index of first lines.

Occasionally found in anthologies of poetry, an index of first lines lists poems alphabetically according to each first line, eschewing authorship, title and chronology. A reader might not always recall the title or author of a poem, but is likely to remember how it begins. I’ve always found indexes of first lines amusing as exercises in found poetry – reading the lines sequentially often results in a charmingly garbled, wandering diatribe, full of false starts.

index of first lines contains the first row of pixels from every image created with my first digital camera, from the day I bought it until the day it died. The lines of pixels are stratified in chronological order, with the earliest photo at the top. The resulting image contains 2048 × 5197 pixels (my camera produced images that were 2048 pixels wide, and there are 5197 photos).

Software tools such as Photoshop often impose a film-photography metaphor onto digital imaging. To get away from such metaphors, I use computer programming to manipulate digital image data in a way that is intrinsically digital. In this work, a PHP script was used to copy pixels from thousands of photos on my hard drive and compile them into this image.

index of first lines is a product not only of a digital camera, but of computer code. It is composed of a series of sequential images that are never perceived individually. Like an index of poems, its usefulness as a reference device depends on my memory. Taken out of context, it has a certain surreal quality.

While it’s impossible for me to identify individual photos, looking at this image does bring back memories. Thicker bands of colour indicate distinct sessions of photographing, when I snapped many photos with similar backgrounds. For instance, a certain band of white near the centre is the trace of the overcast sky on the afternoon I first visited Stonehenge. In this way, index of first lines is a cross-section of my memory, or at least my photographic habits. Examining it is an act of reading.

The faculty and staff show is open from September 13 – October 4, 2012.

Paint buckets and particle physics

“We don’t need more media ecologists raising their fists in boosterism or detraction, painting overly general pictures with broad brushes. We need more media entomologists and media archaeologists overturning rocks and logs to find and explain the tiny treasures that would otherwise go unseen. We need more media particle physicists and media nanotechnologists explaining the strange interactions of the tiniest examples of various media, videogames among them.”

— Ian Bogost, from How To Do Things With Videogames

“Today, as more artists are turning to new media, few are willing to undertake systematic, laboratory-like research into its elements and basic compositional, expressive, and generative strategies. […] Those few who are able to resist the immediate temptation to create an “interactive CD-ROM,” or make a feature-length “digital film,” and instead focus on determining the new-media equivalent of a shot, sentence, word, or even letter, are rewarded with amazing findings.”

— Lev Manovich, from The Language of New Media

This morning I finished Ian Bogost’s “How To Do Things With Videogames”, and this excerpt from his conclusion reminded me of Lev Manovich’s similar appeal to new media artists to do a little labwork. I am quite drawn to the idea of systematically exploring what distinguishes digital media from other media. I’ve tried to pursue this in projects such as index of first lines (which is currently being shown at Reese Bullen Gallery here in Arcata) and The Complete Works (after bpNichol).

In 2005 I coded a very basic raster image editor, pixelpad. I had just finished art school, and was thinking about what it meant to be a digital artist. For me, coding an image editor was an exercise in getting to know my materials, akin to a painter learning to mix his or her own colours. I can’t say that I was “rewarded with amazing findings,” but I definitely learned a lot, and it made me question some of my assumptions about what I was doing.

pixelpad was hacked together with JavaScript and PHP, and used HTML <div> elements for pixels. It was pretty easy to get started, and I quickly added a lot of small details like the thumbnail preview, a pixel grid that could be switched on and off, a resizeable canvas, and shortcut keys.

Coding the fill tool was pretty challenging, and I remember questioning whether I really understood how a “paint bucket” tool worked. The logic is something like “when the user clicks on a pixel, check whether each adjacent pixel is the same colour; then repeat as necessary, checking whether each pixel adjacent to the previous pixels (which have not already been checked) is the same color; when all adjacent pixels have been checked, fill all appropriate pixels with the current colour.” In 2005 I knew a lot less about coding than I do now, and I remember my browser freezing up dozens of times as I accidentally created infinite loops. I also had to figure out small details, such as whether diagonally adjacent pixels should be included. In the end, I got the fill tool working to my satisfaction. I never did get the “generate png” function to work properly.

A screenshot of pixelpad.

A pink house, a black dog

We lived for a year in this house, which Erin called the Pink Estate. It was a wonderful house to inhabit, warm and with many windows and a backyard that trailed off into trees. Tucked at the end of a street on a little hill in the middle of Corner Brook, we had a 360° view of the city in the winter when the trees were bare. I drew the house a couple of times for party invitations.

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