Bad at Sports

Interview with Jim Campbell

By Bad at Sports December 22, 2011
Jim Campbell.

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


What follows is an abridged version of the conversation Brian Andrews and Patricia Maloney had with Jim Campbell on November 22, 2011. You can hear the full conversation here.

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Brian Andrews: Jim Campbell is best known as an electronics artist, working with video, light, and interaction elements in his installations. His work has been included in numerous exhibitions and permanent collections, and most recently Exploded Views, installed in the atrium of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which opened this month. That’s probably a good place to begin.

Jim Campbell: It’s a large work, about twenty feet wide, twelve feet deep, and twelve feet high, and it’s installed about sixteen feet off the floor in the lobby in SFMOMA. I would say the most interesting thing about it is when you see it from the lobby area, it’s completely abstract, and it’s not until you climb the staircase and look at it from the landing that the image resolves itself. It’s a low-resolution work of the kind that I have been working with for the last ten years. There are three thousand lights, each about one inch big; each light is suspended on its own wire from above to create this randomized three-dimensional grid. Each light flickers like a pixel, so together they resolve as an image.

BA: SFMOMA has been using its atrium space more and more. It has incredible verticality, but this work is farther back. It is tucked in closer to where the doors are, so when you walk in, there are all these LED spheres, each about the size of a ping-pong ball, and there is movement working through it.

JC: There is movement in the image; the spheres themselves aren’t moving.

BA: But when you are looking at it, you see patterns and flickers of movement that don’t resolve. There is an abstract blur of motion that is stretched out in some way, which I actually found to be really amazing.

JC: When you first saw it, did you know eventually that you would see an image, or did you think that this was the work?

Exploded Views (Improv), 2011; 2880 LED lights, custom electronics; installation view; commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy of the Artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco – New York. © Jim Campbell. Photo: Sarah Christian.

BA: I was trying to read into the abstraction and see how the image could resolve. And I found it kind of pleasurable in that space.

JC: So it wasn’t frustrating?

BA: It wasn’t frustrating for me; I love that stuff. When you go up the stairs, you see it better from the second balcony than from the first. From the first, you get a sense that there is a structure that arises out of it, and it becomes clearer and clearer the more time you spend with it. You start to understand the content of the video.

JC: There is this weird thing that happens, which actually didn’t occur to me until I was doing this kind of work for about five years. The only way to describe it is that your brain actually figures out how to look at the images after looking at it for a minute or two. Then you can figure out how to read the image. It’s not like you are trying to change the way you perceive the image, but your brain just clicks into a different kind of perception.

BA: Very apt description of the experience of looking at it. Unlike a lot of work, it prompts this internal process that gets me to stick around and look at it longer, as opposed to a painting, where I think, Okay, I got it. There is a method of inquiry that I must go through in order to experience the work.

Patricia Maloney: I thought it was interesting that Brian described the lights as moving, and you corrected him that actually the image is moving and not the lights. Because there is that sense within your work of how quickly the eye resolves the motion as movement [within the image], and how quickly the movement ceases to be abstract and becomes figural.

JC: As I’ve said, I’ve been doing these kinds of works for ten years, and typically, if you pause the work, the images become completely abstract. There is no way that you could figure out what you are looking at without the movement. So the movement in these works is really the most fundamental way your brain understands what you are looking at. It’s the primal aspect of what the image is. Unlike a regular image—where you take a video and freeze it and it just turns into a photograph. In this case, when you take the video and freeze it, it becomes abstract.

BA: Maybe that’s a good entry into the content within the videos themselves. It’s dance, which is movement in a distilled form. What was your process in selecting that, and why did you pick that particular content?

JC: For the past eleven years I’ve taken a very simple and relatively consistent approach to the works, in that I would look for existing content on the street or in the ocean. Whether it’s nature in motion or people or animals, I would find something that already existed instead of creating something. The thought for [Exploded Views] was to work with a choreographer—in this case, Alonzo King—and create imagery for the work. We thought that we could do something a lot more interesting that way because we were controlling the movement as opposed to me trying to find it. The thought was to take all of the characteristics that I’ve noticed over the years, like how important movement is and that when movement stops, it becomes abstract, and use them in the design of the dance. Sometimes the dancers stop and you don’t see them anymore.

BA: So the content is also rotating as well?

JC: It is. It all has to be high movement, as I said, just because of the processes of perceptions and the limitations of the media, if you will, or of the technology. It has to be figurative or very simple. For me, it’s an incredible opportunity because it is going to be up for a year at the museum, and every two months I can change it. I don’t even know what I’m doing the rest of the time.

PM: You’re describing the imagery as being very simple, yet the technology is incredibly complicated, at least to my mind. Can you talk about the underlying mechanism that produces this image?

JC: Some of that is a little complicated. I was an electrical engineer, so everything that I do I pretty much design myself. I tend to not use computers; I use customized electronic circuit boards. For this work, there are about three thousand pixels that are suspended, and there are about eight hundred circuit boards up at the ceiling of the museum. Each circuit board is a long strip that has four wires coming out of it, and there is a communications box that we call the driver box that contains the image. There is actually a single long wire that goes from the communication box to the whole work and transmits the image serially, like an old serial port, to the sculpture, so it’s very easy to change. I just take that box and download a new image into it from an SD card, for example.

Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio, 2010; video installation: custom electronics, 775 LEDs; 168 x 108 x 14 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco – New York. © Jim Campbell.

PM: It’s interesting that you choose to work with low-resolution images in light of a larger cultural sensibility that seems to be driven toward greater and greater resolution as technology allows for it.

JC: I worked in TV and then HDTV for twenty-five years before I gave up my day job. In the change from standard definition to high definition, I didn’t feel as if I was given anything more that would change my experiences. I started to think about what I might be able to communicate in a low-resolution image. Could there be anything poetic, or is there something that’s felt if I created low-resolution images? And the most interesting thing after all these years really does have to do with the movement aspect of the image. That’s all that’s left; there is no detail in the imagery. You really can’t tell what you are looking at, except in a very primal way. I see the works now as a form of primal communication in that they bypass the analytical parts of your brain through edges and details and colors. The low resolution leaves the work open to this more primitive, motion-based perception.

BA: It’s interesting that you talk about edges, because everything seems to have a soft fill. If your eye is seeing an edge, it’s seeing the edges of the bulb themselves, so everything is shading and shadow. I have a technical question: do they actually dim, or are they refreshing really fast on and off?

JC: No, they are, believe it or not, sixteen bits of resolution, which means it’s more than even 256 gray levels; it’s 65,000 gray levels. In the later works, it’s hard to tell.

BA: Once I had spent some time with the piece in the museum, I could see that there’s fabric. It wasn’t until I figured that out that my mind did an inversion of the positive and negative space and I could see that something light is moving in a darker silhouette.

What I love about this kind of work is that you have this very committed sense of interaction and experience for a viewer. I felt a little disappointed when I went to SFMOMA because I couldn’t be among the lights. I still had an experience with the lights, but it was very different than if I could enter the images or explore it in a way. I’d love to hear your intentions about an audience’s interactions with the work.

JC: The one thing that is missing from the work at the museum is being able to get six inches from it. It’s too small to actually walk in it, but to be able to get six inches away from it, where it’s completely in your peripheral vision. Most of these kinds of works are almost more about peripheral vision. If you look at that work with your peripheral vision, you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was low resolution, you would just be able to tell that a figure was going by. Something that I work with a lot and think about is how you see peripherally, which goes back to what I was saying about primal vision. Peripheral vision is really about motion and is not something that’s really used, except instinctually.

PM: What I find really interesting is the phenomenological encounter. Both the movement that exists in the work and the lure of the light create this heightened spatial and bodily experience.

JC: That goes back to Last Day in the Beginning of March, which was shown at the UC Berkeley Art Museum in 2003. That piece also included moving lights, but it wasn’t related to an image directly. I gave myself the challenge of creating a narrative out of the most minimal point of view—not from an artistic perspective, but from an informational perspective. I took twenty-five lights and shined them on the floor and modulated each light with a single rhythm tied to something that my brother did on the last day of his life. I see it as a poem of the last day of my brother’s life. These rhythmically changing lights—some slow, some fast—each had a sentence of text near them to cue you into what you were looking at or, more importantly, what you were feeling. You walk around and gradually get a sense of the narrative. It’s really not about looking at twenty-five flashing lights; it’s more about experiencing the environment in a way, mostly or majorly using your peripheral vision. There is a connection between that work and the low-resolution works in trying to reach an essence of an image, or in that case, of an event of the day.

PM: That was the installation that was my introduction to your practice and an exhibition that I got to work on for the MATRIX program. It was a surprisingly emotional, resonant piece for a lot of visitors who came through that space. I would have the opportunity to walk through with various visitors, and people who didn’t even read the text felt solemnity in the space and found it quite moving because of these modulating spotlights. One brought one’s own narrative into the space to understand that emotional resonance and subsequently carried your narrative out of that space.

I remember it was a really complicated installation to do, and that brings me to asking to what extent chance can come into play in your work, because, obviously in constructing these pieces, they have to be really carefully plotted out.

Last Day in the Beginning of March, 2003; twenty-six light bulbs, custom electronics, speakers, sound; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco – New York. © Jim Campbell.

JC: Because of the nature of the works—the work at SFMOMA, for example, and the work behind me, which is a prototype for a public artwork at the San Diego Airport—I can’t say I have no idea, but I’m quite worried before I install them whether they will be resolvable at all, and it’s important to me that they are. It wasn’t until I walked up on that balcony and I was able to see the image that I knew that [Exploded Views] worked. I can’t predict, although I’ve built scale models and tried to put myself at the right distance.

I’m not sure how chance enters into them. One of the problems that I have with making work is that I really think about something for two years before I even start to build it, so it’s completely predefined. There’s definitely some chance things that happen during the creation process, but not for these works, not for the ones we are talking about. 

PM: After living with an idea for so long, is there any sense of loss in realizing the work and bringing it into existence?

JC: No, because I was more worried than I was anything else, so it was more of a sense of relief, honestly. If you think about it, for most of the works that I do, like the one at the museum, you have to be really far away to read them, and so I was kind of shocked that you could read this thing that’s six feet big from five feet away from it. At this point, I’m very happy that it looks better than I thought it would in terms of its readability. I like being able to control the abstraction, but to do that, it has to be fairly readable before I can back off in different ways and make it more abstract. I can’t make it more readable than the technology allows for, but I can make it more abstract.

PM: How did you go from being an electrical engineer to an artist?

JC: It started in college actually; it’s a story I wind up telling a lot. I went to MIT, which, at the time, had the highest student suicide rate. It was certainly the most neurotic place I have ever been, and so I started doing photography and filmmaking to balance the environment and situation that I was in. I made art to stay sane, and I continued that for twenty-five years, both art and engineering. I had two lives; I even have another name as an engineer.

BA: A secret name?

JC: It’s actually my real name, which is…

PM: Jack!

JC: You actually know that?

PM: Well, it was on the studio directory.

BA: Other than the personal life balance, does that engineer practice influence the work that you make?

JC: Oh, absolutely. I would say it’s more important, in that it I use engineering for its tools. I feel fortunate as an artist who works in technology, and I know the technology more than I know the art. I don’t tend to fetishize; I’m not excited by the technology; I just use it. So I feel lucky in my relationship with technology.

PM: Artistically, do you see yourself in a trajectory with other artists, particularly California-based Light and Space artists, who came into using light from a reductive or spatial vantage point?

JC: Because of the way I came at it, it’s almost like I started big and got smaller. It wasn’t until I already got there that I felt like I started to be inspired by their work. I started with image, and I’m still mostly interested in creating images, even with the work at SFMOMA, which most people might describe as a three-dimensional image. It’s not a three-dimensional image, it’s a two-dimensional image stretched out.

I would say [James] Turrell’s work has been the most inspiring of artists who use light. It took me six months to come up with a way of succinctly describing his work and what it did for me. If you look at Turrell’s color fields, I think the reason they work so well and are so perceptually successful is that your brain is trying to image it. It’s the only thing you can look at where your brain can’t image anything. So you are trying to see something, but there’s nothing there. It plays with that, and it doesn’t give you anything. I think some of my work attempts to do the same thing.

BA: That’s actually interesting because, just a little while ago, I was thinking about your work in relation to an installation currently at the De Young Museum. They have a clock with a digital readout of what percentage of the day’s daylight has passed, which somehow automatically adjusts based off the date in the solar calendar. They have it installed right next to that window that leads to the Turrell installation. It’s almost a way of asking, “ What’s the Turrell going to be like right now?” You actually have a measurement of the light there, which is very much about the sun or transitional times of the sunlight.

Exploded Views (Improv), 2011 (detail); 2880 LED lights, custom electronics; installation view; commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy of the Artist and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco – New York. © Jim Campbell. Photo: Sarah Christianson.

PM: Which brings me back to something I was struggling with earlier, which is where your work meets up between being emotional and the logic you apply to it, almost instinctually.

JC: I think this will slightly answer your question. After doing these works for eleven years, I came to the conclusion at SFMOMA that the content of the imagery completely doesn’t matter, which is a really strange thing to say about these kinds of works, but it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean that the kickboxing won’t be completely different than the dancers, but what’s important is the experience. In other words, the content is taken in on a different level, and that’s not what’s interesting about the work. It took me eleven years to figure that out, and it’s not always true. I think the more abstract it is, and the more primal that it is in terms of the way it’s perceived, then the more true it is. 

PM: That makes me think about the times I’ve stood in front of your work with the intention of trying to decipher the image and that being the initial driver in looking at the work. And once that’s resolved, then all of a sudden, realizing my physical stance in relation to the work, how I’m looking at the work. These other things take over. What the work is really about is an operation that is obscured while you are trying to decipher what the image is. 

JC: It’s interesting that you put it that way, because one of the interesting things about low-resolution images—and I know this because I’ve lived with one for about eight years now—is that you actually don’t get sick of looking at it. I assume that’s because you never really see them, you are always wanting to see more. I know if I lived with any sort of video loop that was five minutes long, that [feeling] could last maybe two or three days; it wouldn’t matter what it was. 

BA: Do you change it out?

JC: No, it’s been the same thing for eight years. I’m not saying I’m excited by it, but I’m also not bored by it. It has the same kind of thing of engagement, not because of the content, because you never see the content, but because it’s something else and that’s where I think it’s more subliminal.

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Jim Campbell was born in Chicago in 1956 and lives and works in San Francisco. He received two Bachelor of Science degrees in Mathematics and Engineering. He has shown internationally and throughout North America in institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Carpenter Center, Harvard University; The Power Plan, Toronto; and the International Center for Photography, New York.

Campbell’s installation Exploded Views is on view in the atrium of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through September 25, 2012.

Listen to the full interview on Bad At Sports: Episode 326.

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