Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Art Then Technology (Part 2): Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop Back.

Fat Bastard: Initial Condition (three large polystyrene blocks arranged symmetrically)
(Return to Part 1
The relationship between technology and the contemporary art world is a fraught one. While genuine excitement surround projects that use powerful computer programs or novel CNC fabrication techniques and art history can be unrolled as a series of technologies, most historians, curators, collectors and artists are best described as late-adopters, if not out right non-adopters. I myself am a somewhat imperfect example (it's complicated). I began my career by apprenticing myself to a Luddite. The system of master/apprentice is itself a relic of the Middle Ages, it was abandon by the mainstream as form of art education way before the guy I apprenticed to was born - but he was a Luddite, so I lucked out. It turned out to be an ideal pedagogical format for me, not only to learn lost wax plaster investment bronze casting-- a technology that is over 5000 years old--but also a chance to get my bearings in the world. When I began my apprenticeship I was a wastrel truant case from Chicago. I had just barely graduated high-school with a very low D grade point average, that had its beginnings in primary school. College was not an option, and even if it had been, it probably would have been a waste of time and money. As unconventional as it was, my apprenticeship was my first taste of academic success of any kind (I wish I could have started it at 9 instead of 19).

As my friends were settling into campus life around the country I was hitch-hiking to a small corner of the Olympic Peninsula to make a place for myself at the end of a dirt road in the midst of second growth forests, clear cuts, dairy cows and hippy land cooperatives. I was a fey club-kid who had never been outdoors and in total darkness at the same time (I found it alarming). The master I apprenticed myself to, Tom Jay, was not a hippy, but that would not be immediately apparent to the casual observer. In his youth he had been a brawler and an aspiring barfly. He had found his way out of trouble by escaping the city. Doing so, he inadvertently joined the generation that had gone "back-to-the-land" and chosen to "drop out." But Tom was more Dharma Bum than flower child. He was a giant of a man (6'4", 280 lbs. and one of the strongest human beings I have ever met) who sported a thick Grizzly Adams beard and sported a beret. I was 6'1" and weighed about 125 lbs (for non-Americans, that's tall, and extremely skinny). We were an unlikely pair. I remember the confusion between us when Tom asked if my dog chased cows. I think he believed me when I told him that I had no way of knowing, because she had never seen a cow, but it took me a couple of days to completely convince him and that I wasn't pulling his leg - that, not only had she never seen a cow, the only place I had ever seen a cow was in the zoo.

When I met Tom he had been the owner of one of the oldest continuously running art bronze foundries on the West Coast. He was (and is) a sculptor, living in a log cabin he had built himself with a wood stove for heat (which he also built himself). Until recently, the house had no running water - he, his wife Sara Mall, and then-young son Dru, depended instead on water that had to be carried in buckets from a well. Tom had witched the well using two bent metal rods, and dug it by hand, using a truck axle sharpened to a point and a small shovel. (Anyone who has ever had to dig through the clay and stone hardpan that passes for soil on the Olympic Peninsula knows how totally bad-ass that is.). Tom ended up being much more than a boss or even a “master” to me. He filled a place in my life that I have never found an adequate word for, something prehistoric and avuncular; a combination of teacher, mentor and trouble making favorite uncle. Our friendship is one, if not the, most important of my life (my dad likes to say Tom saved my life). 
Tom Jay (with the beard) and I (with the big hair) working together in 1990.

For three years I lived on his land and spent my days absorbing his skills and ideas, but also his way of life. I spent another three years living near by, working as craftsman and sculptor and trying to sort out how much of what I learned from Tom was organically part of me and how much was affectation on my part. Tom would be the first to tell you that he is not a “city guy.” While I enjoyed living in the woods, I very much was. It was never my intention to “drop out,” I moved out west to learn a trade and in my heart of hearts I don’t think I ever really did, but as it turns out I very much “dropped back,” and I am very happy I did. Once I acclimated to the quiet of the place (I dreamed of sirens and screaming street fights for the first few weeks), I loved living in the woods. Getting my water from Tom’s well with an old cast iron hand-pump, and carrying it back to my little 10’x15’ shack in the woods behind the foundry was hard, but it was also the best water I have ever tasted. At my core I remained very much a city kid however, in my mind I measured the distance I walked to and from the well to my little house in Chicago city blocks (about three). To return to the city, to become a "city guy" once again, one of the things I needed to sort out for myself was something I never would have given much thought to if I hadn't worked with Tom: my personal relationship to technology.
The studio where I spent my first winter in Washington.
My own relationship to technology was never without contradictions. I grew up going back and forth between my mother's rambling 150 year old Victorian wood frame house in Oak Park and my father's compact downtown apartment on the 25th floor of a steel and glass high rise on Chicago's waterfront. My mother liked cooking with gas heat my father had a very early micro-wave. But both of my parents were ambivalent about TV (video games were mostly an issue of spending time in arcades). It was only after I had spent years emulating Tom, wearing his ideals as my own, that the contradictions I grew up with began to look like choices.

It would take a few more years for me to unravel the contradictions I had adopted from Tom. If it was not always clear to me which ideals were Tom's and which were mine, it was always clear to me that what I loved most about his ideals were their contradictions. He is a committed ecologist who admired loggers and fishermen (if not the corporations and industries that have made those occupations unsustainable). I kept that one, forests shouldn’t be playgrounds for the rich, they should be healthy workplaces. 

The little house I built on Tom's land - I eventually enclosed the porch, with made the place 10'X 20'
And although Tom is an accomplished poet and essayist, he refuses to use a computer. That one I wore as my own for years (like a hair shirt), really only beginning to use a computer for the first time well after I had moved to New York and returned to school. Tom writes everything long hand. He used to say he would use a computer if guys ever wrote love songs about them the way they sing about their cars. Although he won’t admit it, and still refuses to email, that has happen. He prided himself on his mastery of an ancient craft, but was also a wiz with power tools. I like to think I have struck a very different, but equally contradictory, relationship between ancient tech (blocks) and the modern tools I have access to (I sing songs of love to laptops and table saws).

Kevin Kelly, who is a little younger than Tom, but is described as a “techno-enthusiast,” has a surprisingly complicated relationship to technology, not too unlike Tom’s - it is also “full of contradictions.” For a time Kelly dropped out like Tom, but instead of building a foundry in the woods he traveled around Asia with little more than a sleeping bag and a camera. He then biked across the US, spent some time among the Amish and built a house in the woods with friends. Kelly writes that that experience helped him cleave technologies he admired (chainsaws) from those he felt subtracted from his quality of life (broadcast television).

Kelly reports that although he now runs the gadget website Cool Tools he still keeps technology at arms length. He has no TV at home, doesn’t twitter and travels without a laptop. He makes the case that, without thinking about it, we all pick and choose this way. However most of us don’t make a break as radical as Tom and Kelly did as a young men, or as I ended up doing when I went to work for Tom, which is too bad. When I returned to city life and moved to New York I brought a very different relationship to technology back with me. Like Kelly and Tom, I was free to love and eschew technologies in a way I can’t image I would have if I hadn’t spent those years living in the woods mastering an obsolete technology. And I did so self-consciously.

Because I knew exactly how much time and energy it must have taken to produce an elegant bronze casting a thousand years ago, I was also far more aware of the amazing quantity, but also high quality of the material world around me. I don't mean iPhones, I mean plastic cups and ballpoint pens. A particularly striking realization for me was knowing in my bones that the lightest possible bronze casting - the one that used the least amount of material and required the most skill for me to produce - was historically valued. But that value had reversed itself. For my friends, family and even most of the artists and collectors I worked for, light castings felt “cheap.” They were all mistakenly impressed by heavy castings, which felt “substantial.” To modern hands, used to an abundance of strong, light objects and beautiful veneers, thick pieces of metal and solid wood feel real. In fact they are usually just wasteful and sloppy.
My younger self in front of a plaster and rubber piece mold I helped Tom design (I picked the colors).

To the layman, the extra mass represents an "authenticity", when in fact all it really signals is an needlessly large carbon footprint. In the contemporary world light things are cheap. Ballpoint pens are light. Plastic forks are light. The disconnect between the historic ideal and the contemporary one is that for most of history the universe of man-made things was meager and coarse. We take for granted an unprecedented level of abundance of craftsmanship. In her book America's Women, Gail Collins writes:
One of the great mysteries of colonial women's lives is what they did about menstruation. They didn't wear underpants, and while later settlers may have used rags, the early colonials probably would have been reluctant to waste precious cloth.
Why does Collins call rags "precious?" Because "Early on, fabric was in such short supply in America that there are records of lawsuits fought over "a missing handkerchief or a hole burned in a blanket." Three hundred years later things had gotten a little better but not much. In their biography of Willem de Kooning, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan explain that just one hundred years ago in Rotterdam, "Moving was no problem, because few families has any possessions to speak of." Fifty years ago this abruptly began to change. In her book, The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacob discussed "differentiated manufacture" and reports, "In America it is this manufacturing that renders the poor deceptively invisible... They do not wear a uniform of of the poor, nor do they dress in rags." It is not an exaggeration to say that everything changed in the post war years.

While it is impossible to forget that most people still have very little, it is hard to remember that until very recently everyone had very few things and what they had had to last them for a very long time. Kelly likes to point out that Indian street sweepers carry cell phones, but it is the truly banal ephemera of our lives - the ballpoint pens, sheet metal and polystyrene foam - that would have been most treasured by the kings who had spent their lives writing with quills in dark rooms with leaky roofs. Because of Tom I returned to the city with an appreciation for things that were invisible to most of my peers. (Continue to Part 3.)
Pouring bronze. 

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