Artist James Huckenpahler :


J-M Crapanzano :

An important part of your methodology is the use of 3d software and the simulation of models. In the series “mindless pleasures” you created what seem to be abstract images, but this is only an illusion; we see the tension and the dialectic between the micro and the macro world. It’s as if you invite us to look into matter itself, while at the same time the forms and patterns in your images looks very familiar to us, and remind us some usual situations, or immediately suggest similarities with our 4-dimensionnal world. Simulations and models are also an essential part of scientific approach: particle physics, meteorology and oceanography studies, and cosmology are also observed through models.


If we consider that the aim of scientific modeling is to make a particular part or feature of the world easier to understand, define, quantify, visualize, or simulate, how does the scientific approach affect your work’s methodology?


James Huckenpahler :

I’m fascinated by the possibilities of simulation, with the idea that one can create a system and then try out different variables to see what the outcomes might be. there’s a great kevin kelly talk where he describes simulation as an activity that will really come into full bloom in the scientific community in the next hundred years. but simulation has been a primary activity of artists for a long time. artists (and i’m including writers, performers, etc.) describe a model of the world with self-consistent rules and then see what it’s like to live in that world. artists describe the real world by showing what it is not, where the other roads not taken might have led, or show possibilities that have yet to emerge. 

Shakespeare is a great example; within the limited reality of a play, he built a body of work that catalogued all the the impossible choices that might confront a person. rembrandt is another; within the context of a square of colored mud, how many types of the human condition can be represented? so, i don’t think the scientific approach (at least with regards to modeling) affects my work in any particular way; science is catching up to some of the methods of art.


J-M C: You mentioned: “Making images as I have, borrowing vocabularies from different technologies that occurred in different eras, is a way for me to include ‘everything’ in the studio: parallel lines as a means of defining contour and light from the 19th century; focus and film grain from the 20th century; polygons and virtual models from the 21st century. Computers are a meta-tool, perhaps even a meta-studio where lots of disparate forms (text,pictures, sound, motion) can all be manipulated and integrated in a single context. I think this is a good analog for dreams, where all manner of phenomena, disparate and anachronous, can co-exist and be manipulated in meaningful ways."


You pointed to two interesting ideas:


First, that the artist closely work with discoveries of her or his time. For example, color theory was a relatively new science in the 19th century, formulated by the French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889) and published in 1839. The Impressionists were the first group of artists to fully grasp Chevreul's findings and put them into practice.


Second, in neurobiology, theories about dreaming point out the differences of approach between dualism and monism. In philosophy of mind, dualism is a view about the relationship between mind and matter which claims that mind and matter are two ontologically separate categories. Mind-body dualism claims that neither the mind nor matter can be reduced to each other in any way). On the other hand, monism (the term Monism was introduced in the 18th century by Christian von Wolff in his work Logic (1728), to designate types of philosophical thought in which the attempt was made to eliminate the dichotomy of body and mind and explain all phenomena by one unifying principle, or as manifestations of a single substance). At the same time, quantum physics point the fact that particles can’t be observed and analyzed through traditional dualism or monism conceptions. To make the story short, particles are thus considered as non-determined, with the impossibility to determine their positions and speed at the same time. If you get the position, you can’t get the speed. The inverse is the same. Particules are therefore co-existing possibilities.


Do you think artists are aware enough about these phenomena and their application in the artistic field? This is not about devices, but more about “states of mind”. Considering the difficulties of analyzing a situation from several perspectives at the same time, does your practice allow you to reach that notion of “several perspectives at the same time," and how? It reminds me theories of “Supra Conscience” or the “Aleph” point of novelist and poet Borges: a search for a philosophical inner development.



JH: The art that interests me the most is work where the whole is greater than the sum of interpretations. A work that has a single interpretation is propaganda. A work that has several interpretations is merely clever if the different views don’t have implications for each other. A work gets interesting when it can occupy multiple states that ’speak to each other,’ or or when it can reconcile states that would otherwise be mutually exclusive. That’s where I want to get my work: that place where those irreconcilable differences can be negotiated, or at least reach a temporary truce. But getting there is different for every piece. I just keep working until I reach a moment of recognition, where I can see all of those possible interpretations working together, like a fugue. The danger of a strategy is that it can easily turn into a habit, so each work really needs to re-invent the process of making art.



J-M C : Can you explain the idea behind the series “Hard boiled computer crime” ? :


JH: Years ago I had just finished another body of work and was starting to think about what might be next. 


At the time I had been coming up with really simple ways of creating complex surfaces. I was using grayscale images as elevation maps for 3D surfaces—so light pixels were ‘high’ and dark pixels were ‘low.’ The particular algorithm I was using would sometimes make weird artifacts, such that the resulting model would create surfaces that bent back into themselves in impossible ways. So these were were surfaces that couldn’t exist in the real world; if you tried to print them with a 3d printer, the naughty bits would fall off.


So I had built a whole body of work doing that and was getting ready to start something new when I found an x-ray image of the model of laptop that I was using at the time. It was a cool ghost image and you could see all of the components on the motherboard. I though that image might generate some interesting artifacts, and since I wash’t really sure what was next, I figured ‘why not?’ So I made this model that had insane stuff going on! Way more that I expected. So I treated that like a landscape and wandered around this weird terrain of my laptop, snapping pictures like Ansel Adams on some alien planet.


I made perhaps a hundred images, and as I was working on them I was thinking a lot about Gustave Dore’s engravings from Dante’s ‘Inferno.’ I really like that rendering style, of lots of parallel lines that could describe both the contours of surfaces, and possibly invisible magnetic fields. Those lines operate like a visual double-entendre. I also started punching out huge areas of black and white, which gave the images a really graphic quality, it was like Martian graffiti! I liked that reference; graffiti is the modern visual vernacular, which in a strange way was also a nod back to Dante. He chose the vernacular rather than Latin, so that he could reach a general audience.



J-M C: In “Fiction: conditions for creation “, interdisciplinary practice is an essential factor. How important are interdisciplinary processes for you? How do you integrate other’s works in yours? Does this process allow you to accurately accomplish your initial intentions, or is that a factor that doesn’t necessarily interfere with your work’s practice? Open source, databases, interconnectivity are usual methodological tools for researcher. Collecting and sharing information is commonly practiced in the scientific field: how does this process influence you?


JH : Collaborative projects are a good way for me to get out of my own bad habits, and shake some dust off. I’m deliberately trying to get away from my own intentions. Actually, that’s true when I’m working alone, as well. I want to be surprised by the results of the experiment! When I go to museums, I love seeing works that I haven’t seen before. Why shouldn’t that happen in the studio, too? 


I’ve worked with different collaborators in different ways; each collaboration has its own personality, and I adapt. Some require a lot of discussion and negotiations, just to get all of the ideas on the table, and to find a common vocabulary of ideas that can generate interesting results. Other collaborations, like with José for example, have so many shared ideas that we can can just jump in and delegate tasks right away. A lot of times we don’t even have to talk it over; one of us will see something that needs to be taken care of, so we just do it. One really important aspect of the process is debriefing after the project is finished. Having that conversation — figuring out what really happened, how we see it differently, how we can do it better next time — there’s a wealth of experience that comes to light, ideas that you weren’t aware of in the heat of the moment. 


It’s like going on a vacation for a few weeks; a change of scenery is refreshing, but then you’re glad to get home. 



J-M C: You are well known as art teacher in such prestigious places: professorial lecturer in art, department of fine arts and art history at the george washington university, adjunct professor, corcoran college of art and design, washington, dc, visiting faculty, fine art department, st. mary’s college of maryland, instructor, computer graphics department, montgomery college, rockville, md, instructor, computer graphics department, corcoran school of art, washington dc.

This is for metamatrix artlab such an interesting subject: do you make differences between teaching art and making art? How these two processes inform or interfere with each other? What does it mean for you to teach art ? How do you see the role of artists in educational projects?


JH: Teaching is an extension of my practice. I don’t make work that explicitly incorporates my students, but teaching really enriches the work that I make. If for no other reason, my students are smarter than I am, so I have to work hard to stay a step or two ahead of them! There are fundamental questions about what art is, and what its value might be, that I have to explore to them. And because each of my students is unique, I have to find lots of different ways of pose, and then address those questions each semester. As a result, my own knowledge and confidence about my practice has grown. I think it’s also important to point out, I see myself as an artist who happens to also teach. I’m valuable to my students because I have an active practice out in the ‘real’ world.


J.M-C: If you imagine the future of humanity, what gives you the energy to wake up or not each morning ? What makes you confident or fearful?


JH :Energy to get up in the morning? If I committed suicide, I would definitely not get laid. I'm not sure I'm confident about the future, but it's worth working for. About 5 or 6 years ago I was despairing of the state of the world and of contemporary culture. My government was investing in oil wars waged by contractors rather than renewable energy developed by entrepreneurs and innovators; Brittany Spears was the most visible form of contemporary culture. But, out-of-the-blue I was offered a teaching gig, and I was deeply moved by the how thoughtful and compassionate my students could be. it was a much needed shot in the arm for me because I could see really clearly the intersection of the self-gratifying nature of art and the way it could participate in a larger community.


Interview : December 2013