Quanitizing Effects redefines minimalism for the digital age
by Leslie Wylie
Jim Campbell doesn’t make a very convincing artist. He can’t draw, he’s a lousy painter, and he keeps his shirt tucked into his pants. He sees the world in pixels and talks about it in algorithms. Oh, and he’s a practicing computer hardware engineer in Silicon Valley. By all reasonable definition, Campbell qualifies as first-class nerd—more suited to pocket protectors than paint smocks.
But standing in the middle of his exhibition, Quanitizing Effects , in the Knoxville Museum of Art, his notoriety as an artist slowly begins to make sense. The gallery’s stark white walls, newly fitted with light emitting diode (LED) screens, modulated clocks and tangled vines of wire, seem a suitable backdrop for this unassuming, pepper-haired man who claims it was the world of technology that actually drove him into the arts.
“I went to school at MIT (earning degrees in both mathematics and engineering), which was such a neurotic environment,” he explains. “I knew pretty much right away that I needed balance, so I started working in video. I think I was kind of the typical nerdy, shy engineer, and it became a way to express myself because I wasn’t able to do it verbally or socially.”
Today, Campbell seems considerably more self-assured—although he admits he still professes a love/hate relationship with technology. He walks through the gallery slowly, pausing to explain in laymen’s terms the digital nuance of his works. Logically, some of them seem impossible: in the “Illuminated Averages” series, for instance, an entire movie— Psycho —is compressed into a single frame by averaging every frame together, and a film of a car on the freeway is shown from the front, back and side simultaneously, all perspectives smashed into a single luminescent image.
But the artist counters that much of his work is actually focused on minimalism. He’s interested in information theory, discerning the point at which meaning forms the crossroads between understanding and illegibility. “How little information do you need to still be able to see something?” he asks, backing away from an LED screen of tiny red bulbs. Up close, the bulbs light up and fade out in a seemingly random, abstract pattern. But from a distance, imperfect vision causes the individual lights to bleed into one another, creating an easily discernable image of a person running.
“It’s the opposite of high-definition, sort of exploring the other end of the spectrum,” Campbell explains. “Can you express poetry with really small amounts of information? Can you do something poetic that doesn’t have a cold, digital feel?”
Other works appear cold and digital on the outside but are actually driven by organic forces. For example, a large digital clock on the wall appears mechanical but actually operates by a light sensor located on the outside of the museum. The sensor detects outside light levels by phasing itself to the rhythms of the sun, which are then quantified into the numbers, one through 99.999, displayed on the clock’s digital monitor.
But perhaps the most perplexing concept to wrap one’s head around is Campbell’s attempted syncopation of electronic memory and physical manifestations of that memory—the basis of his “Memory Works” installations. For “Portrait of My Mother,” he recorded his breath for a one-hour period and modulated the slow fogging of a photograph of his mother to correspond with that heartbeat. In another, he measured the movement of a woman’s eyelashes for an hour, programmed the data onto a computer chip, and rigged it up to a clock that speeds up and slows down in time with her blinking. Another box, entitled “I Have Never Read the Bible,” contains a word-processed digital Bible; speakers programmed to read that document spell out the whole book one letter at a time (for the record, it takes the program 36 days, working 24 hours a day, to recite each of the book’s 3,186,313 characters).
The exhibition is equal parts impressive and disturbing, postulating the idea that intangible concepts are as vulnerable to the process of digital reduction as manmade technology. Sounds, pictures and text can all be converted into numbers. Time can be compressed into computer chips. Memory can be stored in a small, aluminum box. Distance is an illusion, and reality shifts with perception.
Campbell presents a formula for his computer art: an abstract diagram that starts with input (earthquakes, stock markets, breath and natural elements), filters the variables through a program circulating between algorithms and memory, and spits them back out as light, sound and moving images, texts and robots. But you get the impression that the whole thing is a joke, and Campbell’s in on it. There’s something else at work here, too, and he knows it. And it’s something that won’t fit into a calculator.
What: Quanitizing Effects: The Liminal Art of Jim Campbell