An artist working at the intersection of science, technology and art, Melissa F. Clarke's "neolandscapes" dissect and re-inform the way we think about data, nature and experimental art by allowing all elements to influence and reflect off each other. As she prepares for a voyage to the Arctic, where she will research and begin her After The Ice project, we asked Melissa to take us inside her artistic process.
Can you describe how the intersection of art and technology directly influences your work?
To begin, it’s important to note my work is fairly research and experimentation based, so I feel this is much like engineering technology or working in science. That’s why After the Ice is such an important project — the expedition will allow me to have more real life experience with the places and things I’m researching. In a lot of ways art is like technology. Art is making something, it’s the application of ideas or concepts to create a relatively new thing, much like the way we create technology. We often look at art the way we use technology to get at things, to address our curiosities, to represent our findings and ideas, or to connect or communicate with others in increasingly novel ways about the world. With art and a lot of technological advances we are often looking for ways to expand and access things in the world and to share and access things with other people. Some people say that "technology is an applied science" and science is another way of being inspired and going after knowledge about some part of the world that you are fascinated by. Making art is not much different than these two tasks. To create technology is to design a tool or medium to get at something, to address a need, or often to influence the way we connect and communicate with each other or with the material world. When we use certain technologies to make art or when we make art about technology, it’s not unlike making art about art, or process related art, we are aware that the process and the materials are as important as the content or concepts and the aesthetics, the design and the appearances of it, how it communicates and comes across.
In new media work, I would distinguish technology as the use of recording devices, like sound and video equipment, and other media like computers, microcontrollers, and the various components used in electronics, the use of digital data, interaction devices, and things used for communication like amplified sound and the internet. It can include the design of user experience around concepts like this platform, Kickstarter, the application of technology to an idea that is interactive and integrative to a large constituency informing design choices. This is all part of my process. My work is influenced by the developments people are making, what is being designed and created in the world now, which happens to be largely electronic and digital in form, including the older technologies from the last few decades. To me, it only makes sense that the way we create everyday, using our computers and devices, and what we used growing up quite often should be part of the art or influence how and why I make art.
As far as digital and electronic art I think we are moving away from the tools as the ends. More and more artists, myself included, are looking at less tech-like materials and mediums to express things that we experience through technology. There are a lot of terms for this, but to keep things simple I would say that everyone now makes videos and sound digitally, and so many people post and distribute and share this through the internet medium, so the technology is now our life. Now what we are trying to get at is how the ubiquitous use of newer digital technologies affect our outlook and relationship with older technologies, or with organic and inert objects and materials like glass and wood. Or information technology, how do we read books differently, or think about data and documentation outside of the computer and the internet differently. More historical objects and relationships so to speak, this is where I’m thinking right now too in my work. My work is definitely shifting with this way of thinking about technology and art, and science too.
At what point did you make the connection between art and technology in your work?
When I moved to New York City, I made the largest jump in my work and in understanding how art is a part of the larger cycles in society, how we are making things and sharing, that art was not so much a distinction from or about, but also a part of the process, like technology. It was in Brooklyn, in New York City, that I realized that ideas and the aesthetics of my daily life, that the way we use and make things, it really started to mesh with art making in one continuum. Also, in moving back to New York state, I started looking at the geophysical history and the physical landscape that I thought about when I was younger, and thinking about a kind of nature that exists between the bedrock, the glacier carved ground, and then to the heights of buildings in different parts of the city, the infrastructure, and also the rivers, the climate, the systems by which we move around the city, the way we dress and shop, hang out, and our networks of communication and interaction including laptops and phones. The idea of an ecosystem really came to me living in Brooklyn. So I started video taping from my studio window the sky and the weather. I felt somehow that the absence of all that I just mentioned and just looking up at the sky, or at snow on the roof form my building, in this I had a feeling of being in a completely natural environment, in the city with all of my gear, recording the weather so to speak, it made perfect sense. There are many media artists doing things about the weather, or the poles, but that’s also just the point, the meme is so fluid throughout daily life, we are sharing and imitating each other in this ecosystem. The internet is also like an extension of that to me. The countryside is important too, and I definitely work in that environment, but the nature that includes human infrastructure and people really fascinates me. Although I often subtract the people from the art visually and in the sound, it’s like we are part of the technology so I feel that presence is implied.
Was there a particular instance where you remember the connection between art and technology really hitting home?
When I look at this Acoustic Imaging picture created by a scientist friend of mine Dr. Frank O. Nitsche, Associate Researcher at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). The process and the technology he uses, I felt it’s kind of like a conceptual art project already, the relation between sound, structure, the resulting visuals, and time, how sound draws this as terrain, it’s already like a brilliant art project. And the design of the chirp device and data collection and drawing, down to the resolution in bits, and the deep time of this surface represented, that was carved by an ice sheet, and then channeled by people, the technology and the drawing together are totally inspiring. Then when you look at older seismic images like this one from Antarctica (below). Looking at this work and using the data in my art really alerted me to the relationship or similarities between science, technology and art.
Between working on Acoustic Imaging and recording the weather from my studio window, and then meeting a lot of artists some time after these two projects that were really asking questions about where things were going in art and technology, especially in graduate school at New York University, Interactive Telecommunications Program, (ITP), this combination of instances really connected me with understanding my practice and I began to put things together in a more coherent way.
Do you find a direct correlation between things like MAX/MSP/Jitter and nature?
The term nature has become one of real contention lately in the art, academic and research worlds. But, without getting too crazy into all of that, I would say that there is a tendency to see graphical programming as more natural and expressive for many artists. The thing is there is such a dynamic synthesis one can do between visual and sound in that environment, and so fluidly, that it definitely has a more natural feeling so to speak. When I was working with the submarine seismic data from Antarctica, and sampling the sound as I plotted points in Max, there were these beautiful patterns, and there was this feeling of creating audio-visual landscapes that were also very structural and of human design, a lot like that natural feeling I spoke of before and living in the city. And also, rather than compiling code and having that kind of waiting and forced logic, I certainly think the design of the environment and the language also enhance a more natural feeling. Then, algorithmically, it’s just easier to get to a place where things are generative and take a life. It’s not like hugging a tree, but it does have a glitchyness too it that you can exploit to make the sound and video also feel more natural, in the sense that it’s still digital in everyway, but not square all over.
How does data directly effect your work?
When I was growing up I did not think I would be so into data, or the things I do in my practice. I was really bad at math, or at least I thought I was until I started programming in graduate school, and interestingly that part of my mind has shifted a little. However, I was always very obsessive, and had a talent for pattern recognition, two things that make data very interesting. I also have realized I have this insane memory, I store information, things a lot of people forget. In my work, the thing I often come to on the other hand is that: the more I search the patterns and obsess on the details, and the more I store, well, I get lost eventually and I can’t ‘think’. And this is a good place to get to, because then I stumble upon entirely different ways of seeing and doing something. I don’t know if that happens to scientists or engineers, I imagine it does to some. In my work I try to reflect this process. So that, rather than produce a conceptual treatise, or thesis about how something is or should be around a certain topic or idea, my work becomes more about that process of obsessing about something in the world, collecting and compiling data and information, looking hard at the patterns, or maybe I can also say romantically and poetically, being super passionate, falling in love, and then in that wanting to know everything about something, having ideas about what things mean, what it might all mean, you get completely turned around, this metamorphosis happens and without forcing the issue, I produce something called art, and a lot of it is based on information, the quantification of it and classification or organization around it.