Interview with Jim Campbell

In a world consumed by technology, there is no doubt that countless artists have adopted many forms of new media into their work. In today’s art world, what is harder to find is an artist whose work seamlessly uses technology and image-making to show us something new about the way we understand the world around us. Jim Campbell‘s work does just that. His work effortlessly combines light and darkness, flatness and space, movement and stillness, to subtly expose how we perceive imagery. I recently met with him at Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco to talk about the way he makes images, how he uses technology and some of the new projects he has in the works.

Julie Henson: To start with, I would love for you to talk about your practice. One of the things that I noticed when I first entered the gallery is that your work appears to be rooted in both technology and the creation of an image, which seem to be very important parts of your practice. If you could start by telling me a little bit about how you work and about creating images?

Jim Campbell: My background before I made electronic art was filmmaking, which is completely about making images, unlike a lot of people in new media who come from painting or from sculpture. So the image has been the most important thing to me.  In fact, even sometimes a little too much so, in that I do get complaints from friends who, for example, will say that since it has to plug I should show that it plugs in. I tend to really hide everything as much as I can and just leave the image. Obviously that changed with Exploded View (Birds).

So you aren’t asking about my background but my daily practice, right?

JH: Well, I am really interested in your process of creation more than anything else, because the work is so complex and, like you are saying, the way they are made is somewhat hidden. They become very wonderful and mysterious things to look at, and I find that really fascinating.

JC: Well there are two works here that come at it from a different perspective, one would be Exploded View (Birds) and the other would be Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio. Sometimes what I do, and Exploded View (Birds) is a good example, is that I will start with an idea for a technology, like taking my relatively 2D images, and really trying to come off the wall and just pull the image off or stretch it out. And so the idea for the technology was there before the image that was going to go on the display. That probably happens about half the time, where I will have a new technology and I will try a bunch of different things in it until I get something that makes sense. Sometimes it even takes a couple of years to come up with imagery that really matches the display. Up until that point they might be real works, I might sell them, I might display them, but they aren’t necessarily the perfect match with the technology. One of the things that I say to myself is that if I can do this with video, I should do it with video. There has to be a reason that I use this low-resolution technology to do each of these works.

I have been working with what I refer to as “the curtain works” for three years maybe, and I think Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio is a good example of a pathway to this work. If you look at the work a little more than just glance at it, you’ll see that it changes resolution as it goes across.  And all of the works up until this one were like the others – they reflected off the wall but they were still grids of consistent resolution. One of the things that this technology allows for, given how modular it is, is to change where the pixels are and allow for something other than the perfect X/Y grid. And that came together with another idea that I have had for many years, which is to do a work that somehow represents peripheral vision. And that is this work. It marries one idea that is more of a concept or structural idea with the technology that I have been playing with for three years.

JH: It is interesting that you say that, because one of the things that I kept coming back to is that the image rests somewhere in between the object and illusion. There is something about your creation of an image that becomes a play between the image and your physical space, and your physical limits of being able to perceive it. One thing that caught my attention in Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio and Market Street Pause was that they almost live as abstraction until they start moving, which I find really fascinating. How do you work with the play between movement and still image or image in space, which is something that I see in all the work?

JC: One of the very first works like this that I made I tried to photograph, and about 98 of 100 pictures didn’t come out, because they were stills.  And what I quickly realized was that the way in which you perceive these images is through their movement. That is actually what that work is about. By freezing, the image goes to abstraction. It makes you aware of your relationship between perception and movement. Hopefully it freezes and goes into abstraction, but it is never really abstract because one can comprehend the image before it freezes. I have done a number of works, probably ten, that really deal with that relationship between perception, abstraction and movement. One of the ones that I think was successful was one of the first ones, around 2004, where I took an image of ocean waves moving and then gradually slowed it down until it stops completely over a 10 minute period. It starts out completely representational and ends up purely abstract. So it slowly goes from one to the other, and Market Street Pause is a more abrupt version of that. I am fascinated by how if you press pause in a video image that it stays an image, yet it in the low-resolution works, it actually becomes abstract when it pauses. This is really unique to low-resolution work.

JH: Yeah, it is a really affective way of recognizing the connection between what your brain realizes as image and what it understands as abstraction. That is the first thing that I noticed when I walked in the door, and you can really see this in Exploded View (Birds) and Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio. You started talking about it a little, but one thing I noticed was that a lot of the work has very different spaces, but they seem to be environments that the viewer relates to from a very observational or removed place. Can you talk about how you pick our imagery?

Market Street Pause (still), 2010. Courtesy of Hosfelt Gallery

JC: Yeah, I don’t think it is profound, but hopefully some of them become profound in terms of what I do with them.  And I say that because I am very limited (because what we were talking about in terms of the movement) in what I can shoot. The images have to be very simple in some ways and the backgrounds generally can’t be very complex because you just can’t tell what you are looking at otherwise. So I need to find these very simple images, and I use the figure a lot because the figure is an image that relates to what I call primal perception. And going back to what we were talking about in terms of movement, I believe that we perceive movement almost separately from detail and edges. I think movement is less analyzed as it’s interpreted, so these works get rid of the details, leaving open the more primitive pathways to one’s brain, and allow one to perceive things like isolated movement.

But, I think I drifted from your question.

JH: That’s ok, because this was something that I was really interested in to start with. In Exploded View (Birds) and Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio, the technology seems to be more apparent than it is in a lot of the other work. How do you feel about exposing the system?

JC: Like I was saying earlier, I tend to hide it as much as possible because it is really the image that I am interested in. But, I have done a couple of works that connect to Heisenberg, and for me, Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio does this because the display device is actually obscuring the image. The only way to look at the image is through the display device.

JH: I think that the same thing happens with Exploded View (Birds). Your ability to perceive the image is through this field or mask of lights. I find it really interesting that even as you walk around it, that the form maintains it shape. How did you find that technology to create an image in a special field?

JC: Most images that I would put in that display can’t be seen from the sides – they mostly go completely abstract. Because the birds are so small and the movement is so simple, you can see them from the side. So it is really about seeing it from the front. The image is exploded towards you by taking the LEDs and pulling them towards you. So when you look at it from far away, it looks flat – just like one of my  “normal” images. But, when you look at it from the side it becomes meaningless, which I like. It’s the same as we were talking about with movement. When you slow it down, it becomes abstract. In this case, as you walk around it, it becomes abstract.

And honestly, it was just an experiment. If I explode this image in this way, will anything be recognizable? Will we be able to tell what we are looking out, or will it just be a waste of my time? Honestly, that is what drives me to do a lot of these works. I am just really curious to know how it will turn out.

JH: With Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio, you were talking about the focus changing from the left to the right side, and I noticed that the piece actually curves off the wall. Does the change in focus come from the distance from the wall or in the image itself?

JC: It is actually in both. It is in the resolution of the image. So, it is very high resolution on the left side. It uses  50 pixels to define that side and on the right it is only 6 pixels. It is almost a 10:1 resolution change going across. It is not actually getting blurrier, it only changes resolution.

JH: That’s amazing, because it this goes right back to this relationship to your perception, and shows how little changes like that can actually make things come into view or show distance.

JC: The reason it moves away from the wall, and it is kind of a technical reason, is that the LEDs have a cone of light that come out of them. So when the LEDs are close together, they need have to be close to the wall to have their reflected light overlap. But on the far right end, where the cone hits the wall, it is much bigger, so the LEDs need to be further from the wall.

JH: It is interesting that it is a somewhat technical reason, because the shape actually mimics the sensation in the image – moving in the car. It is nice to hear that it is not only a visual tool to create an experience.

JC: Right. Well, they all go together. But in the experience of driving, as things get closer they come into your peripheral vision, which is blurry. So the technology actually reminded me of the sensation of riding in a car, and that’s why I chose this image.

JH: So since the work is so technically complex, how much of this work is made by you, or do you outsource it? How do you come across the technology?

JC: I am an engineer, so I still get trade magazines to to keep up with technology. A few media artists have told me that I cheat, because I know what I am doing in terms of the electrons moving around on the back of the board. I have three assistants plus contractors and vendors in Silicon Valley that build my circuit boards for the works. For example, for Fundamental Interval (Waves), it has nine circuit boards fabricated from my design. We take the nine and put them together in my studio to make it. But the fun part is when it is not a cookie cutter of something I have already done, like Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio. The ones I have made like this in the past, had all the strands made with the same distance between the lights, and for this one they are all different. There was no way to send it out to a fabricator to have it built. So the quirky ones and the prototypes, I definitely do in my studio.

I am working on a large-scale public art project for the San Diego Airport and so we are having all kinds of materials cut and tested for the studio, and then once we have them done, we will find a place to have this 1000-foot long sculpture fabricated.

JH: Well, what other projects do you have coming up?

JC: Beyond the project for the San Diego Airport, the most fun thing in the near future is that I am doing a large-scale version of Exploded View (Birds) in Madison Square Park in New York as part of their rotating public art program. Instead of LEDs, they will be light bulbs, and instead of one inch a part they will be eight inches apart, and instead of six feet wide it will be 50 feet wide, 20 feet high and 20 feet deep. I am really interested to see what it is going to look like because the equivalent of being ten feet away here will be 50 feet away there. There is a little nervousness that it will be too abstract and that you will really need to see it from three blocks away. I am also doing a an intermediate sized one in the lobby of the SFMOMA in 2011.

Jim Campbell’s work will be on view through June 19th, 2010 at Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco. In 2011, his work will also be on view at The National Museum of Photography in Copenhagen and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki.