Pulling Data: Interview with David Bowen

David Bowen‘s solo exhibition, drift, recently opened at Redux Contemporary Art Center in Charleston, SC. Bowen investigates the intersection of mechanical and organic systems; his practice is driven by an interest in the collection and visualization of data. His materials include simple robotics and electronic components, integrated with natural elements and information systems.

Two of Bowen’s kinetic sculptures, Fly Lights and Tele-Present Wind, are currently on view at Redux. Fly Lights, an orb containing house flies, is suspended from the ceiling in Redux’s first gallery. Encircling the sphere are spotlights aimed at the eye level of the viewer. The movement of the flies triggers the ring of spotlights to flash. Tele-Present Wind, located in Redux’s main gallery, consists of forty two dried plant stalks, each affixed to an electronic base. Part of the work is installed in the artist’s home state of Minnesota.

During the installation of drift, I stopped by Redux to ask Bowen a few questions about the works he was exhibiting in Charleston.

Rebekah Drysdale: The main components of Tele-Present Wind are installed in the gallery at Redux. Describe the off-site component to this piece.

David Bowen: This plant is called tansy, it’s an invasive species in Minnesota, and there is a single stalk, just like this one, in Duluth, Minnesota. It is blowing around in the wind as we speak. At the base of this tansy stalk, there is a device called an accelerometer, which measures x/y tilt. There’s actually one in the iPhone. [My recording device.] The plant stalk is blown around by the wind, which causes the accelerometer to tilt, and the tilt data is collected by a computer on the Minnesota side, and then sent to these devices in the gallery in South Carolina, in real time. The gallery installation is a recreation of the physical effects of the wind in Minnesota.

RD:  Tell me more about Fly Lights. Where do you derive your fly population?

DB: You can get anything on the internet. At Spider Pharm, Inc., you can get five grams of house fly pupae for five dollars. These flies were born in Arizona, came to Minnesota, and then I shipped them down here to South Carolina. These are some well-travelled flies. The idea here is that the subtle movements of the flies are being projected onto our scale. It is rather confrontational, the lights project into our space. These flies will live for about forty days. It takes a certain quantity of them to create the activity of the lights. If there weren’t as many of them, the lights wouldn’t be going off as frequently as they are. But they will die, and that’s part of the piece. As they die, the piece will start to atrophy.

A lot of this work is about contrast. I use natural and mechanical systems. As I work with both of these systems, what I continue to find more interesting is the unpredictable things that happen. Flies can behave in fairly predictable ways, whereas machines and robots, which you would associate with behaving in systematic, predictable ways, can have an unpredictable nature.

RD: Art has long been oriented towards the object, with an increasing awareness of process. In your work, object and process are thoroughly integrated. How do you begin a piece?

Bowen's Fly Lights installed at Redux

DB: Technology is becoming very accessible, and a lot of this stuff is DIY. I’m not really inventing anything new here, I’m just appropriating things like accelerometers, or ink jet printers, or light sensors, etc., to accomplish an end result. When I first started working with art and technology, I would get really excited about a particular sensor or a particular circuit board that I could plug into my micro controller and make it spit out ink. I would think, “that’s a cool thing, there has got to be a piece I can make around that.”

With these more recent works, I’m thinking more about the idea. I think, “I would like to create something that recreates the physical movements of the wind in the gallery space.” Then I just pull from a tool box or tool set.

RD: What are you working on now?

My most recent project is Tele-Present Water. It’s a wave form, and I have one going right now at Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia. It’s a very small undulating wave that pulls data from a NOAA data buoy in the Pacific Ocean. These data buoys are all over the world.

RD: How did you access the buoy’s data?

DB: Anybody can access it. You just get onto NOAA and pull data off of these buoys. You can get wind speed, wind direction, water temperature, outside temperature, surface depth, but you can also get wave height and wave frequency. I’m using that data in real time to articulate a sculpture that is, as we speak, undulating up and down in the gallery space in Philadelphia. It’s based on what’s accessible. It’s really amazing that artists, and I think there are a lot of us now, such as Aaron Koblin and Chris Jordan, are finding ways to use available data collections in their pieces. Due to the accessibility of the web, there is an ease in transmitting and finding data. Things like this weren’t possible ten or fifteen years ago.

RD: You have been selected for The Arctic Circle 2011 Residency. Tell me more about what that opportunity entails.

DB: It’s an ice class vessel that starts off from an island north of Norway. It’s actually ten degrees from the Arctic Circle. I will be spending two weeks aboard this vessel, sailing around the Arctic Circle with other artists and researchers. I will take an accelerometer with me, and mount it to the boat. The boat will obviously be physically affected by the waves, and I will collect data from that accelerometer and use that to articulate a sculpture. Basically, I will be collecting the physical effects on me. I have a good friend who has a sail boat, and when you’re on a boat for an extended period of time, you get acclimated to the movement. That effect is where Tele-Present Water came from, so that is what I will be doing for the Arctic Circle Residency. I’m hoping that the large-scale wave sculpture will debut in December 2011 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Bowen’s work has been featured in numerous exhibitions including: Brainwave at Exit Art, New York, NY, Artbots at Eyebeam, New York, NY and Data + Art at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and is currently an Associate Professor of Sculpture and Physical Computing at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

Bowen was selected for a solo exhibition at Redux Contemporary Art Center as the Featured Artist of ReceiverFest, which took place March 10th-13th in Charleston, SC. drift will remain on view at Redux until April 16th.