Objects have always played a crucial role in my creative process. They can be treasured or discarded, but the physical things whether manmade or natural seemed to seep into my process consciously or not. Objects can trigger memories, degrade environments, signify stature, memorialize events, generate wealth, inspire crimes; but as we enter an age when objects are being transformed into information, can they still play the role of artifactual evidence of a culture as they have since the very beginning? In considering a possible post- object future, I often reference the significance of the objects that mark my past, and the past of that which has led to this moment. My studio is a cluttered collection of such seemingly mundane artifacts. Incorporating these objects into my work is like impressing glimpses of the past into something, an artwork for present-day consideration. I intend for these objects to be seen not only as singular pieces but as a conglomerated whole. Each sculpture is a knot of that which has been forgotten in the phenomenological record; drowned out by the noise of life in the present.
My father, a Lutheran minister, wears a purple stole for lent and advent. According to his religious traditions, purple represents the suffering and sorrow of followers who are waiting on Jesus’s return from his wandering in the desert. The significance of this particular stole goes beyond that mythology as my father explains to his congregation each year by recounting a story from his time as a US naval chaplain. On one October evening in1983, when I was five years old, my father was sleeping in a marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. At that time, I had very little understanding of the details of his mission; I just knew that he was absent as he often was in my youth. As a military BRAT living on a naval base, I was pretty accustomed dads being overseas for months and years at a time. But I can clearly remember watching a TV screen that depicted the smoking remains of a building where my father had been sleeping. I remember seeing servicemen clad in white t-shirts tucked into green pants which were in turn tucked into black combat boots crawling over piles of bricks, calling out for survivors as stretchers loaded down with figures covered by stained sheets horridly moved toward foreign-looking ambulances. When my father, in his advent sermon, points to his stole he recalls memories of being buried under the rubble of that barracks, watching his roommate and friend die and fully expecting to soon join him.
That purple stole, he says, was with him and was his connection to his god. That purple stole somehow sustained him in this dark moment. This object holds a deep significance tied to emotion and memory for my father as it does for me because when I see it, I am transported to my childhood as surely as he must be transported to that ruined building.
I am a collector of objects. Sentimentality may have formed the basis of my collections, but I’m not convinced that the power of objects rests solely in sentiment. Collection, in my case, is rooted in evolution, compulsion, and personal history. Throughout the ’80s, I moved with my family from state to state as my father was stationed at different US military bases. We were, in effect, nomads. For me, I learned how to adapt to new schools and people; disconnecting sentimentality from relationships with people, preferring instead to nurture connections with things like books and toys and nature. Through the consideration of objects, I can understand the people that surround me both immediately and more broadly. Like an archeologist, I can analyze artifacts like writing, art, clothes, tools to discover some meaning regarding the culture and psychology of people. In visiting the ruins of cliff dwelling left behind by the ancient Anazi in the arid landscape of Arizona I could pretend to be an archeologist. Walking among the adobe walls, I could run my hand over the handprints of long-dead builders, frozen in time. I could look out from a shaded ledge onto the vista dotted with cactus, the sun dappling with orange light the adjacent cliff face. It struck me that those ancient peoples shared this experience with me. The significance of that shared experience rests in memory as an etherial as a thought, but the objects like the adobe walls or a stone metate are tangible manifestations of that memory. Shared experiences are impressed into the objects we can hold or lose or pass down from generation to generation or throw away.
Just a few hundred kilometers away from the cliff dwellings I looked out onto another cliff face painted with the same sun. Behind me was another, more recently constructed dwelling built into yet another cliff face. The builders of this newer structure called Arcology set to work just in the last generation with an eye to the future in a way that made me wonder if the Anazi also considered those of us who would one day walk among the adobe walls of their home. Architect, Paolo Soleri dreamed of a new kind of building that would minimize the impact of human habitation on the natural environment; his Arcology project represents an effort to bring such a dream to reality. Looking at the site as an artifact I wondered if the result of his planning matched with his stated intent. After all, it’s the construction of objects, the transforming of natural material into nearly indestructible constructs that ultimately serve to negatively impact native species. Animals throughout the world are choking to death on our objects (Jordan, Chris). Walking around the formed concrete buildings of the Arcology campus I saw objects forgotten, building projects left half-built that reminded me of the ruins that dot the arid region. Hiking along rough trails that wrap around the site, I found still more evidence of human impact. Among the discarded beer bottles and scorpions I found a crashed drone; equipment from one of the filmmakers who were my neighbors in the Arcology dwelling. It struck me that the drone, all plastic and metal, sleek like a predatory insect looked so alien among the scrub and sand. If I had not found it and returned it to its owners, the drone could have laid there on that spot for a thousand years like a time-capsule that had once captured aerial views of the Arcology as it had existed in 2019. In a thousand years, the drone would not have changed much, but what would Soleri’s experiment look like?
Upon the concrete walls of the expansive retro-futuristic dining hall of Arcology hangs the schematics drawn by its progenitor. Soleri imagined massive structures, housing millions of humans. In Soleri’s imagined future, an Arcology would constitute an entire city within the walls of a single building. Again, I am reminded of the Anazi who built cliff dwellings to function as a village. But the proposed Arcology represents a construction project on a scale that dwarfs even the Great Wall and the Pyramids on Giza. The rusted derelict of a crane, grown over with desert grasses, stood in stark contrast to Soleri’s schematics. As an object, the crane represented former utility as much as its neglect signified a certain trajectory of the Arcology project. The crane, once a tool of a massive construction effort, now stood a monolithic reminder that objects, in time, become a record of phenomena. In that rusting hulk I saw the Anazi metate, a stone tool once used to grind grains, that now sat idle, in testament to those who made it nearly forgotten to time. Students from nearby schools visit Arcology on field trips as artists live and work on the site adding their own objects to Soleri’s experiment which imbues the site with an undeniable sense of habitation. But I don’t expect that it will grow into a supermassive structure, home to future generations of humans. In a thousand years, the objects of the Arcology, I predict will be reasonably equivalent to the objects of the Anazi cliff dwellings.
The cult of personality that surrounded Soleri in life will continue to sustain the project; I found that personal imprints of these Arconauts dotted the site. Like Soleri himself, those who work on Arcology make their mark on the landscape by stacking stones or making sculptures or writing messages onto walls with spray paint. In the small, spartan room I lived in at the foot of the project, I was struck by small colorful tiles, anomalous against the gray mass of poured concrete that made up three of four walls in the space. Upon close examination I could see that someone had chiseled into the concrete, excavating a shallow square before fitting a single (ceramic) tile into the cavity. Like easter eggs, such tiles were hidden throughout the Arcology site as artists working the ceramic studio left behind their mark, evidence that they had passed through the space. Such evidence suggests Soleri’s drive to construct an Arcology, a lasting monumental testament to his imagination, amounts to little more than a very human desire to be remembered. Arcology is Soleri’s message to the future: I was here, look at the thing I made.
Just a few hours south of Arcology another architecturally significant site stands in a much more static state: Taliesin West. Taliesin is a Welsh term meaning ‘brow’. Frank Wright believed that one should build into the brow of a hill in much the same way that Soleri built Arcology or the Anazi built their dwellings. A Unesco World Heritage site, a school, and a tourist destination close to Phoenix, Wright’s former home probably doesn’t face the same obscurity as Arcology, but I did get the distinct sense that it was fading from a previous hay day. Sitting in the low ceilinged living room of Taliesin West, I listened attentively to a charming tour guide recounts the famous guests that once sat in the same chairs and couches upon which we sweaty tourists now rested. Marylin Monroe and Clarke Gable and even a Kennedy or two attended Wrights famous parties at Taliesin West. I could see that Wright had a special connection to objects in the way he embedded a hammer into a pillar of native rock or porcelain dioramas from China strewn about the campus. He collected all manner of interesting objects that seemed to paint a picture of a man that was more accurate, more personal than any of the buildings he designed. A small bronze bison. A cowhide rug. A winding music box mechanism that plays Ode to Joy. He also reverently displayed ancient petroglyphs throughout the campus, reminding visitors of those indigenous people who once populated the region. Perhaps Wright saw some connection between his efforts and the ancient artifacts. I asked the tour guide about the knick-knacks, asked if they all belonged to Wright and he told me that yes, Frank was a big collector of souvenirs. He’d kept a penny from his childhood, acquired pianos throughout his life, and accrued countless chachkies in his many travels.
The audacity of deliberately making objects may be driven by the desire to attain some kind of immortality, but what of the impulse to collect objects? One warm Texas night in 1986 I sat in a field looking up at a starry sky. Dry blades of grass made my bare legs itch. All around me, families sat on blankets, eyes trained to the sky through binoculars or telescopes. The acrid smell of my father’s smoldering Camel filled my nose as he handed me heavy black binoculars. I remember feeling how expensive they must be. He helped me train the lenses on the right spot in the sky and suddenly it popped into view: Haley’s Comet. After 75 years, Haley’s Comet had finally returned to the space around the Earth where I could see it. I would be in my 80’s when I would be able to it again. That night I felt a deep connection with an astronomical object which would spark a life-long fascination with all things space. Years later as an adult, I was in a rock shop in the tourist trap town of Hayward, Wisconsin where I purchased a meteorite for 55 dollars. Looking at the little dark and shiny rock I was reminded of that night in Texas. Even now, when I look at the meteorite, I am transported to that moment in 1986. Frank Wright’s piano collection must, I think, be tied to his memory of childhood piano lessons just as my father’s purple stole connects him to his moment of survival. The events of our past are not real in the sense that they take up physical space, but the objects that remind us of those events are real. Paolo Soleri’s imagined Arcology is a fantasy, not real, but the artifacts that are strewn about the Arizona desert are as real as adobe walls of the Anazi cliff dwellings. Those objects stand as physically manifested evidence of ideas long after those who constructed such objects turned to bone and dust.
The power of objects, for me, is undeniable, but I find myself living in a culture that increasingly pressures me to discard objects. Indeed, there is some satisfaction in throwing away things due to perceived obsolescence or even space limitations; it feels like a lightening. The impulse to purge, to discard the trappings of the past in order to grow into a future is strong; but the artifacts that remind me where I once still held a special significance in my creative process. Those objects that clutter my studio are like anchors that tie me to my humanity and populate my reality with familiar touchstones. Those objects can also weigh down my creative process by inhibiting forward progress. Being too reminiscent or sentimental can block new understanding or exploration into new regions of expression. This tension between the past and the future informs the output of my studio practice. Each work is a puzzle. Without knowing what the finished product will look like I plan only for the next step; I see an opening for a particularly shaped piece and find the object that fits that niche. Often, the appropriateness of each element is judged according to physical form but I will also consider the conceptual implications of the candidate object. When I can’t find the right object in my studio, I will actively scour the world, hunting for the right element. With saws and drills, I will modify each object before affixing it to the growing superstructure. In constructing my sculptural pieces, I effectively destroy the objects that embody the past in an effort to build something new. In physics, a phenomenon is inevitably changed when it is considered. While working I often find myself observing objects that make up an artifactual record of the phenomenon that is invariably changed by my observations. This line of thinking leads me to build up layers of objects, often completely covering objects that were added earlier in the construction of each piece. These buried objects will, I am aware, be lost to the viewer. But they will still play a role in the finished sculpture as a foundation both literal and metaphorical. Those hidden objects will also remain unchanged, protected from the influence of the observer effect.
In some ways, objects seem to mean less and less as technology turns to the digitization of things. Objects can be transformed into information and even transformed back into objects by printing them. Drawing connections between digitized objects and the mass production of objects in the sense of devaluation is apt on many levels, but we are moving into a time when objects can take up no more space than an idea. Objects may become as ethereal as thought. This may be good news for the environment. No seabird ever choked to death after eating a memory in a literal sense. An island of plastic might metaphorically represent discarded memories, but it also severely degrades the natural environment because the objects themselves exist in a tangible reality. If we shifted our objects to a digital reality, we could better conserve this planet but the shift would mark a drastic departure from how humanity once operated. No longer will we surround ourselves with physical objects, we will instead fulfill that urge with virtual analogs. Paolo Soleri’s ambitious dream of constructing a building the size of city may never come to pass, but the idea can inspire a vision of a possible future. Such a vision can manifest beyond the creation of a literal, physical space and exist in a digital space as it may have existed as an idea, ethereal, noncorporeal. The discovery of the drone crashed among the cliffs that surround Arcology encapsulates that dichotomy of material and non-material objects as well as the past and the future. The drone as a physical object, a tool, was constructed of plastic that will not degrade for a thousand years which gives it a property that is not unlike the stone tools of the Anazi. Like all constructed objects, such tools first existed as non-physical ideas, plans to fulfill some function for those that designed it. But the drone itself has a memory, a digital record of images that it collected before its crash. Those images exist in a virtual space, a non-tangible dimension of information. The physical plastic chip that holds such information gives no clue as to its contents which is likely aerial video of the Arcology structure. Conversely, the video gives no indication about the chip or the device on which the information is stored. This lack of counter indication represents a need for some connective tissue to bridge the gap between physical and digital spaces.
In my studio practice, I work to give sculptural forms a digital life through narrative filmmaking. As an artifact can hold a story, I feel that my sculptural work can lead me to a story, a fictional narrative that is informed by experience and research. The story is the connective tissue between the tangible object and the digital object. My father, through his sermons, connects congregants to the spiritual world. He tells stories from his life or from the Bible that bridges the gap between the corporeal lives of parishioners and the inherently non-corporeal god of their faith tradition. Objects like his purple stole, stained glass, wooden pews, and crosses all serve to reinforce the stories which ultimately connects to a non-physical concept shared among those who participate. For me, as an artist and a filmmaker, I can’t help but see a similar situation taking place in a movie theatre. In making my art and my films, I’m not trying to bring people to god! But I do want to draw a line between my sculptural studio practice and the ethereal, digital world of ideas. I want to give concepts like Arcology a place to exist by telling a story about a planet on which an Arcology is built. I am a collector of objects both treasured and discarded. I seek to incorporate such objects into a single conglomeration that stems from ponderous activity to exist both in the physical reality of objects and in the digital information space; connected by a story.