We've talked before about your attraction to lasers and holograms because of their "defunct", almost retrofuturistic qualities. Audiences also come to lasers and holograms with certain preconceptions. What do you think those are, and how do you work with them?
Well, first of all, I was first attracted to them because I was a kid and they weren't "defunct" yet. It was the back of Spencer Gifts. You know that place?
Hell yeah. I attended middle school in suburban Florida. I think my mind lost its virginity in a Spencer's in 6th grade.
Well there's an honest part to it, of acknowledging my childhood influences. And the novelty of it—of lasers!—really getting off on it as a kid. Then I went to art school and learned about art history, studying painting and experimental film at the Art Institute of Chicago, around '91. But then I got to thinking about the things that I originally got off on, back when I was a kid. Looking at lasers through the lens of art history, and just being older. And thinking about this question of novelty. And that's where I look at the materials of black lights, lasers, holograms—and I'm figuring out now how to work with LEDs—all these things that take the piss. And behind it is this question of how novelty works. What is this magic, invisible thing that happens, that attracts people to things that are new? And that had me searching and studying a lot of medieval cults, the history of magic, the history of science, all these things that are on the edge of vision, which is where novelty, religion, science, all hangs in this place where it all crosses.
There's a thin line separating the sacred and the profane. Maybe there's no line separating the Spencer Gift shop from a medieval court magician.
It's always been this power that's abused. There's so many ways of looking at that line. It's the unseen. Where the edge is. What turns us on as humans—we'll always be affected by that. Through religion, which takes advantage of the unseen, science, politics, and now the finance industry is this elusive, unseen, impossible world that is almost mystical. You know about "dark pools?"
Yes. My time as a content strategist for Goldman Sachs took me into some of their dark corners. It was fascinating. There's an invisible force that's wielded by today's masters of the universe, the financiers, who can raise—or raze—whole economies.
The finance industry uses that too—even in the terminology of "dark pools"—it's an abuse of power of novelty and the unseen.
Let's talk about the psychedelic quality of the work, from holograms to black lights. A lot of it is normalized. Think of magazine covers for National Geographic. It seems like more than just an appeal of novelty—it's like pulling back the curtain on reality, exposing the realm of illusion. I think that certainly fascinates people.
About holography specifically: it's such a strange word! You say "hologram" and it's loaded, instantly. And culture just abuses the fuck out of it.
What is a hologram, to you?
To me, I like it for the content in that word. I'm attracted to the power of that cultural signifier. But real holography is like magic to me. The process of doing it, my lab, the darkness of being in there, I've been doing it so long that I have an emotional attraction to it. I can see there being this massive future, way far into the future, like 100 years out, where there's potential in the deep physics of that's insane, really amazing stuff.
Holograms pop up in public consciousness every few years. Something happens, like a CNN news anchor will be rendered as a quote-unquote "hologram," or Tupac comes back from the grave and joins Snoop onstage at Coachella. And you told me, "Sure, those are holograms." And I was the one challenging that classification.
They're not real, but in the tiny world of holography people, they're just, like, "Fuck it, let 'em call it a hologram. We're not gonna argue about it." But there are real holograms, and then there's not. "Wave front reconstruction," that's the real shit. That's what the future is. It's the ability to record and replay the wave fronts not just of light, but of materials other than light. And that's where there's this really crazy future that I believe, the more I read theoretical physics, that's the future, way beyond anything cheesy like the Holodeck. It's more like, inside all the stuff around it is its wave front that can be recorded. So that you could reverse time. You could see the record of anything that's existed. I love that magic-ness of it, and I like to play with the way it's seen in popular culture: black lights, sacred geometry, pseudoscience, occult, alchemy, mysticism… it's playing with all those ideas I have about that point in its history where it was something on the edge of "the seen."
There's a paradox here, because when I think of you, it's as a light artist. And even that term is loaded. But what I associate with you most is darkness. And I don't even mean that in a metaphorical way, although perhaps that's true, too. I mean that when I come to your studio, you always have these dark chambers, which is how you create the work. Darkness is necessary to generate the types of work that you do. It's shadow casting, light and dark, can't have one without the other. And you have a couple pieces that are just darkness.
Yeah, invisible art. But it's not really invisible. There's so much I read about and believe in that's outside the visible. So when I see it so much I'm kind of on the edge of actually seeing it, because I'm doing stuff that is actual, basic physics with holography. One of my favorite books is called Warped Passages by Jane Randall. It's about how close we are to seeing other dimensions right now, in a very real way. Art has changed at certain points when there's these things that have happened with physics and science that's made an influence on seeing. I'm interested in seeing, how we see—
Yes, perception, reality, what are we seeing. So being in the dark, making stuff, the darkness allows your eyes to be affected differently than full-blast light. You have different sensitivity when you have low levels of light. There's all these things that I need darkness for.
And certainly we as humans, with the naked eye, have access to only a limited element of the light spectrum. And you play with that with pieces like the Infrared Pentagram.
That one's just outside the spectrum. It's invisible to our eyes, but it's completely there. And the door piece, Dark Tumbler, is sensory deprivation. You won't see anything. "Seeing the unseen" is something I write a lot, not out in the world, but in my journals. My diary is about the edge, of seeing the unseen.
How did you meet James Turrell and when did you start working with him?
I made holograms with him in 1996 for the C Project, curated by Ron Mallory. And I was at RCA in London. My wife actually dragged me to a Turrell show around that time, at the Tate I think, and it kinda blew my mind.
What was it that blew your mind?
The illusion. The honest trick. All these illusions and immersion. But it wasn't to me like a spiritual awakening, which is what his work is about. That's very pure and very amazing and I believe in that, but to me it was more of a "Holy fuck! What the fuck is going on here? There's no wall there!" And I've seen after building his work that that's where the initial thing is.
The sense of astonishment?
Yeah. The novelty. The novelty became art. Once the C Project ended in 2000, Turrell asked if I wanted to work for him. So for 13 years I did the bulk of his art. Especially towards the end, with the Guggenheim, it got more involved to where I was doing everything. Architectural projects, everything.
What was a typical challenge you faced when staging a Turrell exhibit? I ask because he dazzles people. I don't think there was any negative publicity about the full-court press that happened when Turrell took over the global art stage last year. Everyone was dazzled, from my family at the Guggenheim NY installation, to Drake Instagramming his LACMA visit. To achieve that kind of universal appeal, and still have an integrity, what did you have to do structurally to make these happen?
Yeah. The last shows were about 5 years in planning. Some big shows, Guggenheim, LACMA, Houston, about 5 other things simultaneously. Years of planning, working with architects, builders, designers, and very site-specific needs, figuring out everything. So much went into it. Years of work. Every big, permanent Turrell installation, on average, takes about 10 years of planning. Preplanned, argued over, budgets, permissions. Regarding the details, I could take a look at a space and within a couple minutes know what it would be, how it would work, for a whole show. I could walk with my feet, without a tape measure, and get it pretty quick. I have that down.
What's your favorite piece by Turrell?
I like the really dark ones. The really simple, early works of his, like the Space Divisions; they have the lowest tech in them, and are just super simple. All that shit he figured out in his 20s and early 30s. And there were some giant projects, like the pyramid in Mexico, that I worked on, plus the big shows. I'm very proud of those. I wanted to make it to the big shows, such as the retrospective, and carry that out, because I respect him so much as a great artist. And of course Roden Crater is amazing. The spheres were so much fun to play with, such as Bindu Shards; I worked on that for years and developed the software ideas for that, doing lots of research. My favorite Turrell pieces are the simple, dark, early ones that a lot of people aren't as dazzled by.
Turrell loves technology, and he's a super ultra gear head, but he hides it, like we talked about. He loves collaborating with huge people, like getting some massive scientist to do stuff like execute the sphere pieces. It was really fun, we did all these crazy things, just make it invisible. Everything, when you finish a Turrell, is supposed to look like it was easy, And there was a little bit of a mentor thing, like a really old school thing, between me and him.
The dynamic between master and apprentice.
But we would talk about that a lot. And how it's not respected in the art world. But I can put on my show and feel very comfortable. And then I see other people in the art world who maybe haven't had the technical training, but also haven't had the exposure I've had to museums and galleries; that whole experience is a training thing.
What are you showing at Johannes Vogt?
It's called Sideshow. They asked if I wanted to do a show right around the time of the massive final push with Turrell, and I was kind of out of my mind, still completely in Turrell mode. But I knew I could get something done in that short amount of time.
The title, Sideshow, nods to The Funhouse.
Right. The gallery used to be a club called The Funhouse. Breakdancing, techno, dance club, back in the 1980s. Massive place. So a lot of times I'll do that when I do a show; I'll look for something to play off of. The gallery did a little research, they learned about The Funhouse, I started reading about it, so the show is kind of going in that 80s direction. I want to exploit the 80s perception of lasers. I think it's there inherent in my work because of the geometry, but it doesn't quite go there fully; I still want to push that really hard, with sound.
Yes, with GateKeeper. I was going to work with Cody, my assistant, who's a really good sound guy, and also these computer guys who helped me with the Turrell spheres, who were making the software. But there really wasn't enough time. That's the kind of thing I have to work out for a year or two.
When I think 80s lasers, it's the pew-pew Star Wars laser ray gun.
Yeah. Another part of Sideshow has to do with the state of affairs of the art world. Which everybody's talking about now. And my recent exploits with James Turrell and all these major blockbuster shows—it's like a motherfucking funhouse!
The irony of that is that they're buying tickets to something immaterial. Light art removes the object from the experience. And it harkens back to the "dark" concept with its similarities to dark rides. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, living there between 5th grade and 7th grade in the late 80s, meant having access to Disney World and their dark rides: Peter Pan, Mr Toad's Wild Ride, Snow White's Scary Adventures. Pretty much all of those rides have been discontinued, but dark rides live on in the parks in other forms. Like a funhouse. And a lot of the rides for Universal Studios and places like that were made at Sally Corp in Jacksonville.
Actually it's my dream to do that someday.
What, to be an Imagineer?
Ha, no. Although I have met with three different people from Disney. No, I'd like to do a scene in some really hard core, heavy metal, white trash haunted house. Like, get assigned a room inside a haunted house. Living in Florida, we'd go out to some of those haunted houses, where they'd take over, like, K-Marts that would go out of business. Like Silo X, they traveled around Florida. They were so fucking hard core. People chasing you with chainsaws, but the chain's gone, just full gas, zombies, in the dark. This one place would chase you outside, and they had a helicopter, like a full blast, broken, helicopter on fire, chasing you past it!
The Christian haunted houses were some of the weirdest ones. They'd take over these abandoned restaurants, like Po Folks, and use them as evangelism fronts, with abortion rooms full of dead babies talking to you. But they wouldn't advertise them as "Christian," so it would always catch you off-guard, adding to the freakiness.
You can always whip out the Jacksonville card. That's some pretty hard core shit!
It's no surprise some of those dark rides are made in the buckle of the Bible belt, right?
But yeah, my work is making little rides. But I'm making it clear that I know that's what's happening and that I'd like to talk to people about it. And everything's pretty much dealing with light. I have these drawings, these dark drawings I did, using rod vision. Similar to a black video piece that I did with Daniel Newman.
If you go in a really dark environment, but there's a tiny bit of light in it, we can see almost nothing; it's really close to zero light, where you can only see if you wait long enough. As humans, we have rods and cones in our eyes: cones are for color; rods are for black and white. Black and white is much more sensitive to light. So there's a point in time in light where your eyes switch over to rods vision. And you can't see color anymore. And you can't see straight, you can't look straight at anything. If you look directly at a certain part, you see blobs; you can't make out the detail of anything. Astronomers used this technique; early astronomy was done with something called "side viewing," where if you're looking directly at some star, you can't see it, but if you look from your peripheral vision, then you can see it.
It's the boundary zone. Giving access to something that you can't see straight on.
Yes, the drawings were done in near-darkness. I tuned that, and ended up with an area in space that worked where, after enough time, I could enter the darkness, wait 15 minutes, and then I could barely see the surface I was working on. I knew where the charcoal, erasers, oil and pastels were; I couldn't see them, but I could feel them. And part of it is that I always wanted to draw and paint, because I'm good at it, I physically have a talent for it, but it doesn't make any sense. But this did. I could use my hand, and work from the light, which I love, because I think it's very pure, like a mediation of all this shit, but I wasn't being romanced by the mark I was making.
That's the problem with drawing and painting in contemporary art, the mark. Because once you make a mark it refers to art history, and then you're in the style of blah blah blah. So now it's all about mechanical processes, or you're trying to negate the mark, or you're referring to a specific mark, but with the dark drawings, I couldn't actually see it. So I ended up with these very blobby drawings. And then the subject matter was interesting, that I was using to draw from. And I did it all in my wife's family's house in France, which is a 13th century estate, with these stone cellars. I made the drawings in the cellars, in those spaces.
Will the gallery be in darkness?
The laser room will be a sealed dark room. To see the lasers it has to be dark. And have smoke. The haze.
Which invokes the psychedelic aspects. You've used different mediums for creating the haze: the fog machine, the incense. Very rock 'n roll.
Yeah, and I love plywood with black paint on it. A 2x4 that's painted black. It's very rock 'n roll to me. Like a road crew—and I'm only imagining this—for Van Halen. Have you ever seen photos of his old amps? They're handmade, just black paint slapped on a speaker cabinet. And I was just blasting this band Yob when I was making Gandalf. And I swear, when I got the 3D element of that done, and my wife and son were here, and I blasted that music, I can barely remember making it! I was just cutting wood, made it in just a few hours. I hardly remember doing it! I was tranced out. Wasn't on any drugs, I was just in that state of mind.
What do you think of the influence of chemicals, of drugs, on the work? Is that something you've played up?
Sure, I'll play it up.
There's a natural association that everyone has with Led Zeppelin black light posters and stoner-isms. It's part of the experience. But you can be dazzled by light art while sober, too. Drugs aren't necessary. I actually recommend people arrive sober when they see the Turrell exhibits, at least for their first visit.
You don't necessarily want to be tripping at a Turrell show. I've done lots of drugs in my life: acid, mushrooms heroin… everything. Most of it to experiment, not to get completely fucked up. But yeah, that culture, I love all that, I like the aesthetic that comes out of that. And again, going back to honesty. Being honest. Is it good or bad? I don't know. People tell me to shut up, don't even say that. Like, if I question whether or not some of the works are even art, they'll tell me not to say that. You know?
I feel like drugs are another "unseen" element. We've got this insatiable appetite for consciousness altering substances and experiences, yet we're constantly in denial of our own desires, at least in America. The work that you make, and psychedelia in general, is trending again partly because it's the forbidden fruit, but something that's also quite accessible.
People want to get off. But it's a problem, a problem with art history, a problem of integrity, a problem with seriousness.
It compromises the perception of credibility. I think we'd all agree that Rimbaud is one of the greatest poets that's ever walked the planet, yet there's no Rimbaud without radical intoxication.
The art world is awash with drugs. But in the work, people avoid it. I did a lot of research, and talked with Turrell about his generation of light and space—the whole California light art thing—and how it was 100% simultaneous with the music in London. London and California were doing the psychedelic rock show. But the art world has drawn a line between the music and art, and said no, including James himself. But they were all seeing that shit. They were going to those shows—
And they were taking those substances. Maybe the novelty wore off.
And that is the problem with novelty. It loses steam so quickly. But the question of that unspoken thing is "Why?" Why do we get off on this thing that you can't see? This trick? And I think it's because we're getting a chance to see the unseen, the other side, that thing you can't perceive. And it gets you. And can you do something good with it, in an awakened, conscious way without just being cheesy?
It's the desire to access that which you can't see. Because everybody's always explaining everything. Neil DeGrasse Tyson goes on PBS and gives this "definitive" answer for life, the universe, and everything.
It's such bullshit.
And we're divided along this false binary between the "believers" and the "nonbelievers." Yet I find that desire is never going to go away. Every culture produces its own mythologies that are all just palimpsests built on those that came before them, reinterpreted through different screens, that will never die. And that ceaseless desire for the mystery—maybe it's not even a desire to answer the mystery—it's to find the mystery. That's part of what makes us human.
It never ends. And as we're searching, we expand. Our perception, our consciousness will always expand. Jaron Lanier, for example, in the 90s, he was a god. I was in grad school. And I made holograms of Lanier. So talking to him, hanging out with him, was great. He had done a shit-load of virtual reality at the time, sticking his head in these devices… I tried some of it, and it sucked, but it was still, like, whoa. But you would come out of that thing and everything seemed so much more real. A lot realer than it did before you did it. One of the best things he said, and I believe this, is that no matter how you try to recreate reality, it just makes your noticing—your perception—of reality widen. So that thing that seemed like reality now seems artificial. Like the first films, or the persistence of vision with 24 frames a second, now we notice that maybe our frame rate can start increasing, or how wide in the spectrum we can see, that as we start to see more, opens up as you understand it. But we're pathetically closed in to our blindness: we can't see shit, or hear shit.
I think it's the knowledge of our own limits. We learn it in 6th grade: you only see a thin slice of the spectrum. You don't hear what the dog hears. So it does make you wonder, what's going on? When I learned about those human limitations, that was the time I started checking books out of the library about lasers, coinciding with cryptozoography, Atlantis, the Time-Life books on the supernatural that rocked a lot of our worlds when we were kids. Full-on mysteries that are in some ways substantiated by physics, in that we know that we can't see certain aspects of reality. So maybe these phenomena—Bigfoot, Atlantis—are manifestations of our own acknowledgement, our own consciousness, of our physical limitations.
Yes. I'm digging it.