Interview with Charles Lindsay
Charles Lindsay Charles Lindsay Charles Lindsay Charles Lindsay

The SETI Institute’s Artist in Residence, Charles Lindsay has worked as an exploration geologist in the arctic, and a photojournalist in southeast Asia. He creates installations and sculptures from re-purposed scientific devices, using sensors, sound, video, and custom LED lights. His works include soundscapes created by processing a number of sources, including archival recordings from NASA's space research experiments along with audio he records in remote environments. Charles is a recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship.

VN.N::As Artist in Residence at the SETI Institute you will be working on your project, “CARBON.” You describe your working process as an invented method of camera-less photography, a project that combines your “interest in the aesthetics of space exploration, scientific imaging and the evolution of symbols." A radical cosmology embraces this evolution of symbols along with new ontologies and hybrid narratives derived from the merging of subjective experience with objective analysis.

You initially follow scientific methodologies of discovery, looking at nature, collecting data (images and sounds) and then by using technology, you manipulate your sources, exposing something that is hidden or concealed from our conventional modes of perception. How does the scientific method based on analysis reside within your creative practice? Just how do you envision the invisible?

CL::Some background on the path that led me here. In University I trained to be an exploration geologist in order to experience remote environments and earn a living while doing it, the need for which precluded me from becoming an artist early on. Plate tectonics, paleontology, crystallography, these disciplines explore complex worlds that existed before us, will exist beyond us and which are indifferent to us. Here objective and subjective become meaningless. This is fantastically aesthetic and intellectually compelling stuff. When contemplating time based matters I still lean toward geologic time frames as opposed to say, political cycles.

I am deeply interested in space exploration and the frontiers of knowledge. NASA’s Curiosity rover just touched down on Mars. That’s inspirational!! I like the idea of cairns as an analogy for art making. Called inukshuks by the Inuit they are the stone piles (often human shaped) that mark migration waypoints across vast arctic landscapes. Among other things, for me, CARBON symbolizes the human drive to know what’s out there.

One of the significant differences between scientific methods and that of an artist, at least the way I play the game, is that this artist asks questions and explores without knowing what the answer might be or even if there will be one. Both methodologies seem to share a similar sense of purpose. And both seem to provoke even more questions.

The Higgs-Bosons are coming to dinner. We need to get ready or they’ll see right through us…

After a decade of photojournalism in southeast Asia I turned towards the arts to express ideas that were my own, internal and fringe, as opposed to interpreting those of external cultures through imaging. “CARBON” arose from experiments involving analog camera-less photography, searching the periphery of a medium that lends itself to capturing and defining “reality.” More than simply collecting data as most scientific photographs do, the “CARBON” negatives are in fact extremely resolved hybrid-drawings that harness the language of scientific photography to suggest proof of the as yet unknown. This is ambiguous territory in the best possible sense. “CARBON” could offer the proof for everything or nothing or both, simultaneously, in hyper-resolution.

The “CARBON” negatives come into being through my intentions and manipulations. The attrition rate is high due to the experimental nature of the process—I am encouraging accidents within certain parameters. The studio holds syringes, pipettes, desiccators, surgical lamps, dry ice vessels, oscilloscopes, battery chargers and magnifiers. There are Japanese sumi-e ink brushes, every possible carbon based pigment, monkey skulls, solvents, electronic bits and pieces, optical scanners and of course the ubiquitous software running in the background. There are vestiges from the darkroom era, many musical instruments, amplifiers and racks of audio equipment. It is a laboratory, but I’m not seeking empirical results. The space is devised to encourage new thoughts and the means to act quickly upon them.

The early “CARBON” photographs totally surprised me, appearing both micro and macroscopic simultaneously. Images of complex things which I’d never seen before simply appeared. It was as though an alternate time and place, or the immediate record of one, was forming in front of me. Here was the archeological memory of an event that had come into being just minutes earlier, fossils of the near present. I was both creating and discovering a world.

The actual carbon component in the emulsion, which is distinctly different from and finer than traditional silver based photographic chemistry, seemed to conjure all manner of geologic representation and new life forms to go with it. All this seemed to suggest an intelligence coalescing from matter. In this regard “CARBON” suggested a new ontology. Conceptually it provided the opportunity for a philosophical re-set, a chance to re-think assumptions about the nature of time and matter, and the nature of art. That may be the fundamental symbolism of the entire work.

All this sits well within my fluid personal philosophy, the result of years living with a stone age tribe in Indonesia, considering eastern philosophies while in India, exploring modes of perception through psychedelics, exposed in the arctic, enveloped in rain forests and more recently embracing technology in its myriad forms. For an autodidact the web has been rocket fuel. In hind sight I seem to use every means available to accelerate learning and the creative expression of that process.

I am an atheist. The scientific method and the plethora of recent discoveries across the scientific frontier provides all the wonder my ever curious mind desires. That does not exclude me from the thrill of creating, of “playing God.” Through multiple artistic modes I am expressing an affinity for the human predisposition to harness nature for evolutionary purposes. So what is “CARBON”? *Perhaps it's the meta-cartography of a future world, one dominated by genetics, robotics, nano-tech, terraforming. Perhaps it's a post corporal world where our thoughts and intentions remain but not the biologic selves we currently associate with “humans.” If we can survive long enough our intelligence will spread throughout the universe. The writing is so clearly etched on the virtual wall that such conjecture can no longer be shunted off onto some fantasy Sci-Fi book shelf. Its all becoming possible. The future is enveloping us, we are becoming something else, and its happening fast. I am fascinated by the process and possibilities.

The “CARBON” imagery cried out for sound, motion and visceral interaction so the initial organic work has evolved into immersive installations: moving interactive imagery, focused and surround sound, sculptures fitted with touch and motion sensors. A current work in progress uses augmented reality. I’m most interested in creating spaces that encourage the viewer to lose themselves, to consider other ontological possibilities.

*This view is in line with predictions made by Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near, Viking, 2005, a work that continues to have a large impact on my own.

VN.N::You describe your work as a process that is “not seeking empirical results.” Your journalist background enables your interest in “frontiers of knowledge.”

You differentiate your practice from the scientific method by saying the artist “asks questions and explores without knowing what the answer might be or even if there will be one. Both methodologies seem to share a similar sense of purpose. And both seem to provoke even more questions.” It sounds like creative research plays an important role in your work.

Creative research has been described as “the creation of possibilities over the proving of certainties”

A few questions for you to consider regarding research…

Does the process of creative research figure into the cultural exchange and the reception or your work?

Is the work’s technical process (i.e. “camera-less photography”) and your research into natural systems meant to forge a reconfigured aesthetic? Is research a strategy for you to change the assumed conditions of an artwork?

CL::My background in photo-journalism didn’t really enable my interest in the frontiers of knowledge, that seems to have been innate from an early age, but it does mean that for a significant period of my life I pursued and exposed palpable truths such as Primary Rainforest X in Sumatra is in imminent danger of total destruction. That was empirical, undeniable. It was also high adventure.

It now seems that my entire life is artistic research or exploration. There’s very little repetition, one of the reasons for this, for better or worse, is that my work has not been heavily commodified, I’m not a mass fabricator of artwork for the marketplace. The pieces and performances are created, ways to improve them noted, and then the process moves on. There’s no motivation to repeat myself, I’m able to evolve quickly. Reminds me of one of those exotic rain forrest trees that flowers briefly at odd intervals. As an exploration geologist in my 20’s I worked on initial reconnaissance in remote locations, seldom walking the same piece of tundra twice, never fishing the same water twice. Good work for a certain kind of temperament. Some people want to learn how to do one thing and only one thing extremely well. I remember a professor in University who was the world’s expert on one specific trilobite. I’m interested in a broader spectrum of experience and the challenges of integrating that scope. I suspect this view is a direct result of the democratization of international air travel, computer processing, the web and access to knowledge. Its this time we live in. We can know so much. What a planet!

Rolling’s definition for “creative research” and “scientific method” makes perfect sense. I love the technical aspects of the work I do, the conceptualizing, fabricating, programming, trouble shooting, collaborating. I find laboratories incredibly beautiful. A re-configured aesthetic? Last year I toured Loral in Silicon Valley, where some of the largest and most complicated satellites are made for companies like Sirius radio. Those “objects” cost $450 million and do so much more than just look good! Sitting in an uber-Gagosian like lab space, covered in gold foil, its hard to imagine anything more aesthetic. Plug that into the same mind that loves lichens, cephalopods and electronic music.

As for the cultural exchange and assumed conditions of the artwork, they are what they are, the process is organic, it's simply how I choose to go about it. I’m not crafting or couching the process to suit an audience, that would be too close to art as business school model. My approach is honest, simply integrating all my passions to express hybrid ideas, things that can’t be expressed any other way but through art as I invent it. It is what it is. So the final works or performances are the result of a deep and satisfying process, to the point where, if no final work was exhibited, the process itself ensures a no lose situation. The “research” is the reward. That said, I am of course interested in cultural exchange and, god forbid, in fiscal remuneration…. Its also very cool when the audience responds strongly. The inner chimp loves that !

VN.N::You called “CARBON” a meta-cartography of a future world, what do you think the future holds for us, culturally? Which direction will you be heading next?

CL::We as a species are quickly evolving, becoming something else, absorbing technology, awash in information, contemplating the very real prospect of living ‘forever’ through biological augmentation. At the same time our planet is suffering a mass extinction and plummeting biodiversity due to over population and a lack of global leadership. That sounds like a perfect petri dish experiment to incubate war and strife.

Considering both technology and nature, the pace is quickening, we’re seated on the gentle rise of an exponential curve that is about to point straight up, just like the ascent of a roller coaster, clakkity-clak. Will we be screaming with our hands in the air when the car goes over the crest and falls the other way? Adding more than 4 dimensions to this illustration increases the possibilities beyond a simple vector, no need for the track, but you get the idea. I got the optimist gene, I’m hopeful. We are such a young civilization, babies in the mass scheme of things, but what are the consequences of these profound changes? How will we as a species adapt? Can we think beyond our own species let alone our own tribes? How about Eco-altruism? Must we be rapacious? Shouldn’t we evolve beyond dog eat dog competitive philosophies before we seed space with ourselves?

The increasingly complex immersive environments I’m constructing as an artist have taken me full circle, from inventing the CARBON negatives as a way to explore the beginnings of intelligent life to incorporating virtual and augmented reality. That propelled me into thinking about the nature of reality, ala Thomas Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel. That leads to considering life beyond earth, to the point where one could imagine the universe is a mind, thinking…. In retrospect it is amazing to see where “following one’s bliss” can lead. Now to tackle dark matter…

In an attempt to encapsulate the above ideas I’m about to debut a new live performance called NEAR(ER) at Swissnex in San Francisco. It includes original electronic music, projected video, sampled readings from a short story I’ve written and a human brain floating in a bottle, which also functions as an instrument with LEDs syncing to the pulse. The implication is that the ideas, sounds and visions come from the floating mind. I want to use art to explore technology as a visceral, sensual, empathetic medium. Thats the current challenge. I’m using myself as a guinea pig, trying to understand the differences between virtual reality and reality, live experience vs. recorded, the nature of mind and memes. How might they travel through space?

Back to that inner chimp, what do we primates like to do best besides eat, hump and fight? We like to say “Hey, come here, look what I found!” As for the meta-cartography of a future world…please ask Monty Python what he thinks.

Thanks very much for this opportunity to swap and hone ideas. C.L.