Jim Campbell: Working in the Open Sphere

This article was originally published in MFJ No. 37 “Idiosyncrasies.”

Jim Campbell uses electronic memory, pre-recorded images, and live images in work that involves the interactive participation of the viewer. The work thus is anchored partially in fixed time and partially in the real time of the participating viewer. This condition makes the work literally unique since its performative aspect can never be repeated.

Campbell creates works that present the often startling element of involvement, one in which the viewer find themselves a part of the imagery as their actions are reflected in the work. In this way, Campbell undermines assumptions about what is real, posing a question that is, in this quasi-Euclidean world, answered at the experiential level by incorporating the viewer into the transitory action of the work itself. The viewer’s perception at one level that nothing is happening conflicts with perceptions that confirm exactly what these other sensations and conclusions deny. The apparent dissonance brings doubt and a spirit of testing to the interaction, a contest between levels of perception.

In his seminal work Shadow (for Heisenberg) (1993-94), Campbell places the viewer in proximity to a figure of the Buddha – an image that conveys the notion of transcendent knowledge. As the viewer approaches the figure the glass clouds over, so that the closer the process of observation comes, the more elusive becomes the knowledge derived from it. Linking quantum theory and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle with Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology, Campbell pays homage simultaneously to the Buddhist aesthetic of “emptiness” and the molecular dance of quantum space.

Campbell (in works that are remarkably free of pretension and gadgetry) uses art to address issues of metaphysics and epistemology. He recognizes that art and science – and religion – share common ground in their attempt to offer answers to the question of what is reality. Developments in contemporary science seem to be delineating more and more the ineffable territory of art and religion, drawing mystery inside the scientific notion of proof. The works, then, are like scientific propositions for those whose thinking has been trained in that mode and experiential events for those whose orientation is outside of science.

Children in particular are often are unable to articulate their questioning of apparent reality, yet they harbor skepticism about the received opinion on what is real. As children, we ponder concepts such as infinity – I imagined my elementary school building bouncing through space but could never make the picture that took it beyond the edge of town – asking and getting answers from parents and teachers that we attempt to grasp, often turning them into a kind of catechism. Hot air rises. A body in motion tends to remain in motion. We eventually learn as adults to accept received opinion more readily, without the cerebral or intuitive understanding that we demanded as children. Campbell takes us right back to that state of childlike inquiry, offering not answers but new ways to understand the questions.

For instance, Campbell shakes up the linguistic basis for knowing to jolt us into rethinking what words are. In I Have Never Read the Bible (1995), the sound component is the artist reading the King James version of the Bible, one letter at a time. The entire sound track plays for thirty-seven days, twenty-four hours a day, before it repeats. Campbell may have never read the Bible in the conventional sense, but he has read it literally, so closely that it has become incomprehensible. The idea is similar to that expressed in Shadow: closeness and exactitude do not necessarily yield greater meaning. In fact, by breaking the unit of communication to single letters, Campbell ensures that the listener can grasp only a word or two, and only with great concentration. But it is all there. Paired with the visual component of an old Webster’s dictionary, the sound track raises skepticism about the power of both the Word and the word. Yet the exercise of reading the Bible letter by letter is also a kind of mantra – an homage that, in the enormity of the undertaking, becomes a spiritual offering.

This work, and Shadow, suggest that one cannot force understanding by simply bearing down on it. That Campbell, with degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics, has chosen art as his medium of exploration suggests that he relies as much on emotional sources and intuition as on intellect, a condition that seems to heed Martin Heidegger’s assertion that the fact of knowing establishes itself as a procedure within some realm of what is – either nature or in history. “Procedure” here does not mean merely method or methodology but encompasses the opened sphere in which it moves. Research is accomplished by projecting “within some realm of what is,” a fixed ground plan of natural (i.e., intuited) events. The projection sketches out the manner in which the knowing procedure must adhere to the sphere thus opened up. This adherence is the rigor of research.1

In his use of the word “projection,” Heidegger seems to simultaneously evoke the image of Plato’s cave and a modern-day video installation. Defining rigor in such an expansive way clearly allows a thinker/artist like Campbell the space to go beyond mere doggedness to find truth.

By joining physics and metaphysics in a mutual safari into epistemology from assorted scientific, artistic, and spiritual positions, while remaining acutely aware of the limitations to our ability to know, Campbell’s work reinforces the skepticism characteristic of the body of theoretical writing loosely collected under the rubric “postmodern.” The perennial human desire to know is paired with a need to know how we know. Campbell’s genius, if I may use such a word, is in his skill at bringing us back to that state of relative innocence in which we again ask not only what reality might be but how we can know it when we sense it.

The conjoining of objects, shadows, mirrors, and projections always returns us to Plato and the parable of the cave with its basic question of reality and illusion – a cave that now seems like a prescient image of a private screening room. Campbell places us in the cave, and it is our own arms waving before the projector that create the shadows.

Campbell undertakes his lofty aims in works that are immediately accessible. But this accessibility is the first layer: the work is also rich in associations, inviting and satisfying inquiry at many levels. Still, this inquiry does not require a vocabulary of philosophical, scientific, or spiritual discourse; in fact, the work goes beyond a reliance on words or previous knowledge, preferring to propel a viewer to immediate involvement.

To invite all these levels of thought without creating that torsion or stress characteristic of other work that is intellectually rich, Campbell relies on playfulness, the gift that interactivity offers. He conducts his experiments through movement, so that the work engages the viewer bodily as well as mentally.

To what extent is the technology employed in this work “new”? Technology has traditionally been developed for use in scientific or military settings before it becomes available for commercial use. Video cameras were initially developed for launching on rockets to serve as a remote eye in outer space. The Internet had its origins in government/military functions. Paul Virilio – who, like a contemporary Von Clausewitz, never lets us forget the drive toward war – addressed in an interview2 the relationship of technology to image-making, noting that most technologies of simulation were developed for use in war. He points out the linkage between the concept of the simulacrum and the actual simulator developed to train pilots, noting the need to save money on gas and planes that might be better used if otherwise engaged.

As a result, technology is too specific and too expensive for artists to use while it is still new: the pairing of art and “new” technology usually means that the technology is new for artists. However, Campbell’s work engages genuinely new technology. Trained both as an engineer and an artist, Campbell builds his own hardware for his works, inventing as the occasion requires. His engineering skills allow him a range of exceptional breadth since he does not need to rely on preexisting technology, settle for what exists, nor divert his vision through the agency of another engineer.

Campbell combines more traditional media, such as video, with his own inventions. He is expanding video in particular as a medium, using it to posit questions about time, memory, and perceived reality in the vocabulary of the electronic age – or perhaps, more accurately, the post-electronic age. He welcomes viewers for whom the silent, static work of art is often no longer engaging, employing media of communication familiar to people who grew up not only on television, but on Nintendo and the Internet. He is on the forefront of interactive work. Yet Campbell does not limit his viewership to the children of cyberspace. His work has a timeless quality in its ideas, its conceptual concision, and its apparent simplicity.

New technology can be a trap: novelty often runs the risk of becoming mere seduction. If the ideas in the work are not substantial, no amount of computer wizardry or technological niceties can rescue it from short-term sensationalism. Campbell does astonish the viewer, and his work does invite questions about how he achieves his effects, but it goes significantly beyond these short-term impulses, offering the viewer entry to an intellectual and/or personal arena of inquiry. They are also appreciated on other levels, including that of playful interactive engagement and surprise. Campbell’s investigation of memory offers a substantial context for rethinking and reexperiencing this phenomenon so frequently addressed in contemporary art, yet rarely triggering new insight. Because treatment of memory in art often seems sentimental, superficial, or clichéd, how to break through the surface of this issue to a deeper understanding has become one of Campbell’s concerns.
For this reason, his work is both sensitive to contemporary concerns, and of exceptional value by its substance in addressing those concerns. Campbell presents an extremely high level of elegance in his work. It is important because it acknowledges the questions of cultural life that have an historic trajectory. Campbell’s work presses the questions into the future without cutting loose from history.

Campbell’s installations are rigorous and beautiful works of art. They explore questions of cultural life along their full historic trajectory. They are also exceptional presentations of concepts routed in theoretical physics, allowing for insight into the attempts of new scientific thinking to explain the forces of matter, space, and time. The pleasure that this work affords is thus multifold: the play of discovery in the interactive elements, the poetic insight into human issues such as memory, and – perhaps rarest of all – the delight in a glimpsed understanding of how the forces of the physical world work. Campbell’s works bring together art, science, and poetry.

They also take what can be called the nihilist side of deconstruction, tossing certainty and determinism are out the window and elevating the viewer to another plane of thought. The loss of certainty can lead toward despair, but the contemplation of indeterminacy equally can be exhilarating. As physicists weave gravity and quantum mechanics into string theory, Campbell may be one of our best interpreters of their thought, addressing the non-technical but intelligent and curious person, for whom truth has often been conveyed through art. Just as the classical, deterministic view of reality with its model of the universe as projecting into the future in a reliable, unchanging way, has now been replaced by a world in which particles exist in many places at once, with their future locations calculable only in probabilities, Campbell has traded the static image for a slippery reality in which space and time and perception are all elusive. He has ingeniously created in the tangible space and time of the gallery a condition only conceptualized by physics: reality as we hypothesize rather than know it.

Written by Marilyn A. Zeitlin

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