More Perfect Union, the last work by Luke Dubois (United States, 1975), artist, scholar, musician, represeted by the Bitforms Gallery in New York (directed by Steve Sacks e Laura Blereau), one of the most influential exhibition centers in the digital art scenario, places itself as an interesting attempt to investigate the sentimental life of americans, through the digital visualization potential.
The work is about a mapping of the american identity through an analysis of the 21 main online meeting websites. A sort of media coverage and aestheticization of the most important experiences of investigating interpersonal relationships like Comizi d’amore by Pier Paolo Pasolini or by Alfred Kisey if you want, who with his relationships defied the conventions taking care of issues until then considered a taboo.
The work was organized following the same heuristics of the american census. ” Every ten years in the United States, we conduct a census whose aim is to determine how many people live in different areas of our country, together with a simple calculation, the results of the census give us an idea of our income, job, houses, age [...] What would happen instead if we asked what people do on Saturday night? What would happen if we asked what kind of person we want to love? choosing profiles for the encounters through a congressional district and analysing statistically images and text, creating maps using words spoken by 16,7 million people who describe themselves and what they desire.
The result is summarized in a sentimental atlas of the United States, in which every geographic area is described by terms expressing the users’ feelings, instead of city names: 20.262 individual words, based on the analysis of online profiles. Every word is displayed in the geographic area of the country where it is used the most.
This interesting info-aesthetic survey is just the last piece of one of the most significant artistic, technical and research experiences in the contemporary scenario. We are talking about the one by Luke Dubois, artist who explores with technical skills the time, verbal, visual and rhetoric structures of the contemporary cultural industry.
A teacher at the Media Center in Brooklyn and the NYU’s Polytechnic Institute, his records are available on Caipirinha / Sire, Liquid Sky, C74, and Cantaloupe Music. It is fair to mention also his collaboration to the drafting and creation of Jitter, suite software for the data manipulation and the resulting real time data visualization .
Luke Dubois works in different areas in a coherent way, measuring techniques and computational creativity suggestions in well recognisable groups: from the one linked to the visualization, which acquires a sociological impact, in the use and production of decoded data, aimed at studying social fenomena thanks to a merging of art and data mining processes in the visual rhethoric, which could be defined as typical of democracy (W. Sack, 2007)
; to the group related to the reflection on contemporary icnonographies cinema, pop universe, fashion aproached through a use of technologies which is not linked to the territory, in order to use already decoded cultural products as analysis material which undergoes re-semantization processes through calculation; the other group is about the works on time, compression and expansion of the actual performance duration, through a audio-visual experimentation linked to technological innovations.
We try to retrace the artistic, emotional, thought paths of this many-sided artist, talking to Luke Dubois itself, who starts from his last exhibition to then show us his eclecticism.
Pasquale Napolitano: Let’s start from your last works, Hindsight is Always 20/20 and A More Perfect Union.The cognitive thinking, at the base of the analytical methodology that you apply to the theme that you choose to address, is very challenging. It is like as, if translating the analysis of numbers and words on the basis of the political-economic discourse, from a quantitative (standard) to a qualiitative (aesthetic) methodology, I were able to generate a difference of meaning (typical of the language of art in historical sense). So I would like to ask you: is the political intent behind your work intentional?
Luke Dubois: There is definitely a political intent behind a lot of my work. In the most recent two pieces (Hindsight is Always 20/20 and A More Perfect Union) I’m trying to create a type of American portraiture based on the language and rhetoric of our culture.
I feel that, as we enter the 21st century, we are bombarded with language: facts, figures, sound-bytes, Facebook profiles, “tweets”, the “news crawl” underneath cable news broadcasts, etc. We are only beginning to develop the media literacy to cope with this information. So I thought it would be interesting to create works that juxtapose a “high” mode of rhetoric (presidential speeches) against a “low” mode (dating profiles)… sort of a sacred-versus-profane dialectic that gives us insight into American national identity.
At the same time, both of those pieces serve as critiques of their formal antecedents: Hindsight pokes fun at so-called “tag clouds”, which purport to reduce large quantities of textual information to a few keywords; Perfect Union critiques the ten-year U.S. census, which is a deeply flawed, politicized process that functions as the document of record for who Americans “are”.
We see a lot of data visualization in our everyday lives, in print and other media, yet we don’t understand how easy it is to lie with statistics. These works also lack in the metaphors that allow us to free-associate and imagine connections, which is what I try to accomplish with my pieces.
Pasquale Napolitano: Always thinking of More Perfect Union, do you think you can interpret some of your artefacts as possible help to the audio-visual social research? More precisely, don’t you think that this kind of work uses the languages of art (in this case of the installation) to summarize social phenomenon data, within a graphical artefact? Finally, when you create a work like More Perfect Union, do you consciously try to give the work both a scientific value (in the sense of the social sciences) and an aesthetic value?
Luke Dubois: My pieces are implemented using the same statistical methodologies used in the social sciences, but I try not to encourage people to interpret the artwork as “research”. The works are intended to provoke conversation, not act as “fact”. In this sense, it’s no different from the semiotics of class portraiture. Da Vinci’s La Gioconda is one artist’s view of Lisa Gherardini, it’s not actually her.
My pieces are meant to be an interpretation of a select corpus of information written or created or valued by us, which I then invert to point out something I think is interesting about us, but obviously doesn’t reflect the complexity of the whole subject. By realizing that this is a flawed and incomplete exercise, you can look at the artifacts more clearly as artwork than as data visualization; I readily concede the limitation of the form.
Pasquale Napolitano: More than being a conceptual artist, you also have an experimental and technical background, as Jitter’s co-author. How do you combine these two aspects (we could say, typical of the Renaissance artist)?
Luke Dubois: I strongly believe that an artist needs to have fluency in their tools. If your tool is a computer, you should understand how it works, to better utilize it to make work. I am an auto-didact in the sense that I never studied computer science or fine art. I studied music, which has elements of both. I believe in Anne Bogart‘s assertion that an artist needs to seize her/his means of production in order to succeed. We live at a point in time where that is possible like never before, thanks to YouTube, etc… We can create tools and execute our pieces without too much reliance on the traditional gatekeeping that oversaw the dissemination of cultural capital in previous ages. So I feel that designing software is a natural extension of what I do as an artist, and vice versa.
Pasquale Napolitano: About another technical and technological experiment which you dealt with: what exactly is the “time-laps phonography”? The name itself seems an invitation to synesthesia. How did you apply this technique to your technical research?
Luke Dubois: “Time-lapse phonography” is a technique I developed to create a sound-equivalent to long-exposure photography. It eliminates time from a time-based medium (sound or music), leaving a gestalt impression of the sound akin to an image. I was trying to get at the sound that rings in your “mind’s ear” after the concert finishes. On a more banal level, it’s an interesting way to derive the average frequency spectrum of a piece of music for analytic purposes.
I use averaging a lot in my work, and a lot of music that I create derives from a creative investigation of time as something that a musician can stretch and compress and fold to make new compositions. I have synesthesia, so that’s certainly influential in a lot of my techniques, but the process also speaks to the data-neutrality of the computer. My computer won’t complain if I translate a sound into a picture and back again, but most commercial software discourages those kinds of digression.
Pasquale Napolitano: One category that seems to me essential in your artistic career is the “archive”, as an analytical tool but also as a creative possibility. As in the series (Pop) Icon, in which you created a portrait of Britney Spears, processing already existing and publicized images. Or again, in Best picture, a formal and aesthetic processing of the first 75 years of the Academy Awards. How do you choose the data sources on which to work? How do you decide the kind of process that these materials undergo?
Luke Dubois: Americans are obsessed with canonicity, though most of us don’t think particularly hard about the origins of many of these canons. So the “data sources” or “archives” in these pieces are things we consider the “best”. By accelerating, or blurring, or generatively remixing the material, you can find out interesting things about the work and how we look at it. The Academy Awards are a peer review, chosen by people who are themselves eligible to win the award. It’s a decidedly non-democratic process that millions of Americans watch and enjoy, convinced that we somehow participated in or validated these choices, as if it were some kind of “American Idol”.
However, an accelerated “history” of the films shows a lot about the history of cinema: how shoots are used, how edits are made, how music works, how actors move, that are reflected in our cultural zeitgeist at the moment.
As for Britney Spears, I finder her fascinating because she is the first pop start to come of age entirely in the age of AutoTune and Photoshop. We never hear her or see her without the aura of digitally-enhanced “perfection” that her record and video producers apply to her. So to take my metaphor of portraiture to a further point of removal, Britney is not only a highly subjective person (she exists only as we interpret her), but she is a “digitally perfected” person as well, in the way in which she is mediatized.
Pasquale Napolitano: The question that mostly intrigue me: how did your artistic path, among images and sound, start? And, more in general, what were the artists and movements that mostly influence you?
Luke Dubois: I was trained as a composer, and have been performing a lot of improvised, avant-garde music using electronics since the 1990s. From 1996-2003 I performed in a band called The Freight Elevator Quartet that integrated video into our performances on a regular basis, using cameras that the audience could work to project themselves onto the stage with us, creating a type of audience-performer interactivity that helped to overcome the alienating effect of performing with so much computer technology.
At the same time I began writing a lot of chamber music using algorithmic methodologies that would be “visualized” on a projection at the same time they were played by musicians; this served as a type of aesthetic amplifier for the work that helped to embody the compositional technique I was working with and make it more transparent and accessible to the audience. Once I began to develop a performative visual language, I began performing as a live visualist with other composers, other musicians, and became interested in working in video, animation, film, text…
I was strongly influenced early on by the work of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, who was trained as an architect and had, implicit in his music, a deep understanding of politics and his own experience during the Second World War; however abstract or statistical or formalized the compositions became over his career, he was creating the sound of war, of his youth, of his experience, and he wrote often that any artistic concept could be realized with equal validity in any medium. That resonated with me in my search for sonic or visual metaphors to work with in my pieces.
I was also influenced by John Cage and the New York avant-garde of the 1970s in their approach to sonic and musical form and their willingness to take risks. On the visual side, I am a big fan of Stan Brakhage and his films, as well as appropriation artists and musicians like Emergency Broadcast Network, John Oswald, and Negativland. Most of my influences come from artists I’ve met or worked with thought: people like Toni Dove, Elliott Sharp, Matthew Ritchie, Michael Grey, Maya Lin, have all given me a lot to think about in terms of how their imagination intersects with their practice.
Pasquale Napolitano: “Time” seems to be another essential category in your work (thinking about your time-lapse work like Fashionably Late For The Relationship), and it refers to a wide area of experimentation (from cheap art to programmed art). So, what is your particular way of using this category as a tool for creation?
Luke Dubois: Time is the a funny thing: we’re told in school that it’s the one constant dimension, subject only to general relativity. We as individual actors in space have no control over its forward motion; at the same time, all of us know that it’s incredibly subjective. So our experience of time is a perfect artistic subject for someone who lives in a culture where we’re always running out of it.
Fashionably Late looked at time through the lens of gender relations, public and private spaces, and obsessive romantic love. Why does your date take so long? Why do you stare at the phone waiting for her/him to call? Why does it seem like years pass instead of days when you are apart from someone you love? How does emotion impact something we’re told is constant?
The time-compression I use is based on averaging, not time-lapse, so the film consists of every moment of the 72 hours compressed into an hour-long film. That piece was very much a collaboration, and Lián’s performance was self-directed; all I did was serve as documentary director during the actual shoot. The edited film, though, takes her performance, which is full of symbolism about gender maintenance and how women relate to themselves in public and private, and reverses the viewpoint to how a (male) lover might accelerate and blur and selectively edit that information.
Pasquale Napolitano: I would finally come back to your exhibition at Bitforms. How was the relationship with the gallery? Bitforms worked more as a production entity, from a purely economic perspective, or did it also take care of the creative choices?
Luke Dubois: I’ve been working with Steve Sacks and Laura Blereau since late 2005 and have done a lot of projects with the gallery. I also work regularly with a team of producers, Dana Karwas and Gabriel Winer, who help me with the production phases of most of my pieces. Bitforms produced Perfect Union because, as a digital print show, it’s a reasonably modest investment, and we all agreed it was important to have a complete set of the maps printed and mounted, available for touring at museums.
We have a very creative working relationship; bitforms creates a lot of opportunities for me in terms of exhibitions and commissions for new work, and they assist when necessary in getting the pieces made. Unlike a lot of fine artists who work with studios and have assistants, I prefer to collaborate on a peer level with other creative people, so I work on projects with people who are equally invested in coming up with a good vision.
Pasquale Napolitano:Are you now working on some new projects? It is typical of a Renaissance artist to never stop planning…
Luke Dubois: The next couple of pieces I’m working on involve music: one is a performance for Prospect.2, the biennial curated by Dan Cameron in New Orleans. It will be a large performance for high-school marching bands turned into a generative film document of the work. Another is a series of audiovisual portraits of avant-garde musicians in New York City using a 300fps camera and special audio recording equipment, to take 6 minute performances on their instruments and turn them into very slow-motion one-hour-long video portraits.
I’m also writing a co-textbook for MIT press, working a lot with the ISSUE Project Room on developing some technology for multi-channel sound and video performance, and performing with some excellent musician friends. 2011 should be a very good year.