Lost In Space

How can you sample the Statue of Liberty? What is Wile E. Coyote standing on when he runs off a cliff? Solving the riddles of the universe with digital artist Paul Higham

"The time has come," the Walrus said,/"To talk of many things:/Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--/of cabbages--and kings."

--Lewis Carroll, "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There


Paul Higham's studio is tucked at the terminus of a dead-end street in the industrial barrio north of downtown Minneapolis, past a set of derelict railroad tracks and an architectural salvage yard and through a dimly lit linoleum-tiled corridor that's like the memory of the worst motel you've ever stayed in. There's an industrial saw shop downstairs, and the metallic whine from below follows you through the hall and up the stairs to the studio door. Unnervingly loud opera is playing inside, and as you step across the threshold, the grinding saw blades and the music melt into a disorienting buzz. You might feel for a moment like you're being ushered into the sanctum of a mad scientist. Higham, dressed in a loose-fitting olive suit and the dark sunglasses he wears both indoors and out, is waiting.

There is nothing outwardly extraordinary about Higham. His face is round and slightly avian, topped by a crest of thick, closely cropped black hair. His features do not suggest Olympic intellectual agility or rapt intensity (though he is possessed of both). There are no sharp edges in his mien, either. He has a pleasant professorial manner, which sometimes borders on distracted. When he speaks, it's in a mellow Scottish brogue that's fundamentally unsuitable for competing with Puccini at top volume. Only when Higham begins to talk about his work does he gain momentum. On occasion, Higham may pop out of his chair to diagram something or other with his arms. But his mind unfolds haphazardly. During these fits of inspiration, he often moves with such velocity that he jumps ahead of himself and has to retrace his steps through an overgrown landscape of theorems and arcana, theses and dreams.

"Paul is a man of rich and eclectic interests," says Philip Blackburn of the American Composers Forum, which has previously included Higham's work in its "Sonic Circuits" series of new electronic music. "He's the sort of artist who gets his feet wet and his hands muddy. At the same time, though, he's able to intellectualize a piece of polystyrene. Intellectually, he's really following his own path. He often makes me wish I understood half of what he's talking about. I only know that it's brilliant."

Even among philosophically minded art theorists, a first encounter with Higham can be a dizzying experience. The conceptual frame of his work--which encompasses Eastern philosophy, the history of art and technology, American pop culture, and anything that happens to fall in between--is so involved that it may initially seem an elaborate academic shell game. Thomas Rose, an art professor at the University of Minnesota, considers Higham's undiscriminating mind to be the product of a rigorous classical education, combined with relentless natural curiosity. Like many of Higham's acquaintances, though, he finds conversation with the man to be a difficult and occasionally frustrating proposition.

"There's such a tremendous amount of information when you're talking to Paul that you sometimes wish you could put a filter on him," Rose says. "It's definitely not coffee-shop talk.

"Then again, that's what's really interesting about Paul: He goes so far beyond the pale in plumbing the depths of his work that he makes you think about it too.

"In his own mind," Rose continues, "Paul needs to connect his work to its historical lineage, all the way back to the Greco-Roman system of interpreting symbols. Every time I've talked to him, it's been part of a larger discussion of the development of his thinking. A lot of it is based in Eastern religion and the idea of nothingness--not the thing, but the shadow of the thing." Rose compares Higham's modus operandi to the rock gardens of Kyoto, which suggest form by arranging empty space within borders. "He's concerned with things that aren't there. To reveal that, there has to be something that is there."

Rose recalls a lecture he invited Higham to deliver to a beginning sculpture class a few years ago. "He brought out so much information in such an unfiltered way that it was impossible to follow. The students couldn't react to it at all because it was like undergraduates trying to absorb an entire graduate body of knowledge. They simply couldn't process information at that speed."

It's not difficult to sympathize with those shell-shocked undergrads. Higham is invigorating company, and the breadth of his scholarship is astounding. Yet his reveries can leave one feeling lost and discouraged, like a chimpanzee who has crawled into a seat at the Algonquin Round Table. When left to flow at their natural torrential rate, his colloquies generally develop quite rapidly into soliloquies, with the listener nodding hopelessly and trying to process as much as possible. Sentences spill out in a burbling singsong, as though each had been anxiously waiting in the artist's mind for a chance to display itself to the world. They sometimes seem to stumble over one another on the way out.

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