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 ability to generate an emergent form is itself a poetic facility," he will begin. "Cameras do that, but there's a feeling of imitation from a camera. A post-optical system--one with no camera--comes from the same tradition as abstraction. And it all comes from the tradition of symbolic logic, which itself comes out of alchemy and cryptography. Twentieth-century art has failed to see that. I'm trying to rectify that fact by mechanizing symbolic logic--using hardware to take a floating point of reference and generate an emergent form. After all, the futurists used to say that the most beautiful form was a speeding racing car"...and so forth until Higham's line of thought skids nimbly off in another direction: the history of the computer, or Buddhist metaphysics, or the Sisyphean travails of Wile E. Coyote.

Higham's studio is a fitting parade of its occupant's scattershot intellectual interests. There are books everywhere--a hodgepodge of art imprints, academic tomes, and computer manuals that don't look like they'd be good for anything except executing spiders. Standing guard like a household god atop one overstuffed bookcase is a chipped garden gnome bearing some resemblance to the Mad Hatter. (Higham considers Lewis Carroll, whom he respectfully refers to as the Reverend Charles Dodgson, both a scholarly patriarch and spiritual cousin, and often mentions his text On the Economy of Machines and Manufacture with great esteem). At the studio's northern limit, through an obstacle course of secondhand furniture and archaic sound-mixing equipment, there is a large sheet where Higham records his various musings. From a distance, it looks as though someone's head has exploded and splattered ideas all over the paper: penciled schematics so intricate that they have begun to resemble balls of twine, and cryptic remarks like "Metonomy Is Not Abstraction!" Higham is a great believer in something called "heuristics"--a Greek word referring to a fallacious statement that aids in a logical proof--and his scribblings may consequently appear to the uninitiated to be Carrollesque in their randomness.

Though Higham has found a welcoming haven at the University of Minnesota, where he and his wife--a sculptor named Coral Lambert--have been artists in residence, he still considers himself an iconoclast in the art world. Or rather he considers that he is considered an iconoclast. Nevertheless, he has recently enjoyed a full slate of speaking engagements. This past spring, he gave a speech to the French Parliament at the Palais de Luxembourg. At the moment, he is packing his things for a sculpture symposium and exhibit of his work in New Orleans. His current professional whirlwind--which includes site-specific installations, public performances, and conferences--is all part of a yearlong international crusade to introduce his ideas about the trajectory of contemporary art. He imagines that although he is now at least three years ahead of the rest of the world, we will eventually catch up. He believes, also, that his work, which might now seem an academic novelty act, will revolutionize the way technology and art interact. He is happy to lead the way down the rabbit hole.

But what exactly does Paul Higham do? "Let me show you," he says as he saunters toward an impressive heap of computer hardware in one corner of the studio.

 

Higham's system, a PC and flat-screen monitor linked to a Sony laptop and digital camera by a nest of cables, is laid out in front of a soft brown leather chair. The artist sinks into the latter and begins his demonstration on the former. The computer is connected to a small plastic gizmo that looks like a quill pen suspended over a dinner saucer. It is, he explains, a haptic system, originally developed to help surgeons practice their art in virtual reality (like much of Higham's equipment, the haptic array was lent to him by a technology company eager to test its products). The pen is designed to offer a spongy but tangible resistance when the cursor bumps into a virtual object on the computer screen. In theory, a surgeon would know by the force of this resistance whether he is poking at a virtual gall bladder or a virtual spleen.

"It's a revolutionary way of interfacing with a computer," he explains as he opens a Silicon Graphics free-form 3-D drawing program. "Look, the mouse is 30 years old now, and it's outmoded." Manipulating the haptic pen with his right hand and tapping distractedly on the screen with the other, Higham draws a glyph. It looks like a pretzel made of phlegm. He shakes his head, hits a button on the keyboard, and the image rotates 180 degrees. "This is just an example," he says. "I could also have made a photo of an object"--he points at a nearby digital camera, which looks like something you'd need to have an engineering doctorate just to touch. "Then, using the haptic system, I would be able to mold the image. It's a virtual clay modeling system." Higham is now on a roll, and momentarily neglects the phlegm pretzel still twisting round and round on the screen.

"It's hard to persuade the traditional art world of the significance of this," he exclaims. "The best analogy I can think of is the beginnings of sound-sampling. In the early Eighties, I brought that idea to them and they said, 'What do you mean? How can you sample sound?'" Higham turns his attention back to the glyph and, using the pen, molds the shape into a Möbius strip.

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