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

Higham was precocious in non-ordnance-related disciplines as well: By age 17, he had absorbed the classics and dabbled in Wittgenstein. He'd also begun to consider art. "I started with sculpture first. But I was also making paintings of entities that would evolve as sculpture. For as long as I can recall, I've been fascinated by the idea of entities emerging from a void." This concept--that an objet d'art could evolve from nothing--would eventually become Higham's grail.

After emerging from boys' school, Higham went to the Liverpool School of Art, where he studied under the same professors who taught John Lennon, and then to Goldsmiths School of Art, which would later become famous as the alma mater of oft-touted Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst and Gary Hume. Higham, in characteristically iconoclastic form, refused to study art history. "I went to see the head of Goldsmiths in 1973, who was a guy called John Thompson. He had been a pop artist in the Sixties. In 1973, though, everything had gone conceptual. I told him, I must use the computer at London University. I need to have the ability to control activity in a space that can evolve over time. I went into his office. I remember it very clearly. He picked up the phone and called the head of the mathematics department, which was across London, and said, 'I've got a student over here who wants to come over and use your computers to make some sort of visual art.'

"The guy said, 'Well, he can come over and see what we're doing, but there's no way we're going to let him near it unless he has a degree in mathematics.'"

Higham didn't get the prerequisite degree. Nor did he get to play around with the university's computers, which were then enormous contraptions with less processing power than the average Palm Pilot. Instead, he took up residence in London's West End, around the corner from the favorite watering hole of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. He began toying with sound-mixing equipment (he would later help work on a prototype of an early, low-priced digital sampling machine).

He also began spending entire days in London's cartoon cinemas, which he now describes as revelatory experiences. "I was fascinated by the fact that physics could be transformed. It's fundamental that cartoons can disobey any law; they're entirely mutable. I began to look at them as conceptual art which could be mathematically altered."

Animation is an inherently kinetic art form, Higham explains, a work that is constantly in motion, evolving even as the cartoon's scenario repeats ad infinitum. He came to consider the cartoon the "locus classicus" of 20th-century art. Indeed, his first professional exhibition was titled "Disney to Deity." (Higham has a way of making very complex things sound fascinating, and making prosaic things, like cartoons, for instance, very complicated.)

Higham's converging interests in animation and technology eventually drew him to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, then the largest theme park in Europe and Britain's answer to Disney Land (these were the days before the Maus marched on Paris). His boss there, an eccentric entrepreneur, used to sneak a camera into the Magic Kingdom under his coat, and return with photos, commissioning his engineers to copy Disney's mechanical menagerie. For three months in the Seventies, Higham worked exclusively on the reverse-engineering of a family of animatronic dancing bears.

Cartoons sculpted Higham's life in other ways, as well. Over the course of long afternoons spent in cinematic rapture, he had become enchanted with the sound of animated features, a series of yelps and crashes and bleats that he found both catastrophic and harmonious. He was especially fond of the minimalist and repetitive Roadrunner cartoons (the only dialogue in them, after all, was "beep beep"). Indeed, it was the distillation of the cartoon form to its most basic elements that appealed to Higham, and he now speaks of the Roadrunner's animator, Chuck Jones, and sound designer, Treg Brown, in the same breath as Aristotle and Duchamp.

Strangely enough, the accompaniment to Wile E. Coyote's ill-fated endeavors became Higham's entrée into the world of music. With the right equipment, he decided, he could reconfigure the explosions and crashes into a soundscape, both familiar and divorced from its visual context. He began sampling cartoons from his television and re-editing them. One of Higham's few recorded compositions, "Duck Spindle Trilogy," is 3 minutes and 48 seconds of Donald Duck's trademark warble, wittily blended with the rhythmic clang of an assembly line.

Higham began his experiments with sound in the late Seventies, long before the advent of popular "found sound" and musical collectives like London's Shift Control. With no one to share his ideas, Higham gravitated naturally to the embryonic electronica scene, which was then a blip on the screen of pop music. In 1979, he met Bernard Sumner of Joy Division (and, later, New Order). United by their interest in emerging digital-recording technology, the two began spending time together, scouring London pawnshops and equipment outlets for gear that would allow them to dissect and sample the aural sphere. "He and I were interested in disco sound effects," Higham recalls. "We were collecting records that just had sound effects, any kind of electronic music....In the car with Bernard one time--it was a black Mercedes--I put in this tape of lightning sounds, which he eventually used on Unknown Pleasures."

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