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

As usual, Higham was well ahead of his time. Aside from Sumner and a few other early electronic-music aficionados, he says, "There was nobody at the time to talk to about sound-sampling. I'd say, I want to sample sound. And they'd sort of look at me like I was cracked. Everybody was looking for the next Sex Pistols."

Higham continues thoughtfully, "You know, that's true in the museum world, too. They have certain ideas about what's avant-garde and what's polemical. They have a comfort zone that they're in, and they don't like to extend out of it. Everyone's looking for the next Duchamp or Robert Smithson. But if they're looking in garrets and lofts, then they're looking in the wrong place. No. That's not where they're going to be."

Rather than pressing his heretical ideas on an unready world, Higham briefly retreated from it. In 1987, driven by his study of sound and a lingering childhood fascination with Eastern philosophy, he entered the Madhyamaka Tibetan Monastery, located on a converted Victorian estate in York. "At the time," he explains, "a lot of high lamas were looking to establish authentic dharma in the West at a series of legitimate universities that would be set up from the dialectical tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. You need to be trained by abbots, otherwise you're not going to get authentic dharma, or authentic Tibetan traditional teachings. It's like martial arts: You have to go to an instructor."

Higham stayed for two years without taking monastic orders. He was, he explains, contemplating "the nature of illusion." "I was studying mind incognition, and the relationship of the mind to reality--the functions of the senses, the power of the eyes--and how it can be enhanced so that the mind is not imitating reality. So that it's creating itself."

For Higham, Tibetan Buddhism was the link between the intellectual underpinnings of his work and the larger world. This ancient metaphysical doctrine, which he still studies rigorously, was steeped in the same notions as his art--namely, that reality is merely an agreed-upon fiction. In one instance, he recalls escorting a visiting 80-year-old lama from India through a ruined English monastery, where Christian monks much like the visitor had once worked and prayed. Then, Higham took the old fellow to an Imax theater, which was showing a film of Chinese people flying kites in Tiananmen Square. As the two laughed at the images on the screen, Higham had another epiphany: Art, like any other illusion, could evolve with the logic of a dream.

He was ready, at last, to apply his philosophy to his work. "This is going to sound corny," he now says. "But I felt I'd learned what I could from books. You can only learn so much, then you have to go out and do it."

 

Higham landed, somewhat serendipitously, in Minnesota in 1995, after his Manchester studio was partly blown up by an IRA bomb (he got the bad news from Robert Bly while he and Bly were attending a South American shaman retreat in the mosquito-infested woods of northern Minnesota). At that time, artists around the U.S., aided by advances in medical and military technology, were beginning to dabble in digital sculpture.

Robert Michael Smith, a New York-based progenitor of the medium, recalls first meeting Higham at a conference in Chicago. "Paul was very shy. I've noticed that, to this day, he remains a shy guy. At the same time, though, I saw that he was a very sharp guy with the potential of going places."

Smith, who was immediately impressed with Higham's telescopic view of history, now ranks him among the elite of the digital art world, a small cadre spread around the globe who gather at annual conferences to exchange ideas and technological know-how. Like most of the artists in that select group, Smith now predicts that their work is about to move from the cutting edge to the mainstream. "The defining thing about digital sculpture is that none of the physical laws of nature apply. For 50,000 years, we've been locked in by the physical world. Now we're able to break out."

Dan Collins, an art professor at the University of Arizona who is also a longtime compatriot of Higham's, shares the utopian view: "We're fast approaching this idea of 'the replicator' from Star Trek, where data is transformed into a physical event that's useful or meaningful. It will have applications for everything from consumer goods to sexual-pleasure centers to entertainment devices and art."

Because artists like Higham have arrived "ahead of schedule," Collins continues, they are in a position to illuminate the potentially troubling ramifications of instant gratification. "When every need and desire is satisfied, who's going to make sure the trash gets picked up or the watershed stays clean? Maybe they're clear-cutting our back yard while we're camped in front of our video monitors."

Higham, meanwhile, is preparing to lead the charge into the future with a project this fall that he expects will be both his magnum opus and the introduction of space-sampling to the skeptical art world. "I'd call it a monumental conceptual project that will abduct a form from a distance and transport it into the space of the computer matrix."

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