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 is wheezing through a vicious blitz of seasonal allergies. The studio's windows, which normally flood the space with sunlight, are covered with black-out curtains, and an overhead projection of one of Higham's online pieces--a floating mass of red globules that look like amoebas copulating in a primordial sea--is playing on the shadowy rear wall. Higham is unusually agitated, and as he expounds on his upcoming enterprise, he paces the studio floor, rubbing his hands together and mumbling. He passes by a cardboard model of R2D2 and a plastic rendering of Dino the Dinosaur from The Flintstones (Higham has an affinity for the chintzy flotsam of American pop culture; he's currently engaged in a tour of the country's McDonald's restaurants in order to record and sample the Ronald McDonald statues placed out front).

The image on the wall behind him morphs into an abstracted crimson flower, which blooms and contracts according to an invisible logic. "The age of recording is finished," he says, as much to himself as to anyone who might be listening. "It's over. We're into the age of real-time synthesis. As I've said before, painting, sculpture, and all 20th-century art is a picturesque rendering of symbolic space. With these advances in the plastic arts, people will be able to directly engage with autonomous space. It heralds a revolution."

Higham's revolutionary piece, which he considers the culmination of a quest akin to Babbage's visionary pursuit of the first computer, is a model of the Statue of Liberty. He first came upon the idea two years ago while in New York City scouting locations for his work. "I was moved by it," he says, "and impressed by its solitary presence in the harbor. It's the ideal iconoclastic form--a major symbolic hot spot that can be reified in virtual space. My idea is to synthesize the spectacle of the statue, so that people will consume it in the same way we consume a cathedral or any other monument."

Higham has been unable to secure patronage from arts funders for his expansive--and, given the scale, expensive--vision. "The art world hasn't understood a thing I've said for the last five years," he says. "It's a little late for them to start now." Nevertheless, in the coming months, armed with military-developed telemetric scanners, Higham will take up positions around the statue and began recording its three-dimensional form. Once he's scanned it, he'll build a virtual model on the Internet which visitors to his Web site, www.spacesampler.com, will be able to tour. (Unlike the real Statue of Liberty, virtual tourists may explore and manipulate Higham's sculpture without permission from the Port Authority). It will be, he says, a textured virtual realm, constructed with tactile, visual, and audio dimensions. "It's an evolutionary sculpture. The iconographic form will evolve depending on the amount of interaction. The statue could be multiplied, or split into pieces. You'll be able to feel the surface of the statue and engage engines of change. You could have this slipstream of Statues of Liberty."

At the same time, Higham will record found sound from around Liberty Island and synthesize it into digital samples. Then, using a "flock of birds" sensor array, which transfers physical motion into virtual space via the sort of glove-and-head apparel familiar from sci-fi films, he'll be able to conduct live musical concertos based on the VR-modeled metamorphosis of the statue sculpture.

Somewhere in the darkened studio, a phone rings. Higham answers it and explains to the caller that, no, he doesn't wish to change his long-distance carrier. Behind him, the crimson bud continues its hypnotic and weirdly sentient motion. An electronic message board flashes the words "All things proceed reversing," which is one of Higham's favorite quotes. He explains it thus: "Our understanding of time and space can be modeled plastically. When the world is reduced to symbols, we can deconstruct or construct or synthesize that understanding. We can reverse nature's laws."

As Higham talks, I find myself drifting back to a few weeks earlier, when the two of us had been returning to the artist's studio from an afternoon coffee break. Higham was discoursing on the theories of an obscure ancient Arabian mathematician--something to do with the ontological basis of binary code--and my mind was, as usual, floating lazily in the wake of his conversational prow. While he went on, I found myself replaying the last line from Through the Looking Glass--"Life, what is it but a dream?"--and thinking that this rather neatly summed up Higham's philosophy.

Then, quite suddenly, the artist stopped short and pointed at the road in front of us, which was bisected by a police roadblock. Except the figures manning it weren't police officers. They were circus clowns. How curious, I thought. And I was about to say so when I noticed that Higham was nodding contemplatively, as though the cosmos had just offered poetic proof of everything he'd been saying.


Paul Higham's Synthesizing Liberty will appear in early October on his Web site www.spacesampler.com.

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