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.

"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.

Higham's method, which he has dubbed "space sampling," works on the same principle as the sampling of sound. Objects from the real world are telemetrically scanned--digitally photographed as 3-D forms--and transmitted into the computer, where they can be manipulated either manually with the haptic brush, or algorithmically by the computer. "The idea," he continues excitedly, "is that the computer becomes self-directing. The sculpture is autogametic--do you know that word?" I nod noncommittally.

"Good," he continues. "It's not made in reference to any existing form, but organic within the computer."

At this point in the process, Higham's sculptures do not exist in any tangible sense; they're bits of information floating around in the circuitry of the computer. In virtual reality, however, they can "evolve," metamorphosing according to preset algorithms. (The best analogy for this is a biological life form, which, once introduced into an ecosystem, changes according to its interactions with the environment.) Higham is also able to extract the models from virtual reality and re-create them as physical objects in real reality. Once the computer has done its work, he explains, the sculpture can be sent online to a rapid-prototype machine, a refrigerator-sized box that robotically builds plastic models from the data. The whole process is like something out of science fiction: Information goes in; complex object that bears only incidental resemblance to anything in the real world comes out. The computer, explains Higham, is now more than a conduit for art. It is an organizing intelligence in itself, a deus ex machina.

He springs suddenly out of his chair, and glides over to the other side of the studio, where a row of three of his sui generis rapid prototype models--which he calls "reities"--are displayed on a shelf. They are small, about the size of a football, and shaped rather like oblate honeycombs--in other words, not objects you'd necessarily pick to put on your mantel if you didn't know that they were cutting-edge conceptual art. The original stimulus for these curiosities was a photo of a famous statue, "Nike" (the goddess, not the shoe), from the Louvre. Now, as Higham proudly points out, they have become something completely different, unforeseen and original.

Eventually, Higham predicts, rapid-prototyping machines will be as common as photocopiers, and 3-D objects will be as simple to extract from the Internet as paper printouts are now. In three to five years he expects that space sampling will enjoy the popularity among sculptural artists that sound sampling currently does among musicians. And he's already thinking beyond it, to a synthesis of the two. "The algorithms that produce the objects," he explains, "can also produce an audio signal. The sound is dependent on the form, so you can create a real-time orchestration." The end result, he says, is a symphony generated wholly from shapes modeled in virtual reality and evolving organically over time--a 21st-century music of the spheres.

"It all stems from the past. In the Fifth Century B.C., Pythagoras said that music was made slowly through time with many numbers." With that, Higham floats off into the intellectual ether.

 

A few days later, Higham is shuffling around his warren, excited by a recent discovery. He's searching, he explains, for a mimeographed copy of a book by the eccentric 19th-century inventor Charles Babbage, which he dug out of the moldering stacks at the London Museum of Science a few years ago. The inside cover of the book is inscribed by Reverend Dodgson--proof of Higham's long-held contention that the two inventors knew each other and might have shared ideas.

"Dodgson--or Lewis Carroll--was very interested in photography and in mechanical devices. Babbage was interested in cryptography, which Carroll also studied. It's a tangled web. But it was also a small, close-knit society, so these people certainly came across each other." History is another of Higham's preoccupations. As he rummages through the studio's flotsam, he produces a sheaf of Babbage's hand-written notes--research, he explains, for a biography he is planning to write.

Babbage, who invented the first computer--an enormous steam-run abacus called the Analytic Engine--but never got around to building it, is something of an iconic figure for Higham. In the artist's estimation, Babbage represented the nexus of technology and art in the 19th Century. Through him, Lewis Carroll would have met Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the namesake of the U.S. military's computer operating system (and whose life Higham thinks he might someday like to make into a movie). Babbage's designs, Higham contends, also laid the groundwork for much of 20th-century abstract art--and, of course, his own forays into cyberspace.

"The tradition of symbolic logic, which Babbage mechanized, leads right into the work of Etienne-Jules Marey, who heavily influenced the Futurists. If you look at Etienne-Jules Marey's chrono-photography, you see great similarities with Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase,' which was exhibited at the 1913 Armory show, and which kick-started a whole new vocabulary of art--a new dialect, if you like." Higham takes a breath and flashes a lopsided grin. "It's quite a lot to think about."

Higham's deep-seated admiration for his eccentric forbears stems from what he describes as a staunchly Edwardian upbringing. His father's father, he says, owned a large estate on the Isle of Guernsey, which was occupied by Germans during the Second World War. By the time Higham was born, in 1954, the family had relocated to an idyllic farm estate in the Forth of Firth in Scotland. Even before Higham's birth, his parents had registered him for a prestigious boys' school, and Paul spent ages 7 through 17 there, learning Latin declension and the care and maintenance of machine guns. "It was a very unforgiving, tough Victorian place," he recalls. "There were tunnels and a nine-foot wall around the school. Really, nothing had changed since the 19th Century. By the time I was 11, I knew how to strip a Bren gun. We used to practice on the SCS training ground, near Salisbury Plain, blowing up dummy tanks with two-inch mortars."

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."

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."

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 sitewww.spacesampler.com.

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