Jim Campbell at Fundación Telefónica

A feature on U.S. electronic artist Jim Campbell’s 20-year restrospective currently showing at Fundación Tefefónica, published today at Juanele:

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We live in a high-definition world, as anyone who’s bought a camera or turned on a TV lately knows. US-based artist Jim Campbell knows it, too. And despite his degree in electronics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his self-proclaimed nerdiness, he’s not overly impressed.

“One loses something in high definition,” Campbell told the crowd that had gathered at Fundación Telefónica to hear him discuss Tiempo estático (Static Time), a retrospective encompassing two decades of his electronic art. “I wouldn’t even say that HD is more correct,” he concluded.

Given the mass of blurry images surrounding him, Campbell’s words seemed about right. The works included in Tiempo estático are about as far from high definition as possible. Using LCD lights to pixelate highway accidents and fistfights, Campbell strips his subjects of most of their identifying characteristics — only their movement remains. These low-resolution works invert our traditional understanding of clarity. Because they become easier to read as each pixel becomes less visually distinct, these pieces are actually “clearer” from a distance, or when obscured by frosted screens.

To exemplify his point, Campbell approached a work depicting the rhythmic advance of ocean waves which was covered by an opaque panel. The artist ripped the screen from the piece, and sure enough it went from a meditation on repetitive movement to something much closer to random noise. Campbell then placed the screen over another work, a none-too-obvious one in which a physically disabled person walks with the aid of a cane. (I asked Campbell about his choice of subject for this latter work; he explained that, devoid of other distinguishing characteristics, the person depicted in the work is defined by her disability as she would often be in society at large.) Screen in place, the subject immediately became more legible. “More is seen,” Campbell said as he slipped the screen back off and returned it to its original place. “But I’m not sure more needs to be seen.”

In his commentary, Campbell repeatedly emphasized the distinction between seeing something — visually registering its characteristics — and feeling it. It is the latter, he maintained, that carries us to the essence of an image, conveyed in these works by nothing more than varying tones of light and rhythms of movement. This is particularly evident in the series of works based around a single process: the artist chose a location (the New York Public Library, for example, or Grand Central Terminal), took simultaneous long-exposure photos and video, and pixelated the video across an LCD array under a print of the corresponding still image. The effect that these works produce — rich, monumental spaces traversed by spectral, vaguely human figures — is both elegant and uncomfortable, its complexity worlds away from HD’s simple promise: see more.

In the back corner of the main gallery, “Exploded View” — one of the finest works in the show — takes this same two-dimensional concept and stretches it into three. The work began, Campbell noted, as “an experiment I thought would fail.” Instead, it became the prototype for a much larger work in New York’s Madison Square Park, which used incandescent light bulbs in place of LEDs. When seen from the side, or up close, “Exploded View” is a field of tiny twinkling stars. But when viewed straight on and from a distance, it becomes a series of pixilated human forms (more Grand Central commuters, it turns out) on crisscrossing paths across what looks to be a flat plane. Although it is beautiful from all angles, the work is only coherent from one — the one at which the pixels line up so each of them occupies a single spot on a two-dimensional plane. Movement recorded in a two-dimensions, “Exploded View” reminds us, cannot be recreated in three; simply by committing something to film or video, then, entails a sort of sacrifice, no matter the definition of the resulting image.

One of the two installations in the show, “Frames of Reference,” speaks directly to the limits of our obsession with HD details. In the work, a camera attached to one end of a small, rotating block of wood is trained on a nail sunk into the other end of the block. (At the beginning, Campbell volunteered, a watch had been attached to the nail. But then the watch fell off, liberating the work from cliché.) Always aligned with the nail, the camera captures the tiny metal implement in perfect detail, while everything else in the room appears as a blur. This background is murky, yes, and poorly defined—but it’s also vivid, engrossing, constantly in flux. The nail, in contrast — well, it’s just a nail.

Without taking his eye off the technologies of data accumulation, Campbell turns in his series of “memory works” to the phenomenon of computer memory and its impact on human remembering. The works, on display in a smaller gallery downstairs, consist of various transmitters — clocks, photographs, night-lights — attached to standard sized, succinctly labeled metal boxes. To make “I Have Never Read the Bible,” for instance, Campbell recorded himself saying all 26 letters of the alphabet individually, then used a program to play them in the exact sequence of the words of the Bible. “Cyclical Meter Base” and “Cyclical Counter Base” feature two clocks whose hands move according to the rate of what the attached metal boxes call “her blinking” and “her breath,” both recorded over an hour in 1996. Each of these works, Campbell explained, represents a “contrived representation” of human experience in the form of “computer memory,” and a reminder that it is not raw data, but rather its emotional, human context that structures our engagement with the world, past and present.

Technological advances enable us to gather, record, and display data about the universe we inhabit with unprecedented ease and ever-increasing precision. It’s all too easy to forget that this is a descriptive statement, not a moral one. Our frames of reference, Campbell reminds us, are what really count.

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