Sunday, May 11, 2014

Jim Cambell's Interactive Contemporary Art: Where Mad Science and Art Meet

Jim Campbell just before the lecture begins.
A little while ago, I got the opportunity to listen to a lecture by an engineer artist, Jim Cambell. He's had pieces shown in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, in the Smithsonian, the Crocker, and many others. His work is all video and interactivity based.

In the lecture he gave, he told us about his early explorations in art and how his pieces developed as his experience grew. His earlier pieces focused around interactive video. He tried to convey to the viewers what people with mental illness experienced. He had cameras set up to catch the viewers, then the piece would superimpose pre-generated segments of video on the live footage. These pieces posed problems, since the viewers couldn't get past the 'Look! It's me!' reaction to the videos. He fixed this by taking away the immediate feedback in the video.

Among his early, but better developed pieces, he began to make anti-interactive art. He based his works on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. In short, the principle states that nothing exists purely: it can be affected by you and others.
Image from

His latest work (and his most interesting work, in my opinion) involves huge matrices of lights, either LED or bulb. The piece relies on the viewer's mind to fill in the blanks, as it were. The basic idea behind these pieces is that our mind can interpret an abstract, moving image as a moving person. The matrices of lights were generally simple, with 50-100 lights at the low end. But even with so few lights, an image can be produced that the human mind can interpret. Campbell found that it was easier for the viewer to tell what was going on if they stood farther away, or if he put a diffuser screen over the matrix.

A picture of a flu-inflicted Amaryllis with other
After the lecture, I was able to ask Cambell a question. I asked, "We don't generally think of engineers as being artists. What got you interested in art?" He responded that he went to MIT to get his degree in engineering and, while he was there, got into film and video. He said that MIT is a very neurotic school and that he would have gone crazy if he didn't find some sort of balance.  Art was what he needed. Over the course of 25 years, he progressed from working in Silicon Valley to becoming a widely recognized artist.

Over all, the lecture was very interesting and informative. I feel like I had a greater appreciation for this type of art, since I enjoy working with electronics just as much as paint. It gave me some interesting ideas that I hope to use in my work, whether it be for entertaining the masses as my robots take over the world, or if it just stimulates the mind of a few intellectuals and art connoisseurs.

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