In Dialogue: Benjamin Phelan

July 2010 Dialogue with Bejamin Phelan

Over the past few weeks I have been fortunate enough to engage in a dialogue with contemporary mixed media artist Bejamin Phelan, below is the resulting text from our discussions.

NV - Here is a text concerning a new notion I’m exploring called Phenomenopoly, it’s the experience of having multiple perspectives.

Phenomenology is essentially a portmanteau of Phenomena, which is a derivative of the Greek term phainómenon meaning "that which appears" ( to appear pre-supposes perspective ) and logos ( to study ). Phenomenopoly replaces the logos with poly ( from the Ancient Greek πολύς polus, meaning "many, much”).

I feel your work explodes phenomenopoly within technologies roles.

I hope you don't mind answering a few questions about your work and the subjects it explores.

BP  - I would be happy to answer any questions, just enjoyed you breakdown of "California Gurls"! I haven't very well articulated my thoughts yet on phenomenology but here is some paraphrasing from my sketchbook. Looking forward to talking with you.

"I first think of phenomenon as vectors of influence exerted on a single point in space, like the illustrations of a special relativity bowling ball on a rubber grid, they combine and solidify in to an entity that exists so long as I look at it. Its this image of the implicit physics necessary to experience any object that shapes the development of technology and the self in its image. The first models of the unconscious, as overlapping spheres of influence, were accessible only after the mechanisms of magnetic fields were described. Looking and looking, under the influence of and object/entertainment, what information do I desire to see again and again; the pleasure of stimulating some corresponding internal symbol; the sensory titillation of presence and body awareness, or some larger pattern solidified by the act of observation."

NV - I found 'California Gurls' to have some curious connections, I don't often blog about pop stars though!

That's a wonderful analogy for the infinitely reflexive nature of phenomena, an almost voracious regression into an uber-strict Cartesian empiricalism ( if you know Descartes )..... The later part of that text really brings to mind your ball point pen pieces RGB 1 and RGB 2 from 2008. These pieces almost embody how many technologies operate within our lives, the effect, our capability to translate into the 'phenomena', into the illusion hinges solely on previous experience. It's only due to our experience of drawings, from birth onwards, can we 'see' or comprehend a consciously three dimensional subject within the paper and ink. This is perhaps true for language, to learn and understand codes ( linguistic or aesthetic ) enables the viewer/reader to immerse themselves within the code, within the illusion - however escapist this may sound it is not. Succumbing to a code, trapping consciousness with a set structure is not an emancipation. I feel this blinkering is not a new facet of life, it has always occurred, but due to the increasingly ubiquitous nature of technologies its almost omnipresent.
There's a wonderful monotype by William Blake titled "Newton". It shows Newton sat on a rock, gazing at a diagram he's drawing with a compass. Newton is so deep in concentration he is oblivious to the beautiful world around him. I often feel this image has more resonance 2010 than in 1795.

P.S. - Part of your statement of intent really reminded me of how language has evolved as a result of new modes of communications - like txt messages. - Ill expand on this later - I'm writing about it already but would like t finish the text I have so far.....

BP - The RGB drawings came out of automatic drawing experiments I started several years ago with a personal computer sculpting device that was unique in that it simulated the touch and viscosity of clay in virtual space, a spin-off from a company that developed virtual cadavers. The primary tool to build matter in its modeling void CG was a ball of volume that could be felt, dragged around and deposited together to make form. This to me was a primal human experience, making mud balls, made possible by a level of technology that surpassed the sensory threshold to the point of encapsulating all actions within its logic. Any object made within this space now has more value than those outside it by the nature of its coordinate codes, the universal formats defining the interchange and representation of virtual objects. The Janus face of advancing technology is that processes are based on unconscious desires played out in a marketplace of satisfaction, the end result is a topology blob that contains hermetic infinite knowledge of itself and nothing else. “In here we can do anything we want”, if that is possible then you cease to exist. I do think that you are right that construction of codes is not a recent activity at all; language is the first control system, the first viral symbol. I don’t want to spend time trying to remove all the agents that replicate inside me, there are more bacteria in the body than human cells by a power of ten. I am more interested in surrendering to the pleasure of control, having the functionality of my visual cortex hijacked by the pulsing lights on the face of a casino slot machine.

NV - Ben, that's fascinating. The parallel between the 'starting point' for the modeling program and a starting point of human creativity is poignant. The conclusion that the CG clay ball has more value due to the intrinsic codes ( both actually, technologically and metaphysically i.e. in the consciousness ) is interesting, however, as I feel your work highlights or at least questions, the additional value is strictly within a code, within a paradigm. Surely any additional value ( however intrinsic to the 'objects' phenomenological 'existence' ) is negated due the idea of it being trapped within the suspension of an illusion provided by codes?

One could argue that a tree ( for example ) is under the same predicament. In that it's existence, within ourselves, depends upon an understanding, a comprehension of previous data, a code. You don't know a tree is, in fact, a tree the first time you see one, however after experience and a code being built for comprehension a object on the horizon can, upon first glance be a tree if it aligns with the viewers code gained from previous experience.

However, this symmetry between the clay modeling program and the tree example is not perfect, there are striking similarities but one facet is different.

If a man lost his sight he would, somehow, either through smell or taste, be able to generate a new set of codes unique to his situation, and could continue to build his knowledge from experience ( sensory experience of everything but sight ). With the new technologies that flexibility is not available for each and every user singularly, in fact in essence many new technologies are just new generations of the previous code with a higher level of complexity - but the mechanisms of comprehension, the interface between user and content is, by comparison, static and rigid.

Your notion of surrendering to a strict technologically determined code is perhaps an interesting example, or rather an exaggerated study of something that is slowly happening to mankind. There is now 'scientific proof', or rather pretty conclusive studies, that children born into the Internet age develop slightly different cognition patterns than their parents.

Have you ever read Cyberpunk fiction like William Gibson, the idea of the Internet addict, the hacker relinquishing control to the matrix is an incredibly prophetic metaphor.....

BP -  I have read a lot of cyber punk. Williams Gibson's novels and short stories were my favorite in high school. He has one short story in which a photo journalist on assignment to document old gas stations in the dessert, starts to hallucinate the atomic age "world of tomorrow", with flying cars and zeppelins moored to the top of mile high skyscrapers. The idea of "tuning in" to an aesthetic frequency and extrapolating the social perspective embedded in the old gas stations is kind of like the reading of a code system we were pointing out. I think of some part of the work I am doing as this kind of reverse artifact process, seeing and extrapolating the code of beliefs in mass produced objects into concentrated forms. I love looking at new technologies and the way they are designed, what is being preached by their packaging and what does it reveal about the actual people making them. I really like the websites where you can order these generic plastic boxes to fit your prototype technology into, the minimalist modular systems are like the aesthetics of aspiration to me. The positivity that surrounds new visual production technology is prettying fascinating, the plastics age - the computer graphics revolution.  There was a flourishing of fiberglass forms and CG animations produced respectively by an enthusiasm for "limitless" possibility, but the limits are still exactly defined by the constraints of the technology. 

When I think about the mind looking at the tree, I am definitely approaching it from the camp of evolutionary psychology. I am reminded of all the mammal, primate and extinct human ancestors that contributed to my ability to recognize what is on the horizon. Every successful interaction with a tree they had, which allowed them to continue surviving, shaped the structure I now am using to look at the tree. Which leads me to question, is my satisfaction looking at early computer generated fractal symmetries a vestigial evolutionary perception mechanism developed in response to pressures of navigating branch growth in trees? I guess I'm attracted again to the idea of a universal shared code, the 'universal' being the containment aspiration of the code, but in this case our shared physical perception mechanism is the technology. By building commercial systems that more perfectly emulate our senses and perceptual devices, like clay sculpting programs and 3D movies, we are granting the developers of those technologies deeper and deeper penetration into the mind at the mechanical level, leaving a hole open to slip anything in below cognition. The MSG flavoring additive was chemically developed to mimic the taste receptors of Umami, the taste sensation of savoriness that is biologically linked to the presence of protein in your mouth. Now it is used by the processed foods industries to simulate intense satisfaction. Recent developments in artificial flavoring have produced anti-taste suppressant chemicals capable of selectively blocking bitter or sweet. The neural plasticity of the mind that allows the bind man to regain perception can be locked down by the control of its underlying mechanisms through simulation.

I have been feeling like the blind man, trying to learn a new computer modeling program to paint on computer models. Im coming in at version 7 or something, so the interface has already evolved to fit the requests of generations of users. Trying to glean information off the maze of forums to get the software to work, you run into text that is totally impenetrable but very fascinating because of the community of users is excited about it and challenging themselves to follow every rule of the system. The story of technology though is like the secretion of layers and layers on top of its self.  When I look at that story in science fiction, you have a society that is lacking the ability to question the fundamental systems shaping it, "Any fundamentally advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". You end up in a very dystopian place basically eating yourself, see The Time Machine or Logan's Run.  

ps: Have you read the classic cyber punk novel Snow Crash by Neil Stevenson? His character eventually learns that fundamentalist Christians have re- discovered the first Sumerian language, which when spoken, as if in tongues, people everywhere understand and cannot disobey. The undiluted linguistic control technology that we now use the derivative form of.    

NV - It’s interesting that you mention the notion of the "reverse artifact process, seeing and extrapolating the code of beliefs in mass produced objects into concentrated forms." This almost sums up some of the impressions your work puts upon the viewer, perhaps that's not worded as well as it could be. Your work really explores and fleshes out the aesthetic codes around scientific languages and technological developments whilst also exaggerating a codes strict structure of rigidity and inflexible nature with regards to a viewers autonomy - you either buy into the code, jettisoning a certain degree of autonomy in order to enjoy the endless arrangements of rules within the code or you don't and the experience, the illusion is never gained. I feel your work tip toes around this threshold and really exploits the nth degrees of both options.

It's intriguing that you mention the MSG flavouring. In many ways this example is typical trend of the modern worlds crutch on technology. The importance of the contained freedoms, the coded possibilities available by plugging in is so great that to not do so would render life experience less dynamic or engaging than those who do   plug in.

It's interesting that you mention technology as being layer upon layer of progression. I often contemplate more abstracted philosophies or interpretations of the world in extremely organic or biological forms, I think it's absolutely correct to view technological progressions and shifts as living things. Even industry is organic, the aerial views of cities at night could almost be cells flowing through capillaries or bacterium expanding across a surface. It's worrying that this omnipresent, enveloping entity is so alive and vital and pulsing. Reminds me of a Reza Negarestani text 'The Corpse Bride" whereby Negarestani investigates an ancient method of torture that consisted of a human corpse being tied to another live human. Through rot, putrefaction and decay the two entities would become one. The ontological, phenomenological philosophical ruptures of the interior and exterior being obliterated ( for the living ) are explored in depth, I see the facets of life like social networking sites and wonder where we end and the living, breathing network beings/ends. I'm no Luddite, but I just contemplate these aspects of life. Our Nupta Contagioso ( marriage with the contagious - from Negarestani's text ) is with our own creation, the nucleation of such a situation may already be occurring.

P.S. Neil Stevenson is someone I've always intended to read but never got round to. I've read a few Gibson novels and watched the odd Cronenberg film.

BP - The corpse -bride idea is really grossing me out, and its combination with social networking is really visual as well, an image of a consumable identity being purchased at a cellular level. I think of technologies that mimic mental processes, even something as simple as a list of contacts in a cell phone, as a prosthetic device. I missed the generation of social net workers by just a few years, I wonder what its like to grow up with the structure of facebook in your mind as the ideal. I really don't use them at all, I am not attracted to that level of communication, I want my telepathy to be between bodies, not as a multitude of voices talking. Our networking technologies are shaped on cellular strategies, it makes sense to ask what part of our brains are outsourced. "Bio-mimicry" is the science of pulling useful techniques from observation of natural processes, but it only replaces nature only at the level of our perception, we are left with only the MSG equivalent but that can be thrilling in its amplification. The perfectly shaped molecule to slide into the receptor cite on our cell membrane, or the social online sensation of tribal identity saturating deep desires to earn status and be protected by the group.

The idea of encoding an object, and reading it for that matter, is one of the information technology biases I am interested in. What ratio of self to object to observer can be advertised in a piece so that it will function as art. In the recent videos I am trying to provide an art experience on the terms of telepresence, using stereo cameras to record the slow process of hand extruding foam forms. My perception is the distortion that gets in the way of the viewers art experience. In my work I am performing an act defined by seductive transformation, a genie in bottle. Technology is a theater of re-imagining identity on constructed terms. When Nasa scientists send a probe to mars, they themselves are going to mars. What I am doing is constructing systems that have limitless possibilities within clearly defined aesthetic operations, and then trying to close off that space and see what the feedback loop of infinite existence is like living in.   

NV - Negarestani's corpse bride text is amazing. He's one of my favourite theorists.

Earlier I hinted that a passage of text in your statement of intent reminded me of the myriad of social networking networks that are populating cyber space, and subsequently our reality.

"I am easily blinded by the optimism embedded in a new process, as it first appears to be the universal solution. The euphoria quickly dissipates though, as it becomes clear that each new process also a regulating device. I believe that the techniques that promise Utopian solutions, through totally malleable mediums, simultaneously produce total control environments."

With regard to the corpse bride analogy the situation of technology today and its sprawling intrusiveness seems an apt comparison, or the analogy of bacteria growing into tissue, like how humans grow on the earth progressing along the veins of water or through the crevices of the land.... The question of dominance applies. There are major world wide debates about humans impact on the earths ecosystem, I think the same questions should be applied to our technological progressions, are they proliferating to such an omnipresent level that they are shaping the land that created them - metaphorically, metaphysically as well as industrially, psychologically, economically and....... physically? Biomimicism in the widest possible sense?

The feedback loop of infinite existence reminds me of two way mirrors, or video loops ( where by the video screen is in front of the lens ) and an infinite regression can be seen. At first the effect is disorienting but after a few seconds the formula, code and mechanism is comprehended and the experience looses it's novelty.

Tell me, which artists produce work ( or have produced works ) that you find interesting or particularly inspiring? Have you heard of Pierre Huyghes 'No Ghost, Just a Shell'?

BP - I like Pierre Huyghe's mini stage light show, I saw it several years ago I think, or maybe have just stared at images of it. The "No Ghost, Just a Shell", I remember the idea was a anime character that gained legal independence of its own copyright, a very cyber punk idea, see William Gibson’s Idoru! I think it’s a good thing to explore the structures that existing in the pop-media-scape, and his work manipulates them into very sincere, poetic, and public journeys. I’m interested in artists like Bruce Nauman, who have produced work where technology is used to map out a relationship between themselves and public commercial mediums. His “manipulations” of florescent tubes and body based early video works made an impression on me. I am inspired by Beat artist Brion Gysin’s Dreammachine, a stroboscopic device that induces dream states. The concept that the visual work existed inside the viewers mind, and his failed attempts to commercialize it in America. Also, I really enjoy modern biomorphic sculptors, Henry Moore, Barbra Hepworth, and Noguchi, searchers obsessed with form and the power it has over them, who defined the aesthetics of an ideal future for the public and industry. Artists producing work I like; Roxy Payne, Roger Hiorns, and Ruby Sterling, using production and organic processes to solidify modernism residue. I think the core social technology to radically alter its own environment was television, and its a good predictor of things to come. The TV and its audience was first defined by its “goods” based production and consumption, then later by its display of lifestyle systems to populate its own ecology. The screen, to me, is the ideal technology. An array of red green and blue flickering dots relying on the brain to process and construct an approximation of experience, capable of delivering infinite variety. The end of the industrial / physical age was the dawn of television. Why travel when you can see the world from the comfort of your own home, or make anything that cannot be transported through its network? The future of the object is based on our heritage of the screen, rapid prototyping and “Fab-Labs” where virtual objects are printed one voxel ( volume-pixel) at a time. This is the “crystal interface”, by which all objects are constructed by a single process that is instantly comprehensible in its fractal uniformity. The scientists developing these technologies believe it will produce a new democracy of socially constructed objects, ending mass production. I tend to think that it will replace matter with the value of a shifting image, and by eliminating the distance between desire and possession, enclosing a feedback loop between the irrational unconscious and lived reality. Video feedback is something that I have been interested in for a long time. When I was 13, I would set up the family camcorder on top of a video projector borrowed from my father’s office and spend the evening “in the loop” doing shadow dances in that infinite feedback regression. I suppose those experiences greatly shaped my thinking about evolution of organic forms within simple systems. Steven Wolframs book, A New Kind of Science, and its images of cellular automata patterns on mollusk shells, led me to believe the diversity of nature relied on feedback systems as well. Later I was exposed to the cultural image of the Stoner putting the camera up to the TV screen and having this cosmic experience by the most domestic and dismissible means, which to me is very exciting role for science to play in culture. I am continuously inspired by executive desktop sculpture, objects that levitate or defy physics and perception in some other way, mass produced as decorative baubles and exhibited as distractions from office work. The science at their core is negated by a futuristic aesthetics of dismissal, physics reduced to the irrelevant novelty.

NV - Pierre Huyghe and Bruce Nauman both influenced my brief ( and now moribund ) artistic development and enormous amount back when I was an undergraduate. Both Huyghe's "No Ghost Just a Shell" and Gysins dream machine operate conceptually - pre-supposing that a piece executes and exists within the minds eye, within the consciousness. The pixels and documentations around AnnLee, are not as important as the codes, the systems she breaks through - due to Huyghe's and Parreno's creativity. Her meta-ascension from one set of paradigms to another is what gives her freedom - but this freedom is realized by the viewer understanding the codes and universe through which 'she' is emancipated. If you don't empathise, if you don't re-invent AnnLee as a person ( even before all the documentation is comprehended ) then the piece falls flat - but who would? Everyone has empathized with a fiction on a screen - very few people are around today who haven't learnt the code of realities and fictions. Engagement with this code/comprehension is taken for granted, but the understanding that transforms a cartoon into a reality is the same understanding that prevents wildlife documentary viewers to know that there are no tigers in their televisions! A malleable suspension of fiction comprehension is key to the concept in Huyghe's and Parreno's work forming. Nauman and Gysin's Dreammachine also spring to mind as works that ( Nauman has such a massive practice but many come to mind ) operate as experience from codes. I won't flesh out this facet of Nauman's work or Dreammachine, its the experience, the comprehension, the code reading that's important, not the materials or the craftsmanship used to create the works. It's interesting that you mention feedback systems within nature, this is something I've been exploring recently. Hive minds, Internet theory, collective consciousness are all interesting to me. Check out a slime mould called Physarum Polycephalum and an article about its humanistic intelligence and this article about the Internet behaving more like a brain than anything else. I feel due to our massive engagement with codes and a network of constant renewing data and feedback the most apt name for our society is meta-social, context and history is more important than the actualities. This is especially true in economics, that now is an autonomous meta-entity that everyone and no one can gage, quantify or control.

Thanks for taking the time to talk, it's been a great discussion.


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