As a research-based artist working in the intersections of heterogeneous subject matter, the process of crystal formation best illustrates the core of my research practice. Gathering materials from a variety of disciplines, I take fragments from art and philosophy and meet them with science, technology, poetry and media studies. From seed crystals and hyper-saturated solutions I develop conceptual structures, rearranging and growing them into rhizomatic 1 formations. The goal of this work is trans-, para-, at times extra- academic, no doubt influenced and enhanced by academic forms of knowledge-production, but in wilful defiance of protocol. The work, itself, is as much the labour of elucidating previously obfuscated connections as it is the artistic and textual manifestations of that intellectual labour.
Since 2013, I have been researching the mineral makeup of electronics, examining the material properties of seemingly immaterial digital technology. The artistic productions of the project have taken on numerous different forms in the process, morphing and adapting to fit the content. My initial research from the project Molten Media has developed into several series of artworks, as well as performative lectures and a book. Several of the projects which have come out of this body of research have dealt with crystal structures directly, but beyond the connection to the subject matter, crystallisation also serves as a close parallel to my working methods.
The raw material which eventually becomes concrete in the form of the crystal, a suspension of a highly saturated solute in a solvent, gives little or no indication of its potentiality nor its desire to be a solid. Its latent fluid potentiality has yet to reveal itself. Nevertheless, little by little, edges and forms emerge from the formless, revealing crystalline structures and affinities which were not yet tangible in the initial phase. Much like this chemical process of forming crystals from a substance with no apparent form nor structure, the process of artistic research, too, derives forms and structures from seemingly abstract or unconnected concepts. What may turn out to be a successful and long-term research project often begins from just an inkling, a snippet from an inspiring conversation, or a concept which has begun to itch in the mind over a matter of years. The research which occurs before the research is crucial to its foundation: false starts, gradual accretions, the steps which precede an actual beginning help to orient the direction of a project before it materialises. For Molten Media, some of the build-up began many years beforehand, in attending Siegfried Zielinski’s lectures on media archaeology (Zielinski 2010) , reading Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Kittler, Winthrop-Young, and Wutz 1999) , attending a Vilém Flusser reading group and disassembling electronics in my studio. The curiosity about what went on inside the black boxes2, to understand the inner-workings of technology, had already gripped me, but I wasn’t yet aware of where my experimentation might lead.
Much as matter conglomerates around a node to form seed crystals, concepts take root in the mind, growing so unruly that they must be confronted. Those ideas which refuse to be laid to rest and insist upon being researched gain weight over time, snowballing into something more easily articulated as a research question, similarly to the points of articulation leading to the development of larger, more complex crystals. The initial seed of Molten Media was a curiosity about the mineral substrate of data-storing hardware, which meant that the scope eventually spread to include processes of encoding and transmission, the ethical dimensions of sourcing and disposing of electronic minerals and a historical perspective on how media materiality has changed over time. The works which emerged from this research dealt mostly with conceptually connecting electronics with their origins in the earth, to considering the physical and temporal aspects of data storage, as well as their use in externalising memory.
Encountering Jussi Parikka’s concept of media geology (Parikka 2013) acted as the catalyst of a synergetic reaction: many of my disparate interests finding a junction with one another. Though the territory remained rather murky, I began to find ties between pulling electronics apart to see their entrails and from Michel Foucault’s archaeological 3 approach and its echoes in the work of Kittler, Zielinski and Parikka. Placing weight on the importance of digging, sifting through material, in both the literal and figurative senses, is a large part of my process: reading through texts, sourcing images, condensing substance into an elegant form. That refinement is not merely for aesthetic appearance, but also to information in the most suitable and efficient form. Concentration is key to the development of crystalline forms: condensing (subject-) matter down to its most solute form, purifying and reducing it to its indispensable parts. Manifesting a tangible form from unformed matter, or subject matter, the artist or researcher as chemist, or alchemist, pulls pieces together which may not have had an obvious connection before. Connections which seem to have come out of thin air become irreversibly visible, seemingly self-evident once they have come into being. This accretion, this making-solid, entails the gradual building up of material around nodules, precipitating4. Clusters of like particles join together, their shape and structure determined by chemical bonds, forming seed crystals, points of articulation leading to the development of larger, more complex crystals.
Clumps of information, images, text snippets, sometimes starting with little more than an inkling and a resemblance between two distant concepts, begin to take shape. A multitude of possibilities spawn from those seeds and it is the bitter task of the gardener to prune unruly thoughts into shape and to weed out inadequate seedlings. In Molten Media, I spent a significant amount of time investigating the different kinds of codes employed in data storage devices, alphanumeric, including different kinds of ciphers, to electroacoustic, tactile, neurological, chemical, electromagnetic and mechanical. From examining and cataloguing these different kinds of coding systems, I developed a deeper understanding of data encoding, in terms of both physics and semiotics. This source material has been extremely fruitful, but not all of it went somewhere. Amassing more instances than I would end up using helped me zero in on which kinds of coding I found most interesting and also to orient some of the work in the Molten Media series. Although I intended this collection as merely a survey, it interested me so much that I included it in the book, and it unexpectedly paved the way for later undertakings. The knowledge I gained from it was useful in the development of the series The Typesetter’s Ruminations, as well as leading up to some of my current work dealing with biosemiotics.
Much as certain crystal formations peter out while others grow to become sizeable, not all artistic research ends up surviving long enough to make it into public view. In this destabilised, polymorphic process, the openness of the framework makes it possible to end up drawing various conclusions from the same material. A nice example of this in my own work is a piece which began under the title: animinerlectroplantimal, intended to be a hybrid being between a stone, electronic, plant and animal. Artistic evolution was not very kind on animinerlectroplantimal and it fizzled before it went very far, but its stronger cousin grew to be Fossil. Although the particular node of my research represented by animinerlectroplantimal” didn’t succeed in its intended direction, it spawned a totally different concept and may someday be worth returning to.
In a similar sense to the material structure of crystals, it is possible to determine lines of cleavage in subject matter, defining what cross-section or angle to approach by. I see this as related to the different axes of crystalline structures, that certain ideas may take on isometric, tetrahedral, hexagonal or even more complex properties based on the number of elements considered. Selecting the subject-matter for my own research, certain sections and projects have had specific angles, incorporating more or less elements depending on the specific aim. In Molten Media (2014) , the main axes followed the themes of: media materiality, media archaeology, signal transmission, coding and chemistry. Some of the projects which evolved from this research involved different combinations or reduced forms of these primary intersections.
Structuring one’s research has to do not only with method and organisation, but also motif. This can be thought of in terms of micro and macro levels: microstructures contributing to the construction of overarching themes and a larger structure, just as the latticework of crystal structures affects their shape on a micro level as well as in their overall formation. My work relies heavily upon conceptual structures both in terms of content and motif: the structure being both an organisational force and the message, each reflecting one another. This symmetry has a begrudgingly McLuhanian (1964) aspect to it, of using the medium as an additional signifier of the message. Models produced by other thinkers serve as valuable templates, providing shapes which I’ve incorporated into my thinking and innately affect the texture of my output. For instance, Gilles Deleuze is the architect of many structures that I use in my work, lending me the rhizome, the fold 5 and plateaus (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) . Christian Bök’s Crystallography (Bök 2003) , writing poetry in latticeworks, has had a very tangible influence on my artistic production. His thinking has also been hugely influential for me in conceptualizing parallels between the structures of language and other seemingly remote fields of knowledge, and in my recent work that has led me to explore where that can go in terms of chemistry, mathematics, computer programming and bioinformatics.
Examining the correlations between microstructures and their effect on a larger whole, I have been drawing comparisons between the chemical structures of commonly-used materials in electronics, their chemical formulas and their relation to the structures and codes used in computing. Rendering images of these materials in ascii 6 not only makes a correlation to the history of typographic imagery, but it also considers the processes of arranging minerals in such a way as to encode them with information and the relation of digital image to code. In my series, The Typesetter’s Ruminations, each image is composed of the chemical formula for the electronic element it represents, for example Copper displays an ascii image of mineral copper composed of the chemical formula for copper, Cu, etched on a (non-functional) PCB 7.
The crystal, much like the rhizome, proceeds by nodes. It is capable of growth in innumerable directions and is unbounded by the limits of binary. The rhizomatic nature of artistic research and similarly, crystal growth, enables it to develop irregularly, in structured yet unpredictable formations based on the possible arrangements. A single starting solution may produce roughly similar outcomes with a level of variability. One of my favorite geological processes which illustrates this principle well is the transformation of pure carbon in the form of graphite into diamond through pressure in the earth. Under a microscope, graphite’s carbon molecules can be seen to be organised in honeycomb layers, while a microscopic look at a diamond reveals minuscule trigon patterns from the pyramidal structure of the very same chemical element, simply reorganised in a different pattern. The only difference between these two allotropes of the same element are the arrangement of their molecules and the process of compression through which the material was changed. In Diamond and Graphite, I created ascii images using the chemical formula, C, for carbon in its different forms, using the different chemical structures as a motif which composes the image.
Moving between theory and practice, investigating ideas through writing as well as making, my research practices can often be reminiscent of the process of twinning in crystal formation. Much like an idea finding multiple expressions in different forms simultaneously, a single seed crystal may produce symmetrical formations. In the case of the Molten Media project, working on the book simultaneously as I produced the artworks in the series, it became rather difficult to disentangle from the research material because they were so mutually informing. Many of the images produced for the book serve to deepen understanding of the concepts described in the text, while other parts of the text and visual material served as references or codices of sorts for other artworks. Perhaps it can also be related to viewing the source code for a web page and the web page itself side by side, that each enlightens our knowledge of the other.
Fluidly combining knowledge from a variety of fields, my research is permeated by influences at the convergence of art, media studies, science, poetry and DIY electronics. The projects covered in this essay have present a coalescence of such heterogeneous material for synthesis into a structured whole. Each of my artworks evolves out of a body of research and acts as a gateway into that body of knowledge. I’m interested in the artwork as a puzzle-box of poetic knowledge, a work which unfolds slowly in the mind and facilitates connections beyond the possibilities of words. As such, this text is intended as a crystalline lens, to capture the multifaceted nature of my practice and of my research into the materiality of media technology. Its refraction index alters the perspective of the subject and aims to refine what is meant by my own particular genus of artistic research.
All images courtesy of the artist, except where otherwise noted.
- Bök, Christian. 2003. Crystallography. 2nd ed. Coach House Books.
- Deleuze, Gilles. 1993. The Fold : Leibniz and the Baroque. University of Minnesota Press.
- Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. “Introduction: Rhizome.” In A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, 6–7. University of Minnesota.
- Flusser, Vilém. 2006. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books.
- Foucault, Michel, and Sheridan A. M. S. Smith. 2010. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Vintage Books.
- Kittler, Friedrich A., Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz. 1999. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford University Press.
- Lee, Rosemary. 2014. “Molten Media.” In Transmediale 2014, 28–29. Transmediale.
- McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. “The Medium Is the Message.” In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 7–13. McGraw-Hill.
- Parikka, Jussi. 2013. “The Geology of Media.” http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/10/the-geology-of-media/280523/.
- Zielinski, Siegfried. 2010. “Audiovisual History and Technoculture.”
In chemistry, precipitation is the process of forming a solid from a liquid solution. ↩
Deleuze’s description of the fold as a thematic defines it as an aspect of plasticity in material and immaterial forms, extending from points of articulation, or ‘pleats’. For example, he states “The first fly contains the seeds of all flies to come, each being called in its turn to unfold its own parts at the right time. And when an organism dies, it does not really vanish, but folds in upon itself, abruptly involuting into the again newly dormant seed by skipping all intermediate stages.” (Deleuze 1993) This can certainly be applied to crystalline structures evolving from nuclei. ↩
American Standard Code for Information Interchange. ascii art uses text characters to create images. ↩
PCB - printed circuit board, commonly used in DIY electronics. ↩