ERIC VALOSIN merges the digital and the analog, conflating cyber space and sacred space, in his exploration of the techno-sublime. He navigates the tenacious, long-historied relationship between mystical experience and art in his performances/meditations on the impossible pursuit of the perfect circle, in virtual stained glass windows that require the viewer's body to reveal themselves and in hand-drawn mandalas with QR codes at their center. Eric received his BA from Drew University and his MFA from Montclair State University in New Jersey. He recently exhibited work in See the Light at the Attleboro Arts Museum in Massachusetts (July 2014) and created a commissioned piece, As Above, So Below, at Trinity United Church in Warren, New Jersey. The installation was accompanied by an artist talk, a discussion forum and a contemplative service. His upcoming solo exhibition at Andover Newton Theological School's Sarly Gallery opens this fall (exact date TBA). In November 2014, Eric will be teaching a graduate continuing education seminar on worship and the arts at Drew Theological School in New Jersey. Eric lives and works in Montville, New Jersey.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Explain the term techno-sublime for our readers.
It’s something to which I aspire in my work, and it threads together my
interests in mystical experience and its application to contemporary
life. The term originally comes from the critic Hal Foster, who used it to describe the intensely-mediated spiritual immediacy he saw in Bill Viola’s
video installations. Typically, traditional mystics spoke of the
“unmediated immediacy” of their encounters with God. The techno-sublime
asks if there can be a space for that immediacy in an era in which,
allegedly, everything is mediated. It’s a meeting point between the 14th
Century and the 21st, where old and new media collide and world-views
come to a head, coalescing into something complex and truly ineffable.
In my art, I strive to co-opt traditional mystical strategies and push them through these heavy layers of mediation in an attempt to open new spaces for a sublime experience. According to Immanuel Kant, the sublime confounds—even overpowers—the viewer and yet is somehow recollected as a net gain rather than a loss. So experiences of the sublime are in line with descriptions of mystical experiences. I think the sublime is what gives all of the most powerful art that extra something on which you can’t quite put a finger. The techno-sublime is perhaps what happened to the sublime after it met Marshall McLuhan.
(2013) is a "ritualized performance" in which you attempt to draw a
perfect circle over and over again. The ritual is performed publicly
during exhibitions and also practiced privately in your studio. How is
the experience different for you when you are alone in your studio
versus when there is an audience?
EV: I originally intended it solely to be a conventional performance, but as I started practicing, it began to feel disingenuous of me to put on airs and carry out this “meditative spiritual act” solely for show. So, I began documenting my practice and treating every run-through as a full performance, a dialogue between me and the medium itself. An audience became incidental. In many ways this helped me to grow more comfortable with the piece and connect with it, getting out of it something beyond the initial logistical anxiety and determination.
The entire project turns out to be a constant exercise in acceptance. As I attempt to draw the perfect circle, everything that happens on the paper is recorded, delayed 20 seconds, and then projected back onto that same paper. When my hand reaches the top of the first lap around the circle, I then begin trying to match my hand to the projected hand from the prior laps, synchronizing the physical and digital self. But a perfect circle is far too Platonic to be practical, and the looping synchronization ends up rehearsing, compiling and accentuating every inevitable flaw and eccentricity. Yet, eventually even these flaws amount to something really optically beautiful.
Furthermore, I decided that I wouldn’t discard any run-through as a failure. I learned to accept broken charcoal, technological glitches, and the like as just part of the performance. Once an audience member even interrupted the performance to ask me a question, I guess not knowing it had started. I decided to oblige her question and then continue on. I didn’t want to consider the performance so holy that I became inaccessible, nor those imperfections so unholy that they didn’t merit inclusion in the performance. It simply is what it is. Theologically this was very important to me, that my art acknowledge that our beautiful, ideal reality is comprised of messy, complex imperfections and interactions. That’s one of the big differences between the neoplatonic idealism of classical metaphysics and the relational way contemporary thought tends to see the world since postmodernism. My work ultimately seeks some sort of marriage of the two, a sort of relational metaphysics.
OPP: What goes through your mind? What does it feel like?
EV: It offers a gradual escape from thinking or feeling anything, really. Not in a numbing way, but in an emptying way. Eventually I step back from drawing and erasing the circle over and over and begin just watching the compiling footage play out on the paper in front of me. Gradually, even the slight projection hotspot becomes so accentuated that the whole image dissolves into this odd, luminous, blue/white, watery mush of compounded footage. I get a real sense of peace as I watch it all dissolve. The act of drawing is a time to dive deeply into a meditative, repetitive focus. Stepping back and watching it dissolve is an escape away from thoughts and from anything concrete.
OPP: In projection-based works like Hyalo 2 (Arch), Hyalo 2 (Rose), Triptych and Unknowledge, all (2013), the viewer's body is required to complete the experience of the piece. Without the body to block the projected light, the beauty of the sacred geometry is not available. What can you tell those of us who've only experienced these works online about how viewers interact with your projections?
EV: They hinge around that moment of
discovery in which the viewers unwittingly walk in front of the
projector and, to their surprise, reveal the imagery in their shadow
instead of obscuring it. Or, in the case of the Hyalo projects,
they discover that their optical experience changes dramatically
depending on their position around the work. I love watching them play
and exercise an almost child-like curiosity at what initially confounds
their perceptual expectations. This is the moment of the techno-sublime I
spoke of earlier, when the piece defies logic in a way that
simultaneously stupefies and enlightens the viewing experience and
causes viewers to second guess the way they see. It’s sadly true that
this is something you can only fully get in person.
I used to devise ways to discourage viewers from making shadow puppets in my artwork, but soon I came to realize it was a somewhat inevitable occurrence. I went to the James Turrell retrospective at LACMA last year and watched adults give their friends bunny ears in his hallowed light-cube projection Afrum (White). Even the great Turrell is not immune to the shadow puppet! That sealed the deal for me; I decided to embrace interactivity as a valid urge within the viewer. The piece was in some way less complete if the viewer was taken out of the equation and expected to remain aloof as an observer.
All spiritual experiences are necessarily interactive, and as we enter an age of increasing technological interactivity and user-definability, the viewer’s body becomes more and more important. The philosopher Marcel Mauss—and to a certain extent Foucault as well—points out that “techne” refers not only to technology but to bodily techniques, which, Mauss says, underpin all our mystical states. It’s the reason we kneel to pray, do yoga, or practice zazen. It’s also the reason I’ve begun working more and more with interactive technologies and new media in my work. What might these mystical postures and movements look like in a hyper-connected, technological world in which the body is just as much virtual as it is physical?
OPP: Your hand-drawn Mandalas with QR codes
at their center send the viewer to a different, random website every
time they are scanned. I don't have a smartphone, so I haven't had the
experience of "completing" this meditation, but I like the idea that you
could end looking at art, merchandise, news, celebrity gossip,
wikipedia or porn. It really echoes the Buddhist idea that the sacred is
right here in the present moment, no matter what that moment contains.
When you've scanned it, where have you ended up?
EV: Once I ended up at some photographer’s website. It was a strange experience to have my artwork catapult me to a meditation on someone else's. I’ve landed on a lot of merchandise websites and a couple very bizarre conspiracy theorist sites. I’ve also gotten my fair share of 404 Error messages. Many people at first don’t realize it’s randomized. This confusion is one of the weakest and strongest aspects of the piece. On one hand, they may end up thinking I’m intentionally supporting a given website’s agenda (which was particularly disconcerting to me the time a friend of mine ended up on a satanist website), but on the other hand it urges them to intentionally comb their destination for some spiritual content, assuming it must be “hidden in there somewhere.” In many cases, only upon rescanning and landing elsewhere a few times do the randomness and Buddhist implications you mention come to light.
Uncertainty is the only certain thing about faith. Uncertainty begins to dig into mystical “unknowing,” the apophatic “negative theology” that attempts to get at the unknowable by surpassing and negating all that’s knowable. Even the person who cannot scan the QR code is left with a similar open-endedness as the person who does scan it.
You have plenty of experience of bringing the spiritual into the
gallery. What was it like to bring art into a religious space in your
commissioned piece, As Above, So Below, at Trinity United Church in Warren, New Jersey?
EV: It’s a really interesting challenge. I ended up creating an interactive projection piece mapped onto the slanted ceiling of the church’s chancel area. It used a hacked Microsoft Kinect sensor to integrate congregants into the video, and randomly recomposes itself every 50 minutes. I wanted to create something aesthetically pleasing, engagingly interactive and potentially meditative, but also to challenge the space’s implicit hierarchies and push people out of their artistic comfort zones. In the gallery, the struggle is to bring spiritual connotations into a traditionally secular setting without being didactic or polemicizing. In a church, however, those spiritual implications are inherent in the setting, and the challenge becomes making the art accessible without watering it down. I had to really refine the big questions driving my work in order to develop something I think is substantive enough to hold up in both arenas.
There’s a lot of historical baggage to trip over.
Spirituality and art had walked hand in hand for millennia. But when
Galileo came along and inadvertently told the church they might not have
the market cornered on objective truth, a proud and dogmatic church
shut its door on subjectivity. This was the first crack into the schism
between the sacred and secular. The result was that art, which thrives
on ambiguity and an earnest investigation of big questions, began
shifting toward the more hospitable realm of secularity, where it had
more room to breath. This was reinforced in the late Baroque by the
emergence of non-religious patronage and a cultural appreciation of the
real and mundane (as opposed to the ideal).
If the sacred-secular divide weren’t enough, a secondary rift developed within secularity itself. Mass media, which changed the way we process images, and the heavy hands of Clement Greenberg and others divided high art from accessible art. Throw into the mix the growing humanism in 19th/20th century philosophy, and you end up with a huge mess where almost nobody understands the “art world,” let alone the spiritual in art, least of all religious institutions, now twice removed (not to mention the argument that it’s all moot because “God is dead” anyway). There are certainly exceptions, but I have found that many religious institutions today are pretty impoverished in their use and understanding of art as a result.
OPP: Did you have an agenda related to the schism between the sacred and the secular in As Above, So Below?
EV: The events I held at Trinity United
Church were about mending that rift. I wanted to afford people who may
not know what to do with contemporary art a chance to really engage with
it and to open a dialogue about how art really works when it’s working
well. I wanted to encourage the church to embrace art as a relational
tool for broaching challenging subjects and heightening the spiritual
life of the church. After the contemplative service there was a time for
discussion, and I was blown away. People first approached my
installation with, “Great, so what does it mean?” and “What am I looking
at here?” When given the dedicated time and permission to investigate
it without fear of being wrong, they started to be able to read the work
in real substantive ways (ways which I had to go to grad school to
learn). Not only that, but they started to measure that experience
against their own preconceptions and translate it into meaningful
dialogue and even some spiritual epiphanies.
It’s not about
reclaiming art as a pawn in some dogmatic agenda, but about being
comfortable enough—especially in churches—to trust the Spirit’s
interactions amid those ambiguous, complex spaces where world-views
collide and art is at its most powerful. It’s about learning how to use
the artistic sublime, as it were, toward a greater church experience.
It’s about urging the church to think like an artist, and even urging
churches to become artists themselves. It’s about unknowing a lot of
what we take for granted and reacquainting ourselves with mystery.
Ultimately I believe this transcends even the religious/secular dualism
and applies to the most fundamental ways in which we all experience the
world and each other.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago. Stacia recently created a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists runs until October 12, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA. Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, is on view at Design Cloud in Chicago from July 25 - October, 24, 2014.