Charles Mary Kubricht’s Alive-nesses: A Proposal for Adaptation by Tabitha Piseno

Charles Mary Kubricht’s new piece on the High Line dazzles and delights.

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​Charles Mary Kubricht 1`

Charles Mary Kubricht, Alivenesses: Proposal for Adaptation, Installation view on the High Line, 2011. Courtesy of Charles Mary Kubricht.

High Line Art , presented by Friends of the High Line , announced the beginning of its Fall 2011 season of public art with Texas-based artist Charles Mary Kubricht’s installation Alive-nesses: A Proposal for Adaptation . Implementing the celebrated Dazzle camouflage scheme of WWI and WWII naval merchant vessels, Kubricht reproduced the painted design on park storage containers located at the Hudson Yards end of the High Line. Originally garnered from the visual language of Cubism, early camouflage studies by Abbott H. Thayer, the general coloring of seagulls, and the final design implementation and promotion for military use by Norman Wilkinson—illustrator-cum-British lieutenant of the Royal Navy—Dazzle painting on commercial ships was once thought to effectively dodge attacks by enemy U-boats.

The evasion was, of course, not a result of the brazenly painted ship camouflaging itself into the sea, but instead a result of artillery rangefinders being unable to determine the painted ship’s distance, course, and speed due to its painted, black-and-white, angular geometry. Beginning in 1918, the American Camouflage Corps began camouflaging merchant ships in various east coast harbors including New York, Boston, and Norfolk, Virginia. Towards the end of WWII, the New York harbor was the busiest in the world with up to five hundred Dazzle camouflaged ships anchored at one time.

Such as its precursor, Charles Mary Kubricht’s adaptation of Dazzle camouflage in her High Line installation is both jarring by way of its dissonance, and captivating because of its transformative qualities. On one hand, it is presented as a method for the aestheticization of a piece of the park’s utilitarian property, and also as a new visual marker amidst the activation of Hudson Yards, Manhattan’s Far West Side that is finally budding development as a result of the rejection to host the 2012 Olympics. On the other hand, it is presented as an overt historical reference, harkening back to bygone days when the New York harbor must have been a spectacle with hundreds of dazzle painted ships anchored at dock, awaiting assignment to convoy across the treacherous route to deliver goods to the war efforts in England and Europe.

Kubricht speaks about her influences for her High Line installation, her previous installations utilizing Dazzle camouflage in the context of gallery exhibitions, and the surprising role Border Patrol tracking in Marfa, TX has had on her interpretation of camouflage.

Tabitha Piseno You have been using the Dazzle painting technique in various installations for a few years now. How did your interest in this particular design begin and what was the impetus for proposing such a project for the High Line?

Charles Mary Kubricht I have been investigating landscape art and technology since 1989 through rigorous experiences in the wilderness and research in historical moments, technological stages and political agendas that often converge at isolated wilderness sites. I started investigating the visual strategies of camouflage and came across the complex geometric shapes of Dazzle painting and anti-range finding camouflage schemes of World Wars I and II. Visual transformation occurs through the un-reading of the form so that it can be read in a new way. The High Line is a perfect example. What existed as industrial form was transformed into aesthetic form. The walkways and plantings are camouflaging the industrial past by adapting to the original form in a way that reorganizes our perceptual experience with nature. The tension between nature and culture is reduced.

Uss Wilhelmina

USS Wilhelmina, Underway in New York Harbor, 1 May 1918, after being painted in “dazzle” camouflage. Photographed by the New York Navy Yard.U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

In 2004 I began reading military tracking manuals in order to train my eyes to see what was hidden or difficult to distinguish in the landscape. Living in Marfa, TX, near the U.S./Mexico border, gave me the opportunity to interview Border Patrol trackers and study military tracking skills in the field. While learning these techniques, I was forced to consider a number of factors that revised the formal models of figure/ground relationships I was taught as an artist, such as the absence of clearly distinguishing separations of foreground to background, the presence of subtle disturbances on the ground, the positioning of the perceiving body relative to the object, and the possibility of attempted concealment and camouflage.

The dynamic nature of my experiences in isolated landscapes has prompted me to consider my installations as a continuing series of changing figure-ground relationships that are transitory in character and adaptable to different spaces. I believe the High Line was attracted to my work for those reasons. In Alive-nesses: Proposal for Adaptation, the dazzle patterns painted over the surface of large storage containers situated near the waterfront re-creates a historical link to the original concept of dazzle patterns on ships.

TP The positioning of the shipping containers in relation to the waterfront seems like the most fitting context for utilizing that technique to transform a site. Since the original use of Dazzle camouflage was intended for visual rangefinders used by naval artillery in WWI and WWII, are you exploiting it as a method for transposing its original militaristic agenda, or is it strictly a design element for re-considering formal figure-ground relationships? If it is a way of re-configuring its past use, did you want the presence of the installation on the High Line to elucidate a particular historical context of that specific location?

Also, the military tracking techniques that made you revise how you were taught figure/ground relationships were specific to how Border Patrol tracks illegal immigrants—is that political aspect something that factors into how you’re reframing the use of Dazzle in your installations?

CMK At the same time I was reading military tracking manuals, I was reading David Harvey’s writings on human political geography and forced migrations of people caused by capitalism, Paul Virilio’s analysis of history, perception and military technology, and Goethe’s writings on morphology and observation. I produced a book, Slight Disturbances, using photography and text that creates a complex biography of Mount Livermore, a nearby landmark for drug traffickers and undocumented workers. The text contains extracted vignettes from my interviews about the mountain with Border Patrol trackers, undocumented workers, a former moon rock curator at NASA, the lead archeologist at Sul Ross University, the past director and the lead botanist for the Davis Mountain Preserve of the Nature Conservancy, an engineer from the McDonald Observatory, other naturalists, a pilot, and a holographic designer of military holograms—each person and institution has an invested interest in this mountain. I am very interested in political/military ownership of landscape whether it is through borders, boundaries, satellite imagery, property rights, the macro/micro instruments that we use to see land, or the telescopes that we use to see the universe. The implications that result from this ownership is far reaching. At the same time, I am interested in other aspects of landscape. I believe the political aspect of how Border Patrol tracks illegal immigrants is one among many factors that reframes questions of the figure/ground relationship in landscape art.

By using a range-finding technique used on ships, there is a clear link to the waterfront and military schemes that camouflage and disorient our vision. But I use Dazzle in a broader context. Many, if not most, methods and instruments in which we see the world are products of the military. The methods can be used to build or destroy. I want to examine the methods in order to train my eyes to observe and understand how our culture visually observes. While tracking, I learned that the background environment is not secondary. I was not looking for a particular shape or object on the ground.

As a tracker said, “Everyone thinks we look for footprints but we look for slight disturbances.” The tracker learns to see through the distraction of the foreground to find what is hidden (or hiding) in the background thereby expanding the structure of the visual field. Framing the question as an either/or relationship would limit my intentions. The Dazzle painted surface of the storage containers relates to the historical and contemporary use of the site, the nearby waterfront, the geometry of the surrounding buildings, the Hudson yards, the rail tracks, the surrounding construction, and the landscape architecture.

Uss Charles

USS Charles S. Sperry, delivery, Federal Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., New York Harbor with Statue of Liberty, 16 May 1944.

TP How has your use of that technique in previous installations situated itself within the context of its placement? For example, your 2010 exhibition at the Moody Gallery in Houston, TX, Taxonomy of Unusual Events on the Mountain, or your installation titled Watcher: Strategies of Art, Observation, and Adaptation, conducted while at your residency in YADDO?

CMK Situated in the context of a gallery, Taxonomy of Unusual Events on the Mountain, staged an unlikely encounter between Dazzle and range finding camouflage schemes, pre-Enlightenment Cabinets of Curiosity, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau installation, and Goethe’s writings on observation and morphology. The geometric camouflage designs of dazzle were painted on canvas and hung as objects. What started as tracking lessons in order to see the landscape differently resulted in a traveling caravan of art objects. Watcher: Strategies of Art, Observation, and Adaptation responded to the flux of people and art activity at the YADDO site. I initiated a series of events with other residents that added human activity to my visual investigation into movement, sense perception, and figure/ground relationships.

As watchers/observers/inter-actors, I invited writers, performance artists, DJs, and playwrights to perform in my Dazzle installation as I photographed and shot video of their performances.

TP You also have another Dazzle installation titled The Figure Is Always Ground currently exhibiting at the Marfa Book Company through January 15th ; do you have plans for more installations, or future exhibitions, based on this technique?

CMK Dazzle is used in The Figure is Always Ground to articulate an interior foreground and background of exact correspondence. Situated in Marfa, TX, the viewer moves through re-considered modernist not-ground space. The black and white graphic is defined by the limits of the existing architecture and the existing architecture is experienced through graphic elements. I have found the tension established by the disparities between the tracking experiments and the formal parameters of art very productive. The design I have submitted for my GSA Art in Architecture commission, located in a customs building on the U.S./Mexico border, also includes Dazzle elements.

Proposal drawing

Charles Mary Kubricht, Drawing for Alivenesses: Proposal for Adaptation, 2011. Courtesy of Charles Mary Kubricht.

In preparation for another installation, I continue to examine the transitional zone between perceptual experience and technologies of visualization by interrelating two systems of visibility—one immediate and empirical, the other oblique and technical. Using models illustrated in military tracking and survival manuals, I will stage a series of face-to-face encounters in the wilderness in an effort to develop my understanding of perceptual psychology and the activity of human observation.

In addition, I will investigate methods for visualizing phenomena that are available to us only through the lens of technologies such as telescopic sensors and mathematical modeling—prosthetics needed to locate and understand phenomena that are profoundly imperceptible to the human eye. These activities will take place on Mount Livermore and at McDonald Observatory. Both sites are near my studio in Marfa, TX. By exploring these two models of perception, my next installation continues to question the aesthetics of viewpoint that has always been fundamental in landscape art.

In spring, 2012, I will give a talk on my working process for Friends of the High Line in New York. We hope to include a military camouflage expert. Next fall I will also chair a conference on public art and environmental activism at Rice University in Houston, TX.

Located at the Rail Yards section of the High Line that has yet to be open to the public,ALIVE-NESSES: A Proposal for Adaptation, is viewable from the northern end of the park at West 30th Street.

Tabitha Piseno is an artist and curator currently living and working in NYC and Providence, RI. She is the Co-Founder of Richard Keller (R.K.) Projects, an experimental exhibition platform that conducts nomadic exhibitions and performance-based projects. Her most recent curatorial project was exhibited at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for Creative Arts at Brown University.

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