Strong force (chromodynamics 2), 2013. Face-mounted digital light-jet print on metallic paper, 17 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Leah and I met a number of years ago in New York, possibly at the LMCC Workspace residency, or maybe somewhere before that. I remember her work at the time feeling like vector drawings or very lo-fi computer generated images. I was interested in them in a systems or process way more than in a pictorial way, which seemed to be what the works were asking for. They had a foot in science (they still do), and they read like information. In the time since, we‘ve seen each other periodically but never really had an occasion to talk about the work. Last May, we met up at a two-person show at Fridman Gallery in New York, in which Leah was participating along with Stephen Vitiello. As we walked through the show, I got really excited about the implications of her new work as a model for thinking through a number of contemporary bugbears, particularly regarding our interface with screens and screen-based pictures. As works for the wall, these extremely glossy metallic photographic prints were adroitly challenging basic terms of description. Were they photographs? Or were they screens made more static and material? Leah uses the computer as a drawing tool in the classic sense, as an extension of the hand rendering the spaces of the world, which really resonated with me.
Lucas Blalock I’m really excited about the intersections between digital, drawing, the body, and the virtual, which is sort of a shared space between our practices. And it’s with this context in mind that I got to see your last show. There were these “digital drawings” that were really great to look at. They had a surfacelessness about them that seemed to refuse objecthood, and yet they were really assertive. Can you talk a little about what went into making them? And what you were thinking about?
Leah Beeferman The series you are referring to is called Strong force (chromodynamics), and it includes images of real places and real things in those places, digitally-drawn marks, and some scans of objects that are real but have no sense of space. At first glance, the photographic images appear somewhat real and objective. But, because they are treated as drawn forms alongside the digitally-made marks (I use the eraser tool to reshape the photographs’ standard rectangular frames—I think of it as drawing by removal), those places and things quickly shed their meanings and become complete abstractions. The Strong forceimages are printed on glossy, metallic paper and are face-mounted to quarter-inch plexiglass, which makes them very object-like in many ways, but because the sense of space and surface within them is so strange and almost nonexistent, they still feel like they remain somewhere digital, or unreal. They’re not spaces we can enter, but rather spaces we can interact with and engage perceptually, psychologically, visually or—as you put it when we walked through the show at Fridman—with our nervous systems.
For the past several years, I’ve been really interested in theoretical and quantum physics, and the relationship between scientific ideas and abstraction. I am really drawn to a theory in quantum physics that I came across while researching: that pure empty space is not really empty at all, but, in fact, quite dense and turbulent. True “empty space” isn’t something we can access, and neither is dense emptiness. Even for physicists, these ideas are calculated theoretical speculation. I like when scientific terms have meaning outside of science, and emptiness and density are so broad—and also formal. So I decided to make work that used this idea as a jumping-off point. What are the relationships, then, between emptiness and density?
Strong force (chromodynamics 3), 2013. Face-mounted digital light-jet print on metallic paper, 17 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist.
With this question in mind, I went on a residency to Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Circle, which I soon realized was an actual, real place of dense emptiness! Svalbard is so still and vast, but the icescape holds a dense charge that is physically and emotionally palpable. This experience—finding a real place that mirrored a complete abstraction—was fascinating. It became the driving force behind my decision to use photographic imagery alongside drawn digital marks in the prints you’re talking about. While in Svalbard, I also thought a lot about how perception makes even pure nature an abstraction. What you see is instantaneously transformed by your mind, no matter how real it might be. All of these ideas came together in an attempt to make pieces that are simultaneously real and unreal, that are trying to occupy the same psychological place an abstract theory might.
Lucas I have been thinking a lot about how pictures, or artworks more generally, might address a viewer. This line of thought, for me, has come out of a loss of the specific body—the feeling and thinking body of the participant in descriptions of our interaction with the virtual via the cyborg, the avatar, etc. You can also approach these ideas by thinking through painting, which has a built-in bodily address, in contrast to the screen, which is a cerebral, disembodied space. Screen space and digital (or virtual) space are not the same, though they often get conflated. The screen is planar, whereas virtual space can have a lot of depth. Your project feels to me like it is addressing this abstract virtual space in relation to the body.
Leah I first want to ask how the psychological, or the imaginative, enters the balance between the spaces you describe: the physical space of painting, the cerebral space of the flat screen, and the depth of virtual space. I would say it exists somewhere between the virtual and the physical, in that it has quite a lot of depth, but that this depth can also factor in the body in various ways. I need to define that space in order to answer your question because, for me, that’s where this “dense emptiness” exists. It’s grown in my mind equally from the physical experience of Svalbard and from the “flat” intellectual experience of scientific theory. It has to occupy a middle ground.
Strong force (chromodynamics 5), 2013. Face-mounted digital light-jet print on metallic paper, 17 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Lucas The relationship you are talking about between Svalbard and scientific theory is an enticing way to think about abstraction and space more generally, as if we can approach these problems by looking for extant spaces to ground these ideas, or, conversely, that the production of new spaces—a production which is equally cognitive and virtual—might be really generative.
I am so impressed that you figured out a way to forgo a spatial model, like that of the photograph, but have made digital works that are insistently not flat, not screen, not window. I could keep going in this way, but I’m trying to swing around to ask a question that I really don’t know how to ask: Would it make sense if I were to ask if there is heterogeneity in dense emptiness?
Leah I think there are many ways to answer that question. The easy answer is that in the imagination anything can exist. So, yes, there certainly can be heterogeneity. But, to complicate that answer, I would say that even if you’re totally making something up, you have to be able to reconcile the different parts of that imagined situation into either a totalized experience or feeling, or make sense of the different parts via the creation of a new kind of logic—or, perhaps, a combination of the two. That’s the job of the artworks, in this case: to ensure that the viewer finds this totalized experience, and becomes aware of a system of logic, even if it doesn’t explain itself outright.
In Svalbard, there was certainly a lot going on—safety concerns, group dynamics, logistics. But, outside of that, in terms of my own personal experiences, there certainly were some moments of contrast in my thinking. On several occasions, I would spend a little of my downtime reading parts of a book about the cryosphere (ice systems and processes). Before leaving the boat with the group on our excursions on land, or in zodiacs [inflatable boats], I would plan to try and think about these processes or phenomena, observe them in some way, while I was outside. But, upon being confronted with the landscape, I would always immediately forget—I was so taken with ice, water, land, and the density in the air all around me that the “science” of the place just didn’t matter.
Reading about quantum physics is a bit different, because there’s no corresponding physical reality. My responses to the theories themselves are actually not so intellectual, but more emotive, similar to the types of reactions I might have to a physical place or thing. Because the theories are so totally abstract, they have to be interpreted by the imagination. Obviously reading about quantum theory does not come close to sitting next to icebergs in the middle of the Arctic, but you get what I mean. There’s an exchange.
Back in the early ’90s, when I was in middle school, I spent a lot of time using text-based online worlds. We would build rooms and walk around in the spaces that different users had created, talk to each other, and write descriptions for the things we had built. It was really fun, and I think it had a huge impact on my thinking. The space behind the screen—the virtual space—has always been really deep for me, but also really accessible, and a very creative space, too. It’s a totally familiar, comfortable environment for me.
Strong force (chromodynamics 13), 2014. Face-mounted digital light-jet print on metallic paper, 17 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Lucas Because they are digital C prints, there is a tendency to talk about these works through the lens of photography and rope them into all of the ideas surrounding photography and the digital, but that doesn’t feel like the best fit. It’s funny that you bring up these text-based online worlds, which are so suitably scaled to their inhabitants, because I was just thinking about how our relationship to current digital space is verging on the oceanic. It actually feels really apparent to me now that the Arctic, quantum physics, and dense emptiness are all expressions of sublime scale, and I want to also suggest, which your works already do, that the digital presents an equivalent problem of scale: a sublimity of its own that can mirror the others in its set.
The anthropologist Michael Taussig talks about drawing as “touching with the eyes”—a way that humans bring things into our sphere of influence, especially when they are out of our control. This is the project of mimetic activity—to process and digest the world into experience, understanding, and so on. Thinking about these works as drawings of a conflation of these spaces (empty, Arctic, virtual) has tons of energy for me!
Leah It makes me think about a couple things. One thing I have been thinking a lot about since the Arctic trip relates to the issue of veracity and what the photographer sees being passed to the viewer: Is the abstraction of reality that the camera captures and translates really any different than the abstraction of reality that emerges from a drawing? Sure, with a photograph, you are nominally giving the viewer a “picture” of something “real,” an image that looks “real.” But the photograph becomes, immediately, a representation of that which is real—like a drawing. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I think about it a lot. That idea actually came out of sound recording, which I do quite often as part of my practice. I began to think about it in context of photography—“recording” the “real,” which then loses its “reality,” once it is played back. What’s funny, though, is that I am never concerned with things actually being “real” in the way that some drawings or photographs might be concerned with likeness or conveying something specific. I am looking to reference that reality, but to other ends.
To specifically address the Taussig quote (which I love), the digital, and the drawings as conflations of the Arctic/the empty/the virtual—I guess it makes me also think about translating this experience of “touching with the eyes” to something that the eyes can’t necessarily see, or that isn’t necessary visual to begin with. In my case, this impulse grows out of reading about the weird and totally abstract logic of theoretical physics, which is basically non-visual. I think I have a reaction to the descriptions of quantum spaces, which in some way mimics a physical experience of the sublime … like it’s an exciting and unknown place, whether I’m actually in it, or imagining it. I really like being able to conflate the physical and psychological responses to both.
The digital is an ideal way to convey this conflation, because it removes the physical properties of a drawing from the final image. With a drawing on paper, the materiality, the mark-making, and the surface distract from this space of imagination and sublimity that I am trying to achieve. So, though I do sometimes miss making “real” drawings, the digital is a better communicator for what I’m thinking about. It allows the feeling of a drawing to remain, but without being at all material.
Lucas I want to try and address your comment about “things actually being real.” I feel like you mean this in the sense of reportage, or objectivity. In another sense, though, I see your work perusing a real that is involved in both our experience of the world, and the grammar of that experience. This isn’t a proposition of objectivity and distance, but one about relationships.
Leah This idea of something “actually being real” gets so philosophical so quickly. I’m not an expert on philosophy in general, and have read much less than I should on this particular topic. But it’s interesting because philosophical concepts about “reality” actually link up quite well with scientific concepts about what reality is, and what it means to be a person perceiving this reality, or making an observation. I read a book of interviews about the “mysteries” of quantum physics, and one of the main ideas is that, fundamentally, all elements of the quantum world exist as probability waves, and not as particles, until an “observer” makes an “observation” about them—at which point they are forced “choose” their position, speed, or whatever. I know that sounds pretty abstract and weird, and I agree that it’s hard to make sense of it. But, it gets even more interesting when the author brings up the question of what qualifies this “observer.” Does the observer have to be conscious? Or can it be a scientific apparatus? Or a camera? There’s no definitive answer, but, essentially, the point is that reality can’t be measured without this act of observation, and that this act, in and of itself, changes the nature of reality.
When in the Arctic and while making the Strong force prints, I thought a lot about how the reality I was experiencing couldn’t be separated from what I was thinking about it while looking at, or listening to, it. So, the work is coming from that direction—not from trying to “document.” I have to remind myself when I’m making sound recordings that my goal isn’t to make perfect field recordings, or, when taking pictures, to take perfect landscape photos. It’s about finding sonic, or visual, elements in the world to re-use and make sense of. The elements are conceptually important (there’s a reason why there aren’t any images of trees or buildings in my work, for example). But, regardless, when I use these images in the drawings, they are immediately about a different reality—one that I have jump-started—instead of “actual” reality, whatever that is.