Technology & Bees with Kelly Heaton
Kelly Heaton combines traditional art with electronics to explore the energy that animates natural and human-made forms. Her work investigates the widening gap between technological progress and the natural world, and questions humanity’s stewardship of life on Earth.
By Joe Ferguson, contributor
Joe Ferguson, SciArt Magazine: There is a popular, simplistic notion that logical, analytical people are “left-brained” and that creative, artistic people are “right-brained.” How do these two modes of thinking come into play in your artistic process?
Kelly Heaton: My brain has no dominant “side,” which is an advantage in some ways and a nuisance in others. I’ve always wanted to be an artist, but I’ve spent a lot of my life worried that I don’t have what it takes—a “right brain” that can, when appropriate, override the so-called logical mind. Overly analytical art can be clever and amusing, but it’s never truly great. Look at any masterpiece and you will see evidence of inexplicable talent, an amazing connection with reality that can’t be captured with logic alone. Only the artistic brain can do this. That said, only the logical brain can build a smart and rigorous framework for raw expression. Without structure, the artistic brain makes an unintelligible mess. The best artists are slightly artistic brain-dominant—just enough to add that extra dose of raw experience to a clear and accessible architecture. I work really hard to overcome my controlling, logical tendencies and allow raw expression into my work. This takes courage, non-attachment, and what feels like a trace of insanity because you must be willing to destroy your work in the studio and fail when you are in public. In my opinion, the best scientists are indistinguishable from the best artists—slightly “right brain” dominant with a rigorously-trained “left brain."
JF: Your work often addresses the impact of technology on human psychology. Are we on the right path with technological progress?
KH: My internet-connected computer is safely stored in the atmosphere of air conditioning, artificial light, recorded music, wireless phone access, and social media updates. I am vaccinated against disease, my water is free of pathogens, and my nutritious food is refrigerated. I can drive my car whenever and wherever I want. As I type, my thoughts are instantly stored on a tiny wafer of sand with a design sophistication beyond my comprehension. Soon, I will press a button and these words will travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in a second.
In my opinion, we take technology and civil infrastructure too much for granted. We are vitally dependent on the electrical grid and its devices. Few people can build or repair electronics, especially not without access to rare minerals and sophisticated production facilities. We are losing our ability to live on Earth without technology. Combine human ignorance with environmental degradation, and our survival is in serious danger.
JF: Your work upends the black box tendency in digital design—the idea that a device, system, or object can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs without any knowledge of its internal workings. Is it important to understand the internal workings of the technology we interact with?
KH: It’s not the engineer in me, but the biologist, philosopher, and curious child that wants to understand electronic devices. I open black boxes and pull out their guts because I wonder if machines are alive—albeit in a primitive way—like aliens or viruses. Machines are like organisms with anatomy, energy requirements, lifespan, and maybe even soul. I want to see computational devices as they really are—naked, not hidden behind human-centric interfaces. The miracle of smart machines makes me wonder about the definition of life, consciousness, and the existence of a divine creator. Manmade electricity and electronic devices have enabled humans to tinker with all forms of life, upended our sacred beliefs, and ushered a new geologic era. That’s incredible. Why wouldn’t we want to understand our machine cohorts?
JF: Advances in technology and science are often viewed in a linear fashion—a particular discovery leads to a particular response or outcome. Since your work addresses technology, would you say it has similarly progressed, or have you followed a different path?
KH: I’ve followed a different path. I use whatever media interests me—and that I can afford. I don’t really care about science and technology, per se. I care about contemporary psychology, spirituality, culture, and the Earth’s environment. I address technology in my work because our civilization and planet are profoundly affected by it. How can I possibly ignore it?
I should add that electricity is an obsession of mine because it is the magical spark in all life. I especially love old analog electronic components. They are simple, symbolic, and full of personality. I sometimes build functioning circuits into my art, but I am currently focused on painting my beloved electronic characters because real circuitry doesn’t convey my meaning—not at the moment, anyway.
JF: Has technological development driven your tendency to work in different styles and mediums?
KH: In 1997, I entered a Master of Fine Arts program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. I had every intention to be a traditional painter or sculptor, dealing with electrical phenomena as a subject, but I got frustrated with my studies. A friend suggested that I switch from art school to the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—an idea that I found intriguing but outrageous considering my lack of technical education. One thing led to another and I did, in fact, end up at the MIT Media Lab. I think I was a tech-boom experiment in how an artist can inspire a bunch of engineers. I was so unprepared for my classes, it was laughable—nothing short of hallucinatory terror. Nearly two decades later, I am still trying to process my MIT education.
One other note—I don’t currently have access to cutting edge shop equipment. So while I continue to work with themes of science and technology, I have returned to artistic media that is available to me in rural Virginia.
JF: Your work crosses several genres, including poetry.
KH: I wrote a poem for my Reflection Loop show in 2001. It’s pseudocode that describes the psychological condition of the Furbies who I reprogrammed to create Where Am I? and The Pool.
JF: Your book, Pollination, addresses technical obsolescence and biological mortality. Tell us about that.
KH: Like us, machines die. They wear out even faster than we do. Factory parts go out of production in a matter of decades. Dead computers are mysterious boxes with one glass face, a battery, fiberglass boards with strange appendages, wires, and maybe an alphanumeric tablet. Pity future archeologists—there is no telling what an ancient computer did when it was alive. With lost technologies, important aspects of our civilization will vanish along with our data artifacts and electronic tools. Our society’s greatest achievements are dependent on an essentially continuous supply of manmade electricity. What happens when the grid goes dark, even for a mere century? Think of the wonders described in the Hindu Vedas: flying ships and weapons of mass destruction. Are these fictional or technologies that lack present-day evidence?
The human-electronic symbiosis poses other dangers besides archiving our legacy. As we become increasingly dependent upon technology, people are distanced from nature and prone to environmental abuse. Moreover, millions or billions of people will die if the electronic grid fails even temporarily.
JF: You created a fragrance for Pollination.
KH: I am a self-taught perfumer. It’s an art and science, too. I created a conceptual perfume for Pollination and I founded a company to sell perfumes that just plain smell good.
JF: Conventional artistic criticism often suffers from genrefication—the process or idea of classifying music, film, literature, or other such mediums into specific genres or categories. Art inspired by science—SciArt—is often relegated to artistic ghettos or thought to be of interest to a limited audience. Do you feel your art—or any art—should be classified into a specific genre?
KH: We are all connected in a universal experience, and great art speaks to this common truth regardless of medium. Science is just another medium—or subject—that happens to be extremely demanding because it requires the artist to master at least two disciplines.
Why is SciArt relegated to a ghetto? A lot of bad art is made by scientists who don’t know art theory or history. This ruffles feathers in the art community. Also, art enthusiasts rarely know or care much about science, and I don’t see that changing. A professor of mine once said that, at the core, all great art is about the following three topics—birth, sex, and death. These subjects are all that people really care about. So it’s my chosen task to figure out why I really care about science and convey my meaning to an audience of humanists. My challenge is no different than any avant-garde artist. It takes originality, clarity, universality, and persistence to touch people no matter what media you employ.
JF: What challenges do you face as an artist working with science and technology?
KH: I know starving artist is a cliche, but it’s an ongoing problem, especially for artists who work with science. Combining science and art requires education, access to research, and expensive equipment. I gave up a lot of opportunities when I moved to rural Virginia, but still, I am amazed by how little funding exists for artists in America. Financial survival is even harder for artists who work with science for reasons that we have discussed previously. We need more collectors and grant programs to support living artists in this country. A huge amount of wealth is invested in a small quantity of art, most of it created by dead artists. I would love to see an American foundation for the support of living artist who work with science.
JF: What direction has your work taken lately? What’s on the horizon?
KH: For the past year, I’ve been making digital images and painting them. I want to merge people and electronics, to create timely portraits of humankind as we exist in symbioses with machines. We created machines—at least members of our species did—and now our machines are co-creating us. Have we evolved beyond nature? My portraits are principally concerned with the human condition, notably psychology, spirituality, politics, and the environment of the Anthropocene. I recently painted three such portraits of Trump, Putin, and Clinton. The group exhibition in which my new paintings will appear is called Art on the Front Lines. The show runs May 24 - August 19 at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 31 Mercer St. NYC.
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