Explorations > A conversation with A magic master : Keith Tyson interviewed by Elena Geuna

A conversation with A magic master : Keith Tyson interviewed by Elena Geuna

EG: When I think about your work, I can never forget the first time I came to your studio, years ago, and I was confronted, at the entrance with a soup painting. You started explaining to me what a soup painting was and I would be very interested in hearing again part of that explanation.

KT: Well, the soup paintings were a response to an idea that I had heard about in Biotechnology. A scientist had created, as a methodology for getting an answer to a chemical question, a kind of teleological soup. This idea fascinated me and I wanted to translate into an artistic process. This scientist, created a system in which free floating DNA evolved in a tank without restrictions or environmental limitations… Instead of being DNA that was embodied within an organism and environment and by doing this he could then take samples with a kind of chemical spoon,  pull out bits and analyse what was going on in it and hopefully this would give him a more rapid route to the solutions being looked for in certain diseases.
So, I set about trying to find and make a canvas that was just a soup like that, a soup without any concern over form, composition, colour, meaning or anything. I just tried to find the most diverse images I could and put them together. Then I would take a sample of that original painting and make a new dilution, then take a sample of that and make a further dilution. So in the end, you have a huge hierarchy, with a big painting in the middle and then its offspring to the side and then their offspring adjacent to them, etc. There were energies passing not just across the surface, but through the painting and through time and I liked the way in which they all split up and you could not tell how it was made and what had brought it into being. I am very into generative systems, and how something comes into being.

EG: So it is really an organic system developing. If one considers your work, like The Art Machine or The Expanded Repeater, how did these evolve?

KT: All my work deals with a sense of questioning the forces that bring something into being. With The Art Machine I was dealing with the concept of the author, the biography, the fetish, the things that somebody brings to the making of a work and trying to create a filter that cancelled them out. I was trying to filter the artist out and automate the process, create a language game that could come up with proposals to make artworks. I wanted to look at these objects, that I knew had not been created by anyone, and then see what the poetics of that would be. I do not just mean a surrealist process, like “Oh, I’m just going to randomly put things together to look at the subconscious meaning”. This is an automated device, it is one step on from Andy Warhol’s idea of having a factory.  I am going to actually make a factory for the idea, the most precious stage of artistic creation: and say even that can be automated, I really think that the body of work was never really fully understood in the sense that critics thought that it was about production. In fact, for me, it was quite an interesting kind of philosophical study.

EG: In thinking about all your different bodies of work, I have come to admire in your various shows, there is a constant component of unpredictability, which I think could be considered poetry.

KT: Our overall view of the universe, if we could start there, is that there are really no boundaries between objects and time. The idea of the unpredictable within my practice is really me trying to embrace a fundamental material that I perceive in the world. That unpredictability can be a dice that is thrown, it can be the stock market, it can be not being able to predict what mood you will be in tomorrow or it could be an automated process or the path of the clouds in the sky or whether a war will happen or not. We live in a society where we have tried to eradicate risk, through insurance and science and technology, as if risk is a bad thing. Risk is the reason we exist as a species. We are that unpredictability, that mutation of the gene, and I want to embrace that as part of what brings things together. I do not like the kind of hygienic way in which the society wants to address these issues. We cannot look at ourselves in isolation from everything else. Everything is connected, and so unpredictability has a kind of deeper meaning, it is not something that I am using just as a technique.

EG: You are talking about genes, which bring us to the Geno Pheno works that were shown in London and in New York. They have, to a different extent, again, this character of unpredictability.

KT: The Geno Pheno works explored the dichotomy between a “geno type”, the genetic potential that an organism has and the “pheno type”, which is the resulting form, the person we see in the street. I was interested in this as a kind of method of artistic production. We have got all this potential, when you see a blank canvas and we have all these rules that an artist will invent for himself and then we have a result, which may be a masterpiece or it may be a weaker work and then we have a criterion for judging those results. I was trying to produce a body of work that dealt with all those causalities or rather the myth of those causalities. The Geno Phenos had an unpredictability about them in the same way you can bring a man and a woman together, who both have blue eyes and you can get a genetic result of brown or blue eyes, depending on the one that is dominant. There is always chance involved. Actually at the heart of my work, there is always unpredictability.

EG: Is not chance one of the most fundamental things at the base of your series of Nature Paintings? I remember when I came to the studio that the paintings were lying flat on big table, while the process was taking place.

KT: First of all, I would like to make a definition, if it is possible, about the difference between unpredictability, chance and what is termed in science as a stochastic process or a process that is arbitrary. The mathematical definition of random is that all results have an equal chance of occurring in the long term of an equally weighted game and, in that sense, you could roll a dice a hundred times and get six every time and it would still be random. But when we use the word random, it often means that an ‘event’ is beyond our comprehension, and that we cannot calculate what result will occur, it is this idea of something that is beyond our ability to analyse or model. So the Nature Paintings have forces at play, such as gravity and heat, very simple forces and very simple chemical reactions between them. The results are of a staggering order of complexity, diversity and, dare I say, beauty, because they remind us of the complexity and diversity of nature, so it is the same forces, the same simple forces acting on these panels that create the results you see and so that is the reason they are reminiscent of cells or planets or stars or mountains…

EG: Of nature…

KT: Of nature, my argument has always been: they are not paintings of nature, they are paintings by nature.

EG: By nature. Completely autonomous, are they not?

KT: They are related to things like the Art Machine, in a very direct way, because they are still about where we set the limits of control. By doing this, I guess I ended up in a kind of very Taoist, Eastern philosophical position where I realised that the separation between the subjective and the objective, between the artist, the work and the viewer is very hard to define, if it exists at all. It is a process or a field, and works of art, or viewing works of art, are slices from that field. They are the detritus from dynamic systems that are in place. Every artwork is a frozen moment from an artist’s dynamic, from the history and evolution of their ideas and their life. These are vast, complex dynamics that inhabit the whole universe, the whole universe comes in to play. This is not only my work, this is true of anybody’s work. However, my work is explicitly focused on these themes.

EG: You have pointed out that it is a frozen moment of the artist’s creative process but doesn’t the perception of the viewer changes from one viewer to another one?

KT: Absolutely. That is what is so beautiful about existing. There are these total universes defined by the subjectivity of one being, colliding like in a sub-atomic explosion, with the subjectivity of another individual. My meaning, my desire, my poetry that I have put on to a panel, interacts with your subjectivity and your desire and your history and your meaning and nobody controls that. It’s dynamic and unpredictable. So I am a great believer in dynamic systems.

EG: So your work evolves with the different perceptions of each individual facing the work?

KT: We live in a society in which we privilege the frozen moments because it is very hard to quantify the great dynamic. How do you quantify that? It is only because you have lived and breathed and ran around and had memories that you can be inspired or recognise the poetry in a painting. My work is actually very traditional, even though it may be very scientific in form, using all these different techniques. I am actually trying to get to something essential, but I have got a very oblique way of approaching it.

EG: When you are saying that you are trying to make your work according to the laws of the universe, it seems to me that you are also adding to your work your positive impact. When I look at your work I always feel a joy of existence, transpiring from it. It could be in an Art Machine, in a Geno Pheno painting, in a Nature Painting or looking at the Large Field Array, but there is always this joy of being there.

KT: This is for me a sense of enthusiasm and a return to a kind of pre-language fascination, which is the immense diversity, complexity and staggering beauty of the universe we live in. It is just an incredible thing to me and I have deep psychological reasons why I constantly need to present that. It is not a thing that I do through effort, I do not consciously try and make something look joyous. I am generally fascinated by the world around me, it is just a natural thing to want to look at various aspects of it all. Since I use these processes that distance me from the work, then I can enjoy them, to some extent the results, in the same way a viewer can. I am just looking at something that generates a simple poetic reaction.

EG: Thinking of your Large Field Array, when I saw it at the Louisiana Museum and even larger at the Dupont museum, could we consider it a frozen moment of your universe at that time?

KT: I was really dealing with the concept of the field. In science, when we have two opposing theories, such as speed of light versus the relativistic motion of individuals, then we have to come up with a new field that allows both. Electricity and magnetism for instance may seem separate things, even contradictory until we “made” or rather defined an electromagnetic field. Usually the solution to our paradoxes is to invent a field that includes both things, the wave particle duality is another one. I was looking at the universe and thinking of it as a big vast field of interactions, histories and objects. I thought that I want to depict that, I want to produce something that elicits in the viewer a specific response to that aspect of the universe, its vast complexity, and try to produce something bigger than anyone can possibly comprehend. Not just its scale or size, but the level of their own history, realising that there are so many things that they have seen, that they are not consciously remembering. Large Field Array acts as a kind of machine, hopefully, when the viewer enters they see, not only, a huge diversity of objects and themes, they also see their own lives, their own interpretations laid out in front of them. It is the artistic equivalent of a particle accelerator, where you just collide. I was telling you how a viewer collides with the artist and something new is created, that is what I tried to do when I made the Field Array. I had no intention of giving a specific meaning, I had every intention of building a device that could create, going on into the future, various sort of artistic reactions in the minds of the viewers. A curious way of approaching it, but that is what I tried to do and people seem to have had quite strong reactions to it.

EG: Is there going to be a purpose built building to house the Large Field Array?

KT: I believe that is going to be completed in either late 2009 or early 2010 in Las Vegas.

EG: Wonderful! Talking about Las Vegas and gambling, some of the most important artists in Great Britain like Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and you are famous gamblers. Do you see a relation?

KT: I think there are two answers to that. One of them is cultural, to do with living in Britain, and the other one is more philosophical and to do with the existential condition. May be there is a third one to do with just being comfortable with ones financial success or not. All three of those contribute to why I gambled. Britain is and always has been a big gambling country. I think America, Britain, China as well… You put your money down on the table and: as Dostoevsky said “I am going to decide, I am going to dare to decide”. It takes a certain amount of courage and a certain character to put that capital down and stand by the decision. The courage often wins through and you either get rewarded or you lose. I think gambling can be an accelerated version of making a painting, because when you make a painting, you do something similar, you throw your will, your time, your effort, your integrity and ingenuity into something which nobody has asked you to do, there is no reason to produce it.

EG: It has been said in the past that you are one of these artists that make the future, and I completely agree with this statement. You see the future a little bit like a magic… universe?

KT: Like a magic universe? I think, it is not so much becoming a magic universe as remembering that it is and always as magic universe. I think we have lived in an age that has secularised our experience of being a human being.  We feel more isolated and individualised now than we have ever felt.  A kind of post enlightenment malaise. I grew up on a farm in the heart of nature and when I was having a hard time with some domestic troubles, I would go out and walk on a hillside. I would really feel the difference between the internal psychological stresses of being a human being and the magical ontology presence of the universe, the amazing providence of that. The Buddhist scholar Alan Watts had a great analogy, he said to imagine some aliens flying past the earth a billion years ago, when it was just molten rock, and they say “no, that’s not inhabited, there is nothing there, just a pile of rocks” and they flew away. Now in the same way that an apple tree “apples” periodically. They would come back now, millions of years later and say “oh no, I beg your pardon, it’s “peopling”. The rocks have the potential to create people and to me that is beyond miraculous, I do not need any more magic than that, I just find existence, both terrifying and amazing.

EG: And fascinating…

KT: The only job of poetry or art is to explore what we are as human beings. We are not separate from this universe, we are part of it. I make a lot of work, I am very prolific, but just take a little walk along the beach and have a look how many pebbles there are. We live in an infinite universe, it is part of a human being to be infinite, we breathe air we drink water we are made up of atoms that are fifteen billion years old.

EG: Top rated scientists, philosophers, religious people, they all seem to agree with what you have been telling us.

KT: Yes.

EG: Do you want to take us through your process, once again, the organic system that is grown out of the Nature Painting into the Random Nature.

KT: The Nature Painting process was really just trying to create a painting, which was scale invariant. As you zoom in to it, it gets no less complex, if you go in with a microscope it would still look as beautiful, because the forces of nature work at any scale. I am also interested in mathematics and the way in which mathematics models complex systems. In this body of work, I have tried to bring the two together in a way that asks a very simple question about the nature of mathematics (Is mathematics prescriptive or descriptive?) I believe there are scientific theories now that posit the universe as information rather than matter and energy. These ‘Random Nature’ works have two elements, a strict mathematical pattern and a loose organic pattern. I am putting these two aspects together and seeing the similarities and the differences.

EG: I was just thinking about the future. What is next after the Random Nature?

KT: I have an exhibition at the end of the year called Fractal Dice which is another mathematical show, so this year I am pretty much concentrating on mathematics as a theme…

EG: That is why you were telling me you are taking mathematic tutoring…

KT: I have been taking some tutoring because I have got to fill in a couple of gaps in my knowledge. Mathematics is a vast subject and quite intimidating, especially if your are an autodidact . So I took some tutoring to deal with some of the upper end of calculus and certain aspects which are quite complicated. I am trying to calculate some coefficients and do some programming which is quite advanced, and I do not want to delegate that. I want to deeply and intuitively understand it.

EG: And this show you were talking about at the end of the year…

KT: It is probably the least any artist has ever done for an exhibition. All I have done is send an equations or algorithms to some engineers and they have been manifest as complicated three-dimensional sculptures. So my sum total contribution to this show is the equation, but it will be a huge indoor and outdoor sculpture show, realised by the gallery.

EG: But are we going back to the Art Machine again?

KT: We are not going back to the art machine as I do not think I ever left it…The same themes, the same fascinations, the same traditional desire to express and explore the patterns that I see in the world around me. I am a very traditional, nature painting type artist, who wants to explore the body or to deal with themes in the world going on around me. The staggering diversity of it all.

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