Jack Dollhausen is one of today’s foremost artists working in the Northwest, and an early proponent of computerized art. Dollhausen has dedicated a lifetime to creating what he refers to as “machines,” computerized sculptural assemblages that react to the environment or the presence of a viewer through the utilization of motion, light, and sound. Internationally recognized, Dollhausen’s work has been shown throughout the United States and Europe. [This bio is from the book Jack Dollhausen, a thirty year start, by Aden Kathryn Ross of the Salt Lake Art Center] Link here: Jack Dollhausen, a thirty year start.
Shadowgraph Interview with Jack Dollhausen (Summer 2013)
Lindsay Ahl: In the electronic worlds you create, you state that “true randomness isn’t possible.” Is that a limitation of the electronics you are using, or is it possible that true randomness isn’t possible in this universe?
Jack Dollhausen: I must have been speaking in a context much smaller than the universe if I said that because in my work all that’s necessary is a quality of randomness, a quality that logic chip designers are inclined to call noise. Logic can generate some big numbers though, so I can program enough unpredictable sequences to satisfy my needs. “True randomness” seems like intellectual quicksand to me. I just try to set up a little space of controlled chaos that I can filter until it makes me happy or I get sick of it.
Lindsay: So much of your work is made to be responsive to external stimuli (sound, movement), and the combinations of possible responses often won’t repeat in a human lifetime. Variables can change the response. There’s irony here, humor, and some paradox. Can you talk about this, maybe in relation to the idea of an open or closed system?
Jack: I have to tell you that the idea of making interactive machines came from a guilty conscience about leaving an electrical device — made to look at — drawing current when no one was present to see it. I just wanted them to sleep when they were alone. My vocabulary didn’t contain the word ‘interactive’ until twenty years later. But once I had some data about the real-time behavior of viewers, it was only natural to use it to disturb the math the logic was doing, and to use it to influence the choreography of the machine’s dance, to modulate the variables of tempo, brightness, motion, et alia. The sensing defines an affected space that is unavoidably part of the form of the machine, so the viewer’s presence and behavior naturally become part of its form also.
Lindsay: Do you think the butterfly effect relates to how your machines will function?
Jack: One of the nicest things about the butterfly effect is that it describes amplifications that can be surprising, in the whole spectrum of delightful to horrible. I can’t think of any relationship with my work.
Lindsay: I guess I was thinking about how … you never know … for certain … the amplification of what you do – and the “interactive” aspect of your work, beginning in 1972ish – seems to have been a part of what happened historically in art.
Jack: In my years of academia, I was obligated to bear witness to trends and influences that really never became considerations in my shop. I just have not given much thought to where my work fits in to the history of art, but I’m pleased when someone makes an observation that it seems to fit its time and cultural context. I’d like to think there’s a butterfly effect in the passing of ideas — hardly noticed but cascading and branching into worlds of imagination and invention.
Lindsay: Related to the idea of “amplifications” – talk about the constants and variables in your work. In the universe?
Jack: I get most of the constants from E=IR, all the rest is speculation. Bucky Fuller once said he was prevented from committing suicide by the observation that life was the only known anti-entropic force in the universe, so I wrote on my shop wall, “this is a competition with entropy” to keep me reminded. The universe is shrunk down to the little problems of making things work in the shop.
Lindsay: Your work being little life-forces that are anti-entropic?
Jack: More like symbols of anti-entropic activity — entropy always wins, you know.
Lindsay: To take technology and engineering (a controllable force) and undermine its tendency with enforced near-randomness is a form of play and humor. The juxtaposition of these two fundamental forces (rationality, irrationality) (to control, to lose control) are qualities that Nietzsche discusses in The Birth of Tragedy in the form of the Apollonian and the Dionysian – the perfect blend of which brings the perfect Tragedy. How do you think about the juxtapositions of these qualities in relation to your art?
Jack: Nietzsche also said, “We posses art lest we perish of the truth.” Right/left brain, art/technology, classic/romantic, are a few of the dichotomies good for making interesting conversation, and defining the end points of various spectra; but in the making of an object for its existential qualities, I doubt there’s room for the definitions. I’m inclined to leave those considerations to the viewer, after the fact of the making.
Lindsay: Interesting. So in the act of making your work, you don’t utilize that kind of thinking? Nietzsche also said, “Thought kills action.” Which I have contemplated more than I’ve acted on, probably. But you sound like you are action-oriented.
Jack: I don’t utilize that kind of thinking because I am building prototypes. Technological things are usually designed to be reproducible, often many times. My approach from the beginning was to tinker things together, starting immediately with the materials. I even wrote a thesis proposing that electricity might become a medium for an artist similar to clay and paint, where the moves in the making would be cut and fit. It’s often an odious task for me to draw the schematic diagram of a machine long after making it. In industrial processes drawings come first and design is supposed to prevent screw-ups but my process has all of it mixed — hardware, software, thought, and action all happen together. I screw up quite a bit, and almost always learn a lot when I do. The making is a place to go to think about almost anything. I’ve often wished I were able to articulate this in some sensible way, but the truth is when it goes very well I never can remember exactly what it was I was thinking. Somehow, thought and action are not distinct activities.
Lindsay: Since you used to teach art, do you have a take on the history of “interactive” art or where it has evolved today?
Jack: My curriculum was mostly about plaster, clay, fiber, and metals, with a bit about the composing of visual form into images. Art history is analysis about things people have made in the context that they were made, some of which reflect their context and get more attention (or contain enough enigma to warrant a PhD dissertation) than others. I haven’t given a lot of thought to “my place”. As a fake academic (resistant to housebreaking) for more than thirty years, I thought of that analysis as entertainment more than anything, and even comedy as the po-mos moved in in the latter part of the 20th century. I’m pretty certain that a Willendorff Venus was truly magic in its context, as is solid-state electronics today — and both have a lot to do with Silicon (if I ever used emoticons one might go here). Arthur Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and the history of art is full of that. Terms like interactive, installation, conceptual, and performance I can leave to someone else. It just seems impossible to avoid the magic if one has any inkling of how it might appear to happen. I just got an image of Bing Crosby with a Zippo lighter (and an eclipse) in King Arthur’s court.
Lindsay: Magic, I guess, is being used here as extraordinary or delightful or unexplainable? And so back to your creative process – you want to know enough to do it, but not think about it too much? Kind of like not letting the left hand know what the right hand is giving?
Jack: I suddenly realized that I do not have a very good definition of magic. I guess enchantment comes close, and I have said that in my shop I have chosen ‘romance and enchantment’ over ‘shock and awe’. If I have a “creative process” I guess I would try to explain it in terms of binary left/right, thought/action, or logic/emotion; but I’d be faking it because the only method I know is to engage the work and keep it interesting.
Lindsay: You use light as a medium with as much deliberation and thought as a painter or photographer, but for a completely different effect. I began to think about light as a medium we move through on a daily basis, after viewing your work. Would you talk a little about light – what it is, on any and every level? (It contains its own paradox, as I understand it, being both a particle and a wave?)
Jack: That’s a good question. A painter in front of a blank canvas is starting with all the light available and proceeds to filter out or edit down to the masterpiece. It’s like filtering any musical work out of the sound of Niagara Falls. Technology has given us leds that make a wonderful palette of bandwidths of light, and the capability of mixing those bands with varying intensity, in time, at low voltages and intimate scale. It’s only recently that light had this potential as a personal medium (as Times Square and Las Vegas are not) for an artist. The retina doesn’t seem to care if it arrives as a particle or a wave or both, but lighting up a quantum device is still thrilling to me.
Lindsay: For some reason I’m really laughing about the idea that the retina doesn’t care if it’s a particle or a wave. I seem to think it must know on some level! But It’s true I’d never have thought about light that way by experience alone.
Jack: How else can you think about light other than by experience? I love the idea of retina doesn’t care laughs.
Lindsay: You work with light and sound (among other things). John Cage heard music everywhere. In a sound proof box he was delighted at the sound of his own blood rushing – there is no silence. Is there darkness?
Jack: That’s a question about the senses. Cage was encouraging his audience to expand the senses — to hear all that the ear detects — while McLuhan was observing that technology was essentially an extension of the senses. Trees falling in the wilderness make no sound unless there is an ear to hear — and there is a theoretical absolute zero — no energy so nothing for the sensors to detect. I know a little about such stuff, but my work is for eyes and ears.
Lindsay: In relation to Time: your art is not something one can stand in front of for a few minutes, take in, and feel they have “seen” it. They have to stand for a long time to experience the “machines” and even then, they haven’t experienced, even near, what there is to experience. Time is a part of your work, and like music, you are exploring rhythms. There is an element of surprise that seems to be a built-in component of your work – surprise as a zen element that takes us out of our usual way of thinking. How do you experience surprise or the random/fixed elements when working on your art?
Jack: I always think of my work as a dance just because of the element of time, just as you’ve described, and since I haven’t seen many abstract dynamic visual compositions, my machines often surprise and delight me. I’m sure all makers are surprised by their work, and add the surprise to their palette. I’m not fond of the surprises that involve smoking components and/or loud sparks, but most are useful data. I’ve made music all my life, so it’s natural for me to translate all those rhythms and syncopation into visual form. In terms of usual ways of thinking, I have tried hard to avoid the figurative stuff, the things that represent something else, fuzzy things that light up when you apply the brakes, flowers that dance to sounds, beer signs — you can imagine my aversion to that. Late one night I had a figure-ground shift that made me see a little circuit as an image of Porky Pig, and stayed up all night rebuilding it. I’m going for the Zen elements and paradigm disruptions.
Lindsay: I personally am disturbed by how many people will yell and poke and tap the glass to get “acknowledgment” or a “response” from an animal in a zoo, rather than sit and wait, with patience, to see the animal move on its own. Your art speaks directly to this need in humans for “response” and yet also plays with that – would you care to discuss what you have learned about human psychology from witnessing people witness your art?
Jack: People react in almost the same way to much of my work. Pieces in public galleries have been all but destroyed as a result, but in some ways it is satisfying that they become a sort of living thing to them. After all, I guess I’m trying to make romantic machines, so if they’re seen in any way as a part of nature, I’m fine with that.