Information and the Reluctant Image

September 6, 2010

A conversation between Iker Gil and artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle in his Chicago studio.


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Cloud Prototype nº 1. © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

Cloud Prototype No. 1

“Cloud Prototype No. 1” (2003) starts out of the reluctance to will form into being, and by that I mean a reluctance to actually give form or shape to a thing. To approach the idea of the event as something that has its own will. To keep the artist’s hand at a distance. So what first seems like something that has a kind of traditional aesthetic in terms of its formal aspects, it’s actually something quite different.

It is a recording of a moment in time of a very large thunderstorm. I worked with a group called the Convective Modeling Group down at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It is one of the few sites that actually track a thunderstorm three dimensionally. They bring in so much data on the storm systems that they need a supercomputer to house it all. By the time I got there, they had already channeled all the data they needed and they were basically producing a film, a 3D film of the storm as it takes place. Working with them, I selected a moment of that storm, the moment before it explodes, before it actually bursts. Working with data across time, I realized that I was falling into the trap of aesthetics. What moment of this cloud looks better? So I had to remove myself from that, and then go back conceptually and just email them and say, “You know what? I want this moment, whatever it looks like. The one right before it burst.”

It all started because I wanted to make a sculpture that would be the companion to a film of mine about Robert Oppenheimer, called “Oppenheimer.” I wanted to make a sculpture of a mushroom cloud, of the Trinity test. But because no 3D data exists of that event, I was forced to begin to model it, and I really disliked that. So then I turned to a natural event, one that possibly could already be an explosive event.

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Cloud Prototype nº 2. © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

Ultimately, the work in its inception is about politics, it’s about tuning into climate but on a much more complicated level. Climate understood as our contemporary condition: a social, political, cultural… climate. The work starts purely conceptual and it returns to aesthetics, but in a way that high math does, or high philosophy does. You end up dealing with strange things such as truth and how truthful can you be to the thing. And then you end up with the form, falling trap to beauty.

It is scary and beautiful at the same time, and that is why it fits so well with “Oppenheimer.” Because I was looking for the Virgil that would guide us through our contemporary inferno. I thought Oppenheimer would be that person. He falls into that ambiguous state of being the beginning of the destructive force of the atomic weapon, of the weapons of mass destruction, at the point of looking for those weapons of mass destruction. But then he flips and becomes the conscience. He has that duality. And I am interested in that duality, where the beautiful meets the monstrous At ten years old, I was staring at Goya’s Black paintings and saying how beautiful, looking at “Saturn Devouring his Son.” That’s the moment in aesthetics and philosophy and ethics where evil and good, truth and fiction, meet. And all the projects are about that. It’s all about that moment of ambiguity.

When I was making these Clouds I was also really interested in notions of surveillance. This notion of the hovering above and looking down, and I was interested in how surveillance camouflages itself as a mirror. I was thinking about how we, post 9-11, in a sense, have embraced surveillance. The public actually becomes a part of surveillance itself. It becomes the apparatus, the perfect sphere, the perfect-mirrored sphere. And yet the Cloud does the opposite. It distorts, it doesn’t allow for there to be a perfect reflection.

Iceberg (r11i01)

In 2005 I began to work on Iceberg (r11i01). Having looked at an ephemeral event, which is a kind of body of water that is vapor, then I thought about a body of water that would be solid, so I looked for an iceberg.

Iceberg (r11i01) is data from another research group, the Canadian Hydraulic Center, which is one of the few centers in the world that models or topographically records icebergs in three dimensions, above and below water using sonar below and radar above. They actually allowed me to have data on a number of icebergs, and the first one is the r11i01. It is a complicated piece because on one level, I am interested in the iceberg because it’s actually, in terms of data, pre-linguistic. The water that forms this iceberg is 50,000 years old. So that’s before language, it’s prehistorical. History has not arrived yet, language has not arrived. In terms of data, I was sent a spread sheet of x, y, and z coordinates, thousands of points above and below the water line.

So what happens when the iceberg is released into our climate, what is its true impact? How does it enter language, our imagination? What it speaks to now becomes of great interest to me. Unlike the Cloud, where I was interested in the skin, the surface, here I became less interested in the surface of the thing and more interested in the data set. Each of the points [xyz coordinates] became interesting and I wanted to know how hey were connected to each other.

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Iceberg (r11i01). © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

You could say that in terms of geometry and technology that the Cloud is a nurb surface and this is a polygonal mesh, two very different things. But more importantly I was interested in the mesh as a notion or representation of a network of information exchange. Iceberg (r11i01) is architecturally a metaphor for a current state, almost a postmodern state, and this is a word I don’t like to use a lot, postmodern, because I am not sure I believe in it. I liken the iceberg to taking a beautiful geodesic sphere by Buckminster Fuller and in a fit of anger for his failure to deliver utopia, crushing it like a piece of paper and throwing it in the waste basket. And then with a great sense of regret and urgency, running to retrieve it and restore its pure geometry. Only to reconcile myself with the fact that Fuller’s regular geometry is no longer viable and maybe perhaps should be thrown away, literally. What we are left with is non-hierarchical geometry where there is no one point in the system that has any hierarchy over any other point or is replicated. That was the complexity of having to make this thing. Because there was nothing uniform about it.

We ran into a problem of how to build it, with every vertex and edge unique. The guys at Rhino developed a program that could actually model each joint and number them so we could print them in plastic three-dimensionally. The sculpture is in fact the digital print of itself, a digital print of the original data set. All the labels, almost everything comes out of a printer. And one vertex has attached to it a USB memory stick. These sculptures always carry their complete set of information. It’s not quite clear to me whether the sculpture is growing out of this memory stick. Whether it acts like a seed out of which then the tree grows. Or whether the sculpture carries its history much like the tree bears its fruit. So in a sense, the inclusion of the memory stick keeps the piece from becoming a visualization. Less a model of an iceberg and more frozen moment of the phenomena that is information exchange. It might just be a moment.

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Iceberg (r11i01). © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

One of the things that happens in creating the work is that there is this other studio practice that is almost all communication, between people that I meet or I don’t meet who are making connections for me out there, whether it’s engineers, scientists, research centers and so forth, to get to the point which a project can actually be done. The studio is never physical. In fact, the work never happens in the studio.

Phantom Truck

(2003-2007) I remember the day former US Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council prior to the US invasion of Iraq. Even as I was watching the speech live I knew I wanted to do something with it, and it came to me rather quickly that I had to construct a mobile biological weapons lab. Here the data set is the speech and the information that followed.

In a way, it’s forensics, coming in after the event, similar to both the Cloud and the Iceberg, although more blatantly political, but still dealing with the notion of reconstructing an ephemeral moment. The problem is we are looking for something that is actually moving, that is unlocatable, and yet we are seeking a certain sense of certainty and stability. What I had to start with were Colin Powell’s slides and his own presentation, and then images that appeared in the press after they had found the vehicles, that later turned out to be not real. Also photographs from white papers, from the Department of Defense and CIA. My work was almost exclusively research, scaling and patching photographs togethers, research on similar trucks and the companies that fabricated them, all to achieve a faithful representation of what was from the start a fabrication. And ultimately Phantom Truck is a fabrication of a fabrication.

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Phantom Truck. © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

It is always hidden in a darkened space where it is only made visible by the presence of the viewer. The viewer is the apparatus of its visualization. Like the Cloud and Iceberg, when you approach it, you don’t know what it is, but you take it for what it is. What’s important to me in all three pieces is a phenomenological relationship of the viewer to the piece. And much of it is about locating yourself in relationship to it. In this case your location is one in darkness, where you almost have to stand still, let your eyes adjust. At this point the viewer is actually causing its appearance. And still what the eye reveals is a fabrication, an apparition of shorts, which is what makes it a Phantom. Or what the Greeks called “the thing made visible.”

Search / En búsqueda

This 2001 project turns La Plaza Monumental de Toros in Playas de Tijuana into a radio telescope. It takes the bullfighting arena and converts it into a parabolic dish and suspends a radio antenna above it. Everything else that happens here is essentially one of minimizing a structure that is already very minimal, removing all the advertisement, replacing all the colored flags with white flags, removing all text except the names of all the bullfighters. It is site specific.

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Search / En búsqueda. © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

This is 50 meters south of the US metal fence between Tijuana and San Diego. It wants to respond to the fact that that border is one of the most highly surveyed borders, with all shorts of monitoring technology, whether it would be sound, radar… It responds to that by wanting to make an even larger monitoring system. It responds to it by actually wanting to make a radio telescope to search for the “real” aliens. What it’s doing is mimicking what SETI does, it’s looking for alien life. So it becomes both a radio telescope and also a pirate radio station to broadcast the information that it receives. Now, most of the information it receives is basically static, no information, which in a sense replicates also what SETI is getting at all time. Interestingly, what SETI is looking for is a radio frequency of the existence of hydrogen, because if they find hydrogen, they know they can probably then find oxygen. And if they find hydrogen and oxygen, then they have water. Life. What the radio station in “ La Busqueda” did was have a transmitter that broadcast the radio signal through Tijuana and parts of Southern San Diego of what was being heard by the radio telescope. It broadcast across the FM spectrum; the transmitter would change its frequency all the time. It would momentarily interrupt every frequency with static. The public knew that there was the radio broadcast of this, but they had to search for it. The problem was that if you searched for on the radio you would have little chance to actually finding it amidst all the other static and if you did come across the broadcast it is unlikely that you would know you had. Ironically, evidence of it was only found by people who were not looking for it. It was actually the cabbies in Tijuana who at coffee shops started to talk to each other about this phenomenon. While listening to their favorite stations in their cabs they notice moments of dropout and static and they start to talk to each other and there started to be reports about these conversations. One report mentioned that some thought the electronic disturbance had to do with aliens.

Now the monitoring device/radio transmitter is the transgressor, it is crossing and invading all the frequencies, it comes and goes. It becomes a metaphor for migration or transgression, breaking all sorts of laws while it’s doing it, but it’s unlocatable by the Federal Communications Commission because they can never trap the signal. It is guaranteed that it will never be locatable.

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Search / En búsqueda. © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

Unwanted feedback between the antenna and the dish was filtered through a system that then fed a series of 50 subwoofers. The whole arena was subsequently turned into a large mega base speaker that delivered waves of infrasound to the public that came to see the radio telescope. The visiting public could sit and meditate as the sound penetrated their thoraxes. People would come and get massaged by the piece, and it became a very public event.

Of course this project is dealing with information in a very different way. It’s responding to information gathering by responding to the border, but I would say that the gathering of information is less important here than the tactics of dissemination.

Nocturne (White Poppies)

Nocturne (White Poppies) started in 2001 shortly after the US invaded Afghanistan. I put out a call to Associated Press photographers for images of heroin poppies photographed in Afghanistan using night vision. I got a few response photos and I used one as the starting point for my work. The image was of a single Papaver Somniferum photographed in southwestern Afghanistan a few weeks after the bombing of Kabul. The white and pink petals of the poppy translated into a highly chromatic green. This image of a sole flower in what had become a war zone was the inspiration for the installation Nocturne (White Poppies).

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Night vision photograph of Afghan heroin poppy flower. © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

When you enter the dark room, you see a large-scale image of flowers that are fluttering in a breeze. As your eyes adjust, you begin to see that there is something in the room with you–a set of poppies made in Chicago by botanists at the Field Museum of Natural History. Half a dozen of these flowers are attached to flexible armatures that elevate them above the floor. It’s as if this set of hands was in the act of presenting a bouquet. In this sculptural assemblage are small computer fans that blow onto the silk petals to make sure that they are in constant motion. The camera only focuses on the flowers in such a way that you never see the fans in the projected image. This assures that there is a certain live-ness to what is essentially a real time, closed circuit projection. Live sound from a short-wave radio receiver that searches the bandwidth for transmissions from Central Asia, together with this live video, creates a situation wherein the viewer is present at an actual event rather than experiencing a playback.

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Nocturne (White Poppies). © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

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Nocturne (White Poppies). © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

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Nocturne (White Poppies). © Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle.

Similar to Phantom Truck, the phenomena that is ‘visibility’ is completely locked into the apparatus of imaging. In Phantom Truck the apparatus is the viewer him/herself who is necessary for making the truck appear, while in Nocturne the imaging apparatus is external and autonomous to the viewer. And yet, while in Phantom Truck you can locate both the object and the apparatus, Nocturne complicates this assignation. Nocturne’s night vision camera cannot see the flowers in complete darkness. It needs at least a modicum of light to initiate the circuit. Usually flicking a cigarette lighter in Nocturne’s room is enough for the camera to begin seeing its target and transmitting the image to the projector. But here is where it gets tricky, because it’s now the projected image that lights the flowers and makes them visible. So without the image of the object, the object cannot be seen, which essentially reverses the a priori condition of seeing. Nocturne images the object so that it can be visible, rather than seeing a preexisting object.

The inception of meaning can’t be located, it’s slippery and fluid. By the time we are brought into the event, its image has already been created for us. These projects attempt to create moments in which we become conscious of that apparatus. How was Colin Powell’s Truck fabricated? How did we get to the point of creating an image of Iraq and Afghanistan that we could possibly invade? How is the image of our current climate being constructed? Who is involved in constructing that image? How does the debate of faithful representation drive politics? And what, if anything, does truth have to do with this?