Carol Salmanson is a Brooklyn-based artist working with light and reflective materials. She recently took a break from her busy schedule to speak with Wavelength about her practice.
WL: What are the particular properties of light that interest you?
Light both beams into you and surrounds you. These qualities allow me to build whole worlds around the viewer with color and shape, ones that touch their memory and experience. In addition to being a visual artist, I have a background in renovations and in dance, which are both concerned with the way space touches the viewer’s emotions. Light allows me to create a special kind of place for the viewer to enter.
I also use the special properties of LEDs in the same way a painter would. LEDs come in a different colors, shapes, sizes, and transparencies, to fit their specific intended industrial purpose. I have been collecting LEDs and now have more than 150 different kinds, and I can combine them in an infinite number of ways, especially once I add contemporary reflective and transparent materials to the mix.
The way I work with my various materials permits me to make art that forms two-dimensional work reminiscent of painting, and the light radiates outward to suggest metaphorical spaces.
WL: You have an extensive body of work using light. Was there ever a time when you worked in another medium?
I painted for many years, and as my work progressed I added reflected pigments that suggested a space extending inward and outward. This allowed the objects painted on top to move and stay still at the same time, which was my intention. It was a natural progression from there to working with light the way I do, because light does nothing if not stay still and move simultaneously. The influence of my past work is clear, and the evolution was a natural one – although it sure didn’t seem like it as it was happening.
WL: How does the medium influence the structure of your art?
It was a bit of a struggle to make work that wasn’t about fabrication. I’ve made some beautiful work within the limitations of the materials I used, such as prisms, slender fluorescents, and stainless steel, and I continue to do so. But it got to the point where the fabrication process eclipsed my artistic experience, and I became extremely frustrated. In desperation I started creating the Gesture Drawings, which are much more fun to make.
Incorporating the hand into my work is deeply meaningful for me. The work is no longer a hard, industrially derived piece of art, but a way to use all of my components to form the piece. And they really are drawings – I start with a gestural pencil drawing and drill holes by hand for the wiring, and I can shape the final result.
The Gesture Drawings emphasize that at its heart industrial materials always have a purpose, that technology is the tool and not the goal.
WL: Are there any new light technologies you’re considering implicating into your work?
My most recent infatuation is for the new “neon” light strips, which are LED tape encased snugly in thick molded diffused silicone. Unlike neon, and unlike LED tape strips, you can bend it any way you want, even tying the stuff in knots. I’ve tried getting samples in the hopes of using them for a project I have coming up, but they are too new to be easily available. Last week I received the fourth sample from the fourth supplier in China (there are none yet in the US that carry all the kinds), and I decided, not for the first time, that the use of “cutting edge” technology was starting to displace my making art. The samples are now in a box on the shelf.
Carol Salmanson is currently featured in “The Particle and the Wave” at Index Art Center of Newark, New Jersey. They are located at 237 Washington Street.
Wavelength speaks with Eric Valosin about his recent artist residency, art and spirituality and his interest in the “techno-sublime.” Valosin is currently featured in the exhibition “The Particle and the Wave” at Index Art Center of Newark, New Jersey.
WL:Let’s begin by speaking about your work in a general sense.I characterize it as an interdisciplinary practice informed by theology, philosophy, metaphysics, physics, spirituality and digital technologies.Can you share some essential concepts with our readers?
That’s a pretty good characterization. It more or less started with a curiosity about contemplative spiritual experience and an interest in the intersections of art and religion. But I wanted to sidestep the dogma and polemics that often cloud religious art, so I began to dig into mystical traditions (Zen, Christian Mysticism, Sufism, and the like) for their access to the primary stuff of spiritual experience. That led me to philosophical questions about being, existence, and what it means to have experiences at all, and I followed them down the rabbit hole toward metaphysics, epistemology, and phenomenology.
The turning point came when I looked around inside that rabbit hole and realized that the postmodern philosophical landscape looked very different than the metaphysics that led me inside. I asked myself how I, as an artist, was going to approach this topic when the vast majority of mystics I was reading lived 700 years ago and had no concept of electricity, let alone cyberspace or globalized world-views.
My art is thus an attempt to reconcile the 14th century mystic with the 21st century philosopher and facilitate a contemplative spiritual experience for the viewer. To that end I create interactive work that blends old and new media. I adopt traditional mystical strategies and push them through new technologies and emerging world views.
I ask myself how one can have the “unmediated immediacy” of mystical encounters in an era when, purportedly, everything is now mediated. Instead, I strive for a highly mediated spiritual experience. I’ve taken a liking to the term coined for this by Hal Foster in relation to Bill Viola’s video installations: the “techno-sublime.”
WL:Your work is often comprised of a fleeting set of experiences, coupled with your interest in dispersing, deconstructing and reconfiguring information.Is it better for the viewer to know or un-know this tsunami of data to comprehend the work?
In this framework, knowing is unknowing, and vice versa. The 14th Century mystic Meister Eckhart often said that if God is beyond comprehension, the only access point is to negate anything you can comprehend. This negation is the backbone of the “apophatic” style of mysticism, meaning “negative knowledge,” and is one of the strategies I adopt, both visually and conceptually.
Deconstruction may be an attempt to “know,” but when you realize your subject is unknowable, it actually pushes you further into an edifying, mystical “un-knowing,” or apophasis. As I work I always keep paradox and ambiguity in my crosshairs. I know an installation is working well if the viewer enters with both a sense of wonder and utter confusion.
WL:Tell us about your piece for “The Particle and the Wave”
Hyalo 3 (WaveParticle) is part of a series of installations that optically blends painted color and projected color, inspired by stained glass, mandalas, sacred geometry, and geometric abstraction. In the vein of traditional mandalas, I borrowed from the gallery’s floorplan and architectural motifs as well. In honor of the occasion, the imagery also contains a diagrammatic nod to the double slit experiment, which marked the discovery of light’s particle-wave duality.
Hyalo 3 was created on site and painted directly on the gallery wall. Like a sand mandala, it will be there for the duration of its use, and then be scattered into the river, so to speak, painted over when the show ends. Its impermanence is tied to its site-specificity.
More significantly though than its responsiveness to the architecture is its responsiveness to light. The projection onto the painting is carefully calibrated so that the resulting iridescent color blend shifts and permutes in response to the gallery’s ambient light, other works in the gallery, and the viewer’s viewing angle. It also causes the image to take on an ambiguous dimensionality and float in a space that seems other than the wall.
Furthermore, when the viewer walks in front of the projector, the projection is blocked and the painted colors are revealed within his or her shadow. My hope is for all this to create a relational bodily awareness in the way minimalist sculpture does, but accompanied by a sense of wonder and shattered perceptual expectations. I hope for an altered awareness of self within the highly mediated space, which leads to an active state of contemplation.
I’ve always seen projection as a metaphysical medium. From Plato’s cave to stained glass windows, various models of projection often go hand in hand with searches for truth and divinity. I like to think I’m continuing that tradition into the digital age.
WL:You are very much a problem solver, what new challenges did you take-on for this current piece in “The Particle and the Wave?”
I’ve come to expect unforeseen challenges when installing site-specific new media projects. Every venue has its own set of surprises to overcome; ceiling mounting to what turns out to be a padded fabric drop-ceiling, hanging on what turns out to be a painted plexiglass wall, computers crashing, equipment missing, inaccurate dimensions, incompatible file types, you name it.
Thankfully, this installation was devoid of many of those unforeseen challenges. Instead, many of the foreseen challenges were particularly tricky ones. This show made for very difficult color calibration, because of the fluctuation of the other light based pieces around mine.
All the variables come into play to get the right effect – the color and value of the paint, the reflectivity of the pigment, the strength and angle of the projector, the hue and saturation of the projected colors, the alignment of the projected image, the gallery lighting, the other artwork nearby… I sort of imagine the calibration process like trying to balance a razor on its edge; one RGB value point too far in any direction and the image looks cheap, flimsy, and flat. Every time one of the other pieces in the gallery flickers or changes, so does my color blend. I finally ended up having to build a computer program that would algorithmically help me find the right starting point for the projected color, spend several hours adjusting from there, and then ultimately tweak some of the projector’s display settings – something I don’t normally have to do – to finally find the right effect that would also withstand the range of lighting conditions it would have to endure.
But I’m a firm believer that the best discoveries in art come from co-opting interesting mistakes and finding workarounds to unexpected challenges.
In fact, that’s how this whole Hyalo series came about in the first place. About four years ago, In the spirit of mystical negation, I had originally been trying to get the projected color to negate the painted color entirely, resulting in a grayish field of light that would only reveal its color in the viewer’s shadow. I had it working well in some small studio experiments, but when it was time to install an exhibition it started behaving very differently on a large scale.
It turns out that the acrylic paint I was using was actually slightly reflective because of its plasticity. That caused weird, iridescent reflections to be thrown all over the place, and the color blend was wildly inconsistent depending on my viewing angle. I initially wrote it off as a failed project, but luckily had some mentors and friends who helped me see the potential in this accident. I ended up recalibrating the projection to take advantage of those inconsistencies and create what would evolve into the Hyalo series.
For the record, I did then go back and experiment with other paints to also achieve my original negation idea. An example of that, UnKnowledge II, was recently on view at Aljira in Newark in the Viewpoints 2016 show (shameless plug).
Unknowledge II, 2014
WL:You recently did a residency at Ohio State University’s Pulse Laser Holography Lab.Can you tell us about the residency and what you discovered there?
That was a real honor, and afforded me a whole new respect for particles and waves. Under the auspices of NY’s HoloCenter, I had the opportunity to study with holography legends Sam Morée and Harris Kagan. Sam was one of the pioneers of art holography in the ‘70s and is generally considered one of the most important and influential living holographers. Harris is a professor of holography at OSU and one of the physicists on the team at CERN that discovered the Higgs particle. Four other artists and I spent a week learning the physics and mechanics of holography from them and producing several types of holograms.
For those unfamiliar, Holography is the process of encoding three dimensional information into a two dimensional surface. It’s actually very similar to darkroom photography, but uses laser interference patterns to record a three dimensional image.
Holography purists would oblige me to clarify that Tupac was not actually a hologram, nor are HoloLens or other digital augmented reality technologies true holograms. I found out the hard way that Holographers are very touchy about these sorts of technicalities.
In true holography you essentially split a laser beam into two beams. The “reference beam” shines directly on the light sensitive film, and the “object beam” reflects off of the object first, then bounces onto the film. The film, which has a light sensitive emulsion with roughly 40,000 times higher resolution than most digital cameras, records the way the light waves constructively and destructively interfere, creating a microscopic pattern unique to that object.
After developing the otherwise transparent film, if you shine the reference beam on it again at the right angle, it reflects and diffracts off of the interference pattern and reconstructs the object beam. In other words, the light coming off the film reaches your eye in the exactly same way it would have if it came directly off of the object itself. The result is a 3D image that exactly matches the object from every viewing angle and seems to float in space in front of or behind the surface of the film. As far as your brain is concerned, it is the object, optically speaking.
This residency was special in that its at one of the few labs with access to a pulse ruby laser. In order to have an image, you have to have a stable interference pattern throughout the duration of the exposure, which in our case were up to as long as four minutes. That means nothing can move more than the distance of half a wavelength of light that whole time. Any sounds in the room are enough to jostle the air around the laser beam and blur the interference pattern. Even the microscopic life cycle of your cells provides too much movement for a stable image. This rules out many subjects as too unstable.
However, what took the ordinary continuous wave laser four minutes to capture, the pulse laser could capture in 20 billionths of a second! Since almost nothing moves that fast, stability is no longer an issue and almost any subject matter is fair game, including people and moving objects.
The workshop gave me an appreciation for new levels of precision and planning. I came away with a renewed understanding that every detail indeed matters. I learned that waiting can be a very important part of a practice. Even with very expensive vibration dampening equipment, we spent a lot of time waiting for things to settle, or for film to develop. But it was meaningful waiting. I found rather meditative.
I also discovered the holography community is extremely close knit, to the point that every serious holographer in the world is practically on a first name basis. It was really an honor to be introduced into that community, and it fulfilled a long time dream of mine to create holograms.
WL:Do you have plans to employ holography in your upcoming work? If so, where do you foresee it going?
I’d love to. Light has always been a very important medium in my work, and holography seems like a natural extension. Light is perfectly apophatic: paradoxically both particle and wave, revealing and yet unrevealed, naturally sublime in its impact. Holography strikes me as a perfect expression of what the 3rd century mystic Plotinus called “formless form.”
Theologians have actually likened mandalas to holograms as well, in that they are two-dimensional surfaces that are experienced multidimensionally, whether as the 3D temple structure they imply or even as an access point to higher spiritual dimensions. My Meditations series of drawings consists of mandalas conflated with functioning QR codes that launch the meditating viewer somewhere into cyberspace. To start, I’m interested in expanding that series into new arenas of virtual space through holography.
I had the fortune of asking Sam Morée what he saw for the future of holography. He seems to think the greatest potential for innovation is now in emerging technologies for viewing and displaying holograms, which is something I’m interested in exploring through larger scale installations that would integrate holography with projection and other media. I’m currently dreaming up some proposals and looking forward to getting back into a proper lab soon.
In the mean time though, I’ve been experimenting in my studio with “specular holography,” which is also called “scratch” or “abrasion holography,” or more affectionately “poor man’s holography.” With carefully plotted scratched arcs and circles you can actually hand etch holographic images into reflective surfaces like plexiglas. Each scratch projects a holographic glint of light that, with enough scratches, coheres into a three dimensional image that floats above or below the surface, complete with stereoscopic parallax effects.
I’m really just scratching the surface so far (literally), but you can find some really advanced examples in the work of Tristan Duke or Matthew Brand. I’m not sure exactly what these experiments will become, but for my conceptual purposes I enjoy the very analog nature of these hand-made holograms, as well as their proclivity toward geometric imagery.
WL:How do you feel about current theories in physics exploring the concept that the universe is a projection?Do you think about these things in relation to your work?
That’s one of the things that led me to Holography in the first place. Physicists have determined that all the information that describes everything that has ever entered a black hole is actually stored at the event horizon. That essentially means that all of the three-dimensional space within a black hole could be reconstructed by projecting data stored on a two dimensional surface at the periphery of that space. Scientists have extrapolated that to mean that, in principle, what we perceive to be the entire three-dimensional universe could actually be a projection of a similar two dimensional information plane at the edges of the universe. And yes, if you’re picturing the Matrix right now, you’re not far off. It does by extension lead to a universe comprised of pure “information” and dovetails with the discoveries of Planck units and quantum computing. And it just so happens that viewing the universe this way also helps make much of the mathematics of string theory work out nicely.
As I mentioned earlier, any three dimensional projection of information stored on a two-dimensional plane is basically the definition of a hologram, earning this theory the moniker, “the Holographic Principle.”
If all of reality indeed does function like a holographic projection, I wonder then, what are the implications for spiritual space? I’m eager to use holography and other methods to artistically explore the metaphysics of this new cosmological model.
In Hyalo 3 (WaveParticle) the viewer gets sandwiched into the imagery, engulfed by the projection, becoming part of the projection, simultaneously revealing and concealing the environment. That just may turn out to be exactly how the whole universe manifests.
all images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted