Into the Hybrid Mind of Really Large Numbers. The Collaborative Practices of Julia Oldham and Chad Stayrook.

Really Large Numbers at their studio/lab at LMCC Swing Space, Governor’s Island, 2013

Really Large Numbers (RLN) is a laboratory that encompasses the individual and collaborative experiments/expeditions of Chad Stayrook and Julia Oldham. As a team, Really Large Numbers combines science, fantasy and dream language to blur the boundaries between the REAL and the unREAL.  Really Large Numbers is currently featured in Wavelengths’s second curatorial effort, Light Years Away at Index Art Center in Newark, New Jersey.  We caught up with them at the advent of the show.

WL: How did you meet and how did your collaboration begin?

J: We first met in an exhibition in 2010 at Flux Factory in Long Island City called Science Fair.  We both had work in the show related to concepts of physics.  This was just as I was moving from Red Hook, Brooklyn to Eugene, Oregon.  We discovered that we lived only a few blocks apart, but I was only going to be living in the city a few more days!  We didn’t really get to know each other that well.

Fast forward about a year–Chad and I started randomly having dreams about each other. I had the first dream, in which we were trying to feed thousands of tiny fish at an aquarium, and each fish was supposed to get one rice puff. It was really stressful.  I wrote to Chad and told him about it, and a few months after that he had a dream about me.  From there we started having LOTS of dreams about each other and developing this whole universe of Chad and Julia Dream Land.  This led us inexorably to meet up when I was next in New York, and we had so much fun and had so much in common that we started conspiring about collaboration pretty much immediately.

We call ourselves Really Large Numbers, and we started working together in November, 2012.

C: As Julia said, we met during an exhibition we were both in at Flux Factory.  She was showing this amazing video based on the speed of light.  I was immediately drawn to its playfulness and emotional approach to science.  I remember seeing her work made me think “this is the kind of work I want to be making!  These are ideas I have but she has such an approachable and elegant way of depicting them! GAAAAHH!” I think we only exchanged pleasantries during the exhibition.  It wasn’t until the dreams started that we actually got to know each other.  My dreams were perhaps a little darker and frenetic. Often Julia was some kind of sci-fi superhero and we always seemed to be scaling giant towers trying to escape some catastrophic anomaly or scary gnome creature or the like. By the time we met up in New York I felt like we knew each other so well and were so excited about each other’s individual practices that we were inevitably drawn into a collaboration.

WL: You live on opposite coasts, and in addition to that, you both travel a great deal.  How do you manage your practice despite the distance?

J: We’re in regular contact – we email and Skype about our own projects and about ideas that we come up with that seem like they’d be fun for RLN to work with.  We have a lot more ideas than completed projects, of course.  We’ve got big lists of possible projects and loads of proposals for things that haven’t been made. Because we live 3000 miles apart, we can’t have a regular “studio practice,” so instead we come together to make new work during residencies and visits.  Together we have participated in LMCC Swing Space on Governor’s Island, Artists Alliance Inc. Lower East Side Studio Program in Manhattan, Guttenberg Arts in New Jersey, and Point B in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  We typically plan residencies around exhibitions that we need to make new work for.

“Dead Bird Portal” from the Divine Geometry Drawings, 2014

We also do work remotely.  We have an ongoing drawing collaboration project called “Divine Geometry”, in which Chad draws these geometric environments and zones, and he mails the drawing to me. I then populate his spaces with animals and their parts.  We have also started a remote video project where we make short videos that we send to each other, and then we respond to each other’s pieces.  Right now it’s called RLN Initiatives – but it’s in its infancy!

C: Julia’s art career is such that she’s always traveling to New York.  I think this helped solidify the collaboration in that we could initially discuss ideas and projects in person.  While she was in residence in Williamsburg for her own projects we made our first piece “Anomaly No. 1” that was included in a group show in the Bronx.  The energy from this piece fueled conversation and brainstorming for future projects and from there we began applying to residencies.  We landed a few right off the bat and that really became the structure for our production…brainstorm remotely, create in person.  We structured our first residency on Governors Island as though it were our very own lab.  Somehow that environment took the pressure off making any specific kind of work and allowed for experimentation. We made an enormous body of work during that residency and the ones to follow.  The remote brainstorming continues and is in many ways fueled and facilitated by our individual practices.  The residencies gave us exposure to a larger audience of curators and such and opened up opportunities for RLN exhibitions. Nowadays it is more often these exhibitions that bring us together with the time in between/apart spent working on whichever aspects of a particular project we have coming up.  We also, as Julia said, have an ongoing drawing series and video project that helps fill the gaps between exhibitions and residencies and allows us to keep a distanced creative connection that is more than just emails.

Still from “Anomaly No. 1”, 2012

WL: Does your long distance practice reference the challenge of communication spanning vast distances? Are you astronauts connecting across space-time?

J: Yes! A lot of our work is about communication and the desire to connect, about meetings in dream worlds and about creating spaces where our psyches can merge.  All of our work is in some way related to our distance from each other – whether intentionally or unintentionally.  One of our earlier pieces is a short video called “Within Range” in which we are talking to each other on walkie talkies about what we’re seeing and experiencing. But in the end it’s revealed that we are just around the corner from each other.  In 2014 we made a three channel video installation called “From These Woods” about a deer that travels between our brains as we sleep, exploring trippy dream worlds and teleporting back and forth between us using many-sided pyramid portals.

C: So much of our work is about communication, especially alternative ways of communicating. We even make up our own words and have an ongoing list with definitions on our website.  In one video, “Tuning”, our brains are connected by a copper wire that allows us to immediately know what the other one is thinking.  I think the idea for this came from a dream about a device that could “tune” this copper wire so the messages came through more clearly.  I ended up making a prototype and sent it to Julia to test but it was destroyed before we were able to really utilize it.  Luckily during one of our residencies I was able to fix it and we got it “working”.  A lot of our unrealized proposals for pieces are about ways of communicating each other’s ideas and working out solutions to the parts that get lost in translation.

WL: In your individual practices you are very much storytellers.  How does storytelling implicate itself into your collaborative practice? Is it different in any way from your solo efforts?

J: Story telling is at the heart of what we do together.  I think that has a lot to do with the way that we communicate – through long, rambling emails and stories we make up together that happen in our shared dream world. We even have a glossary of terms that we have made up, or that are relevant to our shared stories.

glossary from rln webpage
Detail of Glossary from Really Large Numbers’ website

I do think we have very different methods of storytelling, though. I tell stories in a very structured way, typically using a set of rules to generate a narrative.  For example, I made a piece about falling in love with my own antimatter twin, and used the rules of particle physics to shape our love story.  (Matter and antimatter explode and annihilate each other when they touch, so the relationship was doomed from the start.)  I tend to tell stories that are really straightforward and logical that feel like scientific fairy tales, and I think of myself as being very concise.  I like to make video pieces that are very short – three to five minutes is my ideal.

Chad’s storytelling, on the other hand, is incredibly abstract and based on dream logic. His narrative quirks are brilliant and I could never come up with them, and his stories are sprawling, with odd little connections between broken geodes and severed fish heads and constellations that somehow all sort of make sense in the end.  Chad’s video narratives are a lot longer than mine – his videos can be 20 minutes or longer, following characters as they walk deep into mysterious lands and slowly discover anomalies all around them.

Together we try to put the best parts of what we do into a mix. I like to tighten Chad’s sprawling stories, and he likes to add bizarre and dreamy details to mine.

still from “Featherbomb”, 2013

C: My work has always been about storytelling but most of my recent video work came about after seeing how Julia works as a video artist.  Often my ideas will culminate in sprawling installations and/or actions that sometimes span months, whereas Julia’s work is so much more concise and more immediately accessible.  I envy that.  I’ve always been interested in how scientists use metaphors to explain theories and processes and such, and Julia’s work has a similar quality of being able to boil down complex ideas into entirely relatable human experience.  I, on the other hand, tend to use scientific metaphors as an excuse for creating my own interpretation of any given idea and letting it spin a wild yarn often fueled by wild epic dreams I have.  I’ve attempted to mimic some of the structure in Julia’s videos to portray my ideas.  RLN has made me challenge myself to be a better and more concise editor.  I think this is one reason RLN works so well.  Julia is amazing at interpreting my ideas and mixing them with her own into pieces that combine the best of each of our individual practices.

WL: There’s a sense of nostalgia when looking at your videos, almost recalling the Cold War era aesthetics of the cowboy movie, middle school science film and sci-fi flick all rolled into one.  Is your relationship to space perhaps influenced by this era?  The advent of space exploration in America begins in this socio-political climate – is this correlation real, or are we reading too much onto the work? 

J: My interest in space comes from being raised by a physicist who told me bed time stories about black holes, the edges of the universe, the moons in our solar system, infinity, and all sorts of wonderful sciencey things.  We’d look at the moon and planets together through our telescope, and we watched Star Trek together every week.  We watched movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Rollerball, Enemy Mine and David Lynch’s Dune, and we shared sci fi books by authors like Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and Arthur C. Clark.  So the 80’s sci fi aesthetic is dear to my heart.  I love the way that in 80s sci fi, there’s not much digital animation, but instead mostly miniatures.  That holds up over time so much better than early CG from the 90s, which now looks so dorky and terrible.  I like using old fashioned film tricks in my work – smoke and mirrors and hand-drawn animation. I love for my videos to have very carefully planned out color palettes too – every time I rewatch 2001: A Space Odyssey, I am blown away by the beautiful colors and careful aesthetic choices made throughout the film. It’s such an artwork!

Julia Oldham –  still from “Laika’s Lullaby”, 2015

The Cold War spans such a long time – there are many different parts of this era that are interesting to me. You mentioned the advent of the Space Race, and I am absolutely fascinated by Soviet propaganda connected to the space program. A few years ago I made a piece about Laika, the Soviet space dog who was the first living animal to enter orbit. It’s a sad story, but the visual storytelling about Laika’s journey through posters and memorabilia is beautiful, colorful and exciting.

C: I was a Bill Nye the Science Guy kid and loved playful and weird approaches to learning about science. Something about that series instilled a wonder about the world and a comprehension of science as a type of magic.  A series of medical issues in my teens found me holed up in hospitals for a time with lots of tubes and such stuck into me and in a general haze of opiates.  During that time I grew an aesthetic affinity for scientific machines enhanced by my childhood wonder and imbued with the effects of narcotics.  Shortly after that I began my career as an artist and started to make installations and performances that melded together my Bill Nye influences and experiences in hospitals that were mainly about trying to come to grips with the function of my own existence. Wondering about my place in reality led me inevitably into space and a fascinated terror of the nothingness of it all.  Campy sci-fi movies and Cold War era aesthetics became devices for me that made larger abstract scientific ideas more accessible. A show I did in 2009 called Shooting for the Stars was a sort of turning point for me in that I dialed in my interests towards a more direct narrative about exploration and discovery.  That has been my focus for some time now and the nostalgia you mention in this question is what I use as a tool for documenting my own exploits in exploration.

I think this nostalgia runs deep in both Julia and I and so RLN is very much influenced by it and becomes a place where our individual relationships to it meld together.

Chad Stayrook “The Loneliest Voyages” at Neon Heater Gallery, 2017

WL: You often conflate cutting edge technology and scientific documentation with the obvious presence of the human hand? Why is this important to you?

J: I think that having visual hints of the human hand makes our stories more about US as people and artists, and refers to a more emotional and subjective side of science that is not often addressed. While science and discovery can feel cold and detached in the way it is presented through the media, working scientists are emotional human beings who have incredible passion for what they are doing.  I used to have a job making informational videos for the National Institute of Standards and Technology about particular projects going on there.  I interviewed a scientist developing the Quantum Watt (he’s been working on this for years and years), and in his lab I saw a wild installation of zillions of tiny Post-it notes with things scribbled on them. It was like a Hanne Darboven piece!  Visiting the offices and labs of scientists gives you a very different sense of what science is.  Scientists often make their own equipment for experiments out of cheap materials to try out ideas, and you can find objects that look almost like weird art pieces. And the love and devotion of these scientists is a spectacular thing to witness.

“Divine Geometry Pyramids”, 2016. Drawings reconceived as public sculptures

C: I think it’s easy to take technology and scientific discovery for granted as things that just exist or pop up out of nowhere.  But technology and discovery doesn’t really exist without the ingenuity of people and they are therefore imbued with emotions and personality and relationship dynamics, etc.  As Julia said, going into a scientist’s lab is really similar to going into an artist’s studio. We often talk about the relationships between scientists working together in a lab….they joke with each other and get irritated by each other and have connections that grow beyond whatever they are working on.  RLN is very much about the relationship between two artists who choose to work together and our visible hand in the work gives this relationship presence in our final pieces.

WL: Does scientific data play a role in the final work of art?

J: For my personal work, it does.  I tend to work with scientists from start to finish, and I’m invested in the science in my work being accurate.  I will pass video scripts back and forth with scientists, ironing out the story and the science at the same time, so that I end up with a fairy tale with inarguable science in it.  This can be tricky, because I’ve been “accused” of making educational or instructional videos rather than proper art.  That’s a line I have fun treading, though.  I like the structure/limitation that scientific data and accuracy places on my work; it’s a great challenge trying to say something about science with my work that can exist in the art world and also be scientifically intelligible to a physicist.  As a woman, I find this to be particularly important for me.  The physics world is still such a boy’s club, and I often will have male artists (especially who studied some physics/math in college or have a personal interest) try to school me in technology or physics, assuming that my approach to those subjects is more poetic and intuitive and about the aesthetics of science instead of the ideas (perhaps because I’m a woman making work about human relationships).  I like to be able to strike back with hard facts and a thorough knowledge of my subject matter to subvert that expectation.

As for Really Large Numbers, I think we approach our work using the structure of experimentation in science as opposed to hard data. Our work is more fantastical than my personal work.  I still do a lot of research about scientific ideas as we are moving forward with projects, but as we begin working, our imaginations take over, and it’s okay if we throw accuracy out the window for the sake of creative storytelling.  I think of our work as being more in the realm of sci fi/fantasy.

C: I agree with Julia about RLN’s approach. We do reference hard data for some of our projects but I leave a lot of the technical understanding of that stuff to Julia!  Her dad has been helpful too when trying to figure out things like how an air compressor would work for filling up a weather balloon.

Chad Stayrook “The Loneliest Voyages”, 2017 (detail)

In my personal work I don’t really lean on actual data at all. When I was in grad school I used to ask a good friend who was getting his PhD in physics to send me data from projects he was working on without any kind of interpretation or explanation of that data.  I would then make work based on my own interpretation of what he sent with obviously wildly different outcomes than what the data actually represented.  It’s partly laziness, but mostly curiosity and imagination that leads me to prefer interpreting the world my own way.

WL: Your work “Birth of a Star” is currently featured in the exhibition, Light Years Away at Index Art Center.  Can you tell us a little about the multimedia aspect of this installation and what viewers will experience? 

J: “Birth of a Star” is a series of four sculptures about different stages of a star’s life, ranging from protostar to collapse. Chad works primarily in sculptural installation, while I work primarily in video and animation.  RLN gets really exciting when we blend our strengths to create multimedia pieces.  Chad built formal structures that refer to each life stage in both shape and elemental material, and I created hand-drawn animations of each stage. The animation is incorporated into the sculptures as projections, tiny monitors and in other various ways.  Most of the work we make together ends up being a huge sculpture that you can turn on and off with a video component. We are excited about the way that sculpture and animation will reference the same subject matter very differently, with very different materials and scales.  This project is another one that we’ve been able to work on remotely; I’ve developed the animations here in Oregon while Chad began to build the sculptures in Brooklyn.  It’s really cool to bring these two elements together to see how they fit! With RLN work there is always the potential for disaster.  We take a lot of big risks that I don’t personally take in my work, which is exhilarating and a little scary!

julia chad and goosie with birth of a star
“Birth of a Star” at Index Art Center, 2017

C: Julia pretty much sums it up. The sculptures are human scale in terms of size and viewers are able to walk around and in between them.  I imagine my sculptural elements as the “body” and Julia’s animations as the “heart” of each piece.  When we put the two together it’s like bringing to life these enormous, un-seeable events, and making them tangible.

WL: Does your collaborative practice influence your individual practices?

J: Absolutely!  There’s no way for it not to, considering the amount of time we spend sharing ideas. There are frequently overlaps in what we are making personally that come directly out of things we’ve been chatting about for RLN projects.  We also talk to each other about our individual work so often that there is always lots of cross-pollination.  It helps that we are both passionate about a lot of the same things:  outer space, science in general, performative storytelling, Moby Dick, funny costumes.  We recently put on a show together of individual projects that are both about historical spacecraft – so often we find our way to personal ideas by brainstorming with each other and then grabbing some of those ideas for our own use.  It’s a fun give and take, and neither of us has ever said to the other, “Hey, you stole that!”  It’s always just a joy to be working on the same wavelength and having someone to talk to your work about who will totally get it.

C: I’ve talked a lot above about how our collaboration and Julia’s individual work has influenced my own practice. It’s probably what I love most about RLN.  I think individually as artists we often retreat into our own heads.  I’m not the best when it comes to networking or setting up studio visits.  Collaborating through RLN means that I’m often talking about my own work with Julia and she’s been really proactive in setting up studio visits for RLN that often lead into talk about our individual work.  There are definitely elements of our own work that feed RLN and what we do collaboratively gets sent back out into our own practices.  At the beginning of all this we talked about RLN being this umbrella that could incorporate our own work and our collaborative work, seamlessly transitioning between the two, supporting each other’s projects, and of course working together both for fun and when overlaps in our interests demand collaboration.

WL: You just wrapped up a two person show The Loneliest Places at Neon Heater Gallery in Ohio this past April featuring your work as solo artists.  How did you approach this middle ground between solo and collaborative?

J: This is actually the show I referenced in the previous question.  I showed my animated video about Laika going into orbit on Sputnik 2 (and Sputnik 1 has a cameo in that video as well) and a drawing series about a robotic dog who is researching black holes, and Chad made an installation piece about research spacecraft that have now traveled farthest from earth, such as the Voyager crafts.  Both pieces are about these lonely explorers in the vast beyond.  Even though it was our individual works, it still sort of felt like an RLN project to me, because we created context for each other. Also, we like to think of Really Large Numbers as an umbrella that can cover our individual works when it feels right. I think, ultimately, RLN is about me and Chad having great chemistry and being able to work extremely well together, whether we are making something new or placing individual works of ours together in a space.

08 (2).jpg
Panel from Julia Oldham’s drawing series about a robotic dog (later to become a graphic novel)

C: Ha-ha, obviously Julia answered all these questions before me, hence the double umbrella reference! It’s true that this recent show at the heater felt a lot like an RLN piece but I think it’s just because our individual work complements the others’ really well. Light Years Away is a unique opportunity for Julia and me to show our individual work and RLN work at the same time.  I’ll be curious to see how people make connections between the three pieces…all of which I think could have been made by RLN together or Julia and I individually.  I suppose in that way RLN is more like a Julia/Chad hybrid mind than a collaboration.

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