Introducing… Chris Rackley
I first noticed Chris Rackley’s art when I found a link to his thesis exhibition, Behind the Sky (January 2012). The DC-based artist is a MFA graduate from George Mason University (and member of Floating Lab Collective) who creates “cinematic vignettes” inspired by distant worlds and sci-fi films. His work was recently featured in a group show at Artisphere in celebration of Countdown to Yuri’s Night called Elevator to the Moon: Retro-future Visions of Space. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity. So I emailed Chris for a quick Q&A to hear more about his inspirations, creative practice, and new work. Here’s what he had to share.
On a daily basis, what inspires you?
Scientific research related to the fundamental nature of the universe is fascinating. Knowing about the most basic structures of reality has always been a thrill for me. Years ago, when I worked in a darkroom developing X-ray images trying to make money after college, I spent hours trying to understand special relativity. As soon as it was safe to turn on the lights in the darkroom, I would read from a textbook on modern physics, working through the problems on my old TI-81 graphing calculator. After a few minutes, more X-ray film would arrive for me to develop and I would have to turn off the overhead lights and return to work. In the dark, I thought about Einstein’s postulates, reviewing his thought experiments again and again until, in the dim red light, my mind would finally comprehend and I could see. Understanding special relativity for the first time was like waking up from deep sleep. Although I did not like my job, and despised confinement in a small darkroom, I felt as if I could see beyond the walls into the very fibers of the fabric of reality. I felt powerful and I felt free.
Today, my RSS feeder includes updates from Fermilab, CERN, NASA, and Wolfram’s MathWorld and I continue to seek moments of lucid understanding by learning about current physics research. I am obsessed with efforts by physicists to find a theory to explain everything and I recently lost an entire afternoon to reading about the construction of a Holographic Interferometer at Fermilab. When I make artwork, I work to maintain a sense of connection to the structures behind the everyday, visible world.
Can you explain your creative process?
I am always working on several projects at once. Some ideas work best as paintings; others work better as video pieces or as drawings. The pieces come together around a collection of ideas and interests in a process not unlike the way planets form. My reading in physics, math, philosophy, and science fiction exert a sort of gravitational pull on a variety of media, techniques, and methods. I collect images, videos, old electronic parts, discarded plastic; anything that seems like it could become part of a little world goes into my categorized collection. Sometimes I keep something to use as a reference for a painting because I prefer to paint from life whenever possible. Other found objects sit in my collection for a long time, maybe a year or more, before an appropriate occasion arises: a plastic cup may finally become a rocket ship or an old telephone may become a rover. For me, art making is a way of knowing. If I am ever wondering what to make next, I usually ask myself what it is that I want to learn.
Latecomers to the Universe, installation view, 2012.
What are your thoughts on CERN’s Higgs Boson announcement?
For me, the significance of CERN’s update on the search for the Higgs boson is that the universe is still full of mysteries. Rather than view the announcement as the discovery of the final piece of a puzzle, it might be better to think of the detection of a Higgs-like boson as merely one piece of a small section of much larger puzzle from which many, many more pieces are missing. Even if the properties and behaviors of the particle recently uncovered at CERN are found to exactly match predictions, physicists like Brian Greene keep reminding us that the mathematical model used to make those predictions is still far from supplying a complete description of the universe. Extending the puzzle analogy, not only are there missing pieces to the particle physics puzzle, but the puzzle box with the completed picture on the front is also missing. In other words, physicists are still in hot pursuit of a mathematical model that can describe the whole picture of the universe. I get the sense that understanding of the fundamental nature of the cosmos is at a beginning rather than an end and it seems as though physicists are on the verge of some very startling discoveries.
How do you view the connection between art and science?
Experimentation with physical observables as an approach to discover new knowledge is present in the methodologies of both science and visual art. Scientists and artists spend a great deal of time isolating and scrutinizing matter, time, and space, seeking for something behind or inside the surface of everyday experience. The fruits of both disciplines offer a shift in how the world is perceived. As an example of a perceptual shift offered by science, everyday experience tells me that time runs the same for everyone everywhere, but Einstein’s theories say that my movement alters the speed of time—when I go for a run, my watch runs more slowly. An example from art: everyday experience tells me that a color like cadmium red is always the same, but Josef Albers’ paintings show me that a color can change depending on surrounding colors.
Scientific and artistic discoveries require imagination in order to strike out from what is already known into unexplored territory to contribute to a body of knowledge. It is strange that efforts in the fields of science, art, math, and technology came to be viewed as divergent activities, and especially strange that art making was viewed as a less rational or less intellectual activity. These activities did not seem to be at odds in the minds of Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci, nor do they seem to be at odds in the minds of contemporary artists like Tim Hawkinson.
Long Voyage, installation view, 2012.
What are your current favorite artists, books, or movies?
Sarah Sze has found a poetic way to relate mundane objects to the elegance of cosmic structures. With installations like A Certain Slant, I feel as though I am seeing the fundamental forces involved in the formation of a world. Ian Burns’ work creates an aesthetic moment that is at once beautiful, silly, and intellectually engaging and his pieces display an economy of means that I find attractive. Tim Hawkinson makes pieces that often utilize ingenious mechanisms that seem to originate in the mind of a mad scientist. John Wood and Paul Harrison also make work that I find humorous, especially since they deliver it with straight faces. Their performance pieces feel like science experiments because they use minimal materials to isolate an aesthetic moment in the same way scientists isolate physical phenomena in a laboratory. The work by these artists has helped me understand how to make art that is inspired by scientific ideas while avoiding merely diagramming or demonstrating scientific concepts.
What are you working on right now?
Recently I have been making contraptions consisting of wood construction, lights, motors, found objects, and my own paintings. I think of the contraptions as little reality experiments. A small video camera and a television monitor are paired with each contraption, and from the point of view of the camera, a cinematic image is revealed on the monitors. The images on the monitors are inspired by science fiction film and television. Ambient “space noise” is generated by the motorized movement of the contraptions and amplified.
To design the structure for each piece, I borrow strategies developed by special-effects artists who created cinematic images before the advent of computer generated imagery. Each piece is designed such that visitors can enter the scenes on the televisions by placing themselves, or part of themselves, in front of the camera. The scale of the viewer’s body relative to the objects on the screen changes with each image—in one scene the viewer is larger than a galaxy while in another the viewer fits comfortably inside an impact crater.
Walk-in Crater, installation view, 2012. (View the piece on Vimeo.)
In addition to making the viewer’s scale uncertain, the narrative connection between the images is also unclear. Although science fiction aficionados will find familiar tropes (a planet seen from orbit, a desolate planet surface, an exterior view of a space ship, etc.), the absence of the human figure and the physical separation between the scenes on the monitors allows viewers to insert themselves as explorers or invaders.