Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Daniel Hill: I have two degrees in fine art but the continuous influence on my way of thinking has been, and continues to be, science. Ultimately I find no case against the notion of this particular quality and method of thinking that we call science as being humanity’s greatest singular achievement, as well as being our best option for overcoming the formidable obstacles that stand between our present status as a species and a more promising possible future.
Spending significant amounts of time as a kid at night with a six inch reflecting telescope in an Ohio backyard affected me deeply and served to open a much bigger perspective on both the substance of my life and the scope of human experience throughout time. My father had a degree in physics and I planned on doing the same, but by the time of college my creative practice already had such momentum that the academic commitment to fine art was inevitable. I had been consistently drawing and painting since age 4, sculpting and working with sound since age 6 and 7 and had begun my visual inquiry into abstract painting at age 14. None of these pursuits have ever ceased and they continue to ignite my thinking and inform my life: visual arts, sound/music, and science.
RB: You have described your work as “an exploration between vision and sound”. What inspired this exploration?
DH: The power of sound has an immediate ability to immerse and influence thinking and emotion while also being inherently abstract and detached from any temporally anchored cultural signifiers. At this point I have been working with the relationship of sound and the visual arts my entire life. My sonic inquiry began after finding my father’s hand held cassette tape recorder at age 7 and immersing myself in the process of recording and listening back to the captured sounds. Two tapes players meant the exciting discovery of overdubbing and a defective dual cassette player that would play two tapes at the same time (wasn’t supposed to) effectively became a primitive mixer and flanger. I started playing with different recording techniques and made homemade tapes that were basically sound collages of textures, timbres, colors, light, rhythm, etc. With technology today these techniques are now effortless, but it was significant at that time, as well as for me as a child to discover and use these elements. Later I learned bass guitar, played in bands, began composing original material and continued devising experimental recording techniques. Simultaneously, I continued painting, drawing, and sculpture. By the time of college, I was consciously trying to make the paintings more like sound and the sound more like paintings. I was also creating sound environments that I would listen to while painting. Decades later, the practices are like two sides of the same coin- or perhaps more like the polarity of a magnet: they attract and repel in an intriguing manner, acting to ignite and spin the motor of invention and creativity.
RB: Can you say something about your working process, particularly in reference to your abstract work?
DH: I find a strong correlation between the quality of thought required to make a painting or sound piece and the synchronous qualitative effect on the experiencing mind. The science is emerging to back this up: our visual and sonic environments can influence us psychologically and even physiologically. As an artist I can speculate that the effects are even more subtle, subliminal, and refined than we can currently measure. I consider how much, if not all, of our visual surroundings have an aesthetic dictated largely by costs and profit margins. I envision a future society that is so efficient that its aesthetics are prescribed by its qualitative impact on our creative thinking and this result considered well worth the effort and costs involved. It would be the difference between standing in a gothic cathedral and a strip mall. I bring this up because I have tried to make the process of my work efficient also in terms of both the outward aspect of the work itself and the effect of making the work on me, the maker.
Twenty or so years ago I was painting in a much different way and realized the limitations of that method would not continue to sustain my creative and intellectual needs. So considering the ongoing interests in science, as well as sound and also consciousness studies (via meditation), I thought about how to combine these elements into a strategy for working that might synthesize my seemingly disparate passions.
I imagined a system for painting that would be efficient, generative, and logical- inspired by the scientific method and yet balancing into the mix an inclusion of that which science has found so slippery: the subjective experience of consciousness.
So I put paint into a squeeze bottle and holding the bottle above the surface very carefully try to make a line with a prescribed or memorized path. It is a very slow and careful technique that requires focus and concentration. Too much coffee and it’s a real mess.
The inherent properties of paint- what it can and cannot do controls the basic architecture of the work manifesting as constructive interference patterns. I began with one or two simple rules and continue to devise and revise a series of rules or algorithms that dictate the pattern, tonality and color of the lines. Sometimes, there is a schematic where zones in the painting say when rules are activated or de activated– this may change the tonality, width, or direction of the lines among other factors.
When I first started this technique it was unplanned and improvised, but now I spend a lot of time drawing because the patterns have become so complicated. Later I found the standing wave and interference patterns of the work to closely resemble the patterns revealed in cymatics, the science of visualizing sound. Also I found the simple rules when repeated would give rise to the emergent properties of complexity theory which I had not planned on- surprising me with secondary and tertiary forms and patterns; rendering me an observer and bystander to my own work; watching something play out beyond my intentions. I was amazed at how generally similar the patterns were – they were never the same and how strikingly similar the structures in the work were to a vast variety of pattern and structures found throughout the natural world, micro and macro.
The painting process itself is very much a performance which can take up to 10-12 hours straight –depending on size of the painting. I play a recorded sound environment that I have composed, performed and recorded to help me concentrate while painting. The painting process is very challenging but despite that I noticed it left me feeling overall more focused afterward, enabling me to make more complicated patterns and increasingly larger scale work. After some research I found that this repetitive process exercises a neural pathway in the brain which is very similar to meditation and can actually change the structure of the brain by increasing the part of the brain which governs learning and memory (hippocampus). It also significantly improves attention, concentration and focus. I found that what is done with the hands imposes order in the brain and the very act of making seems to actually improve the quality of thought. I think of my process as an extension of thinking and an encoding of the quality of thought in paint.
The whole process is geared toward a balance between the perceptual and the conceptual: making an engaging, compelling visual environment while being firmly rooted in the conceptual foundation of the sciences.
RB: In many ways our human brains interpret information through pattern recognition and re-arranging pattern, which is an evolving dynamic process. How does this visual modelling relate to your work?
DH: The best of abstract paintings are, in effect, visual models of seeing and thinking that suggest novel perspectives on our world. They are an extension of a process that is so prevalent and unconscious that it largely eludes our detection. The way the optic nerve is connected to the retina within the eye produces a void in the center of our field of vision. What we actually see with decent resolution is quite small: a slice of vision about the width of our thumb held at arm’s length. The brain then makes assumptions about the missing information and models the rest of the picture from that high resolution slice. We are not even conscious that we are doing this, but we are expert modellers, relentlessly constructing visual models. Even now, when reading these words, this process is occurring.
Visual modelling is an invaluable tool in both perception and how information about our universe can be organized and better understood. Comprehending data in a more complete manner often requires making it visual and abstraction is an ideal language for this purpose. Our sense of sight, despite being mostly modelled by our brains, is in fact extremely sensitive to even the slightest of modulations. This is not surprising when one takes in account neuroanatomists have reported that up to 50% of all neural tissue is devoted directly or indirectly to vision.Abstract painting is a form of visual modelling that can utilize this sensitivity and tune to a higher, usually inaccessible level of resolution and its capacity to communicate a complex array of subtle and nuanced information.
For example, imagine two different painters creating the same painting, say a white X on a red canvas. One is using a very small brush to paint tiny semi-transparent circles of paint on the canvas, building up opacity slowly, taking 5 months to complete the process. The other uses a roller and completes the work in about 5 minutes. They will be essentially the same painting, but while on one level they might share a similar outward appearance, they are intrinsically different on another level because they contain different information.
I like to think of painting in terms of what Richard Dawkins has called DNA: a high fidelity information coding system. We have been able to develop technology and understand DNA (or less than 10%) whereas the data in an abstract painting can currently be extracted only by a human brain that has some training in the practice of seeing.
Pattern is ideal for encoding information and in fact could be thought of as synonymous with information. With my paintings, I think of an analogy of an old school record player with its needle coursing through the vinyl grooves revealing its content slowly. This information encoding in my work exists with slight parameter differentiations within the rules and process of the generating pattern combined with the inconsistencies inherently displayed through the conscious hand. This is the ghost in the machine or that which still separates us from an algorithm and defines us as human.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with engineers within the computational fluid dynamics realm. The idea was to use their custom software to help generate the patterns in my work, which takes an enormous amount of time – drawing after drawing. When it came time for me to describe the rules of my work to an engineer – stripping every component down to the most basic level, it was then that I saw my rules are perhaps not so simple; or that the state of being human, the things we take for granted, are in fact highly complex, unique and powerful. I realized that by relegating this process to software – to a digital algorithm – the work would be void of a vital component that compels me to make and live with the work. I realized that the work is a balancing act in many ways and it is important for me to create a visual environment in which the human element is present in balance with a self-generating system. For me, this creates a particular quality of interest; a kind of sustained, subliminal consideration streaming away just below the surface like an unconscious chess game, engaging both the eye and mind, and searching for the patterns within pattern or as Gregory Bateson called it, the pattern that connects.
RB: How important is symmetry in your artwork?
DH: We experience our world symmetrically and the symmetry in my work has a direct correlation with the bilateral symmetry of the human body. I have wanted to engage the viewer in terms of the basic fields of human perception related to our senses: the binocular visual field of our eyes; the stereo scope of our ears, and the dual tactile range of our hands. In addition, symmetry appears as a basic cornerstone in the structures and patterns throughout the universe, or multiverse. Even theoretically in physics, the Large Hadron Collider may prove supersymmetry (SUSY), a type of spacetime symmetry concerning subatomic particles.
RB: How important is scale in your work in influencing both the conceptual interpretation and the overall experience?
DH: As I talked about with symmetry, the scale is also in direct relation to the human body and its perceptual sensory fields as well as a result of my ability to manage a challenging physical process. For the first years of doing this system of painting, it was so difficult that I could paint no larger the 9” x 12”. I found this acceptable as I appreciate intimate work. But the feedback loop of the process itself as a practice snowballed and slowly increased my ability and range. Now, I can scale up to the five to six-foot range and am currently experimenting with a permutation to the process which, if it succeeds, will allow me to work as large as I wish.
RB: Can you say something about your sound works Borealis and Nightsky?
DH: These are recent sound works that are part of a continuum of sound experiments that stretches back to those sound collages I started making so long ago and mentioned earlier. I make sound works exploring their ability to aid in performing some function. Works like Aitherion and Mirror are beat less, extended drone pieces for prepared bass guitar and guitar played with electric motors and e-bow. Each note is a single hour-plus performance of concentration as the motor or e-bow is held delicately above the string with the natural flux of concentration revealing microtones or harmonics within a single tone. When several tracks are layered and mixed, a tapestry of floating harmonic microtones emerges. These are painting sound works, in that they are played while I am making paintings to create an environment of sonic meditative concentration.
Borealis and Nightsky (www.danielhill.net/nightsky) contain shorter ambient soundscapes that sometimes include low beat per minute percussion. In these works, I am experimenting with calibrating beats per minute ratios to particular cognitive tasks and trying to capture the influences of unique places, and therefore mindsets, into a set of sonic meditations. The influence of place is undeniable, in particular natural places where the mind seems to relax and the quality of thinking deeper and clearer. We are compelled to take pictures of a place; record the sounds of a place; video a place; measure and map a place, but I want to see if the essence of a place and its impact on thought can be preserved, imprinted, and encoded into a sonic weaving of timber, tone, color, texture, and rhythm so that this state of mind evoked by place could be visited any time by just listening.
That place in Nightsky is in reference to looking at the stars and the mental perspectival shift associated with this activity, again extending back to my childhood. Even though I have lived in NYC for 23 years and rarely see the stars, in the summer I go to places where I can. I became entranced with the app Skyview on my phone and began researching stars that I could see and found of interest. Borealis has a theme of the northern woods – another place where I have benefited greatly from walking in, listening to, and thinking. This album will be finished this year. I use these sound works for writing, thinking, problem solving, walking, as well as other aspects of my visual work.
RB: Philosophically there is a debate about pattern as an external phenomenon to be discerned in the world against the idea that humans impose pattern on experience in order to make sense of it. What are your thoughts on this debate?
DH: I think both are valid and useful. Pattern definitely exists outside of our subjective experience as science has proven and we also impose pattern as a means of constructing models for understanding that which we perceive. However, these models are dependent on variables such as our current state of knowledge and technology and are therefore limited and very likely incorrect.
Stephen Hawking, in his book The Grand Design, gives the example of the perspective of a fish from within a curved fishbowl. From the fish’s perspective, the world is distorted due to the curve of the glass, and yet, the fish could construct a model of its reality that would, from its viewpoint, be correct. For a person standing in the room with the fishbowl, however, the fish’s model would be useless. But actually the fish and person’s respective models are both correct in that they reveal a common aspect of truth from each relative position.
So our models built with imposed pattern remain valid and useful until we figure out how to construct a better model. The trick seems to be maintaining an awareness of this likely inevitability, which requires a skill that has occasionally eluded us for painfully long durations of time. For example, I am thinking of Aristarchus of Samos and his heliocentric model and the nearly two-thousand-year duration before any argument against such was finally put to rest by Copernicus and Newton. When considering the fact that many scientists estimate the Earth can sustain a population of no more than 9-10 billion and we are currently at 7 billion and projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, then perhaps Max Planck’s science advancing one funeral at a time might not be quite fast enough.
Of course I enjoy entertaining questions of whether there are any interactions or relationships between the imposed and discerned pattern. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle apparently functions only on the subatomic scale, but does its very existence suggest there could there be other undiscovered interactions perhaps resembling synchrony, phase transitions, or sympathetic resonance? Could consciousness itself have a frequency that is interacting somehow in this vast soup of pattern? If so, how do we observe and record such data? The fact that everything we have ever touched and seen and all the physical objects ever observed and studied by science throughout history and today on Earth and in space, constitute only 4% of matter in the known universe and the rest of the 96% is a complete mystery is at once sobering and exciting, for there is so much more to learn.
RB: Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?
DH: I agree wholeheartedly. Art has become increasingly irrelevant for the majority of the population and to marginalize or eliminate the arts is a mistake that we cannot afford to risk. The union of art and science is a way to rethink art and an experiment well worth investing in for both disciplines as well as for humanity. Famed scientist E.O. Wilson calls this union of art and science consilience and has stated, “The strongest appeal of consilience is in the prospect of intellectual adventure and, given even modest success, the value of understanding the human condition with a higher degree of certainty.”
I think without a doubt the interaction of art and science can expand human knowledge and problem solving beyond what we can presently even imagine. When we look at our past and the great problems we have solved, we can see that we did not solve these problems because we had a sudden influx of intellectual capability. Our intellectual capability has remained largely constant for thousands of years, what did change was our ability to look at problems in new ways. If we are not getting the desired answers to our questions, perhaps it is because we are not asking the right kinds of questions. This is but one example of how art could play an integral role in our understanding by helping to reveal the right questions. The essence of experiencing art brings us out of ourselves and our habitual thought patterns, inviting different perspectives and allowing more novel, innovative questions to emerge. Two hundred years ago the idea of crossing the Atlantic in a metal canister catapulting through the air in just a few hours was incomprehensible. Now, of course, it is a given. What we can gather from this is that our current understanding is likely wrong in some way as well and that our future often can only begin within the depths of our imagination.
In physics, there is a trend to find a single, elegant equation or theory to unify the forces of the universe. If this trend is taken further, we can foresee a future society where our great fields of human learning such as art and science have much less distinct boundaries, greatly enhancing human capacity to comprehend our universe. What we have today is just the smallest hint, a seed, of that possible future society, where traveling across the Atlantic Ocean may be as easy as walking to the next room.
RB: What are your future projects?
Painting: I’ve had paintings in the exhibition Interference at NURTURE art in Brooklyn that just came down and have work in the exhibition Luscious at the Brattleboro Museum until February 6. As mentioned earlier, I am testing a modification to my painting process that would greatly expand the possibilities for the work as far as scale is concerned and am very excited to get going with that. I am also working with harmonic ratios as appears in music theory and vibratory phenomenon in general and figuring out how to incorporate these ratios into the paintings.
Sound: I’m working on a prototype for a site-specific sound installation project that would be an extension of Aitherion where an entire room is strung with piano wire and motors triggered by visitors via motion sensors would create a wave of microtonal chord structures determined by position and number of visitors in the room. The tuning system will have a mathematical relationship to the proportions of the room. Also working on final mixes for Borealis which will be finished this year.
Collaborations: I have a few collaborative projects lined up involving both painting and sound.
Curatorial: I’ve curated an exhibition this past fall exploring an aspect of the art and science connection called Visual Inquiries: Artists Inspired by Science at Pace University where I am an Adjunct Professor of Art. The exhibition may travel.
Workshop: I will be conducting a three-day Art and Science workshop at Lafayette College next month.
Writing: I seem to be perpetually working my book, Possible Futures: Potential Roles of Art and Science in a Future Society.
The materials of all the paintings are the same: acrylic polymer emulsion on paper mounted to panel.
All images copyright and courtesy of Daniel Hill
Soundcloud page: https://soundcloud.com/aitherios
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