How do you perceive the world around you? Your senses provide information for you to process, and in perfect conditions it’s a pretty easy task. But often you are in a situation in which you may only have a split second, where it’s too bright or too dark, when you aren’t wearing your glasses, where you may be too near or too far, where sound or smell or touch may not be providing optimal input. It’s in these moments that artist Jim Campbell provides us with scenes and images with too little or too much information, leaving our minds to use what they can and create a personal interpretation around the gaps.
We’ve followed Campbell’s work for many years and are always intrigued by his use of technology (he codes all of his own work and has worked in and out of Silicon Valley for 25 years) and light to create works of all sizes—from intimate pieces to large-scale public art. Very large, in fact—he’s currently working on a 360º work that will appear on the top six stories of San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower, which will be the tallest building on the West Coast. We spoke with Campbell to learn more about his art and practice, and how by reducing inputs, he provides us with the opportunity to make encounters with his work our own unique experiences.
“For the last 17 years now, they all started out as experiments,” Campbell explains to us about his art. “They still do, or I should say, most of the interesting ones still do. These are experiments in perception, vision, memory and how we use our imagination to fill in what’s not there.” As Campbell began to work, he became preoccupied with what he refers to as many small, personal revelations. One of those things, he makes clear, is “when there is a small amount of information in an image that you’re trying to understand, how important movement is there.” He calls this primal perception, where viewers ignore analytical parts to take in stimulus. “It’s more like feeling an image than seeing an image,” he says.
With a concept like this in tow, Campbell then pairs with technology. “I don’t do high-tech stuff with my art—or I haven’t since I’ve pursued low-resolution works,” he says. “For some of the pieces, it’s really just blinking lights on and off. What’s changed in the technology, with regard to what I do, is the quality of light and consistency of light and being able to use full color LEDs. It’s just about light.” Campbell attributes this advancement to LED use in home lighting and an industry evolving around it. He is also quick to make clear that these advancements have not inspired him but enabled certain visions—and enabled him to pare back further.
Equipped with this technology Campbell moves on to presentation first and predominantly;. this is a further tale of reduction. “My first LED light works were in 2000,” he says. “It wasn’t until two years later that I began to address motion and rest” or elements of content. “This was the first time that form and content came together, because it was the right merger of form and content. If I can do what I want to do in video, I should. The works that I want to do in this medium, there should be no other way to do them.” For LED works, he isolates movement and gets rid of everything else about a person. “I subtract their gender, clothing, age, etc.” It’s all irrelevant to those works. He alludes to peripheral vision. He likes to think about “how images are taken in peripherally,” and his LED works reference this when looking at them straight on—it isn’t that much different than seeing them with your peripheral vision.
The works that I want to do in this medium, there should be no other way to do them
“I realized that the more information that is part of an image, the more the image becomes an important part of the work and that’s not what I am looking for. I am interested in the perceptual process.” Campbell believes the more one reduces the visuals and moves work to a simpler place the more viewers will be interested. “I can’t imagine people getting sick of reduced work because it is never fully given to them,” he says, referencing one of his most powerful and reductionist pieces, “Last Day in the Beginning of March.” He refers to the work as a visual poem about the last day of his brother’s life. It manifests as 25 spotlights pointing at the ground in a pitch black room, each light going at its own rhythm. In some ways it is a symphony of the rhythm of light. Each light has a phrase that viewers can read, just a few words of the artist’s memories of moments he shared with his brother—”Windshield Wipers,” “The Trailer (refrigerator noise)”—that inform the lights behavior.
“Experiments in Touching Color” and “Color by Number” also feature reductionist themes. They are vivid, alive and powerful. They do convey this by paring back and toying with the unseen, employing the imagination of the viewer in an active way. And when thinking about public works that people will regularly interact with over a longer period of time, finding the balance of enough, but not too much, information is a constant struggle. It’s Campbell’s tension with information, primal perception, and use of technology to help mediate the two that consistently inspire us.
Images courtesy of Jim Campbell