The Beauty of Complexity: Interview with Steve Miller
ANDREA BLANCH: How long have you been using science in your paintings?
STEVE MILLER: Far too long. I would say, probably, in the early 80s, I started working with science and technology. I think I started out working with computers, probably around 1983, something like that. I came to it because I realized that computers had an implicit visual language, which is coded in our particular moment in time. I knew that if there was going to be a new language system, it was going to be through technology.
ANDREA: Well, let’s talk about the conversation we had the other night regarding who came first.
STEVE: The chicken or the egg?
STEVE: My first show in New York City was in 1980 at Artist Space. In that show, I was a licensed commodities trader, and I had my own firm. I saw what was happening in the art world and could see the discussion going less towards content, and more towards commodity. I thought it was a very interesting moment in time to comment about that. So I set up a commodities trading screen; it was from a company called Radio Data Systems. This stuff is so primitive, before Bloomberg terminals–and I set it up so I could trade commodities in the installation. So, I did a camouflage environment with charts and graphs. I had a painting with a bar of gold in it, and a graph with the price of gold. It was called Murphy’sGolden Rule, and “Murphy’s Golden Rule” is that those who hold the gold make the rules. I thought what would be interesting in terms of the context of the show was to see, overtime, what becomes more valuable. Is it going to be more valuable as a work of art, or is it going to be more valuable for the gold? So, I thought that would be a really great game to play in terms of my own career, and how my work is valued and how art is valued in particular, and in this case, it was sort of a competition, between myself as an artist and the price of gold in relationship to the financial market.
ANDREA: Tell me how you got involved with the pictures to begin with and what the process was, in terms of going there and taking images.
STEVE: The first step towards technology was looking at the technology used to analyze financial markets in relationship to art. I kept exploring areas of technology, and I started to think about the typical art genres: portraiture, still life, landscape, and history painting. Photography was Shanghai’d from science by us artists and amateurs, and the next I thought it would be interesting to use these technologies of x-ray, MRI, blood tests, CAT scans: all the ways we look at ourselves and get identified forensically. There’s a new kind of identity created through these new tools. Then that started me using electron microscopes. I had my blood analyzed under an electron microscope in the south of France. We found pollen spores in my blood, so that became a metaphor that got me thinking of something called Vanitas, which are sort of still-lifes that show your mortality. The message was pretty much, you better be good, because Santa Claus is coming to town.
ANDREA: What did it look like, the Vanitas?
STEVE: It’s the guy looking at his skull; there’s an hourglass on the table, there are wilted flowers, there are musical instruments. All of these things are about the passage of time and mortality, but I wanted to use new technology to reinvent it – so I used electron microscopes to do the self-portrait part. The electron microscope created this idea of abstraction, because when I first showed those images, they weren’t out there in public so much, so they had this form of abstraction and wonder. That led me to Brookhaven National Labs, where I was invited by Kathy Brew with a bunch of artists to see if there’s something interesting at Brookhaven that we could work on. After that trip, I was looking at the two major toys there. One was the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. So that was the segue to CERN. At the time, they were smashing protons to verify the existence of the Quark-Gluon plasma, which is the state of matter in the Big Bang. I did a body of work entitled, Neolithic Quark, got some press, did a catalogue, and that led me to Rockefeller, with Roderick MacKinnon, who also won the noble prize for chemistry in the middle of our working together. So the combination of working with Rod and working with Steven Adler at Brookhaven got me on track to CERN. Through another physicist at Rockefeller, Sebastian White, I got invited to CERN to give a lecture to the theory group. I spent a week receiving the VIP tour of all the experiments. I realized that micro-reality and macroreality had one thing in common: data analytics. Even though I went in thinking of particles of waves, I came out understanding it was about parsing data in order to find the Higgs Boson.
ANDREA: What’s a Higgs Boson?
STEVE: A Higgs Boson is one of the elementary particles of the universe that needed verification. It’s the particle that gives all other particles mass. Not to get too into it, but there’s a Higgs field that permeates the universe. Other particles move through that field and their mass is in relation to their interaction with this field. In order to figure out whether this Higgs field exists or not, they had to go looking for it; they had to observe it by measuring it. When particles collide (two quarks, for example), that collision can be measured as energy – we’re getting into too much science – but there’s an energetic equivalent to mass: E=MC2, right? E, energy, equals mass, and there’s a relationship. Mass, if you could release that mass, times the speed of light squared, that’s how much energy is in a piece of matter. That’s why you can have an atomic bomb. That’s why you can get those Robert Longo images we were talking about. We’re in this era of high science, technology, and data analytics. So, as an artist, I’m completely compelled to follow that trail.
ANDREA: You were one of the first ones to start blazing the trail.
STEVE: I’ve been doing it for a while. What’s amazing is, when I went to Brookhaven, I was the only person who took up the challenge of working there. A bunch of artists were invited there and I met some really cool people—Steven Adler and Nora Volkow. Now Nora’s the head of one of the divisions of NIH. They were just such amazing people, and they were giving me access to these incredible tools. I got to look at a particle accelerator; I got to walk through it, talk to everybody, try to understand what they’re doing. I got to ask, how does it relate to my life, and why is everybody so interested in this area? It was such an incredible opportunity with a journey that began with my first solo show at White Columns. Understanding the data of commodities trading really mirrored the emerging cultural fact. Now, art prices are on the net. So, the data measurement of aesthetics right now is way larger than anybody could possible imagine. The market demands it. In 1975, when I first started out, it was Art Forum, a magazine of art and ideas. There were all of these issues that everyone was worried about. There were people like Walter DeMaria, going out in the desert, and really looking at the non-commodification of the object; really wanting to react to that, and having a non-objective, noncommercial experience. I think of a lot of artists, like Robert Smithson with Spiral Jetty, or in New Jersey where he dumps asphalt down the side of the hill. I think a lot of artists were thinking about that. So I was just taking off on this notion of anti-commodification. The commodities trading thing. It’s materialism. This is gold. This is art. Which is worth more? It’s a dialogue that’s been going on for a long time. Financial analytics led me towards technology, which led me towards medical technology, and that led me to particle physics.
ANDREA: Is there a way to know how that relates to aesthetics? Or how it informs aesthetics?
STEVE: It informs aesthetics now, and I’m not even saying that’s a good thing. I’m just saying it’s a reality. Deal with it. The world is changing; we have all this technology. My favorite quote was a Richard Prince quote from an interview where he says: “if you’re not on the gram’,” meaning Instagram, “you’re either in deep shit, quicksand, or riding around in a covered wagon.”
STEVE: That’s basically where we’re at. It’s really hard to keep up with technology. With a team, I am creating another kind of data analytics for the galleries – I just had to go there. It’s not what I envisioned; it’s just that the information is leading me to explore different aspects of art.
ANDREA: Yet, with your pictures of CERN, you still use your silkscreen technique. You brought another element, a more traditional element, into it.
STEVE: Well, there’s nothing more beautiful than graffiti on a chalkboard. What’s so interesting about the CERN stuff, is that the chalkboard actually means something. Not that an abstract gesture does not have content or meaning, because it does. It has meaning about the human endeavor: the action and activity is important, but this is a different kind of activity. They’re looking for a unified theory of the universe, and that’s wild. They’re looking for it in the more succinct forms. I mean one version, E=MC2, doesn’t account for everything, but it’s the shortest mathematical formula that accounts for the most amount of information. So when you’re going around CERN, you’re looking at all these chalkboards, and you’re talking to these guys, and you gain an idea of what they’re looking for, how they’re thinking. That these equations, they’re sketchpads, they’re notations, really formulas for understanding the Cosmos. That’s very compelling content. Even if you don’t understand this as a viewer, you know that it has a deeper meaning. What I did was photograph the chalkboards, and then I highly contrasted them, so they only have the line. Then I would silkscreen the chalkboard on top of the images of the experiments. It seems to me it gave another layer of meaning, because the problem with imaging science is putting together beauty and complexity. Nobody’s going to understand the science; even the physicists don’t understand half of it. I mean one of Richard Feynman’s favorite quotes is, “Nobody understands quantum mechanics,” because it’s based on the uncertainty principle and probability; it’s not based on logic.
ANDREA: I mean, everywhere, people are suddenly putting art and science together. I would think it’s because of technology, the data analytics, how we live now. The everyday person – like myself – is becoming more aware, so there’s more interest in this.
STEVE: Right. The front page of The New York Times, on July 4th 2012, featured the Higgs Boson. Then you see a recent front page of the Times: it is gravitational waves. Something monumental and important is taking place. Previous to last week, we were looking through the universe only through light, through telescopes. With light waves, Einstein was trying to figure out that it takes eight minutes for the light of the sun to reach the earth, so how long does it take for gravity to travel the same distance? Is gravity something transmitted? I mean, is it just there? And he figures, ok, there are light waves. The speed limit of the universe is the speed of light. Einstein proposed that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. So, there’s also gravity between the Earth and the Sun. Does it take eight minutes for the gravity to get from the Sun to the Earth? So if the Sun blew up, will the Earth stay in orbit for eight minutes before it wanders off into the universe?
ANDREA: So, why is gravity equivalent to the speed of light?
STEVE: It’s a scientific proposition. If gravity is a wave – if forces move through waves – then how fast does gravity move? Einstein thinks that gravity moves at the speed of light. Now, two sensors have detected that gravitational waves exist. I can explain the experiment, but we’ve gotten way off topic here. What they’ve done is they’ve measured what they think is an event that happened a billion years ago, which is when two black holes collide, and they created a huge gravitational ripple through the fabric of space-time. That ripple is in the form of waves that travel at the speed of light, and they reached Earth in September. So the whole reason I’m talking about this, is now we have a whole other way of looking at the universe, which is through nonvisible means, which is gravity. No one can see it, but now we’re starting to measure it, which opens up a whole new door. We have the possibility to measure dark matter and dark energy, which composes 95% of the universe.
ANDREA: How do you think that will inform people more? How are people going to relate to this: not being able to see a visual?
STEVE: The pulse of the laser, in the detector, made a sound when the force of the gravitational wave pushed the laser out of phase.
ANDREA: For your generation, you’re unusual. I could see the younger generation dealing with these things.
STEVE: Maybe so, but for the next generation, what’s the implication of space-time? What’s the implication of dark energy? There’s data now that’s being generated by the nonvisible universe. How interesting it is to make art out of the nonvisible universe. If I don’t do it, somebody else will. I think it’s really important to communicate visually, and the reason I like the layering of the imagery, is to create that complexity and that layering; because it’s a very layered and complex experience. So, I think the visual component needs to reflect that intuitively. How are people going to represent the rest of the 95% rest of the Cosmos? I think this notion that science and technology opens new worlds, just like in the interview with Marvin Heiferman. We’re talking about how science invents photography, and how photography changes the whole freaking world. It’s a completely different world because of technology. Now, technology and the Internet have created a new set of relationships. It’s changed the social fabric of promotion: advertising, dating. Part of art world judgment, part of it, is based on people’s statistics; their measure of financial value: of likes, of popularity. Data and technology are invading the traditional and classic set of criteria. There is a shift and now there’s another thing going on: a major, huge development in science. With the search for the Higgs, we’re involved with 5% of the visual universe, and now we have 95% of the invisible universe that’s coming into view. That’s amazing.