Singluar Oscillations: Correspondences (email), 2008
LD: First, could you talk about your two degrees in Aeronautics and Astronautics?
BP: I started MIT thinking I wanted to be a theoretical astrophysicist due to the philosophical implications of that field. I quickly realized though, that I needed more tactile engagement in my work in order to be satisfied. Aeronautics and Astronautics was a way for me to combine my interests in space and material. It mixed scientific concepts with material application, but wasn’t able to satisfy my desire to contemplate and build meaning. Only in my architecture and visual arts studies did I find a space to combine concept/theory, material, and meaning into a “tactile philosophy”. In these disciplines there was less discussion about rules and solutions, and more discussion about one’s interpretation of context, intent, and the implications of one’s process. This opened up the possibility of designing experience and meaning over objects and functionality.
Throughout my undergraduate studies I thought I would go on to get a Masters in Architecture and be an architect, but this changed when I was part of a team that conceived, designed, and built a group of micro satellites. At the end of the course we tested them aboard NASA’s parabolic-flight aircraft, the “Vomit Comet”, which produces 25-second periods of weightlessness and double-gravity. Instead of going to grad school in Architecture I got a Masters of Science in Aeronautics and Astronautics where my research was on advanced spacesuit design, a perfect combination of my interests in space, architecture, and bodily experience.
If there were any major turning points, they were spread out over my time at MIT. The first major influences were art professors like Julia Scher and Krzysztof Wodiczko. Julia exposed me to the idea that art functions in society like a mirror, reflecting the artist’s perspective back to the rest. This was the first time I saw the deep value of a rigorous art practice. Krzysztof, an industrial designer turned artist, took this further by exposing me to the vast implications of design and technical development. After studying with him I could no longer see science and technology as “neutral”.
Many of my thoughts and feelings about science, technology, and society were crystalized in the year I took off between finishing my bachelors and starting my masters. In this year I traveled in Europe, worked as a physical laborer on a construction site, interned at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, and spent the summer as a camp counselor at the camp I attended as a child, whitewater kayaking and camping throughout the southeast. In driving from NASA to summer camp I listened to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a book on tape, which put many words to my experience and questions. Immediately after finishing the tapes I bought the book so that I could underline and take notes, which I did at least twice.
All this is to say that arriving at MIT for my Masters, my head was filled with questions, doubts, and possibilities. Working in the lab I felt I was asked to be only the highly rational, positivist side of myself. In the end this felt too fractured and by the end of my masters I had decided to lift the limitations of science from my practice and pursue my interests in a self-directed way. Art felt like exactly the right context to do this.
LD: Today, much of art abandons the dictates of medium specificity and attempts to intervene into life, which means existing within other disciplines and merging them. It’s clear with works like, Singular Oscillations, Nested Voids, and One Roll of Weightlessness (among others) that you do just this. What is your ‘professional’ relationship to the scientific community? Are you in anyway acknowledged?
BP: I don’t consider myself part of the scientific community any more. I certainly interact with that community for projects, but as your first question hints at, my priorities have shifted away from that arena. I am fortunately conversant in technical/scientific conversations, but it would be wrong of me to currently claim I’m an engineer. I respect the skill of engineers too much for that.
My masters’ research on spacesuit design was continued by other students after I left MIT, and is most likely referenced in current spacesuit design literature, but other than that I leave the publication of the technical aspects of my work in the hands of my technical collaborators. I certainly hope that our collaborations have bearing on the scientific or technical communities, but they are in a stronger position to determine if or how that is the case. I do not gauge the success or failure of my work in those terms.
Speed of Lights, Video still, 2006
LD: Western society (at least a large majority of it) since the 19th century has largely been influenced by a positivist philosophy of sorts. Your work is literally evident of this philosophical system, specifically in your continual investigation of sensory experience. But, rather than undertake the pragmatics of scientific experiment you re-negotiate its utility through play. You briefly presented similar thoughts at the ISDC conference in 2006 and I’m wondering if you could you further extrapolate on these notions of uselessness and pointlessness? How can one navigate the spectrum of use, progress and play?
BP: It’s interesting you connect positivism with sensory experience as I usually think of it in terms of measurement and falsification, which to me feels disconnected from experience. Of course there are many forms of positivism, but my dedication is to experience and unanswerable questions. As I stated before, I am not so interested in producing unfalsifiable statements as I am in probing possibility and belief, raising questions and rich complexity in the process. This feels like the way to open up meaningful exchange and learning. Answers often feel like the ending of a conversation (as we have all experienced with the ubiquitous use of Google searches on mobile platforms while trying to have an exchange with another person).
Perhaps it is due to my background in engineering, but I am weary of utilitarian function and the ideal of “progress”. In the state of play these (and most other) terms have no meaning because there is no self-awareness to bring one to a meta level. This doesn’t mean that play can’t produce something “functional” or “progressive”, but these labels can only be applied after the fact. As summarized by Joseph Beuys, “man [is] a man only in play, and only in play is he free, and, as such, a real man! Therefore art, understood in the sense of play: this is the most radical expression of human freedom.”
In my artist’s statement I consider the relationship between the terms “functional”, “valuable”, and “real”. It seems to me that the globalized world is increasingly pushing these terms to be synonymous. Only those things which are functional are valued (and valuable) and therefore real. The rest is considered frivolous fantasy, without any real bearing on the world. I want to disturb the logic that binds the terms “functional”, “valuable”, and “real”, by creating work that inhabits regions where these terms are not all equated. Is it possible to create something that is either “functional”, “valuable”, or “real” but not the others? How about something that is two of these but not the third? What would these possibilities look like and how would they inhabit the world? Perhaps they couldn’t inhabit this world, but what sort of world would it make if they could?
LD: Game developer and philosopher, Ian Bogost, at the end of his most recent book Alien Phenomenology, proposes that thinkers should not only just ruminate and write, but actually do and make. I feel this is an approach you’ve adopted and actively developed. You even describe your work as ‘ontological research’. What are your thoughts on the field of academia moving in this kind of hybridized direction? What does it mean for you?
BP: I must admit that I am a bit weary of traditional academia because so much energy there seems to be spent on proving one’s correctness and engaging in debate rather than just doing what feels right. It seems to stifle individual expression, which is the most generative element available to us. I turned down the chance to get a PhD because I realized that I do not want to be putting the majority of my energy into theorizing or building rock solid arguments. I want to use my time to realize my visions in the ways that make most sense to me at the time and in that way demonstrate my own model of operating in the world. I try to approach thought systems and the world at large as an open playground. I don’t believe any single tool can access all of reality or experience so why limit myself? For me, the messy, self-contradicting, hybrid methodologies that I engage in seem much closer to reality than any rational argument ever could.
While I have chosen a hybridized direction for myself and value similar attempts of others, I certainly feel the pure investigations of academia have their place and are extremely valuable. My fear, however is that the academic, pseudoscientific value system is laying claim to more and more of our society, asking everything to be known or hypothesized before any action or risk can be taken. I find this extremely dangerous and scary and hope to push back on this trend by pursuing “things that talk” as defined by Lorraine Daston:
“It is precisely the tension between their chimerical composition and their unified gestalt that distinguishes the talkative thing from the speechless sort. Talkative things instantiate novel, previously unthinkable combinations. Their thingness lends vivacity and reality to new constellations of experience that break the old molds. … As in the case of constellations of stars, the trick is to connect the dots into a plausible whole, a thing. Once circumscribed and concretized, the new thing becomes a magnet for intense interest, a paradox incarnate. It is richly evocative; it is eloquent. … Like seeds around which an elaborate crystal can suddenly congeal, things in a supersaturated cultural solution can crystallize ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. These thickenings of significance are one way that things can talk be made to talk.”
The Ten-Pound Seed, 2010
LD: Expensive, precise technological equipment and process allows you to intimately and intricately examine the body in space, emptiness and weightlessness. Similarly, Speed of Lights, a human (you) suspends himself of all ‘rationality’ in a struggle to outrun motion sensitive lighting (or the ‘rationality’ of the machine). What can you say about the role of machines in your practice? About cybernetic theory even?
BP: I sometimes see my education as a curse to my art practice. Having studied at MIT I was exposed to many tools, techniques, and processes which fuel my visions. If we could put a man on the moon in the 60’s (yes, I believe we landed a total of 12 people on the surface and returned them safely to earth), then you can’t tell me that my art proposals aren’t possible (I happen to believe Apollo was an artwork in itself, but that’s another story). Because of my education I know things are possible, but rarely have the funds to do them. Sometimes I think ignorance would be more blissful.
In terms of the role of machines in my practice, I often try to break them. I don’t mean I try to physically destroy them, but I try to turn them in on themselves by subverting the intentions for which they were developed. For example, with the Ellipsoidal Introspective Optic (EIO) I was interested in making a high-precision mirror for my eyes only. The tools needed to realize this were developed in the name of science and objective measure, but I wanted to use them to produce a singular, subjective, undocumentable experience. Not surprisingly this raised tensions with the primary sponsor, the Dutch Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Science builds a community and reaches the masses through objective quantification. In the process the individual, unique, and obscure often get stripped in favor of the common, general, and repeatable. Art, on the other hand, builds a community and touches society through a nearly opposite pathway: through the subjective. Instead of appealing to the notion of “higher truth” as science does, art appeals to deeply human experience. By revealing internal truths/desires art touches the internal truths/desires of others. It is in this context that I think of cybernetics a la Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics and Society, which considers “communication” as the fundamental feedback loop within society. I belive in his perspective, though I prefer a broader notion like “communion” over “communication”.