Interview: Bruce Cannon
by Richard Whittaker, Jun 1, 1998
I met with Bruce Cannon in his studio. The question of the artist’s responsibility to act for society’s benefit had just come up.
Bruce Cannon: I don’t think I have come to terms with that in the healthiest way. The more success I have as an artist the better I feel about making art instead of doing other things, because I am getting something done. If you start with my fundamental assumption—which is that art is pretty much inadequate for directly addressing the needs of society— it wouldn’t follow that being more successful as an artist would make me feel better about that issue, but for some reason, it does.
Richard Whittaker: In terms of postmodern critical theory, I suppose you can’t trust your own intention much. What do you think of that point of view?
Cannon: I buy into a lot of that sensibility… the postmodernist, deconstructionist, kind of shtick. I wouldn’t want to take the artist’s statement at face value. I would have to assume that the artist doesn’t fully understand his or her position in the world enough to know how his perceptions are shaped by his place in the world. As a critic I would want to hear what the artist had to say and filter that through my own perceptions of the work and of the artist, in context, and try to come up with what I think is going on. But why one would want to toss out the artist’s point of view, entirely, I have no idea.
I just think it would be a mistake to take what the artist says at face value. I don’t read much theory. The problem with that kind of writing is that the egos of the writers overwhelm everything else they’re trying to talk about. When they wax eloquent about a particular subject with broad sociological ramifications you often don’t hear much other than their need to be heard.
Nevertheless, in the broadest, most abstract sort of way, I think criticism is valuable. I appreciate an informed eye on an artist’s work. I have to say that I am getting less egalitarian as I go on. I started out being really up in arms about that issue. As I’ve come to realize there aren’t that many people actually listening anyway I’ve come more around to the point of view of the critic, because they’re my peers. On an intellectual level, they may be my only audience.
RW: Although your art will have an impact on even an uninformed audience it may help if the viewer brings something to it in terms of an artworld context.
Cannon: That’s where you need the informed audience. Those are the only people who bring the vocabulary, who speak the language.
RW: One sees that over the years something is gathered and now I bring it with me. If I go back far enough I can see where it was absent.
Cannon: Me too, actually. I know more and more about my own work, and I've learned more about art, in general. But I’ve learned enough to realize I really don’t know as much as I thought I did. I’m really not a very well informed viewer. But as I progress, I feel I do become a more informed art maker. I used to be Allan Rath’s studio assistant and we would have a lot of conversations about these kinds of things; he’s willing to think about stuff like this a lot, too. You know, he’s a well established, successful artist, yet he doesn’t concern himself that much about other people’s art, either.
RW: It makes me think of Wittgenstein. I gather he was not a student of philosophy, so to speak. As far as he was concerned, the thinking of other philosophers was not needed for his own work. I gather his thinking went something like this: I'm as immersed in this world as anyone else. It contains all the elements we need to come to grips with, and my ability to struggle with, and to think clearly about these elements, has nothing to do with knowing what Kant thought, for instance.
Cannon: I wish I’d said that! That’s how I feel as well. But it opens a can of worms. I’ve definitely mulled this over, because I originally came at art-making from a populist point of view with a strongly anti-elitist stance.
The can of worms that it opens for me is that while I want to think that it’s a valid point that everybody experiences life and struggles with it, still you have to bring in an individual’s ability to articulate their struggles in a way that other people can understand. I find describing work problematic because it unnaturally reduces and restricts it. And similarly I find the critical dialogue and discourse problematic. If you think too much about the art world you begin to unconsciously steer your work as you get wrapped up in what the art world wants. You lose sight of what I interpret Wittgenstein’s point of view to be, that he, as a human being fundamentally - aside from the currently fashionable discourse - is simply struggling with the things he's struggling with.
I guess I have come into a more elitist position as I go along because I realize that the whole thing is a language. And there isn’t any deep and fundamental voice for art as the romantic notion had it, you know - that you could tap into this universal wellspring of truth and beauty and meaning and all that. That’s just not there. At least now it’s not. That’s what I believe. I’m real interested in - what do they call it when you’re driving along and you see a sixty-foot Madonna made out of hubcaps?
RW: Folk-art, outsider art, naive art, I guess.
Cannon: All those things, yes. A few years ago it was real fashionable to be interested in the unschooled, untutored whacko, out in the middle of nowhere, just driven to do this thing. I don’t want to say they have nothing to contribute to the discourse, but in order to believe that they are talking to us, here in the art world, you have to believe there's this universal language of meaning that anyone can play if they choose, and that we’re all born knowing it. I’m just not sure I believe it anymore.
RW: What is it then, that this discourse is about? This informed discourse taking place in the art-world?
Cannon: There are lots of discourses. The one I'm interested in is the one that attempts to dissect and analyze and separate culture from nature. What does society do to us? It’s the Postmodern discourse that interests me, if that makes any sense. Baudrillard - my take on his take, which is a pretty big filter in itself. What I relate to is Baudrillard’s famous essay, The Precession of the Simulacra. The linchpin of that essay was the idea of the map being greater than the territory. He wrote about the fable of a king who wanted a map of his kingdom more detailed than a map had ever been. The map makers kept having to increase the size of the map to include more and more details until the map finally was bigger than the entire kingdom and actually covered it up. All that remained was the map.
Baudrillard embellished that fable to talk about what he saw happening during the Reagan era, where there was nostalgia for a better time that really never had been, and how that got injected into the mass consciousness. It was what he called "the endless whirligig of self-reference."
The "precession of the simulacra" means that the simulacra, the model, the ghost, the simulation is the thing upon which we base our notion of reality. If we learn about reality from the picture, what we’ve really done is learn about the picture. But then we call that reality, and we teach that "reality" to our children. They learn about "reality" from our picture of that picture. And then eventually you get far enough away that nobody even conceives of real reality anymore. Do you follow me? And I use the term "Postmodern" to refer to that, to disassociated signs and everything kind of swimming around in this whirlwind of equally valued signs and referents and objects.
In this soup it gets harder and harder to distinguish between the thing we’re talking about, and the talking about the thing.
What does that have to do with discourse? Well, what interests me in art is talking about that effect in society, talking about how society is loosening us from our moorings. And how we are losing sight of what it means to be real. Take the fundamental experience of walking in the woods— the culture is losing sight of that reality, because many of us learned what walking in the woods was about through television. I think that is really interesting; fascinating in a sick sort of way. And this is what I think is going on in society. Technological consumer culture is sort of mixing everything up.
RW: That’s well put. Your description of the disembodiment of it all. And "the endless whirligig of self-reference" was that the term?
Cannon: The "discourse" of postmodernism not only describes, but contributes to, a sick phenomenon of this culture, a problematic one. That is, that the Postmodern view is presented to the next generation—yet children, who affect this ironic distance—do not understand it, as such. If you look at MTV you’ll see lots of evidence of this "Postmodern stance." However, it’s become so much a fundamental cultural environment for children that they’re not aware it’s the Postmodern stance.
RW: When you say "children" what ages do you refer to?
Cannon: Anyone who’s old enough to emulate culture. If you’re a kid now, it’s when you are old enough to wear pants that are ten sizes too big. By the time you are old enough to be aping something you don’t understand you’re aping. I think it’s a real problem if you’re mimicking post-modern irony but not really understanding what that’s about, not using it as a tool. There’s no there, there.
RW: I follow you. And along with that I believe that a lot of what appears on the movie screen or television that may be meant as satiric is actually received quite differently—often not as ironic, but instead, as fashionable.
Cannon: The one thing I am sure of is that there is cause and effect. The one pin-pointable problem I see is the divorcing of cause and effect. That is the one tangible thing I would like to rail against.
RW: Can you say a little more about that?
Cannon: Well, one of the by-products of that culture we’ve just been talking about is that one can lose sight of the thread between cause and effect, which brings about a loss of self-determination and responsibility and will.
RW: How can you have a morality in a world where there’s no understanding that there are consequences to my actions, in other words?
Cannon: And, "what happened to me, bad or good, happened because someone else did it." If this culture is going down-hill—and I’ve come down on that side, in general—if that’s the case, then from a truly post-modern perspective, it’s just happening. And nobody is taking responsibility for the deterioration of the environment; no one is taking responsibility for the changes in culture and the way technology and products are produced and disseminated in the culture. It’s just "happening" to us. It’s harder and harder to find the guilty party. "That’s just the way it is." And it’s just such a pathetically passive, victim-speak kind of thing.
I just hate that, and I have an interest in trying to talk about that in my work. I really have a love-hate relationship with technology. It’s getting so complicated it’s hard to talk about: technology, culture, and people are so woven together now you can’t tell which is cause and which is effect.
That’s a real problem, because you can’t figure out who to blame. That means you can’t figure out where to make changes. And so you can’t figure out how to make anything better. Do you at all follow what I mean?
Cannon: With that whirligig of self-reference there won’t be anybody left after a couple of generations to take responsibility, because there won’t be any place where you can stand and say this is the way it should be. This is right, this is wrong. It will all just be dissolved. The only thing that will be left is—this is a product, and this isn’t.
RW: I want to go directly from that to your piece, "Patronage". It seems to be tied up with this.
Cannon: Your mention of that made me realize a couple of things going on in some other pieces. I’ll come to "Patronage" in a minute. That piece, "Ball and Chain," remember that piece?
RW: Is that the one that has 9985 days to live?
Cannon: Right. An electronic display "I have five thousand, four hundred and something days to live"; it’s counting down, each day. Also, there is a mechanical counter which increments each day. At the end of the system’s life, it’s mechanical counter will read 5400, and the electronic display will reach zero and then stop. So, then, what is it when it’s done? Is it still a sculpture? Does it still have value? Is it still marketable? Is it a commodity? Is it still useful?
RW: Because only for those years it will be registering its life-span?
Cannon: It’s only going to do what it does now for fifteen years. Making a piece that does that was a way of forcing someone to engage in the issue of where you site value. What is the thing that is valuable? Is it less valuable because it stops having that behavior in fifteen years? If so, why? Is it because it loses resale value? Is that what value means? Or, is it less valuable because it’s not alive anymore? Or has it just entered another phase of its existence as a long term conceptual project? A person buying that piece has to ask, "Am I buying a piece that only lasts for fifteen years?" You know what I think about that, right?
RW: What do you think?
Cannon: I don’t think the work’s value lies in its marketability. I believe that the experience of that piece extends beyond the first phase of it’s existence. And further, I believe the first part of its life doesn’t have value without the second part of its life. If it doesn’t stop, then its living doesn’t mean much. Because of that, it still means something after it stops. And what interests me also is a typical collector’s—and allow me to make that gross generalization—what interests me is a typical collector’s concerns with value. I have problems with the definition of every experience based on a market value, the commodification of experience. That’s why I also made "Patronage," a subscription sculpture. It was an even more effective way to poke that particular hot button.
RW: What is it that’s truly valuable?
Cannon: Are you asking me that, or is that rhetorical?
RW: Yes, I’m asking if you’d like to say something about what is more truly valuable.
Cannon: In the most succinct way, and at the risk of being too reduced, it’s anything that’s not about money. Money is also interesting, and the way we relate to money. But, I think it’s important to look at the way we’re taught to replace all values with economic value, and how that is taking place. The entire language of the conversation is slowly being replaced by a language of commerce, of capital and economics. It’s slowly getting to the point where it really is a consumer culture. More and more, we are becoming people who are created for consumption. Every generation it seems like we’re better and better consumers. We care more and more about aspects of commodities and less and less about other things. It’s not just that one value is being replaced by another, the whole dialogue is slowly being replaced by another dialogue that excludes everything except commerce. What is value, is your question. And anything that doesn’t have economic value is what I mean when I say value. It’s what I care about.
RW: I can’t help but think of the Biblical injunction, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s." There’s a whole world of living that is potentially wonderful. But what happens when all the positive life experiences are used to sell product. Take the happy youths romping on the beach. Have a Pepsi! If you see what I mean.
Cannon: That makes me think of another way to get at what I’m talking about. It’s not like we’re just obsessed with the buck. I think it’s more insidious than that. We not only replace all aspects of our life with systems that are really about the buck, but most importantly, we also lose sight of the fact that that’s what they are about.
Using the example you gave of the Pepsi commercial—you have the association of nature and Pepsi which you see as problematic, and what I find problematic is what I think is really being communicated: "Have a Pepsi, instead of running on the beach."
There’s this "green" pressure in the culture these days, but I don’t think it’s authentic. I think it’s just a marketing thing. We all feel this "green" thing: Earth Day, recycle the paper, and so on. I mean, look at this bottle here: (holding up a bottle, he reads the label) "This is an envirokind bottle, made from 50% recycled milk-bottles. But what’s in the bottle.(Looking to see) Is it insecticide, weed-killer, or fungicide? Imagine the irony of having a 50% recycled milk bottle full of fungicide! Or weed-killer, or insecticide. Isn’t that bizarre? So, all that is really required of us is that we use 50% recycled fibers, to hold weed-killer.
All that’s required of us from this green pressure may just be that we participate in the marketing thing. Nobody is asking us to be green. All they are asking is for us to be green(trademark), green(copyright).
So, as far as the Pepsi ad goes, I think that a person’s perceived pressure to participate in the green movement is alleviated by drinking a Pepsi. That’s how the whole machine works. "I’m satisfied that I did the right thing because I bought Pepsi." But the person I’m thinking about probably hasn’t even seen a beach, except on t-v.
RW: That whole question of television is a big one. I was listening to an interview on NPR. A journalist had gone to Berlin to talk to people about the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. When he asked people who were over thirty what they thought about this, they said, "I was so amazed I had to go see it with my own eyes." The younger people he talked to said, "Yes, I saw it, but it didn’t seem real somehow. But when I saw it on television, then I knew it was real." This really is virtual reality.
Cannon: That’s creepy.
RW: Television as the modality of the real. Computers next.
Cannon: I think it totally fits. I think the fundamental mistake is the establishment of the profit motive as the most important mechanism in society.
RW: This is where I wonder if the arts—and I think I share with you the sense that high art really hasn’t much impact—but the thing is, what is it that can give people any sense of, any ability in themselves to truly value those non-money based things, non-material things?
Cannon: What could allow people to do that? Only the ability to see the value in those things. And we’re raising people without that ability. You know, they take inner city kids out into nature, and the results are so devastatingly unsatisfactory because they don’t have the grounding to appreciate it. They don’t know what the big deal is. And see, there’s no solution to that. Because once you’ve eliminated access to the real, access to nature, then there is no way that anyone can learn the value of the real. Once it’s gone…and I keep coming back to Baudrillard, even though he may be considered the David Letterman of the cultural critics, I think what he says is, once it’s gone, you’re left out there spinning around.
RW: Well, to bring to bear another thing, and speaking of the real, we all have these bodies here. Although it seems to me we’re pretty much disconnected from them. If television promotes that aspect of us that keeps us in our heads, in an inside-whirligig, if you will, we just become disembodied heads.
Cannon: That makes me wonder about the fitness phenomenon. It seems like people obsessed with fitness aren’t any more "in" their bodies than anybody else. They’re still in their heads. It’s really not about their body.
RW: It’s almost like a product, isn’t it?
Cannon: Yes. But, I feel like I’m as out of touch with my body as the next person, so I don’t have any answers to that.
RW: But I do suggest that our bodies are avenues to the real. They are little pieces of nature, and they’re right here. We may not have a very good relationship with our bodies… and well, first of all, I suppose one has to recognize this as a problem. I mean, we’re not going to find our way out by accident.
Cannon: Yes. And how do you have enough perspective to see that? That’s the hard part.
RW: It gets back…well, we haven’t used this word, we haven’t talked about consciousness, that there is such a thing as becoming more conscious. Though perhaps it’s a curse, since likely one could become a lot more dissatisfied as one becomes more aware.
Cannon: I know. I’ve had that argument with a lot of friends. And, really, I just want to reject that. All the very intelligent, miserable people I know believe they are miserable because they are more intelligent, and that people who are happier are less intelligent than they are. And I reject that idea, outright. I just don’t think that’s true.
RW: Well, I throw my lot in with those who wish for consciousness. I don’t see any other thing that looks very good. And, I think that many artists have a sensibility that... I don’t know how to put it, is headed in that direction.
Cannon: My own particular bias is that most artists don’t. This is just my own personal peeve, or my own take. I think most artists are as shallow as the next person, and that an association placed on the artist as seer is very unfortunate. Because I think most artists are nothing more than exceptionally self-centered people. That’s been my experience. While we’ve been talking about my criticisms of the public not being there, not really being concerned with the discourse, I don’t think most artists are really there either. I don’t think more artists care about these things than other people.
In my experience with artists the only thing I know to be consistently true is that they are incredibly self-centered. Some manifest that self-centeredness in caring about, deeply caring about, how to most accurately articulate how they feel about the world. And others just deeply care about the art of expressing themselves to the world— "I care about what I have to say because I care about me, because I’m me. And everyone should care, damnit! Because, I’m me!" It’s unfortunate that artists are told that what they have to say is so important.
RW: Well, I have some other thoughts along those lines, but at the same time, I think there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying, too. When I first came to San Francisco in 1966 I was ambitious to be a poet. I was 23, recently out of college, and somehow I got to be in charge of a little poetry space in the bottom of a church in the Haight-Ashbury district. Every Thursday evening there was an open reading. People had to sign up with me and I’d introduce them and so on. I got pretty sick of it in a hurry because of the poets’ endless bitching and complaining, often in self-aggrandized ways. But every now and then someone would appear who would be a welcome relief. In those days, trying to read my own work at other places, I ran into incredible fighting and selfishness about the time in front of the microphone, and I concluded that poets are self-centered. I wasn’t ready for that, and it shocked me.
Cannon: What’s the difference? Poets and artists.
RW: Yes. But, what I’ve found lately, and maybe it’s because I’m older, …I just seem to run into a lot of awfully nice people who are artists. And they don’t seem self-centered in the way you’ve described.
Cannon: Maybe your personal filtering mechanism skews your sample in a way you’re not aware of: you only interview the people you find interesting. You could be perceiving artists as pretty nice people even though you’re only talking to a sliver this big (thumb and fore-finger held up).
RW: That may be true. However, I do accept the idea that artists tend to be grappling with something. I remember hearing a writer express the opinion that artists were all trying to reconcile some kind of childhood suffering.
Cannon: You know, we all are, but who made the mistake of telling artists that they deserved special attention. That their wounds deserved special attention? That’s my beef. I mean, the average person on the street is most likely walking wounded. Most people are pretty screwed up. But I have more respect for them because they’re not under the impression that their wounds are special, are stigmata.
RW: That’s a fact and something to remember. But maybe part of the reason people may think that artists are special is because a few of them really are.
Cannon: But you’re talking to a real philistine here. I don’t know that much about art, or writing, or painting, and what little exposure I have to the canon of great art is that it’s just that, a canon. I have this sort of emperor’s new clothes feeling about most of the arts. I have the sneaking suspicion that there was somebody better than Fitzgerald. His book was published, so he’s a great writer, you know?
I have a feeling that what goes down through history is just a tiny fraction of the important work that was really there. It was just fate, or commerce, or who knows what that made us deify whoever it was. A critical mass of people say Picasso is great. People who want to be told what to think begin to repeat that. And it begins to cycle through the culture until it finally becomes true. At that point, it’s been a long time since anybody’s asked, but is this really true? It doesn’t take long for peer pressure to make it difficult to ask that question. We don’t want the derision to rain down on us.
RW: I understand your point and ask the same question. But instead of trying to figure that out in the large view let’s get back to your own creative process. We talked earlier about it and I know you have mixed feelings about the aesthetic questions of how a piece appears.
Cannon: I have to first explain that in the past I’ve made work that’s as aesthetically neutral as possible. Some of the speech pieces I’ve done, machines that speak using computers, have been attempts to create, to embody, a sense of personality and manifest it in a little machine. I wanted to create a perfectly neutral object so that the personality was the sculpture, not the object. And so I attempted to make things that were as aesthetically neutral as possible, a black box, that spoke to passersby, for instance. It was a failure. I couldn’t get anyone to look at that as art unless I used a visual aesthetic.
I had to make the things visually engaging in a more traditional way in order to get people to consider what I’m interested in. And so, when I say I’m suspicious of the formal aesthetic I mean I am conscious of the fact that one of the major reasons I’m engaging more with formal issues is because I have to in order to get the people to look at the work.
This whole body of work in the show you just saw looks very different from my older work. It’s more pleasing and more complex, visually. That’s because I just wasn’t having any luck in getting people to look at the earlier work. So, I figured I had two choices. I could continue to rail against that, or I could hope that by adding this other element it would give people a doorway to see what I am really concerned with.
RW: If you could get people to focus on the element that really concerns you, what would they be focusing on?
Cannon: The ideas that are behind those pieces.
RW: Let’s look at those two wall pieces, for instance. They both say things as you get closer. Ten things for ten specific distances. One starts with "aware" then, as you get closer, it says "cautious" "nervous", "panicked" and so on, until, finally, "hysterical".
The other says more and more positive things as you approach, "You’re sensitive,", "I love you" and so on until at the very closest it says, "I want to kill you." It seems to me that those two pieces have some similarity of concerns. So, if people were paying attention to what really interests you in those two pieces what would they be paying attention to?
Cannon: They would be paying attention to the aspects of personality that those pieces are thumbnail sketches for. The silver one that says "panicked", "nervous" etc. is a very simple machine, but to me that simplicity and redundancy is typical of a certain kind of person, and a certain sort of behavior in a person. In that way it’s an accurate model of that kind of behavior. While it’s too reductive to really be like a person, it still does really seem like an aspect of a certain kind of person. What I wanted to talk about was that inflexible, programmatic kind of behavior, so a machine is a totally appropriate medium for that.
RW: What do you think made you want that piece to be out there?
Cannon: I don’t really know except that "one writes what one knows." I spend a lot of time being aware of my own emotional state and being aware of that of others, and thinking about the way we react to each other and that sort of dance we do together.
My own struggle is to be self-actualized and to come to terms with my neuroses and fears. That sort of dance between trusting and not trusting. That’s how I define my whole life, apart from the art career, and so on. In general, the process of my life is about that going forward and then backing away; two steps forward, one step back.
RW: The question of closeness and distance and how that relates to questions of trust…
Cannon: Yes, absolutely. The machine always says the same word at the same distance. It always says "concerned" at a certain distance. It always says "panicked" then, "hysterical" at the closest distance. I get pleasure from making a simple machine that in many ways is nothing like a person, but is also, paradoxically, like a person. I get pleasure because it not only illustrates how the machine is limited but also how we have limited ourselves. I don’t think you’ve seen another piece I did. Physically, it’s an ammo box, a little metal box with a handle on the top. It has body-heat sensors on it and so it senses your presence. When you come near it, it says, "I love you." It’s a little box out in the middle of the floor. It says, "You’re the best. You’re special." And things like, "I need a hug." It tries to get you to pick it up. And it has a switch underneath it so the instant you pick it up, it begins to shriek at you.. "You make me sick. I hate you. Put me down. You’re filthy." And, the instant you put it down it goes back to, "I love you. You’re the best. You’re special, and so on." That’s all it does. It’s called "Oscillator."
It was a portrait of an old girl-friend, a sort of after-the-break-up kind of thing, just a childish and spiteful thing, but it’s also successful for me because her behavior really was that predictable. That 180 degree reversal was totally determinate. In that way, that human being was very mechanical. I just think that’s interesting.
RW: That is interesting. I was thinking about your piece called "Trajectory." It’s unlike your other work, earlier, I think you said. What you’ve done with that piece, an old can, is to bring to life part of its past. It probably got thrown away and then, eventually, people shot holes through it. Maybe over months, or years. And now, with these rods placed through the holes the same caliber as the bullets that pierced it, it brings all that back. But it also opens up questions of what people do with their anger, their hostility, and what about guns, and so on? It’s really pretty evocative and addresses some big questions.
Cannon: You understood what I was trying to do with that. I like that piece but it’s hard to get other people to accept it because it doesn’t plug in, it doesn’t talk, or move. And it’s hard for them to make the leap. But to me, it talks about the same things the other pieces do, but does it without having to resort to those other techniques, such as interactivity, which are themselves so loaded down with connotations and their own kind of baggage. For me it was a very succinct way of illuminating the past experience of that object, and the violence, and sort of freezing its history of violence without needing to resort to anything more literal. And I liked that. It was also a materials study. On a formal level it was a real pleasure to make that piece. But, you’re probably the only person who’s ever looked at it who realized it’s about violence.
RW: In a way it seems you’re concerned with the threats to life.
Cannon: I think so.
RW: Well, you’ve got a number of pieces that have life spans. In a way, you’ve brought things to life that will only live for awhile. And the violence acted out on this can takes on its meaning in relation to life. Then, there is the piece about dissection. A very evocative and disturbing piece. And the piece in the barrel that, over a period of time, sort of comes to life. I find your work addressing very big issues around our life today. Our existence.
RW: So, I haven’t really asked you to speak about this work in a big, philosophical way but it seems to me you address fundamental questions.
Cannon: I guess I am interested in those issues on a human level but my motivation is…it might not be clear from the work. I am strongly motivated by my concern for animal welfare. I don’t know if that comes across in the work at all. But I think of those pieces as attempts to create entities, little sentiences in boxes.
The box where you open the lid, or the cask, these are attempts at sketching a sense of life in a small space. And that scale, the intimacy of that, to me, is like a small animal. It’s obviously not smart or complex but it has a sense of life. And my goal is to make people empathize, to identify with it as being alive. Because I think that the way we treat the rest of the environment, animals, and other aspects of the natural environment, is because we can’t empathize. We don’t have any empathy. We don’t know how to empathize.
While I’m trying to get people to empathize with the speech pieces as if they were human beings, I also try to have a sense of there being less than a human there, too. Because, as I said, I can address the issue of human limitations but I also want to talk about animals. I think if I could get the viewer to empathize with the object as a creature, a sentience, as having being, then I can somehow raise that issue. The issue of the beingness, of the meaningful, valuable existence of other living things. Do you know what I’m trying to say?
RW: I think so. What I’m thinking is how some other cultures value life. I believe the Tibetans, for instance, regard the world as one living organism. The attitude is that one has to take care of it because it is alive. And my life is tied to, and dependent upon, this bigger one and the two are related through life. I’m alive, it’s alive. The care I want for myself I must feel for the earth and everything of the earth. And, of course, in many native societies there is a feeling of relatedness to the life around one. One feels part of it. It seems to me that you are aligned with that sort of feeling about the world.
Cannon: I think that is fundamentally how I feel about the world. We were talking about spirituality earlier. I have a hard time with that word. But the closest I’ve come to anything I could label as spirituality is the way I perceive the human relationship to the environment. I can almost see why one would say that a rock or a tree is alive and has consciousness, because whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter. It’s just such a useful way of engaging our empathic engine. Of making yourself respect, care for, and take responsibility for something outside of yourself. The need for other things to be there besides you. That’s what I feel. But, I recognize people don’t respect anything they can’t empathize with. I also recognize that empathy is really in short supply and if I had to pinpoint a fundamental problem, to reduce it all to one problem, I’d say it’s the lack of empathy, and compassion.