Interviewsand Articles


Jim Campbell: Frames of Reference

by Richard Whittaker, Jan 22, 2002



Photo: R. Whittaker

In August of 1998 Jim Campbell was given a retrospective show at the San Jose Museum of Art. His work has been shown internationally and is included in many collections including the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Campbell received undergraduate degrees from M.I.T. in mathematics and electrical engineering. He divides his time between art work and work as an electrical engineer specializing in cutting edge digital technology. We started talking about computer art.

Jim Campbell:  I've always felt that even using the word "interactivity" with computers was completely wrong. I mean "interactivity" historically has always meant a mutual, reciprocal thing that happens. Whereas the way I see it, computers are really about control. You are controlling them to do something. The Heisenberg pieces bring up those issues in kind of direct ways: the more you want to see something, the more you're trying to control the situation and the less you control it, and the less you are able to see.    
     For instance, with the bed piece (untitled for Heisenberg), as you walk toward the bed, with the image getting closer, you don't start to see the pores of the skin. You see the pixels. When you're far away you see these two lovers but as you approach, you can't make it out anymore. The Buddha is the same way. From a distance you can see the statue of the Buddha, but as you approach, only the shadow is left. "What are you seeing? Both refer to Heisenberg's principle. You know it?

Richard Whittaker:  You can't know both the speed and the location of a subatomic particle at any one time.

JC:  Right. But it goes further than that. It says that if you even try to measure something at all, you affect it.

RW:  Very mysterious and counter-intuitive, isn't it?

JC:  Yes, but there are ways of talking about little parts of it that aren't counter-intuitive. For example, if you try to measure an electron really closely you have to put a lot of light on it and light has energy, and so you're affecting it. That's one way to talk about it. 
     The non-intuitive notion of Heisenberg's principle is that the universe is probabilistic. This means that not only are you unable to measure the position of the electron accurately, but that it does not exist accurately. That, I agree, is totally counter-intuitive.
     Those two pieces were about taking the notions of Heisenberg and this desire we have to measure things, to observe things. And they also are exploring how that fits into some questions about what interactivity means with regard to computers. 

RW:  On this question of interactivity and computers, I see I'm reluctant to embrace the idea that what happens between a computer and me is "interactivity" in some essential sense.

JC:  That's exactly what I'm talking about. Maybe it's just a semantic thing, but I think it's more than that because using that word brings up certain notions. Actually, for me it does two things: it also takes away from the old meaning of interactivity. I mean, in the other way, which is kind of interesting, I would regard my relationship with my computer to be a control relationship. So if I use the word "interactivity" between me and my computer that's one thing; if I also use the word for me and you, then it changes everything.
     I do think I can interact with a cat. That's a feeling I have. But not with an ant, for example. With a cat I feel like there is interaction, a mutual thing going on. 

RW:  Yes, that's interesting, and if you were on LSD maybe you could interact with the ant too.

JC:  [laughs.]

RW:  I say that in jest, but I do have the experience, and I imagine others do also, of having isolated moments in a particular state of mind where I feel a real relationship with a bee, for instance - in the sense that we're both living beings. 
JC:  Right. But let's say, "living beings" - that would be a cut-off.

James Campbell's MotherRW:  I revisited your retrospective (San Jose Museum of Art 1998) alone to spend a little more time with it. I was standing back where I could see your Memory Pieces and some other pieces all at the same time. After a while a very poignant and sad feeling came over me. These little electronic devices were all ticking away quietly in a white room. I felt them as relics of deep and human realities, just echoes in this empty white room with wires attached. All that remained were these little memory machines. It made me feel sad.

     (A few examples: Portrait of My Father is a small framed portrait of Campbell's father hanging on a wall with two wires running from the bottom of the frame into a metal box. The photograph of his father alternately fades from view and back into view to the rhythm of a heartbeat, which we understand to be Jim Campbell's.
     Photo of My Mother is similarly designed, but the photograph of Campbell's mother fades and comes into focus to the rhythm of his breathing.
     I Have Never Read the Bible is a piece in which a large, old Webster's Dictionary is attached to the wall with wires running down from it into a small metal box. A small speaker is installed in the dictionary through which the bible is being whispered letter by letter. To accomplish this, Campbell recorded the twenty six letters of the alphabet in his own voice and then created a computer program that would read and play back each word in the bible letter by letter. As Campbell did a voice recording of the letters of the alphabet, Mozart's Requiem was playing in the background. So each letter, as it's being read, is also accompanied by small bits of the Requiem.)

And listening to your piece I Have Never Read the Bible, with the dislocated music in the background, is haunting. I was very touched by this.

JC:  You think it was mostly the audible part?

RW:  That certainly had a lot to do with it. Part of the sadness that was evoked for me had to do with the absence of the evidence of human warmth and touch - the removed, abstract quality of it all. I wonder if that's something of your intention - or is that just an accident of the objects themselves and my associations with them?

JC:  A complicated question. I don't know if I can answer it. There's definitely an aspect of that in the relationship between the physical and technological manifestation of these human, or supposedly human memories. I do think there's a clash there that necessarily happens, but that I am also working with, for example with regard to the little aluminum, sterile, cold boxes and the wires and the glass, and the objects.
     One of the things I've always said about interactivity is that the real interactivity that takes place in "interactive" works is between the viewer and himself, or herself. It's not between the viewer and the computer or the program.
     So most of my work is like that, but the memory works are not. Those are definitely personal. All of those memories have to do with me, even the collective ones like the Bible.  
RW:  I'm curious about your piece called Memory/Void, the one with the three video tubes reducing in size.

JC:  It's similar to the five-monitor one (Memory/Recollection). It's three monitors in three jars which capture your image with a camera. Your image appears first on the largest CRT(cathode ray tube) and then slowly fades and moves to the smaller jars and fades away altogether. The third and smallest jar is sort of buried in ashes, the last screen on which you appear. 

RW:  A powerful piece, I thought. What was that piece for you?

JC:  That's a very old piece. I have a kind of love/hate relationship with it. I think my work has become almost too formal and conceptualized such that I would never do another piece like that these days. Part of it feels like an art-school piece because there's some contrivance to it, putting ashes in - ashes representing time and decay. In other words, throwing a bunch of symbols together.

RW:  Would you call it heavy-handed?

JC:  No. I would call it contrived. For me now, it's the idea of a work that's important - not setting up a bunch of symbols around the idea. The distillation of that piece can be seen in the other piece, the one with five monitors - no ashes, no jars - but your image is decaying just the same. It feels less "art-school." You know what I mean?  Doing something to evoke a response. I really try to stay away from that. And it's kind of easy for me to stay away from that because when I'm working on something I get kind of excited about it. I don't want to finish with it and know where all the meaning is. And I'm really excited when I first plug it in to see what happens. I don't know what is going to happen. 

RW:  There must be, when you succeed—is "joy" too strong a word?

JC:  If the opening isn't the next day [laughs]. No, it's true, because the process is so disjointed. There is some sort of creative process in figuring out what I want to do. Then there's an engineering process of doing it, that has nothing to do with the original creative process; it's implementation, and that takes months, although during that I get glimpses of what its going to look like, and usually these glimpses actually change what the end result will be quite a bit. 
     But, yes, there is joy. Particularly because the engineering aspect is mostly the labor of doing it. So it's nice to actually finish and go back to the original creative idea, since that whole intervening time I'm just focusing on mathematics. I have to be able to figure out how to do it in a mathematical way. That's what computers do. They crunch numbers. So any idea you want to manifest through computers has to be reduced to a mathematical form, which usually is not a process good for communication or creative expression. It's usually a reduction. 

RW:  You spoke of ideas, of trying to leave contrivance behind, and to put together a representation of an idea in a more pure way, and I wonder, what are some of the ideas that are most important to you?

JC:  A good example maybe is the spinning nail with the camera on it. There are a couple of different ideas in that. The notion of what a frame of reference is. In fact, I revised the title of that piece to be, Frames of Reference. Einstein obviously was very interested in that. That's where Relativity originally came from, that is, seeing something from a different frame of reference or perspective. 
     So this camera is moving. You could throw that camera and have it swinging wildly and the nail would always be perfect because it is nailed to the board the camera is on. So no matter what the camera would show, the nail would still maintain the same relative point of reference.
     Originally I had a watch at the other end of the board; so it was a camera pointed at a watch on the board spinning. Well, one day the watch fell off. I had it mounted there with a nail, and I realized the nail worked just as well, even better. I saw I didn't need to "hit people over the head" with the watch.
     And I was very interested in the notion of something going that didn't have control of itself. Originally it was going to be part of two pieces. One of them would track you very closely, and so no matter where you were, you would see a picture of your face behind it. So it would be a very accurately controlled system. And the second piece would have been just the opposite. One that was not in control of what it was pointed at. So it would have been a simple dual piece that could be about will; I guess a computer, mechanized notion of will. 

RW:  I'm not sure I am following this. How do you make the  connection?

JC:  It wants to track you. It wants to know where you are at all times. The other one has no control of what it is pointing at. 

RW:  So it has no "will," and the other one does?

JC:  Yes. Not that it does. Rather, it is "will."

RW:  But what I want to do with that is make both parts a metaphor for the individual.  We have this wish to be in control but, in fact, if we are able to notice it, to a really great extent, we're not. 

JC:  Right. Exactly. That is what I'm saying.  We just get kicked, and we respond to being kicked. 

RW:  What are some of the things you've thought most about?

JC:  The lecture I gave at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1996, and which you read. I spent probably six months preparing it, for a number of reasons. One being that I'm very nervous in front of large groups of people. It's the first time I'd really thought about what I was doing from a different perspective, from a perspective of okay, "what ties this all together? What is it that I'm really interested in doing?"
     After six months of thinking about what I was doing and needing to verbalize it, well that was both good and bad. It clarified for me some of the things that were going on at an unconscious level, and another thing that happened, was that it made me become a little more rigorous in terms of actually doing a work. Now a work has to fit into certain ways of thinking for me.

RW:  When was it again that you took this time to think about your own work in this broad sense?

JC:  1995 and 96. It was about a one-year process of really laying it all down for myself. That was one of the major transitions that has occurred for me and some of the work that came out of that, for example, was the Memory Works. I think those really came out of thinking about what I was doing, and why I was doing it.
     Before that, with specific works I was very focused, maybe even more so than now, and was creating something mostly from a psychological perspective: "How can this specific work, work in a psychological way?" That was what I was working with. I was never really able to verbalizable it. There was really no way for me to talk about it except by showing the work or documentation.  
     So what I needed to do was to come up with this whole structure of the meaning of why I'm doing what I'm doing. That was what was needed for a series of lectures and panels that started st the end of 1994. 
     Here's a side point. Some people say that the lecture I spent all that time working on has nothing whatsoever to do with my work. [Laughs] Which is really fascinating to me. 

RW:  That's your paper on the question of interactivity in electronic art, right?

JC:  Yes. It's called, Delusions of Dialogue - Control and Choice in Interactive Art

RW:  Do you have an inkling why some people would say this has nothing to do with your work?

JC:  I think maybe because, in a positive sense, it comes from the fact that my work is more psychologically-based, and in some of the better work, more personally-based. The text of the lecture is a very precise, logical kind of paper about the problems of interactivity. 
     When I gave the lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the way I introduced it was to say "I'm going to talk about all the problems with interactivity in electronic art today and talk about why I think it's not there yet, why there really is not any interesting interactive art. And I'm going to use my own work as an example..." [laughs] So that was kind of an interesting perspective which was kind of a joke, but also not a joke.

RW:  It occurs to me that a concern with interactivity could easily be understood as indicating a concern with relationship. So, that's a rather personal thing. And to abstract it, one loses that personal feeling, particularly if we're talking about a computer. So, that's one thing. But I want to propose that this topic - relationship - is really of interest to you. What do you think?

JC:  It's a good point, and probably a hard question to answer. It's probably why I do this work. One of the reasons I do my work, and I know this, is because - anyway ten years ago this was true and hopefully not as much today - I'm not very good at communicating with people. I certainly grew up never feeling like I was able to express what I was feeling or thinking. So that's completely why I got interested in the visual arts. I mean, I know that. It was a need to express things I couldn't express any other way. Partially for my own psychological/neurotic/ whatever reasons. 
     So I think, "yes"  - to answer your question. The works specifically do deal with notions of human interaction, and maybe issues - and I wouldn't even say this is on a conscious level, but if I analyze what I've done - maybe issues that I have with intimacy and interaction with people, and socializing and all the problems that come up with interacting. 

RW:  Just as a personal aside, I find it very easy to relate with you. I might say you seem less an extrovert than introvert, so to speak.
JC:  Which I've never completely accepted about myself, and I used to be ten times worse. 

RW:  Would you say this has been a good direction? Moving away from that?

JC:  I always look at the plus and the minus. There are still situations where maybe I'm with a group of people and I just don't say anything all evening long. What I've figured out, and what I tend to try to set up with regard to social situations, is really one-on-one situations. I haven't figured out how to deal with other situations.

RW:  So it's a challenge, and it's interesting that your work is obliging you, from time to time, to speak in front of groups. 

JC:  Which I avoid constantly. I say "no" five out of six times. 

RW:  What happens on that sixth time?

JC:  I hate it. I think it's exaggerated for me because - and I think I mentioned this to you before - both of my parents are handicapped. So they both have been physically insecure their whole lives. They were handicapped in the forties and fifties and sixties when it wasn't accepted like it is today. So they grew up, not as freaks, but definitely as people who were outcasts. And somehow I definitely picked up that incredible physical notion of insecurity. I think it's the reason it's hard for me to speak in front of groups of people. And for example, I've never danced in my life; I've never been able to do physical things that were on display, I guess - like in groups of people. I don't know how the work fits into that.

RW:  Well, clearly your work moves you toward more engagement in the world. I mean, because you're doing this work, you're being pulled into more interaction. It seems a beneficial thing.

JC:  For the work?

RW:  For you. For your work. I mean it would only be beneficial to someone who had a sense of the possibility of growth. It seems to me that it might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that for artists, as a group, there's something in the impulse to create that comes from a sense of greater possibilities. And so, it's an interesting thing listening to you, that one of the results of your work is that you're sort of dragged into more contact with that bigger world, so to speak. 
     And it's interesting to ponder that in the context of being reared by two handicapped parents. It's easy for me to imagine that must give you many insights others wouldn't have.

JC:  I think maybe "insight" is the wrong word.  I think it has given me, at times, the ability to empathize and, on the other end, it has made me a little more self-conscious than I might otherwise have been.
     One of the works I've done actually deals with the notion of being handicapped in a subtle way. Do you remember the one called Digital Watch? Where it takes your body and moves it in staccato movement, once per second? It's often actually how handicapped people move - certainly handicapped people have this more than the rest of us.  
     Because of its delay, and because of its staccato movement, one of the effects that this piece has, one of the things this piece makes you feel, I think, is that you don't have control of your body. Because you move and your image isn't moving like you're moving. It takes the immediate feedback away. It takes the feeling that you have control over your body away. That was definitely not on my mind when I did that piece. I just thought that was an interesting insight I had after I did it.   
     Hallucination, the fire one, was completely consciously about my brother who was schizophrenic.
RW:  Yes, you'd told me about that. My father's brother was diagnosed as having dementia praecox, which is what they called it before the term "schizophrenia" came into use. And this came down in our family and it certainly affected me. It was a dark sort of thing, unacknowledged, and which no one in the family…

JC: …knew how to deal with?

RW:  Right. No one knew how to deal with it. Recently I found some letters written by my uncle, who committed suicide - very upsetting material. It seems that this young man was simply in a family where a necessary understanding was not available to him at all. So just in general, I know this is terribly difficult stuff. 

JC:  Oh yes. I think I have a copy of a film I spent two years making about that. I will give you a copy of that (Letter to a Suicide). Generally I haven't shown It to people in the last eight or nine years. but since it's relevant…    
     The whole reason I started doing electronic interactive installation work was because I needed to give up film-making. After I'd made that film - and I'd been making videos and film for about six years at that point - when I finished doing that film about my brother there was no place for me to go.
     I'm not a director. I don't have a "director" personality. And there was no other place for me to go with personal films, so I just gave it up. I stopped doing art for three years. Then the first video things I did were on a similar theme - three mental illness works in 1988.     
     Just trying to think about where I am these days, and where I've been, I see that one of the interesting cycles that happens for me is "personal vs. impersonal" in terms of the content of my work. It's definitely a cyclical thing.
     Part of the reason I gave up film-making and began doing interactive work - and it wasn't called interactive at the time, it was just called media installation work - was that it was a way of doing something that was more conceptual; more "academic" is the wrong word, because those works certainly aren't academic, but they weren't personal in any way. I mean, no one would ever get that Hallucination is about my brother being mentally ill if you don't know the history behind it. So it was a way for me to change the direction of the content of my work to being not personal. 
     So that lasted too long, I think. I started feeling uncomfortable, feeling that the work had no meaning to me anymore. That's about the time I started doing the Memory Works, like the two about my parents, and some of the other ones; they have personal content, in fact they're all personal, although they don't all seem that way. And now I'm going back away from that again. It's somehow out of my control.

RW:  Interesting just to see this unconscious action at work. I've had a few experiences myself where I've done a painting or something, and a year later, or six months later, I see so clearly why I did that painting. It's almost a shock. It is a shock, in fact, to see how transparent the meaning is, and how I was not at all conscious of that meaning at the time. The shock is really to see that there is such a thing as the unconscious - and that it's an active force. 

JC:  I think the two other pieces that have definitely a bizarre unconscious relationship to me are the portraits of my parents, (Portrait of my Mother, Portrait of My Father) because both of my parents have been very ill in the hospital at different times. 
     My mother is 85, and she's doing great right now. But she was in the hospital for eight weeks for one of those eternal pneumonia things that just wouldn't go away. And she also had that infection you pick up from just being in the hospital.
     My father has heart problems. He's always had heart problems. And I was completely unaware of that when I made these two pieces, where my mother's image is modulated by my breath and my father's image is modulated by my heartbeat. I was just completely unaware of that. It's very strange.

RW:  That's very striking. [pauses] There's something just so profound about that.

JC:  Yes. I agree. Well, I have to say, I've always considered both the positive and the negative aspects of those works - which one reviewer actually completely got - which is that my existence is completely at their expense. 

RW:  As with every son and daughter? 

JC:  Yes. I know when I did the one of my father - it's a very pulsing one, as opposed to the one of my mother, which is slow. The opening was the next day and of course I was literally up all night. When I finished it, I thought the piece was too violent to show. I decided I wasn't going to show it. A friend of mine came over and it was the usual kind of pre-opening frenzy, and I remember I just burst into tears. 
     I almost never cry about my work, or what I'm doing. And she said, "What are you talking about? It's not violent at all!" But I saw it as violent just because of that pulsing movement. Plus, it's also about me erasing both my mother and father, and bringing them back.

RW:  That's one of the things I think is so profoundly attracting in art. I mean, in potential. That it is truly an avenue at times to the very deep things, the very deep places in oneself, places where we don't know our way around. Some feel drawn towards these hidden places, covered-over places, maybe for the purpose of understanding more. The concern I'm articulating could, I suppose, be called "romantic" - which I'm happy to reject if it's meant to invalidate its meaning or worth.

JC:  I think the way I've thought about that in similar terms is that - and I know it's true of me, particularly the film I made, but other stuff also - it's a therapeutic process. Creating a work allows me to work out something focusing on it that much, and to understand something about certain things. And  then…

RW:  And then, what happens if something is worked out? Of course, this is putting it in too general a way I guess. 

JC:  That's what I mean. Nothing is ever worked out. 

RW:  But wouldn't you say that something changes?

JC:  Oh yes. The best example for me is spending two years on the film on my brother. I mean I know that was a really difficult thing for me to do, to spend so much time focusing on it. And very self-indulgent. But it was very therapeutic. I think it made me understand some things and accept some things that otherwise I might never have thought about or focused on in such depth.
     That's the easiest example. The other stuff isn't as clear, but I think it's there. It's harder to be specific about it, but again, obviously it didn't get rid of any issues. It has clarified some things. I mean that's how I look at therapy. I don't expect some big revelation one week. Okay, I'm done! [Laughs] 

RW:  You know, I'd like to get some more information about your background. Like what were your interests when you were leaving high school?

JC:  I think I was your typical person leaving high school. I don't think I knew what I wanted to do. What I thought I wanted to do, was what I thought I should want to do. 
     In terms of art, the only thing that was interesting was a film class that was part of an English class, an experimental semester. Other than that, I was planning on becoming an engineer, which I did. 
     My dad actually worked at a tv station. He was a television engineer. I think I assumed I would go in that direction. I didn't feel real strongly about that, and I still don't. I feel much stronger about art than engineering. I was good at mathematics and science and thinking about things in that direction. Not so good in literature. 
     I went to M.I.T. and got a degree in mathematics, and then in electrical engineering. Then I got out and spent three years repairing television sets. In a lot of ways that was very good because I'm the only engineer I've ever known in this field who has that kind of real experience. The kind of engineering I ended up doing, and still do, is on video, HDTV kind of equipment. So that experience has been incredibly useful. 
     Most engineers only know things from the point of view of an engineer, not from the point of view of the user. I've actually been with the same company for 16 years now. Hardly ever full-time, but sometimes for short periods. And they've been willing to deal with this. The way things come up with art, typically I give them a week notice. Basically, they've been very open for me to do whatever I need to do for the art stuff. 
     Did I mention that I've kept these lives completely separate? I even have a different name. For engineering, I go by "Jack." So for the first time in fifteen years the people I do engineering with actually came to the show in San Jose last August and saw what I do with the rest of my life. That was really a weird experience. [Laughs]
     Some of them really enjoyed it. Some of them, I felt, were threatened by it. Most of them got at least some of it. The more conceptual works some of them didn't get.
     It was just fascinating to have my two worlds collide. People who knew me as Jim and people who know me as Jack all in the same room. 

In 2018 Campbell's massive installation atop of San Francisco's 1,070 foot high Salesforce Tower was completed. Every evening, the top six floors of the tower are softly lit with 11,000 LEDs and display moving imagery from multiple cameras situated around San Francisco - for instance, from street scenes, rolling fog, boats on the bay, crashing waves at the beach and so on. The everchanging imagery is now part of SF's night skyline.
Learn more at Campbell's website


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine       


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