Published March 2nd, 2023 by Russ White
Using data drawn from flora, fauna, and natural forces large and small, Bowen creates kinetic systems that map the wonders and the perils of our world
This is the first in a series of articles profiling the seven distinguished artists chosen as 2021 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The 2021 cohort includes David Bowen, Mara Duvra, Ben Moren, Rotem Tamir, Dyani White Hawk, and Dream The Combine (Jennifer Newsom and Tom Carruthers).
As their two-year fellowship comes to a close, five of the artists will be participating in an upcoming Discussion Series as well:
Photo by Rik Sferra
In 2013, an oceanographic buoy was two years into being lost at sea, drifting aimlessly across the Pacific. It belonged to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had become unmoored from its post 250 miles southwest of Honolulu, and was now alone and adrift in the wide wilderness of the open ocean. It was part of a typically stationary fleet of some 1,300 buoys anchored along coastlines and throughout the Pacific Ocean to capture and report back wind and water conditions in real time to the National Buoy Data Center. But somehow this one lonely buoy — Station 51003 — got loose. True to its mission, however, it still managed to transmit its data back to NOAA, and from there, preposterously, to an art gallery in France.
There, floating in the air, was a sculptural abstraction of the lost Station's data: a wireframe grid of red dowel rods swelling and swaying above the floor in a perfect replication of the ocean's surface. The mechanics of it are impressively simple, as the documentation shows. The red grid hangs by wires from seventeen metal arms arranged in a row in the rafters (the X); between the arms and the grid are another set of rods (the Y) translating the arms’ up and down motions (the Z) into this uncanny undulation, like a giant sheet of graph paper floating on the surface of the sea.
tele-present water, 2013.
Its movement is elegant and spell-binding, a calming matrix of line and color recreating the endless, dynamic motions of the Pacific Ocean’s surface as told by the data from that lost buoy. The work is beautiful and kind of intense — a small square of metonymy sitting in for the vast and violent ocean, an airy bit of mathematical poetry recreating the threshold between the boundless skies and the roiling, bottomless depths below. But what is truly compelling is that this is no simulation, no abstracted water feature: this is a real-time recreation. A holo-deck transporting us to the exact location of the lonesome buoy, wherever it was in the world. But like a lantern’s light in a cave, we only get so much, a few square feet of information beamed in from the other side of the planet. The work is a portal not just to Station 51003 (which has since been recovered and reattached to its mooring) but into the wonder and the menace that David Bowen explores in his installations.
The elements that have fascinated Bowen for years are all here in this piece: distance and presence, the mechanical and the organic, the systematic and the serendipitous. Fittingly, Bowen’s career has taken him all around the world for exhibitions and residencies, often exploring the idea and the technologies of telepresence — setting up scenarios in which his audience can experience a place or a force or an object in real time but from a great distance. “The question I'm asking,” he says, “is what is happening over there?”
It’s a simple question that he has asked in a countless number of complicated artworks, each iteration finding some new way for the viewer to experience that distance and that synchronicity simultaneously. In one installation, a ceiling-mounted CNC router carves sheets of pink insulation foam into low-relief images of cloud formations from the opposite side of the globe. In another, a synchronized array of dried plant stalks attached to mechanical rotors fill a room, moving in unison with an identical stalk blowing in the wind on the roof of a University of Minnesota-Duluth campus building, where Bowen teaches. It’s like a tiny orchestra being conducted in absentia.
Top: the other side. Bottom: tele-present wind, 2018.
He creates these systems — writing code, developing custom software, engineering crude machines — and then he lets them run, relying on the data collected to bring the work to life. “I like to take my hand out of it as much as possible,” he says.
When I visit his studio in Duluth, he is working out the kinks on a new piece. It’s a bare-bones robot: a metal arm fitted with a camera that is mounted a few feet from a small mirror hanging on the wall. When Bowen turns the machine on, the arm raises and slowly rotates towards the mirror, examining its own reflection. The artist has trained this artificial intelligence to look for itself in the mirror, writing code that will allow the machine to learn from its mistakes — at least, some of the time. Whirring and moving between each attempt, craning its neck this way and that, the robot’s attention flits from stimulus to stimulus, each one registering as either a hit or a miss on a nearby monitor. It becomes apparent that if the AI’s goal was to recognize itself, it wasn’t having much success.
“We associate nature with chaos, and machines with uniformity and expected outcomes,” Bowen explains. “And I like when those outcomes screw up. And so that's why I'm not using the smartest model here.”
Though far from finished, the piece at present most obviously calls to mind narcissism, social media addiction, and the pessimistic terrors of dystopian fiction. Artificial intelligence has long captured our imaginations — and is now part of our everyday life in ways many of us don't even realize — but a self-aware Skynet this sculpture is not; more like Short Circuit’s “Johnny Five is alive.” There's a certain charm in this little fellow struggling to find itself, as we all do from time to time.
A much realer threat, in fact, was hanging just a few feet away, mounted onto the adjoining wall and very much alive. A common houseplant, a leafy green Philodendron scandens, sits in a pot about three feet off the ground, attached by several cords to a mechanical arm that is holding, as though en garde, a two-foot-long machete.
“Do you want me to turn it on?” Bowen asks.
With the flick of a switch and a warning not to stand too close, the arm suddenly comes to life, twisting, swooping, jabbing, and slicing the blade around in all directions, executing a steady but unpredictable choreography of violence. In a sense, the philodendron is in control. Using white sensor pads attached to the plant, Bowen has coded the program to respond to the electrical resistance coursing through the leaves, translating the plant’s physiology into this random swordsmanship. It’s as though, he suggests, “the plant is protecting itself.”
plant machete, 2022.
It’s really something to behold — a hilarious spectacle to be sure, one that blew up on Instagram when he first posted it last September. As the laugher dies down and the robot continues its attacks, though, the sword swipes take on more grace, poise, and poignance. You start to wonder how much control the plant is really exerting and where the limits of agency and autonomy might exist for organisms from an entirely different biological kingdom. Maybe you'll wonder, looking at that swinging blade, whether you've got it coming. At the very least, you will not look at houseplants quite the same way again.
The piece actually hasn’t been exhibited yet, in part because of the safety logistics necessary to keep viewers safely out of the plant’s reach. “This is a good example of something that actually is not complete yet because it hasn't been in a gallery,” he explains. “That's where the human comes into play, having that experience. [The piece] doesn't exist in a vacuum. That's why I think a work is not quite finished until it gets into a venue.”
As we talk, the plant’s arm and the robot’s neck whirr, buzz, and clack in the background. “I’m curious by that overlap of what we define as ‘natural,’” Bowen says. “I don't think that's as clear. Natural systems behave in very predictable ways. Plants are amazing engineers and are very proficient at building structure, very proficient at converting light into energy. The more I work with these two types of systems, the more fascinated I am by that contrast.”
This isn’t the first time he has put plants to work, either. Using a similar set-up, another philodendron got the opportunity to pilot a drone, providing data through its leaves to control the device's motion and altitude, steering itself on a joyride through the sky. Flying at night affixed with an ultra-bright LED, the plant drew compositions in the air that Bowen captured in long exposure photographs that are stunningly graceful. This interest in automatic drawing has shown up in multiple iterations as well, driven by plants, flies, clouds, light, wind, and sonar readings of people in a space. Again, the artist has literally taken his hand out of the process, instead collecting data and encrypting it as works of art.
Top: Long-exposure photograph of plant drone. Bottom: remote sonar drawing device, Laboral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, Gijón-Asturias, Spain.
Aside from activating the work as viewers, people play a very limited role in this work, Bowen included. Very rarely do humans even provide the data sets. The robots do the drawing, the plants do the thinking, and we are left to look and to ponder. Bowen is an engineer with a poet’s predilections, or maybe vice versa. Either way, it’s not clarity he’s after; it’s a glimpse into the mystery of these living systems. “I'm not a very good coder. I think that's an important thing to remember… I'm not looking for perfection.”
“I’ve always said that a scientist’s job is to answer questions, and an artist’s job is to ask questions.” His interest in these overlaps dates back at least twenty years to his time at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where he studied with Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dr. William Durfee while also earning his MFA. Since then he has made a wildly varied but thematically focused series of works: plastic bags that rise and fall in time with wave data, a mechanical piano-playing device controlled by clouds, a revolver that aims and fires blanks at the whim of houseflies. The list of absurdist contraptions goes on and on.
In each instance, Bowen is crafting systems set up to blur the line between the natural and the manmade. This fascination perhaps stems from a childhood spent visiting his grandparents’ pet shop in the 1970s and '80s. “They had these really elaborate systems of aquariums and filters and all this stuff to try to keep the fish happy and healthy,” he recalls. “I find that fascinating.” Bowen’s pets of choice, at least in his artwork, are the spheres of houseflies he uses to control programs he has written to fire handguns, write tweets, and captain blimps. “I will say that my flies are very well cared for,” he adds with pride.
fly revolver, 2013. During one installation in Vancouver, the gun was loaded with blanks and actually fired.
There are plenty of questions that Bowen’s work raises about the agency of the flora, fauna, and AI used therein, scaffolded as they are by his programming and poetry. As a society, we have only begun to scratch the surface of these questions, not only in terms of AI but especially as it relates to plants and fungi, who we now know are capable of creating vast networks of communication under the earth. But ultimately, true to form, Bowen isn’t offering us any answers, only the opportunity to marvel. And perhaps, to close some of that distance his work highlights. His situationist sculptures are all different equations testing the same hypothesis: that there is empathy to be found in the world, if only we’d look for it.
If we can make a connection with a long-lost buoy all alone in the sea or a robot struggling against its own poor coding or a plant stalk being tossed by the wind, maybe we can extend it to one another. Or, more pressingly, to the ecosystems we have spent the past few centuries upending. The work is certainly not all warm and fuzzy; he is arming these things with pistols and machetes, after all. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” he says. “But I’m still pissed off.”
On my way out of town, I stop for lunch at a local deli. Waiting on my order, my eyes wander, taking in the decor and landing, with a start, on something familiar. The two ladies at the next table over continue eating and chatting, blithely unaware of what was hanging from a basket just above their heads, its leafy green tendrils reaching down slowly towards them. Another philodendron, alive with menace and mystery. ◼︎
All images and videos courtesy of the artist. Banner image by Gunnar Knechtel Photography for Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, where tele-present water was exhibited in 2014 as part of an exhibition titled Big Bang Data.
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