Tesserae of Venus: project notes
Tesserae of Venus (2009-10) takes on the ‘tesserae’ or complex ridged fold, as a figure for the approach of ‘Venus’–an atmospheric concatenation of greenhouse gasses as on our sister planet. Tesserae are fold-forms that come from generative land building on Venus, which lacks tectonic strike/slip faults. Could the tesserae form stand in for the approach of Venus?
Drawing with a turn around an edge of a form, so that the form transposed into polygonal shape along curving planes, I was crushing and folding fragments of drawings, then setting them in simple outdoor structures, like the edge of a deck. Using video and still cameras, then, I shot multiple captures of these folded fragments, while pouring day-glo and iridescent liquid airbrush paint on them–imagining the liquid as the fluid forms toxic gasses. I loved how the liquid paint saturated the gleaming white surfaces of the folded ‘tesserae’ paper sculptures and obliterated parts of the black ink markings on the surfaces of the paper. A loose and productive relation emerged between the folded paper sculptures and ‘complex ridged folds’ of the landscape of the sister planet. Between the figure of a multiplying map or terrain of tesserae and iterative montage cuts and transition forms…a productive resonance occurred, producing a kind of inoperative model.
Looking at photographs from the very first mission to Venus, the Magellan mission, from the Jet Propulsion Lab, of 1992-94, I drew from the Magellan maps with pen and ink and graphite on paper. Over and alongside these gestures I drew erotica of watercolor and ink clusters as human/mammalian feminine genitalia. The Venus drawings stand on their own and also served as animations for film.Tesserae of Venus would extend to moving image works meshing assemblage of site specific technological landscape studies with shots of the folded drawing models. Sites included natural gas installations in the Sacramento River Delta, geothermal plants in the Salton Sea Geothermal System, at Ballona Wetlands in west Los Angeles, and the San Ardo oil fields in the Salinas River Valley.
On process and poetics
Tesserae of Venus was a play-like performance project in moving image, still image and drawing, from the period 2009-2010. On the surface, its ostensible themes turned about visualizing the ‘arrival’ of Venus, as the implication of the concentration of greenhouse gasses to lead to a future geologic and atmospheric Earth resembling the planet Venus. On a more subversive level, the project desired a kind of mapping of predictive models on catastrophic climate change in everyday settings, with simple materials in an everyday test site- my location in rural California. I wanted to try to engage with my frustration at not being able to ‘see’ the complexity of climate change. I wanted to make atmospheres in visual and media art of a luscious, sultry and ominous vibe. I wanted to take on the difficulty of non-representation of an unfolding event of great magnitude, using simple and direct tools.
I had returned to basic practices of drawing and form making through drawing, to try and study a tendency in my drawings, typically, an obsession with a turn around an edge of a form, so that the form transposed into polygonal shape along curving planes. I decided to start trying to build these kinds of forms, which kept appearing in my drawing, into rudimentary sculpture. I was involved in a practice of crushing and folding fragments of drawings and then setting them in simple outdoor architectures like the edge of a deck. It seemed like an ironic and also generative gesture to photograph these folded fragments while in the process of pouring day-glo and iridescent liquid airbrush paint on them. I loved the way that the fragments, often peaked in wave-like series of folds and how the liquid paint saturated their gleaming white surfaces and obliterated parts of the black ink markings on the surfaces of the paper. It occurred to me then, that I could establish a loose and productive relation between these form-things I was making, model-making, and the ‘complex ridged folds’ of the landscape of the planet Venus. I was just coming off of two large bodies of work in media arts based on making elisions between on site tectonics of seismicity and landslide with human memory and post-traumatic stress. Tesserae are fold-forms that come from generative land building on Venus, which lacks tectonic strike/slip faults. A resonance, even dispositive relation between the figure of a multiplying map or terrain of tesserae and iterative montage cuts and transition forms, struck me as possible and compelling.
I was interested at the time in the idea of a ‘mechanism of wonder’– meaning, a simple hand-made device of some kind that you could use to examine and even to inhabit a landscape site. The probability that such a mechanism of wonder was silly and useless from a technologic standpoint made it even more appealing. The invention of folded painted papers in ridges allied with my ongoing interest in iterative propellant cuts/montage in film. I thought that to model those kinds of cuts was, as a kind of act of making ‘wonder’, an enterprise of delicious irreverence and a primordial, proto-science project. I started to montage the fragmented folds of drawings within shots of landscapes both domestic (in my back yard) and out in the remoter parts of California, at oil fields and other energy installations. I became interested in the prospecting, or prospective character of my paper mechanisms, something like lining up paper airplanes before sending them up in the air. I gathered this moment or sensation of a preflight of folds into photomontage prints that took the form of a staged presentation, a series of models in and in front of a scene. Still life.
I decided to arbitrarily assign an allegorical value to the folded models, as stand-ins for the complex ridges of tesserae that form the surface of Venus: these complex ridged folds would be the prototype for organizing photographic still and moving image assemblage. I was after getting some sort of super-material expression of the climate change crisis here on Earth without depicting it, without resorting to illustration. Visualization, but through means of building and performing the construction and montaging of the tesserae-folds of physical paper works into electronic mediated images. It seemed to me a way to avoid ‘representation’ of climate change. My models and their iterations in film and photomontage, could ‘stand in’ for the problem of not being able to materialize the presence of the catastrophe in our midst, that our planet could become ‘like’ Venus. So the project, effectively, turned to metonymy (standing in, one to one) and allegory (‘this’ thing is made to be staged as ‘those’ , one to many).
In a paralleling direction in drawing, I made a series of watercolor and ink drawings based on photographs from the very first mission to Venus, the Magellan mission, from the Jet Propulsion Lab, of 1992-94. As media archaeology, the drawing project was built around studying online photographs of the mapping project of the surface of the planet Venus, simply by flipping through images in the online archive and responding with attempts to draw the Magellan maps with pen and ink and graphite on paper. Over and alongside these gestures I drew erotica of watercolor and ink clusters as human/mammalian feminine genitalia.
Later, Tesserae of Venus would extend to moving image works involved visualization and sonification assemblage of site specific technological landscape studies with my ‘mechanisms of wonder’ models of tesserae. Documentation in sound and video at natural gas installations in the Sacramento River Delta, geothermal plants in the Salton Sea Geothermal System, inside Ballona Wetlands (site of a major methane field) in west Los Angeles, and the San Ardo oil fields in the Salinas River Valley. The film animation frames accumulated skin-like incidents of nip and tuck, folding and unfolding.
Tesserae was an archive of tesserated gestures both on the level of the cut (montage) and on the level of the iterative (propellent clusterings in a movement). Such things came into more full expression in the moving image montage for Carbon Song Cycle (2013), a performance work for expanded cinema, voice and electronics and chamber ensemble.
A dream of Venus arrives tectonically in tesseracts, squishing time, mixing toxins in hopes of a cure, deliriously overheated–a hothouse dream. What does living in a landscape of massive ambient atmospheric threat and beauty feel like? What is the deep connection between our footsteps, our voices, our machines, our breathing and our planet? How are we finding ourselves in these places both beautiful and dangerous, slipping on the sticky tiles of the tesserae, slimed with carbon-laden air, strange brews, and luscious sunsets…
Exhibitions and interview
Tesserae of Venus, drawings and photomontage, Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco, 2009
Tesserae of Venus, video installation, ISEA Belfast, University of Belfast Art Gallery, curated by Kathy Rae Huffmann, 2009.
San Francisco Cinematheque, 2011, 2012 Crossroads Festival
Christina McPhee : interview with Melissa Potter on Tesserae of Venus, BOMBblog, 2009
photomontage, moving image and drawing