Studio Culture Interview

“I find technology seductive in its authoritative gestures at the collection, shaping and carving of information: data has become a pliable, shapeable, non-objective material.”  — Mark Parsons

Mark Parsons is an artist whose work often draws inspiration from the layered relationship between art and science. After years of studying biology, Parsons expanded his scope of studies with art and architecture. He began to read the geometrical constructs of DNA as blueprints for physical structures, which outfitted him with a brand new set of tools to understand the world. Parsons’ work ranges from large sculptures and wall drawings to advanced printmaking. Thematically, almost all of Parsons’ artwork is charged with the condition of line. Whether “hyper-packed” (highly concentrated) with vectorized patterns or more distilled with soft shadows and notched edges, his surfaces inevitably play with the viewer’s perception.

New works from his recent exhibition at OPUS Projects, Conceptual Parallax, delve deeper into line functionality by exploring time, space and distance through a series of GPS coordinates. Parsons’ practice is frequently collaborative (Conceptual Parallax was realized under his new collective +7 – 49 Collective), and often involves other artists or architects as part of the developmental process.

Parsons currently teaches and serves as Director of Production and Technology for Pratt Institute Architecture. He has also held teaching positions at Cornell University and Hunter College, as well as lecturing at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, China; SUNY Purchase; UMass Dartmouth; ISE Cultural Foundation; and Grounds for Sculpture. Parsons has exhibited work at the United Nations, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, South Street Seaport Museum, New Bedford Art Museum, Provincetown Art Museum, and private galleries in New York City and abroad. He is a FIPSE Grant recipient, a Jacob K. Javits Fellow, and honored as the International Fellow of VSA Arts. Parsons lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

HZ: You have described the works in your recent show at OPUS Projects, Conceptual Parallax, as a response to technology—could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

MP: There are two immediate ways that technology plays a role in these works: The collection of data that is used to generate the works, and the use of technology in the actual making of the objects. In the first case, I used GPS tracking to record movement sequences through the city. This is how drawings were generated. Then, once the drawings were made, they were reinterpreted as another form of data known as “NC Programming Codes,” which is a term used in CNC milling processes. The NC codes become a sequence of x, y and z coordinates in space. They also define a tool path that is the basic manner of communication between a computer and a machine that cuts and shapes material.

In regards to how these artworks respond to technology, my goal was to amplify the way we already use technology through a quantitative and qualitative approach. By measuring my environment using technology I can “create” data, and then I can sift through that data to generate a conclusion; in this case a set of physical objects that have an obvious reference to maps. I find technology seductive in its authoritative gestures at the collection, shaping and carving of information: data has become a pliable, shapeable, non-objective material.

HZ: Could you talk a little bit about the overall role of mapping and geographic coordinates in your work?

MP: There are several models and maps used to represent the surface of the earth; some are executed as geometric spheres, whereas others are rendered in two-dimensional flat planes (like a map). Given that two-dimensional maps compress the volume of a 3D globe, they end up distorting information. For instance, the antipodal projection is used to compare the north and south poles of the earth, but it radically distorts the tropical latitudes. Similarly, a Mercator projection is commonly used for navigation because a straight line between points (on a Mercator map) and a compass heading are consistent. Both the Mercator and antipodal projections are interpretations of a complex surface that simplify to benefit a specific purpose or application, but at the expense of radical distortion of peripheral uses and information. This means that the absolute pragmatic utility of information (a map) for one setting or context, might be misleading or even destructive in another. I am not suspicious of maps, I just know now that maps are not the objective reporting devices that I once believed them to be. In fact, their ultimate beauty is in their subjectivity. For example, if you lived in the southern hemisphere you might claim that the map is upside down, or if you lived in the east you might wonder why Europe is the default center of the world map. The Mercator is popular because it is rectangular and easily printable, and because it is Eurocentric. Subsequently the utility-driven distortions of early navigational maps have become the common “mental image” held by Westerners consistent with colonial power and dominance in the 16th century (when the Mercator was developed).

HZ: You sailed around the world for three years in a boat entitled Lazarus, which you rebuilt from hurricane damage. How much of your experiences at sea informed your art once you returned back ashore? (i.e was there a “rebirth” in your work or process?)

MP: The largest gothic cathedral in the Southern Hemisphere is Saint John’s Cathedral in Brisbane Australia. It was under construction when we crossed the Tasman Sea and landed in Brisbane. Since Lazarus would be in port for several weeks, I went to the cathedral and volunteered to help build. The European stone masons first made me prove that I knew how to hold a hammer and chisel, and then asked me to carve a keystone for one of the bell towers at Saint John’s. A Keystone! When you think about the history of architecture, this is a significant development. The keystone changes the shape of the arch, which in turn allows for clustering of columns and the groined vault, which in turn allows for religious structures to be built both higher and with less stone, which in turn allows for the incorporation of the giant stained glass windows that change the quality, color, and brightness of the inside of churches from then on. This physical shift is accompanied by a shift in ideas: the profile of the god that people are coming to worship changed from a god who punishes sinners with the threat of an afterlife in hell, to a savior who, bathed in light, promises eternal salvation in heaven. And so the change in geometry of a simple stone, has a special implication, which encourages a paradigmatic cultural shift. Shaping a stone helped me touch that history and made me feel like I was a part of it. Speaking of stones – there was this other time I climbed up on a very, very large wall stone that had been part of an embattlement on the Turkish shoreline. It sat there for a thousand years, and then when I sat down, it moved.

Sailing across an ocean and landing in an unfamiliar place, with very little money, and maybe not speaking the language at all, or understanding the customs, encourages an itinerant to rebuild his or her understanding of the human environment and one’s place within it. You gain a vantage point outside of yourself in order to position yourself. This is an education that does not adhere to any particular institution except wind, water, people, love and sustenance. Being educated outside the institution in this way plays a distinct role in the way I see the world – and the things I chose to focus on in my artwork.

HZ: We discussed the concept of establishing connectivity between people without the use of language, to the extent where in some circumstances language actually prevents the full expression of communication. Do you feel that your artwork offers a platform upon which said connectivity could transpire and/or become established?

MP: Neurologist VS Ramachandran speculates about the importance of the relationship between the empathic nervous system and human beings’ development of culture. He posits that culture is developed through an ability to understand the psychology of the other. It’s a primal condition experienced through the empathic nervous system. We’ve all felt this primal connection with others and it is absolutely available outside of language based exchanges. In fact, there are times when it is more accessible when language is not pushing us apart. But empathy and expression go together to beget language and culture. Culture can be understood as a code of behavior in relation to shared ethics. High culture is a refined, perhaps hierarchical condition of that code of ethics, and it incorporates many forms of knowledge like history and art. Since knowledge and culture are intimately related in this manner, in this work I think of technology as functioning like a neurological app. It’s an add-on condition that helps generate new cultural codes of informational aesthetics.

HZ: How does color play a role in your work?

MP: The oranges, greens, blues and yellows of Conceptual Parallax are of a late modern palette. This intentionally invokes the conversations about abstraction, line, and form. They are pleasing yet synthetic colors. The orientation of color within the gallery however is keyed by the natural world: blue to the north, green to the south, orange on the horizon, and yellow in the sky.

HZ: What is the most enjoyable part of art making for you?

MP: It’s not “Art’ until it leaves the studio, so if you are asking me what is enjoyable about making “Art’ it is the end of the process when the art is working the way you want it to. The beginning part of the process is all the stuff that happens in studio that never sees the light of day, and this what I consider to be the immersive part – a form of being “lost in the process” of art making. There is a time to think, and there is a time to make. Sometimes I go into studio and I am assessing and evaluating in order to decide if I “like” something. This is what I consider to be the thinking part of my process. I believe that thinking separates the artist from the work. That’s not necessarily a “bad” thing – it is good to be self critical for sure – but for me it is disruptive to the act of art making. Therefore I try to decide what I am going to do (think) in one moment, and then make (do work) in another. Immersion in the process of art making is like being lost in the moment – you are super connected to a process, and disconnected from everything else outside that process. Actually, that is also the fundamental basis of mapping: the incorporation of salient information to establish specific relationships, and the exclusion of information that distracts from those relationships. It’s like you are celebrating a state of mind: strolling down the promenade at sunset holding hands with your sweetheart: a true and present embodiment of being in the moment. But the second that one of you pulls out a camera to attempt to capture the moment, you are no longer in it because, through the lens, you are too aware of yourself in the 3rdperson.

HZ: In art making, do you value concept over object or vice-versa, or both?

MP: Red Line (2012) is a sculpture I completed as artist in residence at Grounds for Sculpture. It’s a large outdoor piece made out of one ton of recycled cotton pulp. It is about the transition of “idea” to “object,” and back again. It is a “true” communal work in the sense that it was developed from collaborative drawings made by local volunteers. All of the drawings were then woven together, which resulted in a linear structure not unlike a map. In some ways, it called into being the life cycle of an idea—in this case a memory—the line drawing that mediates the idea-object, and the object that manifests from that line. The work was installed inside for five months at Grounds for Sculpture before it was transferred outdoors. Once it was sited outside, the sculpture began to erode over time to reveal a drawing in space. Ultimately, Red Line transitioned from a drawing to sculpture, or from a sculpture to a drawing, depending on how you want to understand it.

HZ: How do you compare your approach to creating public work to creating gallery-oriented work?

MP: The gallery presents a specific spatial and contextual condition. Conceptual Parallax works well in a gallery setting because while formally the pieces can stand on their own, they function on the conceptual level more completely when they are together. This is evident in terms of their positioning in the space and their color for sure – but also because you pick up on specific pictorial or graphic qualities in the larger pieces compared to some sculptural qualities in the smaller pieces. In this way, Conceptual Parallax really benefits from a gallery setting. Public work is usually more stand–alone and often monumental. It is as much to be seen, as it is to promote the viewer’s awareness of the work in the landscape. Plus many of the materials that are used in public sculpture carry associations of permanence (stainless steel), architecture (concrete), or figurative (bronze). Who wants to pay for a public work if it’s not permanent? I was really lucky that the Director and Curators at Grounds for Sculpture believed in the ideas behind Red Line, and that they let me create a large public piece that would succumb to nature, which had discrete formal and material stages. This allowed the piece to address time as a limiting factor in understanding an “idea” as ethereal, a drawing as an interstitial phase, and object/ sculpture as an outcome.

HZ: You are the Director of Production Technologies at Pratt and you also teach architecture. How much (if at all) do these practices inform your own artwork?

MP: A good architecture program teaches many of the things a good art program does. Students learn about materials, site context, programmatic demands, historic or precedent studies, philosophy, language of aesthetics, organizational principals – all kinds of things that are interesting to anyone who makes anything. In the process of developing a proposal, the students conduct studies and ongoing research, make drawings and models, and write thesis statements. I think it is a very healthy critical environment in which to belong. There’s no doubt that working in this architectural environment influences my work. Projects like Constructed Portraitswere based on mathematical formulas developed around non-modularity. The formula is the “Parsons Sequence for Non- Modularity” and I couldn’t do it without the help of an actual mathematical theorist. It starts by using math to invert modular tectonics to find expressiveness in geometry. But you know how these things are; the more you say “it’s not architectural” the more you end up addressing fundamental architectural ideas.

HZ: Aside from your recent exhibition, Conceptual Parallax, which is the product of a collaborative effort, have you worked with/as part of any other collectives?

MP: Not as a collective, but I definitely have designed collaborative elements into many of my drawings and sculptures. Some of these are events or happenings like the 30 foot collaborative drawing entitled Shift that I did at EyeBeam last year, or “Hutong” – the drawing I did with students after my lecture at the Central Academy
of Fine Arts in Beijing. The piece that was just purchased by Tulsa International Airport, called Free Field, draws upon collaborative elements with a group of art students from Arlington, a group of science students from Tulsa, and a group of disabled kids from Grand Rapids.

HZ: Do you have a favorite project that you have worked on or piece of art that you have made? If so, why?

MP: The Carto-Graphi-POP series. These are in-process as we speak and I am very excited for these to get out of studio and installed in Brooklyn through a project I’m working on with the Department of Transportation. The Carto-Graphi-POP series is a public work which seeks to “visually enhance the commuting experience for many New Yorkers by providing them with colorful, data–infused street signage” that will give information in the form of 3D maps that pedestrian, bike, and car commuters will enjoy looking at but probably don’t derive any useful information. It will basically tell them what they know, but it will do it in a technologically enhanced fashion. I like to think of it as an informational lollipop people can suck on with their eyes while they grind to work.

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