I WANT TO BELIEVE
Moreau Art Galleries, Saint Mary's College (Notre Dame, IN), April 18-25, 2017.
During the Summer of 2016, I was awarded a Saint Mary's College SISTAR Research Grant to work with rising senior Elise de Somer on a project titled “What is it like to be a thing?” Our SISTAR research project delved into the philosophy known as Object-Oriented Ontology (or OOO). We crafted a reading list (with help from Prof. Aaron Moe), read and discussed OOO, and used our readings and discussions as departure points for independent bodies of creative work.
I focused on designing a process of working that embodied OOO methods of inquiry. In the design and fabrication of creative work for this exhibition, I had two overriding goals…and I ran into one typical OOO pitfall.
Goal #1: Use objects to mediate other objects (that I create).
During our OOO research, I became increasingly fascinated with objects that humans imbue with “magical” or “special” powers. Not ritualistic objects used in faith-based systems, but rather imaginative folk objects that do impossible things and elicit a high degree of skepticism in the contemporary world (17th century witch bottles, for example, that were embedded into the walls of a home to counteract evil spells). “The world is not the world as manifest to humans; to think a reality beyond our thinking is not nonsense, but obligatory” Graham Harman writes. These magical folk objects seemed to hold potential in my understanding of how objects are acted upon and act upon their environment (even if those objects are human constructs).
Since my creative research is related to game theory and mechanics, this inquiry led me to fortune telling games, specifically the Lenormand fortune telling card system. Lenormand cartomancy was the invention of Marie Anne Lenormand in the late 18th century, who was a famed fortune teller in Parisian high society (legend has it her most famed clients were Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte). Unlike other forms of card-based fortune telling (namely Tarot card systems), the Lenormand card systemfocuses on the subject’s place in a situation—as an object or component in the physical world or circumstance—rather than how the subject feels about that situation (which is typical of Tarot).
For my creative part of our SISTAR project, I mediated my proposed series of quilts using this object-based fortune telling card system. In other words, I “read the fortunes” of each quilt using Lenormand cartomancy. I circumvented my role as the artist determining the nature of each object (authoring the meaning or context of the object), and I used the Lenormand card system to determine that meaning or context. Although I did learn how to read the image symbols of each card through repetition, I relied heavily on reference books that explained how each symbol in the 36 card system could be interpreted. Additionally significant is the ephemerality of the reading for the object-subject. In other words, each quilt is contextualized according to a particular reading on a specific date. Subsequent readings will surely result in different contexts for the object-subject. Stylistically, the video readings were based on cartomancy videos found on youtube.
 ed. Levi Bryant, Nick Smicek, Graham Harman, On the Undermining of Objects: Grant, Bruno and Radical Philosophy, The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (re.press, 2011), p. 26.
Goal #2: Improvisationally create object-subjects as much as possible.
In light of my first goal—to mediate objects I create with other objects—it became apparent that the objects functioning as subjects for the Lenormand readings should be improvisationally designed. This completely rearranged the working methods I use in my studio. I used bags of scrap fabrics purchased from fabric stores, ebay, and Etsy. I didn’t see samples of the scraps beforehand, and encouraged irregular and even “unusable” scraps be included. Filler fabrics were purchased prior to receiving the scrap bags, or were upcycled from clothes and other materials purchased at thrift stores. I hand-dyed backing fabrics independently of the design and layout of quilts, as well. The screenprinted elements were created independently of the quilts; I screenprinted a library of design elements that I used improvisationally during the fabrication period. I began all the quilts without a pattern or preset plan. I restricted myself to using only what I had already purchased and had available in my studio at the time I created this body of work. In using these methods, I sought to maximize the potential that the Lenormand card system could have in determining the “nature” or context for each object-subject.
Pitfall: All-seeing eyes and a talking table
“There’s nothing wrong with a bit of anthropormorphism. Indeed, according to OOO, that’s what we can’t help doing. Pencils pencilmorph everything in the same way." Timothy Morton, “Anthropomorphism,” Ecology Without Nature, December 22, 2010.
Included with the series of quilts is a sound installation titled “Transmogrification Station.” Transmogrification means to transform in a surprising or magical manner. To “transmog” is also a component of the open-world videogame World of Warcraft. Players can alter their appearance, objects, and armor at the highest levels of game play using the transmog feature. “Transmogrification Station” asks the player to pick a card and wave it over the all-seeing eye. The “magical transformation” of the player (or is it the table?) is mediated by an object to object relationship—the cards to the table—rather than a human to object relationship. Technically-speaking, the “magic cards” are RFID cards, each with a unique 8-digit code. Each card has a sound element randomly assigned to it, using a program written for the Arduino microcontroller. When the player waves the RFID card over the all-seeing eye, they are really waving it over an embedded RFID sensor that reads the unique code, and plays the random sound element associated with that code. Sounds are either human-like and anthropomorphize the table (a burping noise, a sneeze, heavy breathing), or are sounds I imagine a table might overhear (a conversation among college students, an outdoor café in Paris, a courthouse waiting area). Most of the sounds were recorded by me; others came from an open source/public domain site.