One of Art Center’s continuing series of thematic shows conflating art, science, and technology, “ENERGY” brought together the drop-dead-gorgeous video projections of Rebeca Méndez, the mysterious photographs of Richard Barnes, and documentation casting a jaundiced eye both on the social celebration of energy exploitation (in film) and the literary mistrust of science (in books). Barnes’ black and white photos observe the swarming of starlings (in “murmurations”) over Rome; Méndez’s wall-filling projections thrust us into the middle of a swaying grass field and a cascading waterfall. Such images are meditative enough, but the centerpiece of the show – a rotating blue sun, its normally black spots radiating brilliant white flares – was downright hypnotic. (Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena CA, ended Jan. 23. www.artcenter.edu) – Peter Frank
Director, Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, Pasadena, California
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?1
—Edgar Allan Poe
The poets haven’t always cared much for science. Odd in a way, since they’ve owned Nature as their subject and loved to rhapsodize about it – that being the very same Nature which is the heart and rationale of science. It must be the way science does Nature, or is perceived to be doing it, that offends the poet’s sensitivities – science probing with cool objectivity, stoic dismemberment, and antiseptic analysis. With nothing sacred, it unemotionally, some say arrogantly, has laid to rest cherished but mistaken beliefs from the past. In 1611, just after Galileo’s momentous astronomical discoveries, the poet and Anglican priest John Donne referenced a budding schism in his long poem The First Anniversary: “[The] new Philosophy calls all in doubt / The Element of fire is quite put out.” Romantics like Walt Whitman later echoed Donne’s theme, and in his 1892 poem When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, he penned his faith in a deeper, for him a more profound, path of comprehension. After sitting through an astronomy lecture full of charts and diagrams, he recalls:
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Emily Dickinson had a fickle, guarded relationship with science. In 1924 she painted in two stanzas a pretty portrait of woods behind her town, coloring the shadows cast by an arching sun, attributing to the mechanics of planetary motion a bit-role to play in the unfolding of sublime:
And the earth, they tell me,
On its axis turned,—
By but twelve performed!2
In his 1917 book On Growth and Form, English biologist D’Arcy Thompson described form as “a diagram of forces” — by which he meant the shape, size and configuration of every living and non-living thing as a record of its reconciliation with natural forces. Thus the form of trees, while sentimentalized by eons of aesthetic reflection and famously enshrined by Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s 1913 poem Trees invoking divine intervention – is, in fact, a decidedly un-sentimental byproduct that has, like a bolt of lightening, taken a path of least resistance or greatest advantage in response to forces exerted upon it. What we see when we gaze upon a tree is the overt imprint of an energy interaction, a living diagram of what the tree ended up looking like after its navigation through, around and against a particular set of forces. It’s not something meant to be poetic, just opportunistic. A grown tree is a map to the path of opportunities it took – the map is the tree and the tree is the map, nothing more. What is at first remarkable – that we are capable of finding the result of such a process to be poetic – becomes ironic when poets propose the beauty of a thing to have been damaged by knowing too many facts about how it came to be. That, however, was the 19th century—Poe, Whitman and others’ romanticism are not necessarily our own.
Thompson offered the seemingly colorless observation that “everything is the way it is because it got that way,” a true statement and yet people and their poets so often regard Nature, the vast petri dish of interlacing energies evolving its existence with little need of our presence, with an overwhelming sense of human-centered purpose. Lurking in this view is a recurrent theme – which is that we commonly describe the ways of science and the ways of art by using terms filled with tension and conflict, as if the two domains reside at polar ends of a spectrum. One wonders which is more profoundly aesthetic: Nature sculpted with divine purpose; or Nature sculpted by casual encounters with random forces of energy that we, by virtue of our privileged chemistry, experience as beautiful. If the latter, the aesthetic lies not in the shape of things, but in us—we, the lucky finders of beauty where it wasn’t meant to be.
The great waterfall Dettifoss in Iceland is a spectacular display of energy, flowing from the Vatnajökull glacier and acquiring its water from a large area in the northeast region of the country. We recognize it as a waterfall but, Thompson-like, we know it is, in fact, how countless water molecules appear when subjected to a moment of interaction with gravity uninterrupted by solid matter. The artist Rebeca Méndez has traveled there, along the rough road leading to Dettifoss, capturing the falls first in 16mm film and then transferring the imagery to high definition video, in order to express as accurately as possible the fall’s rawness and intensity. There is something about the artist’s pilgrimage to a remote natural wonder—not civilized by traces of tourism or mediated by convenience, witnessed only by those willing to endure hardship to reach it—that yields a dividend of compelling authenticity, like an ancient explorer bringing back evidence of new worlds to sting the status quo. Cropped and isolated to focus on its universal power, her gallery installation At Any Given Moment – Fall 1, continues below the video, where a field of lava rocks, the stuff of earth incubated in its deepest furnaces, references primary forces. Fall is elemental and exposed, like the persistent waves in her companion piece At Any Given Moment, Grass 2, where rolling wave patterns perform in a color-field of wild grass, revealing evidence of pressure variations in the air above (wind energy, Thompson again). Alluring as they are, Méndez’s installations remind us that nothing in Nature is inherently beautiful. And perhaps the feelings derived from her thoughtful embrace of its roughness are in part an admiration of our own ability to forge, out of their unintended consequences, an emotional connection with matter and energy. When we respond to their spectacle, we are responding to ourselves as products of Nature—acknowledging we are made, as well, of elements in its cradle.
We live on a planet located in the outer atmosphere of a star. In 2004, two NASA orbiting space observatories named STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory), one ahead of Earth in its orbit and the other trailing behind, began tracing the flow of energy from our star to our planet, snapping pictures at multiple layers of the electromagnetic spectrum. In the ultraviolet range a stunning blue-hued Sun appeared, showing amounts of ionized iron and giving scientists a tool to measure solar temperatures. Iron atoms with missing electrons may not inspire poetry, but the hauntingly blue sun required to see them, could. That dissonant blue, so unlike our familiar star yet maternal in its loveliness, alien and menacing in its display of unimaginable forces, still the symbol of an alluring siren, a giver of life, and a better blue because it feeds our knowing – it is Yves Klein Blue3 dreaming of being bluer—an archeology of blue, a turbulent ocean of blue on fire. After taking upwards of 10,000 years to travel from its core to its surface, energy (blue and otherwise) leaving the Sun requires another eight minutes to reach Earth where it is absorbed by the planet, channeled into its duties of warming the surface, providing for photosynthesis and causing the atmosphere to circulate.
The fuel consumed upon ignition of an internal combustion engine depended on the Sun to begin its eons-long gestation, and so did the evolution of a living species to invent the engine and turn its key. Every living thing is, in some fashion, diagrammed by solar energy. In Murmur, a remarkable series of photographs of starlings flocking over the skies of Rome, New York photographer Richard Barnes shows the harmonics of living energy, from single unit to collective organism. Energy from the Sun is conserved along the food chain, and provides for the livelihood of people, starlings and deep sea corals a mile below the Earth’s surface, while also being captured and transformed into electricity in the solar wings of satellites orbiting far above the planet. Energy is the light switch, heat for the stove, the monthly bill in the mail, the muse of science and stuff of poetry—and, at the same time, the genesis of life, of breath, of love.
In The Two Cultures, a famous 1959 lecture and later published as a book4, the English novelist and physicist C.P. Snow lamented the gulf of separation between the arts and sciences, noting in his address the lingering persuasion of the romantics and others alike, who continued to observe and practice the two domains as distant and incommunicado. People who become scientists or artists may well be different in some fundamental, deep-brain functioning, way. But both peer at Nature. And the science of “dull realities” has proven to be stranger than fiction, with the unknown expanding in all directions like the universe itself —a vast sea of tantalizing questions whose horizon is growing faster than the shore of certainty from which it is observed. The neat bow tied around Isaac Newton’s world and the simple dichotomies of romantic poetry have been tied into complex knots by over a century of physics after Albert Einstein’s 1905 miracle year5 changed concepts of space, time and matter. Today the ways of the two cultures may not seem so dissimilar as Whitman and Poe’s verse portrayed them to be—poets who never had a chance to behold our blue star.
Edgar Allan Poe, excerpt from “Sonnet – To Science,” published 1829.
Emily Dickinson, excerpt from “Poem 6 (Frequently the Woods are pink),” 1924
International Klein Blue (IKB ) was developed by French artist Yves Klein (1928 – 1962) as part of his exploration of abstract painting and performance art. IKB was developed by Klein and chemists to have the same color brightness and intensity as dry pigments.
The talk was delivered by Charles Percy Snow on May 7, 1959, in the Senate House, University of Cambridge, as the annual public Rede Lecture, and subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution later that year.
5 In 1905 Einstein published four outstanding scientific papers, creating the special theory of relativity, the quantum theory of light, a new method of counting and determining the size of the atoms or molecules in a given space, and an explanation of the phenomenon of Brownian motion (particle theory).
Rebeca Méndez nació y creció en la Ciudad de México y recibió su título en Diseño para Comunicación (1984) y su maestría en Arte y Diseño Mediático en el Art Center College of Design en Pasadena, California.
Méndez es una artista que vive en Los Angeles y trabaja en diversos medios, explorando las fuerzas de la naturaleza moduladas a través de la tecnología. Méndez viaja a los rincones más alejados del mundo—de Patagonia a Islandia y el desierto del Sahara—persiguiendo imágenes de una naturaleza ideal y sublime. En su trabajo, ella también explora cuestiones de representación mediática. Su trabajo fotográfico estudia la cotidianidad, la quietud y el vacío, así como el aislamiento de lo temporal en los fenómenos. Sus instalaciones de video son intensos y cautivantes ambientes de ‘paisajes imposibles’ que envuelven al espectador con imágenes y sonidos. (www.rebecamendez.com)
Leyendo tu trayectoria, de inmediato recordé como cuando al entrar a la universidad, uno sueña y desea hacer de todo en la profesión. Y tú lo has hecho realidad. ¿A qué cualidad tuya atribuyes el haber logrado—y seguir alimentando—una trayectoria como ésta?
No creo en las fronteras interdisciplinarias. Dividir el conocimiento en disciplinas se desarrolló principalmente durante los siglos XVII y XVIII, cuando emergieron las teorías empíricas en las ciencias. Esto requiere un enfoque horizontal muy estrecho con un conocimiento vertical muy profundo. Dicho paradigma deshecha por completo el concepto de una persona multi-cultural y de múltiples talentos; una cuyo conocimiento es profundo, pero también amplio (horizontal). Así que, sí, estoy interesada en el conocimiento y las habilidades especializadas—técnicas y/o profesionales—que adquiero me sirven para alcanzar un conocimiento mayor, pero éstas no son un fin en sí mismo.
Además, paso mucho tiempo formando una vida para mí misma, desprendida de la cultura dominante. Practico en mantenerme como un forastero; con una independencia basada en el valorar una vida intelectual y una vida estética. Puedes sentirte muy sola en ese lugar pero, al final, vives tu propia vida en lugar de vivir la de los demás.
¿Qué consejo puedes darle al estudiante que aspira a una carrera como la tuya que le dé la libertad de hacer de todo?
Recuerda que en el corazón de las disciplinas del arte y el diseño se encuentra el análisis; el siempre mantener una postura crítica. También, practica tres cosas simultáneas: 1. Experimenta: Crea trabajos para ti mismo, que sean independientes de tus clientes, los cuales respondan a tus propias preguntas y tu propia curiosidad. 2. Colabora: Crea trabajos y/o un colectivo con tus colegas y amigos, especialmente con aquellos que no pertenezcan a tu disciplina (escritores, arquitectos, artistas, músicos, bailarines). 3. Realiza tu trabajo profesional con integridad: nunca abandones tus convicciones y valores personales.
¿Nos podrías contar acerca de lo que te nutre como artista?
Dicho de manera simple, practico mantener la mente de un principiante—ver al mundo como si fuera por la primera vez— lo cual se ha convertido en mi motor, ya que es lo que mantiene despiertas a mi curiosidad y fascinación por cualquier tema. Me sumerjo en la cultura—leo filosofía contemporánea y teoría crítica, estoy pendiente de los avances en ciencia y tecnología, veo muchas películas independientes, videos musicales, voy a exposiciones de arte contemporáneo y paso mucho tiempo en You-Tube. Aunque a veces estoy de acuerdo con Sartre de que ‘el infierno está en los demás,’ aún disfruto compartir profundamente con las personas, especialmente durante una buena cena y con unas copas; me mantengo en comunión con la naturaleza—los largos viajes por carretera al desierto de California o a tierras distantes (Islandia, Chile, Nigeria) me hacen ‘violentamente feliz’ (Bjork). Pero, principalmente, lo que nutre mi practica artística más es estar en un estado constante de enamoramiento—con mi esposo, mis amigos, mi gato, una nube, Amiina, con una polilla que pasó volando, con la nada, con la vida.
Viendo tu serie Here Over There(en la que la artista documenta a través de fotografías las camas de hoteles en las que ha dormido durante sus viajes por todo el mundo), comenté con Iván Jiménez, (editor de Ene O) acerca de lo que apreciaba en tu trabajo: un deseo de capturar el momento para compartirlo con tu receptor. Él me dijo: “claro, un cuarto de hotel: un lugar al que probablemente nunca volverás”. Recordé entonces una reflexión de un autor cuyo nombre no recuerdo, que asemejaba a la actividad del artista con la de los enamorados que graban su nombre en la corteza de un árbol con la intención secreta de que ese momento dure para siempre. ¿Estarías de acuerdo?
Una observación muy interesante y acertada de mi serie Here Over There… y estoy de acuerdo con el símil de la actividad del artista con la de los amantes que raspan su nombre en la banca del parque. La no-permanencia se ha convertido en mi acompañante y mi memoria, una musa fugitiva. Así que, sí, mantengo, detengo y prolongo un instante. La idea de mis camas de hotel vino de mis intentos desesperados de atrapar el escurridizo recuerdo de un sueño en el instante en que despiertas. Ahora, creo que lo único que puedo recordar es que alguna vez estuve ahí, y eso, es suficiente para mí.
¿Podrías verbalizar tu impulso artístico? Por ejemplo, ¿podrías poner en palabras lo que pasó por tu mente cuando hiciste uno de los encuadres para Here Over There?
Pienso en lo que contesté arriba, pero hay tantos otros impulsos que actúan de manera simultánea… También estoy fascinada por la diferencia. Puedo ver la diferencia de manera más clara cuando me impongo parámetros estrictos de semejanza. Así, tomo las fotos de las camas en el instante en que despierto de la primera noche en el hotel; utilizo la iluminación natural y las luces disponibles (las lámparas que haya en la habitación); realizo una toma frontal, desde mi propia altura, de pie, y hago mi composición usando mi memoria—recordando la última toma que realicé para el proyecto, lo cual inevitablemente se convierte en una variable. Otra variable es mi pulso. No utilizo tripeé por esa razón en específico. Estoy coleccionando camas para, dentro de unos años, ver los patrones de igualdad y diferencia. Este análisis traerá nuevos trabajos.
Como parte de ese capturar el momento para compartirlo, veo en tu trabajo un deseo por franquear los límites del medio que utilizas, sea el que sea, para involucrar a tu receptor; envolverlo con las sensaciones físicas del momento en el que creas o de lo que te inspira; casi de ponerlos bajo tu piel. ¿Te suena cierta esta apreciación de tu trabajo?
Sí. Muy cierto. Cuando conoces por primera vez a alguien que en verdad te agrada, lo observas profundamente, lo escuchas y aprendes; le preguntas e incluso, puedes entrar en una especia de comunión con ella o él. Te encuentras en estado de descubrimiento y, la mayoría de las veces, hay una sensación de fascinación—uno está literalmente hipnotizado. Cuando elijo un tema, me introduzco en ese mismo estado de descubrimiento; quedo cautivada; me disuelvo junto con el tema y nos mezclamos—incorporo el tema de mi obra a mi, a mi cuerpo. Este proceso me fue confirmado cuando leí acerca del compositor contemporáneo Karlheinz Stockhausen, quien piensa que no hay nada en el mundo que no sea un fenómeno vibratorio. Así, la vibración de los otros nos modula, nos cambia y, al final, nos convertimos en ellos y ellos en nosotros.
¿Te has cuestionado acerca de los límites de tu medio para involucrar al espectador con sus otros sentidos? Como con el olfato, por ejemplo. ¿Cómo compartirías, reproducirías o comunicarías el olor de un ser amado, lo que es estar tan cerca de estas personas?
En mis trabajos anteriores he utilizado cera, tierra y papas podridas—lo cual no tiene nada que ver con un amante. Eso fue cuando mi trabajo se enfocaba en temas de identidad, y estaba fuertemente influenciado por Michelle Foucault, Julia Kristeva y George Bataille. Así que, sí, he hecho mi parte de trabajos ‘intensamente olorosos’ y, sí, estos definitivamente se apoderaban de ti, al grado que mi estudio durante mucho tiempo fue inhabitable. Es probable que vuelva a explorar el olor como una extensión de la experiencia, pero, por el momento, estoy explorando el sonido. Actualmente, estoy trabajando con proyecciones y sonidos digitales. Estoy colaborando con Jorge Verdin, del colectivo Nortec, en una pieza interactiva que utilizará 5 proyectores. Las imágenes pertenecen a mi viaje a Islandia el verano pasado. Mi proyecto About to Happen es el inicio de trabajar con este material filmado en Islandia.
“La modernidad del Siglo XX instauró en el diseño una profunda visión de ’profesionalismo’—de poseer una objetividad fría y neutral – que se ha manifestado principalmente a través de una actitud muy poco crítica de ‘servicio a la industria,’ la cual ha demostrado ser poco adecuada al mundo actual que pide a gritos que la gente se preocupe, involucre, responsabilice y comprometa.’ Éste es uno de los temas de la conferencia Design as a Social Force que ofreciste en conjunto con tu socio, el escritor Adam Eeuwens, durante un foro organizado por la organización Peace Over Violence,según tengo entendido por tu página web. ¿Qué barrera crees que se encuentra entre la mayoría de los diseñadores, y los nuevos diseñadores, para involucrarse de manera más activa con el mundo?
(Por cierto, la lectura que mencionas fue organizada por el Centro de Artes y Ciencias de la Universidad de California de Los Ángeles, como parte de una serie de conferencias de Arte y Activismo. El proyecto que presentamos fue realizado en colaboración con una organización llamada Peace Over Violence, para la cual creamos un nombre y un programa de identidad de marca integrado. En el 2004, mi estudio tomó una sincera decisión de donar nuestros servicios creativos a ‘La Comisión de Los Ángeles para los Asaltos contra las Mujeres.’ Nos hemos convertido en los conductores de marca de la agencia y seguimos conduciéndolos a través de su proceso de reconstruir su marca. El trabajo que presentamos en el sitio, es lo que hemos logrado con fondos extremadamente limitados, pero con la dedicación incansable de grandes hombres y mujeres que creen que la violencia se puede prevenir y que la paz es alcanzable).
Durante los últimos años, he pensado mucho acerca de tu pregunta, sin embargo, me la hago a mi misma; el porqué no estoy más involucrada con la formación de nuestro mundo. Mi conferencia para la serie de Arte y Activismo de la Universidad de California de Los Ángeles indaga esa pregunta. Intentaré resumir una conferencia de dos horas—la cual todos ustedes pueden descargar y echar un vistazo de los archivos de UCLA DIMA EDA bajo la fecha: 04/19/07.
Desde el instante que el diseño emergió como una disciplina durante la década de los veintes, ésta fue estrechamente vinculada con una visión del mundo utópica e idealista. Ésta comenzó con la revolución rusa de octubre de 1917. Esta Revolución había de producir una nueva sociedad en la que las cosas buenas de la vida no estarían reservadas para una elite únicamente, sino serían compartidos por todos. Fue en ese espíritu que se formó la Bauhaus. Lo que es importante acerca de esta era es que el arte, la ciencia, la tecnología y la política se inspiraban e influenciaban entre ellas, y los experimentos del arte, la ciencia y la tecnología eran inspirados por ideas socio-políticas. El idealismo y la utopía servían como faros que alumbraban el camino hacia un futuro inimaginable de justicia política y social. Pero el idealismo y lo utópico se estropearon por los dogmas, la tiranía y la ingenuidad. El idealismo de la justicia socio-política –como una de las ‘grandes narrativas’- ha muerto. Pero las ideas y una especie de idealismo que es más pequeño, más modesto, rápido y más provisional, sí es posible. Éste puede encontrarse en lo que se hay entre las cosas – entre lo local y lo global; entre las disciplinas y los medios; entre las prácticas artesanales y la filosofía. El filósofo holandés Henk Oosterling esboza en su libro ‘The World Must Change: Graphic Design and Idealism’ la genealogía de un idealismo moderno. Él cree que los diseñadores, a través de ‘su tan bien construido acercamiento interactivo, multi-mediático e interdisciplinario’ (él llama a este complejo tan dinámico ’intermediabilidad’), pueden ser una influencia socio-política y anticiparse a los cambios. Una reestructuración del idealismo –en cuyo corazón está la idea- puede ser formulado nuevamente. Oosterling afirma que “ésta es menos una cuestión de emancipación que una de sensibilidad – es decir, lo que tiene sentido, lo que sensibiliza- hacia lo que se encuentra entre los estilos de vida postmodernos… El idealismo se ha convertido en una logística del pensamiento sensato: una realidad creable.”
En dicha conferencia, tengo entendido que apuestas por un diseñador que centre su mirada en el mundo y menos en los conocimientos técnicos y estéticos de la profesión. Sin embargo, en el mercado, actualmente se le exige a los diseñadores un tremendo cúmulo de conocimientos técnicos, cada vez por sueldos más bajos, debido al exceso de diseñadores en la fuerza laboral. Comprometerse con una situación difícil estando en una situación difícil es, hasta cierto punto, como pedir sacrificio en tiempos de supervivencia. ¿Cómo llamarías a tus colegas a asumir su compromiso como diseñadores?
El sacrificio es necesario de cualquier forma: o sacrificas tu estilo de vida o sacrificas tu voz. Recomiendo fuertemente a los diseñadores que no entren a trabajar a una compañía grande o transnacional durante los primeros dos años después de que se hayan graduado. Formen colectivos y consigan compañeros de cuarto para vivir juntos, así tendrán tiempo para encontrar sus voces propias como comunicadores. Es por eso que los movimientos de “hágalo usted mismo” (‘do it yourself’) están ganando tanto ímpetu. Y, si te vas a unir (a una empresa de ese tipo), entonces debes practicar tu profesión de manera paralela y por tu propia cuenta. Eso fue lo que yo hice. No sólo necesitaba un trabajo porque tenía que sobrevivir, sino también porque estaba en los Estados Unidos y necesitaba tener a alguien que me patrocinara para tener un permiso de trabajo. De más de 30 cartas que envié para pedir trabajo y patrocinador, un despacho fue el que me respondió, ofreciéndome un puesto. Así, mantuve mi trabajo personal y practica como independiente por las noches y los fines de semana.
En el tema del compromiso, ¿cómo logras tú un equilibrio entre tu vida personal y tu trabajo, cuando éste es tan extenso y demandante? ¿Alguna vez has cuestionado el sacrificio que seguramente has tenido que hacer?
Toda decisión requiere sacrificio. Yo he sacrificado mucho: he perdido relaciones, he perdido sueño (2:18 a.m. y heme respondiendo a tu cuestionario), he perdido aspectos de mi salud física. Pero he ganado demasiado. No pienso mucho acerca de eso. En este momento me siento muy contenta y realizada. Estoy comprometida a una vida valorando lo estético, la libertad y el mantenerme independiente de las expectativas de los demás, y estoy dispuesta a pagar todo el precio de admisión a esta forma de llevar mi vida.
Director, Art Center Alumni Association
On the evening of December 15, 2004, I met with Mark Breitenberg, Chair of Liberal Arts and Sciences, at the home of Rebeca Mendez (GRPK ’84 MFA NEWM ’97), professor at UCLA, Design | Media Arts and husband Adam Eeuwens. We hoped to follow the trail of a conversation on intuition—a dialogue we started during a panel discussion at a recent San Francisco alumni event. Rebeca and Mark had served as panel participants along with Saiman Chow (ILLU ’00), Tia Kratter (ILLU ’80), and Nathan Shedroff (TRAN ’89). We arranged this meeting knowing that Rebeca and Adam were particularly well-suited guides for an exploration of the topic of intuition. As part of the Ogilvy and Mather Brand Integration Group, Los Angeles, they worked together on an extensive project developing the global brand campaign for Trend Micro, a multi-national antivirus/content protection provider, based primarily on a narrative around intuition via the ancient game of Go.
Rebeca and Adam begin the conversation by sharing anecdotes about this elusive topic of intuition, revealing that when they talk about it as an integral part of the creative process, people react strongly. These reactions indicate a pattern: people tend to either privilege intuition as a mysterious thing belonging only to artistic genius, or they discredit the value of even needing to understand it as it relates to art and design.
‘Intuition has been central in my work and research for the past 10 years,’ Rebeca tells, ‘At the recent AIGA National Conference on Education in Chicago, I argued that intuition is too easily disregarded as a “feeling,’ an obscure inspiration, or a chaotic sympathy, when it is one of the most fully developed methods in philosophy. To quote 20th-Century French Philosopher Henri Bergson, who dedicated a great part of his life to develop a philosophy of intuition: ‘Intuition—creative emotion—is an internal force that life carries within itself and it is the positive dynamic of being.’ Bergson, followed by Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze, are some of the philosophers who, vehemently, opposed the dualistic thinking that has characterized Western metaphysics since Plato. And intuition definitely has found no place in the arcane Platonic paradigm that unfortunately still plagues current thought.’ Adam recalls the Fuse ’98 Conference in 1998, where, after Rebeca gave her talk on the topic, CalArts teacher Mr. Keedy in his address showed an image of a squirrel, and asked the assembled designers ‘from now on to leave intuition to our furry, little friends.’ Rebeca comments ‘This reaction exemplifies the unfortunate common mistake of thinking that instinct and intuition are one and the same.’
Mark jumps in to offer context, namely, a lineage of related terms historically unexamined at different cultural moments: creativity, imagination, genius, instinct… and the list continues. He cites his favorite Nietzsche aphorism, ‘Trust your feelings! Trust your feelings! But feelings are nothing final or original; behind feelings there stand judgments and evaluations which we inherit in the form of feeling—our inclinations and aversions.’ (Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, book 1, aphorism 35). What Nietzsche is getting at, Mark says, is that feelings (like intuition) ‘are an amalgamation of a whole bunch of things that are going on: prejudices, rational thinking, the body’s reaction to what ever is in front of you. Intuition is a word comprised of elements not easily understood, with an interesting, messy history.’ With this, he proposes a task for us: ‘Let’s arrive at a thesis about intuition, to begin to really unpack the meaning of the word, to articulate what exactly it is that happens when we ‘just know.’
The task turns out to be too much for the four of us on the eve of our respective holiday vacations, on a night with cocktails and good company. But through our conversation about Rebeca’s work, and her personal and professional collaborations with Adam, we did get somewhere: a location solid enough to offer you some thoughts about intuition as a way of perceiving and achieving a new direction that the mind trusts by virtue of its experience—even when language or rationality cannot immediately offer a justification for this direction, or map out the path.
In her contribution for David Carson’s book ‘2nd Sight’ (1997) Rebeca describes how creative solutions come to her: ‘My mind rushing, oscillating from past to future—from memory to projection—in a flash of total awareness I am reminded of my body when suddenly for a little glitch in time I have insight into a ‘knowing in totality’ that resonates inside and beyond my self (…) From one moment to the next I perceive beyond my physical senses. I am present and in action. And I listen, with a bit of fear and uncertainty, and incorporate the pulse into my rhythms and become the flow.’
If, as Mark proposes, ‘the mental process of intuition mirrors that of interdisciplinary thinking, [and] what you’re getting with intuition is kind of a jump where two things aren’t usually connected in your own mental archive,’ then Rebeca’s work exemplifies intuition in action. As she discusses several of her projects, it becomes clear that Rebeca’s work is an ideal primer for understanding how to leverage intuition in creative life and beyond. She renders many of her innovative visions with an evident trust that allows her to secure unlikely points of connection between things as apparently disparate as body, machine, plant, earth, culture, and reason. As a designer she retraces these veins back into formats as unbending as a corporate identity document.
In 2001, while she was creative director leading the Brand Integration Group at Ogilvy & Mather in Los Angeles, the Taiwanese security software firm Trend Micro came looking for a global brand campaign. The brief told the story of how the company was the first to foresee viruses migrating from diskettes to e-mail. Asked how he can predict the virus market so well the CEO simply answered ‘I just know.’ Rebeca immediately zoomed in on this apparently intuitive ability and made it core to the campaign.
Her husband, Adam (who is co-author of False Flat: Why Dutch Design is So Good published by Phaidon), played a key role in turning this strategy into story. Hired as a researcher he learnt virus protection is all about pattern recognition, which is a main attribute of intuition too. Looking for an apt visual metaphor Adam found one in the ancient board game of Go, a game the computer can’t beat humans at. Apparently it takes more than raw processing power. It takes the experience of an expert and the short cuts that intuitive insights allow to master this game. On top of this perfect fit with the clients’ strategy, the black and white Go-stones formed grateful grids and meticulous motifs to design with.
To bolster their argument they collected numerous quotes from luminaries like Einstein, who wrote that ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and forgotten the gift.’ ‘There is only the way of intuition,’ Einstein said, ‘it is the free invention of the imagination.’ Carl Jung described intuition as ‘one of the four ways human beings process the world,’ placing intuition as ‘the function by which one can see around corners.’ Virologist Jonas Salk,who discovered the polio vaccine, said, ‘Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.’
While straying a distance from Mark’s proposed task to fully unravel and define intuition, in the end, we arrive at this consensus: intuition is a word that has been employed to describe a capacity of our mental process that science and culture have not yet fully explored. The primary characteristic of this function is the ability to quickly make a leap of imagination by recognizing the patterns, trained by experience. In this way, it mirrors an interdisciplinary endeavor by bringing together one or more disparate bodies of knowledge to answer a question, resulting in an innovative approach. In art and in life, the ability to trust the direction intuition points out for us is only half the battle. The greater work, and success, comes from designing a way to reach that very new destination.
Director, Art Center Public Programs.
ADDC, GRPK, ’84
ACCD, MFA, New Media ‘96
Since leaving her native Mexico City at age 18, much of Rébeca Mendez’s life has been tied to her alma mater, Art Center. She served as design director for Art Center’s design office from 1989 to 1996, overseeing some 300 projects a year. She also taught for over 10 years in the undergraduate Graphic Design department and was adviser to the Graduate Department of Communication and New Media. Currently, Rebeca Méndez is professor at UCLA Design | Media Arts Department, where she has been charged with revitalizing and leading the undergraduate department. Her career extends in various areas of practice—academic, cultural and corporate simultaneously, and her work has been recognized by institutions such as the SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, where she has had solo exhibitions, and her work has become part of their permanent collections. Through her business, RMCD: Rebeca Méndez Communication Design, she has collaborated with video artist Bill Viola, architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis, architect Greg Lynn, GLFORM, and with film director Mike Figgis. RMCD’s clients include, The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, The Guggenheim Berlin, The Getty Museum and MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Los Angeles. As creative director of Brand Integration Group, Ogilvy & Mather, NY and Los Angeles (1999–2003), Rebeca lead brand identity projects for clients such as IBM, Motorola, BP (British Petroleum), and Mattel. Recently, Méndez was invited to and won a competition to design the user interface to the ‘MICROSOFT HOME’—the premier venue for communicating what Microsoft sees as possible for technology in the home. Rebeca Méndez lectures nationally and internationally and her work has been subject of numerous publications and exhibitions such as ‘Clean New World: Culture, Politics and Graphic Design, 2002’, ‘Women Designers in The USA, 1900–2000: Diversity and Difference, 2001’, ‘The National Design Triennial: Design Culture Now, 2000’, and ‘Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture’, 1996.
Our interview took place in her living room at her Altadena home.
L: Leslie Marcus
R: Rebeca Mendez
L: Are there any ideas that you formed while you were in school at Art Center that are still fundamental for you, that you continue to draw from today?
R: When I arrived in this country I started at Art Center almost immediately, but I could not understand the language. [Coming to Art Center] made me develop a very strong sense of perception. I learned to read people. I learned to read the subtle expressions of behavior, body language, faces, and the tonality of words. I had to develop my greater perception in a much more acute way because English as a language was still unclear to me. And today, when I’m developing somebody’s brand, when I’m listening to them, not only am I listening to their words, but I am attentive and aware of every sign that they put out. That might sometimes contradict what they are telling me in the words. So my fascination with semiotics—the study of signs as part of social life— was initiated then.
L: You originally thought you were going to be a mathematician. How did that turn into a career in design?
R: Well, in my high school in Mexico, in the 11th grade you have to choose your area of study, so I chose mathematics and physics, not only because I effortlessly excelled at these subjects, but I wanted to be an astronaut. This choice was inspired by the passion my parents (both Chemical Engineers) instilled in me for science, and my visiting NASA in Houston when I was 9 years old. But when you’re fifteen, sixteen, it’s so easy to be swayed by your peers. My classmates would say, “Oh, you’ll end up being a lab rat.” Sounded miserable. Fascinated by the creative fields of study, I thought, okay, maybe I should be an architect. But, again, I was talked out of it by my uncle, who was a practicing architect. He thought architecture was a very frustrating field. So I was very lost for a while, as my decisions were so weightless. I knew I loved architecture. I loved science. So finally, my cousin Laura, who was studying industrial design, invited me to her university in Mexico, and introduced me to graphic design. I was sent to the United States to study at my father’s suggestion. I understood he saw an opportunity that he didn’t have, and now I’m grateful for it, but I came reluctantly to this country. I soon saw that my mind as a designer thought similarly to my mind as a young mathematician, in that I draw from a vast pool of random elements, I observe and recognize patterns, make organizations and strategies, and assign form and location.
L: Was it difficult for you to find a balance between your scientific mind and your artistic impulses?
R: I don’t place art on the other side of science. Science and art both require the logical, rational mind, but also science and art need the force of life, the force of sensation. To think rationally, is easier to conceive of than to think creatively. Here is where sensation comes in. To allow for the force of sensation to be perceived, you need to have your radar of perception finely tuned. And you need to thoroughly feel—to listen, to see, to touch, to smell and to taste. Quiet your mind and be present and aware. Then bring this information into your mind and you’re not just capable of thought, but of intuition. Albert Einstain said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Science is in a fascinating place, where logic and reason have fallen short in explaining the complexities of the behavior of the universe.
I’ve learned that many things that are intelligent and powerful are not necessarily rational. Nature’s most destructive expressions like earthquakes, tsunamis, could seems irrational, yet they are perfectly intelligent and necessary for balancing earth’s forces. Design is appropriate for a person like me, with interests in reason—logic and order, and interests in the senses as a radar of perception which is meaning giving. So, it is not difficult to balance my scientific mind with my artistic mind, but as I have to understand everything with both minds,
I’m also a Gemini, so suspending the opposites seems to be my cross.
My production company is called ‘reasonsense’, where the intelligence of reason brings logic and order, and where the intelligence of the senses are meaning giving. A balance of mind and heart is necessary to allows for intuition—instinct brought to consciousness— Putting so much focus on reason alone has limited human power. Now, I think science is right to consider the irrational or the inexplicable because more and more, science cannot explain things.
L: Some areas of science are more willing to accept or make room for things that can’t be proven.
R" Exactly. When I was getting my master’s degree my main influence was Henry Bergson, the French philosopher. Much of his life was dedicated to his theory of intuition as a fully developed philosophical method. It is unfortunate that Intuition in general in the Western world is dismissed as merely being ‘a feeling, or an inspiration.’ Bergson said that instinct elevated to consciousness is intuition. Imagine the level of intelligence that is instinct, every cell, a full organism. Now imagine that brought to consciousness.
Our actions come from a very aware and informed place, but not just within your mind. In the world of marketing, you are supposed to have emotional or intuitive ideas that just really grab you and bypass all your rational defenses. Unfortunately, this data is jumped on and corrupted by the so-called marketing experts.
L: The bottom-line folks.
R: Marketers and large corporations aren’t ready to allow intuition and life itself to flow. And it’s sad because so many important and evolutionary ideas are killed off in the first conversation. You might get a good response and then it’s “Wait, no. This is not normal. This is not what we expected. This is not the way we do things.” Artists and scientists and designers will discover new ways of seeing, the new ways of expressing ideas. But it is up to the marketers in the end… It is like oil and water. The interests of most businesses are not the interests of the progress of a civilization. I personally want to be helping to form a better world.
L: How do you make a new client identify with your passion?
R: By giving them something that they’ve never seen before. Get them to change their perspective, and guide them to ask more appropriate and relevant questions. Motorola wanted us to help them gain more market share by creating a ‘dazzling new look’ for a campaign. After some thorough research, knowing that a ‘new look’ was not the solution, we came back with ideas of how to arrive at that goal through reviewing their relationship to their carriers. We’re more interested in helping businesses evolve; that is more interesting than just giving them a new facade.
L: Why did you choose to stay in Los Angeles? Do you feel that it affects how you work or the way you’re able to work?
R: The reality is that it took me a long time to even try to embrace this place. I still don’t think I truly I have. I don’t think I will. Even to call it my home took me fifteen years. I always thought that this was a transitory location. I was yanked out of a country and a life I loved at a critical point in my development and success—at 17 I was national champion in gymnastics in Mexico City, training to go to the Olympics of 1980 in Moscow—and was thrown into a country whose culture and politics I seriously criticized (and I still do). So, it’s an understatement to say I went through an identity crisis, where my first thought was of complete loss, and in that emptiness, I understood (many years later) that in change and therefore in the beginner’s mind there are always many, many possibilities. Berson says something like, ‘to ‘identify’ is to live in the past and therefore static. It is by being in constant becoming—present and in action—that one experiences the full force of life.’ So I try to live embracing change, which also seems to be the LA ‘modus operandi’.
L: It’s true, this place keeps you in a constant state of evolution.
R: Yes, it’s like Kundera’s ‘Unbearable lightness of being’ where the environment and local culture makes permanency an impossibility. I philosophically love change, detachment, solitude, and evolution, but practically, the sense of emptiness and meaninglessness that radical change sometimes brings about leaves me hollow.
(Yes, and you know, I don’t belong to any associations or anything because it solidifies my identity. And identity or intimacy sometimes acts as a weight that keeps you from becoming. At the same time, it is a very lonely place to be, very lonely, because in many ways at times, there’s a nothingness, there’s an emptiness. )
L: Who are your heroes?
R: My father. He’s amazing. If anybody has been able to sustain a life of change, it’s him. He just comes out with the most amazing attitude and zest for life, knowledge, and discovery. I’ve never seen him bored. He’s 67. Most people at that age are so jaded. He is still has that beautiful curious mind of a child. There are no limitations, there’s no fear in him. Then, oh, Agustin [Garza]. He’s very similar. He’s got qualities like my dad. I admire immigrants. The resilience of human kind. I mean, I really see that they are people who leave themselves to come to an unknown place. Out of nothing they make amazing things. That’s remarkable.
L: As someone with a varied cultural background, do you try to reach out to international audiences and wrestle with what globalization means?
R: For IBM and Motorola, I’ve had to work on global brands, and what I’ve found out is that globalization has to ‘iron out difference’ in order to be economically favorable, which I think is detrimental to people and culture. But I am interested in going back to my Mexican heritage. I have been gone for 24 years. It’s time to remember and build a bridge.
L: How has technology affected the way you think about the future?
R: Right now what is most exciting to me is where technology might go. The distance between thought and execution is getting shorter and shorter and shorter. We’re talking about being able to interpret bits of mind, like an electric interface of the mind. The more we become the things we create, the more power we will gain from our creations. Too much of our technology substitutes our own capacity, and that’s one of our big problems as a species. Substitution. Giving away our power to technology.
L: Are you optimistic about the future?
R: I am optimistic as much as one can be optimistic with just having this presidency. (Laughs.) I’m less idealistic and more hopeful in my own self. I will know what to do. I don’t know how far I will be able to influence others. Whereas before I used to believe in massive change, for now I believe in self-change.
L: What role might designers play in the future?
R: Visionaries and therefore business partners. In order to achieve this, emphasis needs to be placed in the design field forming it’s own discourse. This can be done through being more critical of the field. Architecture has been much more successful in evolving the filed through discourse. Not just theoretical, but practical. Designers will remain being ‘cake decorators’ if the emphasis is focused on technique and formal solutions.
L: What is the main challenge designers face in the next ten years?
R: If the designer does not claim the ‘thinking of ideas’ part of the creative process and remains a ‘decorator’, the designer will continue to be at the end of the food chain. And as economies get tighter, decoration becomes difficult to justify.
L: Any last thoughts? Or advice for design students?
R: Remain with a beginner’s mind. And that’s very much in Shunryu Suzuki-roshi’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The beginner’s mind is always full of possibility. In the expert’s mind, there’s none.
Associate Director, Institute of Multimedia Literacy, USC
‘I simply must have her,’ says director Mike Figgis speaking with the utter charm that only a British accent affords, and the vehemence allowed only to film directors of note. ‘She’s extraordinary. A poet. I couldn’t stop listening to her.’ The wild-haired Figgis, who has himself been known to wax poetic on the topic of moving images, was expounding on the talents of filmmaker Rebeca Méndez, whom he hoped to lure to the set of his improv, four-camera extravaganza Time Code 2000, now shooting in around West Hollywood. Méndez and Figgis had just shared a microphone on the ‘Future of Filmmaking’ panel at the Los Angeles iteration of ResFest Digital Film Festival, and like many of us, Figgis was taken by the younger director’s poetic and philosophical musings on the role of images in contemporary culture.
Known variously as the ‘queen of plastics,’ a design professor, and the writer/director of the short films ‘Orpheus Re:visited’ and ‘The Malady of Death,’ Méndez has enjoyed an eclectic career. In 1991 she became the design director at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, where she currently teaches digital filmmaking. She also runs her own design company called reasonsense® and has created projects as varied as elaborate and stunning posters for L.A.’s Getty Art Museum, multimedia installations using video, and numerous book and catalog projects, as well as several short films.
While in the ResFest panel, Méndez talked about the dire effects of collage on contemporary identity, and the sense of disconnection wrought by an aesthetic based on fragmentation and discontinuity. Her current mandate is to promote continuity and a kind of embodied sensing, based to some extent on the distinction made by French cultural theorist and fiction writer Helene Cixous. ‘I want to think about continuity and the voluptuous,’ she says passionately, ‘and the ways in which a body is a sensing body, an animate organism.’
In a similar trajectory characterizes ‘Orpheus,’ a collaboration with Rick Morris that recently screened at ResFest…The six minute short, which was shot with Sony MiniDV cameras and edited on a Mac using Premiere, AfterEffects, and Media 100, is indeed lovely both visually and in illustrating the dichotomy that so absorbs the filmmaker. The film also introduces a new filmmaking talent—this is the first film that Méndez has sent out into the world, and if ResFest is any indication, she will enjoy a strong critical response.
Curator of Architecture and Design, SFMOMA
With a gesture and a caress, Rebeca Méndez draws graphic design away from the cool world of lines and letter faces and into a more sensual reality. Her designs are alive with color and gauzy with suggestion. Relying on a palette of soft tones, a language of curves and sweeping arcs, and the mutating of images through the application of screens, Méndez massages her posters, books, and identity materials into designed objects that seem to have bodies.
This exhibition—organized by SFMOMA Curator of Architecture and Design Aaron Betsky—presents approximately twenty books and posters that demonstrate Méndez’s sensual treatment of the printed page.
Méndez is both an artist and a graphic designer. She is a master at organizing information into minimal yet clear blocks. What is distinctive about her work is what happens around and underneath this information. In one catalogue for Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, for example, she perforated the pages so that it can be read the usual way or assembled into collages by separating the book at a center horizon line and reading top and bottom in different sequences.
In more recent work, Méndez has adopted the curved containing lines and metallic types associated with the revival of 1970’s imagery, but she softens and heightens the impact of the works by washing it with fluorescent yellows and greens. Her catalogue for the Bill Viola retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (coming to SFMOMA in 1999) is infused with the deep colors used by Viola so that the book pays homage to the magic of the artist’s work.”
Rebeca Méndez continues the series of exhibitions of female graphic designers whose work is included in SFMOMA’s permanent collection of architecture and design.
Curator of Design, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
Among Méndez’s recent projects is a series of vast murals for the Las Vegas restaurant Tsunami created in collaboration with architect Thom Mayne and his office Morphosis. The ‘pan-Asian’ menu of the restaurant eliminates distinctions among cultures and cuisine, allowing flavors, ingredients, and cooking methods to merge into a free-form vocabulary. Reflecting on the themed content of the restaurant, Méndez developed narratives of visual dissolution, in which discrete elements melt seamlessly into each other. To produce the project, she directed an underwater film shoot of a Japanese woman, who appears in the murals to dissolve and disappear into waves of imagery.
Méndez’s architectural projects are an extension of the books and catalogues she has produced for cultural organizations such as the Art Center College of Design, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In her publication designs, Méndez develops pristine organizational structures that interact with the organic flow of content. The challenge in designing catalogues of visual art is to create a welcoming and accessible stage for the artifact while giving the print environment its own identity and character.
Rebeca Méndez enables two-dimensional surfaces to harbor illusions of depth, endowing them with such physical qualities as translucency and tension. From the tidy rectangle of the page to the immersive scenario of an architectural interior, she transforms images from static, self-contained objects to open, flowing fields for visual experience.