It’s not unusual to see the work of an engineer at an art museum—especially here in Milwaukee. From the first step under the stunning Brise Soleil in the Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum, it becomes clear that an incredible mind must have devised this unique building. But what you may not know is that inside this engineering marvel, there is artwork by another artist with an engineering background: Jim Campbell’s Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio.
Campbell’s path to the art world was certainly unconventional. Early in life, he seemed poised to follow a successful career path as an electrical engineer, graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But it was during these years of intensive study that a second passion began to emerge. For Campbell, MIT was “the most neurotic place I have ever been, and so I started doing photography and filmmaking to balance the environment and situation that I was in. I made art to stay sane” (interview with Art Practical, 2011). After graduation, he continued to delve ever deeper into art, experimenting with the use of LED lights as a medium. What had begun as a simple stress-relief activity soon turned into a lifelong vocation.
Campbell’s non-traditional background is reflected in his artwork. Using strands of LEDs, Campbell creates displays of flickering light which, if viewed from the correct angle, project scenes from video footage. His piece on display here at the Museum consists of a series of strands hung in a gradient such that the distance between the strands increases from left to right. Their intermittent illumination, reflected on the bare wall behind, is timed to create the perception of a simple video: the view from a cab window during a ride through a city. On the left side of the work, the closely-clustered strands of lights create a relatively clear image, such that a casual observer is likely to recognize the scenes being shown. However, as the strands are positioned farther and farther apart, the light becomes more diffuse, so that by the time one reaches the right side of the work, the resulting image has become blurry and unclear.
In a way, this distortion actually mirrors the sensation of riding in a car, where objects approaching in the road ahead are clearly visible for a few moments, but then soon shift into the observer’s hazy peripheral vision as they ride by. Yet the shift from clear to out-of-focus has a symbolic significance as well. Campbell described his inspiration for this piece in an interview with Art Practical, citing the influence of the improvements in television technology, his career as an engineer, and his subsequent disillusionment. As he explained,
In the change from standard definition to high definition, I didn’t feel as if I was given anything more that would change my experiences. I started to think about what I might be able to communicate in a low-resolution image. Could there be anything poetic, or is there something that’s felt if I created low-resolution images? And the most interesting thing after all these years really does have to do with the movement aspect of the image. That’s all that’s left; there is no detail in the imagery. You really can’t tell what you are looking at, except in a very primal way… The low resolution leaves the work open to this more primitive, motion-based perception. I think the more abstract it is, and the more primal that it is in terms of the way it’s perceived, then the more true it is.
—Interview with Art Practical, 2011
Indeed, the experience of Campbell’s work is ultimately one of almost instinctive calmness. At first, the eye is drawn to the left side of the work, as the mind works furiously to decode the pattern of lights into a comprehensible moving image. Yet after spending a bit of time with the work, really taking it in, one’s eye is inevitably drawn to the right. When viewing this side, with its diffuse, ever-shifting patches of light and dark, interpretation seems futile; the brain slows its pace, simply taking in the changing patterns. While the rush of the images on the left creates a subtle feeling of anxiety and unease, it is easy to spend long stretches of time peacefully mesmerized by the blur on the far right.
In today’s world of increasing technology, where companies seem to be constantly competing to create products with the largest memory, the fastest connection, and the highest resolution in an endless struggle to accrue ever more bits and bytes and pixels, Campbell’s work is an important reminder of the value of less. While certainly exciting, the rush of high-resolution images that surrounds us more and more each day can be overwhelming and exhausting. In Taxi Ride to Sarah’s Studio, Campbell gives us a path away from this sensory overload, reminding us that simple pleasure can be found in even the most basic of images.
Emma Fallone was a summer digital learning intern, focusing on blogging. At the time, Emma was a junior at Yale University, majoring in history and art history. In June 2014, she moved to Washington, DC, to work at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.