Orbital Contour: Videos by Craig Dongoski

Continent 1 (2):125-128 (2011)
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continent. 1.2 (2011): 125-128. What is the nature of sound? What is the nature of volume? William James, in attempting to address these simple questions wrote, “ The voluminousness of the feeling seems to bear very little relation to the size of the ocean that yields it . The ear and eye are comparatively minute organs, yet they give us feelings of great volume” (203-­4, itals. original). This subtle extensivity of sensation finds its peer in the subtle yet significant influence of habituated action upon our lives. This expansive quality of habit­making is what Craig Dongoski's bodies of work enable us to appreciate. Nearly ten years ago Dongoski had a habit of turning on his audio recorder every day at three o'clock for three minutes. No matter what the setting, what the activity, Dongoski recorded the ambient sounds in his environment at that moment. As it happened, one day he was teaching a drawing class and he recorded the sounds of their pencils scratching across their respective surfaces. This was a critical moment for him. Later he would place a contact mic onto a drawing surface and record the sound of his signature. Signatures change over time, they respond to the conditions in which they are performed. Signatures speak volumes about the author, but a practice of attunement is required for the volume to be audible. To hear all that a signature can tell about its author, the listener must tune into the frequency at which this information is being broadcast. Dongoski's drawings and video works draw­out the peculiar artifact that habit makes of living: habits establish a tempo of living and it seems that one's habitus is the signature of habitual living. I sat down with Craig in an attempt to sound­out some of the depths of thought in his practice. What follows is selected from our conversation. Paul Boshears (PB): Clearly your work is dealing with time: from the painstaking action of rendering the drawing to the free­form approach of launching a microphone into a body of water and waiting to see what's recorded. Craig Dongoski (CD): Are we talking about the films or the drawings? PB: Well, it's a bit of both in my mind. I know the drawings on first glance seem to be these flows of lines without concern but I realize that there is this painstaking action involved. CD: I'm interested in time because I'm interested in forms outside of control, outside of politics, and outside of economics. I think that art, when it's alive, does go beyond those. I'm interested in duality and paradox—a stream of contradiction, I suppose. For instance, scale and size. There is a tendency to think that these are the same thing. But really you can have something small that has a lot of scale—look at Goya's drawings, Los Caprichos , they're very small but they have a lot of scale. Likewise things that are spontaneous don't necessarily mean that they take only two or three seconds to do. This latter distinction is what I'm most interested in. Having that appearance of spontaneity. The image has rhythm, you can latch onto it; but the reality is that it took many hours—and many months in some cases—to arrive at. And this is in keeping with geological time. I like to insert this series of thoughts into my work sometimes as an attempt to make some of this stuff comprehensible. There are all these distractions inundating us throughout our days now. Time gets tweaked by all these technologies that we interact with daily. There's more than just digital time or the mechanical time of your watch. There's biological time, that time in which you're growing. PB: I'm reminded of McLuhan here: he made his career by making that strong claim that the humans of today are not the same humans of three generations ago because technology has fundamentally changed us. Are we not the same human beings as a hundred years ago? CD: I mean, I don't think we're the same human beings that we were when he was around! It's my understanding that before painting a flower, monks would meditate for hours on that flower and then they would complete the painting of that flower in less than a minute. That's what I want to point out about our world today, we have all this information, but how much of it are we metabolizing? PB: Is there a message you're looking for? Or that you're trying to share? CD: These drawings set­up the circumstances for me to continue them forever. I'm only about six years into it, but with more time, things can unfold. You know? If you take this cup of coffee and vow to restrict your work to only this material and medium for seven years—you'll make interesting work. The problem is that most people can't hold on to things or they give up or they get distracted. They don't trust that anything is possible; anything is potential material. Staying with this cup of coffee example, we can get enveloped in the history of the recycling logo, or the process for harvesting coffee and so on. The same is true for my work as it has lead me into places like graphical music scores. I had, of course, known about John Cage's notations and I'd always been interested in sound itself, but this drawing practice made it feasible to explore the intersections in a meaningful way. I think that if you trust your instincts and your curiosities and your abilities, then the bus drives itself. Look at Roman Opalka, he's kind of the patron saint of time painting. The claim is that no one can count to a billion in a lifetime so he's set­out to paint to seven sevens (7,777,777). He began with white numbers on a black field but over the years he has gradually reduced the black field to ever­lightening grays. His plan is to paint these seven sevens on what ostensibly will be white on white. PB: It occurs to me that I've never thought of the actual, literal, meaning of “microphone” in relation to “microscope.” The mic has made everything loud, the world's not allowed to be quiet anymore. Maybe we should call them “macrophones” since telephone's already taken... CD: Well, a microscope is a lens. What got me interested in sound was that a microphone acts like a lens. There are wide angle lenses, or a lens that gets your eye up close to something far away, or at a tiny level. The same is true of the microphone. You can use a parabolic mic to hear what the coach is saying on a sports field or a mic that picks­up the sound from the entire cathedral. There's this whole gamut... I'm kind of playing with the words here. I'm into the minuteness of the sound, but I'm interested in the minuteness of the mark itself. PB: I guess it's a Deluezean, generative, statement, then? It's not a metaphor, it's an actual thing with which we can work. CD : That's right. PB: While doing some background work on you I found myself at interesting places on the internet. For example, Konstantin Raudive and a brief jog into Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP); perhaps this was just synchronicity. But, it's a happy coincidence nonetheless because the them of this issue of continent. is “the moraine” and one of the nuances of this term is “what remains.” Is there a metaphysical or epistemological problem that you're sorting­out here? CD: Think about fossils: fossils are the first recording device, you know? It's the first, natural, recording device. It's in this way that I think my works are fossilized time. Artifacts of that process. Van Gogh is a strong source for me in this regard: it's not what he's painting it's how. You're seeing his nervous system at work. The what is so incidental, the chairs, the flowers, etc. It's funny: when I first started doing this, before I started drawing voices, I was doing these things in cemeteries. I was doing automatic drawings. And when I took this experiment to its maximum I was taking hydrophones and burying them in abandoned graves. I was thinking about the mic rig as the south coordinate and I'd use a shortwave radio as the north coordinate. Usually it was just white noise, but on the east and west I'd station a writer and a drawer. So I'd have these things going on simultaneously and I'd be mixing them at the same time. PB: How'd it come out? CD: Well, just like you'd expect. It was a lot of white noise. But I think that Raudive was on to something. Burroughs used to say something similar when he'd talk about being in a foreign country where he didn't know the language and then he'd start to hear things. At the base, what I'm doing is pattern recognition. I do have a writing component to the drawings. I haven't exploited it in a while but... I use a vocoder, which was developed to encrypt spy signals during one of the World Wars. The mechanism takes two channels, one being the spy's signal combined with noise and then the other channel is a sine wave so that the intended recipient can pick out the words. So I did something like this with Beowulf. I tried combining the spoken word with other television and radio sources, but that didn't work because a book on tape is usually read in a very steady clip and the result was too garbled. So the second try, instead of drawing I was writing, trying to articulate the sounds that I could hear in this garbled transmission of Beowulf. You start to think you hear something, so you start to write what you think you're hearing. But what you're hearing is just being triggered by this articulating action. When the sound of the drawing lines up with the sound of the word you get something. But it's not ever what you're really hearing. You start writing and you're trying to keep up with what you think you're hearing and it is truly, in the most true sense of the phrase, automatic writing. You can contrive and go into a “spirit trance” or whatever, but... PB: It's uninteresting to you? CD: Well, it's unbelievable. It's just listening to sounds and following along. The magic is out there, there are no tricks or anything. You do this exercise with twenty people and you will get twenty totally different writings. But, you're creating the sound and you're creating the writing as an interpretation. That's the thing with EVP, it's homophonic translation. PB: Do you trust a straight line? I know you start with these meticulous lines at the beginning of the drawings but they do change over time. CD: I'm trying to show that there are these imperfections in structures and that over the reiterations of these structures these imperfections become amplified. But you can see them in tree formation as well. The rings alter their shape as the trees grow. PB: Is that your transmission then? You're not just receiving these sounds but you're broadcasting this message as well? CD: Things exist because of their opposites. These drawings are really about nothing. It's the first body of work I've had where people project so much of stuff onto the works. So there you go, things existing because of their opposites. It's kind of like with Mike Kelley: the work was about a critique of commodity culture and commodifying emotions. Using toys this was a critique of production. But then suddenly people were saying it was about abuse and the abuse that Mike Kelley had suffered. And it wasn't but he heard that and said, “I'll go with it,” and so he did. I think that's the nature of communication: I send this but you receive that instead and this makes me think about what I sent in a different way



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Paul Boshears
Georgia State University

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