Leif Brush

N.A.M.E. Gallery

Leif Brush advocates the so-called marriage of art and technology, a union which in the past has produced frivolous experiments with sophisticated techniques, ecology-oriented demonstrations all too familiar to rural audiences, and reminders of Chemistry 101 experiments with the basic properties of vital substances. Starting with the 1960’s GRAV and New Tendencies protests at human domination, art-and-technology sometimes came with an appeal to conscience, and Sonfist and Haacke still protest a potential ultimate extermination of natural processes by technology.

But Brush announces a personal charisma, its first clue being the many ways his name appears on a piece: welded into a bolt, stamped in wood near a code number, inscribed in ink below a fuse socket. And while his work is a “mode of enquiry”—to use Jonathan Benthall’s phrase—comparable to science, the results of his enquiries are only a reminder of nature, highly abstracted from their source.

This exhibition contains both his instruments and their documentation. Nature provides the raw content—e.g. the sounds of insects colliding, breezes blowing through a house, root movement, and frost forming patterns—which his instruments discover, amplify, record, mix, and convert to image-patterns.

The complexity of his technology varies. He makes passive use of ready-made machinery, for example. An Imlak computer-terminal and light-pen scan and record leaf surfaces (the final photos resembling rushing dam water rendered in parallel neon lines) or a Facsimile/Telecopier shows sound vibrations (the resulting prints resembling Navajo weaving patterns). The more esoteric equipment he personally designed and built. His Snowflake Sensor is a hook-up of wires stretched between trees, across a meadow, and coupled to a minicomputer which codes snowflakes as they hit the wires. A certain number of snowflakes are identified by mass, angle, and speed; then a symphony of environmental sounds is cued as new snowflakes matching the computer identifications hit the wires. The final taped concert may be left aural or visually translated by an oscilloscope and then photo-collaged.

But the instruments Brush creates are far too expressive to be merely functional. Each is itself a kind of hybrid “animal” with an equivocal nature as sculpture, toy, machine, or game. With unnecessary paint splotches, wiggly diagrams, and odd components such as oversized floor brushes, these instruments spoof the whole idea of “artist as technologist.” Still, their pure function is attested to by nearby documents. The Frostprinter, a sculpture of wood, glass, wire, plastic, and cork, stands alongside six photographs of ice patterns which have been recorded by the same machine.

The pivotal question in Brush’s work is the degree to which he alters, manipulates, or controls natural phenomena. His stated intention is to maintain an interactory role, and while he preplans projects and selects events—sites don’t determine his projects—he never knows, for instance, which snowflake will hit the computer wires in what sequence. He must make on-the-spot adaptations to random, natural phenomena, which are as vital as his own control.

But just as his instruments are removed from function in the art gallery, both his aural and visual documentation are removed from the space and time of the natural event. It is even unclear whether his documentation is actually a representation of what occurred or whether the final patterns were altered according to mathematical precepts of esthetic beauty. His Tree Dynamics Meter bears a crayoned formula for regularizing the heat-wave patterns emitted by a copper element up through a captured tree twig. The result is an obvious effort at deliberate composition.

And Brush’s ecological posture is contradicted by lack of viewer involvement. In the gallery, viewers can only observe the documentation or study the instruments. The work on exhibit is final; a viewer has no effect on it. On site, Brush allows participants a merely token status, generating sounds which he then electronically alters. Such involvement is nowhere near egalitarian.

In the end, Brush vacillates between control and interaction. If manipulation of natural events is his thing, he could go much further with visual formats; his documentation is usually diagrammatic, perhaps needlessly so. But if ecology is the goal in mind, any disillusionment with mankind’s control of nature is not apparent from his work.

C. L. Morrison