- Thirteen Ways to Look at The Wave
But if the soul is quick and strong it bursts over that boundary on all sides and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses it already tends outward with a vast force and to immense and innumerable expansions.—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Circles"
A sudden power outage. The farmhouse in north Vermont goes dark. This is what happens when the wave stops. A Caledonia County circuit is broken. The 60-cycle hum that dominates the atmosphere is replaced with the patter of unrelenting rain and the low buzzing of insects. I move my hand as if practicing chi gong and illustrate the three kinds of waves that can be used to carry electricity: the sine wave is a curved line; the triangle is self-explanatory; and the ramp wave crawls, rises, crosses a plateau, and falls. The word wave conjures metaphors that vibrate from music to science to cooking and beyond. Scientist and revolutionary Benjamin Franklin wrote in his memoir: "The electrical matter consists of particles extremely subtle, since it can permeate common matter, even the densest metals, with such ease and freedom as not to receive any perceptible resistance." Vermonters are philosophical about the links between weather, power, and prayer. I pick up a felt marker to make a sign for another demonstration while remembering another piece of Franklin wisdom: "Notwithstanding my experiments with electricity the thunderbolt continues to fall under our noses and beards; and as for the tyrant, there are a million of us still engaged at snatching away his scepter." [End Page 167]
It begins with Sensitive Chaos, a book I came across during the early 1970s, by water scientist Theodor Schwenk, a theosophist follower of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner. Schwenk borrowed his title from the Romantic poet and mystic Novalis who called water Das Sensible Chaos. Schwenk writes that water is delicate and always seeks balance. It lives in rhythm and is responsible for the rise and fall of everything in nature and all the creatures who inhabit the earth. Water and electricity share vocabulary and principles. Current, frequency, amplitude, and duration are measurable and malleable. Electric waves are interpenetrating, oscillating loops.
Fifty years later, Schwenk's vibrations abide: edit the brook; learn the stream's babble; observe the gentle swells. Irrigation is alteration of a liquid course in a collaboration between the water itself and an aquacultural engineer. Creeks are straightened and broadened to protect roads and homes. Culverts are buried to guide surge into the fields. Heraclitus said it was impossible to step into the same stream twice. Schwenk notices that waves form against and around rocks. Is it not possible, if water circulates, that the same flow can potentially happen again? Imagine Heraclitus with a video camera: slow motion, reverse direction, freeze, repetitions of the same place, the same time. Dangle the camera in the water to see the wave forms from below. Steer the drone-cam like a heron over the muddy, shallow river swollen with frogs and turtles. Dive into the swirling, pixelated whirlpool, the ache of narrative, the refraction of representational images, the wave pulse from beginning to end—birth, death, and beyond.
Attempting to make sense of relatively new art media, I've longed for an aesthetic interpretation of electronic and computer-based art that isn't centered on personality or style, but rather on the idea behind the wave; to make poetic sense of the somewhat chaotic nature of the field of video art. I'm borrowing from Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" to suggest the contours of this investigation. Since video is a technological medium, we must begin with: [End Page 168]
During the 1980s, I sent my video art students at Ramapo College to the physics lab to help them better understand how the medium works. Professor Theodore Halprin had participated in the ground-breaking collaboration between artists, scientists, and engineers that led to the Nine Experiments in...