Q+A: Artist & Social Activist Naomi Pitcairn on #MathOfParallelism, #Drones, #LAPunkRock
Pulp Lab: Hey, Naomi. Before we get started talking about your work, can you tell us about your last unique last name?
Naomi Pitcairn: It’s Scottish, and it means a pile of rocks in a hole.
PL: I love it. Okay, so we were just starting to talk about your—
NP: My school, yeah. I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and also NYU, but my graduate degree is Design and Technology at Parsons/The New School and I spend a lot of time trying to understand the math of parallelism. And it’s really what they call artificial life, which a lot of people, including one of my professors, confuse with genetic engineering, which it’s not.
PL: What’s the difference?
NP: It is “in silica” representations of simplified “organisms” that interact in ways that teach us a lot about real life. An example would be BOIDS (“How real birds operate”). It’s simulations of life. They’ll make a bunch of prey objects and predator objects, and run them, and see what happens. See the balances of population. Simulate bird flocking. It’s just very very simple rules, kept the birds together just like how the real birds flock. And a lot of it was done in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Olivier Saraja Dec 28, 2007
There’s things called L systems, which is like how plants branch and grow. If you notice, they stick to their numbers. Like, lilies and anything monocot usually has petals in threes, where rose family is always fives. The mustard family is always in fours. They have very very simple rules.
PL: And the leaves, I know a little bit about gardening – like when you’re pruning roses, you cut just above where you find five leaves on the stem. I never really understood why. There must be a system with that, right?
NP: Yeah, produce the next kind of node that you want. Very, very simple rules. There’s also that book that Stephen Wolfram, the guy who wrote “Mathematica”, wrote called “A New Kind of Science” which is all about what we call cellular automata. Again, very simple simple rules that create amazing complexity. And there’s Conway’s Game of Life, which is just a grid. And based on the rules, let’s say if two or three are touching the black square, it will stay black, but otherwise it turns to white if both did. And if three is touching a white square, it will turn black. And then incredibly complex patterns immerge when you put the right numbers in and stuff. That was what I was interested in. I was interested in what the call the 17 Wallpaper Patterns, which is basically the seventeen possible symmetries in two-dimensional planes.
PL: I know nothing about this, but I’m fascinated with art theory, design and technology —
NP: It is fascinating. I just couldn’t understand patterns like wallpaper. I got interested in wallpaper. I looked up wallpaper, and then I came up with this math stuff, which is mostly is by crystallographers, and like there’s 32 symmetries in 3D. And that’s how crystals form. Like, if you have any mineral, which is one pure substance, it’s not a mixed rock, but it’s one single thing, the atoms have to arrange themselves in a certain way that is repeatable, and they make different shapes, based on their matrices and whatever. So, that’s the part I use on this project. I mean I spent a lot of time in silica.
PL: Okay, so you were recently working on the Art in Pershing Square series, and there are six installations, and they are site specific, and they’re all based on the act, the music, and the performances. So, I want to talk specifically about the LA band, X, who performed during the series. We love the band and are fans of punk.
NP: I was actually was huge punk rock fan. I was totally a punk rocker in the 80’s, which dates me. And I actually saw X in the 80’s. I got a job guarding the dressing room. Well, John Doe’s wife came in, and I didn’t believe her that she was his wife, so I wouldn’t let her in the dressing room, and she is super mad.
PL: I love it.
NP: Yeah, it was kind of embarrassing moment. So, I’ve seen them a long time ago, but basically I started chalking in Pershing Square in 2012. It was the month they rubber bulleted and teargassed people for chalking the sidewalk.
NP: Yeah, yeah, that happened. And so, they organized something they called Chalk Walk. And I was living in Oakland at the time. We came down to chalk the next year and I brought 25 people from Oakland with me. There are some great artists in Oakland, really great ones. Back in Oakland, we did big chalk murals of some local political artist like Melanie Cervantes and Faviana Rodriguez. But, anyway, Melanie came down to sign her work, she’s really good. We came down, and we basically were fighting for the right to chalk, because it’s like one of the few first amendment expressions that somebody without a ton of money has access to any more.
PL: So, where is the justification to call chalking vandalism instead of art?
NP: No, the California vandalism laws all revolved around the word defacement. Unlike many other states where the word permanence is included. In California, it’s all about defacement.
First of all when we came down to chalk, I always mention the first amendment when I think I might be arrested, because I follow all the chalk arrest cases, and the judge always says, “You can’t mention the first amendment.” So, I figured if it was the evidence, it would be problematic. Like, either they’ll have to throw out the evidence, or guess what, they’re going to be mentioning the first amendment in my trial. So far, I haven’t gotten one, but they did put me on handcuffs that day.
We went down, we mentioned the first amendment in our chalk, how we loved it so much. And we started at 9:00 in the morning. I think they thought we’d be there at night, but we got there at 9:00, and we finished in 46 minutes, which is the fastest one we’ve ever done. And they put me and a couple other people in handcuffs, because they were trying to get enough police, because we are like 30 people chalking.
“And because we just like map it out to the paver, like in a grid. And then the police came, and they asked, “Who’s in charge here?” And the people just turned around, and said, “Oh nobody, we just follow the map.” So, in a weird way, it’s a kind of a loose analogy, but sometimes, I think the people are just like the cellular automata, and you just give them the information, and they do it. I don’t really control them very much, people self-censor.”
PL: How do you train the people that are working with you on the installations?
NP: Well, the volunteers all get at a printout of the design laid out on a grid. When I came to Pershing Square early on back in 2012, I mapped the pavers, exactly how they were. In Oakland, they were in a regular grid. Here, they’re in a weave, but there’s still a grid. So, I number those. Now, I’m using colored cones, because it’s faster to put down, and if I make a mistake, it’s easier to fix, and they’re easier to see. Like, when you look over, you don’t have to get up and look for the number. You can just see the color.
PL: Everything is numbered?
NP: Yeah, or now it’s colored. And I just start over, and I can go, “Oh, it’s the third red, or whatever.” I have five colors, so if you – it’s pretty easy to follow. And I have a little sign that explains what we’re doing, because sometimes it’s inconvenient to stop and explain over and over and again when you’re trying to get the work done. But I’m sure over 200 people have walked up and helped by now. And almost everybody is pretty easy to integrate into it, because I just ask them, like, “Are you good at drawing or not?” And most people answer accurately, and so I’ll say, “Okay, try this part.” And I keep a little bit of an eye on them, but they do pretty well.
When I was a billboard painter, we use a grid so we can keep track, because it’s really hard. You can lose yourself. The larger, I guess, the easier to get lost. And it makes the drawing so much easier, because you’re only drawing your one little square at a time. So, I draw the pavers, and I just can stick my new designs underneath a layer in Photoshop, that’s the map. And then I print out a lot of them, because people want to take them sometimes. I let people take them if they want. A lot of people want a souvenir. And you never know, you might get yours dirty and need another one.
PL: Can you tell me how you’ve integrated drones into your installations?
NP: Well, I’m not as good with drones as I should be. They’re kind of complicated. There’s lots of different flashing lights that mean bad things. And you know something bad happening, but you don’t necessarily remember which one of the 17 possible bad ones it is. But I used the Phantom 4 Pro. I mean we had this huge problem for years getting the picture of the installations, because it’s like impossible to get a good picture on the ground, so we’d bring ladders, climb flagpoles, talk people into taking the pictures form their office windows. And finally, about a year ago, I bought a drone. At first I bought the $300 cheap one, but then I realized I needed a better camera.
PL: How did the art and the music come together?
NP: The designs needed to have some kind of harmony – that’s not even the best word – a consistency to them. So, I usually do some research, and usually designs always begin with thoughts and words, not with pencils and computer. It’s ideas. So, this is the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. That summer was known really for rock and roll, and for LSD. So, those were the two things I used for inspiration. And of course, rock and roll has become a completely mainstream, and LSD was seriously marginalized, and is recently making a comeback in neuroscience. So basically, I wanted to do patterns because I kept noticing the pattern of the pavers, and it was always in the back of my mind, and I thought it’d be fun to fit a pattern with the same symmetry into that pattern, so you’d have to superimpose patterns. And I also totally modeled it on blotter art, which tends to have pattern in the background, and then a character.
PL: That’s good.
NP: So basically, each band got its own blotter art. That was kind of the theme, but it was like behind the scenes. Then also, since most of my work was political, I still have the urge to be kind of subversive. And it was really interesting as people I showed the art to that knew about blotter art saw it right away, and everybody else was like, “What are you talking about?” It was kind of an insider joke, I guess. And the cartoon characters I mostly just use Adobe Stock, and then just picked it apart in Illustrator, took the parts I want, and left the rest.
PL: Because you’ve worked both in Northern California and here in Southern California, do you want to talk a bit about the different cities? Is it important location, like city-wise?
NP: No, not really actually, no. It’s different when I went out of state, but the cities are pretty much the same as far as the art goes. People tend to not harass you if they like your art, basically. You can get away with it. Trying to think of the other tech parts of it. I mean my thesis project at Parson’s was a piece of software that rotated that rotated a grid of design elements in relationship to each other. You could rotate them and reflect them to create very interesting visual outcomes, create different symmetries. You could design all kinds of patterns, just by rotating things.
PL How did you display it?
NP: It was just an app so it displayed on the screen. And after graduation, I was still in New York, I taught “advanced” programming for designers.
PL: Oh, how amazing.
NP: I didn’t actually teach them about pattern. We simulated a lot of game design. We made simple games. That was hard enough. Somebody cries every term, somebody always cries. Programming is confusing when you first start.
So, I mean, obviously, people aren’t simple programs that you set loose, but there is a weird element of that, where everybody has got their own area. And they are an independent person acting independently, and yeah, producing the unified outcome, and that does kind of interest me. And of course, right now, in the art world, everybody is talking about this term relational aesthetics. It’s the new thing. I guess it just it means participatory experience, really. I mean—
NP: It’s big right now. And to me, it’s probably just another big word. I kind of got tired of the whole Art Forum world, where we were always using this like kind of elevated language to describe things that could be spoken about in a much more inclusive and simple clearer language. Just seems kind of ridiculous to me.
PL Is it like, if you don’t know the language of the art world, you can’t participate?
NP: Yeah, so it kind of happened to me because I wasn’t that interested in it, and I don’t really know it, but I do know this relational aesthetics term, because I was reading a book about whatever, something art. And I thought, “Oh my goodness, it’s kind of what I’m doing.” So, it’s nice to be timely, certainly not my normal.
PL: Where did the term relational aesthetics originate? Do you know?
NP: I don’t. Where I read about it was a book by a guy named Nato Thompson called – what was it called? It was about political art, and it was like produced by a group called Creative Time and it was called “Living as Form,” that was the title of the book.
And they talked about it a lot. They’re pretty big in the art world, those Creative Time people. But I’m a bit of rebel against that, because I mean I kind of think art is for everybody. I’ve always been a populist.
PL: Yeah, but I mean that leads us to the funding for art and public art comes from wealthy donors, who are – I mean the history of that comes from Europe, and the patrons and the political leaders.
NP: That’s why I’m doing relational aesthetics for everybody.
PL: We love that. Yeah, it’s interesting.
NP: And the art itself is okay. It’s not amazing. But what interesting is the experience. Like, the design project for me is not really to design be best piece of art that ever was done.
PL: Well, it’s also temporary, so you have to keep that in mind.
NP: Exactly. And you have to do it quickly, because you may go to jail before you get to finish. But basically, for me, I’m designing so – I tried to design pieces that everybody can participate in, and each have a role that suits them. Like, one of my best pieces was one that had blank areas for people who could just fill in. It had it had some kind of mechanical drawing part for people who are good at mechanicals. My roommate was an engineer, and he draws the mechanical parts way better than I, and I do the organic parts way better than he does. So, it’s nice to have something for everybody, a detailed area for the people who like to the details. And you want enough color that people – and people really enjoy. There’s something about that much color and sitting in the field of that much color that I think is experiential, yeah. And it glows all around you. It’s weirdly therapeutic.
PL: I like that.
“My design process is really a lot about how can I make it fit into the timeframe, how can I accommodate the people that are going to just walk up, how can I make sure they have an okay time. Because I once spoke at this think tank about making activism fun, and I was trying to think about like what actually makes something fun. That, again, is a situational setup. And I’ve interviewed a lot of kids, and my favorite answer was danger, “Playing commando hunt in the schoolyard in the day would be boring, but playing it in the woods at night would be fun.”
PL: That’s hilarious.
NP: But really, to have fun, you need your basic needs met. Like, it wouldn’t be fun to die of thirst even if you’re with Madonna at the Mansion, it would not be fun. But of course, getting your basic needs met isn’t what makes it fun. But you need that as the foundation. And then, after that, there are so many things, and none of them are essential, and they could be in any kind of combination, again, talking about combinations and outcomes. There’s creativity, there’s sensory input, there is the fun of being with others… but you can have fun alone too.” You can have fun without being creative. You have fun without a whole lot of sensory input, although some helps.
PL: Do you think that’s why people are so into videogames and the solitary immersion into – I mean people do that as their leisure time activity more than anything. Watching movies, like everyone is glued with their screen. I don’t know if that counts as fun, but it’s a distraction.
NP: Well, it can be fun, but it gets old quick if you ask me. I mean, I’m not your typical person. I’d rather read a book, and I guess I think it’s fun.
PL: But I mean that’s interesting just that idea of what people do with their leisure time I think would be put in the category of “fun.”
NP: Well, we’re seeking fun. It’s a little bit elusive. And interesting and fun are related, but some are going to be interesting without being fun, or it could be fun without being – well, it has to be a little bit interesting to be fun. But I mean fun is like you start to get – the tighter you try to grab onto it, it becomes a bit elusive. I mean I am trying to make it – anything I do when I create an event, I’m always trying to set it up to be fun. And I don’t like – I’m not the kind of person who likes to control. I mean – oh, that’s not true, I’m super controlling. But I mean theoretically, I mean I organized a conference, and I did it according to the – it was a whistle blowers conference, and I did it according to this style called Open Space, where instead of everybody is listening to a panel, they were like groups, and people can walk from group to group. It was like a much freer structure. I mean it’s been used for some very large international conferences. And I went to a session to learn how to do it and whatever, and hired a moderator. But it was very interesting, because again, it was kind of an organic thing. If you got bored, you could just leave, and go to another group. There was all those choices.
PL: What’s that called again?
NP: Open Space Technology. The guy who invented it basically felt like the drinks after the conference was the best part, where most people are having more fun or whatever. So, again, it’s like this weird setup, like with the program, and you try to set up the variables, and set up as many of the factors ahead of time, and then you just kind of let it run. Like, “Okay, let’s go.” But there are simple things too, like providing water for people to wash because it’s dirty. Make sure they have drinks and information and all these things ahead of time so that hopefully it all run smoothly.
PL: Do you want to give any final thoughts on design and technology?
NP: Well, design has changed of course so much because of technology. And the skills you used to need are not the skills you now need. Although like bringing it out into the bricks and mortar, into the paint, the actual paint, which is something I haven’t really done for a long time, it’s really weird to go back to it. And of course, we’re still using all these different technologies to create it, and work on it, but then, you end up getting really old school. Like, when you start laying out lettering, you’re like a sign painter again, which I was, and doing – there’s like rules. Each vertical stoke is this thick, each horizontal stroke is that thick. The verticals are all at the same angle. And I’ve been teaching those techniques to a lot of the people who walk up, teaching them lettering techniques, because people don’t realize it’s just like a sign painter.
Speaking of sign painters, the artist James Rosenquist worked for the same company that I worked for in the 80’s, which was Artkraft Strauss. They did like the big spectaculars in Times Square. And I got to work on one of the like huge neon signs, like the Canon camera spiral. It’s gone now, but it was up there for years.
And really I like his work. I went to his studio once, but he wasn’t there, and his assistant was trying to get us to get in the hot tub, and we wouldn’t.
PL: You avoided a Polanski moment.
NP: Exactly. It’s just he wasn’t as good a painter as James, so we’re like, “Nah.”