MATTHEW RITCHIE: --the kind of question that underlies my whole practice and has done ever since I became a practicing artist, which was in 1995. Is it possible for any one person to understand? And it sounds kind of [AUDIO OUT] and like big and very like, oh, I'm going to figure this out.
But it's really another question that drives me, which is, really, if it's not possible for any one person to understand and depict how we see the universe, then we can't really share the universe at all. And so then there's no shared theory of picture.
And so unless we try and address this question really earnestly and effectively, we're sort of saying no. And that means that we are accepting the fact the universe is essentially not a sharable phenomena, which is not what I believe.
So I'm trying to come out of a tradition that-- I'm originally British, and so I moved here about 30 years ago. And these are the kinds of questions that British people have historically asked because we're really strange, and we live on a rainy little island. And we have nothing to do except think about whether it's possible to think about the universe.
So these are the two famous precedents-- Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica and its sort of weird sequel, in a way, William Blake. And the kind of funny thing about this pair is that Newton, one of the world's great scientists, really sort of invented a system for looking at the universe, which became the defining system for hundreds of years.
But he was kind of crazy and believed in alchemy. And his so-called seven colors that I'm sure you've all learned about, the Roy G. Biv colors-- there's really only six, and he added an extra one because he thought there should be seven because it was an alchemical necessity for things to come in sevens.
That's how crazy he was. He sort of lied about the fundamental laws of physics or exaggerated properties of them to make his universal system make sense.
On the other hand, you have William Blake, who was sort of notoriously a mystical figure, imagining the entire universe from the perspective of one person. And there he is using a Venn diagram to split up his universe [AUDIO OUT] to these [AUDIO OUT] mathematical technology that had come along.
And Blake was, by all accounts, a highly rational person who believed in a certain kind of radical politics far in advance, more progressive, than the politics of his day.
So what's nice about these two characters is that they're kind of polar opposites, yet they fuse into one tradition. And this all had special meaning for me because my sort of origin story as an artist in England was I grew up, like most people, a kind of clueless kid.
And I went to art school in the very worst part of South London. And I lived in this place called the North Peckham Redevelopment, a post-war complex, which that orange line indicates is the longest [AUDIO OUT] in Europe at the time. And while I lived there, it was declared a European disaster zone because it had collapsed into total anarchy.
So you have this kind of very rigid, beautiful, diagrammatic idea. The architects are really planning. We're going to make a planned system for everyone, a universe. And it failed. Totally failed. Packs of wild dogs-- I mean, literally, packs of wild dogs that would run into the offices of the social security offices when you were in there. Burned out cars, gangs-- the whole thing.
And it was torn down in 1995, by which time I'd long moved to the US. But I think of that as a kind of another time horizon-- in a way, the horizon where your lives began. That's when the modern internet begins, when commercial restrictions are lifted on the web. Netscape is the first browser. The kind of world that we live in of technological connection, a world in which we all have a window onto a kind of social universe, is established.
And from that, the world that we're about to enter is being built, where chips, these kind of diagrams of perfection or sort of imagined systems, are starting to produce more complex intelligences that are starting to be able to see. And, of course, anything to do with sight for artists is the key question as is the idea of the universe, which was only enabled by those same computer chips to look at people like Andrei Linde, whose multiverse and inflationary theories are shown here, where the [AUDIO OUT].
Because we have computers now, we can start to model the least stable outer limits of human imagination that perhaps 100. 200, 300 years ago-- and there are precedents in mathematical literature and literature itself for all of these ideas can now be tested against the limits of physical reality.
So out of these two technologies, we're sort of seeing the emergence of an understanding of ourselves that is kind of supercritical. One is this is the so-called rich club connectome that shows how the brain works. It has little nodes, where ideas are concentrated, and a larger network, where less popular ideas kind of hang out, like William Blake versus Isaac Newton.
And then on the right, these are the 737 entities that control 80% of the global wealth. So we can sort of see that's also a kind of rich club. And we're becoming more and more aware of the way that these systems of personal projections of universality are reflected in the systems that we build to control and operate information in general.
And as all these numbers go up-- fossil fuel, per capita, GDP, population growth-- those systems become more and more important. I'm just sort of giving you all this as an idea of the background of myself as an artist, why I make the work I make and the condition I think that we all share. This is the picture of the world that we're all in.
And so we're making movies every day about how it's all going to go wrong. We kind of know this. I don't think this is an accident that the primary aesthetic product of our culture is images of our mass death. I think we're thinking the problem through, and we're getting examples of that constantly. This is something I lived through. This is another thing I lived through with global warming.
We know the world is on the move. We know we've changed the system. We know we've tinkered with it. And this is my neighborhood at the top there during the flood. And we know what's coming. And the two things are intertwined-- this idea that we had in the 1990s.
The End of History and the Last Man was published in 1990, predicting a sort of uniform capitalist future into which no technology could possibly influence the need for everyone to trade seamlessly forever, and all of the consequences of that come from this kind of shared space.
Another thing that happened in 1995 is this is the first thing that was produced in the laboratory was the first time the Bose-Einstein condensate, which is a new state of matter-- It's another indication to me that we are entering a phase that has long been talked about in human history. But we're finally there.
This is godlike stuff-- making new kinds of matter in the laboratory, slowing down light, speeding light up, meddling with the human genome. I'm not going to sort of propose this as a positive or a negative, but I do think that the way that we think about ourselves and our role in the world as ethical people now has to include these much larger terms that were excluded right up to the 1990s for about 100 years.
So this question about is it possible is a question for me, but it's also a question for you. So the way I answered it was to imagine a universe, in a way, starting in the 1990s. I thought, well, I'll just make a list of all the things that I know about in the universe-- this piece was made in 1995, that kind of year-- and I'll try and include them in my work. That seemed like a good starting point because if they're not in my work, then I'm not addressing the questions of my time.
So in all of the work that you'll see now, there's a kind of dynamic relationship between this idea of the list or the chart or the diagram, which at the risk of putting Andrea to sleep. She's expressed a fear of such overtly scientific concepts.
I'm going to talk about each one a little bit as we go along because I think there's this kind of constant balance that artists often don't like to talk about or pretend don't exist. Artists work inside the system too, and one of the ways that artists can contribute is by questioning the legacies of the various systems that have gone unacknowledged or become invisible.
And the fantasy of this sort of child artist, who doesn't pay their taxes and dresses in rags and just scribbles on bits of paper in the corner of the room, constantly in clouds of crystal meth-- it's appealing in some ways because it reduces the role of the artist of this critic to a child. And a child is something that can be kind of contained.
And then this is kind of on the counterpart. You'll often hear in the leadership and scientific communities-- we want critical thinkers. We want people to make changes. But every time those changes are actually suggested, those same communities go, well, not today. We weren't meaning that. And part of that is they fear handing the controls over to the child or the chimp.
So I think it's incumbent on artists to kind of assume a role in that conversation that has been part of the artistic conversation and the role of artists, really, since the dawn of time.
I mean, the first tattoo artists, which is what-- at least 10,000 years ago-- we know tattoos worn. You don't give a tattoo gun to a monkey or a child. So this is already this kind of relationship of trust.
Projects generally tell a tale of where I personify the characters of the universe in a kind of long and kind of abstract, broken narrative. It's a story of pieces coming together, tearing apart. And each of the colors inside them represents one of the constituent features of that little chart I showed at the beginning. So it was, in a way, of formalizing painting.
It's in the days of the early internet, where kind of computer screens looked like this. This was a very complicated thing to do on a computer at the time that the first Photoshop we were all [AUDIO OUT]. It was really like that scene in Zoolander with the pushing, the monkeys. But how does it change color-- looking around the back of the computer-- does it have colors inside it?
And these were all produced while I was still working as a building superintendent, which was my job in New York for the first six or seven years I was here. So I would kind of-- I needed a way of working that was very componentizable and could use the advantage that building superintendents have, which is I had lots of space. So I'd make these big sprawling installations out of very simple things that could be packed up into small environments.
And so that project kind of expanded and expanded. And quickly, kind of over the next five to six years, the limits of the storytelling model of an infinite story became apparent, which is a discontinuity starts to emerge. You can only insist on the continuous narration for so long.
You only have to look at those epic Hollywood franchises, like Marvel or Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, to see how dreadful it gets when you just keep on telling the same story over and over again. What seemed [AUDIO OUT] at the start now seems like, really, again with Iron Man.
So I became interested in how these things could embed themselves in social spaces. This is a project at MIT in 2002, which was kind of transitioning out of the idea of an infinitely extensible narrative into a much more fragmented game space that was also playable by people within it.
This show at MASS MoCA, Proposition Player, asked that question very overtly. Is there an inherent antagonism between ontological inquiry, like this deep inquiry into the meaning of systems, and the other idea that becomes essential, which is free play? How do we move between all these spaces without becoming embedded in a deep, structural, essential problem?
And this is not something I thought up. This is something [AUDIO OUT] in 1966, but you can trace this question all the way back to Newton, to Blake, right back to the beginning of art itself.
Certainly, in the printed world, the first two things that were most printed were playing cards and the Bible. So you can see this idea of we want to know about the meaning of the universe, and we want to have fun and play with the parts.
So this project-- printed my own pack of playing cards, made a set of rules. This is kind of the Bible of how to-- so every time you play the card game, you play the rules of the universe. And you take the cards, and you can also play this digital craps game, which, as you played it, would generate the sequences contained within the card packs.
It all sounds very kind of fancy and technological, but it's basically a simple data set with a projector and these funny little dice that have little mercury beads inside them and [AUDIO OUT] because this is before RFID chips. It was all analog. So the dice would be thrown, and the images would change, and the story of the universe would unpack itself.
And for those of you that are painters, I make a lot of paintings out of these various processes. I'm going to talk about one specific series that was from the early 2000s. These all came out of that table. So we can have a longer conversation later about the question of structure versus freedom. It's always very difficult for artists to accept you need both.
But this was an example for me, where I kind of got the balance right and was able to, within a two-year period, make an enormous amount of work because I'd sort of set up the premise. This is the universe, sort of emerging atoms appearing. There's a kind of figure emerging out of that. The figure drowns and is sort of slowly disintegrated.
Other figures emerge and are reborn, melding back into the landscape. It all becomes this kind of very complex narrative. Now, you can see figures rising into the sky, and the whole thing's starting to turn inside out. And it enters a kind of final, entropic end state as the world sort of drowns under its own entropy.
Not the most optimistic view, perhaps, of the future, but then look where we are today.
But all of that was set inside an architectural installation that sort of placed that story, that tale, as it were, inside a much larger piece. It meant even those kinds of episodes could be understood as part of this larger continuum. So the fragmentation, the heat death, our own individual mortality get placed inside a narrative that itself shows that all of that is, of course, part of a larger structural system at work.
So that became a kind of installation that was installed in various locations, and it became a very useful [AUDIO OUT] model for working increasingly in public spaces. This was a courthouse in Eugene, where I found that multiple systems had this relationship.
This was a story of the law. And the law is really a bunch of weird legacy structures and systems dating back to Hammurabi, some of which overlap and mesh, some of which are just in absolute conflict with each other. And the law is also a thing that turns up in your life, usually when you don't want it, and implements what appear to be entirely arbitrary and horrendous results sort of across the board. It's a medium for conflict exchange, but it also produces conflict.
So this is where that kind of question of play and structure has real effects on real people's lives. This is not an art institution. This is an institution where people show up, in this particular state, possibly to be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment. It's a federal appeals court.
So I became very intrigued by the idea [AUDIO OUT] that could address the kind of larger and more difficult social structures rather than a tendency the art world has, which is to only try and address very safe encounters. It's nice that you can have a place where someone will give you some soup, and you don't have to pay for it. But it's kind of even better if you build that encounter into somewhere where the stakes are maybe a little higher because I think art can aspire to not only modest social interactions, but historically, [AUDIO OUT] very difficult [AUDIO OUT] interactions.
So this is a kind of theme of my work-- is the notion that we are at all times, in a way, engaged with contingency at its highest levels as well as its lowest levels. And we simultaneously engage with the structure of stories.
This piece was called Day One. It's the first days of creation for a piece in San Francisco at the Jewish Theological Museum.
And, of course, just to put this all in context, I was in New York for 9/11. But even before that, I grew up inside an empire that was collapsing under the weight of its own illusions. And the efforts of empires to define themselves through diagrams or kinds of drawings are never more sublimely [AUDIO OUT], and that's the famous coin dynamics.
This was when the Pentagon realized they could never win the war in Afghanistan. If any one of these arrows fails, the whole system stops working. It can be severed. And when the planners produce this, they realize we can't win because we just can't manage in a structural system of this complexity. There's too many points of failure.
So then you're doing drawings. Then, in a way, you're kind of creating-- it's a creative act. This kind of effort becomes a kind of form of creation, which I think is super interesting.
And the administration at the time started to speak about their foreign and social policy as a form of creation. One of their most quoted lines is it's our reality now. So I made a piece about that kind of moment. It's called Universal Adversary, which had this digital film inside. It recited what the administration, the Bush administration, called the universal adversaries.
And they had a list, nowhere in which was income inequality, climate change-- any of the fundamental conditions of the world. It was only kind of weird, random things like sudden nuclear attack by North Korea. So it was a list of contingencies, but not of structural deficiencies.
So I'm sort of fascinated with can I create a picture that includes this constant tension between the possibilities of structure and their inevitable collapse. And so one of the ways that I began to move into that was starting to work very much with musicians.
This is a piece in London. And there's all kinds of little interactive elements that turn on and off. But as you may have noticed with Matthew's wonderful piece next door, interactive art has a kind of Achilles' heel, which is that people don't necessarily know that they've caused the beautiful thing to happen.
So I started working much more with live performers, where you could watch them do it. And that way-- everyone knows a musical performance is interactive because you're watching someone interact with the instrument right in front of you, and you're responding to them in real time.
And, of course, this process started to change the paintings, where the systems underneath became much more this kind of expressionistic, kind of deeply-- I suppose the word is-- it's things that would just seduce you was what I was trying to look for as a kind of seductive collapse.
And that kind of then created this tension, like [AUDIO OUT] theory of picture need to include science and technology and sociology as well. To what degree-- and this is a question I know lots and lots of artists have been asking-- does art need to create a Venn diagram that overlaps with its constituent audiences when it's claiming to represent them?
Or does it just retreat inside its own kind of magic circle and say no technology, no sociology, no science. The famous rules of MoMA were no science, sex, or spirituality, all of which I have failed to follow.
So I made a piece that really tried to address all of those questions about a social structure that traveled around the world. And it was intended for operating around the Mediterranean Basin originally-- North Africa, Persia, Italy, Turkey-- places that had a strong relationship to mathematics and science. It's sort of the cradle of mathematical thinking.
And so I became very interested in tiling systems, which, perhaps, unsurprisingly, because I was just too ignorant to know it, turned out to be extremely sophisticated forms of mathematics that were only really modeled again by Roger Penrose in the 1970s. So for 500 years, what looked just like a pattern to most people was actually a kind of hidden form of mathematics.
And a more modern version of thinking about that structure of reality-- this is the so-called-- I love the caption from the book by Jurg Frohlich-- "favored by the younger generation"-- which, I think, used to be me but now probably means you. Presumably, you favor this tetrahedron. It's a model [AUDIO OUT] nature, gravity, electromagnetism, the weak and strong forces.
So we took those drawings because I'm talking, again, about this idea that out of discipline, drawing-- that's not a drawing made by an artist. That's a drawing made by a scientist to show himself something. Do I understand it? Now I do, but only after staring at it for a very, very long time. But it's an emblem that there's this creative drive in every discipline.
So I took the premise of the tetrahedron, which is this kind of folded-up structure, and wrapped it around, built a kind of LEGO out of it. The Lego became a-- this was at the Venice Architecture Biennale-- a way to fill up space.
The tetrahedron is a very strange form because it fills space the same way cubes does. It's incredibly efficient, but it also produces all these asymmetries, unlike a cubic structure. So it's completely rational and yet appears sort of highly subjective and irrational. It produces what Kepler called these monsters, these faces inside itself.
So this is it in Seville. As well as being a structure, it's also a musical instrument [AUDIO OUT] and a container for these kind of films that are visions of pasts and futures yet to come. So each one of the smallest fractal elements within the structure contains a speaker, and you can write a composition that travels from one end to the other through space and time, like a line.
So I think at this point, it has about 40 compositions by different composers from the host countries that traveled around the world. This is it in Istanbul. And we invited a number of people to-- it can also be played live, so you can plug in your musical instruments.
So we invited a group of people-- this is it in Vienna-- over at each stage. There's it in sort of concert form-- becomes this kind of social space, where complex questions are not separated from a very sort of giving social space.
And, of course, one of the nice things about generating something really ambitious is you're supported by a big European foundation is that you can invite people to come and dream big. So we invited Sigur Ros and [INAUDIBLE] Sonic Youth and all these amazing people as well as local composers. And they all showed up and did their weird, sort of crazy idea that they have for this structure.
So there's a moment of absolute contingency, where the reading of the piece visually remains totally stable, but what's happening inside becomes transformed, utterly transformed, by the performance, which becomes the sole meaningful focus. So there's a kind of beautiful collaborative trade-off at that moment. And now they're charged, and another kind of better angel has taken over there.
So that led, inevitably, to a few more collaborative performances. One on the very difficult end of things was with the physicist Lisa Randall, who had written a libretto with Hector Parra, a composer, that was a direct transcription of her gravitational theories into music. I'll play you a little bit in a second.
It's a tough hour. Standing ovations in France, though, so I'll just let you know there is an audience if you ever feel obliged to translate gravitational physics directly into music. There's people who really go for it.
So what he did-- I don't know if you can see it in that score-- is he granularized the fundamental concepts of physics, which are the four sides of that tetrahedron drawing I showed you earlier, and transposed them into the Western tonal system. And then the singer singing the equations, basically, as she describes the warping of gravity through a fifth dimension, which is what's being projected here. I thought it was a really beautiful piece.
And this was it projected in the Guggenheim, which is, as its sort of history implies, sort of weirdly favorable to these kinds of fusions. It's sort of like an anti-MoMA. There, if you like sex, science, and spirituality, they're like that's really why we were founded.
And then a third piece on the same kind of track. This was a collaboration with two brothers from a band called The National, Aaron and Bryce Dessner. And they wanted to do a piece about baseball, and I wanted to do a piece about the origins of baseball in the Mesoamerican ball game, or what I saw it, which, happily, is founded around a legend called the hero twins. And the Dessners are twins.
And so we made this piece, a song cycle. We also asked other sets of twins to participate. So this is Kelley and Kim Deal of The Breeders, who are touring now. Get their new album. And there's Bryce and Aaron smashing guitars for some reason.
So it became a kind of game space. The projections in the background tell the story at the same time as the songs kind of dismantle the story. So we did a kind of [INAUDIBLE] myth, and I included a famous, epic baseball match inside the myth. And then the Deals kind of took it apart, and all the different performers all kind of rewrote their own sections. [AUDIO OUT] super-complicated work.
And it retells the hero twins ultimately die in the end, and they're replaced by a solar system. As it is their adversary here-- the bird god. All of that happens with the music going on.
And, happily enough, we were able to find a pair of handball players in New York, who were not only twins but originated from Central America, to sort of act out the part of the young twins playing. It's one of the beauties of living in New York. There's Kim and Kelley Deal.
So this kind of performative environment is another way, apart from the game table with the dice, for me to produce pictures. It's to set up a very complicated rule set with multiple performers and create a game space that then produces [AUDIO OUT] on the beach in California. It's a fragment of that piece with all kinds of other narratives embedded in it.
There were these kind of-- I was on Venice Beach, and I thought, you know, what's more California than let's make a movie, kind of sci-fi with monsters and a beach and fire-- the whole Coachella, kind of Burning Man thing. I wanted to just go for it.
So we filmed something, setting up another rule set. It began exactly a half hour before sunset, when you're not allowed to perform after that on Venice Beach. You're actually not allowed to perform on Venice Beach, but you are allowed to make a movie.
So we did a silent disco, so everyone was wearing headsets for the performance. And then we told the fire department that it was a science fiction film. Then they just watched this weird thing unfold in front of them. And fires and things start to happen later. And I had a flare gun, which I would periodically walk around burning things.
So this is the return of the bird god. And these are the dead of the underworld in the Mayan myth.
So as you can see, there's kind of this pattern of getting a little bit bigger each time, making the problem a little more complicated, starting with a different diagram.
The piece I wanted to do after that-- I was asked to do something for the Food and Drug Administration. I wanted to do a garden. So we made the garden. It's all of the different kinds of strategies that plants use to survive. The plants are either-- this is called Grime's triangles. They're either competitive or stress-tolerant or ruderal, which means they're intermittent. And depending on what's happening in the garden, they'll each succeed in different ways.
So I tried to make a hypercompetitive garden, where all of the species would overlap and fight each other for space given the different seasons. And as a result, it would become incredibly stable because the speciations would advance in one season and be beaten back by the [AUDIO OUT] strategy in the next.
So this was my diagram of the thing. These are all the plant species that I picked out. And each of the plants also has a story because plants, like everything, have beautiful human stories attached to them. And they're also either a food or a drug, like a scarcity food or a drug like ephedra of something. Or there's all kinds of poppies and things in there.
So the garden kind of turns on and off different sections. And the other governing feature of it is it's only 4 inches at the shallow end, and it's 3 feet deep at the other, which completely gives the plants different kinds of opportunities. Some of them, like the grasses, will try and advance into the center. Periodically, you'll see them all pop up. And then the soil is just too shallow, so they'll all just die off again. And the plants in the center will reclaim control.
So it's kind of at war with itself. But in five years, we have not had to significantly replant it all. It just kind of reverts back each season but at the same time radically changing from, almost, week to week.
So it was very startling, initially, for the Food and Drug Administration. They were like do you know what's happening to the garden this week. And I'm like not exactly, but sort of hope it looks cool. And they're like, oh, yeah. It looks really cool, like an alien planet. But is that what you want? I'm like I don't know. Sounds good.
There's this thing called pokeweed that shows up. It's like a purple snake that winds its way horizontally through the whole thing every now and then. And, of course, it's inhabited by masses of animal species-- birds, snakes. It's become a kind of epicenter for activity-- thousands of insects. And the denser it gets, the more complex the ecosystem becomes.
So some of these, the ones in the center, are all hyperstable plants, like the monkey puzzle tree and the three friends pines. In the middle section towards the top is the golden apples of the sun, the famous apples of the Hesperides. So it's a kind of lockdown.
And a lot of the other plants are just very opportunistic, kind of survival plants that you would only eat if you're really, really in trouble. They're kind of foods that maybe Native Americans would treat like famine foods. So this is the centerpiece.
And like most of these projects, of course, as you might be wondering, they take a long time. There's an enormous amount of collaboration. The more you ask of a participatory organization, the more time you have to allow.
There's a Coase theorem. It's a theorem [AUDIO OUT] states the more complex a negotiation, the more time you have to allow.
So I've kind of drifted towards this kind of slower pace. It's sort of like slow food or something, where I just expect things to just take years sometimes. You start a conversation. But then as a direct correlate to that, I also expect them to last a long time.
So this was a residency I did at the ICA in Boston. Trying to combine four different types of diagram, this is Graham Harman's speculative ontology, Vladimir Propp's narrative, the Johari window, and Kiesler's-- it's an architectural fourfold put forth by Frederick Kiesler.
So it began in the greenway, and these pieces actually appeared at different times over a year-and-a-half period in Boston. And each one of them was a kind of chapter in the story. This is on the greenway. It's a 80-foot-tall mural.
This is in the lobby, which was a kind of reflection. You can see in the top left-hand corner-- sorry, the top right-hand corner-- there's a little fragment of the drawing that was on the greenway. That has a sound piece that gets played whether or not the--
And on the windows, there's a diagram of the building that was going to be built there. So by the time the piece was done, those windows were completely blocked off by the same sca-- and you couldn't tell the difference between my drawing and the scaffolding behind it.
And that became a kind of social space. The ICA has a very active program. It was part of the reason I wanted to do the residency with local teenagers and kids from different kinds of neighborhoods in Boston. So it became a kind of hub for poetry readings, musical performances.
And at the end, we brought it all together with a series of concerts, tarot readings, and sort of weird games of chance between some of my collaborators, who worked on these projects before. There's the bird god again. Shara Worden's shown up. She's having a weird tarot reading with Kelley Deal.
And the kids that we'd worked with over the year and a half all became part of the project. They all became readers and interpreters, a much more active role than one would normally give to people who traditionally see themselves as kind of-- their job is to stand in the corner, maybe make sure someone isn't touching the art. I was like you guys [AUDIO OUT.]
The beauty about tarot is no one really knows what any of it means. It goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. They were very worried they would get it wrong, and I was like anything you say to people in tarot, people believe. Anything at all.
And they loved it. And every single person that went through and had a reading was convinced they'd gotten the best tarot reading of their life because they would just sort of be like this card represents your future as an ambassador.
Again, this kind of introduction of contingency and play into a highly formalized system, which is sort of where my work has gone since then-- that was two or three years ago. I've been researching how to build structures that can be contingent and structural at the same time, like a self-supporting curved system.
This is an architectural collaboration, where we're trying to figure out how to make developable spaces that have no support other than themselves and don't rely on a-- So the tetrahedron was a first model. This is a kind of curving, infinite drawing.
And this is the kind of way I'm currently working on how to extend that into much larger structures that can be transported and moved around the world lightly with a light footprint. So this question of is it possible for any one person to understand and depict how we see the universe. Is there an inherent antagonism? Do you need a complex theory of picture? Does the complex theory of picture need to include contemporary science, technology, and sociology?
And then, finally, what is a complex theory of picture? That's where I've come around to asking this fundamental question about what we believe we are sharing when we talk about pictures and we talk about the picture space. There's so many assumptions that are baked into any conversation about it because of this problem of time.
And there is so many, many pictures, so many theories of pictures, that I think the danger is we forget that there should never be one theory of picture because any one theory of picture is going to start excluding people, places, ideas that should be represented that have real validity.
So the next project I did was this project, The Temptation of the Diagram, at the Getty Research Center. I started it a few years ago. It's an ongoing project. And it's a history of, basically, drawings, like how people have tried to generate drawings or pictures.
This was my studio at the Getty, and I went through-- I have thousands of images there of ways people have tried to make a whole picture-- to try and do that thing that I've asked myself is it possible to do. And, of course, that's all we've been doing all this time. For 10,000 years, we've just been making these pictures.
These are some of the kind of crazy ones. And half of them, if not all of them, are wrong. They're inevitably wrong because they come from the ethics and the politics of the time that they're made in.
So I began to ask is it possible to sort of, one, make a kind of Bible of diagrams, which is a project I did do. So it's a 25-foot-long, unfolding leporello, which is this beautiful word. It's named after Don Giovanni's manservant.
Don Giovanni's this famous sort of hashtag guy, like #metoo guy. And he can't even remember how many women he's harassed. And his manservant produces this list called a leporello, which just folds-- It's a comic moment in the opera. This enormous list sort of unfolds. And, of course, it's less funny than it was a year ago. Now it's sort of like just really, really sad when you think about that as a mainstream idea.
But this traditional word, the leporello, which may have to be retired, turned into this installation, which is a kind of-- then took all of those diagrams, processed them, into a kind of gestural or a contingent installation, which has become a larger project, where I include other artists and historical works inside that space.
So it's a kind of history of the diagram that's been abstracted. Now it contains all the books about diagrams and other works by artists who make diagrams, so kind of endlessly unpacking. I'm trying to, I guess, ask if it's possible to make a sort of limitless picture space even intellectually, if it's possible for us to conceive of a limitless picture space.
So this brings me-- I'll close it out with this project that I recently completed last year at Cornell Tech, your sister institution. Tried to include a sort of fragment of that-- the history of thought told through diagrams as a wraparound wall insulation, like a kind of vertical library stack.
The purpose of Cornell Tech, as it was told to me, is to sort of imagine the future, imagine future picture spaces. And top of their list are these famous and difficult problems in mathematics, which are the P does or does not equal NP problem, which is there a shortest path that solves the universe. Is there one picture that can include all the other pictures? Or do you have to slog your way through every single picture, through every version of the path, to arrive at the correct result?
And so I thought to be interesting just to kind of address this quite literally by placing a kind of history of diagrammatic thought inside a result, which is this kind of super graphic by me in a painting that places that history of thought inside of the institution that is allegedly exploring it-- this is right beforehand-- and then uses it as a kind of wayfinder for the space.
So if you're on the bottom of the piece, it's all black and white, and it all seems very simple. And it's just kind of logical diagrams of Aristotelian space. And by the time you get to the top of this four-story structure, it's become this kind of chaotic, absorptive space that completely envelops its environment. And it wraps around the staircase, so it's-- although it's very-- I hope to make it very elegant.
There's no one fixed point of view. Wherever you're standing, your viewpoint is sort of interrupted by elements of the piece that have found their way onto the glass walls around the atrium. So you're always looking through another diagram or another theory of picture towards the kind of ultimate goal.
So there's a lot more to this. I'm happy to go on, or I can definitely offer you guys an off-ramp now. One of the things that I think is really worth thinking about very carefully is as a student is this thing called the connectome, which has come out of all of those spaces that I talked about, those computational spaces.
And it's a map of the fairly recently development of what we call the semantic space of language. It's what I'm using to talk to you now. And this map has limits. Even though it seems limitless, even though our feelings towards it seem infinitely deep, the map actually only goes so deep. And it can only maintain a certain number of concepts. It's about 1,700 of them.
And once you get over that-- which, hopefully, I've definitely arrived at-- nothing else will fit in. And so you reject it. It doesn't get absorbed into your language space or your picture of the world. There's simply not enough room in the hard drive, so you bounce it out.
Evolving our understanding of that semantic space, I think, is the key to us turning it inside out and realizing that this is not something that exists as a kind of isolated thought form, protected from the world-- that our own theory of picture is something that is constantly changing. But also recognizing-- and this is where this is so useful, I think-- that in order to include something new, you may well have to throw something out.
But it's a dynamic picture space of exchange. And perhaps we get very attached to theories of picture that may have outlived their historical usefulness. The project that I'm working on now is an index of mental structures that goes back to, certainly, Mesopotamia.
And it's an effort to kind of place them, to show how each sort of mental structure overlaps the preceding one and retains elements of it while changing them and manipulates the terms inside that space. It's not that they're incompatible. It's just that if you're thinking about one kind of thing, you can't be thinking about another thing, and so you start to prioritize.
If you're worried about your car crashing or the storm, you're not going to be thinking about your IRA. We all do it all the time. Radical contingency is always waiting for you. It has a way of crowding things out. But the danger, of course, is that we misinterpret that and produce a kind of a diagram of politics that fails [AUDIO OUT].
And this is sort of where, I think, the politics of diagrams becomes extremely interesting in terms of analyzing our current political moment. This is not my diagram. This is just a kind of funny one that just shows you how difficult it is to sort of locate yourself.
And then the minute you do locate yourself, like maybe in the middle, you're kind of like, ah, I don't want to be there. I don't want to be a centrist. And then you're like, well, maybe I'm a Dem-- oh, that's [AUDIO OUT] like there's no--
The construction of [AUDIO OUT] mental structures, each one of which is one of these little-- each one [AUDIO OUT] has its [INAUDIBLE]. This is sort of off my work, but it's where my next body of work is going-- is thinking about how we make these kinds of drawings in our brains neurologically because if anything [AUDIO OUT]. It's a drawing in motion.
This is what is going on in our brains right now. This is kind of the demon in the diagram. It's us. We are cooking up new drawings of reality all the time, every minute. Right now you're doing it, and I think that's where, as artists, we have a kind of special responsibility to think about how to represent that theory of picture, where this process can be-- not leave it to this kind of computerized false color space but start to think about how we can make pictures that include this.
Thank you for coming.
AUDIENCE: Are there any questions? Will you take questions?
MATTHEW RITCHIE: I will absolutely take questions. I should warn you, though, when I get questions, there's a hundred more slides in this PowerPoint. I just noticed. (LAUGHS) So I may fast-forward to an image.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you for your lecture. I just have a sort of question about the [INAUDIBLE]. [AUDIO OUT] I was wondering if you could speak more about the translation [INAUDIBLE].
MATTHEW RITCHIE: Yeah. So I have a very sort of antagonistic relationship to painting and digitality, so I kind of think of them as both-- They're mutually beneficial, but they're-- neither one by itself is satisfactory. The romantic artistic gesture is too fraught with historical weaknesses, the idea of the great individual mark but so is the kind of communal digital space.
So what I tend to do is take drawings back and forth-- and paintings-- between both spaces so that the image there is a product of things being shifted in and out of digital analog space, rephotographed or rescanned, blown up, taken apart until-- I'm usually satisfied when I can no longer tell which is my original mark and which has been generated by the computer.
There's a film that's being made about that installation, where I'm painting in my studio what looks like that big black computer graphic. But I'm doing it by hand. And there's other parts of it that look very handmade that are entirely generated by noise or a program.
So I kind of think that starting to think about computers is not the answer, but not the problem either. The problem is what we do with those tools. Too much belief in authenticity leads you to one kind of false result, but too much belief in the system leads you to another kind of false result. It's the dreadful prospect of ending up in the center, I think, that makes us worried about it.
It's a very iterative process. It takes about a year, something like that, to generate the image. It's not quick. And then you just end up with these enormous files that go off to the printers.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. I was wondering-- you mentioned that you had responses from people in the streets spontaneous to your sculptures. You had interventions and concerts. You had been working with groups that interacted in the space that you created.
What about scientists? Have scientists responded to some of your very cerebral approach to propagating scientific principles and especially with Cornell Tech? What is your communication-- not with the one that we might have created or the template that you drew from, but the one that is attracting as an observer with these pieces? What are you drawing from that conversation?
MATTHEW RITCHIE: So two of the pieces-- it's kind of a funny coincidence. I collaborated with Lisa Randall, whose theory of new gravitational dimensions-- she wrote the opera. So that was a direct collaboration with her. And the large architectural structure, The Morning Line, was a collaboration with Neil Turok and Paul Steinhardt at Princeton.
And in a funny coincidence, they are now arguing with each other very publicly. The only two scientists I've really seriously collaborated with are now diametrically opposed about the nature of the universe. There's a kind of well-documented spat about three weeks ago.
So I'm obviously drawn to certain kinds of scientists, people who are very imaginative. And the horticulturalist I worked with in DC on the garden-- it was another collaboration where we spent a lot of time talking about microsoils and all kinds of nutrition levels and what would allow these-- really just the chemistry of a garden.
So I guess my feeling is these are-- the project at MIT-- it contains within it all kinds of equations that describe the formation of the universe and its progressions from space and time that was-- I collaborated with one of their many laureates to make sure I got it all correct and in sequence.
So I kind of think that the difficulty of collaborations between art and science is is you have to take both of them equally seriously. And there's a tendency to veer one way or another constantly through the process, like science has the rationality totally down, but art can produce the immediate feelings so much more. So you're kind of talking about the production of a shared space that allows for both things to coexist
So with the Cornell project, I worked with the dean there [AUDIO OUT] faculty. I invited them to contribute diagrams they thought were significant in the programs they were developing. So they gave me a whole bunch of diagrams, which I just put into the drawing. And some of them made it-- some of them didn't-- aesthetically.
But it's kind of-- if you go back far enough, which isn't that far-- the term scientist is invented, I think, in 1830. [AUDIO OUT] it evolved specifically because as a counterpart to an artist. Before that, they're called natural philosophers or experimenters or all kinds of things.
And someone says there's all these different kinds of people doing this stuff. Now we need a word for them. And so they say we're going to call them scientists because it's-- they're literally saying so they'll be like artists. Then there's like the figurative artist.
So this kind of idea that those are different approaches-- I'm not so convinced, but I do think there's a tremendous effort to make it happen. But I don't at all buy into the C.P. Snow Two Cultures idea. People often in the arts cite this dreadful, imperialist, racist text from the 1940s. You've heard this-- like the two cultures. Hardly anyone's ever read it, but you'll see it cited constantly. If you read it, you're like this is just insane.
At the core, there's a grammar of reality. But the purpose of a grammar [AUDIO OUT] for us to relate for humans is to articulate meaning through that grammar. For us, the world is the place of meaning only because we require meaning from the world. For some kind of rhizomatic mat living on a rock in Antarctica-- I don't know if it requires meaning so much as just nutrients.
But we require-- and that's where the kind of idea of an ontological intelligence, I think, is something that, as opposed to an artificial intelligence, is something where more research can be done between artists and scientists. It becomes more meaningful and more useful.
Thanks, guys. Really appreciate it.
So Andrea-- looks like it's you and me for the last 100 slides. (LAUGHS)
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Artist Matthew Ritchie discussed his work and Cornell Tech installation, Everything that Rises Must Converge, March 1, 2018 at the Johnson Museum of Art. The talk was made possible in part by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.