"The Best Art In The World"
A Thousand Miles An Hour: An Interview with Kevin Cooley
Exhibition on view at Kopeikin Gallery in Culver City
January 16 - March 12, 2016
By FRANCEASCA SEIDEN, MAR. 2016
Kevin Cooley’s latest photography and video installation A Thousand Miles An Hour fuses cosmology, technology and alchemy in service of his ongoing project of questioning the disparities that can arise between human perception and phenomenological actuality. The title refers to the speed at which the Earth rotates on its axis, and is expressed in two compounded parts. A two-channel video work on 24-minute loop differentiates between scientific data on the behavior of the sun and the moon and their perceived physical appearances. The video presents recognizable views of the two most common celestial bodies in motion, from fixed points near the center of the frame. We observe the light change from dawn to dusk as the sun and moon remain “still” while instead it is the clouds, horizon, and ground that appear in motion in relation to them. Rich in color, the still photographs are framed and hung at pronounced angles along a central axis in which, as in the video, the sun and moon remain fixed while the rest of the image rotates instead, representing the horizon line accurately while the landscape remains off-kilter. Their long exposures illustrate the speed of the earth’s rotation, and the specific angles correspond to the latitude where the images were captured, acting as a function of the tracking system used to shoot both the film and photographs. This is both an unusual and refreshing arrangement, and profound articulation exploring the visual limitations to our awareness.
Whitehot: How much does spirituality play into your work, especially in this series?
Cooley: I do think there is a spiritual element that happens in my work on a subconscious level. Fallen Water, which I showed last year in San Francisco with the Catharine Clark Gallery, began to feel religious in a way. It was a 15-channel video piece from floor to ceiling with light peering through the video screen, which gave it that stained glass feeling. Same, when I did the video installation, Skyward 2013, which was exhibited in an old industrial space, I portrayed LA’s manufactured landscape in relation to nature. The visuals broke down the classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Ether. The video slowly moves allowing the foundation to stay in the same realm, similar to A Thousand Miles An Hour. Watching the video becomes like meditation; you start thinking about your own life experiences. I don’t necessarily think it’s a conscious decision to make spirituality a part of my work but I definitely think it’s in there.
Whitehot: A Thousand Miles An Hour feels like the video came before the photos, do you have a preference between the two mediums?
Cooley: As an artist I have spent a lot of the time focusing on a photo-based practice. In the last seven or eight years I’ve been shifting to video with some series having both photography and video components. In this series, the idea of the video came first; almost a year later I began working on the photographs. I knew simultaneously shooting stills while creating the video would mean that one wouldn’t have gotten done. The sun is out all the time but shooting the moon is quite hard; it only comes once a month. The video appears like it’s shot in one day but it’s actually many different days seamlessly put together. I didn’t really want the photographs just to be video stills, so I chose to wait and decided to use the same astronomical tracking device used for stargazing that adjusts to capture which part of the sky (planet or star) you want to see. The mount moves in retrograde so in this case the sun and the moon stay in frame.
Whitehot: How did you come up with the idea to frame hang the photographs on angles?
Cooley: When I decided to make the photographs I wanted to them to conceptually stand alone on their own merit, which is why they don’t hang vertical or horizontal. They are in-between; the horizon is rendered flat because of the way the photo hangs. That’s both a function of the telescope mount and knowing the your latitude and longitude, the exact location on the planet. The idea is if, I went to the equator it would be a horizontal photograph, and if I went to the North Pole it would be vertical.
Whitehot: Where did you shoot most of the footage?
Cooley: A lot of those videos were shot near and around Mt. Wilson, which is just above the San Gabriel Mountains right by Pasadena. There’s an historical observatory, which was at one point the center of the astronomy world. It had the best telescopes, 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes, they proved concepts like the speed of light and made various scientific breakthroughs. Famed astronomer and cosmologist Edwin Hubble* worked there and now you can actually rent it out for like a birthday party. That’s where I felt the most inspired and I spent a lot of the time making the work. I went back to the same locations and shot. I originally didn’t like the fact that they were angled, and then I realized that if you think about where Los Angeles is on the globe -- if you zoomed out looking across the room -- you would see that LA is on a 34-degree angle. It’s all about the reference, this idea that when we look at the horizon, or the ocean, the ocean looks flat but we know the earth is curved and we also know that we are on some angle, it becomes about our perception and our point of reference. We can’t really see beyond what we perceive to be the truth, that’s how we think of things. Even the way we talk about the sunrise in the east and setting in the west, we know that it’s us that are moving, the sun doesn’t really move in relation to the day. Since it’s all about us we talk about it like it’s moving across our sky.
*Edwin Hubble is also known for providing substantial evidence that many objects then classified as "nebulae" were actually galaxies beyond the Milky Way.
Whitehot: Can you explain the evolution of your work from landscape and the use of light, to esoteric themes into astrophotography?
Cooley: I’ve always understood the idea of space and have been interested in space programs, the moon and the Apollo. I did a lot of camping as a kid under the stars, seeing shooting stars thinking about things that are larger that we can experience on earth. I remember when I was a kid there was Halley’s Comet -- it only comes along every 75-85 years -- and it was such a big deal, we went down to the university, they had telescopes and I got to look through which left a big impression on me.
The more you look at the world and ask questions and make images as a way to answer those questions, the more you start asking yourself about life’s bigger questions: “Why are we here and why does this happen?” You get to this place where you are categorizing the world within these very basic concepts; earth, wind, fire, water, which is the formation and basis of modern astrophysics and how these ancient classical ideas are divided in the physical world. The more my practices progress the more I think about ways to define our collective experience.
Whitehot: Are you at all influenced by the occult arts, alchemy, old philosophical mysteries and ideas where they used the elements and the moon phases to as a calendar and to study human existence?
Cooley: You know I haven’t been looking at that stuff so much, interesting that you say that, I think I should do more of that.
Whitehot: What’s your relationship now with technology and nature?
Cooley: I’ve used technology in my work a lot, for Remote Nation (2011) I got a building in Manhattan, which I tuned into my father’s television and whatever he was watching we would broadcast it through a pirate television station. I can see why people are drawn to the idea but that’s a very small subtext; it’s more about the idea, and the technology is a tool to make it happen. I like figuring it out and doing the research. There’s a lot behind the scenes that is technological that makes the project work, which is my own struggle. It’s not something I want people to think about. The work isn’t necessarily about how I did it; it’s not something I would use as part of an art statement. It’s about having an idea and finding a way to make it work.
Whitehot: How long did A Thousand Miles An Hour take to create?
Cooley: The video concept came up during the Summer of 2015, and the first time I showed it was the end of November, so about 4 or 5 months of every full moon, the day before and the day after, shooting dawn and dusk, and it had to be used in places without any city lights. I have a lot more footage coordinating with the sun. The photos were the same duration. The issue I was having with that was those sun shots were also long exposures like the moons; how far the earth moves in 30 minutes is however long the exposure had to be -- so I had to find a way to take a picture of the sun for 30 minutes. I ended up finding this very slow, large format film that’s used for mechanical reproductions.
Whitehot: How did mechanical reproduction film even become a thought?
Cooley: I used to work with a lab in New York, and the guy who ran the lab became very well known. If you shot with slide film and large format transparencies he was the guy that you would go to dodge and burn to make your negative. I was doing a lot of night photography and he gave me all this film and said my exposure times would be hours and how the contrast and colors would be amazing. I stored the film in my fridge for all these years, and when this project came about I knew this was the right film to use, that I had finally found a use for it.
Whitehot: So are you committed to using film over digital?
Cooley: I’m not a purist. I used the film because it was the right tool. It’s more the idea that drives the form of the art. I let different projects take different forms, rather than limiting myself to one medium.
Whitehot: In other words, it’s all relative. WM
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Franceasca Seiden is a writer based in Los Angeles.