The Tree of Life

Essay: Claudia Hart
Website: Shi Zheng
Release: May 13, 2020

Mediated trees: Mark Dorf, Claudia Hart, Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn, Kurt Hentschlaeger, Gary Hill, Sara Ludy, Quayola, Shi Zheng, and Marina Zurkow

Thoughts on the speed of time, history, archiving, memory, hard drives and resolution, while waiting for the passing of Covid-19

The works on my website timeline originate in the year 1995. Updating the early entries with higher resolution images was always the next thing on my to-do list. When Corona hit, it rose to number one. My update was to cover projects made between 1995 and 2014, which must have been the year I started thinking of myself seriously as an artist and the start of another story. In 1995, I published an illustrated book drawn with oil-paint, but stretched on canvas. I thought I should document it. In those days, documentation meant slides. In 1996, I bought a slide scanner.

The file size of a scan in those days could be up to about 100 megabytes for a 600 DPI 8"x10,” uncompressed 24-bit image. Dust and scratches on the film were the main issue for scanning. Because of their reduced size (compared to prints), the scanners were capable of resolutions much higher than a regular flatbed scanner, typically at least 2000 samples per inch (spi), but up to 4000 spi or more. At these resolutions, dust and scratches take on gigantic proportions. Even small specks of dust, invisible to the naked eye, can obscure a cluster of several pixels.

Kurt Hentschlager, the media artist who is my husband (he actually purchased the scanner, and was the maven), and I must have scanned the slides in that same year, at a pixel dimension of 540 x 820. I’m not sure why I chose that size. I think it was what I then considered enormous. I was scanning them for an earlier version of my site, for the Internet as it was then, much larger than what could actually be posted. The JPEGs that I’ve just removed from my current site, culled from that earlier time, were 520 x 600 pixels, intended for the monitors of that epoch, monitors that could handle 72 ppi.

When initially confronted with the original scans, I thought I should clean them up, perfecting them with all of the magical image-editing abilities of Photoshop 2020. Until that moment, I accepted reality as an unrelenting expansion of resolution, data and the speed of processing. But now, in the time of the Corona quarantine, time has frozen over, together with the casino-capitalist art market and with it, hopefully, the frenzy of art as I have known it for the past thirty years. Perhaps it's time to reconsider: what of it? So I left the dust and scratches as well as the vignetting around the corners of those early scans. They appeared picturesque.

I decided to teach myself 3D animation in 1997, but it took me until 2001 to reach a point that I might mark as the inception of my current practice. It was an animation called More Life, inspired by a sound-grab I took from the 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner in which Roy Batty, the renegade replicant played by the recently deceased Rutger Hauer, explains to his creator, the founder of the enormous Tyrell (AI) Corporation, why he was about to kill him. "I want more life, fucker," Roy Batty growled to Tyrell, reproaching him bitterly, as the tycoon had only programmed his androids with limited two-year life spans. Then he crushed Tyrell's head. My piece was shown in 2001 in an exhibit called Animations, at PS1/MOMA in Long Island City, curated by Carolyn Christov-Barkargiev and Larissa Harris. The piece consisted of an AVI movie, 720 x 486 pixels, squeezed down to 384 x 259, for that same early website that I can barely remember producing.

In 1998, when my Maya 3D software went from Unix to PC, I bought a Dell workstation, rolling my monthly payments over from one no-interest credit-card grace period to another, over a period of five years. It cost $5000, which is what I just paid for a new Origin PC with a three-year warranty including parts replacement and shipping, and mounted with what is literally the fastest gaming card on earth. But back in ‘98, my Dell had a 17-inch LCD monitor with a 4:3 aspect ratio, and was 1024x768 p, 72 dpi. In comparison, I’m currently writing on a late 2015 iMac with a 27-inch Retina 5K monitor, a 3.3GHz core and 64 gigs of RAM. I consider it to be an ancient computer, only for Internet and word processing. The monitor is 5120 x 2880, 23.375” actual width, so approximately 219 dpi.

But on the Dell, I rendered out More Life at 4:3 aspect ratio, a resolution then standard. I could have produced the animation at a larger pixel aspect ratio, but it never crossed my mind to do such a thing. In fact, in a similar fog, I’m not even sure when I actually made the work; it was shown in 2001, but must have been completed some time before that. I obviously didn’t think that fact was of any significance.

In 2004, I threw out the Dell, right after finally paying it off. It was too slow. I bought my first external hard drive to cache the contents of the PC’s internal one. It was a 160 gig LaCie Big Disk, a portable drive designed by F. A. Porsche, the grandson of the car designer. It measured 7.375 x 4.375 x 1.375 inches. I bought it particularly to store Machina, a piece that in hindsight, marks the beginning of my current practice; the start of a more developed artistic consciousness on my part. In 2004, Machina was also the first of what was then dubbed a ‘high-def’ render, at 1280 x 720 p. Although I was irritated by the change in aspect ratio, from 4:3 to 16:9, I thought little of it.

The LaCie was a great drive. I bought many. They all still spin up - more than I can say for all of those 500-gig Western Digitals (6.5” x 5.625” x 2.25”) I bought in 2006. My current drives are mostly five terabyte. They are cheap - less than $100.00 - because they are outdated; made by Seagate - a great drive producer - measuring 4.625” x 3.125” x .8125”. Nowadays, I know to wait for the next new thing, because the speed of technological change is so rapid that the newest, fastest drives will go on sale a few months after they are first produced and will be, well, fast enough. I’m not exactly sure when I understood this about technology. I guess it just crept up on me.

The meaning of life, of one's own life, is not necessarily what one thinks or feels for that matter, in the moment of living it. Although life can only be, in fact, in the now. One understands life’s meaning only in one’s future. And so we live this constant paradox: living in the now, but finding life’s meaning in its narrative arc, gleaned in the future. History, likewise, interpreted from the present, is a revisioning and recrafting of life itself - a branching off. Making one’s own history, like those grander narratives we flow in and out of, necessarily revisionist - a series of corrections. I reinterpret my past every few years, according to insights learned through its development - personal, but also evaluated in the context of the arc of the dominant stories and the discourse of power. But just like the Whos in that Dr. Seuss book where Horton the Elephant discovers a speck of dust that is actually a tiny planet, the home of Whoville, it’s the only one we got. So from whatever perch we sit and in whatever moment, let’s toast to life: l'chaim.

Horton Hears a Who! is a children's book written and illustrated by Theodor Seuss Geisel under the pen name Dr. Seuss and was published in 1954 by Random House.