Magazine article Artforum International

A Thousand Words

Magazine article Artforum International

A Thousand Words

Article excerpt

Keith Tyson TALKS ABOUT "THE SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD"

My work is fundamentally a kind of research, and my current project, "The Seven Wonders of the World," experiments with certain scientific and philosophical concepts I find wondrous. The first "Wonder," Monument to the Present State of Things, enacts the idea of causal interconnectedness, the so-called butterfly effect. It's a tall stack of newspapers--all the papers on sale one morning at a central London train station. Before rush hour, I cleaned out all the newsstands, denying the commuters their papers and subtly changing the course of their lives. Unlike the traditional bronze-man-on-a-horse formula, this monument's effects get greater overtime, rather than less: At some future point certain people will owe their existence to it. I guess some people will die because of it, too. Well, OK--that's true of every single event and object in the world, including the man on his horse, but few things have been created with the sole aim of indiscriminately affecting the future.

Monument is a reminder that artworks can shape history as much through their materiality as through their cultural significance: Painting X gets shipped from Y to Z, it causes a traffic jam at A, person B is delayed, etc. Newspapers record history, and my removing them fractionally "changed" history--though some scientific theories suggest that time is all worked out; it could travel either way, if it weren't for entropy. Monument is itself determined, the effect of earlier causes as well as the cause of later effects. It plays with the idea of free will, but unlike a scientific experiment, its results can't be confirmed, just speculated about.

A similar thing occurs in fiction. A sci-fi novel starts with a false hypothesis but builds entirely logically from there and might reveal useful things about given problems. A delusional proposition can yield a productive result. That said, my projects are actually very rigorous, logically speaking. Many consist of an object and a claim made about that object. The work's identity fluctuates between its materiality and some cerebral construct hovering around it. Take my spell books, for instance: The Wine of Life Swapping spell changes any normal bottle of wine into a "magic item." When you drink from it, the world is destroyed and everyone is reborn with a new set of memories. And this really could be true. When you're a child, you marvel at things like that, but when you get older you discard them as irrelevant.

I'm fascinated by science's dogmatic determinism: the belief that any event or action, however complex--a Mozart concerto, a terrorist attack--arises from hydrogen atoms bashing together during the Big Bang. To me that's far more fanciful and miraculous than any theological system. The Thinker (After Rodin) is another "Wonder." It ponders the idea that this nonmaterial phenomenon called "thought" develops from absolutely nothing. It's a big hexagonal column housing a series of computers that are running an artificial universe. The apparatus is both generating an environment and evolving life forms which are thinking in that environment. But there's no outward sign of activity. It's like a computer with its keyboard and VDU unplugged: It just sits there, thinking. …

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