Monday, December 23, 2013

Diane Burko: Moving Viewers to Pay Attention

Grinnell Mt. Gould #1, #2, #3, #4, 2009
Oil on canvas, 88" x 200", © Diane Burko

For over forty years, Diane Burko’s work has focused on monumental and geologic phenomena throughout the world, many of which she has explored and photographed from the air. Her paintings and aerial photographs of “extreme” landscapes are informed by historical and contemporary scientific images yet guided by her intuitive search for the edges of representation and an expression of geologic time. Her ongoing “Politics of Snow Project” places her at the intersection of art and science as she continues to pursue her practice of developing strategies that present the data of climate change through an aesthetic filter.

Burko’s “Glacial Perspectives” is the subject of her current solo exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Her paintings and photographs will also be featured in two upcoming exhibitions in 2014: one at Tufts University “Seeing Glacial Time: Capturing Climate Change in the Arctic,” where she will also deliver the keynote speech on April 3, 2014. In Philadelphia, she will be part of a collaborative exhibition between American and Icelandic artists “Due North,” which opens at the Crane Arts Building on January 9, 2014.

Diane Burko: Moving Viewers to Pay Attention
By Sue Spaid

With this essay, I aim to tease out the numerous scientific implications of Diane Burko’s paintings and photographs. To demonstrate the scientific value of her paintings, I first discuss how paintings, however mediated and/or distorted, complement ordinary perception in ways that photographs do not. By ordinary perception, I have in mind unmediated cases such as “seeing with the naked eye” or aided perception (using a mirror, telescope, or microscope). I then offer an analogy between Princeton neuroscientist Dr. Uri Hasson’s research, which proves that Hollywood films tend to direct spectators’ attentions to a particular spot on the screen more than other types of moving pictures, and Burko’s paintings, which lure viewers’ attentions to particular details in ways that photographs of like scale and composition cannot.[1] Moreover, photographs tend to mislead spectators, precisely because their believability diffuses viewers’ skeptical/critical faculties. Finally, I discuss her paintings’ tendency to prompt the illusion of motion, a “no-fi” (no film) feature that is unavailable straight photography.

Those who consider Burko’s paintings redundant in light of her own photographs, USGA photographs, NASA satellite photographs, or available data, may be ignoring the way “hottened up” scenes prioritize details that might otherwise go unnoticed. Some philosophers argue that photography’s advantage concerns “viewers’ special background beliefs regarding photography as a type of depictive representation that carries information about an object’s visually accessible properties more accurately than painting does.”[2] By presenting photography alongside painting, Burko exploits photography’s ability to instill beliefs about the landscape under consideration and painting’s capacity to subtly direct spectators’ attentions to particularities, enabling her project to achieve its double effect.

Painting’s Special Edge
The intuition that paintings’ haptic sensibilities make them more compelling than photographs seems to me to be a bit of wishful thinking. The plethora of die-hard photography fans and movie buffs undermines the notion of the human hand as necessarily commanding greater attention. “Photography fans” happily visit photography exhibitions and photo-fairs. Out on the highway, cars tend to capture more attention than hand-painted signs (however gorgeous) occupying drivers’ peripheries! It could be interesting to learn whether street artists’ modified billboards and buildings distract drivers.[3] If they do, it could be difficult to discern the actual cause: the presence of the human hand, some spontaneous response to novelty/absurdity, or being startled by irregularity.

A painter’s ability to render aspects of the composition in a manner that lures viewers’ attentions enables paintings to slyly highlight aspects that relay particular contents. By contrast, photographers who purposely direct spectators’ attentions risk undermining photography’s believability-advantage. The more manipulated photographs look the less neutral they feel, leaving tools that alter foci, crop/ frame images, or direct light/shadow to delimit their scientific value. As mentioned above, neutral-feeling photographs, like documentary films, typically lack particularized focal points, while paintings (and Hollywood films) tend to pin viewers’ attentions to specific focal points.[4]

As most philosophers attest, attention is necessary for consciousness, since attention prioritizes (and thus differentiates) “the sensations according to a subjective standard, through which the sensations-turned-percepts are ‘unified’ or integrated.” As Carolyn Suchy-Dicey remarks, the subjective phenomenon of attending thus appears to involve a shift in one’s experience that is “not reducible to changes in what one experiences."[5] When one shifts one’s attention from one region of a painting to another, one’s experience changes, yet the painting remains the same. Paintings’ capacity to draw viewers’ attentions to particular aspects is what gives painting its edge over neutral photographs. Suchy-Dicey notes that effortlessly captured attentions “mimic pre-attentional changes to the stimulus by enhancing salience.”[6]

Although Hollywood films notoriously direct spectators’ attentions to particular points on the screen, films influence, but do not totally “control” spectators’ reactions, which is why one cannot blame some movie for one’s actions. The phenomenologist Edmund Husserl considers apprehension volitional, since it requires the “willful acceptance or volitional attention (intention towards).”[7] Although Suchy-Dicey differentiates stimulus-driven (exogenous) reactions from participant-driven (endogenous) ones, she finds it difficult to look to spectator behavior to distinguish the two, since “subject-level activity [volitional attention] is just one of the many ‘internal’ drivers of behavior captured by endogeny, which also include emotion, arousal, and associative processing.”[8]

Given attention’s contribution to consciousness, one must admit that some paintings not only cue viewers, but they speed up access to the target or stimulus (a painting’s hot spots) in conjunction with spectator reaction, thereby optimizing selection. In such cases, spectators readily select particular properties that enable them to prioritize certain entities over others.[9] By contrast, the presence of too much information engenders sensory overload, disabling volitional attention. By regulating selective attention, well-executed paintings draw people’s attention to specific points under consideration, inspiring them to action.[10]

Antarctica Quartet, May – July 2013, 2013
Oil on canvas, 50" x 200", © Diane Burko

Photographs: Antarctica Quartet, © Diane Burko

Burko’s Project’s Particular Edge
Those who consider Painting’s capacity to lure spectators reason enough to deny its scientific value overlook the fact that really good paintings are the outcomes of repeated looking, as compared to photographs, which collapse 4-D reality into 2-D snaps. With ordinary perception, looking consists of nonstop saccadic eye movements, a continual process of checking and rechecking, however oblivious one is of one’s repeated glances. With photograph-looking, there’s no way to re-look, unless one is viewing time-elapsed photography, a lengthy sequence of events captured on film. But as philosopher Kendall Walton has pointed out, film lacks the epistemic connection to the world typically accorded the photograph. Scientific photographs may feel neutral, but paintings actually benefit from artists’ keen observational skills, which photographers who rely on photographic lenses need not develop. When photographs tracking climate change over decades exhibit different perspectives, painters tap their keen observational skills and powers of imagination to reorient images, engendering images from parallel perspective. By painting panels that reference multiple time periods, Burko avails changes over decades to viewers.

Even when Burko paints from photographs that were shot by others, her paintings incorporate her firsthand experience with the particular place. Each photograph offers only a single glance, while paintings are the outcomes of hundreds of glances. In addition to having visited glaciers in Canada, Iceland, and the United States; and mountain ranges in France, Switzerland, and the United States; she recently traveled to both poles to witness floating icebergs and melting glaciers. With both expeditions, she was in the company of scientists and science writers, giving her immediate access to the most recent research concerning climate change and glaciers.

Rather than lament Painting’s delusional and deceptive properties, long associated with hyper-realist paintings, its fictional status challenges viewers on levels unavailable documentary films. Paintings trump documentary footage in at least three ways. 1) Admittedly mediated, paintings direct attentions, require focus, and prompt reflective judgment. 2) Paintings can be allegorical; seeming to address a pleasant topic, while actually exposing viewers to foreboding issues. 3) Paintings visualize/contextualize information that enables viewers to perceive changes over time which are unavailable to observers of facts.

While animated films visibly change in real or accelerated/decelerated time, some paintings prompt perceptual illusions of moving imagery. Originally associated with Op Art, this no-fi technique is currently being employed to good effect by numerous landscape painters.[11] Such paintings pulsate, glow, vibrate, and emanate, and thus appear “hottened-up.” Exemplary of this phenomenon, Burko’s paintings relay the effects of expanding glacial lakes (Bear Glacier 2002, 2007, 1984) (2012)), bursting icebergs (Petermann Calving, August 16, 2010 (after NASA) (2012)), burning fires, ember-spewing volcanoes (“Volcanoes: Alaska, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Italy and Russia, (1998-2005), cascading avalanches (Approaching West Ridge, 1963, after Barry Bishop) (July 2010), receding glaciers (Columbia Glacier III (figure 46) (March 2011)), tumbling waterfalls (Godafoss #1-6) (2003), and verdant lakes (Twenty Mile Glacier #1 (1938 after Bradford Washburn) and Twenty Mile Glacier #2 (2005 after David Arnold) (2009). Just as with the paradox of fiction, whereby one recognizes that the fears one feels when aroused by horror flicks are no more real than movies, the paradox of painting concerns how one’s imagination often treats such perceptual illusions as real, even though everyone accepts paint’s static nature.

Bear Glacier 2002, 2007, 1984, 2011
Oil on canvas, 60" x 194", © Diane Burko

Peterman Calving, August 16, 2010 (after NASA), 2012
Oil on canvas, 60" x 72", © Diane Burko

Columbia Triptych II (figure 46): Vertical Aerial 1981 – 1999, A, B, C, after Austin Post and Tad Pfeffer, 2010
Oil on canvas, 76" x 36", © Diane Burko

Painting’s Scientific Edge
When paintings actually enable scientists and the general public to experience information in a new way, should painters be considered scientific collaborators, just as other scientists are seen as collaborators? That is, can artworks help scientists to access information the way other scientists' papers, experiments, and calculations grant them special access to data, theories or experiences, which they have yet to glean themselves? I not only believe this, but have tried to demonstrate Burko’s special role in aiding scientists in their efforts to publicize visual information. This seems to me to be no different than the role played by Early Netherlandish and Flemish Renaissance painters whose centuries-old paintings of flora and fauna still assist biologists in their efforts to classify and track species over the ages. Artists make great collaborators precisely because they have remarkable observational skills, are used to tedious activities and have been especially trained to identify and analyze systems.

Nunatak Glacier 1938, after Bradford Washburn: Nunatek Glacier 2005, after David Arnold, 2010
Oil on canvas, 60" x 134", © Diane Burko

[1] Uri Hasson, Ohad Landesman, Barbara Knappmeyer, Ignacio Vallines, Nava Rubin, and David J. Heeger, “Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Films.” Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind. June 1, 2008. Vol. 2. pp. 1-26.

[2] Sue Spaid, “Refocusing the Photographic Practice: From Taking Pictures to Producing Negatives", unpublished paper, January 2011.

[3] Dozen of artists, such as Gomez-Bueno, have mounted billboards to manipulate them by hand.

[4] Hasson (2008).

[5] Carolyn Suchy-Dicey (2011), Attention, Subject, and World (Ph. D. dissertation), p. 15.

[6] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 18.

[7] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 22.

[8] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 27 and p. 32.

[9] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 21 and p. 38.

[10] Suchy-Dicey (2011), p. 39.

[11] While Executive Director at the Contemporary Museum, I was planning the exhibition “Moving Pictures: Activating the Mind’s Eye,” which would present Burko’s paintings alongside dynamic paintings of Arden Bendler Browning, Danielle Bursk, Mary Corse, Sharon Ellis, Terri Friedman, Theresa Hackett, Juri Kim, Andy Moses, Sabina Ott, Bridget Riley, Fred Tomaselli, and Laura Watt.

Having participated since the mid-80s as a collector, curator, art writer, and arts educator, Sue Spaid recently earned a Ph. D. in Philosophy from Temple University for her dissertation Work and World: On the Philosophy of Curatorial Practice. Hailed by Roberta Smith in The New York Times as the "artworld's new image," Sue Spaid Fine Art (1990-1995) gained artworld attention for launching the careers of dozens of Los Angeles artists. Soon after closing her gallery in 1995, she began curating exhibitions for museums. In addition to having curated 100+ exhibitions for institutions and alternative sites, such as the Staten Island Ferry, a Miami hotel pool, and the Pavilion's Grocery Store, she has penned 60+ exhibition essays and has written 100+ critical reviews. She is the author of five exhibition-accompanying books, three of which concern "practical art" (Ecovention:Current Art to Transform Ecologies, A Field Guide to Patricia Johanson's Work: Built, Proposed, Published and Collected, and Green Acres: Artists Farming Fields, Greenhouses and Abandoned Lots).

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