Thursday, January 19, 2006

EMBRACE THE PARADOX: Interview with Rod Meade Sperry in The Worst Horse Buddhism Blog

one day, out of the blue, i get an email from this guy rod of the worst horse ("when it comes to Buddhist practice, it may not be such a bad thing to be the worst horse. After all, the best horses have the least to gain: they're already the best. The so-called worst horses, on the other hand, will undergo the most transformation, the most improvement, if they stick with it." - from the worst horse website). rod had stumbled upon my work while googling the word "thangka", and asked if i'd be willing to answer a few questions as a sort of interview via email, and i said sure.

when the questions arrived, i read them, then sat at my desk for quite some time with my head in my hands, weeping. i was just so astounded that my work had evoked such thoughtful questions, that someone was so interested, that someone really understood. the questions were proof that the work was saying what i hoped it would say. affirmation that the work was...working. the answers, to me, felt extraneous. i went on marveling at the questions themselves, savoring them, for a long time, before answering.

Q: Your site features the Joseph Campbell quote, "The shaman swims in
the same water the psychotic drowns in." Apparently art is what keeps
you afloat. Where might you be without it?

goodness, i shudder to think. the making of art is part of it…but the
artwork itself is more of a by-product. it's the constant practice with
and honing of an ability to interface with the "unseen world", the
subtler aspects of reality (and by this i'm referring to things like
inspiration and intuition…emotion-based stuff that our culture tends to
rely on less than  more "logical" and quantifiable ways of knowing)
that does it for me. this is where the shamans have it goin' on.
shamanism is all about cultivating a relationship and a dialog with
forces that seem bigger than us through reverence, ritual, and
ceremony. artists and shamans have a lot in common…they are both
meaning-seekers, meaning makers. what saves me is finding meaning in
the water. it's never "just" water, and it's never "just" swimming.
it's that archetypal moment when we realize that the more we struggle,
the more we get pulled under. the moment we relax all our muscles and
let the current take us, we bob right up to the surface. my artworks
are tools to help me get into that state of mind, or remind me of it.

Q: Looking at your websites, one might get the sense that you're
primarily a visual artist. But sound, and text, for example, seem to be
very important parts of your life and work. Boundaries between mediums
don't mean much, do they?

i marvel at people who can say everything they need to say with a
canvas and a few tubes of paint, or with a bunch of words on a page. my
"thing" tends to be more about a comparative study. i started out
wanting to make art about science, so I got a degree in marine biology,
then one in scientific illustration. but i quickly realized that what i
wanted to say about science was more about the breathtaking
miraculousness of it, about the irony and conceit in the suggestion
that any study could ever be truly "objective", or that the scientific
method is somehow outside of, and perhaps even more "valid" than,
creativity.  i guess the point i'm trying to make with my work is that
it's all one thing…we're all curious about the nature of reality, and
we're all making inquiries into it using whatever resources we have
available to us, be they particle accelerators, grand pianos, or
laptops. or a little of each.

Q: How did you begin to realize that you had so much to say, and that
there were so many ways to say it?

goodness, i'm not sure. i guess all this mostly started to happen when
i was at RISD, enrolled in their graduate scientific illustration
program. though it's a technical certificate program without a lot of
room for electives, i often found myself in the letterpress shop and
silkscreen studio and textile shop. i was working by day as a research
assistant in oceanography at URI, then i'd go home and go to art school
at night. it was a strange time…i felt a little out of place no matter
where i was. the scientists thought of me as some artist with a job in
science, and the artists thought of me as a scientist with an art
habit. i would spend weeks at a time at sea collecting samples and
drawing and writing in my sketchbook and reading books about quantum
physics. i guess it was around then that the interconnections between
things started to hum and glow and buzz in a way i felt compelled to

Q: I pretty much stumbled upon your site by accident. I was googling
the word "thangka," and ended up on your site, reading
about the "1/2 Life Tell-tale Thangka," [I'll include a link here]
which you describe as  "inspired by Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags and
'tell-tails' used on sailboats to tell the wind direction [. They] are
precorded with the Sounds of (1/2) Life collage, including sounds
collected in the Peruvian rainforest, Jack Kerouac, my high-school punk
band, the Beatles, and Beethoven." [I'll include a link here to the FAQ
so people can understand how it works.] A couple questions about this:

-- How is that one hears the sounds recorded in the fabric of the
thangka? Meaning: does one put the thangka up and the wind blows it
against tape heads connected to speakers? How does it work?

sound is emitted by running a tape head over the surface of the fabric,
and listening either through headphones or an amplifier. so far, i've
been making individual hand-held units from old tape walkmen. it's very
simple, actually…just unscrew the head and remount it in a position
that allows it to glide smoothly over the fabric, making good contact
with it. the sound one hears is very much like scratching a record
backwards, but more garbled. that's because there are 4 tracks (layers)
of sound on every strand of tape. i had no idea that the stuff would
actually be audible (another by-product…), so i didn't make my collages
with that in mind. but i hope with some further experimentation…

-- The idea of Tibetan prayer flags, as you say on your website, is
that they hang "outdoors in auspicious locations where their blessings
can be activated and sent off into the world on the wind." Your
thangkas, by extension, would seem to transmit both a blessing from,
and a tribute to, the things in your life that have meant a lot to you.
In your words, you call them "sounds I considered sacred." What is

in this case, what i mean by sacred is something that's been profoundly
meaningful, influential, and nostalgic to me personally. some of what's
recorded onto the tape could be considered "sacred music" in the sense
that it was purposefully created as an ode to the divine (monks
chanting, for example). the ravings of my high school punk band are
less intentional, but inspired nonetheless. the sound collages i make
for sonic fabric are definitely meant not only as blessings and
tributes, but as little encapsulations, slices of the human experience.
in a sense, as long as the source of this crazy thing that inspires us
remains a mystery, everything is sacred.

Q: You playfully refer to "Determinism" in your work, and publish what
you call the "CHOOSE DETERMINISM LEAFLET," a "Propaganda/self-quiz
designed to assist you in adopting a fitting personal philosophy (you
may have no choice)." This is what you've done, right? Can you

oh boy, this is a biggie..

there was a particular moment in my past when it suddenly dawned on me
that any semblance of control i'd thought i'd had over the unfolding of
my life was a complete illusion. life is like a sailboat race…you're at
the helm and you have a course and a destination in mind, but you're
constantly having to readjust…you're ultimately at the mercy of bigger
forces, like wind, tide, and current. i realized that up 'til then i'd
pretty much been operating from an existentialist standpoint (this
whole consciousness thing is ultimately meaningless, and we are
"condemned to be free"…every choice we make is entirely our own
responsibility). it seemed like a huge relief, a burden lifted, to come
to the realization that the big stuff is really not up to me (a little
like the shaman-swimmer thing...the swimming is in the not-struggling).
but there just had to be more to it than that…

in the middle of this revelation, i called my father, with whom i often
consult during philosophical dilemmas (he majored in eastern religion
and philosophy in the '60's). he tried to assure me that there's no
such thing as intermittent free will…either the universe has been
evolving like clockwork according to strict physical laws ever since
the big bang, or it's a chaotic mess, but not both, and not a little of

but there IS a little of each going on! isn't there?

this free will vs. determinism thing was beginning to smack of another
conundrum i'd been mulling over quite a bit…quantum physics vs.
classical physics. scientists working around the clock to figure out
how it can be that a lemon, though it appears to be a lemon, when you
really really look at it, is made up of...nothing. or at least not a
thing we've had words for, or machines to detect, or theories to
describe, before.

AH-HA, i said to myself, that's IT…

my dad had said something else during that same conversation that was
key…he said that, in a world where there's no free will, there may be
just one thing we do have control over…our thoughts. he said that's why
the eastern philosophies had always been so appealing to him…they teach
us that, though we may have no control over an ever-changing,
unfathomable universe, we can choose to feel a sense of peace inside.

our thoughts. seemingly "nothing". just the stuff the physicists are
looking for…and just the stuff the buddhists had a handle on all along.

so that's it. determinism and classical physics are inextricably
linked, just as free will and quantum physics are linked. all these
things are, in fact, functioning simultaneously. there's a slight
misunderstanding however, regarding the responsibility that comes with
human lucidity and self-awareness. these oddly large and convoluted
organs in our heads, the ones we reckon we're only using some small
percentage of, are constantly thinking away these thoughts we think of
as "nothing", when actually they're serving as quite efficient, if
unwitting, lemon generators.

so when i say CHOOSE DETERMINISM i'm really saying EMBRACE THE PARADOX.
i'm alluding to something the string theorists seem not to want to
admit…that if they were able to DEMONSTRATE their theory, it would
reveal the true power, potential, and purpose of the mind.

and that leads me to the orange doughnuts…

Q: Your "1/2 Life Tell-tale Thangka" and the "Monk/Messenger Bag"
("part traditional Buddhist monk, and part NY bike messenger") suggest
the influence of Buddhism. Would you say that that's right?

ohyes. i wanted the design of the bag to be based on the practices and
traditions of the culture that inspired it. and I wanted it to be
functional and efficient in an urban environment too. also hoping that,
in whatever subtle way, it's austere simplicity and the content of the
tape, might emanate some positive effect…

Q: If I understand correctly, some of the Sonic Fabric material is
hand-loomed and used at a craft cooperative for tibetan women refugees
and nepal. How did you arrange this? What kind of contacts/experiences
have come out of this association?

i emailed ganden thurman at tibet house here in new york (i'd been
taking some classes with robert thurman there) to ask if he knew of any
tibetan weavers i might commission to work with me on this project. he
suggested I contact some of the craftspeople listed in their newsletter
(tibet house drum). i sent out a message to several of them, and daniel
tamang of replied immediately. he lives in berkeley,
california, and is the liaison to the craft coop in nepal. i'm very
excited to do more work with the coop. i haven't had a chance to go
over there yet…but i hope to very soon.

Q: You have a beautiful letterpress piece called the "Om Campaign,"
which states the existence of a "Campaign to replace the dial-tone with
Om." This too is quite playful, but I think you're hinting at something
bigger, about sound, and the harmony of all things. What is your
understanding or belief of the "universal note" of Om?

again, the buddhists intuited something long ago that string theorists
are only just beginning to explore: that at the most fundamental level,
all things are inherently composed of a wave, a vibration. i have a
piece titled "WAVES become MATTER", which is a picture of an OM sri
yantra (meditation symbol or diagram) next to an image of the sound OM
allegedly created by a "tonoscope", an apparatus that produces
"sonorous figures" by vibrating metal filings on a plate. it's really
astounding to see the two images next to one another, and how uncannily
similar they are. as far as the dialtone goes, i guess i was trying to
suggest that maybe it's a matter of perception…maybe the dialtone IS
om, maybe it always has been that easy to tap into it…just's
all around us, in everything.

Q: Also carrying some Buddhist resonance (whether intentional,
accidental, or not) are your "Homeopathic Remedies for the 5 Ills of
Society," which are 5 salvaged brown dropper bottles which contain:

"Violence" - produced by soaking a bullet in distilled water.
"Consumerism" - distilled water purchased at Wal-mart.
"Detachment" - a drop of super glue in distilled water.
"Alienation" - an empty bottle.
"Greed" - produced by soaking coins in distilled water. 

… These reflect Buddhism's "three poisons" of greed, anger, and
ignorance. I don't have a question here but simply just want to see if
you want to expound on these ills/poisons; what it means to see them;
label them; work with them, etc.

this piece came to me in one fell swoop shortly after 9/11. it seemed
significant to me that there were five, since i'd been very interested
in the healing altar used in a north-coast Peruvian shamanic tradition.
The "mesa", as it's called, honors the five directions: north, south,
west, east, and "axis mundi", or center. the directions all correspond
to aspects of the body (spiritual, physical, emotional, mental, and the
confluence of all of them, respectively), and it seemed to me that
these remedies provided an elixir for each direction (aspect).

Q: Would you like to speak to some of the art/people/experiences that
have led you to where you are? And, can you talk about whether or not
you feel like you work from any sense of 'tradition'? A "fitting
personal philosophy" applies not to just to an individual's morality or
ethics or what-have-you, but to what they create, too, yes?

my work really has everything to do with having been and only child,
raised in a log cabin in the woods by two loving, secure people who
believed i should choose my own religion, and who encouraged
creativity, self-discipline, and independence. i learned a lot of what
i know from spending a lot of time, often alone, in nature…sailing,
hiking, swimming, cross-country skiing, growing a garden.

i knew when i began my undergraduate education in marine biology that i
wanted to be an artist. but i loved science too, and knew that i wanted
to find a way to combine them both. at first i thought my mission would
be to make science more accessible through art, and so an obvious next
step was to attend graduate school to study scientific illustration.
but the longer i worked at my day job as a research assistant, the more
i came to realize that it's not just the "laypeople" who are in need of
a sense of the magic and mystery of science, it's the scientists
themselves. at that point, my work started to become more conceptual,
more multi-media. in addition to having access to all sorts of
resources at RISD, i was living in a loft in providence, in very close
proximity to lots of extremely innovative and inspiring visual and
sound artists.

there was one pivotal, revelatory moment, however, when i knew i'd
officially crossed the line from scientist to artist. i was at an allen
ginsberg lecture in 1993, during which he said two things that changed
my life forever. one was "WHEN THE MUSE CALLS, ANSWER". in pointing out
the rareness, uniqueness, and preciousness of the moment one feels a
sense of inspiration, and the importance of maintaining an awareness of
it, even recording it if possible, i became a wholehearted devotee of
"the muse". the other thing mr. ginsberg said that stuck with me that
night was "NOTICE WHAT YOU NOTICE". it's kind of a different way of
saying the same thing…a reminder to pay attention, to honor the things
that stand out to you and you alone. these things are clues, messages
from a force we can only sense.

a couple of years after this event, i put together a piece entitled
"EVOLUTION OF AN ARTIST", in which i lay out some guidelines and tenets
that might be of help in maximizing one's creative potential. i planned
to use myself as the test subject (and certainly have…), but in the
meanwhile, i sent out copies along with thank-you letters to those
whose inspiration i could directly identify, including allen ginsberg
and laurie anderson.

as part of the "EVOLUTION OF AN ARTIST" booklet, i had cocktail napkins
gold-leafed with a paragraph that i later realized was a direct
paraphrase of allen ginsberg's advice: "WHEN THE MUSE CALLS, ANSWER".

Q: I'd love to know some of your favorite
books/movies/art, etc; or what might things you're reading up on or
working on right now.

books. so hard to pin down favorites. my room is sort of overflowing
with them. looking around, there are books on quantum physics and
herbal medicine. field guides, spanish, chess, knitting. one of my
favorites is "dreaming with open eyes: the shamanic spirit in twentieth
century art and culture" by michael tucker. there's a book here called
"exploring the invisible: art, science, and the spiritual" by lynn
gamwel (and there's  even a big orange doughnut on the cover….hmmm…go
figure…). right now I'm rereading "sailing around the world alone" by
joshua slocum.

movies. also difficult. wings of desire, brazil, down by law, harold
and maude, repo man, tarkovski's staker.

art. laurie anderson, joseph beuys, ernst haeckel, ray johnson, tim hawkinson, fluxus in

i've been doing a lot of drawing lately. i find myself kind of going
back to my roots in scientific illustration. not that the renderings
are technical at all (though they are often based in organic forms),
but they're somewhat obsessive in the way that I used to feel obsessed
when stippling with a rapidograph. i've begun to re-explore the
basics…light, shadow, color, form. things i put on the back burner for

two of my current projects:

i'm working on editing and creating a soundtrack for some black and
while 8mm film i shot during a residency on the coast of maine during
the summer of 2004. these beautiful jellyfish were being washed in by
the wind and tide, and i caught them tumbling and turning, getting
stranded in tidepools filled with undulating seaweed. it's kind of the
ultimate "choose determinism" epic.

the other project i want to get underway soon is having a suit of
sailboat sails made out of sonic fabric. that would just be the
ultimate use of the material for me…sail-as-prayer flag…

which leads me to the next question…

Q: Besides (or in addition to) your art, would you say that you have
what people would think of as a more traditional spiritual practice?
Meaning, do you have experience with any sort of meditation, or other
more formal discipline?

yes, i do. though i've always had a really hard time picking just one
and putting a label on it. i guess for me it's the same as the art
supply dilemma…i just never know exactly which tools i'm going to need.
i've studied a certain derivative of peruvian shamanism quite a bit,
and the practice involves a very elegant healing altar that, for me,
works "across platforms", in the sense that it serves as a jumping-off
point, an interface, for connecting with "subtle realities", or the
subconscious or superconscious or whatever you want to call it. it's a
meditation turbobooster. my "mesa" has seven tibetan offering bowls on
it, in addition to other icons that have meaning to me, from quantum
physics to christianity. all that said, i've been on several buddhist
retreats, and i'm a devoted yoga practitioner. i don't know quite where
i'd be without any of these things.

formulating this hodgepodge hasn't been easy, however. i was raised
with a certain skepticism of organized religion. then i studied science
as an undergrad, where, again, spirituality is not exactly emphasized.
but i'd get dizzy spells in biochemistry, overwhelmed by the complexity
and sheer unlikelihood of the krebs cycle. but the word "mystical
experience" didn't exist in my vocabulary. i didn't know what was
happening to me. but it certainly started me on a quest…

or maybe i'd been on it all along.

it turns out that i DID grow up with a very profound spiritual
practice. i'd been indoctrinated into a very organized and formal
tradition. only it certainly wasn't called that…and i had no idea at
the time…

sailboat racing. it's an intense and elegant form of meditation and
nature worship unto itself. and a perfect metaphor for the "CHOOSE
DETERMINISM" philosophy. every late spring, summer, and early fall
weekend day of my childhood began with a check of the wind and weather,
followed by preparing and donning the appropriate vestments. then, the
communion, or "skipper's meeting" as it is otherwise known, involving a
gathering of the devotees around coffee and doughnuts for a discussion
of the layout of the day's course (always a series of triangles…), as
determined by the elements. then, a horn blast to prepare the attendees
for the deeper level of awareness that will soon be necessary. all idle
talk amongst the crew ceases, as concentration shifts to the shape and
color of the ripples on the water, the trim of the sails, the feel of
air on skin.

another blast to indicate that the ritual is about to begin. then BANG.
sacred space has been entered. time slips away. there is only the
moment, complete concentration on the senses and the making of constant
small adjustments in relation to the forces of nature. it's a dance, a
beautiful game, a collaboration with nature herself.

and the sails. luminous glowing arrows pointing at the heavens like so
many cathedral windows rising up out of the water.

tell-tails made of cassette tape inspired the sonic fabric, but a sail
made from it, like a holy window, a giant thangka or prayer flag…well,
maybe i could just quit making art after that.

Q: Did you really invent (and patent) felt in a spray-can?? That's

it's possible that i invented the idea, but i never quite got past
gluing dryer lint to the lids of empty spray paint cans. the part about
actually pressurizing it and making it come out that little hole just
seemed too complicated.