Out of Print

Inspector of Light

by Tin Dabbay
Photos courtesy of SILVERLENS.

Artist James Clar transplants himself across different cities around the world to study the conceptual and narrative potential of light and digital technology.

I n cartoons such as Midnight Gospel and Rocko’s Modern Life, light is a flicker from the sky that invites space explorers to fly. Sometimes it’s imagined as a color. Bette Midler summed this up in a song: “From a distance, the world looks blue and green.” On the other hand, it can also trigger paranoia as seen through the lens of photographer Trevor Paglen whose work observes the murky gleam transmitted by military installations, drones, and mass surveillance camps.

Though perspectives vary — light, as we’re bound to believe since infancy, is a sign of life, settlement, and sentience. It’s an ambient force that has seen humanity’s progress from rubbing rocks to start a fire to inventing modern-day haptics to browse backlit files.

Filipino-American artist James Clar takes these moments into consideration. His work involves close contact with light and technology so audiences can participate or, in some cases, isolate themselves in his installations that challenge the constraints of real-time. In the multi-channel video piece, Tibetan Book of the Dead (Chapters 1, 2, 3), James interviewed gamers inside a luxury hotel in Tokyo where they confessed their nightmares resembling virtual realms. They’re the type who would rather play than eat — to the point of fictive environments and creatures haunting their sleep. Meanwhile, the more recent Run Dog Wild overlapped a laser animation of a dog against the backdrop of Manila during the pandemic lockdown. In Clar’s universe, the real and imagined are hazy.

Through years of travel and persistent experimentation, spanning residencies in Tokyo, Dubai, New York, and Manila, Clar developed an acute sensitivity to emerging technology. By dismantling its ability to alter behavior, he taps into a power source that feeds our material and aesthetic constructs, but also the elusive concept of the human psyche in search of illumination.

The following interview was edited for publication.

James Clar, USA Flag (2021)

Out Of Print: How are you, James?
James Clar: I’ve been pretty busy. I just had a solo [exhibition] in Silverlens last July. Now, I'm in New York. I had an opening in Boston a couple of weeks ago. I'm going to Manila next week, then just keep working from there.

You travel a lot. What are the perks and perils of being an artist on-the-go? Where are you currently based?
I'm based in the Philippines. My studio is in Manila. That's kind of a new move. I'll be based there for the foreseeable future. I have everything situated in Manila now — materials, equipment, 3-D printer, my large format printer, all my specialized tools, and lights. It's hard to source materials because the work I'm doing is sculptural light, so there are a lot of materials involved.

What's amazing about traveling a lot is immersing yourself in different cultures and art scenes. [I’ve had] really interesting conversations, learning about what people are thinking about in localized scenes. Then you start to connect the dots between what they're dealing with versus what another scene is dealing with locally. You get this global view of what's going on or what creative ideas are being hashed out. I think that's amazing. I love the fact I'm able to do that.

In your interview with Electric Castle, you mentioned that being an artist isn't a shortcut. It's a decision you make and stubbornly stick with for the rest of your life. How did this happen for you?
It happened when I went to undergrad school at NYU for film, which was more of a technology program. That created a curiosity for visual communication, and how technology systems affect how we think about ourselves or other people. When I finished grad school, I was trying to understand and manipulate light. I didn't know if it was going to end up in product design, film, or the arts. The freedom to explore your curiosity and develop aesthetics based on that allows you to do pretty much anything..

So like science fiction, this fictional world [artists can build] provides a commentary about our current world based on how they feel or see things.

You've lived in Dubai, New York, Tokyo, and Manila. How do these cities fit into the puzzle that is your art? Can you walk us through some milestones that came with these travels?
After New York, I lived in Tokyo for a couple of years. That’s when I started getting into minimalism,which helped me understand how small but precise gestures can contain a lot of information.Any expressive form can be broken down into an understanding of movement within that form. So in working with light,  what does a small wash of blue with a red spotlight mean? Being in Japan was beneficial to [my practice] because they're so obsessive about details.

After Tokyo, I moved to Dubai in 2006 when there were only three galleries and ideas of art, culture, and identity became really important There’d be a party, and suddenly you’re talking to someone from Brazil, Germany, Iran, Saudi Arabia. Within five years, so many people moved to Dubai.  and it was interesting to develop an art practice in a city that was just building itself up. There was also a lot happening in the world at the time — The Iraq War, the Arab Spring, the global recession in 2008 — which really affected Dubai’s local scene.

Eventually, I moved back to New York in 2012 and inserted myself into their art scene. I developed my practice there, created larger installations, and found gallery representation. It would’ve been difficult to do that earlier in my career because young artists in New York are always struggling to gain attention. Dubai was about being part of a community that supported its development as a city. Last year, I returned to the Philippines, which is a new place for me to explore.

Is your family in the Philippines?
My parents are in Wisconsin. But I do have family like aunts and uncles there.

You've come to the Philippines during a pretty intense time.

Installation view of Share Location at SILVERLENS, 2021

As an artist, what do you think is unique about the Filipino-American identity?
That’s such an interesting question and one that's a continuous dialogue. It's really amazing we can have this kind of conversation now. The Philippines is in such a unique situation. There’s a diverse set of cultures in the country, plus all the diaspora Filipinos spread out globally, which is such a huge community. The idea of identity is so complicated. It’s still in an area of discovery and we’re only scratching the surface.

Filipinos are also heavy users of technology, like social media.
Totally. I’m excited to use art to talk about these issues, to raise awareness on different technology systems, especially those used in the Philippines - like mobile phones and crypto. All these things are there.

Do you feel compelled to do this because of your increasing awareness of being Filipino?
I grew up abroad, so there’s a shift in understanding that part of who I am. Recently, I’ve been exploring localized technology systems and I hope this information will seep into the work I’m doing.

Have you always been creative?
I grew up in Wisconsin. It’s in the countryside. There's not much going on. That forced me to get a bit more creative or in my head about things — like imagining or creating stories in my head. If I grew up in a city like New York, there's just so much information already around me that I didn't have to make stuff up. Being in an open field, you start to imagine you're in different places. Then there was the early internet like bulletin board systems, message boards, mailing lists — these things connected me to an  outside world, but was also a fascination. I built computers and we were one of the first people on our block to have a Commodore 64.

In another world, you were probably in Silicon Valley.
Probably. [Laughs] In another world where I followed a more traditional route, I could definitely have ended up there.

“ You always have to be hyper-aware of things. The movement is slow. The infiltration permeates in subtle shifts. General society just accepts things, but the artist has to be observant.”

Were you ever discouraged from pursuing your medium? The way I look at it, the logistics must be hard.
I never really thought about it until recently — like, why didn't I become a painter? I didn't set out to become an artist. I didn't think hard about the tools I used. I was more interested in technology and the opportunities that technology created…like new visual systems, new methods of communication, new symbols, and new movements.

Can you elaborate on your idea of new technology especially since “newness” is a concept that is always changing?
Technology becomes dated pretty quickly [because] it's constantly evolving. I think art comes in by helping understand communication from a visual and psychological standpoint.

Are you an avid user of technology? How has it modified your life and behavior?
I don't think I'm a technology-obsessive person. I don't need the newest stuff. It's more just learning what's out there and understanding what can be done within an art practice.

In your work Sea of Trees, you explore the decay of individuality due to the prevalence of digitalization and networked information. In this respect, would you say you’re a technological pessimist? Or do you see its redemptive qualities?
Our experience of reality shifts with technology which is often sold to us in this glittery Apple aesthetic. That’s fine but there’s a need to understand how that separates us from nature or changes our behaviors.  Even something as basic as artificial light shifted us away from the solar cycles. Day and night no longer matter because now we can control the light. We can work at nighttime. The internet is this 24/7 system where information is constantly feeding us news and information.

When I take a Zoom call, I think about how this person isn’t appearing in real-time because there's the latency of the network for their video to reach me and for my video to reach them. If you have more than two people, there's this weird thing where everyone is trying to create a reality that's at the moment, but everyone's at different times and at different realities. Your brain tries to put these things together. Reality becomes elastic.

You once said we're living in a grey area where the physical world has to compete with the online world. This is something I've also heard from a filmmaker who I interviewed before — Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Oh, yeah. We just saw Memoria.

He thinks we’re on a muddy road towards mastering virtual reality and being in this odd in-between is what makes the experience uncomfortable. From a speculative point of view, do you think the convergence of these two worlds would be more beneficial for humans?
I don't really see it as beneficial or not beneficial. I just think it's inevitable. It has already infiltrated. It's a thing that's been growing in us in our societies, you know?

This is a topic you're frequently exposed to. Do you still find it surreal or have you been desensitized?
No, no, no — you always have to be hyper-aware of things. The movement is slow. The infiltration permeates in subtle shifts. General society just accepts things, but the artist has to be observant.

Scent bypasses the part of the brain which relays sensory information, which is why smell triggers detailed memories and intense emotions. Could you explain how light affects one's mood and disposition?
Light has different energy wavelengths. There’s this thing I remember about alarm clocks and LEDs. Usually, symbols are all in red. Blue LEDs were invented between the  late '80s or early 90s, which they started putting on  alarm clocks. People complained because the lights appeared so bright. It kept people awake because the energy wavelength of blue oscillates at a faster frequency than red. They dimmed the lights and shifted it back to red.  Something as subtle as that can affect people's mood.

Do you have a favorite color?
I do use a lot of blue only because of its association to something vast like the sky or the ocean. A wash of blue has this depth that I personally like.

What influenced your new exhibition Space Folding and how does it connect with your previous works?
It was difficult coming back to Manila and setting everything there, only to return to the US to quickly set up this show. I wondered if I should’ve presented work in Boston that was already influenced by my living in Manila. Like, how do I fit this in?

There's a piece in the show called Space Folding. It’s a square light origami folding back and forth in two-dimensional planes of light. In the middle, you have this light rod that moves from one point to another. If you've read Flatland, it’s about these three-dimensional objects passing through a two-dimensional universe and how that two-dimensional universe experiences this three-dimensional object passing through it — like a sphere passing through a two-dimensional plane which looks like a dot that expands into a circle and goes back into a dot. How I went from New York to different places is like traveling through that plane. It's like folding space from one culture to the next, back and forth. ︎

Opening of Share Location at SILVERLENS, 2021

Tin Dabbay is a writer, magazine editor, and creative consultant.