Palo Alto artist uses electronics — not paintbrushes — to create works of art
You won’t find paintbrushes in artist Paul DeMarinis’ Palo Alto studio.
Rather than pencils and paints, his drawers are stuffed with electronics. One table is devoted to mechanical equipment from metal lathes to mills and another to circuit boards and soldering supplies. Radios of different decades and makers line the tops of bookshelves, which are stocked with hundreds of books, including old encyclopedias, chemistry and physics textbooks, and transcripts of 19th century séances. Unidentifiable chargers hang from exposed pipes. Media artifacts from decades past dot the room, making the studio feel like the workshop of a scientist from the last century.
DeMarinis is more than just an artist. He’s also an inventor, engineer, philosopher, teacher and archaeologist. The telegraphs, radios, phonographs and record players that clutter his studio are more than just the paint and canvas for his art or the mechanisms of his creations — they are the subjects as well.
“I’ve looked at old media as a way of reflecting on our current relationship with media,” said DeMarinis, who has been an electronic media artist since 1971 and a professor of art at Stanford University since 2000.
His work, “The Messenger,” was inspired by Catalan scientist Don Francisco Salvá i Campillo’s 1795 proposal for an electric telegraph, which used a single electrically charged wire for each letter of the Spanish alphabet and required human subjects assigned to each letter to receive shocks in order to send a message. The installation piece featured “talking bowls” that read DeMarinis’ email letter by letter in Spanish.
Some pieces, such as “The Edison Effect,” in which lasers were used to play old vinyl records, bring together media objects from other eras with cutting-edge technology. Others are political in nature, such as “Firebirds,” in which flames housed within birdhouses serve as loudspeakers and recite recordings of speeches from 20th century political leaders, including Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt and Stalin.
However, it is not his sophisticated use of technology or political awareness that sets DeMarinis’ art apart. With a sensibility that is at once probing and playful, whimsical and fundamentally thought-provoking, DeMarinis comments on the paradoxes of communication, critically examining how various media enable both connection and distance.
“Art that uses technology is very ubiquitous — digital printing, video art and so on,” DeMarinis said. “But art that engages or looks at technology is as odd a beast as it ever was.”
DeMarinis first got involved with electronic music and technology in the early 1970s while completing graduate work at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College.
It was a formative time in DeMarinis’ life. As Vietnam raged, Americans became cynical about technology in the hands of the government, but computers meant something else to DeMarinis.
“You could own this thing and decide what it did,” he said. “You could make machines that did what you wanted to do.” During this period, DeMarinis was using a KIM-1 computer, which he programmed in hexadecimal.
During graduate school, DeMarinis spent time in California on the fringes of Silicon Valley, where the computer revolution had begun. In the mid 1970s, he played electronic music with Rich Gold and Jim Horton, the visionaries behind the League of Automatic Music Composers.
DeMarinis regards Gold as a pioneer in the field of computer music. “He understood computers in a way that was prescient,” he said. “He understood better and farther the capacity of computers for art.”
In the following years, DeMarinis taught at various universities, showed his work in Paris, Tokyo, New York, Shanghai, Berlin and San Francisco, and worked as a video game programmer for Atari. He has received awards and fellowships in both visual arts and music from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Having lived through the rise of digital technology and the Internet, DeMarinis prefers to focus on the past. “I look backwards to explore, examine and maybe critique our current situation,” he said. “It’s too hard to see things topically. But it’s not theory, it’s art. It can be playful.”
DeMarinis is currently playing with his own version of a 19th century frequency analyzer, which used small flames to indicate frequency. DeMarinis’ piece will use glass spheres of different sizes that resonate at certain inaudible pitches and trigger flames to erupt in the gallery where the piece will be installed.
“You could say it’s scientific but that doesn’t do it justice,” said second-year graduate student Galen Jackson, who previously was a teaching assistant for DeMarinis’ Sound Art class at Stanford and remains close to the artist. “He’s in a realm of experience and experimentation that’s beyond what’s expected in either science or art. There’s an interesting way in which he uses intensely elaborate technological apparatuses to affect these very simple gestures.”
Jackson thinks of DeMarinis as the Leonardo da Vinci of Xerox PARC, the local research and development company where DeMarinis was an artist-in-residence from 1993 to 1997.
“He’s able to use the science and technology in a way that elevates them into a mystical realm,” Jackson said. “It’s like 21st century technology meets this alchemical world view.”
DeMarinis’ art is in demand all over the world. His piece “The Pygmy Gamelan,” in which reads electronic fluctuations in the galaxy and turns them into improvised musical phrases, is currently in Italy as part of a show put on by the Prada Foundation. He visited Germany in May to install “RainDance,” in which falling water hitting the top of visitors’ umbrellas creates music and sound, in a baroque garden in Hanover.
Back in his studio in Palo Alto, DeMarinis finds ways to explore faraway places without having to travel. After his family acquired a flat-screen television, he put his old, black, hump-backed model in the center of the space because he couldn’t bear to part with it. He is fascinated by the cathode ray tube inside, a hard vacuum with so few molecules that it resembles the atmosphere of space.
“There’s something cosmological about having a piece of outer space inside a glass bottle,” DeMarinis said. “This is an ugly, chunky, obsolete thing, but there’s something about it.”
Perhaps it will be his next canvas.
Homepage image screenshot via “Firebirds” video online.