Tracing Chaos: Aesthetics in the Surf Zone
The following is the introductory presentation, edited for print, to the ninth annual Surfing Arts, Science, and Issues Conference (SASIC) held at Scripps Oceanographic Institute in La Jolla, California, in 2010. The conference was guest-organized by The Modeling Agency, a Los Angeles artist initiative founded by Nick Herman and Christopher James. This introduction presented the organizing themes of the conference—the aesthetics of surfing and modeling as an investigative strategy—the elements of which were examined in later presentations made by researchers, artists and a surf guru. A concurrent exhibition of relevant art was hung in the Center for Coastal Studies building on the Scripps Campus, amidst and among the trappings of Oceanographic research and its documentation. Further information may be found at: themodelingagency.net.
Perhaps more than any other place, Southern California supports an unlikely history of collaboration between the arts and sciences. As a relatively young and far-flung outpost of Western civilization, Southern California exhibits all the characteristics of a gifted adolescent: curious but undisciplined, promising but distracted by anything novel, and crass but imaginative. And although its youthful lack of wisdom and a general lack of a sense of boundaries can be blamed for much of the reckless development and consumption of California’s gifts, those same characteristics have allowed extraordinary cross-pollinations to occur here as well. This is particularly the case when it comes to the application of the sciences and technology to the arts and culture. Consider Dianetics, cosmetic surgery, and “Hollywood,” that most technology dependent form of filmmaking. It is here that Frank Gehry used software devised for the design of advanced military aircraft to draft the Walt Disney Concert Hall, perhaps Los Angeles’s most identifiable building. One reason for such progressions is the fact that technology companies are conducting so much research and development here. This condition was, in fact, the impetus for the Art and Technology project initiated by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1967, which asked artists to collaborate with those companies’ engineers and researchers to propose the fabrication of new artworks. As I’ll discuss later, that program ultimately had a significant impact not only on the way art looked in Southern California, but also on the way it was made. As much as any of these examples, and more poetically so, the sport of surfing embodies this relationship; surfing can be seen as a kind of balancing act between technology and expression occurring in the natural, chaotic energy field of the ocean.
SASIC 9 offered presentations from both the worlds of science and art that considered what might make up what one could call the “aesthetics” of the surfing zone. Aesthetics can be variously defined, but for my purposes here, it is about how to derive meaning from form. What is the history of an object’s becoming? What are the forces involved, and how do they inhabit its materials? These concerns are something familiar to art criticism, but they are also a part of our fascination with ocean waves. Where do waves come from and how is it that they can seem to have an endless variety of type, mood, attitude, and manner? These, in fact, are precisely the questions of interest to oceanographers studying the origin and propagation of ocean waves. However, perhaps because waves are natural phenomena and art is human made, the study of either falls into its own discrete discipline with its own methodologies of interpreting its subject. This is what SASIC 9 was about: using the subject of surfing as a way to consider relationships between artistic and scientific inquiry, the methodologies they employ for the capture of knowledge, and the way the knowledge ultimately is used.
Modeling / Metaphor
Of course, many surfers believe that surfing itself is art. That’s going to depend on how you define art, but a good working definition is that art is metaphor: it is something that stands for more than itself. We love surfing for many reasons, but I think we are obsessed with it because it feels metaphorical. In the words of Tom Morey, the unofficial spiritual guide of the SASIC conference: “It’s all surfing—everything! In the New York Stock Exchange, you check it out, you pull in, and you try to figure out when to kick out safely. Surfing in the ocean just happens to be the purest form of surfing.”
The idea of metaphor brings me to a related idea that was a central theme of the conference: modeling. The strategy of modeling nature is fundamental to scientific inquiry, but it is also familiar to artistic practice. This is particularly true for process-based art, which is to say, any art that emphasizes the ways and means of its formation over the aesthetics of its final form. By concentrating on how something comes into being, process art makes a subject of the dynamics of physical processes, courting the influence of unanticipated forces, while leaving outcomes unprescribed. One could say that any art that evidences the physical properties of its materials, collaborates with the forces of nature, alters with time, or manipulates perceptual impressions, is in effect modeling the dynamics of natural phenomena.
Not unlike scientists, artists who work in these modalities can be seen as researchers who engage forces of nature in order to better comprehend them, and perhaps ultimately to gain some sense of control over them. Control to a scientist may mean constructing a jetty to curtail the flow of sand down a coastline. To an artist, it may be more like catharsis, or the materializing of something that is not cognitively understood in order to establish a kind of authority over it.
What’s significant here is an essential difference in their methodologies; while scientists use models to describe and account for phenomena, artists use modeling—in the “process” of their work—to embody phenomena. The kind of knowledge gained is accordingly different. In scientific modeling, the subject is isolated and data is gathered through controlled observation. The knowledge that results is considered objective: an accumulation of reliable data that is used to predict future outcomes in the real world beyond. In contrast, process artists create the conditions for unpredictable outcomes for reasons that may have more to do with achieving a sense of emancipation from them than an understanding of them. By this I mean that in modeling the capricious uncertainties of their world, they may be able to overcome them. This is because if you have the power to give form to something, it can no longer dominate you, even if you don’t really understand it. This, too, is a kind of knowledge. It is the carnal knowledge of eidetic apprehension. The question of its lack of informational value may be offset by the power of the control it affords. Though not explicitly a work of artistic modeling, consider a well-known piece by Damien Hirst. If you put a shark in a tank, how can it hurt you? This sculpture, titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), is not about confronting death, it is about overcoming the fear of death. This may be chiefly a psychic or conceptual endeavor, but I would not right away dismiss the presence of such motivations in building jetties, either.
Materials / Aesthetics
So, what about a surfboard? Is it a work of art to begin with? Surfboards are, after all, unique objects, carved by hand. Is it a technological instrument? A lot of research and applied physics have gone into the design of modern surfboards. They function at the point of communion between the rider and the wave; its form determined by what is desired by one and offered by the other.
The shape of a surfboard describes a kind of negotiation. Its continuous surface is made up of an infinity of curves, many with names—Vee, rocker, rail, template, pinch—all mutually dependent and all providing, or promising, different influences on the board’s performance. Characteristics that may benefit one surfer may hinder another. The same goes for the kind of waves it’s ridden in; boards that work in small, punchy surf may be a drag in larger, weaker waves. Most, however, are shaped with a heavy dose of aspiration and desire. The board you carry says a lot about how you want your relationship to be with that mute and enigmatic partner, the sea. You may hold style over performance, flow over the ability to demand more from the wave, or you may just want to suffer with a low volume, high performance potato chip that only starts to work when conditions align perfectly.
Surfboard production is a hybrid of artistic and scientific methodologies. The science is in the hydrodynamics: the study of the flow of water around the surfboard hull and the influence of that on its design. But ultimately a surfboard is shaped in an effort to fulfill the desire of how one wants to express oneself in the surf. Maybe the science is consulted, maybe it is ignored. To some degree it is always experimental, in that we don’t really know how a board will perform: it is shaped by feel, you have a sense of it, and want to know where it will take you, but ultimately the outcome is not foreseeable.
After the Second World War, the modern surfboard was developed here in Southern California from materials—fiberglass and synthetic polymers—that had been developed for military and industrial use by local aerospace companies. In fact, two of the most innovative thinkers in the sport, Bob Simmons (an occasional student at California Institute of Technology) and Tom Morey, had worked in the aerospace industry. Knowledge of these materials and an ability to understand research on wave dynamics and planning hulls allowed Simmons to rewrite the book on surfboard design. Interestingly, his boards, some of the first made with foam, fiberglass, and polyester resin, are notable for how casually they were finished. Soon though, the aesthetic of a perfectly sanded and polished surface became the industry standard in surfboard construction. Shortly thereafter, these very same materials turned up in artists’ studios, and the “finish fetish” aesthetic was carried over, as reflected in the art made by surfers John McCracken and Peter Alexander.
These artworks, made on the West Coast, are frequently compared to Minimal art from the East Coast. At the time, some New York critics, most notably Rosalind Krauss, regarded them as less formally pure. A desire to endorse yet corrupt the strict tenets of formalism is evident in McCracken’s Red Plank (1967), whose “primary structure” has been spray painted, and presents itself propped against the wall like a surfboard in storage. In a similar gesture that disrupts form with content, Alexander injected water vapor into his resin mold of a perfect cube to produce a fine model of a cloud encased in plastic, a succinct encapsulation of the liaison between the natural and the human made that so characterizes post-war Southern California.
Like surfboards, these artworks belie their origins as handmade objects, and suggest a perfection aesthetic that is characterized by the surfer’s quest for the perfect wave. Good clean surfing waves are geographically and temporally rare, relying on flukes in the coastline and an anomalous complicity of meteorological conditions. The elusiveness of perfect surf has created a cult of perfection among surfers that can be described as fetishistic. Consider Endlesss Wave (2010), a work of mind numbing perfection by Ashley Bickerton who, after establishing a solid art career in New York, moved to Bali in order to, among other things, surf waves that somewhat resemble this. Bickerton seems to be telling us that perfection is really a canard. In his image, the regularity of the waves becomes repulsive, which is exactly how they would feel to a surfer trying to paddle out into their onslaught. “Perfection” is part of the surfer’s vocabulary, a vision that launched a thousand boats and Baja rigs. But surfing has always been about applying oneself to the unknown, to the pulse of the ocean as it comes, responding to its irregularities with instinct and style.
These divergent sentiments are synthesized in the work of surfer artist James Hayward, whose paintings share the minimal aesthetic of the finish fetish works, but also celebrate the touch of the hand. This too is the surfer’s aesthetic, because surfing is also about mark making, and about touch, about pressing oneself into the surface. Hayward’s paintings have been described as being like the surface of the ocean that has recorded all of his rides during the day.1 Two of his paintings were included in the SASIC art exhibition, where they could be viewed along with a number of other works by artists-who-surf,2 including the sculpture Untitled, Swell Model Fragment (2008), by Alex Weinstein which similarly mimics the surface of the sea. Weinstein’s subject was, in fact, the sea, yet he didn’t consult the ocean when making it; he simply shaped by feel. His approach emphasizes a kind of physical memory that is translated through gesture. It is a mimesis by the body of the maker of the body of the ocean. What if you were to reverse engineer its making? You would get back to a place very different from the equations of ocean wave theory, to a model that acts like a visual synonym.
Another artist using instinct to model the liquid world is Fritz Chestnut. Born on a Time Machine (2010) was made by turning the canvas flat on its back, like a table top. Applying wet paint and solvent onto the surface, the artist let them pool and interact. Likening his manipulations to a kind of inverted surfing where the water is on top of the board, he then rocks the canvas until it looks “right.” Such vagaries are perfectly acceptable in art making practice, but the way something looks might be of great significance in theoretical science as well. For example, Garrett Lisi, a Maui surfer and physicist, has developed something called a Grand Unifying Theory—sometimes known as the Theory of Everything (ToE)—which is a kind of Holy Grail in particle physics. The ToE aims to explain and unify through a single model all fundamental physical phenomena. Lisi, whose model is based on a mathematical formation known as E8, claims that his proposal is at least partly confirmed by its visual beauty. In his words:
I had been working with equations for a decade, assembling the mathematical structures of particle physics into one large structure. Then, on a wild hunch, I went looking to see if this structure fit inside something larger, and almost immediately found that it fit E8. At that point, I was incredibly excited. It was days later that I found out that E8 had a very beautiful visual representation—and seeing that…made me think that this had a very good chance of being a true description of our universe. Theories are more likely to be true when they’re pretty.3 Garrett is waiting for results from the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva to validate his work. In the meantime, he is in Maui and, due to the surf conditions, you “couldn’t get him off the island with a crowbar at this time of year.”
Perception and Phenomenology
Last year, Dr. David Sandwell, a Scripps Institute professor, gave the Dr. Walter Munk lecture at SASIC.4 I was astonished to hear him ask the audience, “How many of you believe in sets?” A “set” is a surfer’s term for a series of large waves that seem to come at semi-regular intervals during a swell event. Every surfer who was paying attention raised his or her hand. I knew what sets were. I had spent my life waiting on them, worrying about them, talking about them, and I knew that even scientists had terminology for them: wave trains. However, Dr. Sandwell informed us that there was no empirical evidence supporting the existence of them. How could this be?
Since that time I have been paying much closer attention to what’s going on in the water, and I have to say that what he was suggesting—that we project a kind of pattern onto the waves, we organize them in our minds—seems likely to be true. You write off a lot of “one wave sets” and if you bother to actually count, you’ll notice that sets don’t have any consistent number of waves to them at all. Lulls seem to have the same kind of randomness. All that being said, at times it seems in-controvertible that regular sets are coming through. But then maybe that is the exception that proves the rule: Ocean waves are an expression of nature’s underlying randomness.
The reason for this shift in my interpretation of wave sets as a surfer to that of a data-conscious analyst might be explained by the work of physicist and science historian Thomas Kuhn. In his Structure of Scientific Revolutions,5 Kuhn maintained that the perception of the world depends on how the percipient conceives the world. Even within the traditions of science, he states, a researcher is biased by the subjectivity intrinsic to the “paradigm” of his perspective: his view of the world determines what he sees. Across time and across cultures, similar results will have different interpretations and meanings, and ultimately lead to different conclusions.
Western science has its origins in a belief in divine order, and despite recent antitheses like fractals and chaos theory, which reject predictable progressions, a supposition of some kind of order—mathematical, natural—still persists. Or at very least, that orderly investigation is the best path to knowledge. Art, in particular Modern and contemporary, seems to be acting as a conscience to this trust in rationality. At least since the Dadaists in the early part of the last century, the production of nonsense has been a valid art-making procedure. Yet, a hundred years of absurdist, intentionally random, and even authorless art has only raised the question of whether it is in fact even possible to produce something nonsensical at all. During some of the finer moments of the Cabaret Voltaire, Tristan Tzara and fellow performers would scream and rant incoherently at the crowd. This has been interpreted as an expression of, and metaphor for, the way the First World War laid waste to the sense of civilized life in Europe. That right there is a pretty sensible interpretation of their performances, which seems to suggest that we choose to find meaning regardless.
Another approach to the notion that reality may only be a subjective construct was later pursued when perception itself became a subject for scrutiny by a group of Southern California artists who, not incidentally, were working in the surf ghetto of Venice Beach.
In 1967, Maurice Tuchman, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), originated the Art and Technology Program in an effort to find new sources of philanthropy for the young museum. He enlisted cutting edge technology companies, which he hoped would also prove to be museum supporters, to partner with artists “in order to make the resources of industry available to [artists].”6 He was hoping not only to get artists access to new materials, but also that new kinds of artwork might be produced. James Turrell and Robert Irwin collaborated with Experimental psychologist Ed Wortz, who was then investigating human perceptual response for NASA’s Apollo program with the Garrett Corporation. This is how they described their project proposal for a “sensory chamber” to be installed in the museum for the Art & Technology exhibition:
Possible setup with three spaces:
1. queuing area: preparatory area sound dampened, less complex than the outside world, time: 5–10 minutes
2. anechoic chamber: entrance from chamber 1 is obscured by a blind wall or curve.
visitor is seated in chair in reclining position with head mounted in center of space.
size of room: a cube, approx. 12 x 12 x 12 sound dampening elements flocked back The chair the visitor is seated in is constructed of moveable parts which will slowly flatten as it is hydraulically lifted up to the third, upper chamber so that the visitor will end up prone on the floor of the upper chamber.
Expected stimuli will be something on the order of sub-threshold light flashes and sound flashes. “reorienting stimuli”; these stimuli will increase gradually to the point which seems to be between hallucination and reality.
3. upper chamber
domed, cylindrical, semi-translucent for back projection, constructed of seamless Plexiglas. Visitor’s first sensation of this chamber will be that of experiencing a Ganz field. The space will have a sound quality and a light quality which will be manipulated; we do not plan to use any images per se, but are more interested in changes in light quality, color temperature of light, intensity of light, pulsating effects. We are interested in having changes take place behind the person, or on his periphery.7
The artists’ intention with this project was to allow “people to perceive their perceptions—making them aware of their perceptions—We’ve decided to investigate this and to make people conscious of their consciousness.” This was achieved by modeling it for them—disembodying perception to investigate how it functions and where it leads or misleads. “We’re concerned with manipulating the conscious state,” they wrote.8 These artists have continued to pursue such lines of inquiry, and their work, often installations composed in light and space, can have the effect on the viewer of not knowing exactly what one is looking at. The perceptual disorientations induced raise questions regarding the credibility of our senses and suggests the need for a more nuanced interpretation of observation itself.
This is not really new material for a surfer, nor is it incidental that the third chamber—domed, cylindrical, semi translucent—bears a striking resemblance to the chamber of a wave. Surfers spend a fair amount of time training themselves to really see. Waves have an incredible way of being misleading, and often the best surfers are defined by their ability to read them. Waves look relatively simple from the beach, but when you are in the water, they are suddenly very complex. The way they appear from the side, behind, and from in the trough just doesn’t seem to add up. They can seem to move in more than one direction at a time, and speed can change everything. The sliding scale of surf perceptions is institutionalized in the difference between Mainland and Hawaiian measurements of wave size. I’ve heard this described as a simple formula: “double and subtract two.”
Note that as the swell grows, the discrepancy gets more dramatic. That’s the nature of error, and the seminal principal of chaos theory: small discrepancies diverge rapidly over time. Of course, this simple graph is as much about bravado as it is about “reality,” but it’s also indicative of a kind of primacy of the subjective, a favoring of personal, prejudicial and subjunctive thinking to that of reductive depictions of “reality.”
Marcel Duchamp believed that an artist is really only ever making half an artwork, and that the balance is provided by the viewer, in the act of interpreting it. What Duchamp is implying is that a failure in communication exists between the author and the audience, and whatever the artist intended to say is irrelevant to interpreting the artwork. He believed that all interpretations, including and maybe most importantly misinterpretations, are part of the process of art making too.
Duchamp’s assertion seems to acknowledge that the most successful art must become something other than what the artist intended for it to be anyway. It needs to take on a life of its own. In process-driven art, this is built into the method of making by sidelining intentionality in the first place. In relinquishing control and courting the accidental, artists attempt to break the cycle of the hermetic world of our thoughts, intentions and expectations. Essentially, through error and chance they are attempting to divine an exit from the vicious circle of the paradigm of the known.
That is what surfer and artist George Raggett refers to as “breaking the frame.” His ongoing project, “The Museum of Commerce” is a series of ever renovating “Situations,” that can neither be described simply as sculpture, installation or even performance. In his words,
The Museum lives. The Museum is an active experiment and a constantly evolving/devolving (shape-shifting) work of art. Each “Situation” is a realized manifestation of the Museum in the moment and in a given context. From the moment each Situation opens, the installation begins to change. This change is not predetermined, but rather develops as particular individuals or forces from the local environment act upon it.
With this kind of de-authored, process-driven artwork that uses a kind of managed abandonment to wander into, hopefully, uncharted territory, the end product is never prescribed; it is simply a result. And like the result of a science experiment, it contains information that in turn becomes interpreted into a kind of knowledge in the mind of the observer.
The problem with the kind of subjective “knowledge” art trades in is the question of whether it is transferrable. This should not be a problem with the kind of objective knowledge scientific research strives for, but throughout the twentieth century, theorists have put the notion of objectivity under scrutiny. In addition to Kuhn’s assertions, something called the “observer effect,” which suggests that you inevitably have an influence on phenomena simply by observing it, and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which posits that it is impossible to know the speed and position of an object simultaneously, have undermined the very premise of accurate observation. Since the 1960s, the work of post-structuralists echoes these notions of uncertainty, and questions whether knowledge can be communicated reliably. It’s possible we are facing a kind of horizon of evidentiary knowledge—after which what can be known may be in a different form of knowledge. It might be a sort of subjunctive knowledge, a knowledge of moods. This kind of nonlinear, filtered knowledge could only be verifiable through a third party, one in which facts are not isolated, and variance is tolerated. It seems to me that “reality” often emerges this way; I have a better sense for what something is if I know who is describing it to me. This is not as catastrophic as it first sounds if you keep in mind the objective of gaining knowledge in the first place. It’s not just to have information; it is for the sense of control over the vagaries of life and protection from the uncertainties of the future.
Scientific models are a lot like artistic metaphors; they stand for something other than just themselves. What would happen if we treated them as we do artwork? Does modeling in science ever become something beyond its initial intentions? Does it ever take on a life of its own? I imagine that it does. So maybe it would it be worthwhile to prompt mistakes on purpose while conducting scientific experiments. Or read errors for other meanings. Or misinterpret data. Consider this image I borrowed from SASIC 9’s keynote presentation delivered by Dr. Robert Guza.9 It is a chart of the bathymetry of the La Jolla coastline. Much can be interpreted from this image, as the professor entertainingly demonstrated in his talk, but did you notice the striking similarity it has to the letter “Y”? “Y,” as it turns out, is the name Tom Morey decided to take after losing some of the authority over his given name to various corporate interests. But that was not the only reason. Morey attributed a number of meanings to the new name, a few of which are:
Graphically, I find the strikingly symmetric look of “Y” quite pleasing. The design “Y” depicts the prime number three, yet also encompasses the prime numbers one and two. Yttrium, whose symbol is “Y,” is used to strengthen even chromium. “Y” represents two of nature’s great activities: branching, whereby the one becomes two, and mating, the two becoming one.
The Aesthetics of the Surf Zone may be just that, the two becoming one: science and art colluding in the form of a surfboard. Trivial yet loaded with desire, it is a key, not to comprehend or tame the caprices of our world, but rather to enter into play with them. It is a medium that floats and a transport from one pulse of energy to the next.
Christopher James is an artist, writer and the co-founder of The Modeling Agency. He has been published in ARTUS, Blue Magazine, Surfer Magazine, and Cabinet, as well as X-TRA. His work has been exhibited in New York and Los Angeles at The Kitchen, Brooklyn Museum, Whitney at Altria, SAUCE, LA><ART, and elsewhere. Last spring, he produced artwork as a guest of the Hotchalpine Forschungsstation Jungfraujoch, a high-altitude research station located at 11,400 feet in the Swiss Alps. Most recently, he sponsored a team of explorers to discover the northernmost point of land on earth, the Ultima Thule. The Modeling Agency’s current project is an aesthetic reconsideration of the landmark TEKTITE experiments conducted in the USVI from 1969 to 1970.
- This description was given by Dave Hickey during his curatorial walk through of the 2005 exhibition Step Into Liquid, at the Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, California, attended by the author.↵
- Artists in the exhibition were James Hayward, Fritz Chestnut, Flora Wiegmann, George Raggett, Alex Weinstein, Kristin Beinner, and Brian Wills.↵
- Garrett Lisi, in correspondence with the author.↵
- The SASIC keynote speaker each year is named in honor of the father of oceanography, Walter Munk.↵
- Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).↵
- Maurice Tuchman, A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 1967–1971 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971).↵
- Robert Guza, a professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, presented the Dr. Walter Munk Lecture: “Wave Reflection by a Depth Discontinuity: Canyon Dwellers at Black’s.” In his talk, he discussed the dramatic effects of the Scripps offshore canyon on ocean swell and surf zone currents, well known to surfers, from a wave-physics perspective.↵