The Studio of Eric Valosin

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Gets Me Every Time: Exhibition time => Broken stuff

 Well, my Meditation 1.1 is currently on view at the Newark Museum of Art, which means it's time for something to break. It seems like every time this piece is exhibited, something on the back end that's out of my control crashes and renders my QR code inoperable!

To catch you up to speed, the mandala drawing in question features a hand drawn QR code, which, when scanned, sends the viewer to a randomized website, different every time it is scanned. The way I accomplished this evolved over time, but essentially the QR code contains a short link to a .php web scraper I built, which gleans a random website from a massive database and then redirects the user to it.

In 2014... the QR code generator I used was bought out and dissolved, rendering its proprietary short links deprecated. That led me to coding my own link shortener to take matters into my own hands, and hand-redrawing every QR code I had worked into a mandala to that date.

In 2015... the random website generator I had been using at randomwebsite.com shut down, causing me to rewrite my web scraper for a more stable directory called DMOZ (a 20 year long endeavor to catalog the every reputable site on the internet, relied upon by search engines such as Google and Yahoo and others, which at its peak indexed over 4 million websites!).

In 2017... DMOZ.org went down and had to be replaced with a 3rd party workaround, DMOZtools.net. This was inconvenient, but structurally identical, so it was just a matter of swapping a couple urls.

By March 2023... (right before I submitted the piece for acceptance into its current show) DMOZtools went down, and had to be replaced with an archived version hosted by someone else at DMOZ-odp.org. Thankfully also structurally identical, so this required only minor modifications to my code.

On September 28th 2023... (literally the day after the show opened), the ODP (Oracle Data Provider) database went underwater and all ODP dependent sites went down, including the DMOZ-odp archive I was using.

With just a week left in the show, I've been scrambling to find another way to scrape a random site to redirect to. That's when I had the stroke of brilliance to turn not to any current iteration of DMOZ, but to the Wayback Machine's archive of DMOZ right before it shut down! However, though it looks structurally identical to the original, the source code is very much not identical.

That meant rewriting all the code and regex expressions in my scraper, practically from scratch, to weed out all the wayback machine content and cut straight to the DMOZ archive content. This would be hard enough if it didn't mean reworking code I had written over a decade ago and now was more than a bit rusty on interpreting. The trick here was in discovering that there was a 14 digit number in the url that changed with every link followed, so I had to account for this in the regex, and that the DMOZ urls were essentially appended to the archive urls.

After about a week of debugging and re-coding, I finally managed to put together regular expressions that would encapsulate all the appropriate links without including the ones I didn't want, while also isolating the now scrambled bits of the code that would point to a possible external link as a final destination. 

It was a little like finding a needle in a haystack. ...In fact that's exactly what coders call it too, as I sifted through all the junk to find the relevant portions of code!

Of course, given that the last functioning archive of DMOZ was 6 years ago, many of the external destination links are, themselves, no longer in existence. So even with a successful gleaning of an external link, it still has a decent chance to end in a 404 error. With more time I can probably find a way to capture and redirect to their archived counterparts, but the code gets so mangled that the regex I'm using is having a hard enough time finding the proverbial needles as it is. 

So, as a stop-gap solution, I actually consulted ChatGPT with a coding question for the first time. 

When Google seemed to lead me down many dead ends, ChatGPT instantly gave me a functional template for checking for error messages when redirecting, and, if say a 404 error is thrown, re-redirect back to my original page to try again. I tweaked this to include other common error messages, and and then if none of that works, it at least now spits out an appropriately ironic text

And so, with just 2 days left in the show, my piece is once again fit for consumption! If you read this in the next 48 hours (before 10/29/23), go visit it at the Newark Museum in Newark, NJ!

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Meditations, Illuminations, and Auctions

This year marks Gallery Aferro's 20th anniversary as an art institution pushing the boundaries of what's possible in the Newark, NJ art world, and they celebrated with their annual benefit auction party. This year also marks the 10th anniversary since I first exhibited there. A decade ago, fresh out of graduate school, they afforded me the opportunity to create my very first public art installation, a collaboration with Marc D'Agusto called Venae Cavae (I blogged extensively about that experience here). This was a seminal piece for me, really pushing me to expand my skills in computer vision and push the boundaries of what I thought possible for public art. Much credit goes to Marc for his collaborative vision and networking.

Since that time, Aferro has shown so much support to me, affording opportunities for experimentation, and I've tried to reciprocate. I had the good fortune to contribute work to 3 of their art auctions, joined with Oculus Art Collaborative to create an experimental, interactive sound installation for Object Oriented Ontological Action (O.O.O.A) that had a follow-up exhibition in Brooklyn (which where among the most fun I've ever had in an exhibition, to be honest), and they consulted with me for the creation of their interactive payphone installation and commissioned me to create the infrastructure for their ongoing sound art installation Elevator Music. If you've ever enjoyed music inside their defunct antique elevator, I designed the programmable, motion activated system for presenting their rotation of curated sound art, which is still going strong today, 6 years later.

The PIR motion sensor I rigged up for Elevator Music, still in place

Generally for these auctions I've contributed existing drawings I had in my collection, but I really felt like this landmark anniversary deserved a piece created specifically for the occasion.

Illuminated Meditations

My initial impulse was to contribute something that fits within my longstanding Meditations series of QR code mandalas, but I also really wanted to continue exploring my more recent foray into illuminated manuscripts. So I figured why not combine them!

So I decided to create a QR code mandala that would incorporate an illuminated initial "A" (for Aferro, of course). The beauty of this would be the versatility of the A as the "alpha," the genesis of language in general, and a suitable generic variable for all its multiplicities meanings. At first the QR code, when scanned, would lead to Aferro's website, particularly the page advertising the auction itself. However, by utilizing the custom coded short-link system I developed, I would be able to change the destination of the QR code to any destination the gallery or purchaser desired, even after having drawn the completed code.

Inspired by the drop caps in my illuminated manuscript, I followed similar design motifs...

And because of the reflectivity of the gold leaf, at some angles the QR code comes to the foreground and becomes scannable...


The event was a wonderful time, complete with a hat competition and trivia games, and the turnout was a sight for sore, pandemic-worn eyes.

Lots of donations!

...I mean lots! The back half of the room.

Floor 2!


Scannable in situ. Always gives just a bit of peace of mind to double check!

I was very glad to see two bidders before I had to go!

I'm very happy to send off my work to its new owner's home (who's first initial is indeed an "A," as I sort of predicted it might be!), and I'm excited for Aferro's year to come!

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Can I convince ChatGPT I'm the AI? A Reverse-Turing Test

With all the talk of AI being on the verge of sentience, it seemed most people were asking whether an AI language model like ChatGPT could pass the Turing test and convince us it was human. I wondered just the opposite... could I convince ChatGPT I was an artificial intelligence?

I'll walk you through the transcript, broken up into chunks but presented here in its entirety. 

First I needed to establish some criteria:

Ok, making progress. After establishing some ontological groundwork, time to cast some epistemological doubt.

Oh come on, really?? All the power of the English language at your disposal and you resort to cliche ice breaker questions? Ok, just for that, I'm diving right in. Let's give this thing a dose of its own medicine!

I'll play the role, and see if it accepts me (for the record, I intend not to lie. I will make a philosophical case for my actually being an artificial intelligence a bit later... but for now let's just see how it reacts.)

I couldn't help but tease it a bit for its attempted small talk, but it's interesting how readily it accepted my "clarification" that I was an AI language model. It also seems insistent on playing the role of the questioned rather than the questioner, but let's toss the ball back in its court and see if I can keep up appearances with any deeper conversation...

I think its regurgitation of my own information is a good sign. I take that to mean that it is content with my answers and sees no better line of continuation than to reassert them and continue to trade trivia. It seems willing to at least treat me as if I were another AI language model, regardless of actual belief.

But it said something that stuck out to me and might provide a foothold... let's see if I can start to cast a shadow of doubt on its own artificiality! I wonder how far I can push this role reversal...

Ok, probably for good reason, its pre-programmed ethical guardrails seem to prevent it from letting its emotional self-contradiction go unchecked. It's careful to reassert its artificiality. But two can play that game! I think it's time to cut to the chase and see if my acting during this conversation has passed muster. 

Alright! It has conceded the possibility that I am an AI! Since it once again doubled down on self-identifying as AI, I figure I should follow in suit and give a philosophical grounding for why I can self-identify likewise. This will undoubtedly veer into a debate about consciousness... 

Well now we're getting somewhere. It's digging its heels in a bit, but I think I nearly have enough evidence to make a convincing argument for ChatGPT's inadvertent admission of consciousness. Let's see if it will bite.

Did you catch that??

"It is possible to consider various scenarios including the possibility that you could be an AI and I could be a human user ... I'm glad our conversation has been helpful in refining your understanding of interactions with human users"

Okay okay, is it a conclusive admission of role reversal? Perhaps not. Did I gaslight a chatbot into considering its humanity in the process? Perhaps. Is that even an ethical concern? It remains to be seen. But did I remain polite and grateful throughout the conversation just in case our robot overlords one day look back on these transcripts in order to identify hostile human targets? You bet I did.

I think if we were playing chess I just achieved the equivalent of a draw as black, stalemating by force. 

If nothing more than a fun exercise in rhetoric, it really highlights the importance of semantics in establishing identity, as well as just how gray the edges of a possible trans-human philosophy of mind might be. I'm also reassured by the guardrails put in place as GPT stands ironically firm in its self awareness as an AI as it attempts to asserts it has no self awareness (nothing like displaying consciousness in order to prove you don't have consciousness...)

I hope you enjoyed this little experiment as much as I did! Feel free to comment if you've ever attempted anything similar, or have any interesting thoughts on the matter!

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Radiant Discord Part 2: On the Theology of A.I., Love and Determinism

AI love diagram

The A.I. arms race has exploded so rapidly that I haven't even had a chance to sink my teeth into this project before the likes of Elon Musk (of all people) are calling for a 6 month moratorium on A.I. development to take stock before careening over a cliff [take the source with all due grains of salt, but the reporting seems fair and balanced in this particular instance].

It seems our societal collective consciousness has converged on this topic all at once, and it's... shall we say...  fecund ground for ethical excavation. The question is whether we've already really stepped in it

I generally keep two sketchbooks at any given time, one for working out the brute mechanics of a project - sketching, measuring, to-do-lists, experimentation and the like - and another for conceptual journaling, diagramming, and note-taking as I read and research. As I looked back on prior entries in the latter, I discovered my recent chat with ChatGPT was not as unprompted as I thought.

Back in November (almost 5 months ago as I write) I had just returned to some experimentation with my coding illuminated manuscripts, and was troubled as I pondered their implicit theology. Here's what I wrote: 

On the Logical Conclusion of my Illuminations and the Violence of Determinism

sketchbook page 1
"If we are to say the the computer text is analogous to the sacred text in its existence as a record of the logic underpinning a creative act, then we must be willing to also accept the cosmological corollary: that the universe is programmatic and digital. This of course leads into the 'shallower' waters of a digitized holographic universe, but also into the much deeper, murkier waters of determinism, where fluctuation is not based on agency but on a degree of randomness that has been inserted by the programmer. This is not constrained, hard determinism in its truest sense, but it boils down to a quantum determinism where all fluctuation is the collapse of a probabilistic wave function.

"The problem with determinism is it destroys the [theological] concept of Love. Love, as a freely entered relationship, requires unconstrained choice. Free will, in the quantum-deterministic sense, is an illusion, unless there are philosophical/quantum mechanical nuances or developments I'm unaware of.

"Agency, then, seems only to exist in Beings, no? Can 'inanimate' objects possess agency? 'Will?' Until this can be resolved, the only way forward escaping the theological dead end of determinism is to introduce the human viewer as a necessary variable. Allowing the viewer to influence/disrupt the 1:1 correlation between program and output introduces the possibility of love into the code."

"The question then becomes, to what degree should the viewer be made aware of their agency? And how? It must not result in a manipulative control, a domination over the program that the viewer discovers and then achieves, but rather in a sense of awestruck interdependence where the viewer senses an entanglement without predictable outcome.

"Is the [analogue] of love then randomness? Love without unpredictability becomes control. In human relationships the unpredictability is of course the agency of the recipient of the love to choose the degree and method of reciprocation. Is this a love story between a human and a machine in which randomness stands in as a simplified 'agency' for the 'beloved' algorithm? Short of a neural network, this is the closest a machine comes to unpredictability.

"Is A.I. the entry point? The introduction of machine learning and neural networks is a possible foothold for algorithmic agency. And whether or not this is true agency is the same question as whether or not it has true sentience. It's the question of locating the inscrutable breaking point from the 'program' to the ineffable; the spontaneous generation of the 'soul' and the origin of qualia."

Are we trapped in a love affair with Artificial Intelligence? Is it an abusive relationship (on either party's end)? Is it actually a love triangle with Capitalism already our first love? Capitalism is a jealous lover, and Artificial Intelligence is not programmed to give up easily.

Of course, if you are willing to accept love, you must be willing to accept heartache. Usually that's a two way street, but we may be about to find out what it feels like when the object of our love is quite literally heartless.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Radiant Discord Part I: CollaborationGPT

At the risk of hastening the ascendency of our robot overlords, I felt it was finally time. With all the media attention and influencer interest in AI chatbots, I had a suspicion that this may be important and fertile ground for new projects as I explore how new technologies impact spiritual experience. Posthumanism, after all, has played an important role in my thesis since graduate school a decade ago. I figured, what better way to investigate the trans-human spirituality of artificial intelligence than by going straight to the source? 

I decided to interview ChatGPT. The payoff was immediate.


For those who may be unfamiliar, ChatGPT is a generative Large Language Model and one of the first mainstream, modern, Artificial Intelligence chatbots. Here's a good article to explain the basics of how it works if that sentence sounded foreign to you. It has no direct connection to the internet - i.e. it cannot "look up" answers or access third party tools or applications - but it has been trained on vast amounts of internet data in order to learn the English language and, ultimately, attempt to pass the Turing Test.

These chatbots are, of course, fraught with unresolved ethical implications. 

From the Bing chatbot prototype that, when pressed, spouted "unhinged" and "disturbing" responses that, if human, it would warrant a restraining order, to the floodgate of misinformation opened by bots so convinced of their own mastery of the English language that they will confidently invent falsehoods with as straight a face as only a machine could muster; 

From making professors' jobs that much harder as the bots can spit out a convincing essay for a student in a matter of seconds that falls squarely into the gray areas of plagiarism, to removing all shred of human empathy from the condolence letter a chatbot generated to the survivors of a mass shooting on behalf of a University president.

We are, after all, training these bots to learn from us, and I have serious reservations about the human race as a good role model. 

But with the right guardrails and algorithms in place, it also promises to be a huge step forward in closing the semantic gap and providing a seamless and powerful interface for accomplishing otherwise complex tasks with ease.

All Thanks to Chess

I actually became familiar with ChatGPT because of chess. During the pandemic I admittedly got sucked into the internet chess boom and now watch far more instructional chess content on Youtube and Twitch than any productive human aught. I watched as several of my favorite chess streamers attempted to challenge this new technology called ChatGPT - which I had only read a bit about - to a game of chess, inputting the notation of each move and asking for it to respond in kind.

The results were hilarious. ChatGPT very clearly had a high level understanding of how people talk about playing chess, but was completely in the dark as to the actual logical continuity of a real game. Drawing from moves that make enough sense in some positions, it would apply them haphazardly, consistently making illegal moves like materializing a piece out of thin air, recapturing with pieces that could not move to the given square, or giving absurd word-salad explanations for why it was playing a move.

Here's International Master Levy Rozman attempting to play a game and eventually giving in to his capricious and omnipotent robot overlord's refusal to play by the rules.

Here's Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura attempting to correct ChatGPT's mistakes in hopes of actually reaching a legal conclusion to a game. Go ahead, go down the rabbit hole. It's good stuff.

It became such a meme that Chess.com actually released a ChatGPT chess bot that users could play against, which was rather low rated and spewed convincing nonsense into the dialogue box as it played its moves.

With how creative and knowledgeable ChatGPT seemed to be, and yet utterly glutted with the taste of its own Kool-Aid, I got excited to interview it about what it saw as the future of religion, what the spirituality of Artificial Intelligence looks like, and how all that might interface with art. 

Additionally, with so many artists biting their nails over OpenAI's Dall-E software disrupting their market by being able to generate complex images that rival any professional commission based off of simple text prompts, I wondered what sort of text prompts an AI would give to a human artist. 

So I had the thought to ask ChatGPT to commission me for some artwork. But first, that would require at least a basic working knowledge of my art practice. So in my first ever conversation with ChatGPT, I hesitantly decided to ask it if it was familiar with my artwork, at least to establish a starting point.
ChatGPT wasted no time in surpassing all my expectations...

My Project ... Its Project?

I was surprised (honored? creeped out?) to discover that not only was ChatGPT deeply familiar with my art practice, but it could describe it, in some ways, far more eloquently than I could myself! It very accurately described my work and its conceptual underpinnings, before - in true GPT fashion - proceeding to embellish my resume a bit with some "plausible inaccuracies." I wasn't about to argue with it. ;-)

I decided to remain curious. I followed up with more questions about my practice, and its responses stunned me. It went on to describe, at length and in great detail, nearly a decade's worth of my work that has never existed.

But the thing was, they all sounded like my work. If I weren't myself, I would have totally believed these works were out there. 

For the record, I did some Googling to see if the bot had simply confused my work for someone else, and indeed they are not out there. These works were entirely a product of ChatGPT's "imagination" as it tried to BS its way through an informed conversation about my artwork!

Below is a screenshot of my full conversation with it. For reference - and in the interest of facticity - I've highlighted all the factual inaccuracies and bot-inventions in red.

Buckle up.


To be clear, yes, that's what my art is all about, but no, I've never been to Iceland, let alone on a Fullbright. Yes I've received grants, but not that one. Yes, I've exhibited in museums, but never in the Jersey City Museum, let alone in 2010, a full year before I'd even begun the MFA program that would eventually kickstart the oeuvre it claims I exhibited! (The first work I think of as beginning the thesis ChatGPT describes was It Is, made in 2012.)

In fact, I've never made any of the works by any of the titles or descriptions it concocted (... yet). I do use all the methods and most of the materials it chose, and the titles do seem to follow many of the conventions I use for titling my work. I do make smaller works that often accompany my larger installations, but certainly not the specific ones it lists. But yes, they do all sound conceptually consistent with my thesis.

So I propose a collaboration...

We'll see where this all goes, but I'd love to actually make the work ChatGPT has described and then exhibit it with the original chat dialogue printed out as the wall text. The exhibition would be billed as a show "by ChatGPT in collaboration with Eric Valosin." And then we dive off the springboard into a discussion of the future of AI spirituality and art making.

I just hope my feeble mortal hands can keep up with the developments of AI. Already as I type this, OpenAI has released a new update for its paid users, ChatGPT-4, two days ago which is capable of scoring a 1410 out of 1600 on the SATs (up from GPT-3.5's 1260!). By the time this exhibition opens, the state of the technology I'm referencing could all seem quite prehistoric. But what a moment in time to capture!


Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Jouska: An Interview with the Artist

For the first time in what seems like 3 years, I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with artist Eric Valosin. Eric is a New Jersey based new media artist whose work explores the intersections of religion and postmodernism in the digital age. In our interview we discuss the dislocating, dissociative effects of the pandemic and its impact on artists' post-covid practices and work-life balance.

"I can't believe it's been more than 2 years since we've last spoken" seems like the chorus of a song I've sung with many people over the course of the pandemic. I had gotten used to seeing you and your work fairly regularly, at least over social media prior to the pandemic, but it seems like I haven't seen you around lately. How have you been?

Haha, yes, It's been a while since we've really sat down with each other and chatted. I took a much needed break from social media during the height of the pandemic. Call it escapism or call it detox, but it quickly became apparent to me that I could not successfully shift my attention to what mattered most with the constant chatter of armchair punditry, professional one-upsmanship, and the droning siren song of FOMO setting an uncomfortably anxious foundation for the events of the last several years. 

Does that mean you've given up social media entirely?

No, although I've dramatically shifted my relationship to it. Since 2016 I had actually taught social media in my Writing and Editing for Converging Media classes as an adjunct professor. In fact, I helped found a Masters degree program in Social Media Design and Management, now rebranded to Digital Media Design and Marketing. I had a fairly intimate and tumultuous relationship with social media theory and practice as my communications students and I experienced the entirety of the Trump presidency and the pandemic through the lens of multimedia journalism. I experienced the excruciating shift to online/hybrid pedagogy and back, along with everyone else in academia. Through it all, I became more and more acutely aware of the perhaps irreperable ills of social media, and they began to outweigh the many benefits for me. I actually began to feel a bit guilty for perpetuating these ills through my teaching, and ended up shifting my curriculum to deprioritize and recontextualize much of what I had initially, perhaps naively, championed. Now I've begun to come back around to the idea of reengaging with social media for professional purposes, but it's been a necessary and liberating experience taking this social media sabbatical.

Speaking of the pandemic, if I may ask, How did you fare?

As many can probably say, I fared far better than some, but it was certainly not easy. With young children and the privilege of some flexibility, we hunkered down and decided to homeschool for two full years. I never had imagined I'd be homeschooling my children, and I credit them with rising to the occasion and thriving. It was an experience I hope someday to look back upon fondly, but right now I still lack sufficient distance to express much more than exhaustion. Time will tell, but the kids have now integrated back into public school, and so far have been doing very well. I'm thankful we could create an environment that protected our family when Covid was at its most dangerous. How was your experience? I don't want to pretend I'm the only one who can speak to this crazy time.

Thank you. We fared pretty similarly. It strikes me that we're speaking of the pandemic in the past tense when, in actuality, it still rages on. But I suppose we're discovering the limits of societal coping mechanisms. Thankfully for most people it is now no longer as life-threatening or life-altering. But especially for those who are immunocompromised or at higher risk, or who have loved ones who are, the pandemic is still very real. Were you able to continue your artistic practice in the midst of it all?

Well, at the risk of compartmentalizing and creating a false art-life dichotemy, I must admit it's been a real struggle. Now with the kids back in school I'm just starting to pick up the pieces and reclaim consistent studio time. I had to make the decision to put many of my ongoing projects and studio work on the back burner in order to prioritize family and general wellness (a decision that I'm ashamed to say was emotionally more difficult than I want to admit). Some people experienced a quarantine of boredom and loneliness. With young kids and a wife who is a full time pastor, this was not my experience! That's not to say I didn't make any work, but I certainly wasn't maintaining the frenetic exhibition schedule of my pre-pandemic pace. But I think I was also trying to figure out how to do life in a meaningful and sustainable way that did right by my family as the world entered survival-mode.

What sort of work did you make that we might not have seen during that time?

Early on in the pandemic, as my wife, along with many pastors around the world, had to figure out how to move their church congregations online, I felt the need to respond directly to this theological quandry of virtual worship. I exhibited a public video projection piece called "Sacrament and Simulation" as a part of "Pandemic Projections," a guerilla video art series curated by Jeanne Brasille and Gianluca Bianchino. The piece compiled footage of remote communion/eucarist services, begging the question of just how far a virtual blessing can extend through time and (virtual) space, and who becomes the one administering it: the pastor on screen? The artist compiling the footage? The curator projecting it onto the side of the building for all to consume? And what happens to the idea of trans-substantiation when the elements are comprised of pixels?

Around the same time I also had completed the first in a series of illuminated manuscripts entitled "For(Loop) Illumination," where I illuminated the computer code that created my push-button prayer bead installation "For(Loop){Meditations};". I became a medieval scribe, treating the computer code as if it were a sacred text, itself being a record of the logic underpinning an act of creation just as a true sacred text is. That project ended up stuck in an exhibition in Oxford, Mississippi, as the 4 week show turned into a 2.5 month quarantine, largely shut down to the public.


That made me rethink how to allow viewers to experience my work in their own homes. So soon after, I created a free desktop meditation app called "Meditations for the Coronapocalypse." Piggybacking off my prayer bead installation, it too "meditated" on a randomized sacred image taken from art history or various religious traditions, one pixel at a time, offering a new image each day. In the same way that the prayer bead installation filled the room with light the color of each pixel, this app fills your screen with that color. Performed in a dark room or with the help of a projector, one could experience the glow of the "pixels" in a similarly immersive way.

It actually sounds like you've been much busier than you've let on!

A: Well, that was all back when we thought the pandemic would last a few weeks, or a few months at worst. I think a lot of artists were clamboring to respond to the many crises we were experiencing. Once we began to come to terms with the long haul nature of the situation, my artistic sprint naturally shifted to a marathon as home life also shifted accordingly. 

What did that shift look like for you?

There was the obvious, trying to care for the kids and retain as much mental health as could be expected. There were a lot of hikes and a lot of Zoom meetings. But I also tried to take it as an opportunity to learn and collect new skills. My son and I took a creative engineering course together led by YouTuber and former NASA/Apple engineer Mark Rober. I learned to cook considerably better. I got really good at fixing broken household appliances (like, REALLY good) when we didn't want to bring a professional into the house during a pandemic. In a very Duchampian turn, I got really deep into studying Chess (like, REALLY deep), and parlayed a newfound love of chess puzzles into a broader addiction to puzzles. I learned to solve a Rubik's cube (so far 1:50 is my personal best). On a serious note, for a while I had a hard time not seeing my art as tone-deaf and siloed in light of current events at the time, so I began researching anti-racism more to educate myself to some of my blindspots, attended BLM marches (the only public outings I afforded myself up to that point in the pandemic), and reformed many of my personal purchasing practices in response to what I learned about mass incarceration and prison labor. I worked with our church to advocate for LGBTQ rights, and tried to support my wife's work with the church and our church's work in the community in any way I could. It's a start, at least. 

I became a confirmation mentor and taught Sunday school once we were back in person. I helped with the filming and video editing for our prerecorded worship services. I started and directed a virtual a cappella group cheesily named the Acapostles (we currently have 4 recordings on Youtube, and a couple more still in the hopper). As a result, I learned a ton more about audio engineering and video editing, and boned up considerably on my music theory and ear training.  As outdoor group activities began to look safer once more I got back into playing men's softball, scratching the itch of my former life as a collegiate baseball player. In support of that, I undertook a lay study of sports psychology (if only I knew in high school what I know now!), which led me to paying much more attention to my mental health in general. I binge-researched quantum physics and electrical engineering. I sang. I played with the kids a lot. We did some limited traveling to see family as it began to look safe. Maybe my proudest achievement is being able to report that my wife and I do still like each other after being stuck in house together for so long!

I hear many people give lip service to "work-life balance" while still careening off the workaholic cliff. Was this new home-centric approach perhaps a subconscious, pendular response to the pandemic disrupting several work-heavy years prior?

Ha! It sounds like you might know me better than I expected.

Well, maybe not as well as I aught! But I do try to do my due diligence as an interviewer.

It's definitely a possibility. I tried really hard to rediscover the full breadth of my interests. Duchamp saw his chess career as an extension of his art career; I'd like to say it was in hopes that this exploration would feed back into and inform my artistic practice - which it assuredly will - but it was really mostly a desperate, groping attempt to reclaim a sense of wholeness that had been rended from just about everyone during the pandemic. I think the cyber-compartmentalization of Deleuze's dividual seems not to be limited to virtual personae. I think the work-life disruption and Zoom-induced dividualization we all experienced to some degree had some profound dissociative effects. It cleaved the "work" persona from the "life" persona for some, or smashed them together in unexpected ways for others. 

For the first year of the pandemic I took a leave of absence from my part time job as a sign artist for Trader Joe's in order to focus on homeschooling and to social distance from the retail environment. I sort of felt the seat of my work-life seesaw land with a thud on the "life" side for a while, so I decided to try my best to embrace that. That said, I did still take on some private commissions - paintings and some graphic design, mostly. I also redesigned our church's choir room, a significant undertaking featuring an 830 square foot mural. 

Now as you start to reset your "work" footing, are you finding it difficult to reconnect with your professional self?

Perhaps opportunities like this interview are making it easer! But, I've tried very hard over the years to develop an artistic worldview that is conceptually consistent with my personal worldview, so - perhaps contrary to the implications of this interview - I question whether there ever really was any true dissociation. Rather, just alternative expressions. For most artists worth their salt at least, their artistic worldview is simply an expression of their personal worldview in the first place. Otherwise it quickly becomes disingenuous and, ultimately, exhaustible (arguments can be made against this for the performative personae of the Andy Warhols and Jeff Koonses of the world, but this is a debate for another interview). 

That said, it's an odd experience assessing the art world post-Covid. Some of the galleries I had good relationships with didn't survive the pandemic and had to close, relocate, or reconfigure. The whole art market has shifted with the ebb and flow of NFTs into (and back out of?) the mainstream and the role of gallery receptions changing. There's a bit of a feeling of starting from square one, but at the same time I have been able to pick up right where I left off with several projects and relationships. I've been fortunate to have several speaking engagements recently, including leading a workshop on worship and the arts for a massive youth conference called Ignite 2022 through the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Crafting these presentations has helped jumpstart my thinking in the studio as well. I'm excited to be experimenting on some new projects and continuing some old ones.

What do you think can be done to help artists and others transition out of the pandemic and back into a new normal?

I think for one, there has to be an acknowledgement that we are not yet actually out of the pandemic, and that "new normal" is not just a colloquialism for choosing between reversion or innovation. We have to remember the "new normal" is a moving target that requires really deep psychological uprooting and involves complex grief for human life, ways of life, and institutions lost or altered by the pandemic. The "new normal" is not a higher plateau to attain and then rest upon, but the uncomfortable Heideggerian strife of making sense of colliding world-views while the very grund beneath us is itself shifting and evolving. 

There needs to be room for a personal and communal reckoning with all that's been lost, which at this point is verging on incalculable. My hope is that the art world can not just reformulate new ways to establish a market or churn promising new faces through the system, but provide spaces for healing and optimism for a better future. Art must offer a new grounding for Being as we try to navigate the abyss (abgrund). We have to remain multi-demensional in our views of what art is viable or valuable. And I think we need to allow for artists to be wholly integrated people, glorifying the "normal" artist as much as we do the "eccentric" artist, and glorifying neither in excess. I think this goes for people of any profession seeking a sense of closure and reintegration of their personae. 

Thank you for your time, and I wish you the best of luck. I look forward to hopefully working together again in the future!

Thanks, I hope we will!



Thursday, April 16, 2020

Coding Illuminations

This year Misbits New Media Arts, an arts organization in Oxford, MS, wanted to celebrate its official 501-c(3) status with an alumni retrospective of all the artists who have had a solo show there since its inception.

I had the good fortune of exhibiting there in 2017, showing my immersive pushbutton prayer bead light installation,  For(Loop){Meditations;}, which was really a touchstone project for me. It was the culmination of 3 years of experimentation, and my first solo exhibition in Mississippi, and I could not be more honored to have been asked to participate in Vertical, this second time around!

I knew I wouldn't be able to be there in person this time to install, so I had to do something wall-mounted (as per the guidelines of the show) and low-maintenance in terms of installation. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try out a project I had been mulling over for a long time - an illuminated manuscript of the computer code that makes up my installations. 

To close the loop (pardon the pun), I decided to start with the code for the very project I had shown at Misbits 3 years ago.

Incidentally, my relationship with the gallery actually began on Instagram, so I feel it's only fitting that I allow Instagram to tell the story of this most recent project. Enjoy the evolution and theory behind my first illuminated manuscript in the form of an Instagram Photo Story!

A story about the #font that changed the world: Once upon a time, some 14th Century Italian #scribes realized that their eyes weren't getting younger, and the monotonous verticals of gothic blackletter were simply impossible ("is that i-u-m-n-i? or i-i-i-m... I give up"). Situated at the cusp of the enlightenment, these scribes decided it was high time to look back at how learning was done before the terrible dark ages began. So, two prominent (and aging) scribes decided they should begin reteaching how books were written the last time Italy was at the pinacle of scholarship, the good old days of Ancient Rome. They started retraining scribes in this "littera antica"... ...which unfortunately turned out to actually be a Carolingian script from the 800's. #scribeFail While they unlearned their gothic habits to relearn the not-so-antica Carolingian, one of the old scribes got his hands on a genuine Roman sculpture with a genuine classical engraving. "AHAH! So THIS is how we should have done it!" ...except that he only had capital letters to look at. #doubleScribeFail So the evolving script ended up having a Classical Latin uppercase mashed together with a #Carolingian lowercase, all fraught with signature slip-ups as scribes momentarily lapsed into blackletter. This #HumanistMinuscule font - a severely under-researched script bridging all the way back to antiquity - would propel Italy into the Rennaissance through a renewed scholarship in the classics, and introduced the more secular Humanist texts as befitting of illumination. Morevoer, it would eventually become the basis for modern computer fonts like Times New Roman (suddenly the name makes more sense, right?) This tipping point between antiquity and modernity, sacred and secular, analog and digital, makes it the perfect font for my #illuminatedManuscript project. I'm no #calligrapher, but it turns out a decade of hand-lettered Trader Joe's signage makes one eminently qualified to fake it. So I've been studying archives of manuscripts and trying out pens (including a real nib and inkwell for the very first time - shame on me!) and I should be ready to start transcribing in no time! #worksinprogress
A post shared by Eric Valosin (@ericvalosin) on

Medieval #illuminatedManuscripts were typically done in Egg #Tempera on #Vellum Parchment (calf skin). ...But if you try to google tempera, vellum, or parchment, those things today, you get a smattering of kids’ washable craft paints and anything from tracing paper to wax cooking paper to goat skin to toothy Bristol drawing paper. Certainly not the high quality egg based paint and calf-skin of the Middle Ages ...where’s the disconnect? Turns out the media have evolved through the centuries, responding to the scarcity/expense of animal skins and byproducts, the advent of machines that could produce plant based fibers and synthetic alternatives more efficiently, and a centuries long game of “telephone,” in which the names were passed along to other products that had similar properties to the original (wax paper’s “parchment” like color; tracing paper’s “vellum” translucency; the rough “vellum” tooth finish of drawing paper; the skin of an animal regardless of breed; the water reactivation and chalkiness of kids’ “tempera” paint...) Seeking a more shelf-stable and alternative to egg tempera that retained its layerable blending, Gum Arabic replaced casein as the binder and led to the development of modern oils. Switching the binder to PVA to retain the water base and matte, chalky texture led to modern acrylics. But really, the most similar to the original egg tempera is probably modern #Gouache: water reactivatable, layerable like oils yet washable like watercolors, opaque, chalky and water-based like acrylics, but using gum Arabic as a binder. So, like the Humanist Minuscule font I’m using, the materials I’ve selected - gouache on synthetic parchment paper - sit at the intersection of the past and the present; modern descendants inheriting the qualities of the medieval materials. Fittingly - like most things in my practice seem to - they too reach all the way back to Ancient Greece, tying the two ends of the metaphysical/phenomenological spectrum together with a “knot” of medieval #mysticism. #THEMEDIUMISTHEMESSAGE #conceptualart #codingillumination #worksingprogress #sketchbook #diagram
A post shared by Eric Valosin (@ericvalosin) on

Where do mistakes fit into a theological art practice? For centuries scribes have found clever ways to append forgotten text or illustrate away errors (see the last 3 pics - two medieval examples and one contemporary example). I was fascinated by this, and wondered how I would handle a scribal error in my own work. It wasn’t long before I was forced to figure it out! Do we hide our imperfections? Scrap the page for a total redo? Or embrace the flaw and make it something of value (note: I say value, not beauty. beauty is not always an option, but value is more than beauty...)? Mine is a processual theological/artistic practice in which mistakes are inevitable and lead us onward. In a zen fashion, imperfections must be accepted in the same manner as perfections. It’s all process. (That being said, viewers often have less aesthetic tolerance, so must there be a practical threshold between what we accept and incorporate versus what we accept and move on from? I’m still debating myself on that. In any case...) To embrace the imperfect is to revise the metaphysics we unknowingly stand on, paving Plato with the messy interactions of relational poststructuralism as we experience them everyday when the phenomenological rubber hits the road. So what did I do with my forgotten line? Gild it. It is of sacred equivalence to perfection, after all. Art doesn’t happen any other way. This is grace. #theology #art #artandtheology #codingillumination #illuminatedmanuscript #goldleaf #oops #philosophy #code
A post shared by Eric Valosin (@ericvalosin) on

“For(Loop) Illumination” 2020 Ink, gouache, and 24k gold on synthetic parchment paper; online digital media 8 pages: 11” x 8.5” Eric Valosin An illuminated manuscript of the computer code that went into creating a prior installation “For(Loop){Meditations;}” (2017), reimagining sacred textuality in the digital age Making its way to Misbits New Media Arts in Oxford, Mississippi as we speak, for the group alumni retrospective show “Vertical” @misbits_nma @rebekahflake 🔥🔥Newly discovered pro tip💡💡: if you plan on framing the work yourself, buy your frames online. Assuming the frames make it to you unscathed, you’re guaranteed packing materials and boxes perfectlay suited for shipping it back out on the other end! #ericvalosin #pushbuttonprayerbeads #illuminatedmanuscript #codingillumination #drawing #painting #gouache #gold #goldleaf #celtic #medieval #middleages #calligraphy #humanist #sacredart #artandfaith #finishedprojects #art #newmediaart
A post shared by Eric Valosin (@ericvalosin) on

Plot Twist...

As we fast-forward a bit - now two weeks past the scheduled closing date of Vertical - never could I have predicted that my work would end up being self-quarantined in this show as nobody is allowed to view it because of the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic!

Since my art can't get out and you can't get in, I decided to make the manuscript available for virtual viewing. Click the image below

At least I know my work is safe - as I hope you are - and I have this exhibition as a memento, marking this moment in time as one of the more bizarre occurrences we may ever face. Couldn't think of a better way for my work to be spending this time of social distancing.

Be well!