Visual Arts

Mystery Science Fair 2000

In our daily physical world, "Sustained," the new installation by Gene Cooper, is located at the Lisa Sette Gallery in downtown Scottsdale. The installation also exists in the cyberworld of technology and virtual reality, over a tangled web of fiber-optic cables. And on yet another level, the work exists literally within the artist himself. Like an ancient tribal shaman whose ceremonial tattoos turn his body into a living cathedral of the tribe, Cooper carries this work with him at all times, using technology and medical equipment to allow his own body to control and give sustenance to a complete, though somewhat manmade, ecosystem. Even when he is miles from the gallery, his own vital signs dictate what takes place within the installation.

The physical portion of the installation takes up the entire back room of the Sette Gallery. The centerpiece is a giant, burned-out tree that has been modified and filled with several feet of water and a variety of aquatic plants. The rest comes across as some sort of underground evil genius laboratory from a low-budget horror movie. Above the tree and connected to it by a massive mechanical arm is a transparent pump that is continually in motion. Hanging above the log is a giant, surgery-style light that shines when Cooper is awake and turns off when he is at rest. The resulting effect is a sort of organic iron lung, pumping and clicking to maintain the life of the botanical bodies within. At the head of the tree is a huge tangle of computer parts, wires and other assorted cables, all hooked into a video screen that rests across the log and shows updates of Cooper's vital signs.

The computer system is a monitor, and it sends periodic updates of the tank's ORP -- Oxidation Reduction Potential -- via wireless e-mail to Cooper. The ORP readings tell the electronic potential of the water, how the plants are breaking up waste and how much oxygen is available. Once Cooper gets the readouts, he must react accordingly and create situations within his own body that will sustain the plants in the gallery. If stronger water flow is needed, Cooper increases his own pulse rate by exercising or increasing his activity. If oxygen is needed, he must increase his own breathing. And if his own blood pressure gets over a certain line, several small geysers go off in various locations throughout the installation.

Against the walls of the room, Cooper has hung several small wooden burls that hold smaller pockets of water. Beneath the water are speakers that play recorded stories of other people's connections to the natural world. To hear these stories, the viewer must don a stethoscope and submerge its end into the pools to pick up the audio waves that are sent through the water. Unlike the rest of the installation where the technology is so vital an element of the work, the stethoscope becomes a little too contrived, hearkening more toward computer gadgetry than artwork.

Cooper's new work succeeds where many similar works inevitably fail, because they use technology as a gimmicky attempt to elevate the intentions and intelligence of the artist rather than as a means to an end. Most technology found in art is completely superfluous: What is being done through the computer screen could just as easily be done through a tried-and-true artistic medium. But "Sustained" would not even exist if not for the technology it employs. Cooper's technology effectively communicates the meaning of the artist instead of merely showing us that the artist is up to date with the art trends of the day. His is that rare breed of art that incorporates technology to expand and make good on the vision of the artist himself.

Through the connections among Cooper's body, the computer and the ecosystem of the installation, "Sustained" comments on the inextricable link of man and the environment and our own ability to provide a reasonable lifeline to other organisms. For Cooper, the work has been an experiment in just how successful such a connection can be. At times, sustaining the ecosystem has been difficult, while other times it seems to level off and find its own balance. But the overall success of the work isn't limited to whether Cooper's lilies live or die. The beauty of this work is in showing such connections at work -- breathing, living and pumping because of the physical manifestations of computer-read vital signs.

Several times throughout the three-month installation, Cooper adds another element by putting on a live performance in the gallery. Completely naked, Cooper climbs into the wood-encased tank and, with the help of several carefully positioned lily pads and a breathing tube, submerges himself to briefly harmonize plant, man and the environment. The entire site becomes almost like Cooper's own body, with the sound of his heartbeat magnified across the room and his pulse still regulating the water flow.

Though the ecosystem has encountered a few problems in its short life span, a recent addition to the installation has given Cooper and the gallery workers a certain reason for optimism. Spotted within the leaves of one of the taller aquatic plants was a small, green dragonfly. Like ourselves, where it came from and how it got there remain a mystery. It proves, however, that life does bring forth life and that nature, like our own bodies, finds a way of adapting to any environment.

See more photos at:
The "Sustained" website