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Michael Dinges





Michael Dinges -- Dead Reckoning

An Essay by Antonia Pocock

In the face of the economic abstraction that makes daily life unreal... artists reactivate forms by inhabiting them, pirating private property and copyrights, brands and products. If the downloading of forms (these samplings and remakes) represents important concerns today, it is because these forms urge us to consider global culture as a tool-box, an open narrative space rather than a univocal narrative and a product line.

Nicolas Bourriaud -- Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay

Michael Dinges recreates and reuses defunct tools as surfaces for elaborate engravings of natural forms, scientific models, and apocalyptic quotations. Each sculpture-tool on view at Packer Schopf Gallery contrasts decoration with function, nature with industry, individuality with uniformity, and chaos with order. How might we reconcile these paradoxes? Can we develop economic, political, and artistic structures that synthesize these terms to generate active, open, and creative spaces? As tools of contemplation, Dinges' sextants, saws, and laptops provoke us to consider our relationship to, and impact on, the world-to ask how and why we seek to attain control over our surroundings, to recognize the destruction that may accompany such pursuits, and, in so doing, to make ourselves accountable.

When displayed together, Dinges' obsolete navigational and timekeeping instruments and his engraved dead laptops present the evolution of technology and comment on our impulse and attempts to navigate the world. Estimating a ship's location by tracking direction and distance traveled from a previously determined position using charts and instruments, rather than by direct observation of the stars and sky, is called "dead reckoning." This term suggests that mediating experience and knowledge with various calculations and instruments removes man from the "live" world.

If we compare the manipulation of a seventeenth-century backstaff, for example, to that of a computer, we see that the use of navigation technology has become increasingly "dead," or removed from reality. A backstaff required man to use his full body to gather information about his surroundings and to possess a command of physics to interpret that information. A computer hides its internal functions from the user, who passively absorbs the information displayed on its screen. As technology advances, the experience of navigation becomes increasingly abstract.

The computer is not only relatively self-sufficient, but the information it yields is so vast that it is difficult for any individual to fully navigate. We gain control and lose control at the same time, which is one way to interpret the recurring phrase inscribed upon Dinges' instruments, "Every process creates disorder." This maxim is derived from the second law of thermodynamics, which identifies entropy as a measure of disorder that is ever-increasing in any isolated system. Under this law, temperature, density, pressure, and other differences even out as concentrated energy disperses, ultimately resulting in less energy available to do useful work. Similarly, the energy we exert towards obtaining control over our surroundings ultimately dissipates and diverges off course. If each technological innovation expands our knowledge base, it exponentially increases the number of problems to be solved. Dinges alludes to this dilemma by transforming the iconic Mac logo into Eve's apple. Man's futile pursuit of omniscience is embodied in Dinges' artistic process. He exerts a tremendous amount of labor to create and embellish tools that do not lead us to the information, or true understanding, they at first seem to promise.

Dinges uses the second law of thermodynamics as a metaphor not only for the evolution of the use of technology, but also for the evolution of its mode of production. For example, the sextant used on a seventeenth-century ship would have been crafted by a single person or workshop specializing in the science behind that instrument. Similarly, Dinges cast his iterations of these tools during his Arts/Industry residency at the Kohler factory in Wisconsin, where he learned each step of the foundry process. In contrast, the Apple computers that Dinges appropriates are assembled by multiple workers, located outside of the United States, who do not possess computer-engineering expertise. The progression from a pre-industrial mercantile economy, to an industrial one, and finally to a global service economy is characterized by a dispersal of concentrated work and energy, philosophically replicating the second law of thermodynamics.

This dispersal of labor alienates the worker as much as it does the consumer. As best described by Karl Marx, industrialization transformed the worker from skilled craftsman to mere assembler, rendering the process of labor repetitive and machinelike. The meaningless rhythm of mechanical labor and consumerism is captured visually in Dinges' motif of molecules gyrating in constant and erratic Brownian motion. This jagged, purposeless path winds around the border of Dinges' nocturnal instrument, mimicking the haphazard daily activities of consumers that corporate trend-spotters seek to find patterns in. This path also imitates the disorder of pure entropy, a state that Dinges suggests we are rapidly approaching as the division and outsourcing of labor in our global economy continues to fragment human knowledge.

In his insistence on manipulating raw materials directly-meticulously engraving by hand the surface of each tool-Dinges is trying to reclaim the human hand in industrial and artistic processes, to resist the progression towards mechanized dehumanization. Indeed, our present economy, based on the provision of services rather than on the production of goods, has generated a level of alienation from craft that Marx could not conceive of in his time. This economic shift has given rise to a parallel artistic shift. The definition of art has moved beyond discrete objects to encompass process, performance, and conceptual gestures. In the context of an art world where artists may just as easily outsource the fabrication of their projects as eschew object creation as a mode of expression entirely, Dinges' return to craftsmanship becomes an act of defiance and, in the artist's own words, "a pathetic cry for humanity."

If Marcel Duchamp represents the beginning of the devaluation of artistic skill, it is especially poignant that Dinges references the ready-made in these works as part of his subversion. Dinges may appropriate laptop computers as Duchamp did bicycles, but Dinges then denounces that very act of appropriation by using the laptops as the canvas for a highly-skilled and labor-intensive engraving process. Likewise, the sextant and sundial, with their aged patinas, may give the false impression that they were found in an antique shop. It is their dual status as found artifacts and skilled works of art that allows Dinges' creations to make such a strong case against dehumanized industrial and artistic processes. The viewer will more likely focus his attention on the idiosyncratic imagery than on the utilitarian beauty of the familiar computer, making him wonder if he values sheer artistic skill and human expression more than he realized.

Dinges' engravings are meant to evoke the lost practices of scrimshaw and trench art-the carved expressions of whalers on bone and soldiers on artillery shell casings. Both scrimshaw and trench art represent attempts to inject personal history onto the byproducts of larger economic and political processes. And in both cases, these byproducts are symbols of the maker's enslavement or potential demise. Similarly, Dinges' laptop series represents an attempt to personalize what is global, standardized, and dehumanizing. Dinges' hand-lettered pronouncements and organic imagery destroy the sleek and modern, but perhaps vacant and inanimate, aesthetic that Apple promotes. His decorative schemas seem more at home on the surface of the brass tools, for these tools come from an age when the individual craftsman seamlessly united unique decoration with functionality. Dinges' embellishment of utilitarian objects questions why these two terms are at odds with one another today. What kind of world will allow progressive technology to peacefully coexist with personal expression? On one laptop, delicately rendered carrier pigeons affixed with ribbons bearing the words, "Facebook," "YouTube," and "MySpace," remind us what the expression of personal history has become: a global system that reaches wider audiences while also eliminating direct human contact and restricting each user to its digital specifications. The force of entropy is at work once again. Just as any thermodynamic system will eventually even out differences in temperature, pressure, and density, so too does mass-production and digitization eradicate the differences of individual producers and consumers. Physicists also define entropy as that energy in a system that cannot be used for external work, i.e. "leftover" or "useless" energy. An art practice based on byproducts-discarded whale bone, artillery shells left behind, dead laptops-is an attempt to harness the scraps that represent the demise of a system into total entropy, a state when the potential to do work is eradicated.

Dinges' tools anticipate this conclusion, as they are not able to do actual work. They are "dead" not only because they represent a removal from the "live" world, as implied in the concept of "dead reckoning," but they are literally dead, broken, and non-functional. The brass instruments are not inscribed with the proper calibrations and have no moving parts to operate properly. The laptops are beyond repair and discarded before they come into Dinges' hands. Both sets of tools are also dead on a third level: the sextant and the backstaff are obsolete and the Mac laptop will surely meet this same fate. With their use value gone, they become symbols of tools and navigation in general. Tools, which could be seen to form both the subject matter and the medium of Dinges' works, are humanity's way of creating order and understanding. On his backstaff, Dinges inscribes the words "determination" and "orientation," alluding to this impulse. We need tools, literally and figuratively, to navigate and make sense of our surroundings. Dinges' tools transcend the information about our world that they were originally used to obtain, for they provoke us to question that very need for information and control.

The danger and irony of this pursuit is encapsulated in the single freestanding sculpture in the exhibit, Spotted. Dinges based this piece on the Oregon Spotted Owl controversy and the "jobs versus trees" debate. With each tree he cuts down, a logger is not only inflicting death on the environment and its species, but is exhausting the resources that form the basis of his occupation. With each advance towards understanding and dominating our world, we provoke shifts and metamorphoses that resist our efforts. Dinges envisions Spotted, which consists of cast iron and laser-cut steel saws intersecting to form crosses, as a memorial to the loss of both jobs and trees. Perhaps each non-functional tool in the show is a memorial to the loss of orientation, connection, and humanity, and also a gesture to begin recovering these losses.