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Caroline Langill, Shifting Polarities

Interview with Murray Favro

Murray Favro, Synthetic Lake, 1973-74
Born in 1940 in Huntsville, Ontario, Murray Favro settled in London, Ontario where he was an integral part of the active arts community there. A member of the Nihilist Spasm Band since 1965, whose members play only homemade non-traditional instruments, he continues this parallel career in music. Favro’s dedication to the investigation of machines of industry and transport, in his sculptural works, has sometimes led him to questions of visual perception. His germinal “projected reconstructions” that hover in a threshold between cinema and sculpture seemed to predict immersive media art. Favro has exhibited extensively in Canada and Europe. His sculptures and installations are included in gallery and museum collections across the country including the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (Ontario).

Caroline Langill: Can you tell me a bit about your process and how technology implicated itself in your art work?

Murray Favro: Technology plays a big part in my artwork in making it and often as subject matter. I often refer to the making of anything creative as art. This could be a machine invention, music, or artworks that include painting or projections. My definition of technology is whatever happens to be around for making things. That is to realize the making of these art things. Technology use is a variable thing. For example if I were to need something electronic and it is now I probably would use some electronic chips and make a circuit to do whatever is needed. However a few years ago it might be a transistors or even earlier would be electronic tubes.

Because of this the current available technology is captured in the work. This often places it in a timeline of the coming and going of available technology. I like to go against this some times to work with old ways to realize new things. When this is done it breaks the link with what is the latest in technology that usually links it this way to a time.

Although I seem to always have included references to technology as far back as 1960’s It was hard to justify my interest in making aircraft or odd looking experimental guitars as art. In fact I did not try to. Somehow I knew they were. In the 1970’s I started to get involved with a another way of looking at technology and inventions. It is different than the usual historical recounting of who did what first and where it happened. With Mechanology, people notice patterns of evolution in machines and technology separate from inventors.

It also recognizes the part the invention itself plays in partly defining itself as an efficient version of a concept. I recognize a similarity with the way things seem to finish themselves in invention and in art. It seems to take over and finishes itself.

Another thing I was noticing in the 1970’s was that at different times in the past people seemed to be influenced in ways they were unaware of. One of these was to recognize that we continually redefine ourselves. Humans seem threatened by automatons doing what we do. Remember only a few years back how upset teachers were that computers would replace them. The reality turns out that no teacher can do without a computer now.

I also decided that perhaps we copied our behavior from our technologies. The assembly line making people think they were capable of only a specialized one thing. I then wondered how we were going to be influenced in our behavior by the computer. I noticed computers are the first variable machines ever made. They could function as a typewriter, as a filing system, or many things as could be programmed unlike previous specialized machines.

I also noticed this is how people saw themselves in their work. There were typists, lots of them all a specialized occupation. Very specialized occupations are reflecting the pre computer mode of existence. In 1970 computers were shrinking they had just been made to fit in a small room. And there were experiments that went beyond punch cards and teletypes. Even though computers were around they were still linked to the old way. I would have an idea and could write a program but to put it in the computer was forbidden. They kept me from touching the computer. Specialized "Toggle Switch Experts" were only allowed to touch the computer. They were allowed to toggle on and off switches and enter the code.

It was easy to see they were not the future. It seemed obvious that the actual future influence from computers would be less specialized, now almost all of us are typists, we type and send our own mail using this variable machine. We are different than we were 20 years ago. I have made my work since 1970 knowing what I was doing and confident that things would be about the way they are now.

This is why I tried not to restrict my work to one area. Artists now can make anything and use any medium or even invent a new one. We are no longer highly specialized. I learned this from observing how we imitate our technologies in our concept of ourselves. As we invent we also are inventing ourselves or at least redefining ourselves.

Caroline Langill: The projection works from the early 1970s, two of which are included in the recent University of Toronto exhibition Projections, have been highly influential in many ways. Two of the pieces included the show, Still Life (The Table) 1970 and Light Bulbs (1970), are very pointed comments on technology, especially considering the titles of the books and the objects on the table. Can you discuss these two works with reference to technology? (Out of interest, what were the books on the table? I was able to make out a couple of them, but not the title of the book on machinery.)

Murray Favro: Still life on table is the first of my projections to be completed. I made it soon after the realization that since a photographs were flattened version of things we see and projections could be the reverse of this if I made white objects to project onto. I was interested in a lot of technical things at that time and I thought it was natural to photograph the things I was reading and also put in a few parts boxes for electronics and an ohm-meter. It is a capturing of what I was doing and interested in at the time.

I build objects to the camera distortions such as exaggerated perspective. I found cameras and projector lenses differ and causing the change The books are a Scientific American with the cover story about visual illusions, another book is Macluan's Understanding Media, the other book you could not make out was Kinematics of Machinery (a book from early 1900’s that was still in print in the 1970’s because nothing better had been produced).

Caroline Langill: The exhibition Another Dimension, that took place at the National Gallery of Canada in 1977, included Synthetic Lake (1972-74), Windmill Electric Generator (1975-76), The Flying Flea (1976-77), and drawings for Perpetual Motion Machine #1 (1977). Each of these works suggests a commitment to sculpture, but also to an analysis of the objects normally associated with the industry of science and engineering. Was there a parallel practice for you at this time relative to research into these fields? How do you perceive the artist’s relationship to science, then and now?

Murray Favro: I consider the best influences for an artist are not just from other art but in other interests, use science or technology and invention. It is a less art focused way of generating art.

However these objects I made are things engineers would take little interest in. Engineers I know are practical people, good for consulting on some aspect of things they know about. They seem to have little curiosity outside known things. An engineer mathematically can show why bumble bees can’t fly. They are best at working with numbers and known data and they make practical versions of things others invent. It is doubtful if a scientist or an engineer could have invented the violin. An engineer could make a stronger violin that might last longer or is cheaper than all past violins but would no doubt value these things above the sound it makes.

Scientists on the other hand are usually curious about how things work. But a scientist can speculate and examine a violin and try to find out how it works. They can prove some small aspect such as glue age or what forest the best wood had come from. It is doubtfull they could collect enough of these proved notions to make a better violin or even as good as existing violins.

Although science and engineering are interesting influences the actual making of things is more in the area of invention. I am an artist when I make these things. I have to use what is around me to realize these objects. They start out as projects that are not fully defined. I find out what is involved along the way.

These pieces of artworks have various reasons for existing. The Flying Flea is my version of the first of the homebuilt aircraft. The idea that anyone can build and fly an affordable aircraft before regulations interfered. Hundreds were made in the 1920’s. Everyone made their own modifications to the Flea. I had been given a copy of the original book that included the plans. I modified the landing gear to get it up from the ground more. It is made of aircraft quality materials purchased from the local airport here in London. I also took an aircraft building course before beginning construction. Learning useful things such as aircraft welding, fuel systems, and how to construct wings in wood and installing insruments.

Then comes the separation from being an actual homebuilt aircraft and its existence as art. I never planned to have it government inspected at each stage of construction. I never planned to fly it. It partly is made for the experience of it all much as it was at the time when so many were being made. It is chosen because it is the symbol of the beginning initiative of personally made aircraft.

The point is artists are curious as to what can exist and perhaps function. Not whether it is of any use to anyone. Disregard for accuracy or practicality makes the art different than science or engineering. Although they can be included as a part of art they are looked at differently when a part of art.

Caroline Langill: Synthetic Lake (1972-74) is a work that was on exhibition often during the 1970s at the NGC, and therefore seen by many artists who cite it as an influential work. Can you discuss the transition between the early projection works and this piece that includes complex dynamics? What were your motivations in emulating nature in this way?

Murray Favro: My Synthetic Lake is a large machine that imitates wave movements. A movie projection simulates the breaking of waves on a gallery floor. It is in a movie in actual space, the screen is the water surface streached out over a wave imitating machine about 30ft x 20ft and slightly off the floor as it goes back from you. And for me this piece transforms the movie media to be viewed as an object and not a regular movie with beginning and end.

When I look at it I first see its structure and clumsyness of the mechanism. After watching the waves for a few moments the experience transforms as I view the waves seeming ability to link up object with the projection, it becomes less machine and more wave movement. I have been asked to turn up the sound track a bit, except there is no sound track. When you participate with what is going on visually you associate the machine sounds to be water sounds. That was the most important thing to emerge from this work. From then on I knew that I only need to include a minimum of information until the object takes on a presence. Then the viewing of it fills in all the rest. We project when we view things. There was a parallel thing going on and then I understood what I had been doing with the projections.

Caroline Langill: Your replicas of industrial mechanical objects are almost homages to industry and machines, or are they a critique? What do you hope to achieve with these replications?

Murray Favro: Not a critique, and I don’t think they are homages. Instead something to do with capturing the essence of these things. I do understand machines differently than the usual way. I see it as a dynamic evolution and it is synthetic evolution unlike living things would evolve. Inventions when viewed separately from inventors and historically as if found objects can give a new perspective on this evolution that at times seems almost independent of people. As if we are just around to recognize the possibilities that already exist and make it happen.

Caroline Langill: Is there one work that you produced between 1970 and 1990 that you feel was particularly successful? That you feel achieved your full intentions? If so, why?

Murray Favro: I think they all are successful for their own reasons. Usually this includes them giving back more to me than I put into making them. There have been works I disliked when done but I destroyed them.

Caroline Langill: I know this may seem like a pedantic questions but I am interested in whether or not there is a distinct approach to technology and art by Canadian artists. How has your residence in Canada, and perhaps more particularly in London, Ontario, affected your work?

Murray Favro: I have almost no thoughts in this area. London is a place to work and where I live. I think Canadian artists look at technology differently than I do. Often there has been a superficial view of the surface decoration on machines. This is more like painting than looking at technology.

When artists do things like make up an individual use of technology that reflects the process then it seems best to me. I do not know the names but have heard of some interesting things with photography. Perhaps from my explanation you can find who the artist is.

I heard of an artist taking pictures of the great lakes, starting at Lake Superior and working down to Lake Ontario. At each lake he took a pictures and developed the film using the lake water. Pollution seemed to cause the film in Lake Ontario to develop quicker than the many hours it took with Lake Superior water.

Another artist is taking photos using his modified computer scanner and a lense as if it were a camera, he exhibits the technology with it. I think the way the things are done, the hardware involved and ideas all exhibited together are what I think are common but am not sure if this is a Canadian thing. I see no real Canadian way or reason to any of it.

Caroline Langill © 2009 FDL