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Kevin Cooley's Night Light

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday August 17, 2011

Artist Kevin Cooley has recently engineered his largest installationto date, filling a new residential building alongside the High Line Park with TVs that receive a live transmission of the evening's line-up of programs his father watches, at his home in Niwot, Colorado.

In Remote Nation, as the installation is titled, he writes, “the inhabitants of an entire high-rise apartment building appear to be watching the same television station simultaneously. Viewers outside of the building are presented with an orchestrated display of the ambient televised light which appears to be organic, pulsing, breathing and changing color reminiscent of aurora borealis. From the outside looking in,” he continues, “the viewer becomes a voyeur to these individual electronic campfires, as a witness of the collective solitude of a remote, TV-watching nation.”

Intrigued, I caught up with Kevin by email to find out more:

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Photographs ofRemote Nation, exterior and interior, copyright and courtesy Kevin Cooley.

Peggy Roalf: In a recent series, Refuge, you photographed individuals finding shelter at night in snowy caves and other remote places, using lighting schemes that enhance the surreal quality of their endeavors. Now with Remote Nation, you evoke the eeriness of being home alone at night, with the TV going. Is there a connection between the two projects?

Kevin Cooley: Absolutely they are connected, they are both about protecting ourselves from the elements. In Refuge, fire represents human control over nature and protection from a cold, harsh world. In Remote Nation,all the individual TVs are essentially electronic campfires which allow us to escape from the chaos of the city environment. Remote Nationcould be seen as the urban equivalent of Refuge.

PR: In your statement, you say that the project is inspired by your parents’ habit of watching TV in different rooms of their house in Colorado. Can you tell how their wish for separate experiences influenced the way you developed the project?

KC:It was a pretty powerful moment when I realized what this meant about their relationship. It got me thinking about all human relationships, isolation, technology, and loneliness. This duality where technology both simultaneously connects and separates us is one of the biggest sources of inspiration in all of my work. I wanted this project, my biggest so far, to incorporate a gesture to this pivotal moment in my life. As I was struggling to decide what station to tune into for Remote Nation, it occurred to me that it would be interesting if it could follow the viewing habits of a particular person so the channels could change, instead of having it just watch NBC or HBO. Naturally, I thought of my father who watches hours of television a day, alone in his basement.

PR: The way in which you transmitted the feed from your dad’s lineup of TV programs is fascinating – could you talk a little about why you went for an archaic look for the TV images? For example, is an old non-hiDef image more colorful, does its graininess project a different kind of light field that you find appealing?

KC:Once I new this project was really going to happen, I needed to get a lot of TVs and fast. I ended up getting almost all the TVs from the Salvation Army. They were  discarded all analog, CRT sets – some were even black and white. One of them was the same model I remember from my adolescence and I was shocked at the flood of nostalgia that flashed through my mind when I saw it and I wanted to include this into the project somehow. I realized that with a lot of cropping almost anything you play on an old set automatically looks like TV from the 70s and 80s. Also, I was worried a bit because my father watches a ton of football and baseball and I didn't want to run into any copyright issues with any of the networks or the NFL and by severely cropping into the images I figure I've altered the broadcast enough that artistic license comes into play.

PR: When did you hit on the idea that a night photograph with fire or a strong, artificial light, has a special kind of power?

KC:I've been photographing at night for over 10 years now. My first night project was following night time film productions on location in New York and L.A. which obviously use a huge amount of artificial light. Since that series, I've tried to have elements of ambient, natural light as well as artificial light in all of my nighttime photographic work. I've used lights from tourist boats in Paris, plane navigation and landing lights, military and emergency flares, high powered flash light, and televisions. All of these man-made light sources are related to the discovery of fire as a way of separating us from nature.

PR: For a while you were “snagging” light from film crews working at night in the city. What prompted you to use their “leftovers” for your work? Is there something about the colors you can get, or the quality of extremely bright light used at a distance from its source?

KC:"Borrowing" is what I always say, but I like "snagging" too, it sounds a bit more subversive. What got me started following them around is the accidental, surreptitious nature of how everyday city locations seemed to become important with all this bright movie light. It was like they were having their 15 minutes of fame and I thought I should photograph that moment.

PR: I saw that you’ve been awarded an Arctic Circle Art Residency, which starts at the end of September. What project will you be working on for this?

KC:I will continue to work on my Refuge series which I'm putting together with some past work in book called "Take Refuge." The photographs will also be a part of an upcoming exhibition at the Kopeikin Gallery this January in Los Angeles.

PR:Would you be interested in posting a couple of reports to DART from the ship?

KC:I think it would be amazing to do dispatches from the Arctic Circle on DART. I believe we will have an uplink aboard; I'll double check and get back to you.

Remote Nation by Kevin Cooley can be viewed every night from the new section of the elevated High Line Park north of West 23rd Street, and at street level on West 24th and 25th Streets, just west of 10th Avenue, until September 24th, 2011. Watch the video. Visit the website.

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