Artist Craig Dongoski sits and chats with me about his current exhibition Discontinuity Continuum on display through the end of the month at Tinney Contemporary. Dongoski’s recent work incorporates the marks of a chimpanzee from the Language Research Center in Atlanta. The marks are the base from which the drawings evolve to become these gestural yet tightly controlled drawings.
Whitney: Why this particular chimpanzee, Panzee?
Craig: Mainly because she is the only one that we know of that does this. There was one that was reported in the 60’s that had a similar propensity, but within all of the ones in captivity and used for research, she is the only one that we know of that does this.
W: Of her own accord?
C: Yes, there are different theories as to why she does this. One that I, and I’m not here to postulate or guess, but one that I believe is she is seeing other scientists write, and I think she picked up on that.
W: Why do you focus on marks that are made by an animal as opposed to a human, machine or computer program? Is there something intrinsic about an animal or animal quality?
C: The question that I have always been interested in begins with: history can explain everything. I think there is a lot of embrace in science, but history can explain everything. One of the things I’m intrigued by, and it is totally science fiction, is the possibility with the evolution of ideograms, early language writing, that maybe a human saw an animal make marks, versus the opposite. What I’m doing is essentially what I’m guessing she did. She is copying a scientist and I’m copying her. So, through repetition and difference, some kind of logic or articulation occurs. I’m just repeating [her marks].
W: Are your drawings carefully planned out or do you allow for spontaneity? Are the tightly controlled or more stream of consciousness drawing?
C: It is the constant repeating, repeating, repeating [of marks]. So what you get here through that repetitiveness, you get difference. What I’m interested in is when things evolve. Evolution occurs because of mutations. I am trying to excite a potential mutation. So there is no plan other than what occurs from repeating. I’m very interested in the game of telephone or Chinese Whispers and how things can change, so I’m applying that to my work.
I made these types of work before working with the chimp. This didn’t come initially from working with her, but what it did was it gave me something to respond to beyond my own fingertips and my own experiences. It was something that through her writing or proto writing, whatever you want to call it, it allowed me to explore something that was even more base than what I thought could conjure up on my own. I am very interested in base material. I have been working with this stuff for several years, but working with her it started to add another interesting dimension, another layer.
W: I noticed your Drawing Voices series has interesting results similar to blind contour drawings. Can you describe the experience while people are creating these works?
C: The Drawing Voices is about base material. It is about the sound of someone’s mark, or articulating, or writing like this (writing with his finger in the sofa), it has potential to communicate just like the visual. As far as I know, no one has really looked into that. There was a Fluxus guy who did some pencil with music, but it has not really been embraced the way I do it. What I discovered is there is a potential telepathy. If I’m drawing an airplane and you are just listening to me draw, you are just listening and following along with your hands, that your drawing looks like an airplane. Through just listening, there is this potential to communicate. So the oral artifact, working with the sounds of marks, is what brought me into working with the chimpanzees. So, I came in with this prejudice, because of her propensity, it has taken me into another direction, but it is connected.
I mention in my statement, if you look art historically when the mark changes, art history changes. When Pollock says you drip paint, that changes the way you think about art. Or Van Gogh, what he painted is incidental, does not matter if it is sunflowers, you are looking at how he did it, the mark. Working with a non-human primate and considering it within the whole context of language and ideograms, and the context of that trajectory of art history.
Most people don’t think about art, they think about economics or politics and art is secondary, but I’m interested in art. I’m interested in the trajectory of art as a language.
W: What is coming next in your work?
I work very slow. I think of art making like skin. It takes seven years to develop something, and I’m actually 49 today. So this is a seven-year cycle. I always say this to students I work with, because I believe it myself, you could take anything, say a pair of boots, and say I’m going to make work with those boots for seven years. You will be making art. The problem is most people cannot commit to things like that. They get distracted, discouraged, or uninterested. So I trust things like my curiosities and instincts, and I’m not that interested in instantly communicating. I have been working with her for the better part of a year and she has come into a project that I have been developing for seven years, so it is in away at the beginning of another seven-year cycle.