Wayne Strattman on the mystery of life and “Designing the Improbable”

Interviewed by Megan Magbee for MONA Blog

Your current show, “Designing the Improbable”, is currently on display at MONA. What is it  about your work that is “improbable”?  
That term refers to the theme of many of my works, that the source of the inspiration is from the “improbable” event or circumstance.  The pieces, for example, that are part molecule and part organic are from a larger series I’ve been exploring that examines the really “improbable” assemblage of molecules over eons of time into organic, self-reproducing forms that ultimately result in human intelligence after billions of years of evolution by some mysterious process, and which is ultimately  capable of self-reflection and taking inspiration from their own evolution.  Truly as improbable a scenario as I can imagine.

Plasma art seems like the perfect convergence of art and science. What was your first introduction to plasma as an art medium?
I wanted to make a gas laser from the time I was a kid growing up on Sci-Fi films and books. After engineering school, I thought I would try to make one. I never completed the laser, but I did succeed in teaching myself, largely out of books to make neon tubes (which are nearly identical in  many respects to making lasers) and I fell in love with the medium. I had done other artwork as a sideline to my engineering career but then changed completely to glass and gas discharge lighting as my medium.

When did you decide that plasma and neon art was going to become the focus of your life’s work?
This medium was a perfect fit for my love of art, experimental science, and engineering.  I had been fascinated by light for decades before this, so this combination was a natural fit for me.

It always seems to surprise people that there is a “fourth state of matter”, after solid, liquid and gas. Does it create any difficulty translating your work to an audience?
Though one would think that plasma shouldn’t be a mystery because all of life comes from the energy of the plasma of our sun, in day to day life we don’t recognize it as a separate state of matter.  People who don’t work with it don’t have an intuitive grasp of plasma because it not something they normally use, so when confronted with it as an art form they often have a distinct feeling of this being something a bit alien.  Few people really know much about it and often even have difficulty framing questions. 

Your work seems to represent an understanding of science and technology that other mediums can’t quite convey. Is it the medium which dictates the science and technology themes you explore?
Good question.  My medium I feel is actually translating electricity into light, so light rather than plasma is actually my medium; I try to use light and often kinetic forms of light for its metaphorical connections to inspiration, energy flow, and the essential energy behind thought and life itself.  Some of the dynamics and mathematics of how plasma filaments branch out are similar to many organic systems, so I use that in trying to derive meaning in my work.

When designing your pieces, is there a gas combination that you seem to favor?
No, the meaningfulness of the piece dictates what gas I use.  I also often want to tap into a level of brightness or activity, which dictates the gas I use. If, for example, I want a quiet piece that can been seen in a room but should be of low light, I might use low pressure argon or krypton to give a soft glow that can be seen but doesn’t dominate the room.  If I want high energy, I’ll use a bright orange-red neon based gas or mixture of gases or perhaps provide motion by upping the pressure levels of the gases until they form moving filaments of light.
The color and brightness all have a psychological effect and I try to tap into that.

Many of the pieces feel both alien and human.  Are there any human emotions you feel influence pieces of your work?
Certainly, while it’s not often thought of as an emotion, a sense of mystery and awe of how the universe is structured and how things self-assembled to build all that is around us and more, particularly our human consciousness… its limitations are what are driving my work.

Not only has your work influenced sci-fi pop culture (your pieces created for Star Trek), but it seems you in turn are influenced by science fiction in comic books and television. Is your work a tribute to sci-fi culture or do you feel you are developing something completely new and separate?
Some people thought that some my work glorified Sci-Fi, but in fact I entitled one of my biggest installations Fiction Science (instead of science fiction) because it spoke to a trend I see in the development of our culture. I drew an arbitrary line in the sand at the early 20th century when technology was heating up and most of it was going beyond the understanding of most people.  Concurrent to this, people started to believe in science as a savior and provider of limitless power, travel to other galaxies, medical miracles and unlimited lifetimes.  This prompted, I believe, the interest in science fiction as representing what people thought and hoped would become realized science but also raised science to god like status fueled by a lack of understanding of its mechanisms and limitations.
It wasn’t that I was setting out to build a tribute to Sci-Fi culture, but I did use it for that installation as a metaphor for a larger idea.

People are still becoming acquainted with what light and glass art is. What do you want people to understand when looking at your work? 
I would love to have people not only contemplate whatever theme I happen to be exploring with an individual piece, but also start to have an appreciation for what goes into the creation of the light itself. [Light art] is a marvelous opening to understanding physical science. I’ve always said, I’d like to teach an introductory physics course solely through showing people how to make a working light bulb. All the basic concepts of science exist in a simple light bulb if one takes the time to really look at it and the processes needed to make it work.

Why do you think there are more neon artists presently? Do you think the popularity will continue into plasma art?
I honestly don’t know if there are more neon based artists now or not.  It hard to say. With Facebook and such, perhaps there just appears to be quite a few because they are more visible-  but that said, the art and science combination intrigues a lot of people and our current Maker Movement has overcome a lot of the fears people have of combining technology with art.  My hope though is that these people go beyond just making things light up and use the medium of light for all its intrinsic properties to create meaningful art pieces.

What is the best way to inform the public about plasma art?  
Shows at MONA or the annual show at the Glass Art Society annual conferences certainly help. Future shows with some critical examination by critics and curators would hopefully start to examine this medium as moving beyond being a curiosity and eventually into something to be taken seriously. Certainly, critique from outside our field to discuss and giving context to what is being done will be important to its future.

What would you like the public to take away from your work?
There are levels of understanding, from the base idea of being able to shape light meaningfully in a myriad of ways, and then how I am choosing to use that light to communicate some idea. I’m rarely completely satisfied with my own efforts, which pushes me to continue to create new works to become better at realizing the ideas I may have.  I would like to think that an individual show is like taking the “current pulse” of my explorations, both technically and artistically, as I grow to know more. It’s not an ultimate statement by any means. I honestly hope that I don’t reach the point of being completely satisfied with my progress. 


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