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The Art of Epistemology: A Conversation with Joseph G. Cruz

Joseph G. Cruz, installation view of 2013 EXPO exhibition Assembling the Lunar

Joseph G. Cruz’s conceptual, research-based practice engages scientific, sociological, and philosophical discourses.  Some of his recent exhibitions have centered around themes such as the moon landing and Antarctic exploration, but these  focal points served a larger purpose: Cruz’s installations bring together a range of potentially dissimilar items and artifacts, identifying a common ground and exploring contextual relationships between the objects and their evolving histories.  His curatorial decisions activate viewer subjectivity by encouraging participants to spend some time considering the ever-present, but not always addressed, connection between art and epistemology.

I had the opportunity to speak with Joseph about his work and his last few exhibitions in Chicago.

Toby zur Loye: I want to start by asking you about a passage from your most recent artist statement: “Art is defined by an expanding field of methodologies and definitions.  My work is ultimately a physical manifestation of my research. My investigation is not focused so much on the nature of things, but on our ideas about the nature of things.”  Could you elaborate on your position regarding ideas about the nature of things and describe how that investigation relates to your practice?

Joseph G. Cruz: I am referencing Rosalind Krauss’s essay “Sculpture in the Expanding Field” and how the parameters defining art are constantly shifting.  Not only in art’s methods and mediums, but even in the possibility of it being a form of investigation.  I believe the reason I used that reference was to speak about how other fields of research are actually defined by strict methodologies and models of investigation.  I see my work as a way to sit in between different fields of research as a means to open up connections between them.  A biologist can’t step outside of her sanctioned use of the microscope in the same way a physicist cannot do subjective sociological field surveys to understand light diffraction.  Well, they can all put on the multifaceted Inspector Gadget hat, but they may not keep their funding and credibility.  As artists, we can choose to not only wear Mr. Gadget’s hat, but we can grow tentacles under that ever-expanding coat of his.  The problem is figuring out how to not be so clumsy, while sustaining the Inspector’s luck.

TZ:  Those interdisciplinary tentacles must really help when you are asking big questions about the relationships between art, science, and epistemology.

JGC: I often use this Werner Heisenberg quote to help pinpoint the conceptual focus of my practice:  “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”   Studying the history and philosophy of science makes obvious the evolution of perspectives we have gone through in defining nature.  I definitely don’t believe that humans are outside of nature and that we have some magical ability to see it from the outside. I wonder if we have actually ever been modern – in the sense that creating the humanities has created the birth of the non-human as outsider.

Joseph G. Cruz, installation view of 2013 BOLT exhibition Assembling Vestiges

TZ: How did you develop this dual interest in the humanities and science?

JGC: I think it is important to distinguish that my interest is ultimately about epistemology and that the study of the history and philosophy of science is more of a blend between the history and sociology of epistemology.  I used to be religious and did a lot of study into presuppositional apologetics (debating techniques which focus on the axioms of worldviews and logics).   Once you leave a worldview based on universal presups, you might start to think that the phrase “It’s just human nature” is one of the most dangerous sentences there is.

TZ: With your subject matter broadly including the philosophy and sociology of epistemology, I imagine that you might spend more time connecting ideological dots – and finding new dots to connect – than you spend physically creating / assembling your work.  Could you describe your research methods?

JGC: I do a lot of research around broad subject matter, but often discover a separate or more specific subject matter via the research.  The product of the research is often material limitations I place on myself, or I discover a connection between a seemingly disparate invention or context of the time and how that may have had a larger effect on the culture or place.  The product of the research is really the poetry I find in discovering connections.  The artwork is a manifestation to materialize this poetry, without specifically naming it. For example: the development of certain insulation technologies had a coincidental or a specific effect on late 19th-century British culture.  Central heating, along with certain developments in glass, created a living situation which enabled people to not be so afraid of winter and to look out their windows and see it as separate from them.  Polar exploration and sublime paintings of winter began shortly thereafter.  So I would begin using insulation material and art historical referents to sublime paintings of winter.  I’m not sure if this is a healthy parallel, but imagine if Jared Diamond was an installation artist instead of a writer.  It would make sense for his material to be guns, germs, and steel.  Its tough because I’m trying to excavate the connections of material and moment in a way that asks the viewer to try to make sense of these seemingly disparate pieces as a single whole.

TZ: I think it is important to dig a little deeper into that last comment.  A first-time viewer, who is unfamiliar with your work, might walk into one of your shows and be struck by the apparent dissimilarity of the assembled items. 

JGC:  Yes, I can be a little selfish in that this is a way for me to think through my research; to think through the materiality and histories of these objects in a way that allows me to circumnavigate certain linear ways of thinking.  I do want to excavate hidden histories and connections in a way that can open up dialogue and original insight from everyone’s perspective. How the viewer makes sense of it is up to the viewer.

Joseph G. Cruz, installation view of 2013 BOLT exhibition Assembling Vestiges

TZ: As a member of the BOLT residency program, you recently had a solo show at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition gallery.  And then you were selected by Dieter Roelstraete (Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago) to represent BOLT by creating an installation at EXPO this year.  Could you tell us a little bit about these two exhibitions?

JGC: Assembling Vestiges (at CAC) and Assembling the Lunar (the satellite installation at EXPO) borrow their names and certain strategies from Deleuze’s assemblage theory.  The theory excavates an assortment of histories and representations of places we all agree upon, but very few of us have experienced.  So, the Moon and Antarctica become the catalyst for the work.  Ponting’s Horizon Lines map Antarctica’s agency on the very first moving film documentation of Antarctica via screenshots of the color shifts on horizon lines (due to the cold weather on the physical film itself).  These prints sat on a shelf made of MDO (the industry standard for museum quality art crates) alongside 3 Erebus crystal artifacts made from a volcano in Antarctica. The Vestiges sculptures are broken silica molds and spilled bronze slag; so the making of a bronze sculpture is presented, but the sculpture isn’t.  They have a geologic feel to them, referencing rocks, corral, meteors, and miniature glaciers.

There was a sound piece in both shows: I translated topographical mapping of the farside of the moon into a sound map.  It was then turned into a picture disc vinyl record with a NASA topographical map of the farside of the moon and heard throughout both shows. The record sleeve art references Pink Floyd’s iconic light prism.  The prism and the horizon line are also referenced with a laser level bisecting the EXPO space with an angle of deviation on an opposing wall.  1:30 am, July 20th 1969″ (1:1 ratio) is a microscope containing a microscopic illustration of the night sky on July 20th 1969, which was the night of the first moon walk.  There were a number of smaller pieces – like space blankets hung on coat racks – functioning as connecting props between the other works.

Joseph G. Cruz, Sonic translation of the Farside of the moon, installation view of 2013 BOLT exhibition Assembling Vestiges

TZ: Your installations often combine found / appropriated objects and created objects, and you have borrowed rare items from various institutions.  Over the past few years, what object has been the most difficult to get on loan?


JGC: The Mt. Erebus Crystals were without a doubt the most difficult.  Finding someone who has been to Antarctica is difficult enough – let alone gaining enough trust for them to loan these precious artifacts out – and it took some time and vetting.   I’ve had some interesting experiences with past work as well, where it may be illegal to take something through a border, but not illegal to have it on site.  Negotiating odd grey areas has been a skill I never expected to gain for my art.


TZ: In a previous interview, speaking about some of your sound pieces, you said, “Sometimes I create a system by which the physical objects do the research by transcribing subjective, historical texts into ‘objective’ data and translating them back into other subjective formats like sound.”  This approach reminds me of the current culture of glitch / hacker art.  Do you see a connection between your work and glitch art?

JGC: That’s a great insight, which I haven’t really thought about before.   I think there is a conceptual link in the sense that both are investigating a specific form of mediation and representation.  There is a sort of dismantling of the device itself.  By doing this you are either conceptually or literally bending the circuit to look back at itself.  Much of glitch art is using the technology to talk about the technology.  It’s the same with my work in that I may not be investigating Antarctica for example, but how we may represent Antarctica.  Ponting’s Horizon lines have that same connection of dismantlement.  I think this helps explain why the work needs so much metadata in the title and materials list.

TZ: You are currently an MFA candidate at Notre Dame, and you are still showing work in Chicago.  Has your practice changed at all since you moved out of the big city?

JGC: We haven’t been gone long enough to have had any real shifts.  We are still in transition and in the city often.  It’s only half way between South Bend and Chicago, and I don’t have any plans to stop showing in Chicago.

TZ: What’s next for Joseph Cruz?  Do you have any other shows or events lined up?  Any new research projects that you would like to unveil here?

JGC: Most importantly I am having a baby in December, I am doing a lot of research on “Blue and White” porcelain and looking to make white porcelain slipcastes of 3-D scanned fossils (from hundreds of thousands of years ago) and etch imagery of space Nebulae (equidistant in light years to the age of the fossil) on the porcelain.   I’m trying not to show for a little bit and just focus on exploration in the studio.  I’m also trying to focus on being a dad and understanding how to balance everything before committing to any exhibitions. The last show I have booked is a group show in December at Notre Dame’s Isis gallery.

To see more of Joseph’s work, visit his website here.

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