Mars Observations Observations
by Terri M. Hopkins

© Terri M. Hopkins, 2001

Craig Hickman is a serious artist who is funny. His recent work combines image and text in ways that build on traditions going back more than a hundred years to include the editorial cartoon, the cubist collage, dada experimentation with language, and the image-text artworks of the 1980’s. However, Hickman’s use of photographs and text is inspired more by play and poetry than by politics or polemics. These qualities of humor, word play, and delight in literary and visual coincidence reward the viewer who spends time with Hickman’s art.

Hickman comes out of a philosophy of photography that developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Photographers like Lee Friedlander, Robert Adams, and Robert Frank chose to report on the facts of our everyday lives. They looked at and made pictures of the American suburb, the changing western landscape, and the mix of people in the streets of our cities. In the Northwest, Hickman has been part of a community of photographers who came of age as artists in the early to mid 1970’s and built upon that foundation. Oregon artists Ann Hughes, Robert DiFranco, Christopher Rauschenberg, and Terry Toedtemeier, and Washington state artists Ford Gilbreath, Glenn Rudolph, and Michael and Marsha Burns have all left their mark on the history of photography in this region. The Oregon artists along with Hickman founded Blue Sky Gallery in 1975, and the gallery has developed an international reputation as a hub for photographers and photography.

These photographers practice what could be called an observational archaeology. They are interested in residue. Their photos ask questions such as, What does this evidence suggest? What happened here? What is happening here? Terry Toedtemeier documents the geologic history of the region through his photographs of basalt formations left from a massive flow of molten rock that covered much of the Columbia River basin millions of years ago from central Washington to the Pacific Ocean. Ann Hughes makes intimate photographs of the interior of her home and the street nearby: dust on a record player, a fallen toy elephant next to spent tulips on a kitchen window sill, a boy in camouflage asleep on a couch covered with a flowered bedspread. Christopher Rauschenberg pieces together huge composite photos in order to expand what the photo can show of a city, a beach, a courtyard, a huge tree. Theirs is also the language of evidence, coincidence, conjunction, serendipity, and humorous association.

Craig Hickman’s photographs share this aesthetic. He has paired a picture of a cloudy sky with one of rain-speckled laundry and placed a rainy sky to echo the surfaces of a galvanized metal power box and pole. There are collections of striped tents, groups of corrugated walls, and sets of bricked or barricaded doorways. He records painted-over graffiti and damaged signs whose lost messages are barometers of a changing economic climate. There are suites of vintage wallpaper and made and unmade beds. Elsewhere, images of basketballs, bananas, and the funny papers are captured floating or submerged in the bathtub.

As this jumble of subjects suggests, Hickman photographs sets of images and turns them into small collections. He then presents them using the traditional exhibition strategy of showing related individual photographs as “bodies of work.” In the past decade, beginning with a publication titled Signal to Noise, he has begun to digitally combine and print related photographs taken throughout his thirty-year career. The photographs are paired with various types of text on a single page or on a two-page spread. He continues this approach with the recent body of work Mars Observations, featured in the Marylhurst University exhibition.

By mining his archive of pictures and combining them with the inventive use of text in content and style, Hickman has managed to reclaim his past photographs and reissue them in the present tense. The text in these combinations is chosen for its relationship to the photograph and plays off it in a kind of improvised duet. If the earlier photographs were notes, documents, and small melodies, combining them with text is similar to tying research to images for an article in a science magazine or writing lyrics for a particular melody to form a song.

Hickman looks at the logistics of sending a message in both his Signal to Noise and Mars Observations series. In this regard he has written about his interest in the work of Douglas Hofstadter, professor at Indiana University, whose field is cognitive science and computer science. In his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Hofstadter discusses the complexity of sending messages to potentially sentient beings in outer space.1 Hofstadter makes the point that the most difficult part of sending a message to outer space is letting the intended recipients know that it is a message. He asks the question, How do you let the recipients know that what they are receiving is not random noise? Hofstadter says that every message has three levels: the frame message that states ‘I am a message,’ an outer message that identifies the system that should be used to decode the message, and the inner message itself.

Hickman explores these types of messages in Mars Observations. Using digital scanners and readily available software like PhotoShop and PageMaker, Hickman imports and places his photographs into page layouts reminiscent of magazines like Time, Newsweek, and Scientific American and short-lived publications like commercial sales catalogues. The format lets us know that a message is being sent and further cues us as to the type of message it is.

Magazines and newspapers use still photography to illustrate their texts. Hickman chooses instead to use texts to illustrate his photographs. He works with both the content of the text and its visual qualities such as font, spacing, and formatting to create visually compatible text for the photos. Hickman uses material he writes himself or imports texts from various web sites.

In the signature two-page spread “Clear Paper Knowledge/ Mars Observations Judge Science” (pages 32-33), there are two pictures he took through a telescope and also one of his moon-like overexposed face during an eclipse of the sun. Via computer Hickman cobbled a text together by randomly merging texts from web sites devoted to information on outer space. The headers are two phrases that emerged from the process and struck his fancy.

In the two-page spread “28 Bob Daylight in Days/ Cyberspace October” (pages 20-21), Hickman combines several web site texts about time. The text illustrates two pairs of photographs that document the passing of time on two buildings in San Diego, California. On the left page an apartment building is shown before and after a big storm. On the right page, graffiti pleading, “Stop the Madness” in the upper picture of a park building has been painted out in the lower image of the same structure. These before and after shots are reminiscent of newspaper reporting but also refer to Mark Klett’s re-photographic survey project, in which the artist revisited sites throughout the West that had been documented in the mid 1800’s by artists working for military and geologic surveys.

Hickman prints his “tear sheets ” as oversized double page spreads and presents them matted and under glass in typical gallery fashion. They read much as the originals of graphic design for print layouts. The implication is that the “originals” are not necessarily the end product, and not the only intended use of the material. The publication of the page spreads in book form is a second and equally important use.

Many artists have experimented with combinations of image and text. Their approaches range from comics and cartoons (from Joe Sacco to Roy Lichtenstein) to the political agitprop of the early twentieth century or the late twentieth century aphorisms and polemics of artists such as Barbara Kruger. Regionally, Paul Berger comes closest to Hickman’s approach. Hickman studied with Berger while a graduate student at the University of Washington in 1981. Berger uses images derived from television and combines them with text. The resulting mix comments on the unending stream of information barraging us, and is often a challenge to decode. Hickman’s combinations of photo and text may present puzzles, but the puzzles are generally decipherable and reward rather than frustrate the viewer. Like Berger, Hickman’s current work was made possible by the advent and proliferation of the personal computer and desktop publishing in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These developments made it possible to experiment with many ways of formatting and combining image and text with relative ease.

Hickman both writes and uses programs that play with the text. As mentioned above, some of these programs combine and scramble existing texts lifted from the web. Others select words by length or type: three letter words, four letter words, words that have two “o”s (book, booth, boon), or words that contain other words (bed, bedazzled, bedeviled). He also invents new fonts or plays with existing fonts in order to warp, shape, or alter the text to correspond with the look or meaning of the pictures. For the two-page spread of striped tents and a painted brick, he wrote a small program which substitutes arrows for letters and keeps spaces where they occur in the source text. He thereby turned the arrows into a font that echoes the directionality of the stripes on the tents (pages 10-11). Accompanying three pictures of corrugated walls (pages 16-17) is text in which underscore lines stand in for all of the vowels (Th_ c_mp_t_r _s _ ch_mel__n th_t b_c_m_s c_lc_l_t_rs, f_l_ c_b_n_t, _r typwr_t_r.....). The underscores tie visually to the hollows of the corrugated metals in the photographs. With just a little effort the reader can easily guess the missing vowels. The underscores literally underline how little information one needs to break the code.

Craig Hickman is interested in the quirks and conventions of languages. Mars Observations includes texts in Morse code, texts that appear to be composed in an unknown code, and texts which flow through several “foreign” languages. In the spread using four Romance languages on two pages with the headings “Tradução de Máquina” and “Traduction Automatique” (pages 14-15), the artist overdoes it on the various accents and markings. Hickman puts accents on all the e’s, tildes over the a’s, and cedillas under all the c’s. Anyone who has ever struggled to learn and write a second language can empathize with the temptation to simply get it over with and mark everything. In the spread “Reed it and weep/ Smal-scael publisheng” (pages 34-35) he makes use of a program he wrote called “D-MINUS,” which takes perfectly good text and misspells almost everything in it. In the same page spread he toys with layout, undermining text conventions by slanting the paragraphs at clunky angles. Elsewhere he takes text justification to the extreme to produce unsightly gaps.

In numerous page spreads, Hickman uses a default text derived from an article he published in Art Journal. It is the default text for the pages printed in Morse code, the text using the invented arrow font, and the text in which all the vowels are omitted. In the article titled “Signal to Noise: A Computer Based Artist’s Book,” Hickman discusses his work’s relationship to desktop publishing and twentieth century art practices. He observes that when he began his Signal to Noise book in the 1980’s, individual components that make up desktop publishing, like text editors and graphics software, had been available for some time, but most of the pagination software that allowed designers to merge text and graphics freely was new. He points out that the procedures used “to accomplish this integration share features in common with other twentieth century practices of incorporating nontraditional materials and ‘recycling’ images, as in collage and other art that ‘quotes’ or ‘lifts’ material from the mass media. Imagery is, after all, to a large extent generative, without fixed meaning. It is capable of being endlessly recycled, recontextualized, and reused.”2 He further describes his relationship to his personal computer: “My work consists almost entirely of computer-based images in a collage of ‘broken-down’ components, a kind of visualization of one computer’s subconscious.”3

Hickman creates his texts in the manner he does for several reasons. Some are simple and for the simple fun of it: all the words containing the word bed, for example. Sometimes the object is to find and juggle information related to a topic like time, weather, or light. But Hickman is also looking for the same kinds of coincidence, humor and poetry that draw him to make certain pictures and not others. Often his favorite finds become the headers for the pages. At other times no text is sufficient, and the areas of the page that normally contain text instead display placeholders: gray bars or large gray rectangles.

In his interest in the use of randomization to produce new combinations of images, words, or ideas and in his search for found poetry Hickman shares sensibilities with many artists. His companions in this endeavor include not only the dadaists and surrealists of the early twentieth century, but also composer John Cage at mid-century, and more recently artist David Bunn and his found poetry of headings lifted alphabetically from now defunct library card catalogues.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Craig Hickman’s work is his take on the concept of “signal to noise.” “Signal to noise” is a way of expressing the idea that in the sea of seemingly meaningless information there may indeed be things of interest. We as individuals are not programmed to absorb or decipher all that could prove significant. We may be tempted to believe that the ratio of signal to noise favors noise. In reality, Hickman seems to be saying, the ratio may favor the signal. Artists direct our attention to meaningful ideas. Craig Hickman’s art reminds us that the meaningful can alternately provoke, delight, and amuse.