Interview: Alec Coiro
Photo: Walker Olesen
Additional Photo: Res Studio
To understand the intention behind Sara Coffin and Dani Levine’s “The Hard Problem,” it helps to understand David Chalmers’s theory of hard and easy problems. And to best understand that theory, I’ll direct you to our interview below. For the moment, though, it’s suffice to say that the hard problem touches on how hard it can be to explain things, even to ourselves.
In addition to this titular organizing theme, the show is also very much about color. There is a color pallette presented quite overtly in Coffin’s work, and Levine discusses below how her strategy for combining color is fundamental to how her paintings are created.
Finally (or, at least, additionally), a notion of willfulness is explored in the show. The clash of wills between the artists and her materials should be familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to create something outside of their computer. And the dialog of wills between artist and material is often its own reward.
Coffin and Levine’s considered comments about their work in our interview helped deepen my thinking about work with material and work with color general.
How did you become interested in David Chalmers and his theory of Hard and Easy problems?
Dani: Reportability has a lot to do with how Chalmers categorizes hard and easy problems. For instance, if a subject can report a reaction to environmental stimuli or access their own mental state, these findings can be studied in established scientific environments.
When it comes to explaining experience, what Chalmers describes as the hardest of problems, we might hear one say “X is like Y” or gives “the feeling of Z”. How should we categorize “likes” and “feelings” if they do not fit reductionist strategies. The hard problem is about how to understand the parts of ourselves we don’t yet have methods to comprehend. Chalmers interest in finding ways to report experience stems from a desire to further understand consciousness.
But in many ways, the hard problem isn’t limited to its field, which is part of the reason we were drawn to it. In order to understand experience we first need to know how certain information is brought together. Think of all the ways reductive methods of acquiring information are coming undone and have in fact become insufficient to understand something very complex. The existence of the hard problem is proof of a necessity to re-establish old methodologies.
Sara: Chalmers’ essay Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness appeals to me in the same way Lacan does- it is describing a context, not giving an answer or stating a solution. Lacan includes nonsense and double meaning in his lectures. Chalmers describes failure in the way scientists research consciousness and pushes for more nuance. I don’t want the things I say to make complete sense.
I got into brain science because I’m bipolar and have experienced psychosis. It permanently changed the way I think about reality and my ability to reason. The sort of schism in logic that happens during psychosis is fascinating- ideas come up and nothing in your brain says ‘Nope, that doesn’t make sense,’ so random thoughts build into ludicrous thought patterns and you end up in highly creative but unsustainable territory.
I’m fascinated now with all aspects of brain science research and first came across the concept of the hard problem listening to the podcast Brain Science With Dr. Ginger Campbell. Campbell is a physician who loves brain science and interviews all kinds of researchers working in the field. It’s a totally abstract frontier and all of them recognize the hard problem, which has been around in theory since the beginning of self awareness (undetermined), but Chalmer’s language and ideas around the concept are particularly poignant, and his notes on the ways in which it should be addressed are unique. The concept as I understand it is a sort of Catch 22 – that we don’t have the tools to understand ourselves in this way- when our reasoning is how we try to understand our reasoning. And Chalmers is essentially saying that science is doing it wrong and needs to try new things that are as of yet unconceived (but not inconceivable). bl
What are some of the aspects of the current show that best illustrates your thinking about what you call the “explanatory gap” and/or what Chalmers calls “the hard problem”?
Dani: In the introduction of David Chalmers essay on Facing Up to The Problem of Consciousness Chalmers paints a picture of consciousness as the most willful of mental phenomena. “Stubbornly resisting” and “unable to yield” to scientific investigation. Terminology that suggests an unruly companion to the mind that acts on its own accord. I love this. I love that within all the things we know, built in each systematic way we talk and approach the world we cannot help but have our stubborn companions here to convince us that there are always ways to envision that which is out of reach.
I often imagine Sara and I doing empirical work. That is so say, a lot of time has gone into the simplest of discoveries. She has been perfecting a glaze technique since we’ve met. It’s taken me the better part of a year to come up with a ground that works in just the way I want. To the viewer, all of this is washed away in a passing glance over an object. To the maker, there are always imperfections and ways the material can work against even the best laid intentions. There’s a willfulness inherent in everything set out to be tamed. I think a lot about this in the work: were the will is. Where it takes us as individuals, as collectives and how much exists in nature itself.
Sara: I see the explanatory gap as a way to define the absurdity of self consciousness and awareness. The struggle to understand the world and trust reality could at any time be redefined by trauma, life changes, new knowledge, disease, violence, etc. My work comes from specific places that involve logical reasoning, but that information is broken up once it moves into the objects. The colors are all close imitations – M&Ms, Skittles, Sweetarts, Jelly Bellys, Candy Hearts, Baskin Robbins 31 flavors, NFL jersey color schemes. The carpentry is based on the principle of form follows function. I think of it as translation, a new language being formed that is intuitive and familiar and better than all other language because it addresses our senses, not our thought processes. I try to get straight to the sensual, give a bunch of information, make it feel good and satisfying, and make the entry a pleasurable one that comes to you sweetly. I think of it as addressing microsenses- we are so sensitive that we can feel and understand invisible information. Like magic is real and scientific and we all have supernatural abilities. These are the ways consciousness functions but there is as of yet no way to define it scientifically, specifically in our cells and synapses, where information is stored literally, what it looks like in our dna, what a memory is chemically. What is the molecular definition of seeing a color and thinking of what it tastes like?
To the extent that “The Hard Problem” is a two person show centered on a theme, how much discussion was there between the two of you previous to creating the art? What did the conversations consist of?
Sara: Dani and I have been working and thinking together for the past four years, sometimes making objects together, building furniture, and discussing the ways we engage with ‘formal abstraction’. Often through the lens of science fiction, nature, and scientific ideas. As our worked has developed in parallel we have noticed similarities in our dislike for blatant content, interest in a kind of simulated language, constant material exploration, and concerns about what color means and how we can expand its function in formal painting and sculpture. This was a very exciting opportunity to put our ideas into text and Chalmers appealed to us in his concise descriptions of an almost incomprehensible problem. The metaphors really lined up. And I think the material experimenting we do gives us a special affection for the sciences. I like thinking about how Arts and Sciences used to share the same buildings and museums, and how art and technology have a strange relationship between function, experimentation, de-function, and discovery. Painting was a new technology once and it continues to develop new forms. I work exclusively in acrylic and Dani in oils, both of which consistently have new materials become available, mainly because of the auto industry. Wild!
Dani: It’s true that Sara suggest we listen to Dr. Ginger Campbell months ago while we were spending a lot of time making furniture and started thinking about our work being shown together. While we were doing this physical labor, trying to link our work in rudimentary ways, Dr. Campbell had been playing in the background of our lives. But, this is one thing I appreciate about my friendship with Sara, our talk often happens when we don’t intend it or when we are not speaking directly at all. Relating our work to the hard problem seemed perfect because it allowed us an almost diagrammatic way to speak about the intangible parts of our work without sacrificing what I see as an almost stubborn resolve we both have towards our motivations.
I try to get straight to the sensual, give a bunch of information, make it feel good and satisfying, and make the entry a pleasurable one that comes to you sweetly.-Sarah
It is impossible to imagine an exhibition of paintings where color wasn’t an important focus. However, it seems as though color is a particularly concern in “The Hard Problem” and integral to the questions you want to pose with this show. Can you tell us a little about how you’re thinking about color in the show?
Sara: I like that Dani and I think about color almost completely differently and yet is such a strong connection between the works. I think it has to do with the innate and intense effect color has on our senses, and could be understood with another metaphor. On one hand it’s fruit and flowers, bright spots in the landscape evolved to be attractive to all kinds of living creatures, including humans. In this way it is a sort of democratic natural representation of desire. On the other hand there are gems and minerals, rainbows and light reflecting in celestial patterns- natural occurrences that have no particular reason for being beautiful. It’s the connection between the nutritional value of sugar and an awe inspiring dispersal of color in the atmosphere.
Dani: Color is a big word! Colors can come from anywhere, depending on socio-political climate and necessity they are mined from a variety sources. Before Indian Yellow was synthetically manufactured it was made from the urine of cows solely fed on mango leaves. A single gram of Tyrian Purple comes from the mucus of approximately 10,000 Pupura Lapillus, a shellfish which excretes purple dye. Our fascination and obsession with color has been long and its histories are complicated. But i’d actually like to talk about color as pigment which is how it exists in painting. For me, color is a concrete material. It is particle, each with its own unique chemical structure either synthesized in a lab or found from the earth. How we “perceive” color yes, relies heavily on the optics of our eye but in objects it also exists as raw material. Colors are tiny particles owning their own characteristics of absorbency, transparency, opacity and weight. This rarely seems talked about. Industries add all this stuff to pigment to make each one behave like others so that they can be sold with universal and reliable application.
A mineral pigment can achieve different shades depending on how fine you grind it. Laking is a process of taking natural dyes and soaking blank particles in order to produce colors that wouldn’t normally be available in pigment form. Iron oxides absorb heaps of oil all while staying matte and opaque, earth pigments are gritty, synthetic yellows resists being mixed.
When putting paintings together more often than not I will think less of color in the optical sense but how each pigment might pair with another. I may try to balance opaques and transparents, the heavier with the lighter. More and more I am understanding binders as vehicles for suspension. Going back to this notion of willfulness, if I can allow the pigment to show its temperament, the better.
Am I right that you both attended the MFA program at Yale? Is that how you know each other? How do you think the experience shaped you as artists either individually or as a duo?
Sara: We both studied painting at Yale and graduated in 2016. we really got to know each other the summer between our first and second year when most students left town. The few people who stayed during the summer got to be pretty close. I was first developing the finishing technique I use on the blocks and Dani was working with shapes in her paintings, but we also just spent a lot of time driving around and being silent together. In our second year Dani began cutting out shapes and I would practice finishing techniques on them, then Dani would use them in her paintings. It was a cool way to expand our practices and literally with a representational object moving around in physical space.
Dani: Ha, yeah we do have a lot of silence together. Sara and I have become pretty close in the last couple years. In that time i’ve watched her be in her work and paid close attention to how she exists in the world. Rarely do you get to witness someone being so undeniably themselves and yet have the serious/ effortless connection to their work that is 100% unique and undeniably linked to themselves.
It is something I deeply admire about her and I still find myself surprised and caught up in her mundane day-to-day operations. She made those tiny cherry blossom cookies with intricate piping for our opening! We should include a photo in here. Also, we don’t talk about art that much. We’re both curious people interested in other fields (sometimes) more than our own.
When we do talk about work it often relates to technique. Some artists might cringe at words like craftsmanship, but we discuss what it means to be deeply affected by the work you make. In a general sense, we want what’s in our life to be tended and treated with care.
There’s a willfulness inherent in everything set out to be tamed. I think a lot about this in the work: were the will is. Where it takes us as individuals, as collectives and how much exists in nature itself.-Dani