In the spring of 2015, I traveled into the remote canyon country of Utah with a professor named Larry Clarkson — a connoisseur of pictographs and petroglyphs, who often takes solitary expeditions into the American wilderness in order to find them. I was struck by the deep silence of the ancient images that we encountered there, which exist beyond interpretation, with meanings that can only be guessed at, but never actually known.
During our time together, I made a series of drawings on rocks. By responding to naturally occurring shapes, colors, and marks in the rocks, I hoped to express what felt like their “inner potential.” I used chalk pastels to make the drawings, so they would wash away over time in the rain.
For three years, I sat with the photographs of the drawings I made, holding open the question of how best to use them. For most of that time, my idea was to make a project called “A(s)sign Language,” where the drawings would be presented wordlessly, and viewers would be invited to submit their own interpretations. By “assigning language” to the silent images, a new kind of “sign language” would be born. I imagined creating some kind of voice recording application, or a repository of submitted text, or possibly working with professional academics who study the interpretation of ancient images. But none of these approaches felt right. Somehow, they all felt too clever — they didn’t honor the deep silence of the places where the drawings were made.
Meanwhile, our collective relationship with the Internet had changed. The techno-utopian rhetoric that once prevailed had given way to talk of addiction, attention economies, fake news, and the vast manipulation and monetization of human psychology. The Internet had become a cacophony, and its promise of informational omniscience no longer felt plausible, desirable, relevant, or wise.
I’d long been fascinated by the use of “oracles” in shaping human thought — including devices like Augury (in ancient Rome), I Ching (in ancient China), Tarot (in Europe), and Rorschach tests (in western psychology). Such practices basically function as mirrors — by confusing the rational mind of the user, they unlock the person’s subconscious, allowing insights to arise from within.
I began to wonder if the images I made in Utah could be a kind of pictographic oracle for the Internet — a Magic 8 Ball with no words, speaking out of the silence, helping people discover what they already know.